“For this reason I too, having heard of the faith in the Lord Jesus which exists among you and your love for all the saints, do not cease giving thanks for you, while making mention of you in my prayers; that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe. These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:15-23, NASB).
Today the church celebrates the Feast of the Ascension. We remember that Jesus ascended into heaven 40 days after His resurrection from the dead and 10 days before the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
Since several posts in recent months on this blog have considered some of God’s majestic qualities (including the fact that He is all-powerful, all-knowing, and sovereign over all things), it is worth remembering what the Ascension is really about. Jesus, who died and rose again for our sins, is now seated at the right hand of the Father, ruling over all creation. He is in control. In the age of COVID-19, Jesus rules and reigns. Let us trust Him at all times.
Take some time to read the passage from Ephesians 1 above and reflect on what Jesus’ glory and power mean in your life.
[If you do not have a place to worship, please visit my church at http://live.intercessorchurch.com; services stream at 9:30 and 11:30 AM on Sundays, 12:00 noon on weekdays, and 6:00 PM Saturday evening (all times ET).]
“Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11; all Scripture quotations from the English Standard Version).
In traditional churches, April 25 is the Feast of St. Mark. I may be posting this article one day later, but Mark’s ministry and message remain timeless. His Gospel is probably the oldest of the four in the Bible, and God continues to speak through the account he wrote.
That is impressive when you consider that Mark probably spent most of his career in the background, assisting more prominent leaders. Also, his ministry nearly ended early. Mark’s life is a good reminder that failure does not have to be the final word in your life.
We first meet Mark—or, more precisely, John Mark—in Acts 12:12. Christians were meeting and praying in his mother’s home while Peter was imprisoned. Paul and his mentor, Barnabas, were in town, delivering an offering from the church in Antioch to assist the congregation in Jerusalem during difficult times. Mark joined them on their return trip. He would then travel as their assistant when they left Antioch for their first missionary journey.
Mark did not stay with them very long. After some successful ministry in Cyprus, he left the team. Acts 13:13 simply says that he left them at Perga and returned to Jerusalem. Luke, the author of Acts, gives no explanation. One could think it was a minor detail. However, Paul did not consider it minor. Some time later, he and Barnabas started planning a second missionary journey and had to decide who would travel with them:
“Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark.But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work.And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus” (Acts 15:37-39).
Until this point, Paul and Barnabas seemed inseparable. Barnabas had taken Paul under his wing when no other Christians trusted him. Now, he wanted to give Mark a second chance. For some reason, though, Paul refused. Mark’s departure from the team seemed unforgivable to Paul. After years of ministering together, Paul and Barnabas parted ways. Barnabas gave Mark a second chance and took him along. Paul recruited a new assistant named Silas.
Mark is never mentioned again in Acts. However, his name suddenly pops up again in 2 Timothy 4:11. Paul was now an old man, imprisoned, awaiting his execution. Mark was now “useful to me for ministry.” Just as we do not know the circumstances that led Mark to abandon the first missionary journey, we do not know how Paul had this change of heart. He had been abandoned again by many others, and Luke was the only person to stay with him. One can expect the sting of abandonment and rejection to tear old wounds open, but Paul held no grudge now.
Over the years, Paul had probably matured. Mark probably matured as well. Both had probably grown wiser. Scripture’s silence about Mark’s departure and the eventual reconciliation paints a curious picture. I imagine Timothy and Mark arriving to meet Paul and Luke after receiving the letter. Luke is aware that there is some kind of “history,” so he asks, “What happened at Perga? Why did you leave?” (Luke is taking notes, preparing to write a book about all of this.) Paul answers first: “Forget about it! It’s all in the past.” Mark quietly adds, “Yes, let’s just forget about it.” Luke never gets his answer. The Holy Spirit knew what to reveal to those who would write the Scriptures.
After Paul died, Mark’s ministry continued. Tradition says that Peter came to Rome to preach after Paul’s execution, and Mark served as his translator. It is very likely that Mark’s Gospel is based almost entirely on Peter’s preaching (although, for all we know, he may have copied some of Luke’s notes).
Mark’s life gives all Christians some valuable lessons:
Remain faithful. God can work through your life, whether you are an ordained minister, church leader, or one who serves quietly in the background. Mark spent a lot of time in the background, assisting others while they preached the Gospel. He spent decades serving in the background while Barnabas, Paul, and Peter got all of the attention. However, people have read his book for centuries, coming to know Jesus. He probably had no idea that God would continue to speak through him long after he was gone.
Failure does not have to be the final word. Mark’s departure at Perga may have been a serious issue, but it was not the end. Proverbs 24:16 tells us that “the righteous falls seven times and rises again.” If you fall, get back up. If you fail, try again. If you sin, confess it, repent, and return to God. Do not give up.
Offer second chances. Has somebody you know failed? Give them a second chance. Barnabas accepted Paul when no other Christians would. He gave Mark a second chance. Just imagine how short the New Testament would be if Barnabas had not been willing to offer mercy and second chances to those who did not seem to deserve them.
Forgive. There is power in forgiveness. When we forgive, God works through it. God can use you to bring healing and hope to someone who has failed.
“John left them” (Acts 13:13) could have been the last word about him in the Bible, but it was not. Failure was not the final word in Mark’s life. Do not let it be the final word in your life. Rise up, press on, and keep following the Lord. When a fellow believer falls, do not let failure be the final word in his or her life. Lift him or her up; invite him or her to take a second chance. Forgiveness is the first word God speaks to a believer’s heart. Do not accept failure as the final word.
A recent post on this blog said “Get ready for the strangest Holy Week we may have ever seen.” After several years of attending at least two church services between Holy Wednesday and Good Friday, in addition to Easter Sunday, this year’s church activity was reduced to watching live-streamed or taped services for my church, followed by drive-up curbside communion on Sunday morning. Most Americans—indeed, people in many countries—have been through a strange few weeks. The last few weeks have given us a most unusual Lent.
Many Christians give something up for Lent, perhaps a favorite food or activity. I usually give up donuts, cakes, and pastries. However, beginning on March 16, my company’s CEO told us to give up coming into the office; we would work from home until further notice. Within a few days, President Donald Trump and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered and/or advised all citizens to take more strict measures to stay at home. I have started to joke that I could have given up wearing pants instead of eating donuts. (I realize that is not practical. Apparently, most businesses that sell donuts expect you to be fully clothed.)
Many people have used humor to cope with the anxiety caused by Covid-19 and social distancing. If you are on Facebook, your news feed probably contains a medley of memes joking about the situation interspersed with politically-oriented rants about whom to blame, fears and worries about possible exposure, prayer requests for those battling the disease, etc. I admit that I have joined in sharing some of the amusing memes. However, I feel for those who have lost jobs or loved ones or are battling illness.
It can be easy to give in to fear, paranoia, panic, and worry. Satan loves to fill our hearts with anxiety. Humor gives us a chance to remind ourselves that there is something positive even in the worst moments. It also allows our minds a few moments of escape from the fear. There is a famous, albeit controversial, scene at the end of the movie Monty Python’s Life of Brian. The film is a spoof of Bible-based about a man named Brian, who was born next door to Jesus on the same day, who throughout his life is mistaken for the Messiah. At the end of the movie, while Brian is being crucified, the man hanging next to him breaks into a perky, upbeat song entitled “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” Optimists will find something positive in any situation. I tend to see the ironic, the absurd, or the silly in almost everything I see, which is usually my best defense against seeing every setback as a catastrophe. Recently, after using a bandana in lieu of a face mask while buying food, I posted on Facebook that “I never thought I would see the day that I would wear a bandana over my face in a convenience store!” The humorous irony, that this protective measure would have been considered an armed robber’s modus operandi just a few weeks ago, makes it a bit easier for me to accept this inconvenience.
While seeking comic relief, perhaps we could also have used our season of isolation as a time for reflection. I believe it is no accident that many of us were quarantining ourselves during a season when the Church invites us to contemplation and self-examination. We have had an opportunity to examine ourselves. Have we done that successfully? Has our perspective on Covid-19 been guided by Christian faith and a biblical worldview, or has it been guided by personal biases, selfishness, fear, anger, etc.?
We hope and pray that the spread of the virus will slow down soon and people can return to work and other activities that have been canceled. In the meantime, let us use this season of solitude as a chance to examine ourselves and renew our faith and devotion to Jesus. Lent is over; Covid-19 is still here. Jesus is still on the throne, and we still have time to seek Him and use this time as an opportunity to grow in our relationship with Him.
“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one” (John 10:27–30; all Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version).
“Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!” This acclamation begins the Morning Prayers for Easter in the Book of Common Prayer and the liturgies of many churches as we celebrate the resurrection. Most American Christians will have to worship Jesus in private this Easter, as many churches cancel services in response to the coronavirus outbreak and government social-distancing mandates. Although our churches are empty, so is Jesus’ tomb, and our hearts can be filled with His love and presence and we can be filled with the Holy Spirit.
Several posts in recent months on Darkened Glass Reflections (here, here, here, and here) have examined God’s omnipotence. He is all-powerful. There is nothing He cannot do. There is no problem that He cannot handle. Even death could not stop Him.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd. John 10:27–30 is a brief segment of one teaching Jesus gave to a hostile audience not long before His crucifixion. The religious leaders demanded answers: “Are You the Messiah?” He had recently told them, “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11), a statement which should have reminded them of Psalm 23, which tells us that “The Lord is my shepherd.” He had hinted that He was God. His miraculous signs had proven that God was working through Him. The evidence was before them. Would they choose to believe?
When Jesus gave His good shepherd teaching (John 10:1–18), He said that sheep will follow their shepherd. They recognize his voice. They know they can trust him. Likewise, Jesus’ followers—His sheep—recognize and trust Him. They follow Him wherever He leads, knowing that He will take care of them.
In a time when many are afraid, Easter is a good time to renew our commitment to trusting Jesus. He has conquered death—even His own death. He can protect and heal you. As God, He is greater than all. He not only walks ahead of us; He has given us His Holy Spirit to dwell inside us and guide us. We can hear His voice and follow Him if we are willing to silence the noise around us and listen to Him. As we walk with Him, behind Him, and in Him, we can be victorious. Nothing Satan, the world, or the flesh can throw at you is more powerful than Christ in you:
“Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).
This Easter, let us rejoice in that victory and walk in it. Nothing can separate you from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. Your security and trust is not based on anything you do or how accurate your theology may be. Your security is in the One you have come to believe in. Your Shepherd is trustworthy. The One who gives you life has conquered the power of death. You are victorious because He is with you always.
Get ready for the strangest Holy Week we may have ever seen.
Easter is one of the two biggest days of the year for attendance in most churches, and many churches normally have several special services in the week leading up to it. Palm Sunday can be particularly festive: church members receive palm branches, which we wave in celebration, perhaps singing “Hosanna in the Highest.” My church has a special service on Holy Wednesday, called Tenebrae. Then, there is Holy Thursday, also known as Maundy Thursday in some churches, when we commemorate the Last Supper and the institution of holy communion. My church has two services on Good Friday, including a three-hour afternoon service where four members share personal testimonies of “What the Cross Means to Me” and we reflect on how Jesus took our sins upon Himself by dying for us. The week’s worship can be very intense, ranging from celebratory and joyful to somber and repentant to reflective and meditative.
Then comes Easter Sunday, a day of great celebration in most churches. While every Sunday should be a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection (indeed, every day should be), Easter is especially glorious. Some people come to church only twice per year, on Christmas and Easter. My church can be standing-room-only on Easter.
However, this year will be different. The coronavirus pandemic has canceled services throughout the country. Here in the New York City metropolitan area, “ground zero” of the outbreak in America, gatherings of 10 or more people are currently prohibited. Instead of a packed house, our pastor and a small group of worship leaders will have a service with no congregation, to be streamed online for those who choose to watch. It will be one of the few churches on Long Island to provide communion: congregants will drive up to the front of the church to receive the bread and a blessing. We will also receive our palms with communion today, and will also live-stream the other Holy Week services. Our church includes a foot-washing ceremony as part of the Maundy Thursday evening service: I am not sure how that will play out online!
Many churches are live-streaming their worship services like we are, but few are offering communion. Some churches may find it difficult to minister to their people at all.
Holy Week will have a big hole in it without corporate worship. I feel like an online video worship service with curbside communion is better than nothing, but it is not the full worship experience. There is something about being in the church, surrounded by brothers and sisters in Christ, uniting in praise and worship, especially when some of us are going through hard times and need to be surrounded by friends.
While many of us are used to speaking of our personal relationship with Jesus, social distancing reminds us that it really is more of a familial relationship with God. My relationship with God is not separated from others’ relationships with Him. While it is true that we can worship God alone, there is an added benefit when we worship Him with the rest of the family of God.
We need each other. We inspire each other. We challenge each other. We pray for each other. In spite of our differences, and sometimes especially because of those differences, we gain a blessing through corporate worship.
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25; all Scripture quotations from the English Standard Version).
“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).
The biblical account of Jesus’ last week reminds us that humans are social beings. We live, worship, eat, and survive in a group. Jesus entered Jerusalem with His disciples. He cleared the money changers from the temple as His disciples looked on. He spent almost every moment of His final week with those 12 men, including that Last Supper. Perhaps a particularly painful part of His crucifixion was that fact that He died almost alone. One disciple betrayed Him, one denied knowing Him, and most of the rest scattered into hiding and left Him alone. Only His mother, Mary Magdalene, and John stayed with Him until the end.
Jesus’ last week also reminds us that we can be powerfully influenced by our social group, for good or ill. On Palm Sunday, the crowd welcomed Him with shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:9). Five days later, the crowd would change its tune and shout, “Let him be crucified!” (Matthew 27:22-23). We can only wonder how many people were in both crowds, inspired by the disciples on Sunday but swayed in the opposite direction by the chief priests and Pharisees on Friday. We think of peer pressure as a problem that affects only young people, but all of us can be affected by those around us, for good or ill.
As we approach Holy Week altered by social distancing, we must each decide how we will remain connected to the Body of Christ. Perhaps you can call a friend on the phone or set up a Skype session so that you can encourage one another during this stressful time and pray together. Some people are using Zoom or other online apps to gather a group virtually. Social distancing may force us to adapt how we fellowship, but it does not have to force us into spiritual and emotional isolation. It may change how we worship during Holy Week, but it does not have to keep us from worshiping God at a time when we really need Him most.
A Bible teacher, writer, editor, and former pastor, with a B.A. in Psychology and Journalism from Syracuse University (1987) and an M.Div. in Pastoral Counseling from the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary (1991).