Michael Morrison has a PhD from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is Dean of Faculty and Instructor in New Testament for Grace Communion Seminary. He is the author of Sabbath, Circumcision and Tithing and Who Needs a New Covenant? The Rhetorical Function of the Covenant Motif in the Argument of Hebrews.
Articles by Michael Morrison:
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Some people think that Christianity is interesting, but basically irrelevant—a harmless superstition. It’s fine for you, they might say, but it really makes no difference to anyone else.
Now, the opposite was true for Jesus: his ministry and teachings did not help himself at all, and they made a big difference for everyone else.
In the modern world, there is often a big disconnect between Christ and Christianity, and today I’d like to explore that a little bit. We’ll start with one of the events in the life of Christ, recorded in Mark chapter 6.
I’ll set the scene a little bit: Jesus had sent his disciples out two by two to preach the gospel and to heal the sick. They eventually came back to report how they did, but in the interlude, Mark tells us that Herod Antipas had killed John the Baptist because John had criticized the ruler.
The incident is a subtle reminder for us that it can sometimes be dangerous for us to do what God wants us to do. Herod would not have cared if John told everybody else to repent, but he didn’t particularly like it when John told Herod that he should repent, too.
John the Baptist wasn’t preaching the gospel, but sometimes the same thing happens to people who are. The gospel is not always appreciated for the good news that it is. It might offend people’s pride, or it might threaten to take away something they had used to control other people.
We don’t want to make the message more offensive than it has to be, but no matter how nice we are, somebody is not going to like it – and if our primary goal is not offending anybody, then we are going to water down the gospel so much that there’s basically no message left, and perhaps that is one reason that some people think that Christianity is irrelevant, because they’ve heard a message that is irrelevant.
The enemies of the gospel would like for us to be irrelevant, so they could dismiss us and ignore us. Sometimes the accusation of irrelevance is true, and sometimes it is just an excuse to ignore us.
What does it mean to be relevant? If we are going to be relevant to anyone else, it will be because we are making a difference in people’s lives, and sometimes when we touch the world, we also touch a nerve.
If we are making any difference at all, somebody is not going to like it – and that is generally someone who prefers the world to stay the way it is. Some people may not care if we preach the gospel to everybody else, but if we speak to them, they may not like it. It starts getting personal then.
Let’s get into the story, starting in verse 30. Mark 6, verse 30: “The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught.” They came back from their mission trips and made their reports. They were probably pretty excited about everything that had happened. But all that excitement means a rush of adrenaline, and the human body isn’t designed to run at a high r.p.m. on a long-term basis. So even though they were excited, Jesus knew that they needed some recovery time.
Verse 31: “Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.’” After the excitement, we need some rest – even if, or maybe especially if, there are lots of people milling around, wanting us to do something for them. There’s just no end of “ministry opportunities” —there will always be more that needs to be done, and sometimes we just need to pull away and say, “Maybe later.”
Verse 32: “So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place.” But as it turns out, the only time they had to themselves was on the boat itself.
Verse 33: “But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them.” I don’t know how the people knew where Jesus was going, but somehow they figured it out and got there first.
Verse 34, “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” It was a really large crowd, and Jesus would have been able to see them well before the boat reached the shore. But they landed anyway, because Jesus “had compassion on them.”
The Greek word for compassion is splanchnizomai. Some of you who studied anatomy might have heard of the splanchnic nerve. It’s the nerve that goes to our intestines. The Greek word splanchna means intestines, and the verb for compassion is built on that word – compassion is when you see something that tightens your stomach muscles, kind of catches your breath. You’ve got a gut feeling you should do something.
So Jesus had this feeling in his gut, because the people were like sheep without a shepherd. They did not know where to go to green pastures; they did not know where the still waters were. They were vulnerable to being attacked by wolves, and Jesus wanted to help them. He wanted to be relevant —and he did this in two ways:
First, verse 34 tells us, “So he began teaching them many things.” The first thing they needed was to be taught. I don’t think he was teaching them math, or biology. The Gospels tell us that Jesus taught them about the kingdom of God. We could turn to the Sermon on the Mount for a sample of the things he taught, or we could look at some of the parables.
Basically, he taught the people about the kingdom of God: what it’s like, and that God wants us to participate in it. It is a good place to be, but this sort of life doesn’t just come naturally. It involves a change in the way we think, and our purpose in life. It’s not easy, because it’s not the way the world usually works, and it’s not the way that we used to live, and it requires a change in our thinking, and that’s not easy.
But if we want life to have different results, we need to change something about the way we live. So Jesus was teaching the people, giving them hope and encouragement, and the people liked it so much they stayed as long as they could.
Verses 35-36 tell us, “By this time it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. ‘This is a remote place,’ they said, ‘and it’s already very late. Send the people away so they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.’”
It seems that the disciples were worried about the people. Or who knows – maybe they wanted to eat something themselves. So they told Jesus, Sir, your sermon is already long enough. Why don’t you quit so the people can go away? It was a reasonable suggestion, a relevant suggestion, but Jesus had something even more relevant in mind.
Verse 37: “But he answered, ‘You give them something to eat.’ They said to him, ‘That would take eight months of a man’s wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?’”
As far as I can tell, the disciples were not asking for a yes or no answer. In the first place, it is not likely that they had that much money with them – and second, it is highly unlikely that the nearby villages had that much bread for sale at that late hour of the day.
We find out later that more than 5,000 men were in the crowd. That was more than the population of Capernaum at the time. The local 7-11 was not going to have enough bread for 5,000 people. So the disciples were probably speaking in astonishment: That would take a lot more money than we have. You surely don’t expect us to buy meals for everybody! Do you?
Jesus responded in verse 38, Well, “‘How many loaves do you have?’ he asked. ‘Go and see.’” In other words, he was not expecting them to give something they didn’t have. But he wanted them to see how much they did have.
When they found out, they said, “Five—and two fish.” The Gospel of John tells us that these five loaves and two fish came from a boy. I don’t know why he had the foresight to bring some food when nobody else did. Maybe he was hoping to sell it. Maybe his mother sent him on a shopping trip and he was supposed to bring it back home. I don’t know, but somehow the disciples got the food and brought it to Jesus.
Verse 39: “Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass.” You know the rest of the story: the disciples passed the food around, everybody had enough to eat, and there were 12 baskets full of leftovers. It’s important to notice that there was more than enough food for 5,000 men, and maybe an equal number of women and children.
So here we see two ways in which Jesus touched the world:
First, he taught the people, and second, he took care of some of their physical needs. If you don’t get anything else out of this sermon, then I ask you to get this much: we can touch the world in two ways – in what we say, and in what we do.
Now I would like to ask, How many of these 5,000 people were converted and joined the church? As far as I can tell, none of them. Maybe they eventually became part of the church, and maybe they didn’t. Mark simply doesn’t tell us – it was not relevant to the story. That is not the purpose of the feeding.
Sometimes we want to touch the world only if it is going to help us, only if it is going to benefit us in some way. But Jesus apparently didn’t think like that. He simply saw a need, and he took care of it. The people were like sheep without a shepherd, so he tried to help them. For their spiritual need, he taught them, and for their physical need, he fed them. It was just something that was needed at the time.
The Gospels tell us several times that Jesus had compassion, and then he did something. Sometimes he healed a person, sometimes he fed them, sometimes he taught them. All of these are ways in which we can touch the world, and help where people need to be helped.
Jesus does not ask us to give something we don’t have. We don’t have to get a theology degree in order to tell people what we know about Jesus. We just tell them what we know. We don’t have to become doctors in order to help people with their physical needs. But we can give according to what we do have.
In the book of Acts, we see the early church continuing to work in these two ways. Some people got healed, some people got fed. Lots of people got taught.
Most of the feeding ministry seems to have been internal to the church. In Acts 6 we see that people were assigned to help feed the widows, that was kindof a permanent ministry, and later the church in Antioch sent famine relief to the church in Jerusalem. This also became a long-range ministry. Paul, in his ministry, did a lot of teaching, and he collected money to help the believers in Jerusalem.
A secular historian may have thought that this group of people was pretty irrelevant, didn’t make much difference in the world. But if you were one of the people being helped, it was very relevant. It made a big difference to you in this world, and in your hopes for the next.
As we look at writings from the early church, and from historians, we see that the church did not confine its good works to just helping each other. They preached the gospel, and they also fed people who were hungry. They rescued children who were abandoned by their parents. They helped sick people when nobody else would. They made a difference in this world because they were living by the principles that govern the next world.
And the church grew. People said, Those Christians seem to think that life has a purpose. They actually practice what they preach. They do good, and that makes me think that their message about a good future is also true.
I doubt that the early Christians were doing good simply as a church-growth strategy. They did not think, I will risk my life taking care of people with bubonic plague, so that the church will grow. I may not live to see it, but the church might grow. No, I don’t think that was their motive. Much more likely, they were motivated by the example of Jesus, who risked his life to help people with his words and with his actions.
Many people today think that the message of Christianity is irrelevant, and they would prefer that Christians just shut up and worked. “It’s OK to feed the poor and build hospitals, but don’t bother us with mumbo-jumbo about salvation and the afterlife.”
Well, if they don’t believe the message, then it is no surprise that they think it is irrelevant. But what they don’t understand is that the message itself is what inspires the good works. Christians wouldn’t be doing all these good works unless they had a message motivating them. When we see what Jesus did for us, we are encouraged to do something to help others. Or rather, it is really him in us, working through us.
Believe it or not, some people in this world are actually concerned about the next life, and the message we have is very relevant to them. Many people would like to know that life itself is relevant, that there is a purpose, that there is a right and a wrong, that relationships matter, that love is not just an accident of brain biochemistry.
So when we preach the gospel, we are touching the world in a way that many people need. We are being relevant, even if not everybody believes that we are. When we help feed the poor, no matter whether that is in the Congo, or in Chicago, we are being relevant not just to people’s immediate needs, but also to their eternal needs. We are showing them the love of Jesus, helping give them hope for a better world to come. Hopefully we’ll also be able to tell them a little more about Jesus.
But the point is, that we don’t help people for what we can get out of it, in the hopes that they will join our church. Rather, we help them because they need help. We do good because it is good. We are moved with compassion for them, and we teach what we can and help them with physical needs as opportunities present themselves. We let Christ do it in us and through us.
Now, some people today like Christ, but they don’t like the church. I can understand why: Jesus is perfect, and he does only good stuff. Besides that, he lived a long time ago and people can choose to remember only the parts they like, and so they construct an idealized Jesus that contains only the parts that they like.
But the church is different. We are not perfect. We make mistakes, and people tend to remember the mistakes. But the truth is that the church is the body of Christ, and even though we are not perfect, we are the way in which Christ is working in this world today. It is not possible to have Jesus without also having the church, because the church is part of who Jesus is.
That is good news, because if Jesus were working only in perfect people, he wouldn’t be doing any work at all, because there are no perfect people. But he chooses to work in people who make mistakes – and hopefully we make fewer and fewer mistakes as we go along. But the biggest mistake of all would be for us to stop trying. We learn by doing, and we learn from our mistakes, and the important thing is that we learn, and we get better at it as we work.
This means that we need patience. We may not see the results we want right away, either in people’s lives, or in the church as a whole. The message may not bear fruit right away, and the good works may not bear fruit right away, but we keep doing both of them because we have compassion on the people, and we are trying to help according to the spiritual and physical resources God has given us.
What kind of results did Jesus have? In one incident he fed the people and they wanted to make him their king. They thought, this is the sort of leader we like – somebody who gives us stuff. But Jesus didn’t want to be king just for the physical stuff that people could get out of it. So he escaped.
The same thing happens today, too. Some people just want the church to give physical stuff, and to leave the message inside the sanctuary, where it won’t affect anybody. But no, good works go hand in hand with the good news, and both are part of the way that we touch the world.
We can do it as individuals, we can do it as a church, but either way, we should not be irrelevant in this world. We should be living the gospel as well as sharing the gospel. We should have the gospel message, but that message should also make a difference in the way we live. We need to embody the grace of Jesus Christ as he lives in us and works through us. We set a good example in the way we treat each other, and in the way that we treat our neighbors.
Let’s look at one more passage that tells us how Jesus touched the world, and that’s in Matthew 9, starting in verse 35. This is one of Matthew’s summary statements, a generalized description of what Jesus did throughout his ministry. Here’s what he says: “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.”
There are the two forms of ministry again: words, and actions. Both of these were important to the impact that Jesus made on this world. The healings, by themselves, had only a short-term impact on a few people. They all eventually died. Jesus had a long-range impact on the world primarily because of what he taught – but we also have to recognize that if the teachings don’t make any difference in what people do, then it is understandable that others will consider the message irrelevant.
If the teachings don’t make a difference in this life, it would be understandable that people would wonder whether they are true for the next life. Both forms of ministry go hand in hand because both are reflections of what Jesus is, and both are reflections of the kingdom of God and the life of the children of God.
Verse 36: “When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” So he taught them, and he fed the hungry, healed the sick, cleansed the lepers, and raised the dead. He helped them in their spiritual and physical needs.
But he didn’t stop there, because he knew that he would not always be around. So he said to his disciples, in verses 37 and 38, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”
Who are these workers?
The next verse tells us – chapter 10, verse 1: “He called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.” He sent them out two by two to preach the gospel, and that’s where we started this message.
Jesus has compassion on the people of this world, the people who are like sheep without a shepherd, and he is looking for more people who are willing to help in the harvest. The people he told to pray, are exactly the same as the people he sent out to work.
We do not pray for God to call people to do work that we are not willing to do. When we see the need for workers, when we see that this is something that God wants done, that this is something representative of his kingdom and his family and his love, then if we are able to work, we will be one of those workers. If prayer is all that we can do, that is all God wants us to do. But if we can do more, then we probably will want to do more. We should pray, and we should work.
Christianity is relevant to the needs of this world, and we should touch the world by what we say, and by what we do. It’s all part of the same package as Jesus lives and works within us.
I’m Michael Morrison, and that’s a word from our Sponsor.