In the tenth chapter of Luke, we find the record of Christ’s visit to Martha’s home in Bethany. The story of what happened that day is well-known: while Martha busied herself with the affairs of the home, her younger sister Mary chose to spend time with Jesus instead. The Savior praised Mary’s choice to sit at His feet, while rebuking Martha for her tireless service at the expense of His company: “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful, and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her (Luke 10:41-42).”
While we have no problem acknowledging that Mary’s choice was superior to Martha’s in the eyes of God, we often fail to understand just how wrong Martha was. If there is a good part (as Jesus said), then there must also be a “bad” part. The comparison between the sisters was not that Martha had done a good thing, and Mary had done a better thing. On the contrary, Jesus said that Mary had done a “good” thing; and by comparison, Martha had done a “bad” thing.
This is sometimes such a hard concept for us to understand. Granted, Martha had neglected the company of her Savior at the expense of cooking His supper. Her actions had been misguided, but were they really such a terrible thing? After all, Martha’s only intention was to serve the Savior she loved – or was it?
In the culture of Martha’s day, it was expected that a woman should serve her guests. When a distinguished visitor (such as a rabbi) occasioned upon her home, it was socially acceptable that she should stay in the background and serve his needs. The dinner conversation was not the place for the socially conscious Jewish woman; it was for the men. More than likely, there were many men with Christ that day in Martha’s home. At this point in His ministry, Jesus was rarely separated from His twelve closest disciples. In addition, Mary and Martha had a brother named Lazarus who was probably also in attendance. From a cultural perspective, Martha was not expected to join the men and partake of the Master’s fellowship. She was fulfilling her traditional duty.
Mary, on the other hand, was not socially conscious. She threw off all cultural expectations when she chose to sit at the Master’s feet and hear Him teach. The place where Mary sat was reserved for a rabbi’s disciples, all of which were usually men. It was not a socially acceptable thing for a woman to be the student of a great teacher. But Mary did not care. The Word of God did not forbid her from sitting at Christ’s feet, and neither did He. Mary’s actions, though culturally unacceptable, were pleasing to the Master.
In a way, the foundation of modern culture is no different from the culture of the ancients; society still demands that we conform to its own expectations for our lives. Martha conformed to those expectations, and incorporated them into her service. Mary revolted from those same expectations, and came to know the Master in a greater way.
We live in a Martha world. We are expected to conform our Christianity to a standard of societal norms: as long as we fit inside the status quo, the culture deems us acceptable. But God demands that we conform our Christianity into the image of His Son, and the only way that this can occur is by throwing off the expectations of a sinful world and partaking in His beautiful fellowship. The end result of dynamic Christianity is not that the world would find us acceptable, but that the world – through us – would be turned upside down for the sake of the Master we love.
© 2010 Jeremy Austin Watts
If there is one thing that I can learn from the preachers of the New Testament, it is the art of brevity.
I am often surprised by how short most of the apostles’ sermons were, especially when I compare them to the long-winded homilies of my own. Take, for instance, the famous Mars Hill Discourse in Acts 17:22-31. In approximately 400 words, the Apostle Paul engages the Athenian thinkers with a missing piece of their own history and then proceeds to build a logical argument for the sovereignty of God, all while debunking their carnal philosophies and rampant polytheism. It truly is an apologetic masterpiece. But one of the most astounding things about the Mars Hill Discourse is not what Paul said. It’s what he chose not say.
In his opening statement, Paul commends the religious diligence of his listeners (Acts 17:22). Next, he connects with his audience on a cultural level, using an altar to the Unknown God as the starting point for the rest of his sermon (17:23). From there, he introduces the Athenian philosophers to their unequaled Creator (17:24) and the Giver of All Life (17:29), a solitary God Who moves in opposition of both Stoical Fate and Epicurean Chance (17:26). As he speaks, the apostle Paul holds the minds of his listeners captive, and everything appears to be going surprisingly well. But then, Paul makes a sudden philosophical leap: having established the supremacy of God, the he chooses to abandon his rhetoric and jumps forward in his progression to the claim that Jesus had resurrected from the grave (17:31).
In an instant, Paul’s logical progression falls apart and the philosophers pounce on his message (17:32). The trained thinkers of Athens identify the gap in Paul’s narrative, and begin to mock the seemingly whimsical notion that he is proposing (17:32). From the mythology of Homer to the disciplines of Plato, the Greek tradition had unequivocally denied any sort of resurrection doctrine. But now, Paul proposes that centuries of religious philosophy were wrong – and he doesn’t even give a logical reason why. In the mind of almost every person assembled, Paul has claimed the downright preposterous.
To the evangelistically-minded believer, the Mars Hill Discourse may seem like a pretty lame sermon. After all, it omits the majority of the Gospel. There is no mention of the Crucifixion, no mention of sinful man in need of a Savior, and no mention of the name of Jesus. It’s almost as if we don’t get to read the second half of Paul’s presentation. But the truth of the matter is that the Apostle Paul (or rather, the Holy Spirit) knew something incredibly valuable about human communication: less is more.
Almost 1900 years after Paul stood up in the Areios Pagos to speak, Ernest Hemingway postulated his own “less is more” principle as it applied to storytelling. He called it the “iceberg theory,” an economical style of writing in which he omitted essential elements of the story that he felt the reader could deduce on his own. Instead, Hemingway relayed his narratives in skeletal sentences that were bereft of flowery prose, communicating the hard facts of the story while the significance of the events remained beneath the surface.
In a way, Ernest Hemingway was only mimicking a method of communication that the Apostle Paul had already achieved. The philosophers that gathered to hear Paul speak were notoriously curious (Acts 17:21), and Paul knew it. He gained their attention with a full-fledged assault on reason, and quickly abandoned it so that the Holy Spirit could work. His message was brief, but it was enough for God to stir the hearts of men like Dionysius (17:34). In other words, the apostle removed his own convincing logic from the equation, so that God alone could have all the glory.
Sometimes, my own verbosity stands in the way of an effective sermon. Rather than allowing God to work through a clear and concise presentation of truth, I feel the need to embellish the Word of God with my own homiletic ability. While I have been commanded to preach God’s Word efficiently, I have not been commanded to do it in my own power. The Lord does not need my winsome speech to reach the hearts of my listeners. He can do that all on His own.
So, the next time I am tempted to wax eloquent when simplicity would suffice, I would do well to remember a humbling truth: my homiletics could use a little more Hemingway.
© 2010 Jeremy Austin Watts, with thanks to Dan DeWitt for inspiring the title
“Who shall I release unto you? Bar-Abbas, the murderer… Or Jesus the Christ, Who is called the King of the Jews?”
Pilate stood before the increasingly riotous mob and asked them to make their choice. On one hand, the Roman procurator offered up a Man whose message was peace. On the other, a man whose mission was war. One preached intercession on behalf of His enemies; the other was an insurrectionist with blood on his hands. One had restored life to those who had died; the other brought death to those he hated. If ever there existed two men of more diametrically opposed worldviews, history has failed to record it.
Little is known about the second prisoner – a man named Bar-Abbas – aside from what is recorded in Scripture. What we do know is that he was a remarkable prisoner (Matt. 27:16), a murderer (Luke 23:19), and the leader of a band of insurrectionists (Mark 15:7). More than likely, Barabbas was a Zealot, a member of a notorious sect of political revolutionaries feared for their merciless exploits. Their numbers were composed of ruthless assassins and fanatically devoted militants. Additionally, Bar-Abbas was also a brigand (John 18:40) – a ruthless bandit similar to the ones recounted in Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30). The modus operandi of these unsavory thieves was to ambush solitary travelers – Jews and Gentiles alike – and leave them for dead after robbing them of all they possessed. In short, Bar-Abbas was a career criminal and a man of decidedly unscrupulous moral character. And because of his notorious blood lust and thoughtless violence, Bar-Abbas had been condemned to death.
But that was all before Jesus.
Bar-Abbas stood before the angry mob, disoriented and confused. He had stood in this very place before, at his own trial. It was here that Pontius Pilate had reviewed all the evidence against Bar-Abbas and found him unequivocally guilty of murder and sedition. And it was in this very place where the procurator had condemned him to die. But now, even the governor stood in disbelief as the crowd chanted the name of Bar-Abbas, demanding his release. But Pilate was bound to his word, and to the customs of the city. He signaled to the guards, and they moved toward Bar-Abbas. They removed his manacles, and violently pushed him down the stairs and toward the mob.
“You’re free,” the Roman soldier said, punctuating his words with an oath.
Bar-Abbas didn’t understand. An hour ago, he had sat in a cold prison cell – his body beaten from a scourging, his wrists chained to a stone wall, his nostrils filled with the stench of death. Just an hour ago, he had been contemplating his final hours on earth. An hour ago, the shadow of the cross had consumed his thoughts. But now he was free.
“What shall I do then with Jesus, which is called the Christ?”
Bar-Abbas glanced at the disbelieving expression on the governor’s face, as the crowd replied with a new chant: “Crucify Him!” Suddenly, Bar-Abbas realized what was happening. This other Man on trial was no mere commoner; on the contrary, He was perhaps the greatest celebrity in all Jerusalem – the Prophet from Nazareth, the powerful Healer called Jesus. Some had called Him the Messiah; still others had called him a charlatan and a blasphemer. Now, the people wanted the Prophet crucified.
But Pilate knew that Jesus was innocent. He had not offered Bar-Abbas’ freedom to the crowd at random; it was a power play. He had hoped that the people – especially Caiphas and the Sanhedrin – would be so appalled by Bar-Abbas’ crimes that they would relent to the release of the Christ. But it hadn’t worked. The religious leaders had coerced the crowd into demanding Bar-Abbas’ freedom – and Jesus’ death. The full weight of the situation came crashing down on Bar-Abbas: Jesus of Nazareth had taken his place. At morning’s light, He would carry the cross that had been meant for Bar-Abbas. The Messiah would die; the murderer would live.
No one knows what happened to Bar-Abbas after his release. Books have been written, motion pictures have been made, and sermons have been preached that speculate upon the direction his life took after that fateful day. One would hope that Bar-Abbas understood the greater significance of everything that happened that night in Pilate’s court. Bar-Abbas had been undeniably guilty of every charge that had been brought against him, and he had been sentenced to the just recompense of his deeds. Pilate had decreed that Bar-Abbas should be put to death for crimes against the state; but God had decreed that His Only Son would die instead. If ever there was a man who could claim that Jesus Christ had died in his stead, it was Bar-Abbas.
And so can I.
Just as Jesus literally took the place of Bar-Abbas on Calvary’s cross, He also took my place under the just wrath of God (Rom. 1:18, Rev. 14:10, Matt. 26:39, Mark 15:34). Bar-Abbas was guilty of insurrection against the government of Rome; I was guilty of insurrection against the government of God. Just as Bar-Abbas was the enemy of the state, so was I the enemy of a God (Rom. 5:10, 8:7; Col. 1:21; Ja. 4:4). And just as the law of the Empire condemned Bar-Abbas to death, so was I cursed by the Law of the Creator (Gal. 3:10-13).
The sovereign hand of God was at work that night in Pilate’s Hall, and in Pilate’s heart (Pro. 21:1). Even before His Son was nailed to Calvary’s tree, God was showing us what salvation was truly about: that the Innocent King should suffer in the stead of His guilty creation. Had Christ not come, Bar-Abbas would have died for his crimes – and I would have died in my sin. I once stood before the Holy Prefect as guilty as Bar-Abbas, and even more so. I had hated without cause, and was guilty of murder (Matt. 5:21-22). I had stolen from God the glory due His name. And I deserved to be destroyed.
But that was all before Jesus.
He took my place before the angry mob; I took His place in calling for His death. He took my place beneath the Roman scourge; I took His place in delivering the blow. He took my place beneath the cross’ beam; I took His place in hammering the nails. As the Father turned His face away, Christ took my place beneath the all-consuming wrath of God. Now, when the Father looks at me, I take Christ’s place of honor as God’s beloved son.
JESUS TOOK MY PLACE: that is the Gospel, according to a murderer named Bar-Abbas – and according to a sinner like me.
© 2010 Jeremy Austin Watts