An oxymoron is a combination of contradictory words. One oxymoron that is far too common and always annoys me is “wicked awesome.” There are many others such as, a fine mess, accidentally on purpose, awfully pretty, dead livestock, jumbo shrimp and authentic reproduction.
Another combination of words that seems to me could be an oxymoron is rejected servants of God. We find it difficult to understand why Nate Saint and Jim Elliot, who were missionaries in Ecuador and had given themselves to proclaim the gospel to the Waodani people, were killed by them. Where was the power of God to save them? Why were they put to death? We find it difficult to understand why someone who has just volunteered for 2 months to help people rebuild their houses following a fire should have their house burn down. It seems incongruous that an entire missionary family should be killed by a drunk driver. Are the phrases “rejected servant of God” or “suffering servant of God” oxymoron’s or is there some way of understanding what seems to us to be a contradiction?
Mark 6:1-29 contains three stories and in each of them we have some mention of the rejection of a servant of God. As we read these stories and understand them and examine the rest of Scripture for some explanation I hope we will come to understand that these phrases are not an oxymoron, but a part of what it means to live in the resurrection.
Before we think about rejected servants of God, let us think about the stories.
After traveling around the region of Galilee and even across the sea, Jesus returned to his home town and on a Sabbath day, attended the synagogue service with His disciples. While there he had the opportunity to teach and He did so with an authority and an understanding that they had not heard before. The people were amazed, but they were also conflicted. He wasn’t a teacher. He had not been to the rabbinic schools; he had not studied Scripture or rhetoric. He was a carpenter. They had also known Him in his growing up years. He was Mary’s son. Perhaps, in saying this, they implied his supposed illegitimate birth. They certainly had no understanding that He was the Son of God who had been born of a virgin, but they probably knew that he had been conceived before Joseph and Mary were married. They also knew his siblings and in all of this knowledge they saw nothing remarkable in him. Jesus’ own family had similar questions as we have already seen in Mark 3:21.
So this was the reason for their conflicted opinions. On the one hand they heard the amazing teaching he gave and they knew he did miracles; and on the other, he was just an ordinary neighbor. They saw great power and great wisdom in Him, but didn’t understand the source of it and so rejected him. Familiarity took the upper hand and we read in Mark 6:3 that “they took offense at him.”
Jesus responded by quoting a saying, which was well known in other settings and we even know it as, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” The other reaction was that he had a minimal healing ministry. Why was the healing ministry limited? There are different ways of looking at this. Some have suggested that Jesus power was diminished by lack of faith. Others have suggested that Jesus refused to heal because their faith was not large enough, but both of these explanations have problems with them when we read the rest of Scripture. The best explanation is that they didn’t believe in Him so they didn’t go to him. Jesus also responded with amazement at their lack of faith.
In spite of rejection, Jesus didn’t quit. He went out to the surrounding villages and continued to teach.
In Mark 3:14 we read that he chose the twelve “that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach.” He had been with them and now it was time for them to preach.
He instructed them to go out with a minimum of stuff. They were to rely on the hospitality of those they met and they were to rely on God. It would be interesting to discuss how this pertains today for servants of God. Are missionaries still supposed to go out with a minimum of stuff? Yet Paul indicates that a laborer is worthy of his hire. Was this an instruction for this specific preaching journey or is it a universal principle. If so, how do we reconcile it with other Scripture? How do we apply it today?
Jesus instructed them also on what to do when they were not accepted. They were not to stay where they were not welcome. They were not to force the message of God on those who did not want to listen. Shaking the dust off their feet when they were leaving has implications not only of rejection, but of the judgment of God on those who refuse the message. We have an example of this in Acts 18:6 where we read, "But when the Jews opposed Paul and became abusive, he shook out his clothes in protest and said to them, ‘Your blood be on your own heads! I am clear of my responsibility. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.’”
Even though Jesus warned them that they might face opposition and rejection, we read in Mark 6:12 that they had a very successful ministry. They not only preached, but also drove out demons, which Jesus had authorized them to do, and anointed people with oil and healed them. When they came back, we read in Mark 6:30, "The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught."
While they were out preaching, we see that their ministry had an impact on spreading the message of Jesus. It once more prompted the debate about the identity of Jesus and many weighed in with their opinions. Some thought He was Elijah and some, one of the prophets. Another opinion was that He was John the Baptist resurrected. This was also the opinion of Herod and he may have thought so out of a guilty conscience for it was he who had put John to death
In order to explain how John died, Mark includes a fairly lengthy account of his death. It is a story, which if it was a movie on television, you probably wouldn’t let your children watch.
John had been functioning according to his calling as a prophet of God. He had told Herod that his marriage was adulterous. Herod had married his brother’s wife, Herodias, and John had declared it wrong. Herod’s wife did not like this and wanted Herod to put John to death. But Herod wasn’t willing to do that and only arrested him. But while in custody, he liked listening to John. The text says he was “puzzled” which I understand to mean that he was conflicted. On the one hand he liked to hear him and on the other hand he did not want to follow what he said. I like the way Hamerton-Kelly puts it. He writes, “Herod loved to be upset by John.”
Finally an opportunity came for Herodias to have her way. Herod was celebrating his birthday with all the big shots. During the celebration, possibly as her gift, the daughter of his wife, performed a dance for his guests. Many commentators suggest that it was a lewd dance, but there is nothing in the text to confirm that. She did such a good job that everyone liked it and Herod also enjoyed it very much and in a state of enthusiasm likely meant to impress his guests, he offered her a very generous gift. She went to her mother to ask what she should ask for and her mother was quick to respond and told her to ask for John’s head on a platter. With great distress, Herod was forced to comply because he had made an oath in front of his guests and this is how John’s life came to an end. The story ends by telling us that his followers gave him a proper burial.
We should not see it as coincidental that Mark puts these three stories together. Each of them speaks of the suffering of one of God’s servants. Is this an oxymoron? We make a mistake if we assume that servants of Jesus will always have everything go well. Resurrection meant victory for Jesus. Since Jesus has won, we also can live in victory. However, living in resurrection victory does not mean we will be able to avoid all hardship and persecution. The text today reminds us of that reality. As we reflect on these stories and examine the rest of Scripture, it isn’t difficult to come to a clear understanding of the relationship between ministry and suffering and to know that a suffering servant of Jesus is not an oxymoron. Rather, we are called to understand it and learn how to live in that context.
If Jesus, His disciples and John the Baptist all experienced suffering, what makes us think that we won’t?
One of the things we learn from these stories is that in the midst of ministry, suffering and rejection may happen. Just because you have given yourself to serving Jesus does not mean that there won’t be times when what you do will not be accepted and times when the difficulties which happen to everyone may also happen to you.
Jesus was doing great things yet we have already seen that he experienced all kinds of rejection. Intense and somewhat surprising was the rejection by the religious leaders who should have known what God was doing. Rejection by the Gentiles in the region of the Geresenes was understandable, but that by his home town crowd was surprising. Yet all of these things happened.
When Jesus sent the disciples out, he warned them that not everyone would accept them. It was possible that they would experience suffering.
Therefore it is not surprising that the Apostle Paul also experienced suffering in the midst of his ministry. In Acts 9:16, when God called Paul, he already told him that he would experience such suffering. There we read, "I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” In II Corinthians 11:23-29 we read of some of his experiences: "I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches."
So it is important to realize that this is a reality and possibility. If we are serving the Lord, it may well be difficult. In the midst of our service, we may experience suffering or opposition.
It is also important for us to know that sometimes our suffering will come as a direct result of what we are proclaiming. It was a word from God to Herod that precipitated the death of John. He was doing the ministry God had called him to and died because of it. In Mark 13:9-11, Jesus warns, “You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings…”
In II Corinthians 11:23-25, Paul reports how that exact thing had happened to him. “I have… been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned…”
We have lived for so long in a society that accepts or at least tolerates us and our proclamation of the gospel. But that is not so in much of the world and may not always be true in our world. We need to know that just as John the Baptist and Jesus suffered for serving God, we may also have to suffer because we are doing God’s work.
If we are involved in serving Jesus, we may suffer and it is important for us to be aware of that reality. But there is another profound relationship between suffering and ministry which we must also be aware of.
I believe that Mark does not write things in a random order. There is purpose for the things he writes and the order he writes them in. In Mark 6:1-6a we read about the rejection of Jesus and in Mark 6:6b, we read “Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village.” Commentators debate where this verse belongs. Does it belong to the previous section about the rejection of Jesus or the following section about the ministry of the disciples? In some ways it belongs to both, but I believe it belongs to the story of the rejection of Jesus, for it reminds us, that, as Geddert says, “There is also ministry in the midst of suffering…” Jesus was rejected, but continued to go to the villages around and teach.
Ministry can continue even in the midst of difficulty. Once again a story which comes out of the life of the apostle Paul helps us understand this. Acts 16:16-34 tells the story about when Paul and those with him were arrested in Philippi. They had been proclaiming the gospel and because of their success were arrested and put in prison. In the midst of that suffering in prison, they continued to serve God. They didn’t mope and become discouraged, but continued to sing His praises. When an earthquake opened the prison doors, they stayed put and it became an opportunity to tell the gospel story to the jailer who accepted Jesus.
Out of such a depth of experience, Paul instructs us in II Timothy 1:8, "So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner. But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God."
Even more amazing is that sometimes ministry arises directly out of suffering. It is one thing to determine to continue to serve Jesus even when we are in the midst of suffering. It is a miracle of grace that because we suffer, we have an increased ability to serve God. In II Corinthians 1:4 we read, "…who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God." Paul, because of all kinds of difficult experiences, understood trials and God’s power and taught others what he had learned in difficulty.
In II Corinthians 12:7-10 we have a clear theology of ministry that arises out of suffering when Paul says, "To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. "
May we learn to see how our suffering can become not only something that we have to bear and live through, but something which allows us to have a more powerful and more effective ministry!
How do we live with all this?
It is a delusion to think that suffering or persecution should not happen to people who are living in the resurrection. As we have seen this truth in the stories we have looked at today, I hope that we have been encouraged to accept this truth.
Awareness is a key concept. I heard someone ask someone, “Why are you suffering?” I also heard the response, “Why not me?” That is a Biblical response. Jesus encourages us in Matthew 11:6, "Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.”
The way to persevere is in the power of God. In II Timothy 1:8, Paul has encouraged us to suffer “for the gospel, by the power of God.
There is another Biblical concept which I have to admit I do not fully understand. It seems that there is some divine purpose in the suffering of the people of God. Sometimes suffering is permitted to accomplish purposes which we do not fully understand. Colossians 1:24 says, "Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church." The phrase “I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions” is an interesting and puzzling phrase. Is our suffering somehow needed to complete what God wants to do on earth? It certainly does not mean that more suffering is needed to bring salvation. But it may mean that suffering assists in the coming of the kingdom of God. I know that many parents would gladly suffer for their children. How often we have said, “I wish I could have arthritis instead of Kristen.” Are we willing to suffer if that suffering would bring about the eternal redemption of someone? Perhaps that kind of thinking helps us understand the meaning of Colossians 1:24. Perhaps we also see such logic in II Corinthians 4:11 where we read, "For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body."
Seeing purpose in suffering for the kingdom of God certainly will help us face it.
Yet we are not only called to bear suffering, but even to rejoice in it.
It is amazing how many passages in Scripture call us to rejoice in suffering. In II Corinthians 12:10 we are called to rejoice in suffering because then God’s power is shown to be great. In James 1:2-5 we are called to rejoice in suffering because it is a part of the process of becoming mature in Christ.
We will have joy in suffering as a servant of Jesus only when we live in a deep and trusting relationship with Him. May we come to this place in our walk with Jesus!
Finally, we can recognize that suffering servants of Jesus is not an oxymoron because we live in hope. Once again there are many Scripture passages which remind us of our eternal hope.
Romans 8:17 encourages us, "Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us."
Matthew 5:10 also encourages when it says, "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
Geddert comments on this passage, “The mission of the kingdom cannot be stopped by Nazereth’s lack of faith or Herod’s foolish oath.”
In other words, rejection and difficulty cannot stop the kingdom from growing. The power of enemies or of rulers cannot stop the kingdom from growing.
May we understand the reality of the phrase, “suffering servants of Jesus” and recognize its power and hope so that we will not allow difficulty, trial, hardship or rejection to prevent us from faithfully continuing to serve Jesus.