Dealing With Doubts

Topical Scripture: Mark 9:14-29

There is so much we don’t know about the COVID-19 pandemic.

We don’t know when cases in the US will peak or how long they will last afterwards. We don’t know if surviving a COVID-19 infection means we gain long-lasting immunity or if we can become re-infected. We don’t know if the virus will be affected by warmer temperatures in the spring and summer or, if it is, whether we will see a second onslaught of infections in the fall. We don’t know if measures to keep us from infecting each other will work. We don’t know if vaccine and therapy trials now underway will work.

At a time like this, it’s easy to wonder if prayer does much good. We pray for our leaders, for our healthcare providers, for our friends and families and ourselves. But if you’re like most of us, there’s an unstated, perhaps unadmitted doubt in the back of your mind—will my prayers really make any difference? They can fall into the “why not?” category: something that doesn’t cost us anything but a little time and might make a difference. But who really knows?

In my spring sermon series, we are following Jesus to Easter and watching him change lives along the way. Last week, we saw him save Peter from drowning on the stormy Sea of Galilee in response to the fisherman’s prayer, “Lord, save me!” (Matthew 14:30). The Greek is really just two words: “Lord, save!”

It’s the shortest prayer in the Bible, and one we can pray any time in any storm.

Today we’ll shift from the shortest prayer in Scripture to my favorite prayer in Scripture. It’s one that I’ve prayed many times over the years. It’s one that you may need to learn to pray in these hard days.

Before we learn it, let me ask you: What questions or doubts or struggles are most on your heart today? They may be about the coronavirus pandemic, but they may be about something else. One tragedy about disease epidemics is that other diseases don’t stop being diseases. People don’t stop having heart attacks and cancer and strokes. People don’t stop having car accidents and marital problems and financial fears.

So, name your fear, your doubt, your worry. Now, let’s learn how to pray my favorite prayer in response.

The plight of a desperate father

Our story follows Jesus’ transfiguration, when he, Peter, James, and John came down from the mountain to the people below. Here, “when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them” (Mark 9:14). These “scribes” were religious leaders, the authorities of the day.

When the crowd saw Jesus, they “were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him” (v. 15). With his usual compassion, he asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” (v. 16).

A man in the crowd explained, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able” (vv. 17–18).

Imagine this man in our context, with a son with coronavirus. He has brought him to the doctors, but they cannot help him. His son is getting sicker, and he is getting more desperate.

Jesus said to this grieving father, “Bring him to me” (v. 19). The spirit then convulsed the boy, so that he fell on the ground, foaming at the mouth (v. 20). Jesus asked his father how long this had been happening; the father said, “From childhood” (v. 21). He added, “It has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him” (v. 22a).

Now comes the part we will focus upon today. The father added, “But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us” (v. 22b). Jesus replied, “If you can! All things are possible for one who believes” (v. 23). Notice that he did not say, “All things are guaranteed,” but “all things are possible.” Our faith does not obligate God, as we will see shortly.

Here is the prayer I am recommending to us today: “Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!'” (v. 24).

Why doubts are normal

Doubts are a normal and expected part of the human experience. It is natural to doubt anything we cannot know with certainty. And the more urgently we need to know what we do not, the more deeply we will feel our doubts.

I can doubt that the universe is ninety-three billion light years in size as scientists currently estimate, but my doubts don’t affect my life unless I’m an astrophysicist. I can doubt that Brexit will move forward as planned in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, but my doubts don’t affect me unless I live in the UK or Europe or work in a field directly affected by them.

But if I doubt that God can protect me and my family from coronavirus or heal us if we are infected, my doubts become very real and very personal.

Faith in God is like faith in anyone else in that it is a relationship rather than a scientific experiment. All relationships require a commitment that transcends the evidence and becomes self-validating.

I cannot prove to you that I love my wife or that she loves me. You would have to experience our relationship to know its reality. You cannot prove you should take a job before you take it. You examine the evidence, of course, but then you step beyond the evidence into a commitment that validates itself.

It is the same with our Lord. There will always be dimensions of our relationship with him that transcend certainty and require faith. At such times, doubts are natural and normal.

What should we do with such doubts today?

One: Remember what we know about God.

This father said to Jesus, “I believe” (v. 24a). The Greek word is pisteuo, meaning to trust in, to have confidence in, to rely upon. His faith was not merely intellectual but personal. He had enough faith to bring his suffering son to Jesus’ disciples in the hope that they could help. Even though they had been unable to heal his son, he had enough faith to turn to their master now.

When we face what we don’t know, let’s remember what we do.

Nothing about this boy’s suffering or the coronavirus pandemic changes anything about the nature of God. He is as powerful today as when he created the universe. He is as omniscient today as when he led his people into the Promised Land.

He hears our prayers as fully today as when he heard the Christians praying for Peter in prison and freed the apostle from Herod. He loves us as much today as when he sent his Son to die for us at Calvary.

What have you experienced about God in the past that is relevant today? What prayers has he answered? What needs has he met? What sins has he forgiven? In what way can you say, “I believe”?

Two: Trust God with what we don’t know.

The second part of the father’s prayer is one that may surprise many believers: “Help my unbelief!” (v. 24b). “Unbelief” translates apistia, the opposite of pisteuo. Just as an “atheist” is one who denies theism, so this man’s “unbelief” contradicted his belief.

When we have such doubts, we may think God won’t hear us or help us. But the opposite is true.

Remember Thomas, the disciple who did not meet the risen Christ along with the other apostles and said, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (John 20:25). When the risen Christ met with them again the next week, Thomas was in their midst.

Did Jesus criticize Thomas for his doubts? Did he condemn or judge him? “Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe” (v. 27). Thomas responded, “My Lord and my God!” (v. 28). And according to early tradition, he took the gospel as far east as India.

Thomas was not the only apostle to harbor doubts about the resurrection. In Matthew 28, we read that “the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted” (vv. 16–17).

Did Jesus reject them? Did he expel them from his movement? To the contrary, he commissioned them to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (v. 19). And they did.

The preeminent example of doubting faith is that of our Lord who cried from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46, quoting Psalm 22:1). Of course, we know that Jesus was “without sin” in every dimension of his life (Hebrews 4:15). And we know that his Father met him in his doubts, so that Jesus would soon say, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).

Like Thomas and the other apostles and our Savior, we can bring our doubts to God. We can tell him where we are struggling and ask for his help. If we don’t have faith, we can ask for faith. We can pray, “Lord, give me the faith to have faith.”

And we can know that he hears us in grace. In our text, Jesus then cast out the demon and healed the boy (Mark 8:25–27). He answered his father’s doubts with a demonstration of his power and love.

He will do the same for us in whatever way is best for us.


This text does not promise that when we bring God our doubts, he will always meet them as we want him to. Our Lord healed this boy on this day, but he did not heal Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” as the apostle prayed he would (2 Corinthians 12:7–8). To the contrary, God told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (v. 9a).

And Paul could say as a result, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (v. 9b). And he could add, “When I am weak, then I am strong” (v. 10).

It’s been said that God sometimes calms the storm, but he sometimes lets the storm rage and calms his child.

What’s important today is that we know we can bring God our doubts in these days and know that he hears us and loves us. We can trust that he will give us what we ask or whatever is best. We may not understand his answer on this side of heaven, but we will one day (1 Corinthians 13:12).

And we can know that we are loved.

One of my favorite movie lines of all time is in The Count of Monte Cristo. Edmond Dontes has been unfairly imprisoned. He meets a priest who is suffering the same. At one point the priest says to him, “Here is your final lesson—do not commit the crime for which you now serve the sentence. God said, ‘Vengeance is mine.'”

Edmond responds, “I don’t believe in God.”

The priest replies, “It doesn’t matter. He believes in you.”

Redeeming the Coronavirus Epidemic

Topical Scripture: Mark 1:29-31

I spoke yesterday in Little Rock to 1,400 college students from all over Arkansas. Early that morning, as I was praying for the event, I sensed the Lord giving me a message I had not considered before. Not just for the students, but for you today and for our nation as well. I amended my talk to include this word and made its message my theme for today as well.

As you know, the coronavirus is dominating global news. It is called the “coronavirus” because of the crown-like spikes on its surface. As of this morning, 88,375 people have contracted the disease; 2,996 have died.

As I will explain today, this is an unprecedented challenge to our nation and world. And it is therefore an unprecedented opportunity for the gospel.

The challenge on three levels

This virus presents a global challenge unprecedented in my lifetime, because it shows the following three facts to be true.

Financial: The stock market just finished its worst week since the Great Recession of 2008, losing $3.6 trillion in value. According to one analyst, this crash “may have created a once in a lifetime buying opportunity.” By contrast, a CDC official warned that “disruption to everyday life may be severe” as the virus spreads in the US. Think of the impact on offices, manufacturing, and retail if people are afraid to see other people.

Medical: A Harvard professor warns that “if a pandemic happens, 40 percent to 70 percent of people world-wide are likely to be infected in the coming year.” On the other hand, some think it will burn itself out in the summer heat. A middle position is that it becomes like the seasonal flu, only with a much higher mortality rate. More than 52 percent of Chinese males ages fifteen and older are regular smokers, which may be contributing to the morbidity of the virus as it attacks their compromised lungs.

Political: The coronavirus epidemic knows no borders. It is currently in sixty-three countries; the World Health Organization warns that it could soon reach every country in the world. Countries with communist governments, Muslim leaders, and democratic republics alike are susceptible. China’s leaders are facing increased unrest over their response to the virus; if it leads to a significant economic downturn in the US, it could affect the fall election.

The opportunity for the gospel

Not in my lifetime have we seen a threat like this.

Hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes affect specific cities and regions. Ebola was localized as well. Even the 9/11 attacks, as devastating as they were, directly affected only those on the planes, those in the buildings they struck, and the responders in the areas attacked.

So far as we know at present, this is a disease anyone can get. And it is therefore a disease everyone can get. We cannot depend on the stock market, or current medical knowledge, or political structures to protect us.

As a result, the coronavirus is showing us what we should have admitted all along: we are mortals in desperate need of God. The virus is not changing the mortality rate—it is making it more real. We need God’s protection in the present and his saving grace for eternity.

One way God wants to redeem this pandemic is by using it to turn us to himself. After 9/11, churches were filled as Americans realized our need of God’s help and hope. We can look for ways to redeem the present crisis in the same way.


Four ways to model Jesus’ compassion

Our text relates the shortest miracle story in the Gospels. Mark 1 finds Jesus in Capernaum, a town on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. He lived here for three years in the home of Simon Peter and his family.

On one particular Sabbath, he taught in the local synagogue, where he healed a demon-possessed man (Mark 1:21–27). When the service was over, “immediately he left the synagogue and entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John” (v. 29). In our context, he went home after Sunday services.

But there was a problem: “Now Simon’s mother-in-law lay ill with a fever, and immediately they told him about her” (v. 30). Luke the physician tells us that it was a “great fever,” distinguishing it from the milder kind that was known to their day.

I picked this story for today specifically because of this illness. It is the closest thing to the coronavirus I could find in the Gospels.

Jesus’ response was so typical of him: “He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up” (v. 31a). The Greek says that he “stood over her” and took her hand, helping her out of the bed. As a result, “the fever left her, and she began to serve them” (v. 31b).

From this event we observe four relevant facts:

One: Anyone can get sick. Peter was the leader of their apostolic band following the Son of God. His family would seem to be immune from illness if anyone is. Furthermore, her service to Jesus (which he accepted) reveals her spiritual depth and servant heart.

Her illness is a reminder for these days that suffering is often not our fault. Think of Joseph in Potiphar’s prison, or Daniel in the lions’ den, or Paul in the Philippian jail, or John imprisoned on Patmos. Can you think of four more godly men? Let’s be sure not to blame those who suffer for their suffering.

Two: We need to pray for the sick. Our text tells us that “immediately they told him about her.” We do not pray for the sick so as to tell God something he doesn’t know. Rather, we pray for them so as to stand with them in solidarity and to become an answer to our prayers whenever appropriate. The coming days and weeks will constitute an urgent call to intercession.

Three: Jesus cares for every hurting person. His response here risked rejection from those who associated sickness with sin and would consider him contaminated by touching her. He touched lepers, spoke to a Samaritan woman, and loved Gentiles. There are no stigmas with him, as there should be none with us.

Four: Those whom God serves should serve others. Her immediate response was that “she began to serve them.” Not just Jesus, but all in the house. She used her restored capacities to serve God and others.

Henri Nouwen popularized the concept of the “wounded healer,” the person who helps others as he or she has been helped. God serves us so we can serve others.


You may not get the coronavirus and may not know anyone who does. But you have a “fever” of some kind. And you know someone who is ill as well.

This unprecedented threat is an unprecedented opportunity for the gospel. Let’s answer the call to the glory of God, out of gratitude for his grace.

The Crown or the Cross

Topical Scripture: Luke 9:51-62

We’ll begin with some good news: we have a second moon.

It was first spotted on February 15. It’s about the size of a compact car, so it’s being called a “mini-moon.” Scientists say it is an asteroid that got trapped in our planet’s gravitational force in 2017 and began orbiting us, but nobody noticed.

Here’s the bad news: it’s leaving us as soon as next week or as late as April.

By my calculations, it would take 1.1 billion minimoons to match the diameter of our moon. And three moons to match the diameter of the Earth. And 109 Earths to match the diameter of the Sun. And that’s just our Solar System, which is one of as many as 100 billion solar systems in the universe.

And the God we worship this morning made all of that.

As we’re dealing with the spreading coronavirus epidemic, the stock market fluctuations, the tornado disaster in Tennessee, and everything else in the news, it’s good to remember who is charge of the world. And the fact that he has a plan and a purpose for every one of our lives today.

We’re watching Jesus change lives on the way to Easter. Today, we’ll watch our Lord deal with people who miss their purpose. As we do, let’s determine that we will not miss ours. It has been said that there is in every human heart a crown and a cross. If we are wearing the crown, Jesus must wear the cross. If we will wear the cross, he can wear the crown.

What does it mean to give Jesus your crown, to submit to his purpose for your life? How can you do that today?

Choose God’s purpose and no other

Our text begins, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (v. 51). “To be taken up” refers to his crucifixion. “Set his face” means to be firm in resolve, especially when facing difficulty or danger. “He chose and would not be deterred” would carry the sense of Luke’s phrase.

If you and I are to follow him fully, we must be as committed to God’s will for our lives as Jesus was to his own. How do you know God’s purpose for your life?

First, believe that your Father does in fact have a plan for your life today. Some evolutionists say that life began as a chance coincidence, with no particular plan or purpose at all. Existentialists say that this life is all there is, and life is chaos. Martin Heidegger, for instance, wrote that we are actors on a stage, with no script, director, or audience, and courage is to face life as it is. Postmodernists say that truth is relative, that there is no overriding purpose to life.

So, does God have a plan for us, or is life a random coincidence? In the words of Shakespeare, are we “sound and fury, signifying nothing”?

Here is God’s answer: “I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11). His will for you is “good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).

Second, ask him to guide you into his perfect will. He will lead you rationally through Scripture, practically through circumstances, and intuitively as his Spirit speaks to your spirit. He wants you to know his will even more than you want to know it. Ask him to lead you and trust that he will. His will is not a floodlight that reveals the entire path but a flashlight that reveals the next step.

The ultimate question is not if we can know his will but whether we will follow it.

Love those God loves (vv. 52–56)

So, Jesus determined that he would embark on the journey which would end in his execution. It was customary in his day for a rabbi to send messengers ahead to make things ready for his arrival in a town (v. 52). He and his band of disciples would need food and lodging, as their trip to Jerusalem would take three days by foot. Travelers’ inns were few and far between, while bandits preyed on unprotected groups such as theirs. At the least, he did not wish to be a burden on those who might offer hospitality to his group.

As they were traveling from Galilee to Judea, their journey took them through Samaria. Most rabbis went to the east and around this despised area and people. They considered Samaritans to be half-breeds and infidels. But Jesus’ ministry to the woman at the Samaritan well two years earlier showed his compassion for these rejected people (John 4).

Tragically, this Samaritan village refused the same grace: “The people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem” (v. 53). The Samaritans usually presented no obstacles to those traveling from the south to the north. But those journeying south to Jerusalem clearly rejected the Samaritan claim that Mt. Gerazim was the proper place of worship and sacrifice.

And so, Samaritans along the way took great pains to make such journeys more difficult. Josephus even claims that they murdered Jewish pilgrims on occasion (Antiquities 20.118). If Jesus and his followers would not worship at Mt. Gerazim, they would not find easy passage to the Temple at Jerusalem.

We can understand something of their antipathy. It is human nature to slander those who slander us, to feel justified in our anger against those who hurt us first. While Jesus understood the Samaritans’ reaction, his disciples did not: “And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?'” (v. 54).

In response, Jesus “turned and rebuked them” (v. 55). There is a week’s worth of theology in this short verse.

Luke records Jesus’ “rebuke” of the storm (Luke 8:24), a fever (Luke 4:39), and demons (Luke 4:41). But only one other time in Scripture do we find Jesus rebuking a person: when Peter tried to prevent his decision to face crucifixion, Jesus “rebuked” him. In fact, he said to him, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Mark 8:33).

For Jesus to treat James and John as he treated Satan working through Peter was a stern response, indeed. It showed his displeasure with their racism and superior pride. It demonstrated his compassion for all people, whatever their status in society. And it stands as God’s requirement for those who follow him today: we must love those God loves.

Are there any Samaritans in your circle of relationships? Someone dealing with the pain and suffering of divorce? Someone facing their first Easter without a loved one? Someone far from home?

It’s been said that the best test of character is how we treat people we don’t have to treat well. If you’ll ask God to show you a Samaritan this week, you can be sure that he will. If you will show that person his love in yours, you’ll prove that you follow Jesus (cf. John 13:35).

Pay any price to be faithful (vs. 57-62)

In contrast to the Samaritan refusal of his band, Jesus next met three who wanted to join his disciples. Luke reports their stories because they are ours as well.

Go where he leads

One said he would follow Jesus “wherever you go” (v. 57). So Jesus told the man just where he would go: while even foxes and birds have places to reside, “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (v. 58). Since beginning his public ministry, he had lived in Peter’s home in Capernaum, and with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus while in Bethany (cf. John 11). Now the Samaritans had offered him no lodging. His reception in Jerusalem would be far worse. To follow Jesus is to accept a future filled with potential danger and distress.

It is true that the will of God never leads where the grace of God cannot sustain. But it is also true that there are times in the will of God when the grace of God is all that sustains us.

Have you placed restrictions on God’s will for your life? Are there places you will not go, people you will not serve, resources you will not give? Sins you will not confess? We are not truly his disciples unless we go where our Master goes—and his way led to the cross.

Go when he calls

Jesus called another man, “Follow me” (v. 59a). “Follow” means “be my disciple.” But the man desisted: “Lord, let me first go and bury my father” (v. 59b), incurring Jesus’ stern response: “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (v. 60).

At first glance this seems a callous and cruel request by our Savior. A man has just lost his father, the funeral is pending, and Jesus wants the grieving son to desert his family to follow him. But this was not the situation at all. This text is an example of the importance of historical exegesis, knowing the culture and customs behind the biblical narrative.

If the man’s father had actually died, the son would be at his home arranging the funeral already. Jews buried on the same day the person died whenever possible, as was done with Jesus’ corpse. If his father had died, the son would be exempt from social requirements for up to a year as he mourned his death.

But in Jesus’ day it was common for the son of elderly parents to use their advancing age and declining health as a means of avoiding life’s responsibilities. They would sometimes cite this concern as an excuse for not working, paying their bills, or serving in the military. The father was not yet dead; his son was looking for ways to avoid Jesus’ call.

And our Lord knew it. That’s why his response seemed so stern. The man’s avoidance of God’s call would cost him the chance to know and follow the Messiah of God. Tragically, it did.

Is there a call to service which you are ignoring today? A hurting person you know you should help? A witness you know you should give? A financial contribution you know you should make?

Do not mortgage today for tomorrow. “Today” is the only day which exists. God measures obedience in present action, not future intentions. What does he think of yours?

Don’t look back

A third man offered to follow Jesus if he could first go back and say good-by to his family (v. 61). Again, this seems a reasonable request met with a stern reply: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (v. 62). But the setting explains the sense of the text.

Imagine a man plowing a field who looks backward more than he looks ahead. Envision the wreckage such neglect would cause the field. Now envision an athlete who constantly leaves the game to talk with his family in the stands, or a soldier who abandons the field of battle regularly to visit his home.

It’s impossible to see where we’re going if we’re constantly looking at where we’ve been. Jesus wants full-time disciples, those who will be unwavering in their loyalty to his cause. Is there a distraction in your discipleship today? A temptation you will not reject forever? A personal agenda you wish to serve while serving your Lord?

You cannot plow in two directions at the same time. Every hour spent in the wrong field is an hour subtracted from the field assigned to you. It is an hour subtracted from the dream and passion of God for your life. It is an hour you can never regain.


This week we have learned how to follow Jesus fully: we are to be focused on his call, gracious to all he loves, and unconditional in our obedience. Now we are responsible for the truth we have learned.

That minimoon we discussed today is miniscule compared to our planet and our sun, but it’s bigger than we are. Here’s the amazing truth: if we give ourselves to the purpose of God, we will accomplish things of significance millennia after this planet is gone.

Winston Churchill noted: “It’s not enough to have lived. We should be determined to live for something.”

What is your “something” today?

The Harder it is to Worship Jesus, The More We Need to Worship Jesus

Topical Scripture: Mark 14:1–9

Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer statue is one of the most iconic images in the world. Dedicated in 1931, the statue together with its pedestal stands 125 feet tall and weighs 635 metric tons. It has been listed as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

The statue has survived two world wars and the worst of what the elements could muster. It saw nearly two million visitors last year. But the coronavirus pandemic forced authorities to close it to the public.

So Rio de Janeiro’s archbishop held a religious ceremony at the base of the statue in support of those affected by the pandemic, then the hashtag “Praying Together” was shone on it in multiple languages. And the statue is still visible across the region, a clear reminder that while its park may be closed, the one it honors is not.

Jesus promised us, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Right now, he is “at the right hand of God,” where he is praying for us (Romans 8:34).

The problem is, problems have a way of turning us from God when we need him most. My father was a Sunday school teacher before he fought in World War II, where he witnessed horrific atrocities. He did not attend church again, unable to reconcile his suffering with his faith.

Dad was not the first or the last. For many people, hard times in the world are hard times for their faith.

The truth is, however, the sicker we become, the more we need a doctor. The harder it is to pray, the more we need to pray. The harder it is to trust Jesus, the more we need to trust Jesus.

What makes it hard for you to worship Jesus today? What question, struggle, guilt, grief, or pain is living in your soul? What do you need to get past to come closer to your Lord?

In our spring series, as we watch Jesus change lives on the way to the cross, we meet today a woman who worshiped our Lord at great personal cost. From her we will learn three transformative life principles. Then we’ll decide whether to make her story our own.

Worship Jesus, whatever the cost (vv. 1–5)

Our text begins: “It was now two days before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread” (v. 1a). As Passover began on Thursday evening, the event recorded in our text took place on Tuesday evening of Holy Week. Jesus had spent the day teaching in the temple, where he defeated the Pharisees and Sadducees in their attempts to discredit him (Matthew 21:23–22:46). He then exposed the hypocrisy of the religious leaders (Matthew 23).

As a result, “the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him” (v. 1b). This was because of his popularity: “for they said, ‘Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar from the people'” (v. 2).

Our text continues: “And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table . . .” (v. 3). Bethany was situated on the southeast slope of the Mount of Olives, two miles from Jerusalem. It was the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus and became Jesus’ home when he came to the Holy City (cf. John 11:1). He stayed in this town from Sunday evening through Wednesday evening of Holy Week.

“Reclining at table” describes the typical posture by which a meal was eaten in Jesus’ day. The “table” was a low platform, eighteen inches from the ground. The people would lean on their left elbow while eating with their right hand with their bodies stretched on the ground away from the table.

While Jesus and the other guests were eating, “a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly” (v. 3). John identifies her as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus (John 12:3). Her devotion to Jesus was already well-known, as when she sat at Jesus’ feet while Martha cooked the meal (Luke 10:38–42).

On this occasion, she came to Jesus with “an alabaster jar,” a flask with a long neck and no handles. The top was sealed to preserve its contents. In this case, the contents were “pure nard,” a perfume made out of oil taken from roots found in India and imported to the Middle East.

The origin and cost of transportation made this perfume “very costly,” as Mark notes. Such an expensive possession may have been a family heirloom or part of Mary’s dowry. She likely had kept it for many years, only now choosing to use it.

The text tells us that she “broke the flask and poured it over his head” (v. 3). The fact that she “broke” the jar (syntripsasa, shattered, crushed, broke into pieces) rather than removing the top shows the depth of her commitment. She clearly did not intend to keep any of the perfume for herself, using it all to anoint Jesus. She shattered the jar, so that it could not be repaired to be used again.

When Mary made her great sacrifice, “There were some who said to themselves indignantly, ‘Why was the ointment wasted like that? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.’ And they scolded her” (vv. 4–5).

A typical worker received one denarius per day, so “three hundred denarii” was roughly a year’s worth of wages. Their statement lends credence to the theory that Mary’s perfume was a family heirloom.

Mary made her gift of worship at great personal cost, both in financial and in social terms. She received the ridicule of those present for offering a gift of extravagance that is hard for us to comprehend.

There are times when worshiping Jesus comes at a price today as well. I’ve met Christians in Cuba who paid for their faith by being assigned the worst jobs by the government. Their children are sent to the worst schools and given the worst military assignments. Some have been jailed or worse.

I’ve met Christians in China who must worship in secret lest the government censure and censor their messages and their faith. I’ve met Muslim converts to Jesus who risk their lives to follow their Lord.

What price will you pay to follow Jesus? Will you risk the rejection of others by sharing your faith with them? Will you give Jesus the sacrifice of your time, your talents, your resources?

C. S. Lewis was asked how much we should give for benevolent purposes. His answer: “More than we can spare.” When last did it cost you something significant to follow your Lord?

Worship Jesus, whether you understand him or not (vv. 6–8)

Now our text moves closer to our circumstances today.

Jesus’ response was swift: “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial” (vv. 6–8).

Jesus’ statement in no way minimizes his commitment to the poor. Scripture consistently calls us to care for the impoverished (cf. Deuteronomy 10:18; 15:7–8; Psalm 9:9; 72:12; Proverbs 22:22–23). Caring for the poor is an essential element of Christian ministry (cf. James 2:15–17; 1 John 3:17–18).

Rather, his point was that Mary made a sacrifice that was especially significant on this Tuesday evening: “She has anointed my body beforehand for burial” (v. 8). Anointing a body with spices and perfumes for burial was customary in Jesus’ day (cf. Luke 24:1). He had been predicting his death and resurrection, but his disciples still did not understand his warning. Mary’s action was a foreshadowing of the sacrifice our Lord would soon make for us all.

So, here she is on this Tuesday evening. Jesus has been disputing with the religious authorities all day. He has been telling his disciples that he would soon be betrayed and executed. Mary could not pick a less logical time to identify publicly with him or make an extravagant offering to him. But she gave him her sacrificial gift out of love, not logic.

There is so much about the pandemic that we do not understand. I cannot explain why our sovereign Lord has allowed this crisis. I don’t know why he heals some and not others. But I do know this: he knows what I do not. As his word states, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8–9).

Even Jesus cried from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). When his disciples met the risen Lord “they worshiped him, but some doubted” (Matthew 28:17).

If we must understand God fully to worship him, we’ll never worship him. Much about the Christian faith cannot be understood before it is experienced. It’s like marriage or parenting—you can study it, but you cannot understand it until you experience it.

Therefore, the harder it is to worship Jesus, the more we need to worship Jesus.

Worship Jesus, knowing your present obedience will bear eternal significance (v. 9)

Our text concludes with Jesus’ statement: “Truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Mark 14:9). Mary’s action pointed to the “gospel,” the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. As that message was told, her sacrifice would be included. Jesus’ prediction came true in the Gospels of Mark and John, as they preserved Mary’s story for all time.

Note that from the beginning, Jesus intended his gospel to be preached “in the whole world.” Christianity has always been a global movement (Matthew 28:19), inclusive of both Jews and Greeks (Galatians 3:26–29).

If you will honor Jesus publicly with your sacrificial service, he will use your obedience to advance his kingdom in ways you cannot imagine. This is because you cannot measure the eternal significance of present faithfulness.


In these hard days, our Lord is calling us to follow Mary’s example by worship, serving, and trusting Jesus whatever the cost, whether we understand him or not, knowing that our present obedience will bear eternal significance.

Several years ago, I had an experience that brings our text home for me.

Louie Giglio is known internationally for his ministry to young adults. In 2003, he was holding a rally in the Dallas area that mobilized more than twenty-five thousand college students for the gospel.

The day before, horrific thunderstorms attacked the farm where the event was staged. The students’ tents were blown away; many had to sleep in their cars or on gym floors; electricity failed; the field was a mud pit.

Louie began the rally the next day by recounting in detail all the students had endured. I thought he was going to thank them for their perseverance and suffering. Instead, he pointed his finger at the huge crowd and said, “And our God is worth all of that.”

When last did it cost you something significant to serve Jesus? What price will you pay to glorify your Lord this week?