Thursday, September 22, 2016

Evaluating a Ministry, Part 2

Last week, I began a series on the idea of evaluating a ministry. (You can view the introductory post here.) This series is based upon a question that a student asked me, and although several ideas may come to ones mind, I chose to use Mark 8 as a basis for my answer. As such, for context, I will use mostly references from Mark’s account of the gospel when relating to previous aspects of Jesus’ ministry. Using this approach provides us with the option of removing our own ministry from the immediate review (removing some of the emotion) and provides one of the most critical aspects of the evaluation process – perspective.

The perspective of everyone involved greatly impacts the evaluation. This is true in any case, but is difficult to overcome when clear expectations are not defined. But even the expectations are subject to various perspectives – unless clarified, often in writing – and thus can add to the confusion. Such is the case for us, and such was the case for Jesus. As we turn to Mark 8, we must remember our guiding question: Was Jesus ministry a failure?

The Religious Leaders

If we were to ask the religious leaders of Jesus day, the answer would be hard to obtain. In one case, the religious leaders would probably prefer not to answer the question because they might have to admit that Jesus was having a tremendous impact on the people. On the other hand, the leaders were not yet convinced, and only needed time to discredit Jesus. This brings us to their perspective for evaluation.

Perspective: Jesus will fail because we will see to it that He does.
Evaluation: Incomplete, so far. But we will expose Him as a fraud.

(Remember, I am portraying this from their perspective, as I see it, not my own.)

Sure Jesus has done many fantastic miracles, but He has not done them according to the recognized tradition of the day. He healed a man on the Sabbath (Mk 3.1-6) in the same place He had earlier cast out a demon (also on the Sabbath, Mk 1.21-28). But His disciples did not fast as was the custom (Mk 2.18-22), picked grain to eat on the Sabbath (Mk 2.23-28), and did not wash their hands correctly (Mk 7.1-5). Such action could only be caused by a leader who didn’t care about the traditions, which, of course, Jesus largely showed He didn’t. Thus, it was the intent of the scribes and Pharisees to show Jesus as a fraud and make His ministry a failure. I am sure they took some pleasure from Jesus being rejected in Nazareth (Mk 6.1-6), probably seeking to get some of those townspeople to spread some negativity about Jesus (This action is not recorded in the Bible, but the thought is likely to have gone through someone’s mind). 

Turning to Mark 8, Jesus now does the unthinkable – He feeds the Gentiles. While the Jewish leaders may have had difficulty finding fault with Jesus feeding the 5000 men, they would have been challenged by His approach (which many Jews would have seen as a direct parallel to Moses, see Mk 6.34-44). But in Mark 8, the miracle is repeated for those who are Gentile. The numbers were lower (4000 people) and this may have been attributed to the earlier story of eating the crumbs (see Mk 7.24-30). But to associate with the Gentiles was deplorable in the eyes of the Jewish leaders – to help them through a miracle was unthinkable!

Testing Jesus

So, they set out to test Jesus (note the word test in Mk 8.11). This is key in their evaluation. They are not willing to evaluate Jesus based upon what He has already done. They are not willing to evaluate Jesus’ ministry based upon what has been proven. They want Him to prove His worth in the moment.

Let me pause here to say that anyone’s ministry can be seen as a success or failure in a single act, but over time the real truth will be revealed.

To test Jesus, the Pharisees ask for a sign. When I first read this – even studied it – my response was something like, “Hello! Have they not seen all that Jesus has done?” I still think that response may have some validity, but only from a different perspective. The perspective under review here is that of the Pharisees. So what is their purpose in seeking to test Jesus?

Again, it goes to the very idea that the previous miracle was done for the Gentiles. Their intent is to find out from Jesus if God has given Him the authority to do this. In seeking a sign from heaven, the Pharisees are actually asking for an endorsement from God (heaven often being used in place of God by Jews). So, the approach is that if Jesus can do something that shows that God has decreed this, then they will let Him off the hook. Of course, they had no plans to do so, but the sentiment sounds nice.

The Sign That Was

To understand Jesus’ response, we must refer to Matthew’s account of the story. In Matthew 16.4, Jesus says that no sign will be given except the sign of Jonah. Now, this statement is often interpreted to mean that Jesus would come back after being gone just like Jonah, and that would be their sign. But I believe a much deeper meaning exists. I believe that Jesus is using Jonah’s missionary journey to Nineveh (i.e. non-Jews) as proof that God’s mercy extends beyond the Jew. (We certainly see this in the book of Acts, but that was later.)

Frankly, I wonder how the first-century Jews reacted to the story of Jonah. The story was obviously included in the Tanakh (Hebrew texts which make up the Old Testament). but did they appreciate the story of Jonah or scoff at it?
Regardless, Jonah’s story was their sign. Yet, they refused to see it (from the past) and therefore might miss it (in the future – the resurrection).

The Point

What’s the point? Well, the religious leaders of the day had an agenda. The agenda created a perspective that Jesus ministry MUST fail, and thus they were determined to see Him fail. They were ready to base Jesus entire ministry on one test, and yet their hardness did not even allow them to see how His answer fulfilled the very sign they desired.

Our ministries are often filled with the same types of individuals. Many people perceive they are more qualified, more knowledgeable, etc., and thus try to evaluate from a perspective that someone’s ministry must fail. Like the Pharisees, the actions taken are often done methodically (their process was Observation, then Interrogation) and intentionally (asking for a sign). But like the Pharisees, the opposition often comes from someone who feels threatened to lose their position, power, prestige, and potentially, pay!

The Conclusion

Nothing Jesus said or did during His ministry would change the mind of the religious leaders of that day. And, often nothing we say or do will change the minds of those in our day. So, are we simply at their mercy? No, but this explanation must wait for a later post. What I must say here is that we can infer that some of these same individuals who celebrated Jesus failure when He died at Golgotha were present on the day of Pentecost. The Bible says that 3000 souls were added that day. Several thousand more were added a short time later, and then the power of the Gospel multiplied the number being saved. If that was true then, it can be true now.

Therefore, if people bring a perspective designed to make your (or any) ministry a failure, know that God can change their hearts. You may not be there to see the fruit of that change, but the ministry may still thrive, even if it is after you are gone.

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