“Later Jesus appeared to the eleven as they were eating; He rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen Him after He had risen.” Mark 16:14
Several years ago I became engaged in a study of the Gospel of Mark, one of the things that was impressed upon my mind and heart was that this Gospel defined just what it meant to be real disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. Mark does this by constantly painting a picture of how the disciples refused to really commit to Him on account of their hardness of heart, fear, or unbelief. As Mark keeps pulling the curtain back to expose the real disciples with all of their failures he shows us the reality of their, and our, entrenched unbelief. This unbelief causes them, and us, for we are really no different from the disciples, to consistently shrink back from following Jesus because of stubborn unbelief. The whole Gospel makes this point clearly, and the final twelve verses in chapter sixteen reinforce it by constantly coming back to the theme. No matter how many times the disciples hear the testimony of the resurrection they refuse to believe. Mark presents the account of the resurrection as a test which the disciples initially fail. How would you have done if you had been in their place? They had the witness of Jesus, telling them all that was to come. Would they believe Him? They also had the testimony of the Scriptures which Jesus has repeatedly told them that He is fulfilling. Would they believe this testimony? Then there is the word of Mary Magdalene, and of two unnamed disciples who met Him on a journey. Still they did not believe. What stubborn unbelief we discover here.
How do we fare when we encounter all the testimony of our Lord’s resurrection? We think that we would believe, but the question we must honestly ask ourselves is this, do we? So often the entrenched unbelief we see in this text is revealed in our lives, because the causes of their failure exist in our lives as well. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote a little study of the book of Habakkuk which he entitled From Fear to Faith in which he outlined our problem. We live our lives in fear. We fear death, failure, poverty, ridicule, loss of power, and could we say it insignificance. All of this reveals that the focus of our lives is firmly upon ourselves. Even as those who claim the name of Christian we find ourselves living self-centredly. The consequence is that we never really begin to follow Jesus.
Mark points to at least four things that show this self-centredness in our lives.
1) Fear is the first one. We fear the consequences of really following Jesus. If we really committed ourselves to living by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ what would it cost us? We are not really certain that we can bear that cost so we shrink back from becoming a disciple. There is more here however because we not only fear the cost we also fear the narrow road that Jesus will lead us on. If we really follow Jesus where will He take us? Mark makes it clear that the disciples are to follow the crucified one wherever He goes.
2) Hardness of heart is second. The disciples refuse to follow because they don’t really want to. They are more comfortable holding on to their sin. They have grown accustomed to it. So have we. Sin and all of the broken behaviours it has brought into our lives has become a comfortable old friend. When Jesus convicts us of it we react almost as if He has attacked a beloved member of our family. To follow Jesus requires of these disciples, and of us, that we die to our sin. We must put it to death within us.
3) The third is unbelief. The disciples have not come to trust, and listen to, the testimony of the Lord Jesus Christ through His word. They have not come to the point where they see in the Word of God a personal, life transforming word that changes everything about them. How often do you or I read the Word of God in a way that allows us to hold it at a distance? We read it but we don’t let it speak to us.
4) The fourth one points to the missionary calling that is at the heart of what it means for us to be disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. At its heart this calling is for us to follow Christ crucified into all those places He is going. The choice of the place is no longer our own, it is His. Mark along which Paul uses a term that focuses our attention upon the fact that Jesus goes out into our world as the crucified one. That is the one who bears the curse of God, but who has triumphed over that curse and the death that attends it. He is the Lamb who was slain but who is alive. He meets sinners in their misery, and redeems them because He has born their curse. He meets us in all our brokenness and redeems us because He has born our curse. Then He begins to walk away from us, looking over His shoulder He calls out for us to follow Him, and He goes right up to the weary, the broken, the vile, and the needy, and He gives them grace, all the while inviting us to come along with Him into these places of need. Mark makes it clear that the disciple were not sure they wanted to go there with Him. That is where real life is found however.
What changed for these disciples was what Luke tells us about the giving of the Spirit of God on the day of Pentecost. Immediately the disciples began to follow courageously. They became people of faith at that moment, so too will we be transformed by this gracious promise of God.