Lauren served in youth ministry and was a worship leader. But after making a series of poor financial decisions and moral decisions, she reached out to her church for help, and she was turned down. And they explained the rejection with these words … that she was “nothing but a whore.” And so, she walked away from the church. She eventually began making porn films and wrote a column, comparing what she called the “family of church” versus a “family of porn,” explaining in the column that her “family of porn” was more like a family than the church had been.
Martin felt Christians were too traditional on social issues and rejected the idea of eternal judgment. So, he resigned as a pastor and then, not long after, stopped calling himself a Christian.
Anne questioned the trustworthiness of the Bible and went to her church leaders for answers to her questions. But she felt like they weren’t even willing to engage with her on her questions regarding canonicity, which books of the Bible should be in the Bible, and what she saw as contradictions in the Bible. So, she walked away.
Dale renounced his faith after reading a Richard Dawkins book, felt like he had no way of refuting the arguments Dawkins made.
Frank concluded that the God of the Bible is immoral for creating people who could be condemned.
Now, each of these precious souls and many more are real people whose stories are recorded in John Marriott’s new book, The Anatomy of Deconversion. And the stories personify the stats: in 2007, Lifeway Research concluded 70% of students will lose their faith in college; 35% will return. In 2009, Pew Research announced that young Americans are leaving religion 5-6 times the historic rate. So something unique is happening right now. In 2011, Barna Group confirmed that 59% of young people with a Christian background dropped out of attending church after going regularly. 38% said they had gone through a period when they significantly doubted their faith.
So, why are so many followers of Jesus unfollowing him? Well, we could talk about a lot of reasons: one, the allergic reaction our culture has developed to institutions as a whole, everything from government to church to family, marriage, etc., and how that affects faith. We could talk about the failures of churches to speak candidly about doubt and the hard questions that travel with it. We could lament the shift that occurred somewhere around World War II, where the church’s credibility regarding moral issues began to wane, primarily because of her slowness to call evil “evil,” specifically related to antisemitism and racism. We could talk about the wave of high-profile deconversions — people like Joshua Harris — leadership failures like Ravi Zacharias, the apostasy, the hypocrisy, and even as Lauren’s example, the unkindness of church leaders can have a huge influence.
We could point to the lack of evangelical representation in university religion departments. Did you know, that for every one theologically conservative religion professor, there are seventy liberal university professors in colleges and universities across our country? Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein, who is himself a liberal, expressed his concern about what he calls “information cocoon” that has been created on college campuses, not merely theologically, but also even more politically. He points out that in progressive universities around our country, for every one conservative political professor, you have 120 progressive. So, it’s not a shock where the next generation is heading when they’re clearly being discipled in a particular direction.
Or we could talk about the emergence of websites and podcasts that target young people, like Rhett and Link, that train them how to deconstruct their faith. And these websites are teeming with what are called anti-testimonies.
But beneath all these important issues — and they are important and I can mention many more — there is something that I think is even more sobering, and we saw it back in February in Mark 4. Jesus revealed the code of the kingdom, what he called the code of understanding his kingdom. In other words, if you miss this, you’re going to miss all the other parables. And he told a story about hearers, four kinds of hearers. In other words, this is, kind of, an ancient theological mindfulness. Pay attention to how you pay attention.
Four kinds of hearers. Let’s review. We talked about the defensive hearer, represented by the hard soil, where they hear the Word, and Satan immediately takes it away.
We talked about the discouraged hearer, represented by the shallow soil. This hearer receives the word with joy, endures for a while. So, picture someone in Sunday school class, someone in a big youth outreach, hearing the Word, receiving the Word, enduring for a while with joy, but then, encountering the pressures and persecutions of life … that winsome professor at college with all the credentials, who presents arguments they have no defense for. Or life doesn’t go the way you anticipate, the wheels come off, and all of a sudden, the faith that you thought you had evaporates … shallow soil.
Number three is the distracted hearer, represented by the thorny soil, those who hear the Word, but the cares of the world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires of other things choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful.
The fourth kind of hearer Jesus told us about we called the dynamic hearer because this hearer is dynamic in the sense of ongoing, continual, represented by the good soil, one who hears the Word, receives it, ends up bearing various amounts of fruit, some 30-, some 60-, some 100-fold.
And we talked about how each of these kinds of soil, Jesus says, are characterized by hearing the Word. And all of us who hear the Word will at times be defensive or discouraged or distracted, right? We’ll experience moments like that. But what is distinctive about these, verse 3, there’s a different verb tense used for the first three. It’s aorist, which means their hearing is temporary. It’s an event. It might be an emotional event. It might even be a period of time in their lives, but their life as a whole is not characterized by continuing to listen. Jesus’s followers, by definition, listen. They hear his words, even in the midst of doubt, even in the midst of struggle and questions. So, Christians will experience doubt and distraction and discouragement, but they will continue to hear and receive and bear fruit.
But here’s the sobering part: if those percentages are normative, then what Jesus is saying in one of his main parables is that 75% of those who hear are going to ultimately reject what he says. So, whatever’s happening today in our culture, from Jesus’s teaching, is not actually unusual. But as the Gospel of Mark unfolds, the percentages get even worse.
Two weeks ago, we saw in the middle of the Passover meal, Jesus announces this: verses 14-18, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” This is one of his Twelve, the elite team of disciples. “One of you will betray me.” Then on the Mount of Olives after singing a hymn … They’re coming out of a worship time … verse 27, “Jesus said to them, ‘You will all fall away.’” Now just take that in for a moment. Imagine Jesus coming up today and looking at all of you, “Hey, you’re all going to fall away.”
“We just came out of a time of worship. Why are you doing this, Jesus?” And so, Peter, of course, is like, “No,” verse 29, “even though they all fall away, I will not. They may. Not me!” And Jesus said, “Well, actually, Peter, you’re not going to make it through the night.” Verse 30, “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And they all started insisting. It’s probably a chant, you know? “We’ll die before we’ll deny,” verse 31. They are ready. They’re not going to. They’re committed. They’re not imagining themselves folding.
But then we come to the passage we’re looking at today, and it tells a very different story than their optimism hoped for. Jesus was taken from the garden of Gethsemane into six trials. And this is taking all that the Gospels, four gospels, say about Jesus’s trial and squishing them together. You come down to three religious trials, three political.
The three religious: first one, illegal one, in the middle of the night, in the home of Annas, who is the former high priest, and then to Caiaphas, who is the current high priest, son-in-law of Annas, and then off to the Sanhedrin to try to make this legal before the whole council. And then three political trials: first before Pilate, and then he sends Jesus to Herod, and then Herod sends him back to Pilate, who condemns him to die on the cross.
Mark compresses these. And his purpose is not to ignore important facts, but to emphasize a message. Mark doesn’t want us, Jesus’s followers, to simply know a lot of details so we can win Bible trivia. He wants us to get a message that we might miss. And he communicates, as he often does in the book of Mark, through a sandwich, a Markan sandwich. And it’s a literary device to help us interpret the parts interdependently. Let me show you what I mean. We’ve seen many of these throughout the book of Mark.
First, verses 53-54, where we’ve come from last week to this week, is Peter’s distance. Jesus was led to the high priest to stand trial, and Peter is keeping his distance. And then, rather than explaining Peter, Mark switches to the center of the sandwich — we’ll come back to that — and then you see the final part, Peter’s denial, 66-72. So, why split up those two with the center, Jesus’s faithful witness, which is in verses 55-65? Why not just talk about Peter and then talk about Jesus? Because Mark wants us to slow down and see that Jesus’s faithful witness is surrounded by Peter’s unfaithfulness, his denial. That Jesus is surrounded by, sandwiched by, doubters and deniers.
This is huge for those of us who have battled with doubt, just to stop and think about the fact that Jesus chose people to be his followers who would blow it big time. You know, these aren’t the spiritual Navy SEALs, who are going to, you know, watch your back in the heat of battle. They all disappear. And Peter was not a nominal follower. This isn’t just a random guy off the street. Peter was the most verbal and vocal of Jesus’s Twelve. And so, Mark, with Peter’s influence — remember, Peter helped Mark write the Gospel of Mark — he wants us to see that, what you could call the best of Jesus’s followers at times will totally blow it, deny. And yet Jesus is secure in the midst of their shakiness. That’s big.
So, let’s focus in on Jesus’s faithful witness, the center of the sandwich, first, and then we’ll come back and talk about Peter’s doubts. Why the word “witness”? Quick, little — there are six of you I think that will enjoy this part — quick, little Greek study. I think it’s just fascinating to see what this paragraph is all about: faithful witness. The word “witness,” the Greek word for “witness” we get our word “martyr” from because the word at this time meant “witness” or “testimony.” It eventually meant “giving your witness through your life,” like a sacrifice. But notice here, verse 55, “they were seeking testimony against Jesus.” That’s the word “martyria.” Verse 56, “Many bore false witness against him” — “pseudomartyrein.” See the word “martyr” in the middle? Verse 56, “Their testimony did not agree” — “martyria” again. Verse 57, “… bore false witness” — “pseudomartyrein.” Verse 59, “Their testimony did not agree” — “martyria.” Verse 60, “These men testify against you” — “katamartyrein.” “Martyr” still right there in the middle. And then verse 63, “what further witnesses do we need?” — same root, different form, “martys.”
So, we’re talking about a courtroom scene where a witness is seeking to defend himself, yet the outcome is predetermined. Verse 55, “The chief priests and the whole council were seeking testimony against Jesus” not to see if he was guilty, but “to put him to death, but they found none.”
So, what do you do when you determine that a defendant is guilty of death, but you don’t have sufficient evidence? You do what they do, three things: first of all, fabrication. You make stuff up. Verses 56-59, “They bore false witness [pseudomartyrein] against him.” They start trying to remember stories, things he said, like, “I’m going to tear the temple down,” and then they alleged that he was trying to destroy their society.
And then secondly, intimidation. Verses 60-62, the high priests challenged Jesus to explain his crime and his defense. Now it’s the job of the prosecutor to define the charge, not the defendant. Verse 60, “What is it that these men testify against you?” implying “Jesus, you have to be guilty because some people think you are.” And Jesus refuses to respond to their loaded question. Verse 61, “He remained silent.” The priest is trying to bully Jesus into incriminating himself, “But he opened, not his mouth,” Isaiah 53:7.
Finally, the high priest asked him a specific question. Verse 61, “Are you the Christ, the son of the Blessed?” The word “Blessed” is an indirect way of saying “God.” So, think about this: they’re framing an innocent person in order to kill him. But they’re worried about saying the name of God in an unholy way. So, basically, they’re asking him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of God?” And in verse 62, Jesus said, “I am. And you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds in heaven.”
So, Jesus declares his identity clearly. He is the anointed one of Daniel 7:13, the son of man. He is the Son of God of Psalm 110:1. And regardless of the verdict of this kangaroo court, Christ will be vindicated as he says in verse 62, “at the right hand of Power.” What a statement! You all feel like you have power? You have no power that is not given to you. So, Jesus looks way beyond this lower court to the Supreme Court of Heaven and provides a faithful witness in the midst of the intimidation.
The fabrication, intimidation, and then thirdly, it results in humiliation. Verses 63-65, his faithful witness provokes an avalanche of humiliation. The priest tore his garment, verse 63. The Sanhedrin condemned him as worthy of death, verse 64. Some, in 65, start spitting on him. They start hitting him, blindfolding and calling him to prophesy as to who hit him. And the guards beat him. You know your case is weak when you revert to spitting and mocking.
And yet in the midst of this blizzard of lies, Jesus simply speaks truth. He is a faithful witness, and his faithful witness is set within Peter’s unfaithful witness. As we saw in verses 53-54, Peter followed at a distance. But in verse 66, a servant girl notices Peter warming by the fire, and she accuses him of being with Jesus, and thus begins Peter’s three denials.
First of all, verse 68, “I neither know nor understand what you mean.” So, he plays stupid. And then, “This man is one of them,” verse 70. But again, he denied it. “Certainly, you are one of them.” Verse 71, “But he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, ‘I do not know this man of whom you speak.’”
And this raises a question I think we need to spend some time on: why did Peter deny Jesus? I’ve thought about this for many, many, many years, wrestling with doubt. Why did Peter deny Jesus? We have to be careful, because the Bible doesn’t specifically tell us his motivation. But some people suggest that it was because of pride. Remember, he just boasted, “I’ll never deny!”
Others say it’s because of fear, because there’s a huge contrast here between the faithful witness of Christ, standing before the religious and political, powerful people of the day, and Peter, folding in the presence of a servant girl. That’s pretty lame. So, was it fear? But the reason I don’t think it could be fear is it was most likely Peter who just pulled out a sword in the garden. When this whole cohort of Roman soldiers came to arrest Jesus, Peter was ready. And he didn’t just pull it out to threaten. He went after the closest person he could reach. If we’re going to go down, let’s go down valiantly. And he knew he would die. So, I don’t think there was a speck of fear in Peter. He was ready to die.
But what happened when he pulled out that sword? According to Matthew, who rebuked him? Jesus. “You take up a sword, you’re going to perish by the sword. Put the sword down.” No way, Jesus — “I’m dying for you! I said I would die for you, and I’m doing what I said I would do! And all I get is a rebuke?” Have you ever been in that place? This is a unique kind of doubt. Dabblers don’t experience the level of doubt that Peter experienced. Because if you dabble with Christianity, you can always think, “Well, if I was really committed, it would have worked out better. I’m just not committed enough.” But when you, like Peter, leave your family to follow Jesus and stake everything on, “I am going to follow you to the death,” and all you get is a rebuke. . . .
So, whatever that is, it’s something like an unfulfilled expectation, a deep level of confusion. “God, I’m here. I’ve given you everything. And look what’s happening. Jesus is supposed to be the Messiah, and he’s being led away like a common criminal. I’m ready to die. It doesn’t seem like you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing.” You ever feel that way? There’s a deep level of confusion, unfulfilled expectations when we have certain assumptions. “I assumed I would come to a church, and people would treat me Christianly. I saved myself for marriage, and then I found out my husband’s a porn addict. I went overseas to serve you. I gave up everything. And the wheels came off.” There’s a deep level of doubt, confusion that comes when our expectations as to what it means to follow Jesus are not met.
And the reason this is so important is there is this assumption in our culture that people become Christians for emotional reasons, like they need a crutch, or they don’t want to be lonely in this world, they want to have a purpose. It’s essentially emotional reasons. But people become atheists and agnostics for logical reasons. And nothing could be further from the truth. We become Christians, and we become atheists and agnostics for many reasons. And we’re a whole person. And a lot of times it’s hard to pull it apart, right? Part volition/will, part intellect, part emotion. One of the most fundamentalist of atheists, British atheist John Gray, has said this,
“If you want to understand atheism and religion, you must forget the popular notion that they are opposites.”
You’ve got to chew on that for a bit. But what he’s hinting at is that much of atheism is resting on frustrated theism, people who would claim to be believers, who are mad at the God who they don’t believe in. There’s a deep emotion, hurt, frustration, confusion that comes, that feeds our doubts when God doesn’t come through as we had hoped he would come through.
And so to me, it’s very interesting that right in the middle of what’s leading to the ultimate Christian expression of love, the cross, right in the middle of this scene, Mark goes out of his way to communicate that Jesus’s faithfulness is wrapped up in, sandwiched by Peter’s distance and doubt and denial.
Atheism is what spills out when my way smashes into God’s way. And we say things like what Peter said, “I do not know this man of whom you speak.” When my assumptions as to the way my life is going to go and how other people are going to respond to me come in conflict with reality. And Peter’s way smashed into God’s way, and out spilled denial. And that’s why I don’t think that fear or pride is — I mean, obviously, there’s pride in that — but that’s not the full story. There’s something else beneath that.
But fortunately, that’s not the end of the story. Peter will be restored. And right after the Passover meal, as recorded in Luke — so now we’re rewinding. Before his denial, Jesus said this to Peter, Luke 22:31,
“Simon, Simon. [It’s another name for Peter.] Behold, Satan demanded to have you that he might sift you like wheat.”
So, just stop there for a second and think about that: our spiritual battles are not merely emotional or intellectual.
Verse 32, “But I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail.”
Now we’ve got to stop there for a minute. Jesus is telling Peter that, just remember, at your lowest point of doubt and denial, I’m your prayer partner. I’m praying for you. You are ashamed of me, but I am not ashamed of you. You are distancing yourself from me. I am right there with you. I am interceding on your behalf, even in the midst of my suffering. I am praying, what? That your faith, which will become super thin, unrecognizably fragile to the point of denial, will not fail. And when you have turned again. I’ve got a calling for you: to strengthen your brothers. And in my most intense battles with doubt, this promise means the world to me.
Do you know you have a prayer partner? I know that sounds super spiritual. People say, “Who’s your prayer partner?” “Well, Jesus. Who’s your prayer partner? Some lame Sunday school teacher? I’ve got Jesus.” But this isn’t just something Peter can say. Look at Hebrews 4:15,
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses.”
What are our weaknesses? Our tendency toward doubt and disappointment and confusion. And we don’t get it. We can’t see the big picture. We don’t know what God is up to.
“… our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
So, he felt the full weight of temptation toward doubt and despair, yet he didn’t give in. But he knows what it’s like. Hebrews 7:25,
“Consequently, he is able to save [not just a little bit but] to the uttermost [from start to finish, completely] those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.”
If my faith is dependent on my faithfulness, I am in deep trouble. But what if my faith is dependent on his faithfulness? He always lives to make intercession. What is on Jesus’s day timer today? He’s going to make intercession for his people. He’s praying on your behalf when you can’t even speak words. Continually.
Here’s the hard part of that — we can’t see that. Every once in a while, we get a little glimpse of that. Let me tell you one story. It sounds random, but I think it’s a picture of this kind of thing. A week and a half ago or so, I was speaking at Furman FCA — Fellowship of Christian Athletes. And during the day, I just felt impressed to switch what I was going to preach on, teach on. And I don’t know why, but it was Mark 7 that I felt led to speak on, which is the story of the Syrophoenician woman, the woman Jesus called a “dog.” Now that’s not real smart to go to Furman and preach about Jesus calling a woman a dog. But I couldn’t get away from it.
So, I went over there, taught that. And we talked about this many months ago when we were in March 7, the Tik Tok minister, Reverend Robertson, who said Jesus needed to be confronted about his racism, he was prejudiced, he needed to repent of his sin because he was a racist. And this woman spoke truth to power to Jesus and called him to repent for his sin. So, I walked through that quote, and then I said, “Is this what this is teaching?” And then told what it’s really teaching.
Well, afterward, this one young athlete came up, and she was just about in tears, and she said, “I just went to a church that taught that passage, quoted that Reverend Robertson, and affirmed that position, that Jesus is a sinner, a racist, needed to be confronted about his racism and repent of his sin, and it just rocked my faith. I didn’t know what to believe. And so, I asked Jesus, ‘Will you show me what this really means?’”
And a week and a half later — this is the cool part — Jesus hears her prayer, speaks to my heart (I’ve never met her before), motivates me to speak on that passage to deal with the same quotation, the same position, to present it, refute it, and explain what the passage really means. Now that’s a very immediate, visible interceding on behalf of a precious one of Jesus’s who is wrestling with doubt and confusion. And I believe those kinds of prayers are being presented and answered through Jesus every day in ways we don’t even know and we’ll never know until we stand before him. And we’ll see all these times that we were being attacked in ways that we couldn’t even describe, and Jesus was protecting, interceding, shielding, answering, helping in ways we can’t even imagine.
So, this sandwich that Mark presents is not just a historical event. It’s giving us a picture. Remember, the people receiving the Book of Mark were most likely the Roman Christians who are undergoing intense opposition wondering, “Where is Jesus?” Well, Jesus is, his faithful witness is right in the middle of my uncertainty, my confusion, my doubt, my failure.
Do you remember, Lauren? I started with her story, the woman the church called a whore, the one who wrote about her porn family being better than her church family. Well, she, as I said, renounced her faith, eventually went to grad school, became a scholar and, in her words, a “secular activist within the national atheist movement.” She published papers, worked in multi-multimillion dollar campaigns to end what she called secular discrimination. She actively opposed Christianity for many years. But she continued to have a few Christian friends. Listen to the way she describes them:
“They prayed for God to work in my life, which he did through them. They allowed me into their home and around their children. They offered to pray for me, which I always accepted, without trying to reconvert me. They loved and accepted me while remaining true to their convictions. In short, they showed me a different kind of Christian.”
She had grown up in a very harsh, legalistic environment. At one point, Lauren, in her words, hit rock bottom, and she did the unthinkable.
“I prayed. I considered the impact regaining faith would have on my career and my relationships, and I prayed anyway. I prayed because I needed a miracle. I prayed because I realized my anger was not with God. I prayed because I learned that I could follow Jesus differently than I had been taught. I prayed, and God answered. My reconversion was the result of a traumatic event, but regaining faith does not need to be wrought with trauma or despair. It does, however, require love. In his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul wrote, ‘And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.’ If there is someone in your life who has lost their faith, I encourage you to have hope and just love them. It was trauma that brought me to my knees, but it was love that brought me back to God.”
If there is one verse that summarizes all that we’ve been saying this morning, it is Hebrews 10:23. Let’s close with this:
“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering for he who promised is faithful.”
Let’s pray. Jesus, you are so faithful. We are so wavering. You understand our battle with doubt. You have endured the full weight of our disbelief. You know what it’s like to be drowning in the unfaithfulness of everyone around you. Yet you are faithful. You bore on the cross the curse of Peter’s denial. When he cursed that he didn’t know you, you paid for that. And you have paid for our denials. And you always live to intercede on our behalf. So, Father, thank you. We pray that our eyes would be open to some aspect of your love that we have not previously seen or aren’t currently savoring. We ask that as we get a glimpse of your steadfast love, it would well up within us, a gratefulness and a confidence that can only come from you. And we beg you for this in Jesus’s name. Amen.