At His baptism, Jesus’ call to ministry came with the heavens parting, the Spirit descending on Him like a dove, and God’s voice from heaven declaring His favor.
And immediately after that glorious moment…the Sprit sends Jesus into the wilderness. Life is like that—even for the Son of God. There’s an initial romance in the call to ministry followed by a time of severe testing.
While in the wilderness for 40 days, Jesus was tempted by Satan. The Gospel of Luke records three specific temptations (Luke 4:1-13), but there were most likely many more. This would have been a severe time of testing and suffering for Jesus—but it would prepare Him for the rest of His ministry.
Although Jesus emerged from this time of testing and temptation unstained by sin, He was changed by the human experience. Jesus was made perfect though suffering (Hebrews 2:10) and is our compassionate High Priest (Hebrews 4:14).
At His most vulnerable and physically weakest, Jesus felt what we feel. He could sympathize with our times of testing. He could understand the temptations we face. His time of testing produced an empathy and compassion for the people He was to serve in His earthly ministry.
And God also leads us through seasons where our faith is tested. These trials refine and purify us so that God’s heart and character is ever more gloriously reflected in our lives.
As You with Satan did contend
And did the vict'ry win,
O give us strength in You to fight,
In You to conquer sin.
There is often an initial romance after God calls you and sends you. But after the romance of that initial calling, there is the reality of a time of testing. This testing may be so severe that it tempts you to question your calling and His love for you.
And yet, God is just as much in control in that time of testing as He was when He first called you. You don’t have to thrive during this time of testing—you just have to survive.
Even for God’s own Son, His initial calling into earthly ministry was immediately followed by the reality of ministry (see Mark 1:11-12). All of it was preparing Jesus for a more fruitful, impactful and compassionate ministry.
We considered this time of testing in Jesus’ ministry and how we can learn from it to prepare ourselves for times of testing in our own walk with the Lord during our study in the Gospel of Mark this past Sunday.
John the Baptist had a very unique call on his life. In order to fulfill that call, he needed to live the very unique life of a Nazirite. From the time he was born, he was to abstain from the fruit of the vine, to never cut his hair, and to never come near a dead body. Sound extreme? It was. The vow of the Nazirite was to express one's special desire to draw close to God and to separate one's self from the comforts and pleasures of this world.
This was done in obedience to God. John’s life was in preparation to be the preparation for Jesus. And if he was going to be effective in that preparation—in preparing the way and preaching repentance—he would need to be pure. So more than any man had ever done before, John pursued purity and God in the desert, living on wild honey and locusts.
Then one day, God told him it was time—the Messiah was here! John’s message was clear—are you ready? Is your heart ready? The King is coming!
That message if for you today as well: Is your heart ready for the King who will come again? Are you holding on to sin? Repent and let it go. Prepare your heart to receive what Jesus has to give!
On Jordan's bank the Baptist's cry
announces that the Lord is nigh.
Awake and harken, for he brings
glad tidings of the King of kings!
Then cleansed be every life from sin:
make straight the way for God within,
and let us all our hearts prepare
for Christ to come and enter there.
Centuries of significant prophecies are fulfilled in the first eleven verses of the Gospel of Mark. Two of the most influential men cross paths. Two influential ministries come to a crossroads. One man's ministry was ending. The other man's earthly ministry was just beginning. And to truly appreciate all that was happening in these few verses, we went back to the beginning—the the time when these two men were just babies in the womb.
Mark and Peter had failed, yet God called them and used their failure to form their future. He didn’t cause their failure or co-sign their failure, but He certainly used their failure for His glory—and our benefit!
He who has been forgiven much, loves much. Mark and Peter were increasingly aware of the forgiveness of Jesus—and so they increasingly learned to love Jesus with their lives. They learned to let their love for Jesus overrule and override their fear of man. And they grew in the grace of Jesus! Failure? Yes. Sinner? Yes. Called by Jesus? YES! AND equipped by Him along the way.
Jesus is calling all failures and sinners, foolish and forgotten, into His service to tell the world the good news of His kingdom. He became one of us, served us and loved us. He promised to never leave us or forsake us—no matter what the world has to throw at us.
Do you want to tell the world about Jesus? Do you want to be in the service of THE good news? God is calling you!
We hail you as our Savior, Lord,
our refuge and our great reward.
Without your grace we waste away
like flowers that wither and decay.
Stretch forth your hand, our health restore,
and make us rise to fall no more.
O let your face upon us shine
and fill the world with love divine.
The Gospel of Mark begins with one of the most subversive, controversial, influential, and important sentences written: "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." (Mark 1:1)
It is difficult for us as 21st century Gentiles to fully grasp just how dangerous and revolutionary it would be to write these words. It's only when we consider the context of the culture that this was written that we can fully appreciate how subversive this sentence truly is.
Life for the 1st century Christian was full of government overreach, persecution, and financial uncertainty. It was a time when the world needed hope—hope from a leader other than Caesar. Hope from a servant-leader who was not of this world. Hope from someone who had every right to be Ruler, but who chose to be a servant.
He came. He led. He served. And He saved. His name is Jesus.
Earthly kings expect to be waited on hand and foot. Overlords take all that they can for themselves. But Jesus is different. This King of kings didn’t come to be served, but to serve. This Lord of lords didn’t come to take, but to give.
Service and sacrifice—that is what we see of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus gives His life in service (chapters 1-10) and in sacrifice (chapters 11-16). Why? Because the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give His life a ransom for many.
God has a radical adventure before you—full of heartache and pain; difficulty and wonder; glory and fellowship—with Him as you desire to be His servant. So as we study the Gospel of Mark, we pray that He would transform us with His word and by the Spirit so that we may see every second of our lives as a ministry opportunity. But most importantly—that we would see opportunities to fellowship with Him in service and sacrifice.
We thought You'd come with a crown of gold
A string of pearls and a cashmere robe
We thought You'd clinch an iron fist
And rain like fire on the politics.
But without a sword, no armored guard
But common born in mother's arms
The government now rests upon
The shoulders of this Baby Son.
–“Baby Son” by John Mark McMillan
The whole Gospel of Mark revolves around a singular verse: "For even the Son of Man did not come to serve, but to serve and to give His life a ransom for many." (Mark 10:45). This Gospel shows us how Jesus did not come to be served, but to serve and to lay down His life to set people free.
As we study this book and look closely and carefully at Jesus, we will hopefully become more like Him. Not that we would die on a cross for anyone's sin, but that we would be willing to lay down our preferences and our pride so that others can be set free.
This past Sunday, we wondered how we will be changed as we begin our study of the Gospel of Mark. Watch or listen to our study as we asked the Lord to transform us through His word.
In the book of Acts, John (also called Mark) joined Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey. As time went on, things got difficult and Mark left Barnabas and Paul for home. For their second missionary journey, Barnabas wanted to bring Mark, but Paul objected. Mark went with Barnabas, but Paul and Barnabas never served together again.
It probably took a while for Mark to get over his failure. He needed more than encouragement—he needed to be strengthened by the grace of Jesus—and God had just the man in mind.
Peter was familiar with failure—specifically the failure of running away in the face of fear. He was reminded of it every time the rooster crowed. Peter needed to know how to receive the grace of Jesus, how to live out the grace of Jesus, and how to be strengthened by the grace of Jesus.
The grace of Jesus changed Peter. So much so that Peter was able to share it with Mark, who was struggling with his own failure. He told Mark all about the grace of Jesus and showed Mark what it looks like to live in light of this amazing grace.
It’s a blessing to have to know people like Barnabas and Peter—fellow believers who encourage and teach you not only what it means to be strengthened by God’s amazing grace, but how to deny yourself, pick up your cross, and serve Jesus because of that grace.
Thankfully, through the ministry of Barnabas and Peter, Mark learned this. He learned how the grace of Jesus not only sustains us, but also gives us the ability to serve others—even and especially when we don’t feel like it. It prompted him to pick up his pen and, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, write a book about the amazing grace of Jesus—a book we call the Gospel according to Mark.
The Gospel according to Mark was written in a time of incredible political and societal upheaval. A time when people were concerned about their children’s future. A time when quitting and running away was a tempting prospect.
Mark wrote this book for a specific purpose. He didn’t just want people to know about Jesus—he wanted them to know the grace of Jesus. How the grace of Jesus is sufficient to sustain anyone though any difficulty. How this amazing grace floods a heart with the love of God and renders fear powerless. How this grace is only given to failures and sinners.
Mark knew about this grace so well because he had failed. He had endured struggle after struggle that made him cherish the grace of Jesus more and more. But how did Mark come to know of this grace and who strengthened him with the grace of Jesus that inspired Mark to write a book about it?
Watch a replay or listen to our study as we considered this man Mark and the influence that the grace of Jesus had on his life.
You’ve probably heard the saying, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” The Bible says it this way: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” (1 Corinthians 8:1).
There’s another verse in the Bible that talks about love. Jesus said it’s the distinctive feature of those who follow Him—“By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35). It’s not by having impressive Bible knowledge, or big budgets, or bigger building. It’s love. People will know we follow Jesus by our love. When people start to realize that we are truly following Jesus, they are drawn to a real relationship with Jesus as well.
Love is the key to God’s vision for His church. Simply loving the Lord with all that we have and all that we are. And loving our neighbor as ourselves. If our neighbor is a follower of Jesus, then we love them by helping them to follow Jesus. If our neighbor doesn’t follow Jesus, then we love them by introducing them to Jesus.
That’s it—simplicity of heart in love for the Lord and love for each other.
Let us love our God supremely,
Let us love each other, too;
Let us love and pray for sinners,
Till our God makes all things new.
On the first Sunday of every year, we review the history, vision, purpose, and practice of Refuge so that we can confidently answer these questions:
What are we doing? Why are we doing it? What does it look like?
Year after year, this study hasn’t really changed—but we sure have! As we behold the glory of God in the face of Christ, the Spirit of God transforms us from the inside out. That’s a promise God makes and fulfills through His Word.
And so we turn again to His Word to find the answers to those important questions—what are we doing? Why are we doing it? And what does it look like?
Watch or listen to our study from Sunday as we reviewed God’s vision for God’s church.
Rules and regulations lack any value and strength in restraining sensual indulgence. In order to overcome those temptations, we need a strong heart—a heart strengthened by grace, a heart established by grace.
But what does this look like? What does it mean to strengthen someone by grace? What does it look like to have a heart established by grace? It’s often found in emphasizing what God has done for us—not in what we should be doing for God. When we focus on what we don’t have or can’t do, sin easily entangles us. But when we focus on all we have, especially all the riches we have in Jesus that can never be taken away, the unmerited favor of God teaches us to say no to sin. What Jesus offers us far outweighs and outlasts the fleeting pleasures of sin. And since His mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:23), we will never reach the end of the riches of His grace.
Hebrews 13:9 has been used by the Lord to form much of our ministry here in Central Minnesota. When the fellowship was first planted in St. Cloud, a good friend of the ministry called it “the great grace experiment.” After 17 years of unpacking and unfolding the depth of the riches of that verse, the experiment continues—and it’s a joy and a blessing to continue this great grace experiment together with you!
How firm a foundation, you saints of the Lord,
is laid for your faith in his excellent Word!
What more can he say than to you he has said,
to you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?
The final chapters of the books in the New Testament are interesting to study—since they are so rarely read. Many of these books were originally letters written to a specific person or group of people. We naturally start reading letters at the beginning—but even with the best of intentions, the end of the letters are not as often read as the beginning.
Like any letter, many of these final remarks are personal in nature. Some may seem unrelated or disjointed from one another, like a rapid-fire list of parting thoughts. It’s almost as if the writer has finished the majority of his persuasive argument and ends the letter with a list of practical ways to live out the faith.
We see this in Hebrews 13—and while these final remarks might seem disconnected at first read, they actually weave a rich and significant conclusion to this important letter to the Hebrews. Watch or listen to our final study of Hebrews and be encouraged by the great grace of our amazing God!
“And it came to pass in those days…”
So begins the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke. It's interesting to observe the simplicity that Luke uses to describe the most amazing miracle that would ever take place—God becoming man. And it's interesting to consider the world at the time when Jesus was about to be born. In fact, if you listen closely to the second chapter of Luke, you'll hear the narrative of a young woman observe and consider, preserve and ponder what was happening—not only to her, but to the whole world.
God is a consuming fire. He longs for us to offer ourselves completely as a living sacrifice.
Consumed by Him. Refined by Him. Trained by Him. Discipled by Him.
This happens as we trust and obey Him and believe that He is able to work all things for the good of those who love Him—for the good of those who are called according to His purpose.
Therefore…we boldly approach His throne of grace.
Therefore…we receive His invitation.
Therefore…we run the race marked out for us.
Therefore…we do not refuse Him who speaks.
Not to the terrors of the Lord, the tempest, fire, and smoke:
Not to the thunder of that word which God on Sinai spoke:
But we are come to Zion's hill, the city of our God;
Where milder words declare His will, and spread His love abroad.
When we give in to discouragement, we tend to get sloppy with our relationships—horizontally as well as vertically. We care less about peace with one another and less about holiness with the Lord. Which is why He encourages us to strengthen our weak knees and renew our grip with our tired hands (Hebrews 12:12-13) before He gives us a new direction: “Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord…” (Hebrews 12:14).
In this verse, the Lord boils things down to such simplicity. He handles the horizontal relationships and our vertical relationship in one simple sentence. We are to pursue peace with all people and holiness with God.
It isn’t always easy—in fact, it can be pretty intense. But God has always been faithful. He has always gotten us through. Pursuing peace and our personal holiness is part of helping others to run the race marked out for them.
Listen to our study of Hebrews 12:14-29 as we learned from the Lord how we can renew our grip.
“My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord,
Nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him;
For whom the Lord loves He chastens,
And scourges every son whom He receives.”
The problem we have in understanding this passage is our difficulty in dissociating discipline from punishment. God’s discipline is never punitive—it’s never intended as punishment. It’s corrective and instructive—like the role of a coach.
God is not our persecutor. He is our personal trainer, the coach for our souls. That’s why the consistent context of an athletic endeavor helps us understand God’s heart toward us. God does not persecute or punish us. He is our loving Heavenly Father who personally trains—that is, disciples and disciplines—His children.
If you maintain this perspective, you will be able to persevere through pain and endure discipline without despising it or becoming discouraged by it. You will come to see discipline as personal training, painful though it may be. Anything that He allows to come your way is filtered through His love and will be used for a redemptive purpose. It will bring about a “peaceful harvest of right living” (Hebrews 12:11). He will walk with you through all of it, whispering with quiet intensity words of truth, encouragement, and exhortation—He will never leave you.
I bless thee, Lord for sorrows sent
To break my dream of human power;
For now, my shallow cisterns spent,
I find thy founts, and thirst no more.
“No training seems pleasant at the time. In fact, it seems painful. But later on it produces a harvest of godliness and peace. It does this for those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:11)
At times, running the race that is set before us is wearisome and discouraging. The difficulties we experience along the way may tempt us to slow down, to draw back, or maybe even turn our backs against any forward progression.
But as we’ve learned in previous studies, turning back isn’t an option for followers of Jesus. If we are disciples of Jesus, we need to be disciplined by Jesus. His discipline is not punishment but training, preparation for the work He has for us to do. When we allow ourselves to be trained by what the Lord allows in our lives, knowing every circumstance is filtered through His love and used for our good, the Holy Spirit produces the fruit of righteousness in our lives.
God acknowledges the difficulties involved with following Him. He understands the hardships we face. But He doesn’t just passively observe them—He actively trains us so that we can endure the hardships to come. He is always bringing about His glorious purposes in and through us. Watch a replay of our live stream or listen to the audio of our study of Hebrews 12:4-13 as we gain perspective that allows us to endure the pain.
The Lord has set a race before you. Maybe you feel as though it might not be worth it—outward circumstances and inward fears are tempting you to slow down, draw back, or even quit what God has called you to do. He knew this—which is why He calls us to run with endurance.
Endurance is a great word. It means “the power to continue in an unpleasant or difficult situation without giving way.” One foot in front of the other, again, and again, and again. And that adds up to one mile…and then one more…and then one more. As mile adds to mile, you outlast the pain because what is at the end is worth it.
Part of our training for this race is to focus our mind on something other than the unpleasant and difficult situations we find ourselves in. That’s why the second verse in Hebrews comes after the first—“…looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith…” Nothing averts your eyes from Jesus. Not the pain, not the exhaustion, not the outward pressures, not the inward fears.
Fix your eyes on Jesus. Just Jesus.
For not only is He the Author of your faith, He is the Finisher of your faith. He is not only the initiator of your faith, He is the source—the continual giver—of the gift of faith. The very thing that we need to live (Hebrews 10:38: “The just shall live by faith…”). In looking to Jesus, we not only see the hope that will help us to endure the difficult parts of our race, but we see the example of how to endure all difficulties:
“…looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls” (Hebrews 12:2-3).
Jesus endured for the joy that was set before Him. He persevered because of His great love for you. When we consider Jesus, when we are compelled by His love, when we lay aside the weight of sin and distractions that are slowing our progress, we too can run our race with endurance. We’re almost to the finish line, dear friends.
Run the straight race through God's good grace,
lift up thine eyes, and seek his face;
life with its way before us lies,
Christ is the path, and Christ the prize.
There is a particular race that the Lord has set before you. This race is grueling and extremely difficult at times. It’s not a sprint…it’s even more than a marathon. In scripture, we see that God acknowledges over and over again how difficult things can get. But like a good coach, He encourages us to lift our eyes past the pain to the prize that makes all of the agony and effort worth it. He stirs our spirits and renews our minds as we find a fresh wind—a second wind—from the Holy Spirit. We have the strength to go another mile with eyes fixed on Christ.
At times, running the race marked out for us is exhausting. Just ask the first century Hebrew believers who contended with outward cultural pressures, outward persecution, and inward fears. Just ask Jesus, who was despised, betrayed, and ultimately gave up His life. How did Jesus endure to the end? How can we follow His example?
Listen to our study of Hebrews 12:1-3 this past Sunday to hear how Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith, coaches us to persevere. Watch a replay of our live stream or listen to the audio of our study and receive the encouragement you will need to endure difficult times.
Abel, Enoch, and Noah. Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac. Jacob, Joseph, and Moses. And even a harlot named Rahab.
By faith, the writer of Hebrews tells us that each one of these witnesses offered, obeyed, built, received, blessed…and in doing so, gave us an example of what it looks like to live by faith.
In fact, we find that phrase—“by faith”—18 times in this chapter. They demonstrated the determination that faith provides in looking past what seems impossible to the God who makes all things possible. They showed us that living by faith means trusting in God’s word—and His word alone. They modeled what it looks like to move forward in faith, even if the fulfillment of His word would not be seen in their lifetime.
In the very next chapter, the writer of Hebrews will remind us of this great cloud of witnesses, these men and women who lived by faith, as he encourages us to run the race that is set before us. So run the race that’s set before you—by faith, with your eyes on Jesus.
What does it look like to live by faith? The answer to that question will help us understand what the writer of Hebrews meant when he wrote, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)
Understanding this question begins just before and just after Hebrews 11. When we consider the context of this chapter (often referred to as the Hall of Faith), we gain a better understanding of what it means for the just to walk by faith.
What we find just before Hebrews 11 is an encouragement to not “cast away your confidence…” (Hebrews 10:35) followed by an exhortation to endure and believe (10:36-39). Likewise, just after Hebrews 11, we are encouraged to “run with endurance the race that is set before us…” (Hebrews 12:1)
And in Hebrews 11, we read of men and women who clung to their confidence in the Lord and ran the race in the faith they received as a gift. Running as we should run—looking to Jesus and living in faith and by faith. Their examples of endurance give us encouragement as we “press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:14)
In a couple of chapters, the writer of Hebrews will encourage us to “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1). It’s a concept that we can consider sooner in light of the warning we read in Hebrews 10:26-31.
The race we are running with Christ is far more important than anything else that we could possibly compare it to. What is ahead of us is the most glorious, wonderful, amazing, and eternal. What is behind us is the most horrendous, awful, torturous, and also eternal. So be encouraged and exhorted to keep running the race with Christ—no matter what! If not for the glory of what’s ahead, then for the terror and holy fear of what is behind.
Here’s the hard truth in the warning of Hebrews 10—you can’t quit the race and return to ritual based religion. The Old Covenant sacrificial system is over. There are no more sacrifices for sin now that the lamb of God has come. There is nothing left to return to. So it’s not just quitting—it’s not just turning around and returning to the selfishness of sin or the sleepiness of a ritual based religion. It’s much worse—it’s trampling the Son of God underfoot and counting the blood of the covenant a common thing (Hebrews 10:29).
If at some point you feel like quitting and slow down or even stop and start to turn around, there is Someone there saying, “Over my dead body!” Why? Because of His great love for you! So in order to turn your back on Heaven and walk the other way, you have to trample the Son of God underfoot as He tries to do all that He can do to stop you.
Brothers and sister, we are almost home! Keep running the race! If nothing else, you have Jesus and we have each other—we will run this race together, pressing on for the prize.
O happy band of pilgrims,
If onward you will tread
With Jesus as your fellow
To Jesus as your Head!
O happy band of pilgrims,
Look upward to the skies,
Where such a light affliction
Shall win you such a prize!
When we began our study in Hebrews, we said this book would be full of worship and warnings. Worship that encourages us to behold the glory of God in the face of Christ. Worship that results in us being transformed by His Holy Spirit. This book has certainly encouraged us to view Jesus and the glory of God in Jesus in a way that we aren’t used to.
But it is also a book of warnings. We need those warnings because there is no middle ground in following God–there is either hot or cold. Throughout the book so far, we have read a series of warnings that caution us against falling short of God’s best for us. The first warning we read in Hebrews 2:1-3 is repeated in various ways and intensity throughout the book—but none with more intensity than the warning we considered this past Sunday.
Watch the replay of our live stream or listen to the audio of our message as we carefully considered this important warning in the book of Hebrews.
From Pastor Dom...
When I first gave my life to Jesus, there were friends in my life who helped me to grow in my understanding of God, through His word, and for those friends