I don't know many people who want to come to the end of their lives and say, "I never made an impact on anything or anyone?but I'm okay with that." The living God who made you in his image wants your life to matter; he wants you to make an impact. When a stone plunges into the water, it makes waves. That's the ripple effect. In the same way, as Christ begins to change our hearts, he empowers us to change the people around us. In order to do this, we must begin by receiving from God. That's the lesson of Bartimaeus.
This passage is a story about receiving grace from God. It's the story of a man?a poor, blind, powerless man?who not only receives, but goes hard after God's grace. He's a man who says, "If God is really gracious, if Jesus is real and alive, if the power of the Holy Spirit is truly available, I'm going to ask big and live large. If God is generous with his grace, I'm not going to ask for a thimbleful; I'm going to ask for a fountain-full." There were hundreds of people tagging along with Jesus on that day, but only one of them shines as a model of discipleship: the poor beggar named Bartimaeus.
The blind beggar
We pick up the story when Jesus and his followers are leaving Jericho for Jerusalem. Imagine a mob of people hanging around Jesus, all walking on a road, leaving the city. There is tension in the crowd. On three separate occasions, Jesus has told everyone that he's headed into Jerusalem so he can die for the sins of the world. Mark 8:32 reads, "They were on the way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid." I want us to enter into the feelings of this scene: astonishment, fear, uncertainty. Everyone is on edge, uptight, stressed out. Jesus is focused on one goal: to get to Jerusalem, suffer, and die for the sins of the world.
As they leave the city, they see a blind man by the roadside. This was a common site in Jesus' day, but this blind, poor, marginalized beggar becomes the kind of person the Gospels hold up as a model disciple.
We don't know much about Bartimaeus. We know his father's name is Timaeus, which implies that the early church may have known his whole family. Isn't that amazing? That's the ripple effect. As Jesus touched and transformed Bartimaeus, he transformed his whole family.
It's significant that Bartimaeus was "sitting by the roadside," or, literally translated, "sitting by the way." In the Gospel of Mark, "on the way" becomes a code phrase for following Jesus. At the beginning of this story, Bartimaeus is "sitting by the way;" by the end of the story, he gets up and follows Jesus "along the road" or "along the way." The key question of discipleship becomes this: are you on the way with Jesus or not? Bartimaeus gets on the way and becomes a model disciple for us by understanding grace, living confidently, and desiring deeply.
As this mob of people start walking down the road, Bartimaues grabs someone's sleeve and asks, "What's going on?" When he's told that it's Jesus, he shouts, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"
Ever since King David, the Jewish people heard God's promises to send a great deliverer?the Messiah. Isaiah 35 pointed to a merciful "Son of David": "Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf be unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer. ? Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away" (Isaiah 35:5, 10). Bartimaeus connects these promises with Jesus?that's why he's so excited.
Imagine if someone started shouting right in the middle of our service. We'd do exactly what happens in this story: we'd start shushing him. Verse 48 reads, "Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet." Throughout the Gospels the disciples try to protect Jesus from "problem" people, but Jesus responds: "The messed-up people aren't the problem; you're the problem, because you keep blocking me from the people who need me the most." So the crowd shushes Bartimaues. Jesus is really busy, they say. Jesus has important things to do.
This is what people in power always do to the powerless: they shush them. You have questions about your faith? Shush. You were abused as a child? Shush. You desperately need mercy and healing and compassion? Shush.
Notice that Bartimaeus isn't a pretty sight. He's poor, unpleasant, loud, rude, inappropriate, socially marginalized?not the kind of person you'd want at your dinner parties,. He's also religiously marginalized?not the kind of person we'd invite to our worship services and choose for church leadership. He's one screwed-up human being. But remember: he's the model disciple in this passage.
Most of us have bought into what I would call the "gospel of self-sufficiency," which basically says, "I can make it on my own." Or we believe in the "gospel of self-esteem," which says, "If I feel good about myself, I must be okay." We tend to assume that religion means getting our act together, and until we get it right, God doesn't want us. As a result we live with fear and insecurity?I don't have my spiritual ducks in a row?—or pride and self-righteousness?—I do have my ducks in a row, at least better than most people I know. But look at Bartimaeus, our model disciple: he's a mess. He doesn't even have any ducks to line up. Nearly 1,600 years ago, the brilliant theologian Augustine read this story and commented that "the wretched helplessness of fallen humanity is seen symbolically in the blindness of Bartimaeus." Bartimaeus has nothing to cover his helplessness.
The gospel of Jesus is not a message that says, "I'm okay, you're okay;" it's a message of "I'm a mess, you're a mess." Seeing ourselves as messes is truly counter-cultural, but it is the start of a revolution in our hearts. Christian counselor Mark McMinn tells the following story:
A young woman I met described her childhood in a home where self-esteem was the primary virtue. Her parents taught her that she was delightful, talented, good-hearted, intelligent, and witty … ?But as she grew up, she felt that something important was missing from her incubator of childhood self-esteem. Somehow, deep-down, she always knew there was an intrinsic need for healing, an inner darkness, a moral decay, which was also part of her character. As she ventured into the teenage traps of promiscuity and drugs, she felt like an imposter, as if no one could know about her true self or else they would stop loving her. She didn't need another self-esteem button or sticker to wear around the house. What she longed for was authentic awareness of her good and bad qualities, and love that was big enough to embrace her regardless of her sin. When she turned to God as a young adult, she found what she had been longing for?One who knew every dark corner of her soul and still (offered) her love, forgiveness, acceptance, and grace.
The church is one of the few places on the planet where we're actually invited to come clean. We're invited to step forward and say, "There is something bent and twisted and deformed inside my soul and I need help." At the same time, we're invited to be thoroughly loved. If you're looking for the fellowship of the pious, I'll save you some time: go look somewhere else. This is a fellowship of sinners. But let me say emphatically that this is good news, wonderfully good news. We are a company of sinners, who, like Bartimaues, are opening our lives to the amazing grace of Jesus.
Living with confidence
Notice something surprising about Bartimaeus: he's a mess, but that doesn't cause him to hang his head in shame and fear. He lives with joyful confidence. All the nice and religious people are telling him to shut up and settle down, but this makes him shout all the more, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" This is what I admire about Bartimaeus: he's scrappy. He's persistent to the point of being aggravating. Bartimaeus is like a pit bull with a huge chunk of steak in his jaws: he clamps down and won't let go. For Bartimaeus, the steak is God's grace. You can't shake him off the precious steak. Everyone shushes him and he manages to ignore them all.
Wouldn't it be great to live with that level of confidence and freedom? Wouldn't it be great to be completely honest about your life?the mess, the pain, the temptation?and at the same time, hold your head high with confidence and authority and real spiritual power? Is that even possible? Bartimaeus does it.
A psychologist might look at Bartimaeus' story and say, "What an interesting specimen of unusually high ego strength." But this isn't ego strength; this is God strength. Bartimaeus is a nobody. People walked by him every day; most of them ignored him or threw a few coins in his beggar's cup. Either way, he got the message: you're a nobody.
Have you ever felt the sting of being a nobody? When I was seventeen years old, I was playing in a basketball game against our archrival. I was assigned the task of guarding their best player?an arrogant, hot-headed, condescending point guard. Every time he came down the court, he would dribble up to me and whisper, "You are nothing, man. You're nothing. And 'nothing' can't guard me." I'm happy to report that I shut him down?and actually got him so frustrated that the referees ejected him from the game. But after continually hearing "You're nothing, man," you start to believe it.
There are so many forces that cry out to us, "You're nothing." You may face it at work. You may hear it in your marriage?or lack of marriage. You may hear it in school. You may have heard it from your parents. You may hear it when you look in the mirror and view your own body. Or you may be trying to stay one step ahead of "You're nothing," holding on to your success or money or degrees or relationships like a drowning person clings to driftwood. Whenever you say, "I must have that (fill-in-the-blank), or else I'm a nobody," you reveal the source of your confidence and, ultimately, your god.
Bartimaeus has real confidence in God's grace through Jesus, and thus, he doesn't have a fake, puffed-up, propped-up confidence that depends on externals. Rather, he has an internal joyful, focused, passionate strength. Where does he get that confidence? Verse 49 reads: "Jesus stopped and said, 'Call him.' So they called to the blind man, 'Cheer up! On your feet! He's calling you.'" For Bartimaeus, confidence hangs on those two words?"Jesus stopped."
Jesus is present. Jesus is here. The eternal Son of God, the one whom the Bible calls the radiance of the Father's glory (Hebrews 1:3), and the one by whom "all things were created" (Colossians 1:16), this one now hears one blind beggar cry out to him. And he stops, or literally, he "stands still." Here is where real, pure, passionate, love-filled confidence comes from: God stands still for you.
Shortly after this encounter with Bartimaeus, on a dreary afternoon, this eternal Son of God stood still long enough to allow his creation to nail him to a cross. The Bible tells us that every sin you and I have ever committed was nailed to that cross with him. This is the confidence that belongs to every child of God. Notice how the New Testament describes this confidence: "For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but a spirit of adoption as sons (and daughters) of God, by which we cry out, 'Abba, Father!" The Message translates the same verse this way: "This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It's adventurously expectant, greeting God with childlike 'What's next, Papa?' God's Spirit touches our spirit and confirms who we really are."
That's the confidence of Bartimaeus?and it isn't just intellectual knowledge. Bartimaeus knows who Jesus is, and then he acts: "Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus." Keep in mind that Bartimaeus is a beggar. He doesn't have a closet full of color-coordinated outfits. He doesn't have an extra garage for all his overflow belongings. This cloak is probably his only possession, but he flings it away because Jesus is near.
Then notice Jesus' question: "What do you want me to do for you?" I love Bartimaeus' confidence and clarity: "I want to see." In the Gospel of Mark, the recovery of sight isn't just a physical miracle; it's symbolic of discipleship. It means, "I want to see and follow you, Lord." Which is exactly what happens next: "Go," Jesus says, "your faith has healed you." And Bartimaeus follows Jesus along the road. Bartimaeus knows what he wants; he's clear and focused. He's a man who has been saved by grace, and he can't live without grace. He's a man who lives with confidence and spiritual authority, because his power and hope rest in Christ. He knows what he wants: to see and follow his Lord.
My friend Delbert owned a very successful printing business in Florida until he suddenly sold it and moved to Africa. He went to Zambia to work for a small Christian ministry that makes hand-cranking carts for handicapped people. It was like flinging off his cloak and going to Jesus. I asked Delbert why he did it, and he told me, "Look, when I'm dead and gone, there are three things?and only three things?that will remain: my faith in the Lord (that's number one), my friends and family, and the stories that people will tell about my life?in particular, the stories people will share about how I influenced others around me."
There is only one thing to give you confidence in the spiritual journey: Christ. Do you have that confidence? Do you pray with that confidence? Do you pass on that confidence to your children? Do you know who you are and whose you are?
The Bible says that our life is a vapor. It will be over before we know it. Don't hold on to it, simply living for yourself. Surrender to Christ and allow God to make ripples in this world through you.
Matt Woodley is the pastor of compassion ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.