Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Mark 3:31–35

Mark 3:31–35 (ESV): Jesus’ Mother and Brothers

This is a fairly simple passage (in my mind), yet it took me a long time to write this post. (That doesn’t mean that the reader should expect anything deep.)


Over the last few passages Jesus has healed a man on the Sabbath (angering the Pharisees), had great crowds follow him, cast out demons, named the twelve Apostles, been accused of colluding with the devil, and talked about a sin which he called “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.” In this passage his mother and brothers come to collect him, presumably because they want to reign him in a bit. Not to put too fine a point on it, they probably think Jesus is insane.

But when they get to the place where Jesus is teaching and send for him, and the people tell Jesus that his mother and brothers are outside looking for him, he says something strange; he rhetorically asks them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” (verse 33 (ESV), emphasis added), and then looks around at the others in the room, and says, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother” (verses 34–35 (ESV), emphasis added).


Anyone who talks about this passage probably starts off exactly the way that I’m about to start, or at the very least brings up this point at some point: Jesus is not against the family, or saying that the family is not important. I would argue (though I might be on shakier ground on this point) that He is not even saying that the family is less important than the Church family, just important in different ways. (As I say, I feel I’m on shaky ground on this one, so I’m not going to argue the point if people disagree.) However, in this particular case Jesus’ family is trying to prevent Him from executing part of His ministry, and when it comes to “choosing your family” or “choosing God,” God always has to come first. (I put those in quotes because it’s rare that there are such stark decision points to be made.)

The ideal case, of course, is that a believer’s family will consist of other believers, in which case there will be a definite closeness between the family that even the relationship with other believers won’t be able to match. In the case where a believer has a family of unbelievers, however, there will be two types of familial relationships that exist: the relationship between the believer and other believers (the Church), and the relationship between the believer and his/her family. This passage is not teaching us that we have to leave our family in this case and choose the Church over our blood relatives. I don’t think we’d want to push this verse any further than to say that when we do have to choose between our families and God, we choose God. Thankfully there are few times that one must make these types of decisions (at least in North America).

In this case Jesus felt it was more important to stay where he was and teach the people with him than for him to go home with his family, so he chose to stay. But that doesn’t mean that he left his family; we see that even up to Jesus’ death on the cross he was still caring for his mother (John 19:25–27 (ESV)), so he definitely remained her son.

For the modern-day Christian, at least in North America, I think the trick is probably twofold:
  1. How do you know when you should legitimately “choose God” over “choosing your family?” If your non-Christian family has a special occasion happening on a Sunday and you have to choose between that and going to church, what do you do? Is it really such a big deal to miss church for one Sunday? Would you be making a spiritual point with your family by going to church—or would you be simply causing arguments? This is a trivial example—I seem to make all of my examples trivial ones—but there are a thousand other examples people could come up with where the choice would be much more important.
  2. When you should legitimately “choose God” over “choosing your family,” how do you best approach it? Should you be confrontational with your family and make a point of it, or should you be sheepish about it? (I’m guessing neither of these is the best answer, and something in between is best.) Sometimes Christians in North America can be tempted to try and turn little situations like this into big situations, and personally I think that this approach can be counterproductive, whereas taking an approach whereby you’re firm but not defiant can produce a lot more fruit.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Mark 3:22–30

Mark 3:22–30 (ESV): Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit


Over on the sidebar of this blog there’s a little blurb talking about the fact that I’m just a layperson, not by any means a biblical scholar. I put that there because of passages like this one. This is probably considered a pretty controversial passage*, and I’d hate for people to put more weight on my words than is warranted. Hopefully this post will help people to think about the topic, even if they come to different conclusions than I did. (*When I say that this passage is “controversial,” all I mean is that there is probably wide disagreement about what Jesus means by “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit,” not that there are Church divisions caused by this post or anything along those lines.)

So, with that said, let’s jump into it!

Oh, no, one last point: I think it’s interesting that I’m posting on this passage today, since my Pastor preached on Luke 11:14–26 (ESV) recently, which is a parallel passage. I’m hoping he doesn’t read this blog, or else he may be looking to see how much I absorbed…

There. Now we can begin.

In this passage some religious teachers accuse Jesus of being possessed by Beelzebul (some translations might have this written as Beelzebub), and claiming that the only reason Jesus can cast out demons is by the power of the “prince of demons” (i.e. Satan). Jesus responds by asking them how Satan can cast himself out, and gives a famous quote:

If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder his house. (verses 24–27 (ESV))
And finally Jesus ends with the part that I find the least accessible, as a layperson:

“Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”—for they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.” (verses 28–30 (ESV))
More on this below.


In the ESV version of this passage the religious teachers accuse Jesus of being possessed by Beelzebul, while some other translations (e.g. the KJV and NKJV) instead use the name Beelzebub with which some people might be more familiar (since we’re remembering it from the KJV days). The names came from a Philistine god named Ba’al Zebul, which means “Ba’al is exalted” or “Master of the High Places.” The Hebrews, in derision of this “god,” gave it the name Ba’al Zebub; “Zebub” means “flies,” so Ba’al Zebub is “Lord of the Flies.” I have also heard told that “Lord of the Flies” might be a more polite way of putting it; we all know where flies tend to congregate, and there are those who say that Ba’al Zebul is actually more akin to “Lord of Dung” (or perhaps a less polite word for dung—you know the one I mean). In any event, in Greek Ba’al Zebul became Beelzebul and Ba’al Zebub became Beelzebub. As for why some translations chose to use Beelzebub and others chose to use Beelzebul, my “research” didn’t turn anything up. What it did turn up, though, is that over time these names began to be applied to Satan, which is how they seem to be used in this passage. Actually, even the name “Satan” only gradually began to be applied to him as a proper name; it was originally simply a type of being—there are angels and there are satans—but eventually the proper name Satan began to be used for the “main” or “head” satan.

Jesus’ comment about entering a strong man’s house and plundering it is intended to show that he has power over Satan; that no matter how strong Satan may be, Jesus is able to overpower him. This, and the point about having a divided kingdom, are simply intended to show people that they haven’t really thought things through, when they accuse Jesus of being possessed by Satan, or of colluding with him. The idea doesn’t make sense.

And finally there is the “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” passage, which I did actually talk about when I posted about Matthew 12:22–32. (I also talked about the Beelzebub/Beelzebul thing, but I think what I’ve put in this post is probably more detailed.) This passage has the power not just to confuse but to outright scare; Jesus talks here about a sin that is unforgivable. That has probably caused a lot of fear in a lot of Christians over the millenia with the worry of, “what if I’ve committed that sin, and God won’t forgive me for it?” I don’t blame people for having that kind of worry—we are talking about life and death here!—but at the same time it seems pretty inconsistent with the rest of the New Testament. If that were the case, the story of the New Testament would be that we are all sinners who need to be saved by Grace, but that the Son of God came and lived a sinless life and died to take away our sins, and once you belong to Him you can never be snatched away—unless you commit this one particular sin, and then you’re out and can’t get back in. Oh, and it’s not really 100% clear what that one unforgivable sin is, because “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” isn’t 100% clear. Does that sound right to you?

There is a situation in which your sins will not be forgiven, though. If you aren’t covered by the blood of the Lamb, if you aren’t born again, if you aren’t a child of God, whatever way you want to phrase it… if you aren’t saved, what that really boils down to is that your sins are not forgiven. Maybe you don’t think of that as “blasphemy against the Spirit,” frankly I don’t typically think of it in those words either, but the fact is that if your sins aren’t forgiven, they’re not forgiven—it needs to be fixed. Don’t fixate on the particular sins that have been committed; everyone who has ever lived (except for the Son of God) has committed countless sins that deserve punishment. Fixate on the One who can forgive you for those sins.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Mark 3:13–21

Mark 3:13–21 (ESV): The Twelve Apostles


In this passage Jesus goes up onto a mountain (I’m not sure which mountain, but it probably doesn’t matter), to appoint the twelve apostles, “so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons” (verses 14–15 (ESV)). These are the twelve men he appointed:

  • Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter)
  • James the son of Zebedee, and
  • John the brother of James
    • He gave James and John the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder
  • Andrew
  • Philip
  • Bartholomew
  • Matthew
  • Thomas
  • James the son of Alphaeus
  • Thaddaeus
  • Simon the Zealot
  • Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him
That list is mostly quoted but partially paraphrased from verses 14–19 (ESV).

After this Jesus goes back home, but the crowd gathers around him once more, and it’s so bad that he can’t even eat. His family hears about it and go out to seize him, thinking that he’s out of his mind.


It’s interesting to me that I don’t know a single thing about some of the twelve apostles except that they were on this list. Bartholomew, for example, or Thaddaeus; the Bible doesn’t say anything about these two men, aside from putting them on this list. And yet they were two of the founders upon which the Church was built; they will be sitting with Jesus in Glory, ruling with Him. I have no doubt that they were right there along with Peter and James and John and Paul in founding the Church, Jesus chose them for specifically that reason, yet God chose not to tell us anything about them except that they were apostles. And we should remember that this is not a bad thing—it’s not that these men didn’t do anything to be counted worthy of more mention in the Bible. Quite the contrary, the Bible prompts us to do good works without being seen and getting our reward on this earth; it could very well be that some of the lesser known apostles have received a greater reward than the more well known ones. I don’t feel confident enough to say that it must be so, but I surely wouldn’t be surprised if it is so.

Aside from that, I find it interesting that we are told that the crowd around Jesus is so bad that he can’t even eat. Is this because He is too busy healing people? Or teaching? Or both? We don’t know. But we know that he can’t even take time out to satisfy his own basis human needs, and have food.

And the third thing I find interesting is that the large crowds prompt Jesus’ family to think that he’s out of his mind. You would think that it would prompt Jesus’ family to think that the crowds are out of their mind, but they focus on Jesus. We know that some of Jesus’ family later became believers; I don’t know if they were among the family members in this passage who are believing he is out of his mind. It’s quite possible they are; I’m sure there were times when His ministry was strange enough to their eyes that they would have had these and worse thoughts. We don’t always understand everything all at once; sometimes we only get things piece by piece.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Mark 3:7–12

Mark 3:7–12 (ESV): A Great Crowd Follows Jesus


This is a less complex passage than most of the passages we usually look at. Jesus and his disciples “withdraw” to the sea, but a great crowd of people follows them there because they’ve heard all that he has been doing. I say “but” because the implication I’m getting is that what Jesus is “withdrawing” from is the crowds; if so, God the Father has other plans for Jesus.

Jesus has his disciples get a boat for him so that the crowd doesn’t crush him. This is a valid concern, we are told, because Jesus has been healing so many people and casting out so many unclean spirits that the crowd is pressing in on him. We are also told that when the unclean spirits are coming out of people they are crying out that Jesus is the Son of God, but Jesus is strictly ordering them not to make him known.


Verses 7 and 8 (ESV) tell us that the crowd following Jesus is from “Galilee and Judea and Jerusalem and Idumea and from beyond the Jordan and from around Tyre and Sidon.” In other words, as the ESV Study Bible points out:

Despite serious opposition, Jesus is now known in Galilee, in Judea (including Jerusalem) and Idumea (to the south), in the area beyond the Jordan (to the east …), and in Tyre and Sidon (to the north). All of these regions had belonged to Israel during the time of the judges, and descendants of the 12 tribes have now resettled in these regions following the Babylonian exile.
So Jesus has people coming from all over to see him.

I was confused, earlier in my Christian life, as to why Jesus would so often silence the unclean spirits; they are telling people that Jesus is the Son of God, wouldn’t that be a good thing? It wasn’t until later that it occurred to me (or was pointed out) that it’s about timing; Jesus is not yet ready, at this point, to be crucified, so he doesn’t want the unclean spirits (or anyone else) getting Him crucified before He is ready for it. The ESV Study Bible points out another thing that maybe should have been obvious to me, but didn’t occur to me until they said it: The unclean spirits might have known that it wasn’t time for Jesus to reveal Himself—and therefore, they were trying to mess up his timetable. In other words, they’re trying to actively work against Jesus by telling people who He is. If that’s true (and it seems plausible to me), it’s a real mind-bender: trying to work against the Son of God by proclaiming him to people.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Mark 3:1–6

Mark 3:1–6 (ESV): A Man with a Withered Hand


In this passage Jesus goes into the Jewish synagogue where there happens to be a man with a “withered hand.” The Pharisees obviously know about this man, as well as knowing Jesus’ reputation, so they watch to see if Jesus will heal the man on the Sabbath. Specifically, they watch him “so that they might accuse him” (verse 2 (ESV)).

Jesus, of course, knows what’s up and decides to use this as a teaching moment. He has the man come to him, and then asks the Pharisees, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” (verse 4 (ESV)). They don’t answer him, however, they just stay silent, which angers him. Without even touching the man (that we are told) he asks him to stretch out his hand, and when the man does the hand is healed.

At this point we are not told of any further interaction between Jesus and the Pharisees; they simply immediately run out to hold counsel with Herod’s people on how they might destroy Jesus.


I’m sure I’ve said this before, but there is a certain point of view from which I sympathize with part of what the Pharisees are trying to do: The Messiah would never sin, so if healing on the Sabbath is a sin then doing so would be an obvious proof that Jesus was not the Messiah. And that last part is true: if healing on the Sabbath had been a sin Jesus never would have done it. If Jesus had ever committed a sin, whether breaking the Sabbath or stealing or something else, it would have proven that He wasn’t the Messiah.

The problem is obviously with the first part of the logical construct: healing on the Sabbath wasn’t a sin. This is a case where the Pharisees have constructed their own rules around God’s Law and taken their rules to be more important than the underlying Law itself; in this case, they care more about strict legalism than they do about a human being. (Their laws are sometimes inconsistent; in other places Jesus points these inconsistencies out to them. For some reason, however, the Pharisees never seem to appreciate his help on the matter…)

I do find it interesting, however, that when Jesus calls them out specifically on this issue that they have no answer for him.

And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. (verses 4–5 (ESV))
Is this because they have no good answer for him and they know it? Do they know that they’re just dogmatically clinging to this rule of theirs, realizing that they won’t be able to argue the point properly with Jesus—that they don’t have a leg to stand on? For some reason I’m reminded of Jesus’ message to the church of Laodicea, where He rebukes them for being lukewarm—neither hot nor cold (Revelation 3:14–22 (ESV), especially 15–16 (ESV)). It makes me wonder if Jesus would have been less angry if the Pharisees had actually argued with him on the point, even though they were wrong. Perhaps if they’d had the argument with him, though, he could have made his point? No, probably not.

Anyway, as we see from the story they didn’t. They didn’t say anything as far as we’re told; they just ran straight out to Herod’s people to conspire about “destroying” Jesus. Herod, by the way, is the Jewish King who’s been put in place by the Romans; he doesn’t have a lot of real power, but he has some autonomy to rule the Jewish people. In going to him the Pharisees aren’t making a religious move, they’re making a political one: they are hoping to convince Herod that Jesus is going to be a threat to civic order, which will make the Romans get angry and step in to deal with the situation. This is a ploy the Pharisees try on a number of occasions: if they can show that Jesus isn’t loyal to the Romans then the Romans can deal with him; if they can convince Herod that Jesus is a threat to civil order then maybe Herod can deal with him. If they can’t get rid of him one way, they’ll try another.

Finally, we notice from this passage that anger, in and of itself, is not a sin. Jesus gets angry with the Pharisees in this passage, and grieves at their hardness of heart. Why is He angry with them? Is it because they don’t understand? I don’t think so; compare this with his interaction with Nicodemus in John 3:1–21 (ESV); he’s not happy with Nicodemus (“Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?”), but neither does he seem to be angry at him. Here, though, he is angry with the Pharisees. The difference is that phrase “hardness of heart” which we see in this passage: “And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, …” Nicodemus didn’t understand, and Jesus found that somewhat bothersome—he should have known better as one of the Jews’ leaders—but in this case the Pharisees are being purposely stubborn. It’s not that they don’t understand, it’s that they won’t understand. These are not stupid men; they could have looked into the Scriptures and seen Jesus’ point, but they had no interest in doing so. They were invested in their own system, and had no interest in looking past that, to consider what God really required of them.

The dangerous question, of course, is whether we do the same thing in modern times. (I mean dangerous only to our own egos; it’s actually a necessary question, even though we’d hope that the answer is no.) Are there any aspects of the Christian “religion” or Christian “culture” that we cling to, regardless of what the Scriptures tell us? Any example I can think of would be contrived; maybe the best I can do is, what if a friend needed help and you told them you couldn’t because you have to go to a church event? (A little too “on the nose,” maybe.) Or maybe a friend needs some extra money, but you can’t give it to them because you want to donate that money for the church potluck instead? Or you want to witness to a Muslim friend but your North American (including Christian) friends don’t want you associating with Muslims in any way shape or form?

I don’t know; the problem is that cultural issues are hard to discern—if there are issues where our culture gets in the way of doing what God wants I might not realize it from being blinded by my own cultural biases. It should be a matter of prayer for us, though, and if there are instances where our church culture diverges from the Word, we need to go against the grain—even within our own Christian sub-culture.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Mark 2:23–28

Mark 2:23–28 (ESV): Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath


In this passage Jesus and his disciples are walking through some grainfields one Sabbath, and the disciples are plucking some of the heads of grain as they go. The Pharisees see this and question Jesus about it, saying that His disciples are doing something which is “not lawful on the Sabbath” (verse 24 (ESV)).

However, Jesus reminds the Pharisees of the account in 1 Samuel 21:1–6 (ESV), in which David and his men ate some of the “bread of the Presence”—that is, bread which was only supposed to be eaten by the priests, and even then was only supposed to be eaten in a holy place. Normally it would be against the rules for David and his men to eat this bread, but because of their hunger an exception seems to have been made for them, and the account in 1 Samuel doesn’t seem to indicate that the LORD was in any way displeased about this.

Jesus then sums up this story for the Pharisees:
And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” (verses 27–28 (ESV))


I just finished writing on this blog that I’m putting off my post about the Sabbath because I’m trying to figure out some stuff regarding “Covenant Theology” vs. “New Covenant Theology,” and then the second post I do happens to be about the Sabbath. Oy vey.

Oh well…

The first thing to note when reading this passage is that it is by no means clear that what the disciples are doing in this instance was actually against Jewish law; Jewish law forbade doing “work” on the Sabbath, but in trying to determine what constitutes “work” the Pharisees of Jesus’ day had come up with all kinds of rules, disallowing people from doing all kinds of things. (An example I remember is that if someone came to your house begging and stuck their hands inside your door you could give them some money, but if you reached your hands outside the door to give them money it would count as “work.”) So although they claim that plucking heads of grain constitutes work, it doesn’t mean it was actually work. Ironically enough, the one who would have been best equipped to make this determination was Jesus himself—if you want a good interpretation of God’s Law, the best person to ask is God!

But this is not where Jesus takes the conversation. He doesn’t bother trying to play the game according to the Pharisees’ rules, but instead ignores their legalities and gets to the heart of the matter. As the example with David and his men illustrates, sometimes things are more important than the rules—and oh, how that would have driven the Pharisees crazy, and probably even drives some modern-day Christians crazy today. It would have been so much easier for everyone involved—the Pharisees and the modern-day Christian Bible readers—if Jesus had just taken some time to break it down for the Pharisees: “Look, here’s how it works: These sixteen activities [or sixteen hundred, or sixteen thousand…] are considered ‘work,’ and shouldn’t be performed on the Sabbath, and everything else is cool.” Instead, Jesus went deeper and looked at the reason for the rule, rather than just the rule itself.

The reason we (the royal “we”) would have preferred Jesus to just break it down for us, and tell us what constitutes “work” and what doesn’t, is that it would be easier that way. It’s too messy to say that something might or might not be considered breaking the Sabbath, depending on the larger issues at play. Was it a sin for anyone in the Old Testament Jewish law to eat the bread of the Presence? Normally yes, and there weren’t any exceptions written into the Law saying that in some circumstances it would be okay, yet it still seemed to be okay for David and his men to eat it, because their hunger and need seem to have superseded the law. What do you do with that? What did the Pharisees do with that? How do you adhere to the Law when it’s not always clear what constitutes adherence?

But that’s just it. Jesus’ point isn’t about adherence; he’s not talking about how to obey the Sabbath, he’s more worried about what the Sabbath means. The Sabbath is rest from work; in the New Testament context, we see that as meaning rest from spiritual work—rest from trying to earn your way into salvation through obeying the Law (which is impossible), and instead resting in Jesus’ work. Jesus is our Sabbath. When Jesus tells the Pharisees that he is “lord of the Sabbath” it probably got them thinking he was blaspheming, but what they didn’t realize is that he was actually making an understatement. The Sabbath was instituted because of Him. (We could perhaps even say that He Himself instituted it, but I don’t want to get into trying to split divisions of responsibility within the Trinity; I’d be getting way out of my depth…) The Pharisees were interested in rules and regulations, and not so much interested in worshipping God.

In a sense this passage continues on from the last one; in that passage Jesus started to explain that the very nature of worshipping God has changed, that it’s no longer about rules it’s about Him [Jesus], and in this passage we see something very similar. (I should say: it never was just about following rules, but I’m speaking loosely here.)

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Mark 2:18–22

Mark 2:18–22 (ESV): A Question About Fasting


In this passage some people question Jesus about the practice of fasting. (In Matthew 9:14–17 we are told that it’s John the Baptist’s disciples.) The Pharisees were fasting, and John’s disciples were fasting, but Jesus’ disciples were not, so people wanted to know why. It’s not always easy to see tone in these texts, but my guess would be that the question is somewhat accusatory; not so much “why aren’t you fasting,” but “why aren’t you fasting like you’re supposed to?”

Jesus’ response is to compare himself to a bridegroom: a wedding is a time for celebration not for fasting, so when you’re with the bridegroom of course you don’t fast. Jesus goes on to say that the days will come when the bridegroom—himself—will be taken away, and then his disciples will fast.

Jesus then goes on to say something that seems like a non-sequitor:

No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins. (verses 21–22 (ESV), Jesus speaking)


One obvious example of Jesus’ disciples fasting after the bridegroom was taken away from them would be right after his crucifixion, before he’d risen again. They were quite obviously in a time of mourning then. But even aside from that, the New Testament continues to include the practice of fasting—for example, see Acts 13:2 (ESV)—so this isn’t something that was abolished with New Testament Christianity. We still mourn over sin (and our own sinfulness), and it’s appropriate to do so.

Jesus then gives the metaphors of sewing a new piece of cloth onto an old garment, and putting new wine into old wineskins. These are metaphors for how New Testament Christianity relates to Old Testament Judaism: Christianity is not simply a “patch” on Judaism. If you were to view Christianity as nothing more than an extension of Judaism, a couple of extra rules added to the rules we already had from the Old Testament, you’d be missing some fundamental aspects of Christianity. Definitely there is a sense in which Christianity carries on from Judaism, there is a sense in which it is an extension of what God had already revealed in the Old Testament, it’s even true that Jesus focused most of his evangelism on the Jews, and it wasn’t until He’d gone back to be with the Father that Christians really began the push to evanglize gentiles. But it’s also true that Christianity is fundamentally different than Judaism; it’s not at all about following rules, it’s about faith in Jesus. Jesus is beginning to tell his disciples something that Israelites in the Old Testament could not have understood, or at least not understood fully: that the Law of the Old Testament was never intended to save them, all it could do was point to their need for God to save them.

So my question is this: all of this being understood, why is Jesus making this point right now? The people haven’t asked him about the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament. (They don’t even know something called a “New Testament” or a “New Covenant” is going to be created.) They’ve asked him why his disciples aren’t fasting, and he’s talking about the fact that something entirely new is starting now, which is fundamentally different from the old. What’s going on here?

I hinted at it above: Old Testament Judaism, as people understood it, was about following the rules which had been handed down by God, whereas New Testament Christianity is about faith in Jesus. It’s right there in the name: Christianity. In a word, the difference between the Old and New Testaments is Jesus. Jesus is what Christianity is all about. So think it through: people come to ask Jesus why his disciples aren’t fasting, and Jesus tells them that it’s because the bridegroom is still with them, so fasting isn’t appropriate. Why is it not appropriate? Because Jesus is more than just a teacher, he’s more than even a prophet. If any of the well known rabbis of the day had been there, if Isaiah the prophet had been there, even if Moses had been there, their disciples would have fasted. But Jesus is different; Jesus is their God.

This is what Jesus is trying to teach them. I doubt they got it, I doubt even the twelve got it; it wouldn’t be until after Jesus’ death and resurrection that things would start to get more clear for people. But when the Holy Spirit really started to open their eyes, they would remember teachings such as this one.

Er… maybe I should just come back

As previously mentioned, I was gone for a while for a number of reasons, and my Sabbath and “Covenant vs. New Covenant Theologies” posts were part of it. Now that I’m back to a more regular schedule at work, however, I’ve got these two mostly-written blog posts sitting there, mocking me, teasing me that I may never figure out why Covenant Theologists believe what they believe. (And knowing that if/when any of them read the post, they’ll be sputtering in disbelief, wondering how I can believe what I believe. And though I’m joking about it here, in the post I’m trying to be fair to the side that I don’t understand, assuming that they’ve got some Biblical back-up for their system of theology. That’s what is taking up the most amount of time in writing the post.)

In the meantime, then, as I wrestle with that (off and on), I’m thinking I should just go ahead and get back to my “regular schedule” of going through the Bible, piece by piece, and someday when I finish the two posts I’ll put ’em up.

So that’s my current plan. And I put “regular schedule” in quotes for a reason, because anyone who knows this blog, especially me, knows that the schedule will be anything but regular.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Sorry for the absence

Yes, I’m still alive. There are a couple of circumstances that are causing silence from the blog right now.

The first is simply that I’m travelling weekly for work right now, which leaves little time for reflection and blogging. By the time I get back to my hotel at night I’d rather fall into my bed than dig into a blog post.

The second is that I received a comment on a recent post asking about the Sabbath, and I thought it would be a good comment to respond to. I crafted a very long post on the topic, and then thought that maybe it would be a good idea to get a second opinion. When I did, I ended up writing a second huge piece, as a follow-up, on Covenant Theology vs. New Covenant Theology, since whether one falls into the one camp or the other will drastically impact one’s view on the Sabbath. (If it sounds like dry material, just be thankful I didn’t decide to throw Dispensationalism into the mix…)

At some point both of those posts will be “complete,” and ready for posting. And then hopefully I’ll get back into my regular schedule of posting. (My tongue was so firmly in my cheek when I said “regular schedule” that it almost burst out the other side…)

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Mark 2:13–17

Mark 2:13–17 (ESV): Jesus Calls Levi


In this passage Jesus passes by Levi, who’s sitting at the tax booth, and calls Levi to follow him, which Levi does. Later on Jesus is having dinner not only with Levi but with many other tax collectors and sinners, and the “scribes of the Pharisees” ask Jesus’ disciples why it is that Jesus is willing to eat with them. Then…

And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (verse 17 (ESV))


You’ll often see the phrase “tax collectors and sinners” in the Gospels, and most study bibles that I’ve seen will explain why: tax collectors were considered traitors by the Jews of Jesus’ day, since they were collecting those taxes for the hated Roman government. And if that wasn’t bad enough the whole system of taxation was pretty corrupt, with tax collectors keeping some of the money for themselves—meaning that they’d have incentives to ask for more tax than was really required. So the Jews—not just the Pharisees but all Jews—would have had a number of reasons to dislike Levi right from the get-go.

This passage has Jesus addressing “the scribes of the Pharisees,” and I’m not sure who these people are; usually the scribes and the Pharisees are treated as two separate groups. The ESV footnote says that some transcripts have this as “the scribes and the Pharisees” (emphasis added, obviously), which we see more commonly, and the NIV translates it as “the teachers of the law who were Pharisees” (verse 16 (NIV)); the NASB words it the same as the ESV’s main text, without a footnote. However, I don’t think it matters. Jesus is talking to some form of religious leaders, and we don’t need to split hairs over whether it was scribes, or Pharisees, or a special group of scribes who worked for the Pharisees, or whatever.

I would guess that there are probably some nuances in this passage that have to do with being ceremonially unclean or something along those lines; that as a teacher of the law, the religious leaders would have said that Jesus should refrain from eating with sinners, for fear of being made unclean himself. And I wouldn’t necessarily even fully fault them for that; in the Old Testament laws, it is very easy for one person who is unclean to make another person unclean. Uncleanness passes from person to person faster and more easily than any sickness we’ve ever encountered, except maybe Captain Trips. Not that I’m saying they’re correct in staying away from “sinners,” I’m just saying that there’s a certain logical consistency in why they’re staying away.

But there’s a larger point here, which is just as prevalent in today’s world as it was in theirs: works theology. You see, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day believed the exact same thing that most people have always believed, in every age of the world: If you do good you will be rewarded by God (or a “god,” or “gods”) and earn His favour, and if you do bad you will be punished by God and earn His wrath. The details of how one tries to be good would have been different for the Pharisees of Jesus’ day than how a Jew today would approach it, which would be different from how a Muslim would approach it, which would be different from how a Hindu would approach it. That is, all of these religions have different definitions of what it means to be “good;” they all have different rules and regulations that one must follow. Buddhists have a different outlook yet again, since there isn’t such a focus on a “god” or a “creator”—Buddhism is somewhat agnostic as to whether there even is a “god” or “creator,” although it is considered that too dogmatic a belief in a Supreme God will hinder one’s achievement of enlightenment—so there is a similar focus on doing good but without an emphasis on doing it to please someone else. Any religion or belief system has a focus on trying to do good, given their own definitions of “good” and their own reasons for why doing “good” is a good idea. Even atheists have a focus on doing good, with their reasoning being that since there is only this world and nothing comes after it we should try to make this world as good as possible. In fact, at the time I wrote this post, there had been a lot of focus on doing good by atheists who were tired of the “holier than thou” attitudes of religious people; atheists feel that religion is nonsense, and part of the way they want to prove it is by showing that atheists are just as good as anyone else.

Of course, the Jews of Jesus’ day had a pretty good reason for maintaining their system of beliefs: God told them so. You can’t get more direct than that. This isn’t something they figured out on their own, God came to them and said, “Look, this is who I am, this is how you should worship Me, and this is how you should live your lives. Period.” (Well… I suppose most if not all of the stuff that the Pharisees and other religious leaders added would be in the “they figured it out” category, rather than the revelation category.) It’s obvious, from some of the interactions between Jesus and the religious leaders that they misunderstood some of the things that God had told them, or put the emphasis in the wrong places, but they had His Scriptures upon which to base their beliefs.

I mention this because after 2,000 years of repetition the import of Jesus’ words in verse 17 can sometimes get lost on us, but the truth is that that verse changes everything. That verse (and other passages like it in the New Testament) are the reason that Christianity is different from any other religion or belief system that has ever existed. Whereas every other belief system tells us to be good, to try to please God (or for other reasons), Jesus comes along and says, “Well, actually, you can’t. It’s already too late. You’re already a sinner. There is nothing you could possibly do to please God. But”—and here’s the good news part—“God has come to call you anyway.”

The whole message of Christianity is that we are all sinners, and that our default position is one of being under the wrath of God. There is nothing we can possibly do to earn His favour because righteousness is an all or nothing thing: you have to live every moment of your life in perfect obedience to God, never doing anything that’s displeasing to Him, and if you ever do anything that displeases Him then you’re a sinner and cannot enter into His presence because He is holy. Worse yet, we aren’t sinners because we sin but we sin because we’re sinners—it’s in our nature, ever since the universe was fundamentally altered by the sin of Adam and Eve. So even if it were theoretically possible to live every moment of one’s life in sinless perfection, it’s not realistically possible, because doing so would be against our nature. It is simply not possible to earn God’s favour by doing “good,” regardless of how we define “good”—even by following the Old Testament laws and regulations fully—it is simply outside what humans are able to do.

But it’s not outside what God is able to do. So He came to earth, to call us who were “sick.” What was impossible for us to do, no matter how hard we tried, no matter what kind of rules or regulations we adhered to, God did for us. Christians are definitely called to be good, but not in order to earn God’s favour; they are called to be good in response to the undeserved favour that has already been bestown upon them.

Make no mistake, when Jesus tells the religious leaders that he has not come to call the righteous but the sinners, it does not mean that he considers them to be righteous. They considered themselves to be righteous, but Jesus didn’t; continue reading through Mark, or the other Gospels, and you’ll see many instances of Jesus lambasting them for their misinterpretations of the law and their hypocritical behaviour. (See, for example, Matthew 23.) Jesus is not saying, “I’m speaking to these people because they need to be saved and not speaking to you because you’re already okay with God.” He’s not even saying, “you both need to be saved but these people need to be saved more than you.” (Again, based on Jesus’ harsh words for the religious leaders of his day, he might even have put it the other way around—that the religious leaders needed saving more than the laypeople did.) In fact, I think Jesus is being ironic when he tells the religious leaders that he has not come to call the righteous but the sinners: the fact that the religious leaders thought they were righteous would have been one of the hindrances stopping them from accepting Jesus’ message. If they’d been able to see their sinfulness—the way the tax collectors and sinners did—maybe they would have been more receptive to a message from God that they could be saved from it.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Mark 2:1–12

Mark 2:1–12 (ESV): Jesus Heals a Paralytic


In this passage Jesus is at home in Capernaum, and when people find out that he’s there they essentially swarm the house, so he preaches the word to them. Four men come to the house bringing a paralytic friend of theirs on a bed, hoping for Jesus to heal him, but the crowd is so dense that they aren’t able to get the man in front of Jesus. So, in an act which has subsequently become very famous, they go up onto the roof of the house, remove the roof, and lower the man down to Jesus through the roof.

Instead of being angry about the new hole in his roof, Jesus commends their faith and tells the paralytic that his sins are forgiven. (That first part was a joke; one wouldn’t expect to read about Jesus getting angry with them for putting a hole in his roof.)

However, there are some Jewish scribes in the crowd around Jesus, and they’re not comfortable with Jesus telling the man that his sins are forgiven:

Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (verses 6–7 (ESV))
Jesus realizes this, though, and calls them out on it.

And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? … (verses 8–9 (ESV))
Whereupon Jesus tells the paralytic to get up, pick up his bed, and go home, which the man does—to the amazement of everyone present, who glorify God and say that they’ve never seen anything like this before.


This is another very famous passage, and one that I’m sure has been the source of innumerable sermons, so I doubt I’ll have anything original to say. Of course, when it comes to talking about the Bible, if one thinks one has discovered something new after 2,000 years one is probably either wrong or blaspheming, so I’m not worried about having nothing new to say…

My first thought when reading through this passage is always to wonder if the man was disappointed at Jesus’ initial response: he has come to be healed physically, and instead Jesus has pronounced him healed spiritually. And my response is to assume that no, he probably wasn’t disappointed. This man—and his friends—has come to Jesus in faith, knowing that Jesus can do what is impossible for them to do on their own, and Jesus has taken away the man’s sins. This is the Gospel! I’m especially of this opinion because of Jesus’ initial reaction: he praises the five men for their faith. They haven’t simply come to a healer, they have come to Jesus in faith. True, I’m guessing that that faith was at least in part faith that Jesus could and would heal the man physically, but based on Jesus’ praise of their faith I have to assume that it was more than that, too.

So no, I doubt the man was disappointed, although I have only my own assumptions to go on since the passage doesn’t address this question. Perhaps, if the rest of the story hadn’t played out as it did and he hadn’t been healed of his paralysis, there might have been times throughout the rest of the man’s life in which he would have had moments of disappointment; “I’m glad to be saved from my sins, but I wish Jesus had healed my body, too.” That would be human nature, and although a saved person wouldn’t (I don’t think) be thinking that all the time, I couldn’t blame the person for thinking it on occasion.

Of course this is just unimportant speculation; Jesus was very capable of healing a person’s physical infirmities and he did so here, too. Based on how the rest of the passage plays out it looks like the only reason Jesus doesn’t initially heal the man’s paralysis is that he wants to make this point to the scribes in the room. He had every intention of healing the man both spiritually and physically; he did it in this particular way to make his point to the scribes. (In what is, in my opinion, a rather dramatic way.)

Speaking of which, my initial reaction to the scribes’ reaction is that… yes, they’re absolutely correct. It’s true: Only God can forgive sins, and for anyone other than God to have told that man that his sins were forgiven it would have been blasphemy. I can’t forgive your sins, and neither can my pastor, and neither can anyone else; only God can. The key point that the scribes are obviously missing is that Jesus is God.

So Jesus proves this to the scribes by healing the man and sending him on his way. And I wonder to myself: When it says in verse 12 that they were all amazed, and glorified God saying that they’d never seen anything like that, did the “all” include the scribes? Were they convinced by this action that Jesus really is God?

The deeper reality of course is that it’s actually easier to heal the man’s paralysis than to forgive the man’s sins; both are impossible for humans—perhaps with modern medicine we can heal paralysis, or will be able to someday—but for Jesus, who can do both, it’s actually easier to heal the paralysis than to forgive the man’s sins. But when he claims that the man’s sins are forgiven, for the people sitting around him it is sort of an unprovable thing; how are they to know that the man’s sins are really forgiven? The natural assumption would be that Jesus really is a blasphemer, and that nothing has actually happened. But the healing of the man’s paralysis is indisputable; that can’t be argued. It proves that Jesus really does have power, and the people around Jesus recognize that the power being displayed is the power of God.

Incidentally, when Jesus’ first response is to tell the man that his sins are forgiven, I don’t think it means that the man’s paralysis is the result of some sin(s) that he has committed; in other words, I don’t think that he has been punished by God by being paralyzed. We definitely know from passages such as John 9 (ESV) or Luke 13:1–5 (ESV) that not all physical ailments or other problems in this life come as a result of punishment for sin, so technically this might be a punishment for the man’s sin or it might not be. But I don’t see anything in the passage that indicates that it is, and unless the Bible specifically attributes something to punishment for sin I never assume that it is. This man seems to have been paralyzed for the same reason that the man in John 9 was born blind: to demonstrate God’s power.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


I don’t usually post anything here other than my own Bible readings, but there’s an interesting post on the Bible Gateway blog on meditation. (If you’re looking for additional blogs to subscribe to you could do worse than to add the Bible Gateway blog to your RSS reader. They have the occasional “what’s new on Bible Gateway” posts, which are expected, but most of their posts are on a wide variety of topics that Christians would be interested in, and are usually very interesting and well written.)

I find my own version of “meditating” on the Word is a bit more analytical. (Coming from someone who works as a consultant in the software development world, this probably isn’t too surprising. I’m an analyst at heart.) In fact the reason I continue to maintain this blog, though I am no biblical scholar, is that it helps me with my own personal devotions. I usually start out by reading the passage in question, and then I simply start writing a post with the synopsis and then my thoughts on it. (Yes, yes, I know, my “synopses” are way too long to really be called synopses; they sometimes verge on blow-by-blow descriptions, in which case one would be better off simply reading the passage itself rather than my “summary” of it.) Sometimes I will write out the entire synopsis first and then move on to write my thoughts, and sometimes I flip back and forth between the two, writing a summary of part of the passage, then putting my thoughts, then going on and doing the same for the next part of the passage.

Very often what I originally intend to write is not what ends up getting written. The process of working my way through the passage to write about it helps me to hone my thoughts on it, and the impression that I have upon “first reading” is not always the impression I have by the end. (I put “first reading” in quotes because I’ve always read the passage before—though it might have been a long time ago in some cases—but that means that I often come to a particular passage with some preconceived notions about what it’s about, and they don’t always hold up upon closer reading.)

Sometimes these changes are minor, sometimes major. One example I can think of is the last passage I wrote about before this post, and Jesus telling the man cleansed of a skin disease to show himself to the priests “for a proof to them.” I’d originally planned to write that of course Jesus was saying this because he was using this miracle as proof to the priests that He was the Son of God; by the time I’d finished writing the post, and thinking more about the fact that at that point Jesus was trying not to draw attention to himself for fear of harming his ministry, I’d come away from that opinion. Or, at the very least, I was no longer sure. Other cases (none of which occur to me now) have been more serious, and caused me to actually change my mind on certain things. Not “life or death things,” but if I have a misunderstanding of any part of the Bible I consider it to be serious.

Looking up related passages of Scripture is also very helpful when writing these posts, and, therefore, in helping my understanding of the Bible. I don’t always do this, but sometimes I do. It could be looking up Old Testament passages that are referred to in the New Testament, or it could be looking at how the different Gospels relate the same story, or it could be looking at different passages that discuss the same general topic. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8 (ESV)), and that means that looking at His thoughts on things at different points in the Bible is always helpful in gaining an understanding of His overall thoughts on that topic.

And let’s not mince words, that’s what the Bible is: the thoughts (or the Word) of God. The better we understand it the better we understand Him. The better we understand Him the more we will worship Him—which is what we were created to do. So meditating on His Word is more than just a study in learning; it’s an act of communion with the One who made us and wants our fellowship.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Mark 1:40–45

Mark 1:40–45 (ESV): Jesus Cleanses a Leper


In the last passage Jesus was preaching and healing people with demons, and this passage continues this trend. I’ll just quote the beginning, to set the stage for the passage:

And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.” (verses 40–41 (ESV))
(The ESV footnote mentions that the term “leprosy” doesn’t necessarily mean that disease specifically; it was a general term used for several skin diseases.)

There’s something about Jesus’ response that I especially like; “I will; be clean.”

Anyway, the disease immediately leaves the man, and Jesus “sternly [charges]” him (verse 43 (ESV)) to:
  1. Say nothing to anyone
  2. Show himself to the priest to make the appropriate offering for the cleansing (see Leviticus 14:1–32 (ESV)), and “for a proof to them”
Of course the man follows neither of these instructions, and instead goes out telling everyone what Jesus has done for him, resulting in Jesus being unable to open enter towns and instead having to carry on his ministry in the wilderness. However, people are still “coming to him from every quarter” (verse 45 (ESV)), so his word is still getting to the people.


The actual healing/cleansing of this man with a skin disease isn’t so unusual when it comes to Jesus; throughout the Gospels Jesus heals many people, ridding them of demons or cleansing them of skin diseases or healing them of infirmities such as blindness.

It is interesting, though, that Jesus tells the man to go and see the priest and present the appropriate offering for his cleansing. The laws regarding offering sacrifices for uncleanness are about to be made obsolete by Jesus’ once for all offering, but at this point they are still in effect, and the man should be following them. Interestingly, however, the laws also state that Jesus shouldn’t be touching this man, or else he will be made unclean—in the Old Testament laws uncleanness can be spread more easily than the common cold—but Jesus goes ahead and touches him. Jesus is the Holy One of God, nothing can make him unclean.

But the other reason Jesus tells the man to go to the priest is “for a proof to them.” One reason for this might be to restore the man’s social position; suffering from a skin disease he would have been forced to live alone, outside of the community (Leviticus 13:45–46 (ESV)). Only once he is restored to being clean can he go back into the community, and so showing himself to the priest and offering the appropriate sacrifices would allow him back. It’s also possible that Jesus is using the healing of this man as “proof” to the religious leaders that Jesus is who he says that he is.

Another interesting thing about this passage is Jesus commanding the man not to tell anyone about this miracle. It is interesting firstly because it means that Jesus healed this man because he cared about him; he didn’t do it just to offer further proof of his divinity and to have his fame grow. (Which goes against the idea that he might have been sending the man to the priests in order to display his power to them.) But it’s interesting secondly because it means that Jesus wants to do something—go into towns and villages and preach—and is going to be prevented from doing so because of the actions of this man. The fact that Jesus is fully man and fully God is a mystery to us, and in passages like this we see that there are sometimes things Jesus doesn’t know, or doesn’t have control over, such as giving instructions to a man which aren’t followed, resulting in Jesus’ initial plan having to be changed. Probably the most dramatic example of this is Jesus’ prayer before his crucifixion, when he asks the Father, if it be possible, to take the cup from him. (See Matthew 26:36–46.) What we see in any instance where things don’t go as Jesus would have hoped, however, is that (of course) he handles the setback in a holy and blameless way: In the garden when the Father cannot remove the responsibility from Him, He goes to his death on the cross; in this instance, when He can’t enter the cities openly, He carries on his ministry in the wilderness.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Mark 1:35–39

Mark 1:35–39 (ESV): Jesus prays


The ESV title for this section is “Jesus Preaches in Galilee,” but to me that’s only a postscript to the main action in this passage. (Not that I claim to have the insight that the ESV translators/editors had, but still, it’s my blog.)

In the last passage Jesus had healed many people and driven out demons. This passage begins the next morning, where we find Jesus waking up very early in the morning to go to a private place and pray. Simon and some others go searching for Jesus because everyone is looking for him, and Jesus tells them that they are going to go to the nearby towns to preach, since that is why Jesus “came out” (verse 38 (ESV)).

So Jesus (and, presumably, the disciples) go throughout Galilee, preaching in the synagogues and casting out demons.


For me, the main point I take away from this passage is this: when Jesus was here on earth, he prayed. And he didn’t just pray from time to time; we find Jesus praying a lot in the Gospels, and he often goes off to a solitary place, as he does in this passage, so that he can pray without being disturbed. (Sometimes he gets disturbed anyway, and he deals with that, but his intent is always to find a way of being able to devote himself to his prayer.)

If Jesus, who is God, spent so much time in prayer, and took prayer so seriously, then how can we, who are ordinary sinful humans, not consider prayer of utmost importance? Part of the problem, of course, is that of our sinful nature. We often don’t want to be in communion with God, because we feel the guilt of our sin when faced with Him. But, as we all know, that’s precisely when we should be going to Him in prayer.

In verse 38 Jesus says that preaching is why he “came out.” I’m not sure what is meant by that wording—“came out”—but it’s translated differently in different versions.

And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” (verse 38 (ESV))
Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” (verse 38 (NIV))
He said to them, “Let us go somewhere else to the towns nearby, so that I may preach there also; for that is what I came for.” (verse 38 (NASB))
The intent seems to simply be this is why Jesus came, full stop. The ESV wording, of came out, I’m not sure about, and my quick look in a couple of study bibles didn’t turn anything up. The ESV footnotes don’t have any detail about the wording either. So… I’m not going to worry about it.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Mark 1:29–34

Mark 1:29–34 (ESV): Jesus Heals Many


In the last passage Jesus had healed a man with an unclean spirit, and in this passage he goes on to heal numerous other people. It starts with him going to Simon and Andrew’s house, along with James and John—you may recall that these four men are the disciples Jesus has called so far—but at the house he finds that Simon’s mother-in-law is ill with a fever. So Jesus takes her by the hand and lifts her up, and the fever leaves her and she begins to serve them.

That evening the whole city gathers at the house, bringing “all who were sick or oppressed by demons” (verse 32 (ESV)). Jesus heals many of them—the passage specifically says “many,” rather than “all,” but I don’t know if that’s significant—and prevents the demons from speaking “because they knew him” (verse 34 (ESV)).


The passage specifically mentions that the people waited until sundown before bringing people to Jesus to be healed, and the ESV Study Bible indicates that this was because of the Sabbath rules.

There are a couple of interesting things about this passage. One is a point that I’d alluded to in a previous post: Jesus wouldn’t let the demons speak, because they knew him—but for a long time I wondered, why was that a bad thing? Wouldn’t it be good for the demons to go around spreading the word that the Messiah had arrived? Based on various commentaries and sermons and whatnot I now believe this is because of timing: God had a particular time set aside when Jesus was going to be sacrificed, and if his fame spread too quickly the religious leaders would have made their move sooner. God was not yet ready for Jesus to die, so he didn’t.

The other interesting thing in this passage—and I’m betting that numerous sermons have been preached on this, although I think we need to be careful not to push the point too far—is that when Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law she immediately begins to serve him and the disciples. Is there a lesson in this for us? A metaphor? When Jesus heals us of our sins, we are to serve Him? It may be valid to make this connection, although I wouldn’t think we should put a lot of weight on it.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Mark 1:21–28

Mark 1:21–28 (ESV): Jesus Heals a Man with an Unclean Spirit


This passage takes place on the Sabbath. Jesus enters the synagogue and teaches the people, who are astonished at this teaching because he seems to have authority—unlike the scribes. But while he is still teaching a man with an unclean spirit stands up and cries out at him:

“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.” (verse 24 (ESV))
Rather than acknowledging that the unclean spirit is correct, and that he is indeed the Holy one of God—which, I’ll be honest, I had sort of expected him to do when I first read this passage—Jesus rebukes the spirit, and tells it to be silent and come out of the man. The spirit does so, with a final loud cry for good measure, and the people are amazed by all of this. Not only does this man teach with authority, he even has authority over demons—he tells one to come out, and it obeys him! So because of this Jesus’ fame spreads throughout the region.


I don’t have a specific source for this, but when it says that Jesus taught “as one who had authority, and not as the scribes” (verse 22 (ESV)), this isn’t just a slam on the scribes; it’s really a reflection of the scribes’ entire manner of teaching. They wouldn’t (or couldn’t?) simply open up the Scriptures and tell the people what those Scriptures meant; instead they would be passing on the traditions of other Jewish scholars who had come before. “When Isaiah says such and such, this tradition says that what he meant was this, while this other tradition says that what he meant was that” type of a thing. But Jesus has no need to cite anyone else, nor does he need to temper his opinions with those of others; Jesus knows what the Scriptures mean—he wrote them, after all!—so he can simply say to the people, “When Isaiah says such and such this is what it means…”

I’m not saying that it’s wrong for modern-day preachers to cite the teachings of others, and temper their own opinions with the opinions of others. In fact there are some passages of the Bible that are very contentious and/or confusing, and I think it’s not only acceptable but proper for a preacher to call these types of controversies out to people. But that’s because there are some things that we, as humans, don’t yet understand. Jesus, on the other hand, though he was fully human was also fully God, and didn’t have the same limitations in preaching that we have. It doesn’t matter how confusing or how contentious any piece of Scripture is, Jesus knows what it means and knows how it should apply to each of us. This is, of course, obvious to us, but it wouldn’t have been as obvious to the people in the synagogue in this story.

I mentioned above something that I’d wondered when I first read this passage (why Jesus didn’t acknowledge that the unclean spirit was correct about him being the Holy One of God), but there’s another aspect that I still wonder about. Check out the relevant passage:

But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him. (verses 25–26 (ESV))
It’s a minor point, perhaps, but Jesus tells the spirit to be silent, but the spirit cries out with a loud voice as it’s coming out of the man. How was the spirit able to cry out after being commanded by the Son of God to be silent? This might be an area where understanding the Greek might help; maybe when Jesus says “be silent” it doesn’t mean “noiseless” but just “don’t speak,” so crying out isn’t part of that. I have a feeling that if Jesus were to tell me to be silent I wouldn’t be able to conjure up the ability to make a single peep…

But of course that’s not the point of this passage, the point of this passage is Jesus’ authority. He teaches the Scriptures with authority—he is, if you’ll pardon the pun, the author of those Scriptures, so he has the right and the ability to teach them authoritatively—and even has the authority to command a demon to leave a man, leaving the demon no ability to argue or disobey.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Mark 1:16–20

Mark 1:16–20 (ESV): Jesus Calls the First Disciples


In this passage Jesus passes the Sea of Galilee where he sees Simon and Andrew—brothers—who are fishing. He tells them to follow him and he will make them “fishers of men” (verse 17 (ESV)), so they leave their jobs and follow him to be his disciples. He then comes across James and John, also fishermen (and brothers), and calls them as well. They leave behind their father and his servants and also follow Jesus.


This is a pretty short passage, and one about which I have little to say. (I’m 90% sure that’s proper grammar, and 95% sure it’s awkwardly worded.) The only thing I note is that when Jesus calls his disciples he purposely does not call them from the religious elite; Jesus doesn’t choose Pharisees or rabbis to be his disciples, but ordinary Jewish laypeople. That doesn’t mean that all of the disciples were poor—we note here that James and John’s family business included servants, which means that they were probably doing pretty well—but it does mean that they weren’t religious leaders. I’m sure that the religious leaders of the time would have assumed that a Messiah would include them as his disciples, rather than laypeople.

That’s not to say that Jesus couldn’t have changed the hearts of the religious leaders too, if he’d wanted to; we immediately think of Paul, who was a Pharisee and went on to write a good portion of the New Testament. I’d argue that Paul’s thorough understanding of the old covenant made him uniquely able to understand the new covenant even better. But for the men Jesus chose to be his closest disciples, he wanted laypeople, not religious leaders.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Mark 1:9–15

Mark 1:9–15 (ESV): The Baptism of Jesus, The Temptation of Jesus, and Jesus Begins His Ministry


Mark’s gospel is a very fast-paced one; things are always happening “immediately.” There is a chance that my own writing will take on a Mark-like characteristic and I’ll be tossing off blog posts quickly; we’ll have to see how things go. Here we’ll look at three events that Mark reports on in quick succession.

First, in verses 9–11 (ESV), is Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist. As opposed to, say, the account in Matthew, Mark gives us only the bare details: Jesus comes from Nazareth to where John the Baptist is baptizing people in the Jordan River, and is baptized. As he is coming out of the water he sees the Spirit descending on him like a dove, and hears a voice from heaven saying, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (verse 11 (ESV)).

After his baptism the Spirit “immediately” drives him into the wilderness where he stays for forty days, being tempted by Satan and being ministered to by angels.

After the forty days—and after John the Baptist is arrested—Jesus goes into Galilee and starts proclaiming “the gospel of God” (verse 14 (ESV)), and saying that the time is fulfilled, and now it is time to repent and start believing in that gospel.


Baptism is a symbol of something that has happened to us: when we are baptised it is a symbol that we have died to our old natures (going under the water being a symbol of dying), and raised anew to new life (coming up out of the water). Not that I’m looking to have an argument about full-submission baptism vs. sprinkling; that’s not my point. The water used in baptism is also a symbol of God cleansing us from our sins. None of this, however, applies to Jesus, who had no sins to be cleansed of, who had no sinful nature to die to, and who had no need to raise again to a new life since his life was holy in the first place. However, the ESV Study Bible (credit where credit is due) points out that Jesus underwent baptism as a way of identifying with the sins of his people.

In this passage Mark indicates that Jesus is tempted for forty days by Satan; this means that the accounts given to us in Matthew and Luke are only a summary of the interaction between Jesus and the devil, not a full account. We are being given only what we need to know, not a full blow-by-blow of the minutiae of Jesus’ life. In fact Mark decides to tell us nothing about the temptations at all; the fact that Satan tempted Jesus for forty days is all that’s important, the actual words used by Satan aren’t (for Mark).

Notice the wording in verses 14–15, when Mark talks about Jesus preaching the gospel:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (verses 14–15 (ESV), emphasis added)
That “and saying” is important, because it means that what Jesus says next isn’t the gospel, it’s something additional. He proclaimed the gospel and he told people that the kingdom of God is at hand and instructed them to repent and believe. I only mention this because the day before I wrote this post I’d heard a sermon where a preacher was mentioning that many people don’t know what the gospel is, and a casual reader might gloss over the “and” in this passage and think that telling people the kingdom is at hand and people need to repent is the gospel. The gospel is more than that; this is another case (even more obvious this time) where we are not given everything that Jesus said, we are only given the tail end of it.

Which means that now I probably have to say what the gospel is, don’t I? A very high level summary might go something like this: God created the universe and everything in it, and therefore has the right to do whatever He wishes with all of it. His “crowning achievement” in creation was us, humans, who bear His image. When He created us He laid down a standard of living for us, which, although these words are not recorded as being given to Adam and Eve, could probably be summed up with the phrase “be holy as I am holy.” God, being a righteous and holy God, will not stand sin to be in His presence, so this standard of living is actually vitally important to having a relationship with Him. However, humans did not live up to the standard and sin entered the world, breaking the relationship between God and His people. In fact the nature of humanity was fundamentally changed to the point that humans are now intrinsically sinful; we are not sinners because we sin, but we sin because we are sinners. This introduced a problem because God is a loving God and wants a relationship with His people, but is also a Holy God and therefore can’t allow sin to come into His presence, but is also a just God and so can’t just let the sin go unpunished—it has to be paid for somehow. He solved this problem, and still adhered to all three of these aspects of His character, by sending his Son, Jesus Christ, to earth as a human; the only human who ever lived a sinless life, and who therefore didn’t deserve to be punished. Jesus, however, allowed himself to be punished anyway, taking upon Himself the punishment for sins that others had committed, making those people “clean” and solving the problem: the sins they committed were removed from them, allowing them into a relationship with God; God’s love for them is no longer hindered by this “sin problem;” and because the sins were punished, God is not being unjust and simply letting the sin go. (This last part is probably the hardest to understand in our modern ears; the idea of sin being important is completely foreign to us. Our inclination would be to say to God that He should simply ignore the sin and forget about it. Even a casual reading of the Bible should indicate to us that this isn’t possible, that sin is remarkably important, but we don’t read our Bibles as we should—even the Christians.)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Mark 1:1–8

Mark 1:1–8 (ESV): John the Baptist Prepares the Way


Mark’s Gospel begins with John the Baptist, dressed in clothes made out of camel hair and wearing a leather belt, eating locusts and wild honey, and “baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (verse 4 (ESV)).

John also foretells Jesus’ imminent arrival:

And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (verses 7–8 (ESV))
Mark tells us that this is fulfilling something told of by Isaiah (though he then quotes both Isaiah and Malachi—see the Thoughts section):

Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. (Malachi 3:1 (ESV))
A voice cries:
  “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD;
  make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (Isaiah 40:3 (ESV))


When I read the description of John the Baptist’s clothing I wonder to myself why Mark makes a point of mentioning that his belt is made out of leather. Was that uncommon in John’s day? It’s very common in my day—most belts are made out of leather—so it’s odd to see it being specifically mentioned by Mark. Aside from that cultural issue, though, the ESV Study Bible points out that John the Baptist’s clothing corresponds to that of other desert preachers. On the other hand, we tend to think it odd that he was eating locusts and wild honey, whereas the study notes tell us:

Locusts and wild honey were not an unusual source of food for people living in the desert (on locusts, see Dead Sea Scrolls, Damascus Document 12.14–15). The desert locust (Gk. akris) is a large grasshopper, still eaten today by poorer people in the Middle East and Africa. (part of an ESV Study Bible note from Matthew 3:4)
The Study Bible also explains why Mark only says he’s quoting Isaiah when he’s also quoting from Malachi:

Isaiah the prophet is named because he was more prominent and more of the quoted material comes from him. When the text is expounded in the following verses, Mark refers only to the Isaiah citation. (part of an ESV Study Bible note on verses 2–3)