Thursday, November 21, 2013

Mark 12:35–37

Mark 12:35–37 (ESV): Whose Son is the Christ?


In the last passage Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment and his answer shut the conversation down to the point that nobody dared ask him anymore questions. So in this passage he asks them a question.

His question is how the scribes (the teachers of the law) can claim that the Christ is the son of David, when David calls the Christ his Lord? Jesus is referring to Psalm 110:1 (ESV):

The LORD says to my Lord:
    “Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.”
So, Jesus asks, if David himself calls the Christ “Lord,” then how can the Christ be David’s son?

The passage doesn’t relate the religious leaders’ reaction to this question, but we are told that the “throng heard him gladly” (verse 37 (ESV)).


The question Jesus asks here is a difficult one—or at least, it would have been for the crowd Jesus was speaking to in this passage. The Old Testament Scriptures clearly say that the Christ will be a descendent of David—calling a descendent his “son” is a figure of speech—but then we also have this passage from Psalm 110 where David calls the Christ “Lord,” which wouldn’t make sense if the Messiah is David’s descendent. It’s not Jesus’ intent to try to prove that the Christ is not David’s son, he is just trying to show the scribes that the situation is more complicated than they realize.

In fact, the Old Testament passages talking about the Christ don’t really make sense until we look back at Jesus’ life in retrospect; when we see how he was born, how he’s related to David, but also keep in mind that Jesus is truly God incarnate, it starts to make sense that yes, he is both David’s “Son” and his “Lord.” I don’t think any of the religious leaders contemplated God Himself being born as the Christ; if it had been suggested they probably would have considered it a blasphemous idea. How can God, the creator of all the universe, come and be born as a person? They definitely thought the Christ would be blessed by God, but they never thought he would be God—but, as Jesus points out, if you believe that the Christ will be just a man, then Psalm 110:1 no longer makes sense.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Mark 12:28–34

Mark 12:28–34 (ESV): The Great Commandment


In the last passage Jesus swatted down some Sadducees who wanted to fight about the resurrection. In this passage we are told that one of the scribes overheard that conversation and was impressed with the answer Jesus gave, so he asks Jesus a further question: Which commandment is the most important one?

Jesus goes him one better and offers two commandments:
  1. He first quotes Deuteronomy 6:4–5 (ESV), saying: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”
  2. He then says that the second most important commandment is from Leviticus 19:18 (ESV), which tells us to love our neighbour as ourself.
The scribe tells Jesus that he agrees with him, and says that to love God with all heart, understanding, and strength, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself, are much more than any burnt offerings or sacrifices (verse 33 (ESV)). Jesus then tells the man that he is not far from the kingdom of God, after which nobody asks Jesus any more questions.


I’m not 100% sure if this scribe is testing Jesus or if he’s really honestly asking. He seems to be testing Jesus, and his response to Jesus’ response indicates that he thought he knew the answer all along. (In retrospect, it seems very condescending for him to have told the Word of God that he is correct in his answer, as he would have if Jesus were a student.) The only thing that makes me hesitate is Jesus’ attitude toward the scribe; when asked the question he seems to be answering it seriously, and when the scribe condescends to tell Jesus that he was correct Jesus replies positively: this man is not far from the kingdom of God. I’m wondering, therefore, if this man really was engaging in an actual dialogue with Jesus, not just testing him. At the very least, even if it was a test, Jesus sees into the man’s heart and knows that the conversation is going to end in a positive place.

What’s interesting to me—and I honestly don’t know if this would have been surprising for Jesus’ listeners or not—is that when asked about the most important commandment Jesus doesn’t give any of the ten commandments, which are the ones that so many of us consider to be the “big ones.” This kind of goes toward what the scribe said back to Jesus: loving God supremely, and loving others as much as you love yourself, are more important than any sacrifices, more important than any laws, even the ten commandments.

Actually, there’s another interesting point on the commands Jesus lists: If you actually go to Leviticus 19:18 (ESV) and read the whole verse, loving your neighbour is only part of that verse:

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.
Interesting! Loving your neighbour is just part of a larger command, that the Israelites were not to take vengeance. In fact, it’s simply given as contrast to the vengeance. What’s the opposite of taking vengeance? Loving your neighbour as you love yourself. So the command, as given to the Israelites, is that they shouldn’t take vengeance but should love people; when Jesus is asked about the greatest command he gives only the second half of that: love people. In reading the original command I would have seen the emphasis as being on the prohibition against vengeance, and the concept of loving people as just reinforcing the point; apparently Jesus sees loving people as actually being the primary focus of this command, and not taking vengeance as something that comes from loving people properly.

It has been said many times that all other laws fall out of these two laws; that if you were to keep these two rules perfectly you would, by their very nature, also be keeping all of the other rules. Actually I guess I wouldn’t go quite that far; I think that statement applies to Christians, but maybe not to Israelites under the Old Testament laws. For example, if you love God supremely and love your neighbours as yourself then it would naturally follow that you wouldn’t murder anyone, you wouldn’t steal, you wouldn’t commit adultery, there are a bunch of things that would naturally come from that, but there are, for example, some dietary laws that you wouldn’t obey unless you knew the law and made an effort to obey it. You can love God supremely and love your neighbour as yourself, but it wouldn’t follow naturally to not eat pork unless you were specifically told not to eat pork. But maybe I’m splitting hairs on that.

I sometimes hear Christians talking about this passage as if loving God supremely were the easy part and loving our sinful neighbours is the hard part, but I don’t know that I agree with that. I mean, I definitely agree that it’s sometimes difficult to love our neighbours; we have a habit of holding them accountable for their sins in a way that we don’t hold ourselves accountable for our own, and of course when we do that it’s difficult to love them properly. But I don’t know that I agree with it being easy, or easier, to love God as we should. Because of the great sin we carry around with us, I think it’s sometimes difficult to see God for who He is, and I think we sometimes instinctively pull away from getting too close to him. I’m guessing that most Christians who read that statement would mostly disagree—“of course I want to be close to God!”—but that there might be a small part of their mind (which they’re trying to ignore) which says that, yeah, it’s kind of true, it can be uncomfortable to get too close to God because the closer you get to Him, the more you compare and contrast yourself to Him, and the more terrible you look in your own eyes.

I think there is also a fear of the consequences—fear of what He might ask of us. I heard a sermon by Timothy Keller recently in which he was mentioning a conversation he’d had with a woman in his church, the general argument of which was that Grace is actually a scary thing: if it were up to us to get to God, if we got there on our own merit by following particular rules or by doing particular things, then there would only be so much that He could ask of us, but if it’s all due to Grace, if we did nothing to deserve it and He did everything, then there is no limit as to what He can ask of us. When we come to terms with that, when we realize that God is not only loving toward us but also has the right to make demands of us, loving Him might not seem like such a no-brainer.

Thanks to Grace, however, it is something that our new natures crave, even if our old natures cringe from it. This is part of the struggle the Christian faces: our new nature wants to get close to God, wants to love Him, and anything He asks of us our new nature wants to do, knowing that doing so will make us more like Him, and draw us closer to Him; our sinful natures, on the other hand, are very much afraid of what He’ll ask of us, what He’ll ask us to do, what He’ll ask us to give up.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Mark 12:18–27

Mark 12:18–27 (ESV): The Sadducees Ask About the Resurrection


I wrote about the parallel passage for this in Matthew 22:23–33, and there’s not much to add over what I said there. The Sadducees come to Jesus with what they believe is a gotcha question, trying to make him look foolish for believing in the resurrection, and Jesus doesn’t even bother to engage in the discussion with them—he just tells them a number of times that they’re wrong. They’re wrong because they know “neither the Scriptures nor the power of God” (verse 24 (ESV)), they’re wrong because they misunderstand what the resurrection will be like (verse 25 (ESV)), and they’re wrong for not believing in the resurrection in the first place (verses 26–27 (ESV)). They are, overall, “quite wrong” (verse 27 (ESV)).


It’s fun to see Jesus going after the Sadducees in this way; he doesn’t just dispute them, he shuts them down. In North America we like clean, crisp answers, and Jesus’ response to the Sadducees leaves no room for interpretation, no wiggle room: Yes, there is a resurrection, and you’re “wrong” for not believing so. Period. Done.

We should recognize, however, as Christians, that there are very few conversations we enter into with non-believers that should go this route. When we enter into a conversation with non-believers it’s rare that our approach should be to shut them down the way that Jesus shuts down the Sadducees in this passage; almost always our approach should be one of having a dialogue, understanding where they’re coming from, the intent being not to prove them wrong (or make them shut up) but to show them the truth of the Gospel. It’s very true that they will probably have to give up some of their incorrect beliefs in order to see the truth of the Gospel, but our intent is only to get past that so they can absorb the truth. By all means disagree with people when you need to because they will believe things that aren’t correct, but then move past that as quickly as possible to get to the heart of the issue, don’t dwell on it.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Mark 12:13–17

Mark 12:13–17 (ESV): Paying Taxes to Caesar


This passage is pretty explicit as to what’s going on: some of the religious leaders (the Pharisees and some Herodians—meaning followers of Herod) want to “trap” Jesus and get him in trouble. After some blatantly fake compliments they ask him if Jews should pay taxes to Caesar or not. The reason this would get Jesus in trouble is that they believe there’s no way he can answer the question that won’t get him in trouble with someone:
  • If he says yes, Jews should pay taxes to the Romans, the Pharisees believe the people will turn on Jesus. The Jews aren’t happy about being under Roman rule, and so the idea of paying taxes to the Romans is loathsome to them. Add to this the fact that they believe Jesus is the Messiah—and that their understanding of the Messiah is that he’s a military leader who is about to overthrow the Romans—and the religious leaders think this will be enough to get the people to turn against Jesus.
  • If he says no, the Jews should not pay taxes to the Romans, the Pharisees believe they can have Jesus tried for treason against the Romans.
Jesus, of course, sees immediately what’s going on. “Why put me to the test?” he asks (verse 15 (ESV)), and then has them show him a Roman coin. He points out to them that the face and the inscription on the coin are Caesar’s, and then renders his thinking on the matter: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” This seems to shut the Pharisees and Herodians up, they simply “marvel” (verse 17 (ESV)), and don’t ask any further questions.


The religious leaders see this as an either/or situation, which is why they thought they had Jesus trapped. He could get himself in trouble with either the people or with the Romans, but he couldn’t please both: you either support the hated Romans or you support God and the Jewish people. Jesus pointed out that, no, it’s not either/or: you should pay your taxes and support the work of God.

I also talked about this in the parallel passage in Matthew 22:15–22, but this type of thinking can also creep into our modern-day perspective as well. “Why should I be supporting the government,” we sometimes think, “instead of helping the poor and giving to my church?” To which Jesus would reply that you should be doing both: the government demands taxes and you should be paying them, and you should also be helping the poor and giving to your church.

I wrote this at a time when Barack Obama, a Democrat, was President of the USA, and a lot of Republicans (many of whom would call themselves Christian) didn’t want to pay taxes to someone they didn’t vote for, but Jesus wouldn’t accept that argument. The Jews definitely didn’t vote for the Romans, but that didn’t factor into Jesus’ thinking on the matter!

Friday, August 16, 2013

Mark 12:1–12

Mark 12:1–12 (ESV): The Parable of the Tenants


In the last passage the religious leaders had questioned Jesus’ authority to do the things he was doing and say the things he was saying, but he turned the question around on them and showed that they had relinquished their own responsibility as leaders by not behaving as they should in spiritual leadership of the people. This parable continues this point.

This is a fairly straightforward parable, I think, the link above to the passage will bring you to the text, but it helps to have the “cast of characters” in your head as you read it:
  • The man who planted the vineyard is God
  • The vineyard is the nation of Israel
  • The tenants are the Jewish religious leaders
  • The servants which were sent are, I think, the Old Testament prophets
  • The man’s son is, of course, Jesus
And I’ve talked before that when the Bible talks about “fruit,” it’s talking about good works. In the Old Testament context, that would mainly mean obedience to God’s laws and precepts.

With this in mind, we have a very straightforward telling of the history of Israel:

God created a nation, and put in charge religious leaders to guide the nation and help them obey God. When God sent His prophets to inquire about this obedience the religious leaders beat or killed the prophets, or otherwise sent them away empty-handed. Finally God sent his own Son, but the religious leaders still didn’t produce the obedience they were meant to produce—instead they killed the Son. And for this reason God is taking the nation of Israel away from the Jewish religious leaders, and giving it to others. (Spiritually speaking.)
The religious leaders definitely saw this meaning, or something like it, because they want away after this parable seeking to have Jesus arrested, knowing that he had told it against them.


The one additional thought I had was on the phrasing in verse 6 (ESV):

“He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’”
It probably goes without saying, but this is not indicating that God was taken by surprise when He sent Jesus into the world, thinking that the religious leaders would accept Him and then suddenly realizing that, “Oh no—they’re going to kill him!” The man in the parable talks that way for the sake of telling the story; in the real version, God knew—and intended!—all along what would happen to Jesus. It was the plan from the beginning.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Mark 11:27–33

Mark 11:27–33 (ESV): The Authority of Jesus Challenged


In this passage Jesus and his disciples return once again to the temple, where it turns out that the religious leaders have had enough: They demand to know by whose authority Jesus is doing and saying the things he’s doing and saying. But rather than answering directly Jesus decides to give them a test: if they can tell him whether the baptism of John the Baptist was from heaven or from man—in other words whether it was ordained by God—then he’ll tell them under whose authority he is acting.

The religious leaders discuss it amongst themselves, and have a bit of a dilemma: they can’t say the baptism came from God, or Jesus’ response will be that they should therefore have believed John, but they are afraid to say that the baptism only came from man because the Jewish people believe that John really was a prophet, and the religious leaders are afraid of the people’s response. So they wimp out and tell Jesus that they don’t know the answer, and so he refuses to tell them by what authority he does the things he does.


There is a bit more than just clever word games going on in this section. What Jesus is really pointing out—to the people more than to the religious leaders, I think—is that the religious leaders have given up their moral authority. They clearly believe that John the Baptist was a false prophet, but if they, as religious leaders, truly believe that, then they should stand up and say so. For the sake of their own consciences, as well as for the sake of the people! If John was a false prophet then it would be up to the religious leaders to protect the people from his false teachings.

So one of two things is going on here: either the religious leaders aren’t able to discern whether John was a true or false prophet, or they have made a determination but are unwilling to stand up and say so. Either way, they are not suited to be religious leaders of the people of Israel.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Mark 11:12–25

Mark 11:12–25 (ESV): Jesus Curses the Fig Tree, Jesus Cleanses the Temple, The Lessen from the Withered Fig Tree


I’m combining three ESV sections together into one post, because the episode with the fig tree is broken up into two pieces, with another passage in between.

In the last passage we read about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, actively proclaiming himself as king, though, as I’m always so quick to point out, not the type of king the crowd was expecting. (“You’re God, the Creator of all the universe? Who cares, I just want you to defeat the Romans!”) But when he arrived in the city it was late, so they just looked around a bit and left for Bethany. In this passage Jesus and the Apostles are coming back from Bethany to Jerusalem, and on the way Jesus notices a fig tree in leaf so he goes in search of figs but finds none because it’s not the season for figs. He then says to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again” (verse 14 (ESV)).

They then continue on to Jerusalem, whereupon Jesus enters the temple and starts driving out the people who are buying and selling there and overturning the tables of the money changers and people selling pigeons. Of course, he tells them why:

And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” (verse 17 (ESV))
The chief priests and scribes don’t share his zeal for “cleansing” the temple, however, and try to figure out a way to “destroy” him because they are afraid of how astonished the crowd is at his teaching.

At the end of the day Jesus and his disciples leave Jerusalem again, and when they come back the next morning they pass by the same fig tree, now withered completely, which Peter points out to Jesus. As usual, Jesus takes the opportunity to take things to a deeper level:

And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” (verses 22–25 (ESV))


Once again, the ESV Study Bible notes have helped me understand a passage with context I didn’t have; the episode with the fig tree is more laden with symbolism than I had realized. Even though it is not the season for figs, the appearance of leaves on the tree should have indicated that there was fruit on the tree, but there was not. I’ll quote the rest of their note on verses 13–14, since they put it much better than I ever could:

Jesus’ actions here have symbolic importance, signifying the hypocrisy of all who have the appearance that they are bearing fruit but in fact are not. The specific reference, though, is to Israel, since in the OT the fig tree often serves as a metaphor for Israel and its standing before God (e.g., Jer. 8:13 (ESV); Hos. 9:10 (ESV), 16 (ESV); Joel 1:7 (ESV)). Here the cursing of the fig tree signifies the judgment of God on the “fruitless” Jewish people (cf. Mark 7:6 (ESV)), who had turned away from God into empty ritual and legalism (cf. Hos. 9:10–17 (ESV)). It is a visual parable to signify Jesus’ unrequited search for the true fruit of worship, prayer, and righteousness in the Jewish nation and its religious practices.
Then Jesus gets to the temple and throws out all of the people who are there making money off of God’s work, and the reaction of the religious leaders shows their true hearts. In this blog there have been times when I’ve done my best to see their point of view, and there are times when I think they are truly trying to do the right thing. They misunderstand the Scriptures at times, obviously there is never a case where I think they’re right and Jesus is wrong, but there is a difference between honestly trying to do the right thing but being wrong and not even trying to do the right thing. This passage is definitely a case of the latter, not the former. People in the temple are clearly profiting off of the worship of God, and the religious leaders should have a problem with that, but they don’t seem to. What they do have a problem with is the fact that people are listening to Jesus, and rather than thinking about whether Jesus actually has a point, they’re only worried about getting rid of him so that they won’t lose their influence with the people.

So what is Jesus so angry about? I wrote about this a bit when I posted on Matthew 21:12–17, but the short answer is that people are buying and selling in God’s temple, where He is supposed to be worshipped. Worship of God should never be a source of wealth. (Oh, how readers in North America will react against that statement.) I notice especially verse 15 (ESV) where it describes Jesus overturning tables of money-changers as well as “the seats of those who sold pigeons.” When the Old Testament rules for sacrifice were handed down there were certain animals that had to be sacrificed for certain reasons, but sometimes special provisions were made for the poor who couldn’t afford a particular sacrifice; for example, Leviticus 12 talks about offerings to be made after a child was born, and allows either pigeons or doves to be used, and then further allows birds to be used instead of a lamb. (When Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph offered pigeons, which indicated that they were not well off.) When someone was in the temple making a profit off pigeons that person was directly targeting the poor.

I struggle with how to talk about verses 20–25 (ESV), when Jesus talks about having faith in God and receiving what you ask for. It would be easy to come away from a surface reading of this passage thinking that what Jesus is telling us is that you just have to “believe hard enough,” and you can get whatever you want. Based on wider context of the New Testament I don’t think this is what Jesus is really saying—but at the same time I definitely do not want to detract from this passage, or remove anything that is being said here.

The key, however, is the very first thing Jesus says to them: “Have faith in God.” In the Bible, “faith” is not just believing that something is true, and having faith in God is not just believing that He exists. The Bible’s definition of “faith” is much more than that. I think it’s pretty clear (based on the context of the rest of the New Testament) that when Jesus says to the disciples “have faith in God,” he is not saying to them, “have faith that God will give you whatever you want like a magic genie,” he is saying “Believe God is who He says He is, listen to His Word, and do all that it commands of you. Be like Him.” When you read the word “faith” like that, reading a passage that says, “Have ‘faith’ in God, and then if you pray for something and truly believe it will happen, it will,” takes on a whole different meaning. If you have proper, New Testament-style faith in God, what are you going to pray for? Jesus talks about mountains jumping into the sea to make a point, that nothing is too big for God to do, but when you’re really in tune with God, I doubt that’s what you’ll be praying for. Neither will you be praying for lots of money or a fancy car. You’ll be praying, “Lord, now that I know you, help me to know you even more.”

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Mark 11:1–11

Mark 11:1–11 (ESV): The Triumphal Entry


For much of Jesus’ ministry on earth he set aside his rights as God and ruler of all creation to become a servant. In this passage, however, he acknowledges that he is king, even if only for a brief moment—and even if the crowd probably misunderstands what’s going on.

As Jesus and his followers get close to Jerusalem he sends two of his disciples into a nearby village where he tells them that they will find a colt; they are to bring it to him, and when they are asked why they are doing this they are to say that the Lord has need of the colt, but that they will bring it back immediately. They go to the village in search of the colt, and of course it all works out the way that Jesus said it would.

Upon their return they spread their cloaks on the animal and Jesus rides it. As he goes others spread their cloaks and palm leaves on the road for the donkey to walk on. Lots of people start shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” (verses 9b–10 (ESV)).

When they arrive at Jerusalem it’s already late, so Jesus only really has time to look around a bit at the temple, and then he and the Apostles go to Bethany.


There’s some symbolism going on here that might not be obvious, so I’ll just quickly run through what I’ve culled from the ESV Study Bible notes:
  • Riding a donkey: This is done in reference to Zechariah 9:9 (ESV), prophesying the coming of Israel’s king (understood to be the “ultimate” king, meaning the messiah), who would come “humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” A militarily-minded king would come riding on a horse, so when the king comes riding on a donkey it symbolizes a king who is bringing peace instead of war. Very symbolic of Jesus’ role as saviour, saving us from the wrath of God—bringing us peace with God, where previously there had been enmity.
    • In parallel Gospel passages where this story is recounted we are told that there are actually two animals, this colt as well as an older donkey. Obviously Mark only cares about the animal Jesus actually rode on, though it’s interesting that they actually did bring the two animals, echoing the repetition in Zechariah 9:9 (common in Hebrew poetry).
  • Spreading cloaks and palm branches on the ground: Spreading cloaks on the ground symbolized the crowd acknowledging Jesus as king, and similarly with the palm branches except that they were also symbols of Jewish nationalism.
Any time I think about this event in Jesus’ life I remember that he was very close to his crucifixion, and that some of the people in this crowd are probably going to be in another crowd, crying for his execution. And one of the main reasons is that they are only praising him now because of a false assumption about what he’s going to do: they’re assuming he is going to set himself up as political king over Israel, gather an army, and smite the Romans. They clearly understand half the symbolism of him riding a donkey—they understand that this is pointing back to the Zechariah passage and that Jesus is therefore claiming to be the prophesied king/messiah—but they are forgetting the other half of that symbolism, mentioned above: riding a donkey instead of a horse symbolizes a king who is bringing peace, not one who is bringing war. The crowd may be assuming that Jesus is going to smite the Romans, but they’re only assuming that because it’s what they want to happen, not because anything in the Scriptures or in Jesus’ words or actions are leading them to believe it.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Mark 10:46–52

Mark 10:46–52 (ESV): Jesus Heals Blind Bartemaeus


This is one of those passages that just seems so… normal, for the Gospels. Jesus heals a blind beggar. There’s not even a twist to it; no secret lesson, no taking the disciples aside later to explain a deeper truth to them. Jesus is going along the road, being followed by a crowd, and a blind beggar (Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus) hears who it is that’s passing, and cries out to him: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (verse 47 (ESV)) Some of the folks in the crowd tell Bartimaeus to be quiet, but he keeps crying it out, until Jesus stops the procession and has the man brought to him. The man is brought to Jesus, and Jesus asks what he’d like done. Of course Bartimaeous responds that he’d like to have his sight recovered, so Jesus tells him that his faith has made him well. And of course that is the case, his sight is immediately restored, and he follows Jesus along the way with the rest of the crowd.


It’s difficult to come up with thoughts on this particular passage because it seems so straightforward. I suppose that the man following Jesus after his healing is sort of a metaphor for the Christian life, but other than that, what do you say about a passage in which Jesus heals a blind man? Once again he shows concern for the poor and marginalized of his society, but he constantly does so throughout his ministry here on Earth.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Mark 10:35–45

Mark 10:35–45 (ESV): The Request of James and John


In the last passage Jesus predicted his death again, though no response is recorded from the disciples. In this passage James and John come to Jesus to tell him that they have a request for him. I don’t know if there is some nuance lost in the translation from Greek to English, but it sounds pretty bold, to me:

And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” (verse 35 (ESV))
Really? Whatever you want? Again, it might be a nuance lost in the translation, or Jesus might be playing dumb, but his response is about what mine would have been, under the circumstance: “What do you want me to do for you?” Any time anyone comes up to me and asks me to do them a favour, my response is usually along the lines of, “depends on the favour!” I don’t know if this is the type of response Jesus is giving. I have a feeling he knows what they’re going to ask anyway, though I always get stumped as to what Jesus Who is God vs. Jesus Who is Man knows.

In any event, if Jesus was being coy until he found out what the request was, he was right to do so. Their request is for one of them to sit at his right hand and the other to sit at his left “in [his] glory” (verse 37 (ESV)).

Now the next exchange is interesting to me, because it seems like Jesus is talking past James and John. They are talking about the earthly realm whereas Jesus is talking about the spiritual. What I mean is that when they ask Jesus to sit at his right and left “in his glory,” I am assuming that they are still in the dark as to what that actually means. I’m pretty sure they’re not referring to sitting at his right and left in heaven, or in the throne room of God; my guess is that they still think Jesus is going to conquer Rome and rule as a king here on this earth, and they want to be generals at his side in that context.

And that explains Jesus’ next remark to them: “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” “Do you realize,” he seems to be saying to them, “that what you’re really asking for is to die with me and go to heaven with me?” Jesus often refers to his death as the cup he is drinking. (I don’t remember if there other places where he refers to his death as his “baptism”—though it would be highly appropriate, since that’s exactly what baptism represents!)

James and John don’t get this point, though. They’re still thinking about this world, so they tell him that sure, of course they can drink from the same cup he drinks from, and of course they can be baptized with his baptism!

Jesus’ response is interesting to me, because it’s almost like he gives up on the conversation; he agrees with them that yes, they will drink his cup and be baptized with his baptism—though, one might say, they might not like it—even though he knows that he’s still talking past them and they don’t really understand what he means. I say it’s “almost” like this; I don’t think this is actually how Jesus is approaching the conversation. I don’t think he’s just giving up, and saying “forget it, they’ll figure it out later!”

… And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” (verses 39–40 (ESV))
Of course when the other ten Apostles hear about this they get indignant with James and John, and the usual commentary I hear (which I agree with) is that they’re probably indignant because they didn’t think of asking first. That’s borne out by what Jesus says next: He calls them together and reminds them that Gentile rulers lord it over their subjects and thus exercise their authority, but the disciples are not to be this way. In fact, anyone who wants to be “great” should make his or her self a servant, and whoever would be first must make him or herself the slave of all (verse 44 (ESV)).

And if they’d like an example, they can look to him:

“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (verse 45 (ESV))


When I went back to the ESV Study Bible notes they raised an interesting point on why James and John might be asking to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand: In the previous passage he just finished telling them that he is going to die and be raised again; with this fresh in their minds, but still not fully understanding the situation, they might have assumed that he was going to die, raise from the dead, and then once he’d risen he would rule as king. So if they’re going to ask, now’s the time. I think that makes sense. Of course, when Jesus actually does die, they immediately lose heart, so they either forget about this conversation, or maybe their assumption was that he would raise from the dead immediately.

It should also be pointed out that the “cup” Jesus drank was not just his death, it was actually the wrath of God poured out on him for our sakes. When Jesus tells James and John that they are going to drink from his cup, he doesn’t mean it in that sense at all; James and John didn’t suffer any of the wrath of God (and never will), Jesus did that for them. They did suffer in this life, so they did follow in Jesus’ steps to a certain extent, just not all the way that Jesus had to go.

Another interesting part of the story is Jesus telling James and John that it’s not up to Him to decide who’s going to sit at His right and at His left because (to me) it gets into the Trinity in an oblique way. Jesus is God, but Jesus does not grant anyone to sit at His right or His left; the passage doesn’t actually tell us who does make that decision, though I think it’s pretty clear that it would be God the Father. God the Son and God the Father have different roles; different jobs, if you will. Jesus is fully God, equal to God the Father in every way, but He subjected Himself to God the Father, and submits to the Father’s will.

And, to Jesus’ point on being a leader by being a servant, if we are really to emulate Jesus we should never try to make ourselves big or important, because Jesus did exactly the opposite. The Word, Who spoke the entire universe into being, came to earth as a man. Had He come as the ruler over all the earth it still would have been an unimaginable step down—from God to human—but He didn’t even do that, He chose to become a poor man instead, didn’t even force allegiance to Himself (which, by rights, he could have), and then even allowed himself to be killed in an illegal trial. And why? Because He was making himself the servant of all.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Mark 10:32–34

Mark 10:32–34 (ESV): Jesus Foretells His Death a Third Time


Another short, and very simple passage: Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem, except the disciples are walking behind Jesus. It could be because “they were amazed, and those who followed them were afraid” (verse 32 (ESV)). Jesus then pulls aside the twelve Apostles, and explains to them, again, what is going to happen to him: when they get to Jerusalem Jesus is going to be delivered to the chief priests, condemned to death, and handed over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him and flog him, and then kill him. Then, after three days, he will rise.

In this particular passage we aren’t told the reactions of the Apostles.


The meat of this passage is very simple: Jesus predicts his death to the Apostles, and as we’re aware, his prediction came to pass exactly as he said it would. As mentioned above the Apostles don’t even react to Jesus’ prediction this time, so we don’t know what they thought of it.

Probably the most interesting part to me is the fact that the people who are following Jesus are amazed and afraid. The ESV Study Bible had some theories as to why that might be:
  1. Perhaps they were viewing Jesus as a political leader—a common misconception about his coming—and thought that he was on his way to Jerusalem as part of his mission to overthrow Rome, in which case they might have been afraid in anticipation of the upcoming battle(s). Or:
  2. Perhaps they had heard of Jesus’ predictions of his impending execution, and were afraid that they’d suffer a similar fate for being his followers.
These are definitely both valid theories, but we aren’t really told by Mark which it might be.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Mark 10:17–31

Mark 10:17–31 (ESV): The Rich Young Man


This passage starts with Jesus about to leave on a journey, but before he can go a young man runs up and kneels before him, calling him “Good Teacher” and asking him what must be done to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks the man why he calls Jesus good, since nobody is good except God alone.

Jesus then reminds the man about the Ten Commandments:

“You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” (verse 19 (ESV), Jesus speaking)
But the man answers Jesus that he has kept all of these commandments since his youth. Jesus lovingly looks at the man (verse 21 (ESV)), and tells him that there is one thing he still lacks: he should go and sell all he has and give the proceeds away to the poor, and then come and follow Jesus.

Unfortunately the man is very rich and this “requirement” from Jesus seems to be too much for him, so instead of following Jesus’ suggestion (or command?) he goes away sorrowful. This isn’t entirely unexpected for Jesus, who turns to his disciples and tells them that it will be difficult for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.

It seems, however, that this is unexpected to the disciples, who are amazed at Jesus’ words. So Jesus reemphasizes what he has said:

And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (verses 24–25 (ESV))
If the disciples were “amazed” before, now they are “exceedingly astonished.” If this is the case, they ask Jesus, then who can be saved?!? Jesus tells them that this is impossible for men but not for God, since all things are possible with God.

Peter speaks up, and reminds Jesus that the disciples have left everything to follow him. Jesus promises Peter his reward for this:

Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (verses 29–31 (ESV))
More on the last sentence, especially, below.


Does it seem like the prologue to this story, where the young man calls Jesus “Good Teacher” and Jesus tells him that nobody is good “except God alone,” is unrelated to the rest of the story? If so, you might not be getting the full point of Jesus’ message. Jesus isn’t just messing with this guy’s head in telling him that only God is good; it’s central to his point: Do you want to inherit eternal life? With man this is impossible, but all things are possible with God. It’s what Jesus came to do, and it’s only by trusting in Him that we are saved.

It’s very possible to read this passage and come away in judgement of the rich young man, and I don’t think that’s an invalid way to read it. After all, he comes to Jesus asking how he can inherit eternal life and Jesus tells him, but he decides not to listen to Jesus. But compare Jesus’ response to this young man with most of his responses to the religious teachers: Jesus doesn’t lambaste this man or call him a hypocrite, or even call him foolish. Verse 21 (ESV) says that Jesus, in answering the young man’s question, “loved him.” Jesus seems to have great empathy for this man. And to me, when I read this passage, this young man really does seem to be earnestly seeking the way to inherit eternal life. Even when he gets this answer, which was probably a shock to his system, his response is not to argue with Jesus, he goes away sorrowful. He seems to take Jesus at His word, and it depresses him because he doesn’t feel he’s able or willing to pay the “price.” If ever there is a passage which indicates that trusting in Jesus is more than just believing his words are true, this is it: the man seems to believe what Jesus is telling him, but he is obviously not saved, to his great sorrow.

Now… does what I wrote in the first paragraph disagree with what I wrote in the second? If the only way to get to God is through the work done by His Son, then why would Jesus require the rich young man to sell all he has before he can follow Jesus? Surely He’s not telling this man that he can “earn” his salvation, is He? No, He’s not. What Jesus is doing is calling out for the man his biggest problem: his wealth. Or maybe, to be more specific, I should say the hold this man’s wealth has on him. Jesus can see that this man’s “god” is his wealth; even though he’s been trying to follow the commandments, and seems to truly want to serve God, for him his wealth will always be the real god in his heart. God Almighty would, at best, take second place in this man’s heart, whereas we know that God will not take second place to anyone or anything. So Jesus isn’t telling this man that selling his possessions and giving to the poor is a quick-win to earn salvation, but it was important for this particular man because his wealth was getting in the way of his opportunity for salvation.

So this is all well and good for this particular man, but then Jesus tells his disciples something which absolutely shocks them: it’s more difficult for someone who’s rich to be saved than it is for other people. Personally, I think this is part of the reason Jesus feels for this man: of course the man is responsible for his own sin, everyone is, but Jesus knows that it’s even more difficult for this man to accept salvation than it is for others. You might say I’m reading too much into this, and I wouldn’t argue the point too hard, but I don’t think I’m off on this either.

But regardless of whether Jesus has extra pity on this man or not, the indisputable fact of this passage is that it is more difficult for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God than for someone who’s not rich. It’s impossible for anyone, but it’s even more impossible for someone who’s rich. Jesus doesn’t say why in this passage, but I feel that it’s because the hold of money on the rich ties them too closely to this world. Personally, I haven’t been “very” rich, but I have been quite well off, and I’ve been quite poor—not to the point of living on the street, but a step away from that—and I have to say that my spiritual life has done better when I’ve been poor than when I’ve been well off. It’s definitely true that poor people can lust after money, and that lust can impact their relationship with God, but rich people also lust after [more] money, while at the same time obsessing about the fact that they don’t want to lose what they’ve already obtained. That’s my own armchair psychology, not based in any studies that I know of, so take it with a grain of salt.

I previously wrote on this topic when it came up in Matthew 19:16–30—actually, I even wrote a part 2 to that post—so I won’t go off into another rant on the subject.

This passage does tell us one different detail than the Matthew 19 passage, though: in verse 28, when Peter tells Jesus that he and the other disciples have left everything, look at how it is worded:

Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” (verse 28 (ESV), emphasis added)
This is then followed by Jesus’ reply. To me, when it says that Peter “began” to say this to Jesus it indicates that Jesus is actually cutting Peter off. It’s possible—and I’m just theorizing here, so don’t take this too strongly—but it’s possible that Peter is about to go down the same path that others are tempted to go down when reading this passage: “Jesus just told this man that he could enter the kingdom of heaven if he sells his stuff! And I left all of my stuff behind… so I’m in!” We know that that’s not how it works; they key message Jesus is giving his disciples is not, “Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor,” it’s, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” This particular man has a particular problem with wealth that would have impacted his relationship with God, and he needed to fix that, but selling his possessions would not have made him right with God. You might have your own sins to deal with, be it the same problem with money that this man had, or sex/pornography, or the mind-numbing effects of television and movies, or putting your marriage on a pedestal, or something quite unrelated, and you need to fix that too, but doing so still won’t make you right with God; you still have to accept Christ the same as everyone else. Fixing those spiritual problems will definitely help your relationship with God, but they aren’t the sum total of all that you need.

Even if Jesus is cutting Peter off, though, his answer to Peter (and the disciples around them) is not harsh. In fact he does reassure Peter and the others that they will be rewarded for all they’ve given up for the Gospel’s sake, both in this life and in the life to come. Interestingly, though, when you look at that passage, Jesus slips in something the disciples might not have wanted to hear:

Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (verses 29–31 (ESV), emphasis added)
Wait, what’s this “with persecutions” thing? I loved those whole three verses except for those two little words. It’s great that God is going to reward me for leaving behind the things that hindered me, but why does He have to let me be persecuted, too? Well, the “why” is probably a topic for another post on another passage, but for now it suffices to say that the Christian is guaranteed persecution. Jesus mentions it a number of times. God has His own plans for how He will use those persecutions, but when they come we shouldn’t be surprised.

Finally, when Jesus is telling Peter and the disciples that they (and we) will be rewarded, he ends by saying that “many who are first will be last, and the last first.” Based on the context, this means that there is good news for those who feel they aren’t special, or who don’t have prominent roles in the Church: God doesn’t reward us according to the place of prominence to which we have risen; after all, He is the one who put us there in the first place. God rewards us according to our faith and our obedience. God made some to be preachers of multi-million-dollar mega-churches with shiny clothes and TV shows, and He made others to be preachers of small, neglected churches in poor neighbourhoods, and He made others who play music or sing in the church, and He made others still who clean the church and who teach Sunday School and who run the sound equipment and who change the broken lightbulbs and who do a million other tasks that nobody will ever know about. Even the person doing those tasks will have forgotten about doing it within hours. We revere some of those people more highly than others, we are sometimes even jealous of some of those people, but don’t expect to get to Heaven and see that God has rewarded people according to how we revered them. That person who had no official role in the church but did odd jobs to keep the building together may have a place of greater honour than the preacher of the mega-church. God sees the heart, and is able to judge people with much more accuracy than we ever could going by simple outward appearances.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Mark 10:13–16

Mark 10:13–16 (ESV): Let the Children Come to Me


In this passage some people are bringing children to Jesus but the disciples rebuke them. But Jesus will have none of this:

But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (verses 14–15 (ESV))
He then goes back to blessing the children that are being brought to him.


We shouldn’t take this passage too far, to think that somehow children can be saved and adults cannot. However, it is an important point that when we come to God we must come to Him “like a child.” What does this mean? I’d say it’s a general attitude of trust coupled with obedience. When a parent tells a child to do something it’s understood by both the parent and the child that the child is supposed to do it. The child might ask the parent questions about it, why are you asking for this or why do you want it done this way or whatever, and the parent may or may not explain, but regardless of whether the parent does or does not give an explanation, regardless of whether the child understands it all, the fact that the child is expected to obey the parent never changes.

This same attitude is expected of us as Christians. When God tells us to do something—when we read our Bibles, in other words—we should go in with the basic, underlying assumption that He knows what is best, and that we are to obey Him. It is not wrong at all to ask Him questions about it, it it not wrong at all for us to strive to understand better—in fact I’d say it’s very good for us to strive to understand Him better—but regardless of how far our understanding does or does not progress it should never change the fact that He is God, and we are His creations. He knows best, He knows what He is talking about, we can see only dimly, and only what He chooses for us to see.

We see examples all through the Bible of people asking questions of God. Some do it with the proper attitude (“I know that you’re God, and I’m just a man, but I want to understand You better. Please help me to understand.”), some do not (“You can’t possibly have meant that! You must have made a mistake.”), and it’s not usually hard to tell the difference. We can trace this back to the very first moment when a person becomes a Christian: They will not fully understand what Grace is, or how salvation works, they might not even properly understand their own sinfulness (though they have an idea), but they trust God when He says that they need Him. As time goes on He’ll help them to understand, but in the meantime, He’s God.

Even mature Christians should—must!—have this attitude when reading their Bibles. We must go to the Word with the understanding that God has written this document and that He has something to say to us. If we don’t understand what we’re reading, it doesn’t change the truth of the matter. We can ask Him to show us more clearly what we don’t understand, and in the meantime we should take it as a given that what’s written there is true, whether we understand it (or like it) or not.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Mark 10:1–12

Mark 10:1–12 (ESV): Teaching About Divorce


In this passage Jesus and his disciples go to another location and as usual Jesus starts teaching the people. The Pharisees decide to take this opportunity to test him, so they come and ask him if it’s lawful for a man to divorce his wife. Jesus answers their question with a different question: “What did Moses command you?” (I almost wonder if Jesus is laughing to himself as he asks this; the commandments in the Scriptures would be exactly what the Pharisees have been studying all this time, but they still haven’t been able to figure this out. But more on this question below.) The Pharisees reply that Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and send his wife away. And it’s probably with good reason that they phrased it this way—a “man” to write a certificate of divorce to send his “wife” away, rather than a gender-neutral way of phrasing it—because I’m sure that’s how it worked out in practice: men divorced women, women didn’t divorce men.

Jesus, however, doesn’t think this answers the question, and brings them back even further than Moses:

And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (verses 5–9 (ESV))
This is a pretty famous passage, and most Christians are probably familiar with it, so it doesn’t seem all that shocking to us. To the disciples, however, this seems to have been pretty surprising, since later on, when they are alone with Jesus, they ask him about it again. If anything, Jesus is even more blunt with them than he was with the Pharisees:

And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (verses 11–12 (ESV))
There’s no background explanation of the desires of God for marriage, or nuance, just a straightforward statement: if you divorce someone and marry someone else, you’re committing adultery against the person you’d first married.


I wonder if Jesus asks the Pharisees about Moses’ “commandment” to point out their focus on the letter of the law rather than its intent. Whether that was Jesus’ reasoning or not, it is clear in how they respond: He asks them what Moses “commanded” about divorce, knowing that Moses didn’t give any commands permitting or denying adultery. So they can’t go there, they can only say that Moses “allowed” it. In fact, the passage in question would be Deuteronomy 24:1–4 (ESV), which isn’t specifically about the topic of whether divorce should be allowed, it’s about some matters on the aftermath of divorce. In other words, the Law doesn’t say “you’re allowed to divorce,” or “you’re not allowed to divorce,” or “you’re allowed to divorce under these circumstances,” but in this Deuteronomy 24 passage it says “if you do divorce, here are some rules on how to handle it.”

As Jesus says, because of the hardness of our hearts God knows that our marriages aren’t going to be perfect, many are not even going to be good, and therefore divorce will happen. Even Jesus gives “permission” to divorce in cases of infidelity. But just because God recognizes that divorce is going to happen it doesn’t mean He’s endorsing or approving it.

I’ve read some commentaries on the situation in Jesus’ day, and apparently there was a debate amongst the Pharisees as to whether divorce was allowed or commanded or forbidden or what. There were some who took a hard line saying that divorce is not permitted at all, and others who took a position far to the other extreme saying that a man could divorce his wife for matters as trivial as burning his toast. I’m guessing that these particular Pharisees simply wanted to draw Jesus into the debate; whichever side he took he’d be in trouble with the other side. In a sense we could consider Jesus to be taking a side here, saying that people shouldn’t divorce, but I think he’s going deeper than just the letter of the law: they’re asking him what is lawful, and He’s talking about what God desires. This is something we should always consider when digging into such matters; instead of asking “What does God allow me to do in this situation?” we should be asking, “What does God want me to do in this situation?”

As mentioned, this is a pretty famous passage so we know that God doesn’t want us to divorce, and in another place Jesus gives a bit of an exception and tells us that divorce is permitted in the case of infidelity (which should underscore to us how important fidelity is!). So any Christian who has even a casual knowledge of the New Testament knows that divorce is not a good thing, and that only under extreme circumstances is it “allowed.” However, even with this explicit passage in front of us, we’ve somehow lost the view that marrying after divorce is adultery. We get that it’s best for people not to divorce, and God’s plan is for a marriage to be for life, but we’ve come to believe that when we do divorce it’s final and we’re then free to remarry, whereas Jesus teaches pretty explicitly here that even if divorce happens there is still an attachment to that person. If you get a divorce and then remarry you’re committing adultery against your first spouse. (I think it’s pretty safe to extend this and say that if you get a divorce and then have sex with someone else you’re also committing adultery against your first spouse.) In this day and age it sounds old fashioned to even be saying that, and yet it seems to be a pretty clear teaching in this passage.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Mark 9:42–50

Mark 9:42–50 (ESV): Temptations to Sin


Christians sometimes create a false dichotomy when it comes to Grace vs. holiness: there are times when Grace is emphasized so heavily that it doesn’t seem like a Christian needs to worry about holiness at all, and, contrarily, sometimes holiness is emphasized so heavily that we start to act like we can “earn” our salvation by being good, or doing good things. Sometimes we think we can earn salvation just by not being bad—or by not being too bad.

To be fair, this is a complex topic, and North Americans are not fond of nuanced arguments, so it can be hard to talk about one without seeming like you’re neglecting the other. Even the Apostle Paul struggled with this. He spends much of the first five chapters of the book of Romans explaining Grace (that’s an oversimplification, I know), and then feels he has to stop in Chapter 6 to answer a question he imagines his readers might be asking:

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? (Romans 6:1 (ESV))
Not surprisingly, Paul’s answer is no, we shouldn’t, and that’s what Romans 6 (ESV) gets into.

Because of this issue I know of pastors who try to make it a point to mention both Grace and holiness any time they mention either, trying to balance them out in their sermons, because they know that if they don’t, any time they talk about Grace they’ll get people coming up to them after complaining that it was implied we can all live like sinners, and any time they talk about holiness they’ll get a different set of people complaining that some kind of “works righteousness” was preached. (It doesn’t matter if you preach Grace for forty-five minutes one Sunday and then preach holiness for forty-five minutes the next, on the second Sunday there will still be people coming up to you and complaining that you neglected Grace. And vice versa.)

In this particular passage, Jesus talks about holiness—or at least about striving to cease our sin—and it’s all he talks about. It’s true that we’re saved by Grace, and I talk about that a lot on this blog, but in no way does that imply that living a holy life isn’t important. It is; thus saith the Lord. In this modern day and age we sometimes fall in line with the rest of the world, thinking that sin doesn’t matter, but this passage should set us straight: sin is important, and we need to eliminate it from our lives.

There are three parts to Jesus’ argument:
  1. Jesus indicates the child (who is still in their midst from verses 30–37) and tells his disciples that it is very serious to cause a child who believes in Him to sin. It would be better to have a millstone hung around your neck and get thrown into the sea than to do such a thing. (I think the implication here is that you’d rather deal with being drowned than face the wrath of God for this type of act.)
  2. He tells us that we should eliminate the things in our lives that cause us to sin; if your hand or your foot or your eye cause you to sin, then you should chop it off—it’s better to live life without that hand or that foot or that eye than to go to hell.
  3. The last few verses of this passage are somewhat difficult to understand—not just for me, but the ESV Study Bible notes say so too—but essentially I think that Jesus might be telling us to be holy as light to the world. He definitely tells us to be at peace with one another.


Since I’m no better than any pastor (and worse than most), I will also mention Grace before I talk about Jesus’ point about holiness: just because Jesus is stressing the importance of holy living in this passage, and telling us that sin is a serious issue which needs to be excised from our lives, it doesn’t mean that Grace ceases to exist. When it says that it would be better to be drowned in the sea than to cause a child to sin it doesn’t mean that causing a child to sin will negate one’s salvation. What it does mean is that causing a child to sin is serious business, and that we should not take such matters lightly. I think this verse goes very well with James 3:1 (ESV): “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” Are you a teacher in some kind of Christian ministry, a Bible study or Sunday School or something like that? Then you need to be careful what you’re teaching people, because God is going to judge your actions with greater care than He would if you were just having a casual conversation with friends. Are you teaching children? Then all the more you need to be careful what you’re teaching those kids! Don’t ever take a position at your church teaching Sunday School or doing other types of teaching just because you think it gives you prestige in the church, or because you think it’s an honour; take this seriously, and consider whether you understand the Word before you try to deliver it to others.

I’m mostly speaking to laypeople here, but this applies all the more for actual pastors. If you’re going to be getting up in a pulpit every week and telling people what you think the Word says, then you’d better be serious about learning what it actually says. It’s serious, and God will be judging you with greater strictness than He will judge other forms of speech.

Then, when Jesus talks about cutting off a hand or a foot or an eye that causes you to sin, I don’t think he’s literally talking about hands and feet and eyes; realistically, how is your hand or your foot going to cause you to sin anyway? (We could maybe make a better case for the eye, when we consider lust, but even that’s metaphorical. The eye doesn’t cause anything, it’s being led by the lust in your heart/brain.) What he is saying is that we have to be willing to remove the things from our lives that cause us to sin, even if removing those things is going to be painful, even if removing them is going to cause us hardship. It is better to endure that pain and hardship than it would be to continue on sinning. It is tempting to get lost in higher-level theological issues and confuse ourselves, asking, “How can it be better to endure hardship than to sin when we know that Jesus has already taken care of our sin on the cross?” It’s fine to have these types of probing questions, and to wrestle with them, but before you do (or while you do) you need to listen to what Jesus is actually saying in this passage: sin is serious, and we need to eliminate it from our lives. Trust in that and believe what He says, even as you’re trying to wrestle with other issues. If you’re studying your Bible seriously you can’t come away with the idea that sin isn’t important because Jesus specifically tells us in this passage (and Paul tells us in Romans 6) that it is.

And then finally we have some verses that are hard to understand:

“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” (verses 49–50 (ESV), Jesus speaking)
I could quote the ESV Study Bible note on these verses but it’s kind of long and doesn’t really add any clarity, since there isn’t a “definitive” answer as to what Jesus means here. Lots of people seem to view this passage as saying that believers are sacrificed to God akin to the Old Testament sacrificial system, where the “sacrifice” is suffering and hardship, but there’s disagreement on what the salt in this metaphor represents, with some saying it represents the Holy Spirit and others saying it represents the suffering and hardship. I don’t know about any of that, I just have no frame of reference to know what might be correct.

What I do find interesting, however, is Jesus’ last point to His disciples: be at peace with one another. If we are to really take our sin seriously, and to strive to eliminate anything in our lives that causes us to sin, and to take seriously the charge to teach one another to ensure that we only teach biblical truths, what will the Church on earth look like? We’ll get along. I think that would help our evangelical outreach far more than any miracles, far more than any fiery preaching, far more than any though-provoking seminar. If people see us at peace with one another it would make us so different from the world that we’d stand out.

Monday, May 06, 2013

Mark 9:38–41

Mark 9:38–41 (ESV): Anyone Not Against Us Is For Us


This passage continues on from the last one (I think), but the conversation shifts. John informs Jesus that the disciples had seen someone else casting out demons in Jesus’ name, and the disciples tried to stop him because he was not following the disciples. (Or was not following Jesus and the disciples; verse 38 (ESV) just says “he was not following us.”)

Jesus, however, tells his disciples not to stop this person, because nobody who does a “mighty work” in Jesus’ name will “be able soon afterward” to speak evil of Him (verse 39 (ESV)). He also says, “For the one who is not against us is for us” (verse 40 (ESV)). In fact, he tells them that even a small act like giving a Christian a cup of water because they are a Christian will result in a reward from God.


When John tells Jesus that they’d tried to stop a guy for driving out demons because “he was not following us,” it’s not clear grammatically if he means that the man wasn’t following the disciples or that the man wasn’t following Jesus and the disciples. However, judging by the fact that the disciples were arguing not long before about who was the greatest, I’m inclined to believe that it’s the former, not the latter. I think the disciples view themselves as being very special, and are not happy about someone else appearing to be special too.

Jesus then tells the disciples that nobody who does a mighty work in His name can speak evil of Him very soon after. This is an odd phrase; I think it’s worth looking up in a few versions:

But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. …” (verse 39 (ESV))
“Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, …” (verse 39 (NIV))
But Jesus said, “Do not hinder him, for there is no one who will perform a miracle in My name, and be able soon afterward to speak evil of Me.” (verse 39 (NASB))
But Jesus said, Forbid him not: for there is no man which shall do a miracle in my name, that can lightly speak evil of me. (verse 39 (KJV))
But Jesus said, “Do not forbid him, for no one who works a miracle in My name can soon afterward speak evil of Me. …” (verse 39 (NKJV))
So… what does this mean? I’m sort of leaning toward thinking that it means exactly what it says. Performing a mighty work, or a miracle, in Jesus’ name, has to be done out of faith. It is done with the core understanding that you yourself have no power, only God does, and so you are trusting in Him to do this thing, whatever it is. So I think there are a couple of reasons why one couldn’t perform a miracle in Jesus’ name and then turn around and say something bad about Jesus:
  1. You’ve had enough faith to turn to God in the first place, to ask for something to be done that couldn’t otherwise be done—and then He did it! It would be a very strange change in your mindset to then start thinking or saying bad things about Him.
  2. This thing you’re asking God to do is something that only He can do; you can’t do it yourself, or else it wouldn’t be a miracle/mighty work. Therefore, it’s all in His power: He can choose to do it, or He can choose not to do it. If He who knows everything knows that you’re about to bad-mouth Him, then perhaps He will decide not to do it.
Both of these thoughts seem a bit simplistic to me, so it’s possible that I haven’t given it enough thought.

What’s even more interesting, potentially, is the next verse:

For the one who is not against us is for us. (verse 40 (ESV))
The reason I find this interesting is because of Matthew 12:30 (ESV):

Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.
In one sense these verses are two sides of the same coin: whoever is not with Jesus is against Him, and whoever is not against Him is for Him. You’re either with Jesus, or you’re against Him; there’s no middle ground. However, what about the people who think they’re in the middle ground? The “I’m no Christian, but I got nothing against Jesus” people? They think they’re neither for Him nor against Him, but Jesus says that they’re either one or the other. The problem is that these two passages could lead us to opposite answers:
  • Mark 9:40 says that anyone who’s not against Jesus is for Him, so people who consider themselves on the fence would be for Him
  • Matthew 12:30 says that anyone who is not with Jesus is against Him, so people who consider themselves on the fence would be against Him
Is this a problem? An inconsistency, perhaps? I don’t think so; I think people in such situations should be paying more attention to Matthew 12:30 than Mark 9:40. For one thing, the context of Mark 9:40 is that the man in question had been driving out demons in Jesus’ name; maybe he wasn’t following Jesus around day-to-day like the disciples were, but he obviously believed, at the very least, that Jesus had the power to drive out demons. (In fact, for God to have been driving out demons when this man asked would indicate to me that he probably had more faith than that.) This is not an agnostic man, there is a certain amount of belief there. Secondly, the Matthew passage says that anyone who is not “with” Jesus is against him, it doesn’t say those who are not “for” him are against him. I hope I’m not pushing the word too far, but it seems that the word “with” implies more of a relationship; this isn’t just “rooting for” Jesus, and hoping that He comes out on top over Satan in the cosmic battle of good vs. evil. This word “with,” to me, implies that the person will be in that battle alongside Jesus, trying to do what is right and live a good life and please God. You can have a relationship with Christ, or you can be against Him. You can be a slave to sin, or a slave to righteousness—one or the other (Romans 6:15–23 (ESV)).

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Mark 9:30–37

Mark 9:30–37 (ESV): Jesus Predicts His Death a Second Time


In this passage Jesus secretly brings his disciples somewhere where he can teach them without anyone else following; the implication (to me) being that he doesn’t want to get interrupted. Once again he tells them, plainly, that he is going to be killed, and that he is then going to rise from the dead three days later. But once again they do not understand what he is saying, and are afraid to press him for details.

They move on, and on the way the disciples argue about who is the greatest. When they reach their destination Jesus asks them what they had been arguing about, but they keep quiet, seemingly ashamed to have been arguing about such a matter. Jesus tells them that anyone who wants to be first “must be the very last, and the servant of all” (verse 35 (ESV)), and then brings a child into their midst and tells them that anyone who welcomes a child in his name welcomes him—and, further, that anyone who welcomes Jesus isn’t just welcoming Jesus but also welcoming the Father.


It seems so odd to read that the disciples weren’t able to understand Jesus when he was talking to them so plainly, but, as I’m sure I’ve written before, if the Holy Spirit isn’t going to help them to understand such things it’s quite understandable that they wouldn’t. Also, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that sometimes we are all prone to this type of thinking; “It sounds like he said such-and-such, but surely he couldn’t have meant that. He must be speaking metaphorically or something.”

I’m not actually quite sure why the people who put the English Standard Version bible together chose to delineate this section as they did, it seems to be two separate stories which are only loosely connected. First Jesus predicts his death, and then He tells the disciples about how to be great. They are connected, but no more so than they are also connected with the next passage in verses 38–41 and the passage after that in verses 42–50. So I’m not sure why they divided it the way that they did.

As for how to be “great,” the answer is quite simple: don’t try to be great. Serve others, consider their needs more important than your own, welcome people with open arms. These are the types of things that God rewards as greatness. Why? Because when we live in such ways He gets the glory instead of us. That’s as it should be.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Mark 9:14–29

Mark 9:14–29 (NIV): Jesus Heals a Boy with an Unclean Spirit


In the last passage Jesus and a few of the disciples went up onto a mountain where Jesus was transfigured before them, so that they saw a glimpse of him as God. They now come back to find the rest of the disciples arguing with some teachers of the law.

Jesus asks them what they are arguing about, and someone from the crowd tells Jesus that he’d brought his son to be healed. He has a spirit which makes him mute, and also occasionally seizes him and causes some kind of convulsions. However, the disciples weren’t able to cast this spirit out. The passage doesn’t actually tell us, though, what the argument was between the disciples and the scribes. Maybe the scribes took the disciples’ lack of success as a sign that they don’t actually have any power?

Whatever the reason for the argument, Jesus seems exasperated by the whole thing.

“You unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.” (verse 19 (ESV))
The boy is brought to Jesus and when the spirit in the boy sees Jesus he immediately throws the boy into convulsions. The boy’s father explains to Jesus that the boy has been like this since childhood, and that sometimes it’s even worse, with the spirit throwing the boy into water or fire to try to kill him. He then asks Jesus, if he can do anything, to take pity and help them.

“‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”

Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

(verses 23–24 (ESV))

As a crowd comes running to join the scene Jesus rebukes the spirit and commands it to come out of the boy (and never enter him again). When the spirit does so it convulses the boy and leaves him looking pretty corpse-like, but Jesus helps the boy to his feet so that people can see he’s not dead.

When the disciples are alone with Jesus again they ask him why they hadn’t been able to drive out the demon, and Jesus’ reply is more deep than we might realize at first glance:

He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.” (verse 29 (ESV))


As mentioned above, I don’t know what the disciples and the teachers of the law were arguing about. I looked for a clue in the ESV Study Bible but the notes there didn’t posit a reason for the argument either. What Jesus makes clear, however, is that there is a lack of faith going on in this situation. I already quoted verse 19 above:

“You unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.”
Jesus has been dealing with unbelief from the Pharisees and the teachers of the law for his entire ministry, but in this case he’s not just talking about them, he’s talking to his own disciples as well. (More on this in a minute.) Why is the boy still possessed by this spirit? Because of a lack of belief.

But it’s not a complete lack of faith; this passage contains one of my all-time favourite quotations from all of the Bible, in verse 24 (ESV):

Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”
If I were to pick a verse to sum up my continual state as a Christian, this would be it. It shows a dependence on God, but also a recognition that our own sinful natures—and perhaps also our lack of knowledge?—can get in the way of properly following God as we should. I might have phrased it, “I do believe; help me to believe even better!” But I think the way it’s phrased in the text is more elegant, and I like it better than how I would have phrased it myself. (My speech is usually more forthright, less elegant.) This man recognizes that he doesn’t believe the way that he should, but he believes enough to trust that Jesus can do this thing for him, and, perhaps more importantly, he believes enough to trust that Jesus can help even his lack of belief.

So all in all, getting back to the lack of belief, why couldn’t the disciples drive out the spirit? Jesus tells them that this type of spirit can only be driven out by prayer, but we should be careful not to think that Jesus is giving a simple instruction here. “You see, disciples, there are thirteen distinct sub-categories of spirit, and there are different protocols to follow for driving out each type…” That’s not at all what is going on here; Jesus hasn’t left the point that he started this passage with: lack of belief. Why couldn’t the disciples drive out the spirit? Because they were trying to do it on their own instead of asking God to do it for them. What is prayer, after all, but going to God to ask Him to do things that you’re not able to do on your own? What is the Christian life but recognizing more and more each day that there is nothing you can do on your own, and asking for His help for everything? Even if the disciples had gotten into a pattern of casting out spirits in which they were doing it by rote, and then came across this one which was more difficult to cast out, their immediate response should have been to remember the God who’d been enabling them to do it all along, and go to Him in prayer. The disciples didn’t seem to do that; they seemed to just give up, and decide that driving out the spirit wasn’t possible.