POC Blog

The random technotheolosophical blogging of Reid S. Monaghan

An Introduction to the Gospel of Matthew and the Sermon on the Mount

Introduction

Words. Words are some of the most powerful things in the universe. Human beings use them every day to do both good and evil. Many of us: educators, ministers, business leaders, politicians and certainly parents even make speeches with them. Even as a person who gives many sermons and instruction in words, I am no fool to think that any one speech I give changes the course of history. Yet there are such times when even a very brief compilation of words profoundly impacts the destiny of the world.

In our own culture one can think of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address or Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech or Ronald Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall” in front of Brandenburg Gate towards the end of the Cold War. My mind also goes to King George VI of England in 1939 and the speech he gave to rally a nation in the defense of their island and civilization against the Nazi aggressor. Many of us are aware of this speech due to the 2010 Academy award-winning film “The Kings Speech.” This powerful film brought that impactful speech, from a stuttering and unassuming King, to the masses of a new generation.

Yet there is another, still greater king, who gave a still greater speech long ago. A humble Jewish teacher took his place on a hillside and took his followers and many a listening ear to school. This speech, the words of the King of Kings, was written down and transferred to millions in the inspired Word of God in the Scriptures. This speech has changed the world perhaps more than any words in all of history. And by that I do not mean to exaggerate. The teaching of Jesus Christ unleashed a revolution in the world and showed us a different path to walk amidst the greedy, violent and self-exalting human race.

This year at Jacobs Well we will study the King’s speech and go to school with Jesus. As God permits, from September until Easter we will walk in the words of the Sermon of the Mount found in the Gospel of Matthew. We will by no means be able to exhaust its riches together, but I do pray that its gold would shine forth for all who are hungry and thirsty for a renewed life and mission together.

In this introduction I have but a few simple goals. I want to introduce all of us to the Gospel of Matthew, albeit at a very cursory level. Matthew’s gospel is the soil in which the Sermon on the Mount finds its biblical roots. We will then look at the nature of the sermon within the itinerant ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. We will also look at various hermeneutic positions related to the Sermon on the Mount. My hope is that we will see this teaching as life shaping for the church that reflects the eternal realities of the Kingdom. Finally, we will make note of why this teaching is essential for a gospel community living out the mission of Jesus in our own age and culture. So let us begin our journey by taking a quick peak at the Gospel of Matthew.

The Gospel of Matthew

The Sermon on the Mount is comprised of some of the most central and core teachings that Jesus imparted to his followers. In our study together we will look at the record of this teaching in the Gospel of Matthew. The Gospel of Matthew is a rich amalgam of the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection and a recounting of his teachings. We do not want to labor too many details on the history and background academic studies in the gospels for our purposes today1 but we do want to highlight a few things about Matthew in particular.

Authorship of the Gospel of Matthew

The gospel of Matthew was well known in the ancient church and was very much in use by the early churches. In discussing the authorship of something like one of the gospels, we are not merely talking about “who wrote the book.” Rather, we are looking at the person who carefully catalogued and communicated important information about his teacher’s life and words. Furthermore, as noted by New Testament scholars Andreas Kostenberger, L. Scott Kellum and Charles Quarles, the author of the gospel of Matthew should be seen as fulfilling the role of a scribe and theologian who carefully arranged and wrote down his account of Jesus’ life and teaching for his particular audience and their needs.2 He is not writing a book as one would write a novel, but writing down the inspired story in order to teach, instruct and convey the good news of Jesus. As to the book itself, it is technically anonymous3 in a formal sense. It is anonymous in that it makes no direct claim to its authorship in its own words. However, the church’s leaders from the earliest days held this gospel to be the work of Matthew the apostle.4 The title as the gospel as kata Matthaion, or according to Matthew, was well in place by the first half of the second century.5 While some find reason to reject this attribution, others, myself included, find no good reason to do so.6 Matthew is mentioned five times in the New Testament and was called out of his life as a despised tax-collector into life as a follower and disciple7 of Jesus. Most would agree that the heavy use of the Old Testament quotations and allusions demonstrate that the gospel was aimed at early Jewish Christians likely in transition into a new way of covenant life as followers of Jesus the Messiah.8 There is an ancient tradition dating back to a church father named Papias that held that Matthew originally composed his work in Hebrew and what survives today is a Greek translation. This view is vigorously disputed9 but the connection to the Hebrew mind and Old Testament becomes clear when reading this work. Though it cannot be demonstrated with absolute certainly that Matthew was the author, there is no compelling evidence to reject this early tradition that was universally acknowledged by the churches.

Dating Matthew

If Matthew is indeed the work of one of the disciples, dating his work would have to fall within his lifespan and place the composition in the second half of the first century. Many scholars today hold that Mark was the first gospel and that Matthew used Mark as well as other oral traditions as source materials for his account.10 Using that system would put Matthew sometime after Mark which many hold to be written in a window anywhere from the late 50s to as late as AD 64. Conservative scholars who hold to Markan Priority typically advise a date just prior to AD 70 due to many facts in the text related to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem that year.11 Others who have made recent arguments to maintain that Matthew was the “the first gospel,” place its writing even earlier than 70, perhaps as early as the 50s.12 Either way, the Gospel of Matthew is unanimously believed to have taken form within mere decades of the life of Jesus and certainly within the lifespan of its apostolic author.

Hebraisms and Old Testament Quotations and Allusions

As briefly mentioned above, when one reads Matthew’s gospel you quickly find a plethora of Old Testament quotations, allusions and a world that breathes and finds its life in the story of ancient Israel. In fact, David L. Turner categorized some fifty direct Old Testament quotations in Matthew alone.13 The Sermon on the Mount in particular has deep connections with the story of Israel in the Old Testament with two particular parallels of note. First, Jesus is presented as a fulfillment of the Law of Moses and certainly because Jesus gives his teaching on a mountain we quickly draw parallels with Moses on Mt. Sinai.14 The connections are clearly present as we will see later in this essay but we only take them as far as Matthew does. As the late pastor and theologian Dr. John Stott recounted:

“…Matthew does not explicitly liken Jesus to Moses, and we cannot legitimately claim more than that in the sermon ‘the substance of the New Law, the New Sinai, the New Moses are present.’”15

In addition to its connection to Moses and the Pentateuch16, the Gospel of Matthew sets Jesus in proper view in light of the Davidic covenant of 2 Samuel 7. This promise of a coming and eternal king, descended from David is fully on display in Matthew. This is reflected with Matthews’s laser like focus on the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven and its citizens.17 Much more will be noted about the Old Testament backdrop for the identity and teaching of Jesus in a moment when we discuss the structure of the Matthew and his introduction of Jesus. For now let it suffice to say that the Gospel of Matthew is a very Jewish book, laying out the fulfillment of the Old Testament law and a commencement of the Kingdom of God by its Divine Messiah and King.

Many King’s Speeches?

The sermon in Matthew is also similar, but slightly different than some of Jesus’ teaching recorded in Luke chapter 6. In Luke, Jesus is coming down from the hill and takes his teaching position on a level place making this rendition sometimes known as “the Sermon on the Plain.”18 The similarity and difference between these two “King’s Speeches” has led many to wonder if they were the same message given on different occasions, or compilations of Jesus’ teaching conveyed by each gospel writer to address his unique audience and theological purposes. The French-Swiss pastor and theologian John Calvin seemed to view the Sermon on the Mount as a summary or compilation of Jesus’ various teachings given as an itinerant preacher.19 John Stott observes that the sermon in Matthew’s gospel would have lasted about 10 minutes given aloud. So it is appropriate to assume that both Matthew and Luke provide what Stott called “their own condensed summaries.”20 What we need to see is that in Matthew and Luke we have the very teachings of Jesus, inspired by the Holy Spirit, faithfully recorded to instruct us in the good news.21 With that said, it does seem with the geographical and temporal introduction to the Sermon on the Mount that Matthew is recounting an actual occasion where Jesus taught his people even if what he recounts is not a word for word transcription of everything he said that day. It is certain that in the inspired text of Matthew, God gives us everything we needed to hear and know from this central teaching of Jesus.

Now, Not Yet and Other Hermeneutical Considerations

Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount contains such challenging content that there have been many theories of who and what purpose the sermon serves. Is it for the church on the earth? Does it describe the perfection of the Kingdom of Heaven? Is it such a high teaching that it is to humble us and lead us to seek forgiveness? Should this teaching be for now or the age to come? Many ideas have been put forth in church history on these matters. Acts 29 Pastor and Theologian Sam Storms offers a brief but excellent summary of these various views held by Christians throughout history.22 I will briefly summarize his work here and then tell you what perspective we will take in our teaching of the King’s Speech.

  • Theological Liberalism – the sermon is the ethical blue print for bringing about a sort of utopian society. If we as individuals and nations “just do it” we’ll be able to make heaven a place on earth.
  • Roman Catholic View – the sermon is a blueprint for individual salvation. If we do it we will merit God’s grace and justification.
  • Lutheranism – the sermon sets such a high bar that its demands seem impossible to live. It then drives us to the gospel. It functions as a sort of New Testament law.
  • Interim Ethic – the sermon was given to the disciples as a way to live in light of the soon coming apocalypse. Yet Jesus was mistaken about the end of all things so this ethic is no longer needed. The sermon presents an extreme ethic for an extreme situation that no longer applies. Storms credits this proposal to the late Albert Schweitzer.23
  • Dispensationalism – Storms can give you lots of threads to pull but to summarize I will quote him directly after he looks at various moves in this theological camp:

All of these views are based on the dispensationalist theory of the postponed kingdom: i.e., Jesus offered to Israel the consummate fulfillment of all OT theocratic promises, which she rejected. The coming of the kingdom of God, therefore, has been postponed until after the second coming of Christ. Its fullness will be seen only in the millennial age (Christ’s earthly 1,000 year reign). However, be it noted that the Sermon presupposes a world in which insults, persecution, anger, personal litigation, adultery, lying, vengeful attitudes, malice, worry (by God’s children, no less), judgmental spirit, and false prophets, among other things, flourish! As Carl Henry has said, “An era requiring special principles to govern face-slapping and turning the other cheek (5:39) is hardly one to which the term ‘millennium’ is aptly applied.” The good news is that more recently those who call themselves Progressive Dispensational.24

  • Kingdom Living Here and Now – The sermon is teaching to instruct God’s people to live as Kingdom citizens now in Christ while awaiting its full arrival at the end of this age. In this light the sermon issues a high calling to Kingdom living but not an impossible way of life. Storm’s quotes Stott on the sermon on the mount in an appropriate conclusion:

For the standards of the Sermon are neither readily attainable by every man, nor totally unattainable by any man. To put them beyond anybody’s reach is to ignore the purpose of Christ’s Sermon; to put them within everybody’s is to ignore the reality of man’s sin. They are attainable all right, but only by those who have experienced the new birth which Jesus told Nicodemus was the indispensable condition of seeing and entering God’s kingdom.25

In other words, the sermon is for us to follow now and build our lives upon. Yet we do not build in our own strength or in the power of the flesh. It is our new nature, born by the Spirit, empowered by the Spirit that loves and follows Jesus. To quote an old hymn “Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing.”26 Yet when our striving is full of the power of God and we can follow him and build life together on the solid rock of Jesus and his teaching.

As citizens of the earth and as citizens of the Kingdom of heaven we have a glorious experience in this life. We live now as Kingdom people and missionaries among the peoples of the earth. Jesus opens the doors to all who will enter to his Kingdom today and then calls us to live in its light until it comes in fullness and power. This “now, not yet” reality of the Kingdom infuses our every day with eternal significance and draws us forward towards the day when all things will be made new. Dr. D.A. Carson describes this dual reality of the Kingdom in our present age:

Taken together, the books of the New Testament insist that the kingdom of God is already arrived; a person may enter the kingdom and receive life now, life “to the full” (John 10:10). Jesus himself argues that if he drives out demons by the Spirit of God – and he does – then the kingdom of God has come (Matthew 12:28). Nevertheless, the books of the New Testament insist that the kingdom will be inherited only in the future, when Christ comes again. Eternal life, though experienced now, is consummated then, in conjunction with such a renovation of the universe that the only adequate description is “a new heaven and new earth.”27

Until we stand in the new heavens and earth we press forward for the glory of God, the good of others and extend gospel hope in our world. What a privilege friends.

As we come to our approach of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew a note about the literary structure of the gospel will be helpful as it will so beautifully set the context for us to hear the King’s speech.

The Structure of Matthew

Matthew’s gospel flows back and forth from narrative portions and discourses of instruction. A story will be told and then a teaching given that elucidates the narrative further. New Testament scholars W.D. Davies and Dale Allison outline the Matthew’s material by chapter according to this structure labeling the various material (N) for narrative and (D) for discourse/teaching. This short outline will help us in seeing the King’s Speech with the proper narrative background.

1-4 N the main character introduced
5-7 D Jesus’ demands upon Israel
8-9 N Jesus’ deeds within and for Israel
10 D extension of ministry through words and deeds of others
11-12 N negative response
13 D explanation of negative response
14-17 N founding of a new community
18 D instructions to the new community
19-23 N commencement of the passion
24-25 D the future: Judgment and Salvation
26-28 N conclusion: the passion and resurrection28

From this outline we see the chief focus and concern of Matthew right from the start is to introduce Jesus, the main character. He does this through several major scenes with the Sermon on the Mount following. The scenes can be seen as follows and they cast a spotlight on the true identity of Jesus of Nazareth.29

Scene 1—The King’s Roots

Matthew begins with a genealogy so that we see Jesus’ connection to both Abraham and David. He is clearly connected to Abraham who is the fountainhead of the people of Israel to show us that he is fulfilling that calling in the world. Jesus is the true and faithful Israel. He is connected to David so that we might quickly see that Jesus is the true heir of the promises of the Davidic Covenant in 2 Samuel 7. Jesus is the true King that will rule the people of God eternally occupying the Davidic throne. It is Jesus’s Kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven, which shall be forever established before God the father forever.

Scene 2—The King’s Birth

The second scene involves the royal birth of Jesus in a startling manner. He is conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary fulfilling the promises of Isaiah 7:14. Even his name, Jesus, was to convey to us that YHWH saves. His father is also a man named Joseph, having the same name of the one whom God used in the Old Testament to protect and deliver his people in Egypt. Another King, Herod, is mentioned on the scene of Matthew’s birth narrative, deeply troubled that his power and rule was threatened. The fulfillment of the prophecy of the birth of Messiah was before them. The wise mean of the East rejoice, while some of the current Jerusalem power structure were threated.

Scene 3—Opposing Kings

God then calls Jesus and his parents to Egypt to flee the murderous intentions of Herod. Again, as a fulfillment of prophecy, Herod slays all the male children in the town of Bethlehem where Jesus was born in order to wipe out a contender for his throne. God protects Jesus in Egypt as he had protected his people through Joseph before in the book of Genesis. And when the danger had cleared, God initiates a new Exodus from Egypt and Matthew cites the prophet Hosea with the simple quotation, “Out of Egypt I called my Son.” (Matthew 2:15)

Scene 4—God’s King

The very next scene takes place in “the wilderness” the place where God had worked in the past to bring his people out of the bondage of slavery and give them his law in the Book of Exodus. Whereas in the first Exodus it was the nation which came out from captivity into the wilderness, here we see the faithful Son of God being announced as the one who brings forth the Kingdom of Heaven. And then something wonderful transacts. Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptizer. In the Old Testament God saved his people through the waters of the red sea bringing judgment upon his Egyptian enemies. Here we see Jesus going through the water as a foreshadowing of his role and mission. He would die and be raised to bring his people through in the second Exodus, the greatest saving act of God. At this time we see the Sprit come upon Jesus and we hear God the Father speak “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.” This is God’s anointed King! Whereas Israel fails to keep God’s covenant in the Exodus generation, Jesus is fully pleasing to God as our faithful leader and King.

Scene 5—The King’s Temptation

From the scene of his baptism, Jesus is led into the wilderness for forty days and forty nights for a time of testing. Whereas Israel had failed in their faithfulness to YHWH, Jesus will be shown as the faithful Son of God who resists the tempter (Satan) and trusts fully in God’s purposes for him. It is clear that Matthew presents the narrative of Jesus as re-enacting the redemptive history of his people. The parallels are striking. Whereas Moses and his generation failed, the greater law giver and Prophet Jesus will fulfill all of God’s purposes. God’s anointed son (which is what Christ or Messiah means) will be faithful in all things. Daily needs, power, nor presumption will tempt him away from his divine purpose.

Scene 6—The King’s Summons

What we see Jesus do next in Matthew’s narrative is begin to call people onto a new team. As God’s purposes have always been, he begins to form a covenant community, one based upon his summons of people and their following of him as their God and King. Jesus calls disciples from the people of Israel, those with whom he will live his life and entrust his mission. And thus he sits upon the side of a hill and opens his mouth to teach them…and the gathering crowds. And so begins The King’s Speech.

Scene 7—The King’s Speech

The context is clear. The Sermon on the Mount is given to God’s people so that they might understand the way of the Kingdom as directly taught by Jesus. What are his new people like? How will Jesus teach and interpret the law of God to us? How should we now live in light of his being our King? How should our lives be established and how does the Kingdom flow in and through us as a community? These questions are so important that Jesus takes his followers to school. He instructs us on the way of the eternal Kingdom breaking forth into our world now.

The Kings Speech for Kingdom Servants

In conclusion, I want us to take a look at how desperately we need to have our lives shaped by this sermon in our current day. The late English minister John Stott began his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount with the following striking words that issued a summons to his own generation:

The Sermon on the Mount is probably the best known part of the teaching of Jesus, though arguably it is the least understood, and certainly it is the least obeyed. It is the nearest thing to a manifesto that he ever uttered, for it is his own description of what he wanted his followers to be and to do. To my mind no two words sum up its intention better, or indicate more clearly it’s challenged to the modern world, than the expression ‘Christian counterculture’.”30

Stott was writing in the throes of the counterculture movement in the 1960s and 70s. He noticed a disaffected youth culture frustrated with the status quo of the day where Western civilization and the church might have been seen as two versions of the same oppressive reality.31 His reflection on the church’s conformity to and congruence with culture should be echoed in every generation. We are called to be a countercultural society shaped by the gospel, for the sake of the nations, by extending hope of the gospel of the crucified and risen king. Certainly in our age as well, the church in America risks a conformity to the prevailing cultural moods of our day. Whether it is a capitulation to right wing visions of economic and individualistic living or left-wing visions which mute the need for individual responsibility and morality, the church must not tip into worldly ideology and cultural captivity. Our age also runs a great risk of being into fads and novelty chasing the transient in neglect of the eternal. We must challenge ourselves to see life as more than consumerism, money, sensuality and self-absorption of this age. We have a much higher calling in Christ.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus does indeed provide us a calling to a higher reality both now and eternally. In his teaching and example he invades this present darkness with the light of love, truth and passionate beauty. In our world that is in constant fracture and division, Jesus is always forming a counter-cultural community. The world constantly sets up divisions based upon race, class, appearances, nationality or ideology; Jesus knew this to be the status quo of the human condition. Yet it is from this world that he calls a people to become the new community of his church. That church is marked by the forgiving grace of God in the gospel and a new reality defined by his ways and teaching.

The good news of Jesus Christ creates one new man out of divided peoples. It is also different then the status quo of any of the myriad of human created cultures. Though we find echoes of the glory of the image of God in all places on the earth, it is in the unique society of the church that the Spirit and teaching of Jesus takes root. The Old Testament call to Israel to not be as the other nations continues in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus’ call is “do not be like them” (Matthew 6:8) for we are to resemble our Lord in true righteousness and holiness (See Ephesians 4:17-24).

In the Sermon on the Mount we really see who is blessed in the sight of God. It is according to his principles and not simply those by which we judge one another. In it we receive a high ethical calling to live with one another in supernatural ways. We find that our lives should reflect a contrast as light is to darkness, a savory flavor to the bland and the boring of this life. In the King’s speech we find a fulfillment of the promises and laws given to the prophets of old, realized and brought to completion in the life of Jesus the King. We see that our God’s plans are never thwarted, but always fulfilled in the fullness of his time.

In Jesus’ teaching we find a different foundation for life. One that is eternally established and steadfast in the purposes for which God created us. We represent the rule and reign of King Jesus and extend the hope of his sacrificial love, and life renewing resurrection in the world. We are a signpost of the age to come and a testimony to the world of its accountability to the Almighty God. We call others to new life, the forgiveness of sins and for the requirements of God’s holy law to be fulfilled in us by his Spirit. (Romans 8)

One of Jesus’ followers long ago described the Christian community as being sojourners and strangers (1 Peter 2:11) in this world. And this is what we are. We belong to another realm with our citizenship being from the embassy in Heaven. We love this world so much that at times we stand against it in truth and warning. We love this world so much that we must stand within it for the good of others and holding forth good news of our sacrificial, loving and forgiving God. To quote that early 20th century prophet GK Chesterton, we must hate this world enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing.32

In our day there are new calls for the church to put aside the truth and deny what God has given to her in the Holy Scriptures. There are new calls for compromise and calls of ungodly perspectives of Christians towards a lost world. We must be a resistance force against both these urges. We must not abandon Scriptural teaching for the current and contemporary fads of our society. Whether this be related to sex, religion or political correctness. Neither should we forfeit the loving ethic given to us by the Lord Jesus in the name of “being right.” Our calling is to hold forth the biblical gospel of Jesus the King and of his coming kingdom in our day. Neither removing the offense of the cross nor denying the sufficiency of Christ for the salvation of all who will believe. Yet as we hold forth the gospel to a dying world we do not wish to fumble it in our day. Each generation has a responsibility to our creator to be faithful to the end.

For the church not to know the orders of its commanding officer or the way and manner of his kingdom is indeed a tragedy in every generation. Long-ago the King of Kings stood on the side of a hill to teach us so we would not forget his rule or his ways. We have the King’s Speech and we have the school of Jesus in which to learn. Let’s go to school together.

As we head into the sermon I want to give us proper warning that Jesus’ teaching is challenging. It both draws us in and convicts us of our lax attitude towards God and his Kingdom. New Testament scholar DA Carson said it this way:

The more I read these three chapters—Matthew 5, 6 and 7—the more I am both drawn by them and then shamed by them. Their brilliant light draws me like a moth to a spotlight; but the light is so bright that it sears and burns. No room left for forms of piety which are nothing more than veneer and sham.

In other words, we cannot fake a devotion to God as described in the Sermon on the Mount. It must be a work of God’s Spirit in us as we joyfully submit to his rule in our lives.

Join the community of Jacobs Well as we humble ourselves and bow the knee to the King this fall. Join us in the glorious adventure of being taken to school by the crucified and risen one who reigns forever and ever and ever… Amen.

In the year of our Lord 2014,

Reid S. Monaghan

 

Notes

  1. For those who want to look at some of this, see the discussion of the Synoptic Problem and the gospels in my short “An Introduction to the New Testament” available at http://jacobswellnj.org/theology-booklets
  2. Andreas J. Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown : An Introduction to the New Testament (Nashville, Tenn.: B & H Academic, 2009), 180.
  3. David L. Turner, Matthew, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 11.
  4. R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2007), 15.
  5. W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, 3 vols., The International Critical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments (London ; New York: T&T Clark International, 2004), xi.
  6. France, 15.
  7. It is of interest that the word for disciple in Greek is mathetes
  8. France, 17-18.
  9. See Sidebar 4.1 in Köstenberger et al., 182, 183.
  10. For a brief but helpful treatment of the Synoptic gospels and Markan priority seeD. A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament, New Testament Studies (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1992), 19-56.
  11. Köstenberger et al., 188.
  12. For more on exploring alternative thesis to the Synoptic Problem see David Alan Black and David R. Beck, Rethinking the Synoptic Problem (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2001).
  13. Turner, 18, 19.
  14. This is in reference to the narrative in Exodus of Moses bringing God’s teaching to his people from a mountain.
  15. John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) : Christian Counter-Culture, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, Ill., U.S.A.: Inter-varsity Press, 1978), 21. Emphasis added.
  16. Pentateuch simply refers to the first five books of the Bible, or the books of Moses, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
  17. DA Carson provides a clear and helpful explanation about the Bible's use of Kingdom language and imagery in D. A. Carson, The Sermon on the Mount : An Evangelical Exposition of Matthew 5-7 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1978), 11-16.
  18. I must confess that I caught that I had originally typed “Sermon on the Plane” which would have been an anachronism. Not that Jesus would be opposed to preaching on airplanes.
  19. John Calvin viewed the sermon as “a brief summary…collected out of his many and various discourses” See Stott, 22.
  20. Ibid., 24.
  21. New Testament scholar David L. Turner prefers a view that in Matthew 5-7 we have a record that “accurately records the gist (ipsissima vox, “the very voice,” of Jesus) of a historical sermon that Jesus uttered.
  22. Sam Storms, "Introduction to the Sermon on the Mount," Sam Storms, Enjoying God 2014, no. September 19 (2006). http://www.samstorms.com/all-articles/post/introduction-to-the-sermon-on-the-mount.
  23. Brief outline of his life and view is found in the wiki here - "Albert Schweitzer," Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Schweitzer (accessed September 19, 2014).
  24. Storms.
  25. Stott, 29.
  26. Martin Luther, "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," (1529). http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/m/i/g/mightyfo.htm.
  27. Carson, 14.
  28. Davies and Allison, xxiv-xxv.
  29. The following is informed by the brief outline in Iain M. Duguid, Is Jesus in the Old Testament?, First Edition ed., Basics of the Faith (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Pub., 2013), 32-36.
  30. Stott, 15.
  31. Ibid., 17.
  32. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York, London,: John Lane company; John Lane, 1909), 130.
    Carson, 11.

 

Bibliography

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Duguid, Iain M. Is Jesus in the Old Testament? First Edition ed. Basics of the Faith. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Pub., 2013.

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Storms, Sam. "Introduction to the Sermon on the Mount." Sam Storms, Enjoying God 2014, no. September 19 (2006). http://www.samstorms.com/all-articles/post/introduction-to-the-sermon-on-the-mount.

Stott, John R. W. The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) : Christian Counter-Culture The Bible Speaks Today. Downers Grove, Ill., U.S.A.: Inter-varsity Press, 1978.

Turner, David L. Matthew Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008.

 

© 2014 Jacob’s Well, Reid S. Monaghan
www.JacobsWellNJ.org

Peter: Disciple, Apostle and Witness for Jesus Christ

Introduction

One of the most compelling and interesting figures in the New Testament is a man named Simon Peter. He is in full focus and featured quite often in the Gospel of Mark. There is a rich church tradition and history which holds that John Mark actually wrote down the accounts of Peter in his gospel. When we come to Mark’s gospel we not only read about Peter’s life with Jesus but perhaps we hear echoes of his own voice and eyewitness accounts.

In this essay I want to do a few ambitious things.  First, I want to lay out a brief sketch of Peter’s life and biography from the New Testament. Second I want to briefly look at how Peter is featured and focused upon in the Gospel of Mark. Finally, for contemporary reflection, I will provide a postscript to discuss the Roman Catholic papacy in relation to the claim that Peter was the first pope. In writing this essay it is my hope and prayer that we will see Peter the man not the superman or Saint with a capital S on his chest. My desire is that we see a real person with real faith in Jesus whose life was transformed by his Lord. Then we might understand how Peter, and the other early Christians, went on to powerfully transform our world through the gospel they proclaimed.

Peter in the New Testament

Peter is a complex character in history leaping to life from the pages of the New Testament. He was many things but here we will focus on just three as they are directly related to Jesus.[1]

Peter: Disciple of Jesus

The New Testament uses a particular word to name the followers of Jesus: disciples.  The English word is derived from the same root as “discipline” and it means one who is a committed follower.  The Greek term which is used for disciple is mathetes, which means one who learns from and follows a master.  It describes a pupil who is submitted as an apprentice to a teacher.[2] In the most basic sense Peter was a disciple of Jesus in this way. In another sense Peter was one of the twelve disciples, a group of men selected by Jesus to serve as his team in gospel ministry.

He was born in the province of Galilee in the city of Bethsaida (John 1:44) and apparently had a home in Capernaum during his adult life. He was born with the Jewish name Simeon or Simon (Acts 15:4, 2 Peter 1:1) and had a wife though we do not know much about her (Mark 1:30).  We do know that she accompanied her husband in his missionary travels at some point due to Paul’s description in 1 Corinthians 9:30.

Peter was called to be a follower of Jesus along with his brother Andrew with this call variously recorded in the early chapters of the gospels of Mark and John. Apparently he was part of the crowd who had gone out to hear and respond to John the Baptizers call for repentance of sin and Jesus met him during this season. It was from Jesus that Simon was also given the named Peter which means “Rock” (John 1:40-42). Throughout his early ministry Jesus called several men to learn from him and be directly involved in leading his mission. Peter was a part of this crew when they became known as the twelve disciples (Mark 3:16).

Peter’s role among the twelve was a prominent one and the earliest writings about him list him as a leader of the twelve. He was called one of the pillars of the early church movement (Galatians 2:9) and was declared to be one of the first witnesses of the resurrected Jesus (1 Corinthians 15). These two traditions were widely in play before AD 50.[3] Along with James and John, Peter was involved in some of the most pivotal times in Jesus’ life and ministry.  He was present at the healing of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5), present as a witness of Jesus’ glorious transfiguration (Mark 9, Matthew 17) and was praying with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before the crucifixion.

We see in the gospels Peter to be as passionate person and even rash at times. At Jesus’ final meal with his friends he strongly protests that his Lord would wash his feet like a common servant only to ask for a full bath after Jesus taught him that servanthood was the way of his Kingdom. He struts boldly out to walk on water with Jesus in Matthew 14:28-33 only to sink quickly with doubt when he is out of the boat.  He talked a big game saying to Jesus, “Even though they all fall away, I will not” (Mark 14:29) only to punk out and deny his king three times when the pressure was on. Yet he also used his speaking ability to represent and speak for the disciples on several occasions.

As a friend and follower, Peter had a very close relationship with his Lord and Jesus seemed to have big plans for Peter as well.  Some of Jesus’ last challenges to Peter were for him to take care of Jesus’ “sheep.” A proverbial way to call him to be a shepherd to God’s people even though in the end it would cost him his life (John 21:15-29). Even though Jesus predicted Peter’s denials before that first Good Friday, he also foreordained Peter’s forgiveness and restoration to leadership. He made sure that Peter knew of his resurrection specifically for he had work for this disciple (Mark 16:7).  The learner would now need to become a leader and bring the message of the gospel to the world.

Peter: Apostle of Jesus

The Book of Acts is a fascinating work that details the spread of the gospel from its Jerusalem roots out into the reaches of the Roman Empire.  As the gospel began to be proclaimed Peter was at the center of the early ministry of Christ’s messengers. The disciples were now apostles with a message to spread to the uttermost parts of the world.  Peter’s role is so prominent in Acts that many outline the book by the ministry of Peter and the ministry of Paul.  The first twelve chapters focus on Peter’s leadership in the Jerusalem context amidst early persecutions and spread of the gospel.  From chapter thirteen on the focus shifts to Paul as a missionary in the empire finally making his way to Rome.

What we find in Peter’s apostolic ministry is that he begins as an emboldened preacher of the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  At the feast of Pentecost Peter brings the gospel in power and a huge crowd of people get saved (See Acts 2 and 3).  Furthermore, Peter also serves as a representative of the Christians in Jerusalem and courageously stands before the ruling council with the message of the gospel.  The believers are greatly encouraged by Peter and his faithful Spirit filled leadership brings great unity and boldness to the church (See Acts 4).  Peter also served as a church leader, ruling and judging in the affairs of the people with miraculous signs accompanying his work (See Acts 5). Finally, we see Peter as a missionary helping the gospel forward in the province of Samaria (Acts 8).  We also find a wonderful story of God convincing him and sending him to Gentiles (Acts 10) so that God’s work could begin among them.  This initial work gives way to the apostle Paul’s commissioning into the Gentile world where the gospel spread broadly.  Peter also serves making wise judgments at the council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 on important questions that new Gentile Christians had about Jewish observances as followers of Jesus. There has been speculation about how Peter ends up in Rome, but how he ends up there after his early missionary work cannot be known with certainty. One thing is sure, all roads did lead to Rome and Peter arrives there to lead the church in the great city as a witness for Jesus.

Peter: Witness for Jesus 

In his final years Peter wrote and transferred much of his thought and teachings of Jesus into the writings of our New Testament. His preaching and teaching about the life and message of Jesus make it to us by way of his secretary John Mark (see below for issues related to this). In the epistles which bear his name he pastors the church well in many ways.  He encouraged believers to persevere in times of suffering with full hope in the gospel and coming Kingdom of God. He spurs us on to mature in our faith and deepen in our commitment to Jesus so that our lives reflect the character of our King.  Jesus taught us that Peter would have a central role in building his church and we certainly see that in the movement that flowered in history after his life.  Though it is difficult to confirm without doubt, tradition teaches that Peter indeed did fulfill his calling and died as a martyr for his faith in Rome during the persecutions of Nero in AD65. Jesus had told Peter that he would eventually give the last full measure of devotion as a leader of his church. It may well be that the once denier of Jesus died as one of his champions on his own cross of crucifixion.[4]

Now I wish to turn briefly to the gospel of Mark for a discussion of how Peter is particularly seen in this work. We will begin that task by looking at Peter’s voice found in the writings of the gospel itself.

Peter in the Gospel of Mark

Peter’s Voice in Mark

The earliest church traditions all associate this gospel with John Mark and his task to record the account of the apostle Peter in writing. The earliest sources we have are from the writings of Papias, a church leader in Hierapolis (in modern day Turkey), and Irenaeus, a bishop from Lyon (in what is modern day France). Papias’ work survives in a text written by the prominent early church historian Eusebius.  It reads as follows:

And the Elder said this also: “Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatever he remembered of the things said and done by the lord, but no however in order.” For neither did he hear the Lord, nor did he follow him, but afterwards, as I said, Peter, who adapted his teachings to the needs of his hearers, but not as though he were drawing up a connected account of the Lord’s oracles.  So then Mark made no mistake in thus recording some things just as he remembered them.  For he took forethought for one thing, not to omit any of the things that he had heard, nor to state any of them falsely. [5]

 It is estimated the Papias tradition is very early and dates perhaps to within 90-100 AD.[6] Irenaeus, writing in the second century, recorded the following:

After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him.[7]

 The oldest traditions all hold that Mark was the author who arranged the teachings of Peter to give a written account of Jesus Christ to the church. In addition to the tradition there is good internal evidence in the book that Mark’s gospel greatly reflects the preaching of Peter that we see in the book of Acts.[8] New Testament scholar Daniel Wallace provides a great summary of the internal connection with Mark and Peter; I will quote him at length:

  1. John Mark had contact with Peter from no later than the mid-40s (Acts 12:12) and it appears that the church met at Mark’s own residence.
  2. Both Peter and Mark were connected to the churches in Antioch and Jerusalem.
  3. Paul sent Mark from Rome to the Colossian church and to Philemon in 60-62. If Peter were in Rome at this time, Mark would have had contact with him there.
  4. 2 Tim 4:11 we find Paul giving Timothy instructions to bring Mark with him from Ephesus to Rom (c. 64). It is possible that he had been outside of Rome since his departure in 62.
  5. Mark is with Peter in Rom in c. 65 (1 Peter 5:13) perhaps after his return at Paul’s request. Peter also calls Mark his “son” in this passage indicating a more long-standing relationship.
  6. The book of Mark’s outline follows the Petrine teaching recorded in Acts 10:36-41. (1) John the Baptist  (2) Jesus Baptized by John (3) Jesus’ miracles show he is from God (4) he went to Jerusalem (5) was crucified (6) he was raised on the third day. This shows that perhaps Mark even received a framework for the oracles of Jesus from Peter.
  7. The low view of Peter and the other apostles in Mark shows that the person writing was not trying to put them on a pedestal.  A non-apostolic writer would have done this unless he was recording what he actually had received from Peter.[9]

So we have good reasons, both the external testimony from church tradition and the content of the book itself, to hold that John Mark arranged the instruction of Peter who gave eyewitness testimony to the life and teaching of Jesus Christ.

In light of this conclusion, in the gospel of Mark we likely have Peter’s accounts of direct events with Jesus and perhaps Mark’s own style reflecting upon them in his writing style.  As we come to the actual text, the question I want to pose is how do we see Peter portrayed in Mark? Do we find Peter put in just a positive light or is there some honest, even critical, stories told about him?[10] The actual data is quite mixed.

Peter in Positive Light

As mentioned in the biographical sketch above Peter is very important in the New Testament and Mark’s gospel is no exception. He is the one who speaks for the apostles, he present with the other “pillars” at crucial times in the life and ministry of Jesus and his progressive understanding of Christ is key to understanding the narrative as Mark crafts the text. Jesus even makes a special mention to tell Peter of his resurrection, reassuring him of his role in the mission of Jesus that is coming. In these ways Peter is a very important, yes positive, character in the gospel of Mark.

Peter in Negative Light

At the same time Peter is a central and cathartic character in Mark and does come off looking rather dumb witted at times. In Mark 1 he is trying to get Jesus to become a superstar prematurely. In Mark 8 Jesus calls him Satan as Peter is opposed to the messianic mission of death and resurrection. Furthermore, he shows much foot-in-mouth disease on the mountain of transfiguration where he really doesn’t know what to say in Mark 9. Peter takes a nap at just the wrong time when Jesus is asking for prayer and support in Mark 14. Finally, one cannot miss Peter full out denying Jesus three times when the pressure of the arrest and pending execution is visited upon the disciples. Some speculate whether the gospel of Mark is part of a wider attack upon Peter[11] as it shows him in such negative light. Perhaps there is a much simpler explanation for how Peter is portrayed?

Peter – Human in Process

Peter throughout the gospel of Mark is certainly one thing. A human being. He is also a person of passion and commitment to Jesus who has given all to follow him. What is seen in the gospel of Mark is a man who has hopes and expectations yet these are not quite in congruence with Jesus’ purposes and plans.  Peter therefore has to be adjusted, he was to be corrected and he has to grow in faith and trust in Jesus’ actual plan. This at times comes off painful as Peter gets it wrong, shows weakness and punks out on Jesus. Yet one thing is clear.  Peter is also a human being Jesus loved and wanted to use in this world. So we see his life and faith grow in the gospel of Mark until the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Mark makes sure we see that Jesus wanted Peter to know what he had risen for as we read in Acts and in church history: God had much work left for Peter in his world.  In Mark’s gospel I believe we are also to see ourselves. We are to see the blind and mute come to see clearly and speak the truth. Just like Peter.  Then we take up seeing eyes and speaking lips to serve Jesus in our world.

Conclusion

We have looked at Peter the disciple, apostle and witness to Jesus and found a remarkable story.  We find a man compelled and called by God to follow Jesus the Messiah.  We find a man whose natural passions and impetuousness sometimes got him in trouble but also gave him huge potential.  In the life of Peter we also find embedded another narrative; the story of God. In this story a great King comes and pays a great price to purchase a great community to be his people. That community would need shepherds and servant leaders as it followed forward in the King’s mission. Such leaders are forged in the battle of life and ministry and take time to grow. Jesus was patient with Peter for this purpose. To take a human being, shape him into an instrument for the hands of God, and unleash him into the world on mission.  Each of our lives holds the same potential in varying degrees. The question is will we repent of sin and come to Jesus? Will we give ourselves fully to his mission once we have tasted his grace and his forgiveness? Peter would exhort to shout amen to this invitation.

I’ll give him the last word here for us:

[9] But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. [10] Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

1 Peter 2:9-10 RSMESV

Following the witness of Peter to give all for Jesus and his gospel mission in the world,

Reid S. Monaghan

Appendix: Was Peter the first pope?

 The confession of Peter of Jesus being the Christ in Mark 8 and its more robust parallel in the sixteenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel has been the source of some historical controversy between Protestants, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics.  It is taken by the latter to be biblical warrant for the institution of the Roman papacy, the Pope as the father of the church and its supreme teacher in regards to faith and morals.  I will quote the Matthew passage here:

16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

While this brief appendix cannot treat these issues with the rigor which is needed, I do hope it might illuminate the differences between Roman and Protestant/Eastern Orthodox views of the Christian faith.  I will lay out a few points of argument made by each side in regards to the issue of the papacy.

Catholic Arguments for Primacy of the Bishop of Rome (The Pope)

There are many arguments that the Roman church makes in favor of the primacy and leadership of the Pope and the hierarchy of cardinal, bishop and priest which is under him.  The argument usually takes two lines—one from the tradition of the church and the other from Holy Scripture.[12] On the tradition front, there is a section in the classic work of the 2nd century church father Irenaeus to which Roman Christians point to as favoring papacy.  Irenaeus was bishop of Lyon which was located in what is now modern day France.  He wrote extensively confronting several heretical teachings of his day. He is quoted often in various contexts—in this case, in favor of the primacy of Rome.

Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its pre- eminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.[13]

Additionally, the ecumenical council of Nicea in AD 325 listed four major patriarchates/sees (seats of authority) being Rome, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem with Rome given the place of highest honor.  In the late fourth century Constantinople was inserted making the list of honor—Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, though the rivalry of Rome and Constantinople would continue until the east/west split in AD 1054.  One of the issues in this schism was papal authority in Rome which the Eastern Orthodox churches still reject until this day. Finally, the text from Matthew quoted above is used extensively in the argument for the papacy. The keys of the kingdom were given to Peter, who was the first bishop of Rome, the first pope. His successors maintain the highest authority in the church. The succession of bishops, or overseers of the church in Rome, is not the issue. The issue is this man’s rule over the church as the supreme representative of Jesus on the earth today.

Arguments against the Papacy

There are many long standing arguments against the papal authority in church history.  They too interpret both tradition and Scripture to make the argument.  Again, this is necessarily brief and therefore incomplete.  First, it is argued that Peter is but one of a plurality of leaders in the early church.  All traditions attribute great honor and leadership to Peter, but he was by no means infallible.  During the life of Jesus we see Peter’s evolution into a great leader through his many failures (see above).  Yet even post resurrection we see the apostle Paul rebuke Peter for his inconsistent and hypocritical actions in relating to Jew and Gentile in a way contrary to the gospel (See Galatians 2:11-14).  Second, the text in Matthew 16 does not imply the papacy and certainly nothing like papal infallibility.  Many interpretations have been offered which give primacy to Peter and his role in the establishment of the church, but none of this need imply the papacy which evolved in the Roman church during the Middle Ages. Third, the historical honoring of Rome by councils does not warrant the papacy. Rome is honored as a great historical church in the councils of Nicea and Constantinople, but the other great churches and their patriarchates were not subjected to her—in fact, this was not the case with Constantinople and continued to be an issue for hundreds of years and persists until today.  There also has been a reality in history which stated that councils should decide matters of dispute, not one bishop.  This was the case through the first seven ecumenical councils and was argued by the conciliar movement in the late middle ages.  Additionally, the apostolic succession of Popes and their infallibility seems historically dubious.  First, one particular pope, Honorius 1, was declared posthumously to be a heretic and false teacher in AD 681 for advocating something called Monothelitism.  How could he be considered infallible?  Second from AD 1378 to 1417 there were actually two popes in the Western church, one in Rome one in France seated at Avignon.  The Council of Pisa in 1409 disposed both popes and appointed another, but both did not step down leaving the church with three popes for a brief time.  The issues were resolved with the Council of Constance (1414-17) but raised the question of whether a council could rule over the pope for the council had removed the two popes and elected Martin V to power.[14] One last historical issue is of note. Although the Roman church claims it was always the case, papal infallibility was not made Roman teaching until Vatican I in 1870. In conclusion it must also be said that the story of the papal institution has been haunted by grabs for power, accumulation of wealth, immorality and sin. Though the Catholic Church claims that the Pope has not erred and has never officially taught in contradiction to Scripture I think history is replete with examples of both action and teaching which do not reflect infallibility. This only means that Popes are people and are in no way infallible. The highest authority for the church has never been the succession of popes in Rome, but the apostolic teaching of Scripture being faithfully entrusted and passed on through the ages. 

We trust not hierarchy or power to maintain the church, but the Spirit and the Word of God. There are errors on all sides…Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic.  There are none who have everything perfect in life, faith and doctrine. Yet our disputes are resolved in humility, standing under, not over the very Word of God in Holy Scripture.  History and our lives are messy, we no doubt move forward with truth and at times error.  But much as Luther echoed long ago under great pressure to recant his views—our consciences are chained to the Word of God…here we stand, we can do no other.

Notes

[1] Here I will follow a basic outline of Peter’s life which focuses on his role as disciple in the gospels, apostle and messenger in the book of Acts and then suffering witness to his Lord as church leader in Rome. This approach is taken in both the Wood, D. R. W., & Marshall, I. H. (1996). New Bible dictionary (3rd ed.). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. and The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised. 1988 (G. W. Bromiley, Ed.). Wm. B. Eerdmans.

[2] μαθητής, Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed.) (609). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[3] The book of Galatians is one of the earliest Pauline epistles written around AD 48/49. First Corinthians was most likely written around AD53 but the resurrection narrative in chapter 15 is likely even earlier than this. The clear reality is that Peter and his role was well known even before the writing of Mark’s gospel in the 60s.

[4] Peter is said by many in the first few centuries of the church to have died by way of an upside down crucifixion.

[5] Ibid., 8.

[6] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2002), 4.

[7] Irenaeus. Against Heresies (Book III, Chapter 1).

[8] William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark; the English Text with Introduction, Exposition, and Notes (Grand Rapids,: Eerdmans, 1974), 10-12.

[9] Daniel Wallace, “Mark: Introduction, Argument, and Outline”, Bible.org http://bible.org/seriespage/mark-introduction-argument-and-outline (accessed Jan 4 2012).

[10] Even to those who may not conclude that Peter’s direct testimony is found in the gospel, there has been reflection as to whether Mark casts a positive or negative light upon Peter. See E. Best, “Peter in the Gospel According to Mark”, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 40, 1978.  

[11] Best, 558.

[12] It should be noted that in the Roman religion that Scripture and the teaching Tradition of the church are equal forms of authority which are seen as complementary and never contradictory.   Protestants hold that Scripture is the supreme authority and is the corrective and judge of all human teaching in the church.

[13] Irenaues, Against Heresies 3.3.2—http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.iv.iv.html

[14] For a good summary of church history during this era see Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol 1 (New York: HarperOne, 1984) - See particularly the chapter on the Medieval Papacy.

Artwork with our Mark Series

I have really enjoyed the artwork done by one of our Jacob’s Well members for our series in the gospel of Mark.  There are a few more coming but here are the pieces we have used so far. Many thanks to Adel Steman for her creative work on these. I think my favorite is the healing of the blind with the hand along the man’s face.

Passion - An Introduction to the Gospel of Mark

Background, Introduction and Themes in Mark’s Gospel - Full Booklet in PDF here
Reid S. Monaghan

Introduction

Some of the most unique writings in history are found in the gospels of the New Testament. These ancient scriptures place the life, teaching, kingdom, sacrificial death and glorious resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth on full display. Out of an obscure corner of the globe, from a small tribe of people came forth a figure that transformed all of human history. He was a man with a focused mission and the Gospel of Mark funnels our own lives into his story. The recounting of the life of Jesus by Mark brings to us fast paced action with a sense of divine drama and movement. We know Jesus is going somewhere; his life had a date with destiny. Mark unfolds the identity and mission of Jesus with a sense of passion and immediacy and by reading this book we enter into the drama which was brought forth from eternity.

In the gospel of Mark, we have no doubt that Jesus is bringing a new reality to the earth and heading to an appointment with suffering and triumph. We follow him today with a focus and passion for the great mission he entrusted to us…to see the salvation of God proclaimed to the world.

By God’s grace, over the course of the next eight months, we will be journeying through Mark’s gospel together to continue our growth into worshippers and disciples of Jesus who live out his mission here in central New Jersey. As we begin I want to take some time to lay out some background for the gospels in general and the gospel of Mark in particular. Also, I will highlight some books in the bibliography that I think will be helpful to your personal growth, family and missional community.

This essay will contain a few sections in order to orient us to the New Testament gospels. I will first give a short introduction to the shape and purpose of the biblical gospels. I will then briefly focus on the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke and look at how Mark has been studied in order to treat the similarities and differences in these three gospel accounts. I will then turn to some basic background and introductory information for the gospel of Mark before offering a practical conclusion. The conclusion will highlight some of the features of Mark that I pray will continue to shape the Jacob’s Well community in a profound way.

The Gospels of the New Testament

To come to know Jesus in spirit and in truth we must arrive to him instructed by the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. We must have knowledge of him as he really is, while the Spirit of God persuades us fully that he is the Christ, the Son of the living God. To know Jesus we must see him in the gospels and experience the living Jesus spiritually present with us by the Holy Spirit. Both truth and spiritual experience unite when we meet Jesus in the Scriptures.[1] In Jesus God became flesh and lived among the people of the earth displaying to us his nature and his glory. Jesus is the majestic one and the written and proclaimed Word of God brings his majesty to us.

In the gospels of the New Testament we have compiled eyewitness accounts[2] from people who walked with Jesus, talked with him, were taught by him, lived with him and were commissioned as his ambassadors and messengers to the world. The canonical gospels were all first century documents compiled as the mission of God spread geographically[3] and as the apostles neared the end of their lives on earth. They wanted to be certain to pass on the life, teaching and mission of Jesus to the broader Christian community and movement[4] who would continue to carry out his work as he had commanded (Matthew 28:18-20). These gospels, inspired by God, would grow in their importance as false teachers began to arise and circulate strange and esoteric opinions about Jesus which were not a part of the apostolic teachings. Many of these writings were poser “gospels” purporting to give secret knowledge and teachings about Jesus. Such writings were rejected by early leaders of the faith such as Irenaeus of Lyon who were directly connected to the apostolic tradition.[5] These works were never considered part of the Bible, have never been part of the Bible and never will be part of the Bible.[6] They were false teachings rejected firmly by pastors who loved their people. The four gospels of the New Testament are the agreed upon standards for the life of Jesus accepted by all Christians everywhere. Protestants, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox believers all look to these works as the divine and inspired revelation of Jesus Christ. Now let us turn our attention to what makes a gospel writing “a gospel” and focus for a moment on the literary genre.

History, Biography, Theology?

When we come to the gospels we arrive at some very unique writings composed of many kinds of literature. These writings are composed of genealogies, narrative storytelling, historical facts, proverbs of wisdom, teaching parables, commands, and some apocalyptic sections. Many questions can rightly be asked about these books. Are these books of history, mere biographical sketch or simply theological books aiming to teach us truths about God? For instance, there are certainly historical realities about the gospels in that they are set in real time and real places speaking about real people. They do not speak about another mythical world in a galaxy far far away. So in that way the gospels are historical but they are not mere compilations of historical facts and figures. They endeavor to teach us more than that. Furthermore, it should be noted that the gospels may well be properly classified in the genre of ancient biography.[7] When we hear the word “biography” we may think of a show on A&E, VH1 behind the scenes or a book aiming to tell the whole life story of a certain person. We know the gospels do not do this as they only contain parts of Jesus’s story; parts that serve the purpose and theological aims of the particular gospel in question. This may lead us to see the gospels as books of theological facts but this seems far less personal that what we find when actually reading them. Scottish New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham gives a wonderful classification for the gospels in describing them as testimony:

Understanding the Gospels as testimony, we can recognize this theological meaning of the history not as an arbitrary imposition on the objective facts, but as the way the witnesses perceived the history, in an inextricable coinherence of observable event and perceptible meaning.  Testimony is the category that enables us to read the Gospels in a properly historical way and a properly theological way.  It is where history and theology meet..[8] 

Therefore, we shall see the gospels as eyewitness testimony pointing to a real person, in real history, revealing to us real truth about God, ourselves and Jesus of Nazareth, who is called the Christ.  It is my hope that we might enjoy a lifetime of studying these writings, meeting Jesus in them and growing spiritually through their nourishment as the Word of our God. Before we move into a general introduction to Mark’s gospel I want to provide a brief treatment of the importance or Mark to a particular area of gospel studies.

The Synoptic Gospels

The gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke are known as the Synoptic Gospels, in that each provides a synopsis, or outline of the life and teaching of Jesus. The word synoptic is derived from two Greek terms that when combined mean to see together.  When examined together, these gospels present a multifaceted view of the life and teaching of Jesus. There is an interesting body of scholarship whose goal has been to investigate the origin and compiling of the synoptic gospels from early oral tradition and eyewitness accounts. Scholars have labeled this the synoptic problem. The question arises from both the similarity and differences between the texts of Matthew, Mark and Luke and the potential literary and source connections between them. A complete summary of the synoptic problem is well beyond our purposes here, but I think a brief summary will help you at least know some of the issues. I will lay out a few of the issues that make the synoptic puzzle an interesting area of New Testament studies. For those interested in a very brief, approachable, but thoughtful summary of the current discussion I recommend Rethinking the Synoptic Problem published by Baker Academic.[9]  It is only about 160 pages so throw it in your Amazon shopping cart.

First Issue - We know the Gospels are Compilations

The fact that the evangelists, the writers of the synoptic gospels, compiled their accounts from other sources is non-controversial. It is the clear teaching of the Bible and of church tradition. For instance, Luke begins his gospel with the following statement:

1Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, 2just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, 3it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.

Luke 1:1-4 ESV

A few things should be noted about Luke’s goals in writing his gospel. First, he acknowledges others have taken up the task to compile a written narrative of Jesus. Second, these compilations are based on eyewitness accounts from those who were with Jesus and ministers of the word. Third, his concern was to put together a written, orderly, factual account of the teachings of the Christian faith. Additionally, there is a strong tradition stating that Mark’s gospel is a compilation of the account and preaching of Peter which was written around the time of the apostle’s death. We’ll have more on this a bit later in this essay. So if the gospels are compilations which were written down at different times, for different purposes, by different authors it is likely that they shared some of the same sources and perhaps used one another’s writings.

Second Issue - Same Stories, Different Accountings

If you ever interact with people who are skeptical about the Bible they are sure to bring up the so called “contradictions” in the gospel narratives. You see some of the stories are the same, sometimes verbatim (see next issue), but sometimes the stories are similar but have some pretty significant differences.  A quick read of the resurrection narrative accounts in the synoptic gospels will suffice to illustrate.  How many angels were there at the empty tomb?  If you go after answering that question for a moment you run into a feature of the synoptic problem. My answer? Probably, at least two…but each does not always get props in every version of the story.

Third Issue - Same Stories, Same Wordings

Many times the synoptic gospels contain the exact same stories and teachings of Jesus Christ. This would be rather uninteresting as a mere accounting of the same life would suffice to explain this occurrence. However, many times in the gospels we find Matthew and Luke repeating Mark almost word for word. Additionally Matthew and Luke contain some of the same sayings of Jesus that are not found in Mark. This has provoked the question: Who was using what writings in compiling their work? In any account, there appears to be a literary interdependence of the synoptic gospels and their sources. This has led to the dominant position among many scholars today known as the Two Source hypothesis which I will only sketch in bullet form here.

The Dominant Solution – Two Source Hypothesis

  • Mark was written first.  The view that Mark was the first gospel is simply assumed by many in New Testament studies today.[10] For example, Ben Witherington begins his commentary with a simple statement regarding studies of the gospel of Mark: “The sheer volume of recent studies, however, suggests that we are trying harder to grasp the meaning of this, the earliest of the gospels.”[11] There are many reasons for thinking Mark may have been written first.[12]
  • Matthew and Luke had Mark available to them as they wrote
  • Scholars have formed a hypothesis (a good and educated guess) of another source which they have called “Q”[13] (from the German quelle for “source”). It is held that this source contained sayings that Matthew and Luke share in common but are absent from Mark. Q is a working hypothesis used by some scholars. There is not a single shred of archaeological evidence of its existence; it is simply a literary inference. We do not have one copy of this source. Yet it is a reasonable inference due to the material shared by Matthew and Luke.  It is questioned by some scholars and an assumed hypothesis by others.
  • Today, Markan priority and the use of Luke/Matthew of Mark/Q remains the dominant view in explaining the synoptic gospels.

However, in the last several decades there have been others who are arguing quite convincingly for the priority of Matthew.[14]  This holds promise for a couple reasons.  First, the earliest traditions and teachings in church history are univocal that Matthew was written first. This was unchallenged for over 1800 years. Second, this school of thought is giving much more credence to patristic studies, studies of the writings of the church fathers. For those interested in this school of thought will want to see Why Four Gospels by David Allan Black.[15] I personally enjoy this work and would love to see more scholars attend to it.

Let me close briefly by saying that all evangelical scholars—whether those who hold to the two source/Markan priority hypothesis or the priority of Matthew—hold that the synoptic gospels were written down by the inspiration and direction of the Holy Spirit. All evangelical New Testament scholars agree that each view is compatible with the truth that the writers of the gospels recorded scripture as inspired by God. 

Dr. Craig Blomberg sums this up well:

…it is important to state up front that none of the major solutions to the Synoptic problem is inherently more or less compatible with historic Christian views of the inspiration and authority of Scripture.[16] 

Though the precise solution to the literary connectedness of the gospels is not of central importance to our faith, it is good to be aware of these issues.  Many so called “contradictions” that skeptics claim to find in the synoptic narratives are easily resolved when we realize that each author arranged his material to tell the story of Jesus from a particular perspective. Our chief concern with Matthew, Mark and Luke is the person to whom they testify. Our gaze is the person of Jesus who lived in history, taught us many things, gave his life as a sacrifice for sin and rose from death to set people free. Each of the synoptic gospels takes us to this Jesus in a unique way.

The Gospel of Mark - Basic Background

In terms of historical attention, the gospel of Mark has been a bit of a little step brother to the lengthier gospels of Matthew, Luke and John. In fact, many in the ancient world considered Mark to serve the church as a sort of abstract, or a short outline version, of the Gospel of Matthew.[17] Historically there has been much more preaching on John and Matthew. Even today, you will not encounter as many sermons preached from Mark’s gospel as you will from the more theological gospel of John. In recent times much more scholarly focus has been given to this gospel due to its helpfulness in a solution to the Synoptic Problem (see above). Mark is a mere sixteen chapters and is a fast paced accounting of the teaching and life of Jesus.  It contains no genealogies or birth narratives as do Matthew and Luke and is very concerned with presenting Jesus’ passion week as the focus of the story. In fact, about half of the book is about the last week of Jesus life. This will be only a brief introduction to the background of the book and its teaching.  For those who want more just follow the yellow brick road called the footnotes.  I am convinced that Jesus must just love good footnotes.  At least I do. Smile.

Authorship of Mark

All of the gospels do not have the author’s name as part of the text itself, but the four gospels have never really been anonymous in church history. The author’s name which is associated with the book is that of a man named Mark. This person is mentioned several times in the New Testament and was commonly known as John Mark. The earliest church traditions all associate this gospel with Mark and his task to record the account of the apostle Peter in writing. The earliest sources we have are from the writings of Papias, a church leader in Hierapolis (in modern day Turkey), and Irenaeus, a bishop from Lyon (in what is modern day France). Papias’ work survives in a text written by the prominent early church historian Eusebius.  It reads as follows:

And the Elder said this also: “Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatever he remembered of the things said and done by the lord, but no however in order.” For neither did he hear the Lord, nor did he follow him, but afterwards, as I said, Peter, who adapted his teachings to the needs of his hearers, but not as though he were drawing up a connected account of the Lord’s oracles.  So then Mark made no mistake in thus recording some things just as he remembered them.  For he took forethought for one thing, not to omit any of the things that he had heard, nor to state any of them falsely. [18] 

It is estimated the Papias tradition is very early and dates perhaps to within 90-100 AD.[19]  Irenaeus, writing in the second century, recorded the following:

After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him.[20]

The oldest traditions all hold that Mark was the other who arranged the teachings of Peter to give a written account of Jesus Christ to the church. In addition to the tradition there is good internal evidence in the book that Mark’s gospel greatly reflects the preaching of Peter that we see in the book of Acts.[21] New Testament scholar Daniel Wallace provides a great summary of the internal connection with Mark and Peter; I will quote him at length:

  1. John Mark had contact with Peter from no later than the mid-40s (Acts 12:12) and it appears that the church met at Mark’s own residence.
  2. Both Peter and Mark were connected to the churches in Antioch and Jerusalem.
  3. Paul sent Mark from Rome to the Colossian church and to Philemon in 60-62. If Peter were in Rome at this time, Mark would have had contact with him there.
  4. 2 Tim 4:11 we find Paul giving Timothy instructions to bring Mark with him from Ephesus to Rom (c. 64). It is possible that he had been outside of Rome since his departure in 62.
  5. Mark is with Peter in Rom in c. 65 (1 Peter 5:13) perhaps after his return at Paul’s request. Peter also calls Mark his “son” in this passage indicating a more long-standing relationship.
  6. The book of Mark’s outline follows the Petrine teaching recorded in Acts 10:36-41. (1) John the Baptist  (2) Jesus Baptized by John (3) Jesus’ miracles show he is from God (4) he went to Jerusalem (5) was crucified (6) he was raised on the third day. This shows that perhaps Mark even received a framework for the oracles of Jesus from Peter.
  7. The low view of Peter and the other apostles in Mark shows that the person writing was not trying to put them on a pedestal.  A non-apostolic writer would have done this unless he was recording what he actually had received from Peter. [22]

So we have good reasons, both the external testimony from church tradition and the content of the book itself, to hold that John Mark arranged the instruction of Peter who gave eyewitness testimony to the life and teaching of Jesus Christ.

Who was John Mark?

John Mark is mentioned several times in the New Testament as an associate in ministry of both Peter (1 Peter 5:13) and Paul (Acts 12:25, 15:37-39; 2 Timothy 4:11). In some ways he is one of the key players in the early church as he is a disciple and co-laborer of the two men who most shaped the Christian movement after the ascension of Jesus. In the early days in Jerusalem the church apparently met in his house (Acts 12:12), the same house in which the last supper was held.[23] He exhibits great ability as a storyteller and takes us on a journey to the central focus of the gospel – the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.

One of the things I appreciate most about John Mark is that he is a bit of a comeback kid. In his relationship with Paul we see him as one of the earliest missionaries taking the gospel out into the world.  Then apparently he becomes a little freaked out in the field and abandons the mission. This of course had Paul a little miffed and Paul and Barnabas actually part ways over the incident. Paul simply doesn’t trust Mark after he tapped out on him. Yet Barnabas, whose name means son of encouragement, gives him a second chance and Mark was greatly used by God. He eventually becomes Peter’s right hand man and what God does in his relationship with Paul is encouraging. Paul’s last comments about him are very endearing.  Just before Paul’s death, he asks Timothy to send for John Mark; he wanted his friend at his side in his last days (2 Timothy 4:11)

Dating of Mark

Many events factor into a dating of the gospel of Mark and knowing some important and confirmed/accepted times from the first century is always helpful.  These dates will be brought into our discussion of a date for Mark’s writing.

Event

Date (AD - apprx)

Fall of Jerusalem

70

Martyrdom of Paul and Peter

64-68

Epistles of Paul

45-68

Some Oral Tradition

32-70

Crucifixion of Jesus

32

In looking at the date of Mark’s gospel we find several important issues. First, if we accept the tradition that he recorded the teaching of Peter then we must place it somewhere in the locus of the life of the apostle. Second, if one finds the two source/Markan priority hypothesis as a good solution to the Synoptic Problem, then Mark precedes Matthew and Luke and this affects its dating. Third, we have testimony from the early church that Mark wrote either just before or just after the death of Peter which we date to the persecution under Nero after a great fire in AD 64. With the theme of suffering so prominent in Mark and Peter’s execution in the mid-sixties, most prefer a date for the gospel between 60 and 70, usually right around 65. 

Yet some who favor Markan priority place it in the mid-50s[24] for the following reasons. If Mark was written first then the gospel of Luke must be dated after Mark. Dating Luke’s gospel is not so difficult.  We know from the text itself that the same author composed by Luke and Acts as a two part volume with Luke compiled first. A few dates help us position Luke-Acts. First, Acts has no mention of the fall of Jerusalem which we date conclusively to AD 70. This would be strange if this painful event had already occurred. This gives us confidence to place the writing of Acts to before 70. Additionally, Acts also ends with Paul living under house arrest in Rome. We estimate that Paul is martyred in between 64-68 so this would place Acts some time before his death. If Luke came before Acts we find that gospel coming on to the scene in the very early part of the 60s with some placing it around AD 62. So if one favors the thesis that Mark was written first, then a date preceding Luke, sometime in the late 50s seems to be preferred.  However, if you hold to the tradition that Matthew was first, then Mark can be happy at around AD 65. With either consideration, Mark is one of the earliest gospels recorded to pass the teaching and story of Jesus on for the generations which were to come. 

Provenance of Mark

Here is our big word for the day…provenance. It simply means the origin of the writing or the place where it was written. The church has always held that the gospel was written from Italy, in the imperial capital of Rome. The use of technical Latin terminology, the use of Roman accounting of time (6:48; 13:35) all point towards Rome. Mark’s use of the Greek version of the Old Testament, his explanation of Jewish customs and practices, his translation of Aramaic terms indicate he was likely writing with a Gentile audience in mind.[25] Finally, Mark’s lack of inclusion of a Jewish genealogy for Jesus perhaps points to a Roman audience as well. We have no good reason to doubt that the gospel originated in the first century Christian community in Rome. 

Context and Purpose of Mark

Ben Witherington’s commentary on Mark calls to mind two very important cultural contexts which are in play in Mark’s gospel.  First, the culture of early first century Galilee/Judea in AD 20-30 and second, the mid first century culture of Rome in the 60s.[26] It is an interesting fact that both contexts presented great difficulty for both the Jewish and early Christian communities. Galilee/Judea was under Roman occupation and rule where Jesus and his following appeared a religious-political threat to imperial power. Rome in the mid-60s presented an intense, though brief, time of suffering and persecution under the maniacal leadership of Nero. That story requires a brief explanation.

In the early days of Nero’s reign Christians lived in relative peace in the empire. They were seen with some suspicion due to their rejection of pagan gods and festivals as well as their preaching of the gospel. Aggressive seeking of converts put them at odds with the established and ancient religions of the day. Though Peter and Paul were executed for their leadership in preaching the gospel, aggressive, wide spread persecution of Christians as a class of people was not yet the reality. This changed around AD 64 with a widespread fire in Rome. The cause of the fire is uncertain with some blaming the emperor as the source. Nero, however, found a different scapegoat to turn suspicion away from him. He blamed the Christians. This was significant for two reasons. First, he was the first emperor to treat the Christians as followers of a different religion than that of the Jews. This made them believers in a new religion, not an ancient and accepted faith.[27] Second, he declared open season on Christians and set off unprecedented abuse of Christian people. After the time of Nero’s persecutions, a brutal account was recorded by the ancient historian Tacitus. Oh, how our sisters and brothers suffered for the sake of the name of Christ. Here is the account:

But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.[28]

Nero sounds like a punk to me and just making an educated guess I imagine that he received a really, really warm reception in the afterlife. The themes in Mark reflect this context of suffering and persecution. In the gospel Jesus is presented as the suffering servant, wrongly and brutally punished by the hand of Rome. Christians in Rome under Nero’s reign would have understood this message. Follow the example of Jesus in the midst of their own suffering. 

Such is our own call; we are called to Jesus and to live together in his mission. Whether we live in times of open suffering or lulled to sleep by comfort and familiarity we must be shaken loose from our current views of life in order to follow Jesus in our world today. We need his life, his kingdom and his story to constantly define our own. This is our invitation, to see Jesus as the founder and definition of our faith, the definer of life and the person whose story gives us reference points for every turn of life ahead.

Themes of Mark

Though much could be said about all the teaching and themes found in the gospel of Mark, for our purposes here I simply want to bring the following to light for the Jacob’s Well family. These themes are important theologically to understand ourselves and our Lord so that we might live out the gospel mandate in our time.

King and Kingdom

Two inextricably connected realities explode on to the scene in the very first chapter of Mark’s gospel. Here we read, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” and further, “…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’.” Here is the language of the arrival of a King and a great Kingdom, yet not just any royal reign. This is God’s King and God’s Kingdom. A new way of living under the rule and reign of Christ, the Messiah, God’s anointed king has arrived and all of history, including our lives, will be forever changed. Jesus is a different King than the temporal rulers and potentates of our world. Those who call him Lord are transformed and live under a different reality now and forever. God’s people become a tangible expression of the rule of Jesus now as we extend the gospel to others around us. The good news of the Bible is that God’s King has come, we can live under his rule and we enter his covenant community by repenting of sin and placing complete faith and trust in Christ.

Identity through Action OR Identity in Action

How do you get to know someone? Personally, I have read books and biographies about people where I feel like I know a little bit about them. You can listen to others tell you about a friend and you can also actually watch him live. The disciples and apostles lived with Jesus and watched him live out his ministry. Peter, through Mark’s writing, wants to let us in on this action. Mark’s gospel says this to us: “If you want to know the identity of Jesus, just watch him.” What does he do? How does he go about his purpose and mission? Yes, Mark does contain some of Jesus’s teaching in its pages but far less than the other gospels. The reason seems to be that Mark wants us to know Jesus by watching what he does in fast and furious action. As we read Mark, illuminated by the Spirit, we see someone to follow quite clearly. We need to experience Jesus in both his teaching and his works and then obey and follow. The apostle John describes this as the “abundant life” with Christ as our chief shepherd; our master and commander in life.

The Joy of Suspense

What will he do next? I find myself asking this as I read through Mark. A great exercise for me has been to listen to Mark read aloud. The sense of movement and anticipation is quite a joyful experience. In the same way our lives are similar. We should always be asking the question: Lord Jesus, what are you going to do next!? I personally love a good story or film at the movies. Yet I do think we can neglect the significance of the story of our own lives. We watch a movie with suspense and expectation but we do not seem to watch “Tuesday” in the same way. Reading the story of Jesus makes me realize that he is present with me every day in significant events and in the normal routines of eating and sleeping. He also calls us to follow him in his work on the earth now. This calling, when obeyed, leads to some joyful suspense as well as opportunities to let faith conquer our fears. My hope is that Mark would encourage us to swing our bat each day and joyfully watch as Jesus works in our lives and world. Standing on the sidelines, sitting the bench, standing with the bat on our shoulder as the pitch goes by, not trying at all to follow is lame Christianity as religion. I pray that in the joyful suspense of believing and following we might find life in his name (John 1:12). Sometimes there is a cross and pain in the trail before us, sometimes there is resurrection glory, yet on either path our hope is in Jesus. With this hope as a firm anchor to the soul (Hebrews 6:19) and our joy is seeing him lead us and surprise us day after day.

Sacrifice, Service and Suffering

There is a current sickness of sin in the modern American church which brings many to proclaim a dangerous half-truth to people. God only wants you to be rich, happy and never face sickness or extreme suffering or difficulty, they say. The Bible calls BS on this sort of teaching, yet the airwaves and interwebs are filled with such nonsense. Yes, God is the source of every blessing (James 1:16, 17). Yes, we should pray for healing (James 5:13-15). Yes, joy, when found in the right things, is a great gift of God. In fact, in God’s presence there is fullness of joy (Psalm 16). We must never forget, however, that Jesus both calls and models a life for us that also includes service to others, suffering for others and sacrifice in mission. To serve means to be inconvenienced and to bear others burdens. To love, particularly the unlovely, the difficult and the challenging, will mean we will suffer. To simply follow Jesus in a world where many do not like him or his message means we too will endure some persecution for our faith (2 Timothy 3:10-17). Mark’s gospel reveals a beautiful purpose in Jesus’s life and mission and hence our own:

[42] And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. [43] But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, [44] and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. [45] For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Mark 10:42-45 ESV

Triumph into Mission

The gospel of Mark is about Jesus who is the pinnacle of the story of the Bible. We must remember that the story of God is written in history and the Scriptures record but a beginning and commissioning of the mission of God. The final book of the Bible records the great return of King Jesus to vanquish all evil, to reconcile all things back to God and place all his enemies under his feet. Mark’s gospel teaches us that we are part of the story and mission of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ. His final triumph on the earth was over the grave itself where God the Father powerfully raises Jesus from the dead. The apostle Paul tells us that this triumph extends into our lives now when he wrote:

[9] You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. [10] But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. [11] If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

Romans 8:9-11 ESV

Today, now, and until eternity, we have the Holy Spirit living in us to transform our lives, empower and embolden us to proclaim the gospel and joyfully follow Jesus…all the way home friends, all the way home. If the Kingdom of Heaven is our final home and his call upon us now is to follow in life and mission we indeed must give ourselves fully to this work. To do anything else, as the writer of Ecclesiastes teachers us, is but a chasing after the wind.

Yours for seeing, savoring, following and being transformed by Jesus as he is revealed to us in the gospel of Mark. The journey begins, with a passionate summons from our King. Let us respond and follow with great passion of our own.

In His Name in the year of our Lord 2012

 

Pastor Reid S. Monaghan 

 

Recommended Resources

General Resources for the Study of the Gospels

       Rethinking The Synoptic the Problem edited by David Alan Black and David R. Beck

       Why Four Gospels by David Alan Black

       Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony and The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences by Richard Bauckham

       Promises Kept, The Message of the New Testament by Mark Dever

       Can We Trust the Gospels by Mark D. Roberts

       The Historical Reliability of the Gospels by Craig Blomberg

The Gospel of Mark

       The King’s Cross by Timothy Keller – popular level treatment derived from some of Dr. Keller’s teaching at Redeemer NYC from the book of Mark.

       Mark for Everyone by N.T. Wright – though we do not stand with Wright on some important theological positions, this commentary is helpful, devotional and accessible.

       The Gospel According to Mark, Pillar New Testament Commentary by James R. Edwards – excellent commentary that is scholarly but not overwhelmingly technical.

       The Gospel of Mark by William Lane – comprehensive and excellent commentary that will take you into Mark with some depth of understanding.

       The Gospel of Mark, A Socio Rhetorical Commentary by Ben Witherington – a unique commentary focusing on the social and rhetorical contexts that are the backdrop of Mark.

Bibliography

Bauckham, Richard. The Gospels for All Christians : Rethinking the Gospel Audiences. Grand Rapids, Mich. ; Cambridge, U.K.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1997.

________. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses : The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2006.

Black, David Alan. Why Four Gospels - the Historical Origins of the Gospels. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2001.

Black, David Alan, and David R Beck. Rethinking the Synoptic Problem. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001.

Bock, Darrell L. The Missing Gospels-Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006.

Calvin, John. “Institutes of the Christian Religion.”

Carson, D. A., Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris. An Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1992.

Edwards, James R. The Gospel According to Mark. Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2002.

Farmer, William Reuben. The Synoptic Problem, a Critical Analysis. New York: Macmillan, 1964.

France, R. T. The Gospel of Mark : A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002.

Irenaeus, “Against Heresies”, Christian Classics Ethereal Library http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.iv.ii.html (accessed Jan 4 2012).

Kirby, Peter, “Q Document ” http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/q.html (accessed Jan 4 2012).

Lane, William L. The Gospel According to Mark; the English Text with Introduction, Exposition, and Notes. Grand Rapids,: Eerdmans, 1974.

Tacitus, “The Annals “, MIT Internet Classics Archive http://classics.mit.edu/Tacitus/annals.11.xv.html (accessed Jan 4 2012).

Wallace, Daniel, “Mark: Introduction, Argument, and Outline”, Bible.org http://bible.org/seriespage/mark-introduction-argument-and-outline (accessed Jan 4 2012).

Witherington, Ben. The Gospel of Mark : A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2001.

 

ENDNOTES


[1]John Calvin, “Institutes of the Christian Religion.” says this well “Scripture will ultimately suffice for a saving knowledge of God only when its certainty is founded upon the inward persuasion of the Holy Spirit” (Book I, viii, 13).

[2] A compelling case for the gospels being comprised of eyewitness testimony is found in Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses : The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2006). 

[3] David Alan Black, following the work of William Farmer and Bernard Orchard gives an interesting hypothesis that the gospels were written during the periods of missional unfolding during the apostolic era. Matthew in the Jerusalem period, Luke in the gentile mission of Paul, Mark in Rome and John adding his theological gospel towards the end of the apostolic age. See David Alan Black, Why Four Gospels - the Historical Origins of the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2001).

[4] See Richard Bauckham, The Gospels for All Christians : Rethinking the Gospel Audiences (Grand Rapids, Mich. ; Cambridge, U.K.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1997), 8-49.   

[5] See Irenaeus, “Against Heresies”, Christian Classics Ethereal Library http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.iv.ii.html (accessed Jan 4 2012). Irenaeus is said to have heard the gospel from a man named Polycarp who was a disciple of some guy named John the apostle.  The point is Irenaeus, in refuting false teachings, was in the position to know.

[6] Some scholars today such as Bart Ehrman of UNC Chapel Hill and Elaine Pagels of Princeton present these other books as “Lost Scriptures” from “Lost Christianities” rather than “rejected books” and “rejected” Christianities. This is historical revisionism at its worst. For a treatment of these issues see Darrell L. Bock, The Missing Gospels-Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006).

[7] See genre analysis in Richard A. Burridge “About People, by People, for People: Gospel Genre and Audiences” in Bauckham, The Gospels for All Christians : Rethinking the Gospel Audiences, 113-145.

[8] Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses : The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, 5,6.

[9] David Alan Black and David R Beck, Rethinking the Synoptic Problem (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001).

[10] Ibid., 17.

[11] Ben Witherington, The Gospel of Mark : A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2001), 1. Emphasis added.

[12] D. A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1992), 32-36.

[13] More on “Q” can be found here Peter Kirby, “Q Document ” http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/q.html (accessed Jan 4 2012).

[14] Most influential has been the late William Reuben Farmer, The Synoptic Problem, a Critical Analysis (New York: Macmillan, 1964).  See brief discussion in R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark : A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002), 42.

[15] Black, Why Four Gospels - the Historical Origins of the Gospels.

[16] Black and Beck, Rethinking the Synoptic Problem, 18.

[17] William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark; the English Text with Introduction, Exposition, and Notes (Grand Rapids,: Eerdmans, 1974), 3.

[18] Ibid., 8.

[19] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2002), 4.

[20] Irenaeus.

[21] Lane, 10-12.

[22] Daniel Wallace, “Mark: Introduction, Argument, and Outline”, Bible.org http://bible.org/seriespage/mark-introduction-argument-and-outline (accessed Jan 4 2012).

[23] Edwards, 5.

[24] This is the position favored in Carson, Moo, and Morris.

[25] Lane, 25.

[26] Witherington, 31.

[27] Ibid., 34-35.

[28] Tacitus, “The Annals “, MIT Internet Classics Archive http://classics.mit.edu/Tacitus/annals.11.xv.html (accessed Jan 4 2012). Emphasis added.

The Joy of Suspense

What will Jesus do next? I find myself asking this as I read through the gospel of Mark in the New Testament. A great exercise for me has been to listen to Mark read aloud. The sense of movement and anticipation is quite a joyful experience. In the same way our lives are similar. We should always be asking the question: Jesus, what are you going to do next!?

I personally love a good story or film at the movies. Yet I do think we can neglect the significance of the story of our own lives. We watch a movie with suspense and expectation but we do not seem to watch “Tuesday” in the same way. Reading the story of Jesus makes me realize that he is present with me every day in significant events and in the normal routines of eating and sleeping. He also calls us to follow him in his work on the earth now.

This calling, when obeyed, leads to some joyful suspense as well as opportunities to let faith conquer our fear. My hope is that Mark would encourage us to swing our bat each day and joyfully watch as Jesus works in our lives and world. Standing on the sidelines, sitting the bench, standing with the bat on our shoulder as the pitch goes by, not trying at all to follow is lame Christianity as religion. I pray that in the joyful suspense of believing and following we might find life in his name (John 1:12). Sometimes there is a cross and pain in the trail before us, sometimes there is resurrection glory, yet on either path our hope is in Jesus. With this hope as a firm anchor to the soul (Hebrews 6:19) and our joy is seeing him lead us and surprise us day after day.

GK Chesterton once wrote that the modern mechanistic view of life and the universe drains it of its wonder. Real joy comes from knowing that life has a captain and we find delight as he fills each day with unexpected realities.

An Overview of the Gospel Literature

Introduction

To come to know Jesus in spirit and in truth we must arrive to him instructed by the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  We must have a knowledge of him as he really is while the Spirit of God persuades us fully that he is the Christ, the Son of the living God. To know Jesus we must see him in the gospels and experience the living Jesus spiritually present with us by the Holy Spirit. Both truth and spiritual experience unite when we meet Jesus in the gospels.1 In Jesus, God became flesh and lived among the peoples of the earth displaying to us his nature and his glory. Jesus is the majestic one and the written and proclaimed Word of God brings his majesty to us.

In the gospels of the New Testament we have compiled eyewitness accounts from people who walked with Jesus, talked with him, were taught by him, lived with him and were commissioned as his ambassadors and apostles to the world.2 The canonical gospels were all first century documents compiled as the mission of God moved out geographically3 and as the apostles neared the end of their lives. They wanted to be certain to pass on the life, teaching and mission of Jesus to the broader Christian community and movement4 who would continue to carry out his work in history.  These gospels, inspired by God, would grow in their importance as false teachers began to arise and circulate strange and esoteric opinions about Jesus which were not a part of the apostolic teachings. Many of their writings posed as “gospels” purporting to give secret knowledge and teachings about Jesus. Such writings were rejected by early leaders of the faith such as Iraneus of Lyon who were directly connected to the apostolic tradition.5 These works were never considered part of the Bible and have never been part of the Bible.6 They were false teachings rejected firmly by pastors who loved their people.  The four gospels of the New Testament are the agreed upon standards for the life of Jesus accepted by all Christians everywhere. Protestants, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox believers all look to these works as the divine and inspired revelation of Jesus Christ.  Now let us turn our attention to what makes a gospel writing, a gospel and focus for a moment on the literary genre. 

History, Biography, Theology?

When we come to the gospels we arrive at some very unique writings composed of many types of literature.  These writings are composed of genealogies, narrative story telling, historical facts, proverbs of wisdom, teaching parables, commands, even some apocalyptic sections. Many questions can rightly be asked about these books. Are these books of history, mere biography or simply theological books aiming to teach us truths about God? For instance, there are certainly historical realities about the gospels in that they are set in real time and real places speaking about real people.  They do not speak about another mythical world in a galaxy far far away. So in that way the gospels are historical but they are not mere compilations of historical facts and figures.  They desire to teach us more than this. Furthermore, it should be noted that the gospels may well be properly classified in the genre of ancient biography.7 When we hear the word “biography” we may think of a show on A&E or a book telling the whole life story of a certain person.  We know the gospels do not do this as they only contain parts of the Jesus story; parts that serve the purpose and theological aims of the particular gospel in question.  This may lead us to see the gospels as books of theological facts but this seems far less personal that what we find when actually reading them. Scottish New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham gives a wonderful classification for the gospels in describing them as testimony:

Understanding the Gospels as testimony, we can recognize this theological meaning of the history not as an arbitrary imposition on the objective facts, but as the way the witnesses perceived the history, in an inextricable coinherence of observable event and perceptible meaning.  Testimony is the category that enables us to read the Gospels in a properly historical way and a properly theological way.  It is where history and theology meet.8 

Therefore, we shall see the gospels as eyewitness testimony pointing to a real person, in real history, revealing to us real truth about God, ourselves and Jesus of Nazareth, who is called the Christ.  As the gospels are where the historical Jesus and his theological teachings meet the following will serve as a brief survey of each of the gospels. In these summaries we will focus on what each contributes to our view of Jesus and a small bit of its unique theological contribution to the church. It is my hope that you might enjoy a of lifetime of studying these writings, meeting Jesus in them and growing spiritually through their nourishment as the Word of God.

The Gospel of Matthew

The first book of the New Testament is a gospel written by Matthew, the disciple of Jesus.  Matthew was a tax collector which means he was a Jewish man who worked for the imperial power that was Rome. You might say that he was from the block and had sold out to the man. He was a servant of empire whom God called and made a servant of the humble, sacrificial servant King. Matthew, is a distinctively Jewish work demonstrating that Jesus was not simply a new teacher on the scene, but rather the promised one of the Old Testament arriving in the fullness of time. We see this in several ways in Matthew’s gospel.

First, Matthew begins with a long genealogy which seeks to show that Jesus is the Son of David, the son of Abraham.  This not simply an exercise in creating someone’s family tree and this statement is not something as simple as: this is Rick’s family tree, the son of Harry, the son Tom…blah, blah blah. These two figures from the Old Testament are massive in their importance. David is the one who in the Old School was promised that an eternal King would sit on his throne in 2 Samuel 7.  Abraham is known as the father of faith, who in the book of Genesis God chooses to use to so that through his offspring the whole world would be blessed. His descendants would be as numerous as the sand on the seashore. So here is what Matthew’s genealogy says to us. This is the king of God’s covenant with us! This is the promised one who will be the savior of and blessing to the whole world.

Second, there are so many promises of the Old Testament which are fulfilled in Jesus on display in Matthew.  His virgin birth (Matt 1:22-23, Isaiah 7:14), his birth in Bethlehem (Matt 2:3-6, Micah 5:2), his flight to Egypt from Herod (Matt 2:3-6, Hosea 11:1), Herod’s murder of kids under two (Matt 2:14-15, Jeremiah 31:15), his healing ministry (Matt 8:16-17, Isaiah 53:4), his use of parables in teaching (Matt 13:13, 14, Isaiah 6:9, 10), his riding into Jerusalem on a donkey and her foal (Isaiah 62:11, Zech 9:9) and his betrayal by Judas for pocket change (Matt 27:6-10 and Jeremiah 18:2-6, 19:1-2, 4, 6, 11, 32:6-15 and Zech 11:13).9 These all point to Jesus being the fulfillment of Old Testament promises. 

Third, there is this fascinating section in Matthew 12 where Jesus quite literally is identified as “greater than the temple of God” and “Lord of the Sabbath.” The temple was the place of worship where the presence of God dwelled and the Sabbath was a divine command to rest and worship. Jesus is identified as the locus of worship and the one who is in charge of the very commands of God. He was not simply bringing a religious rule keeping to the world, but rather he himself was a fulfillment of all the ways of worship and the laws of God in the Old Testament.

Finally, Matthew’s gospel closes with one of the clearest declarations for God’s people who receive a mission from the great King. We are to go into all the world and make disciples (learners, followers of Jesus) of all nations/peoples (Matthew 28:18-20). The promised Christ of the Old Testament has come and he is our covenant King.  All Christians throughout history have this wonderful privilege to teach others to follow him until his eternal Kingdom comes.   This is some of what Matthew has to say to us.

The Gospel of Mark

Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the four gospels and contains just sixteen chapters. It is a gospel of action with Jesus’ bursting on the scene quickly and then at a high pace moving forward towards what has become known as Passion week.  This is the week of Jesus’s life where he will be tried, executed and subsequently rise from the dead. Church tradition has held from the earliest days that Mark recorded the accounts of the apostle Peter writing down his eyewitness testimony. Both Peter and Mark appear to be in Rome together and historically I find no good reason to doubt this tradition. When you come to Mark you get the sense that Jesus is a man with a mission; he has a job to do and he is getting after it. There are action words everywhere with the most prominent being the Greek term “euthus” which means right away or immediately. The writing of the gospel jumps from scene to scene with fast and furious frame changes showing us who Jesus is and what he came to do. Written in the imperial capital of Rome it does not contain as many direct Old Testament quotations as Matthew and Mark seeks to explain things well for readers who may not be as familiar with the Jewish traditions we find more quickly in Matthew. The promise/fulfillment themes does remain however particularly seeing Jesus as the suffering servant from the prophet Isaiah.

The gospel of Mark also focuses on the announcement and demonstration of the Kingdom of God.  In chapter 1 we read: 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.” (Mark 1:14-15). The Scriptures speak of the Kingdom of God as his actual rule and reign the comes along with his sovereign king Jesus. In Mark’s gospel we see the statement “the kingdom of God is at hand” being demonstrated in the life of Jesus through his miracles. Sometimes people can look at Jesus as a miracle worker just doing tricks to impress people. The gospels do not put on display a Criss Angel Mind Freak special.  Jesus’ miracles are demonstrations that a new paradigm of life has arrived with him. The old era of sin, death and evil oppression in the world has been broken and a new way of life has arrived. This is partially realized today and will be fully brought to pass in the final Kingdom of Heaven at the end of time.  However where Jesus is at work today we see the realities and a foretaste of this coming Kingdom.

As mentioned earlier Mark’s gospel, though brief, spends the bulk of its time in the passion week of Jesus where we see him fulfill his role as sacrificial substitute and suffering servant. This is summarized well in the wonderful verse in Mark chapter 10: For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).

The Gospel of Luke

Luke is an interesting figure in the New Testament and we see him both in the book of Acts and in the letters written by a man named Paul, a primary leader in the early Christian movement. For instance, we read the following of Luke. He is called by Paul “the beloved physician” in Colossians 4:14, “my fellow worker” in the work of spreading the gospel in Philemon 1:24 and he is the only one remaining with Paul as Paul awaits execution in Rome in 2 Timothy 4:11. As a physician he would have been well educated, well read and maybe a bore a parties…just kidding about that last part. Luke was a faithful, sharp, friend of Paul who was intricately involved in gospel mission and concerned to preach and teach the gospel well. 

Luke wrote a two part work in the New Testament which scholars often call “Luke/Acts” in that Luke is episode one and Acts is episode two of his work. We might call Luke, Gospel Episode One – The Spirit Empowered Savior and Acts Gospel Episode Two – The Spirit Empowered Church on Mission.  There will be no Empire Strikes Back or Revenge of the Sith however for evil and its empires will simply be beat down by Jesus, the true and greater Jedi knight.  Ok, forgive me, I could not resist.

Luke’s gospel is an historically detailed work and he tells us that he went to great lengths to compile the Jesus story in a deliberate fashion. He worked hard to collect data from eyewitnesses and to write an orderly account so that we might have certainty about what we have been taught (see his introduction in Luke 1:1-4).

His gospel also contains a genealogy but his concern is to not simply trace Jesus to David and Abraham…but to go all the way back to Adam. His point is that Jesus was the savior for all people, gentiles included, not only Jewish followers. Perhaps Luke had also heard Paul’s teaching that the first man Adam failed in following God whereas Jesus, the second Adam, would fully bring salvation to the world (see Romans 5). Luke presents Jesus as a person full of the Holy Spirit who would walk with God, fulfill his mission and lead us in practically living it out. The Holy Spirit is fully active in Luke/Acts causing New Testament Scholar Darrell Bock to make the following observation:

Luke is a profoundly practical Gospel. His message is not only to be embraced; it is to be reflected in how we relate to others. Luke is also known as the writer who tells us much about the Holy Spirit but this emphasis is less dominant in Luke than in Acts. Nonetheless, Jesus’ ministry not only fits within God’s plan, it is empowered by God’s enabling Spirit [as we will see in Acts]. The church’s ministry has a similar dynamic.10

The Gospel of John

The final gospel, written by the apostle John, one of Jesus’ closest friends, was most likely put down while John was in the ancient city of Ephesus as an elder of the church there. It is different in nature than that of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and focuses on some important aspects of Jesus identity. John is a highly “theological gospel” demonstrating the full reality of Jesus and his work. John, never the one to hide his purposes, tells us exactly why he wrote down what he did:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.11

These words “Christ” and “Son of God” are the subject of John’s writing. His prologue states in unequivocal terms that Jesus was the preexisting son of God, in union with the Father, who became flesh in space, time and history (John 1:1-5, 14).  The signs and miracles of Jesus in John’s gospel show that the locus of divine activity is in his Christ (or Messiah) and this Jesus gives new life, eternal life, to all who believe and trust in him. (John 5:24, John 17:3). 

In John the dual natures of Jesus, fully human, fully divine, are clearly seen. His identity and works get displayed through the seven self identifying statements known as the “The I ams.” Jesus claims to be  the bread of life (John 6), the light of the world (John 8), the gate we enter and the good shepherd (John 10), the resurrection and the life (John 11), unique way to the Father, the truth and the life (John 14) and triumphantly claims to be the I AM, the very God of the Old Testament (Exodus 3, John 8). 

John’s gospel calls us to BELIEVE over and over but not simply a positive feeling or belief in believing.  No, John calls us to believe in the incarnate God Jesus Christ. The unique savior of the world who forgives sins, raises us to new life and promises us an eternal Kingdom without sin, death, disease, tears. In that day death will be smashed and done away with.

This is the Jesus of the Bible. This is the Jesus of the gospels. This is Jesus of living, resurrected power and ultimate reality. We echo the ancient call today: BELIEVE! and find LIFE in his name.

Notes

1. John Calvin, Insitutes of the Christian Religion, says this well “Scripture will ultimately suffice for a saving knowledge of God only when its certainty is founded upon the inward persuasion of the Holy Spirit” (Book I, viii, 13).

2. A compelling case for the gospels being comprised of eyewitness testimony is found in Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses-The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006)

3. David Alan Black, following the work of William Farmer and Bernard Orchard gives an interesting hypothesis that the gospels were written during the periods of missional unfolding during the apostolic era. Matthew in the Jerusalem period, Luke in the gentile mission of Paul, Mark in Rome and John adding his theological gospel towards the end of the apostolic age. See David Alan Black, Why Four Gospels (Grand Rapids: Kregal, 2001) 13-33.

4. See Richard Bauckham, Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences  (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998) 9-48.

5. See Iraneus, Against Heresies—available many places online.  Iraeneus is said to have heard the gospel from a man named Polycarp who was a disciple of some guy named John the apostle.  The point is Iraneus, in refuting false teachings, was in the position to know.

6. Some scholars today such as Bart Ehrman of UNC Chapel Hill and Elaine Pagels of Princeton present these other books as “Lost Scriptures” from “Lost Christianities” rather than “rejected books” and “rejected” Christianities. This is historical revisionism at its worst. For a treatment of these issues see Darrell L. Bock The Mission Gospels—Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006).

7. See genre analysis in Richard A. Burridge “About People, by People, for People: Gospel Genre and Audiences” in Bauckham, Gospel for All Christians , 113-145.

8. Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 5,6.

10. Portions of this list adapted from Frank Thielman, Theology of the New Testament: A Canonical and Synthetic Approach (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005)

10. Darrell L. Bock, Luke—NIV Life Application Commentary, 24.

11.  John 20:30-31

 

Our Desires and Living out Priorities

Most Americans would say they are either busy or feel busy.  This is particularly true on the east coast where Forbes magazine listed New York, NY as the third most stressed area in America1.  We can just assume some of that stressed out love reaches far into the NYC metro area as well. There are many who would give advice on life management and getting things done2 but sometimes having the right priorities and system just doesn’t solve the problem.  There is a long running human struggle with sticking to the things we say are our priorities. A good plan on paper might be a good first step, but it provides no guarantee you are going to change your own life. It is not uncommon for someone to say their priorities are God, their relationships, family and then work or play. In that order. Yet it is also not uncommon for the same people to spend all their hours and energy working and recreating with little time on their spiritual growth or with their people. We realize that intentions are one thing, but living is another. 

In this short essay I want to explore a simple question which has been wrestled with over the centuries: Why don’t we always do what we say we want to do? To do so we will first look at some discussions in philosophy about a concept the Greeks called akrasia—the weakness of the will. We will then look at a view of human freedom found in the works of New England theologian/philosopher Jonathan Edwards which will shed greater light on why we sometimes fail to do what we intellectually know is right. Finally, we will close with a discussion of a controversial and important biblical text which deals with human nature and its effects on our “want to” and how we might find help with following through with our desires.

On Akrasia

The ancient Greek philosophers discussed a concept known as akrasia, the weakness of the will.  The word literally means to lack command over oneself. In Plato’s dialogue Protagoras, Socrates dismisses the idea that anyone, knowing the good thing to do, would ever do otherwise. A person might not do the right thing or act according to what is good, but this only because he does not rightly understand it. If you know what is truly good, you do it by way of reason.  Aristotle, a couple of philosophical generations later, chose a less rigid understanding of a person finding weakness when choosing to do what is right. In his section VII.1-10 of his Ethics, Aristotle, describes times when people act in a way that is contrary to reason because they are overcome by some passion which they do not master rationally.3 The Greeks saw the good person as always acting in accordance with reason but they, like everyone else, were surrounded by people doing things they ought to have judgment about. Ultimately, Aristotle is more charitable than Socrates acknowledging the reality of akrasia, but only that people are mastered by their passions rather than mastering them. He does return to rationality in the end thinking that an akratic person will eventually see the errors in his thinking after some time and experience. He does think, like Socrates, that a truly wise person can never experience akrasia as he rightly sees it is a vice.4 To boil it down, Socrates thought that those who claim to have weakness of will to simply be stupid; Aristotle, thought that they were perhaps temporarily stupid but could recover their way.  The Greeks felt if you know right, you do right. However, they were still writing about this issue because people seem to fail in follow through quite often.  The Greek answer, and I would say the modern secular answer, was to become wiser and wiser and then you would always do the good. Of course they could never quite define, or agree upon a definition of “wise” and “good” so the philosophizing continues until this day. Over the years, many Christians have thought differently about why we often fail. We will look at the views of one such thinker before we discuss the biblical text.

Freedom of Inclination

Unfortunately, many only know of the 18th century theologian and pastor Jonathan Edwards from a sermon in which he sought to vividly present the teaching of Revelation 19:15 which read: He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. This sermon, entitled Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, is many times the only work contemporary Americans read of Edwards. Various historians and scholars know a fuller picture of the man that some have called the greatest mind of the American colonial period. The recent renewed interest in Edwards studies in theological, historical and philosophical circles is both encouraging and warranted.5  

One of his more influential works was entitled, in typical Edwards fashion, A Careful and Strict Enquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions of that Freedom of the Will, Which Is Supposed to be Essential to Moral Agency, Vertue and Vice, Reward and Punishment, Praise and Blame. Thank God it is known by its more popular and short title The Freedom of the Will.  Edwards had many reasons to write about human freedom and choice and what sort of freedom humans had.  Whereas the Greeks typically assumed that human beings naturally should choose the good and were puzzled why they most often did not, Edwards was a Christian who firmly believed that the human will was bent towards sin, not toward doing good.  Edwards was no pessimist, but he was realistic about the strength of human desires regarding their choices.

Rather than simply talk about freedom of the will in terms of seeing the good and then doing it, Edwards argued that human beings do what they are most inclined towards. People always act according to their deepest desires.6  The problem with not doing what we ought is with our want to, not simply with our knowledge. This gives a much better understanding to why humans often know their duty and fail to follow through.  Our desires can lead us away from what we even know to be the right path.  This does not alleviate us of moral responsibility for our actions, but it does mean that we need new desires, new inclinations towards what is good, right and true.

As an aside, Christian thinkers in every age have understood that what is good is related to who God IS. Furthermore, what he wills for human beings according is always in accord with his own good, unchanging character.7 The character and nature of God grounds that which is good ontologically so that we might see our lives conform to his character ethically. The Christian tradition differed from that of the Greeks in that it saw human fallibility not simply in terms of wisdom or knowledge but in terms of deepest desires and inclinations.  We needed to have our desires changed and set free from the law of sin and death so that we might be able to be changed to be more like God.  We would do the good when we become more like the one that is good.  The internal struggle of human beings, their wrestling with the weakness of will and the fallibility of our nature comes through clearly in the writings of St. Paul in his epistle to the Romans.

Romans 7

For the sake of brevity, I want to quote a portion of the seventh chapter of the book of Romans  from a paraphrase of the New Testament. It brings to light quickly the human struggle we have been discussing here:

I can anticipate the response that is coming: “I know that all God’s commands are spiritual, but I’m not. Isn’t this also your experience?” Yes. I’m full of myself—after all, I’ve spent a long time in sin’s prison. What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise. So if I can’t be trusted to figure out what is best for myself and then do it, it becomes obvious that God’s command is necessary. But I need something more! For if I know the law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time. It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge. I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question? The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.

Though a complete explanation of this text is beyond the scope of this essay, I want you to see the internal struggle described.  Here we find a human being struggling to do the good he sees revealed in the law of God (for simplicity think of the 10 commandments) but yet he sees another power at work within him. Indwelling sin has made him a prisoner to his own desires so that even when he wants to do the good he often falls short.  Rather than a better education he feels he needs to be set free, he needs help from outside of himself.  This insight is offensive to those who have their minds set on fixing themselves.  Pride in human beings will not face the truth that they need to be rescued, forgiven and changed.  Yet the human struggle and internal wrestling with sin is real as is its power.

The insight of Jesus and his followers was simple yet profound. It is from the heart that sin flows in our lives. When we do what is contrary to what we know is right, we are choosing that path because we want to. The problem is that our “want to” is precisely the problem; it is not our heads that let us down, it is our hearts. Jesus said it this way in Mark 7:14-23:

And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

So, do we do what we want to do in life? I would say for the most part yes. The problem we have is that our desires are contorted and greatly in need of reformation. Sin affects the mind so we don’t always think to do what is right, so we do need moral instruction and education.  Sin also affects the will in that it twists the desires of our heart.  What we need is a new mind and a new heart so that we can both see what is good and actually want to live it.

Being Able to Keep Priorities

So let’s revisit our busyness and priorities.  We are prone to fill our lives with all manner of things while neglecting that which we claim to be our priorities. Saying that God, our families and relationships is a priority while other pursuits are secondary is quaint.  Actually desiring to love God and your neighbor is a work of grace in us and through us. If we want our priorities to shift, we actually need a renovation of our hearts.  We need to be set free from sin and death to live a life of freedom and faith. 

Jesus died to lift the curse of sin from us to give us new inclinations to love God and walk in his ways.  He now enables us to do so — even when we feel stressed out and busy.  We need to sit at the feet of Jesus as his disciples so that we learn a new way and then follow with the new hearts he gives to us.  Even making the time to read Scripture, spend time with God in thoughtful prayer and to be a disciple is a choice that he empowers us to make.  When he calls, we follow and a new life awaits.  The strength of love overpowers the weakness of will when the heart has been turned around by God himself.  

In Luke 10:38-42 Martha bustles with activity and Mary sits at Jesus’ feet. Jesus tells us that it was Mary who chose the better path.  To come to the one who has to power to make us new is what we must learn as we travel through life.  Coming to him is a discipline but one he enables day by day.  As one wrote long ago, “give what you command, and command what you will. You enjoin continence [self restraint].”8   He has not left us to our own desires, he is giving us new ones each day.  We have our abiding hope in his power to help us live out his priorities in our lives today.

At his feet with you,

Reid S. Monaghan

Notes

1. America’s Most Stressed Out Cities, Forbes.com—http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/32588942/ns/business-forbescom/, accessed 11/20/2009.

2. David Allen’s best selling book Getting Things Done is a must in my opinion.  If you like technology the web site LifeHacker.com can be a great help as well.

3. For a discussion of Aristotle’s Ethics see the excellent summation in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-ethics/index.html accessed 11/21/2009.

4. See Alternate Readings of Aristotle on Akrasia at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-ethics/supplement1.html accessed 11/21/2009.

5. For a wonderful treatment of Edwards’ Life see the works of George Marsden.  His unabridged Jonathan Edwards, A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005) is in my opinion the best work on Edwards’ life and writings.  Also the works Gerald R. McDermott and Mark Noll are also of note.  John Piper and Sam Storms (to a lesser extent) have also brought the thought of Edwards forward in our day.  See John Piper, God’s Passion for His Glory Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards (Wheaton: Crossway, 1998) and Sam Storms, Signs of the Spirit: An Interpretation of Jonathan Edwards’s “Religious Affections” (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007) are of particular interest.

6. See treatment of Edwards view of Freedom in Bruce Ware, God’s Greater Glory (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2004) 79-81.

7. See William P. Alston ‘What Euthyphro Should Have Said’ in Philosophy of Religion: A Reader and Guide edited by William Lane Craig, Rutgers University Press, 2002.

8. Augustine, Confessions, Book 10, Chapter 29.

Reconstructing the Word of God...What is Textual Criticism?

Today at the POCBlog, we have a guest essay by my friend and Jacob’s Wellian Scott C. Jones…this was written in conjuncture with his teaching of John 8:1-11 at Jacob’s Well on 10/25/2009.

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Grab a Bible and consider what you’re holding: a bound volume - pretty cover and all - of a bunch of documents written long ago over the course of hundreds of years. It may come as a shock to realize that none of the handwritten originals of these documents exist today. Nothing that Paul - or any of the other Biblical writers - wrote exists in the form that came from their pens. In fact, most of those handwritten drafts probably vanished from the face of earth within 10-20 years of their composition. Yet we still believe that what you’re holding in your hand is the inspired, inerrant Word of God. We very much have what was written. How can that be? How can we say that we know exactly what the original authors wrote, if we don’t have their original manuscripts in hand?

Inerrancy Clarified

Well, first let’s briefly clarify what Christians mean when they call the Bible “inerrant.” The doctrine of inerrancy doesn’t hold that your NIV or ESV translation is the exact words that God inspired the original authors to write. For one thing, Moses and Paul didn’t speak English. The Old Testament was almost entirely written in Hebrew, and the New Testament in a common Greek dialect. As such, your English translation is at least one step removed from the exact original wording. However, there is also the above mentioned reality which is that we don’t have any of the exact original Hebrew or Greek manuscripts. Therefore, it is important to clarify that inerrancy holds that “Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.”1 That may seem to question our reliance on Scripture as the Word of God, but before we despair, it’s important to consider that he have literally thousands of copies of the Biblical documents. And though almost all of these copies have small variations at certain points, our reliance on “second-hand” copies of the originals is no cause for alarm.

Textual Criticism to the Rescue?

If this all seems disconcerting, consider the meticulous science of textual criticism. Textual criticism is “the science that compares all known copies of a given document in an effort to trace the history of variations in the copying process so as to discover the original form of the text.”3 Did you get that? If not, picture this: you send a handwritten letter to a friend. Your friend receives the letter and wants other people to read what you’ve written. However, she wants to keep the original for herself. So, she decides to hand copy the original letter and sends copies out to 10 different friends. They’re so inspired by your words that they too decide to hand-write copies and send them to their 10 best friends. And so on and so on. Eventually there would be hundreds of copies of your original letter. As you might imagine, by the one-hundredth copy, there might be a slight difference in wording here and there. Some of the copyists might have corrected your grammar in certain places or changed the wording a bit to improve a phrase that wasn’t entirely clear to them. They also could have simply messed up in the copying process and left things out or switched words by mistake. Now imagine that your friend lost your original letter and wanted to reconstruct it as exactly as possible. What would she do?

Well, she would first try to get her hands on the original copies she herself had made. If she couldn’t find those first copies, she’d probably start compiling a bunch of other people’s hand-written copies. She’d then sit down and do a thorough examination of those copies. If she found differences in the copies she’d ask herself a series of questions to determine what the original actually said. Those questions might include: Does this sound more or less like the way my friend normally writes? Which is more likely to be an improvement on the original, rather than the original itself? Which copy came earlier in the copying process and is therefore less likely to have been varied along the way? Is the variation an understandable mistake in spelling (i.e.–God becoming good); if so, is one clearly correct given the context? Is there a difference in one later copy that doesn’t appear anywhere else in the earlier copies? Did someone clearly forget a line or phrase that seems to show up in a majority of the copies? Here is an example. You give it a try on the following:

  1. Today I went to worship at Jacob’s Well. It was awesome.
  2. Today I went to worship Jesus at Jacob’s Well. It was awe inspiring.
  3. Today I went to worship Jesus at Jacob’s Well. It was awesome.
  4. Today I worshipped Jesus at Jacob’s Wel. It was awesome.

You just did some good textual work and most likely came to a decision as to which was the original.4

Examining the Evidence

By asking this series of questions, your friend would be doing textual criticism. Luckily there are many faithful Christians (and non-Christians) who have given their lives to this very task with respect to the reconstruction of the original manuscripts of Scripture.  Still more exciting is the reality that they have an enormous amount of material with which to work. Compared to other ancient documents, the New Testament has an almost unfathomable number of early copies. For instance, the well-known historians Thucydides and Herodotus wrote around 500-400BC. There are, at most, 75 copies of their original work and many of those are one or two pages of multi-volume histories. The oldest manuscripts we have of their work date from the first century AD (400 years after they lived). In comparison, there are approximately 5,700 copies of the NT written in its original language (Greek), accompanied by 10,000 Latin copies and literally a million smaller quotations in the sermons and writings of the early church fathers.  The earliest of these copies date from the early second century A.D., just decades after the originals had been penned.5 If necessary, read those numbers again. It is truly amazing how thoroughly preserved the New Testament documents are, due to this abundance of handwritten, early copies.

Strong Confidence

Given this plethora of evidence there is an understandable amount of variance between the copies. In fact, in the NT alone there are approximately 400,000 variants among the manuscripts. However, it is absolutely critical to understand the nature of these variations.  Most are simple spelling or copying errors which are immediately spotted. Furthermore, they are almost universally without consequence to any basic Christian doctrine. As theologian Wayne Grudem explains:

“Even for many of the verss where there are textual variants … the correct decision is often quite clear, and there are really very few places where the textual variant is both difficult to evaluate and significant in determining the meaning. In the small percentage of cases where there is significant uncertainty about what the original text said, the general sense of the sentence is usually quite clear from the context.”6

Or as Daniel Wallace suggests:

“In the final analysis, no cardinal doctrine, no essential truth, is affected by any viable variant in the surviving NT manuscripts. For example, the deity of Christ, his resurrection, his virginal conception, justification by faith, and the Trinity are not put in jeopardy because of any textual variation. Confidence can therefore be placed in the providence of God in preserving the Scriptures.”7

The lack of the original hand written manuscripts should not cause us to throw away our reliance on Scripture as the only authoritative guide for life and doctrine. Quite the contrary—we have the New Testament as it was written. In the same way, the existence of differences between copies should not draw us away from the tough work of textual criticism. Rather, we should praise God that in his sovereign wisdom he has given us a wealth of manuscripts with which to determine what those original documents said.

John 7:53-8:11

This text is a great example of the contribution textual criticism makes to our confidence in the veracity and reliability of the Biblical documents. Most English Bibles will include the heading {THE EARLIEST MANUSCRIPTS DO NOT INCLUDE JOHN 7:53-8:11} before this passage. Well, before you freak out and claim that Jacob’s Well doesn’t preach Scripture, a brief word on this heading. Basically, none of our earliest full copies of the Gospel of John include this particular episode. However, the scene itself is widely talked about in very early Christian literature. While scholars disagree as to where the scene is best placed chronologically, they almost universally agree that given the many references to the story outside of Scripture, this definitely happened – and was widely known to have happened – some time in the course of Jesus’ ministry. The reason it’s been put here is that Jesus is hanging around the temple at this point in John’s Gospel (the other Gospels have much briefer accounts of this particular period in Jesus’ ministry) and it’s a pretty good bet that this would have happened around that time. Textual critics have felt it necessary to include this story somewhere in the Gospels as it is the only story of its kind (a story we know happened because of strong, widespread evidence, but one that wasn’t written down by the four Gospel writers). And so, most Bible editors agree that this is the best place to place it. However, they don’t want to mislead us and suggest that this was definitely written by the hand of John (in fact, much of the language is very un-Johnlike or non-Johannine, for you scholars). And so, they include this somewhat shocking heading just to provide honest, full disclosure. Textual critics take their work very seriously, as they are reconstructing the inspired word of God. The lengths they’ve gone to make sure we understand the source of this particular account underscores their diligence and respect for the Scriptures. As Wallace said above, God in his providence has preserved the Scriptures for his people; and the textual critics are one of the tools God has chosen to use in that process.

Joining you in treasuring God’s Word,

Scott C. Jones

Notes

  1. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 90.
  2. Daniel Wallace, “The Reliability of the New Testament Manuscripts,” ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 2587.
  3. J.B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I.H. Marshall, “Textual Criticism” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1992), 827.
  4. Yes, it was #3.  Thanks to Reid Monaghan for adding this illustration.
  5. Wallace, “Reliability,” 2588.
  6. Grudem, “Systematic,” 96.
  7. Wallace, “Reliability,” 2589.

 

A Comparison of Karma and Judgment

There are several views of the world which populate the human landscape.  Each of these views wrestle with the various questions we face in our existence. One of the most perplexing issues is that of our own mortality. In fact, death has been said to be the great equalizer, the fate of the rich and powerful and the poor and destitute alike. One of the great mysteries is what happens when we die. Various beliefs have been held throughout time regarding life after death, but none greater than the big two. The eastern philosophy of karma/reincarnation and the widely believed philosophy of divine judgment. People in our culture today are fixated with the idea of Karma. You see it in the obsession of a regular guy named Earl on television, in the writings of Oprah Winfrey show superstar Gary Zukov, and it even appears in a line of Ben and Jerry’s low carb ice-cream.1 In our culture Karma has become kool and divine judgment is well, too judgmental for many. In this little essay, I want to compare the two and actually show that judgment is much more humane and coherent, though the consequences perhaps more serious.

Karma 101

Karma is one of the main tenants interwoven in the diversity of philosophical views from the east. Eastern philosophy is a literal smorgasbord of ideas, practices, and religious concepts, but there are a few ideas which are universal in the various systems. The Law of Karma, the endless cycle of reincarnation, and the oneness of all things are common threads throughout the various genres of eastern thought. The law of Karma will sound familiar in part to people in the west. At its most basic level it is a teaching that says that all our actions, whether good or bad, have consequences. These consequences form a chain creating your reality into the future. What you do, the choices you make literally “create” your future. The idea of Karma goes beyond a mere understanding that “whatever a man sows, he also reaps” for Karma extends between subsequent lives and existences. Each person builds up positive or negative Karma over the course of this life which then determines their subsequent lives after being reincarnated. A person moves “up” through a succession of being in the lives they live with the hope of escaping the endless cycle of birth and rebirth, which is known by the term samsara. If you have bad Karma you may come back as a dung beetle, good karma may have you return as an upper class Brahman. So judgment is seen in the movement “upward” and “downward” in this chain of existence. Many western people fail to see that reincarnation is not a good thing to the eastern mind, but a cycle from which the soul desires to escape, to be absolved into the oneness of the universe finally eliminating the illusion of individual existence. I find the karmic view offers true insights on several fronts. First, it acknowledges that we do indeed reap what we sow and our actions do have consequences. Second, it realizes that our actions and choices are moral in nature. Though the eastern view sees good and evil as two sides of the same coin, part of one reality, it is in the view of Karma that eastern philosophy is a bit more honest. Good is good and bad is bad and you better work towards the good or your Karma gauges will be spinning in the wrong direction. Though many put forth the view of Karma as a pathway towards moral living without any view of judgment, Karma has some serious bad Karma of its own.

Problems with Karma

There are several major philosophical and theological problems with Karma but I will only elaborate here on a very short list. First, Karma is a sort of score card for your life, where your good and bad tally up against each other. The problem I see in this is that there is literally “no one” there to keep score. Who is watching your life? Usually the answer is that the universe has a built in law that regulates these things, but there is no discussion on how this could be the case. If your good and bad “add up” it seems that somewhere this reality must be “known” by someone. This makes sense in a world in which God himself is taking our lives into account. Second, the law of Karma knows absolutely no grace. It is an unforgiving brutal taskmaster by which your life is determined by your previous lives. If you have a bad run now, it could be the result of previous incarnations where you were a real jerk. The problem is you know nothing of your former lives and are sort of screwed by them. There is no grace extended to sinners by Karma, sin becomes a millstone around your neck forever and ever through perhaps infinite reincarnations. Finally, there is an unexpected, but inevitable unjust result of Karmic thinking. You would think that this view only holds one responsible for our actions, but in fact it has unbelievably unjust societal consequences. Think about it. Who are the good guys in this life? The ones who had good Karma in previous lives. Who are these people? The upper classes, the “successful” people, the wealthy and the rulers are in their stations in life because they were good in past lives. So it is no coincidence that the system of caste, where the poor and low caste “deserve” their station in life and should not aspire better, arose from a Karmic philosophical tradition. They are working out bad Karma; these are the views that made the high caste Brahman in India, oppose the work of Mother Teresa with Indian low caste untouchables. She was interfering with them paying for their karma by serving them and helping them. The god of Karma, is the god of caste, which is a system of long term systemic oppression of those who were bad in “previous lives” nobody knows anything about.

On Divine Judgment

Temporal and Eternal Justice

Before moving to a biblical understanding of divine judgment I want to make a few things clear.  When we speak of the judgment of God we are talking about a judgment that has finality to it.  We realize that during our time on earth it can temporally seem as if injustice triumphs and the wicked prosper. In fact, the biblical authors wrestle with this reality (Jeremiah 12:1-4, Habakkuk 1:1-4, Psalm 73:1-3, Psalm 94:1-5).  Even though this age is mingled with justice and evil we trust and know that when all is said and done, the creator will judge the world with equity.  This judgment will be altogether righteous and all the failures of justice in the courts of men will be set right for eternity. The following description is a succinct summary of the biblical teaching on final judgment.

The biblical concept is that at the end of history Jesus Christ will return in glory to earth, the dead will be raised, and they, together with all the living, will be finally judged by Christ and assigned their eternal destiny in heaven or hell. This great eschatological event will be a visible, public, and universal judgment; Christ’s glory and His victory over sin, death, and Satan will be fully manifest; righteousness will be exalted; the perplexing discrepancies of history will be removed, and the mediatorial reign of Christ will reach its ultimate triumph as believers inherit the kingdom prepared for them.2

With this in view let’s compare the view of divine judgment with that of Karma/Reincarnation.

Divine Judgment 101

The biblical view of life after death is a very different than the view of Karma. Like the view of Karma, our actions, both good and evil have consequences, but in our view God is the observer and judge of our lives. He treats us as responsible moral agents in relationship to Him, creation, and other people. We are responsible to God and others for our actions and their consequences. All persons, rich or poor, “successful” or not, powerful or not, are all completely equal and responsible for their lives. We live this life before God and when we die our lives will be judged by God and his appointed one, his own Son Jesus Christ (Acts 17:30-31). God does not show favoritism in that he will take our sins into account and does not turn a blind eye towards the sin done on the earth.

Wonderfully, the God who is our judge chose to take our place and receive the judgment we deserve for our sins.  It is in the gospel that God extends to us the hand of mercy and grace.  The very one who will judge our wrongful deeds, against whom we have committed sin, is the one who pays our debt and freely forgives. This is the view of the Bible. God treats us as responsible human beings but willingly provides payment for our sins, atonement is the biblical word, so that we can be reconciled with God and be judged as righteous because of the work of Christ.

The book of Hebrews teaches us that it is appointed for us to live and die once and then be judged with impartiality (Hebrews 9:27). We either face God in our sin or with an advocate and substitute for our sin. Jesus is the one who delivers us from just wrath and judgment of God and all glory and honor goes to him.

The path of Karma makes you the one who receives glory for your good and blames everything bad that happens to you directly on you. In the gospel we see that God works by the law of the Spirit of life to set us free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. You might even say he sets us free from the tyranny of the taskmaster of Karma. 3

Notes

  1. See Karb Karma at http://www.benjerry.com/our_company/press_center/press/bfyfactsheet.html
  2. Geoffrey  W. Bromiley, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1988; 2002), 2:1162.
  3. For more on Eastern philosophy you can read the sections by LT Jeyachandran in Norman Geisler and Ravi Zacharias, Who Made God? And Answers to Over 100 Tough Questions on Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003). Additionally, though I heartily disagree with his views of election and predestination, Paul Copan’s Chapter Why Not Believe in Reincarnation from That’s Just Your Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001) is an excellent treatment of some problems in Eastern philosophy.

 

Mr. Un-Clean and the Gospel

Coming to certain portions of the Scriptures can be an adventure when it is your first time reading them.  For instance, the first time I read through the book of Leviticus I found a bizarre world of food regulations and lots of talk about who was clean or unclean.  As an American, I was familiar with the proverbial phrase Cleanliness is next to godliness1 and I knew about Mr. Clean from an unforgettable bald guy advertising campaign. However, I knew very little about the aspect of being “clean” or “unclean” that is all over the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament. I thought it would be an interesting discussion for us to undertake in light of our study of lepers in Luke 17.11-19.

In our study of the 10 lepers we see the afflicted crowd is standing at a distance from the other people.  Many times lepers, those affected with various forms of skin diseases  or infections would be quarantined from the rest of the community.  The reasons are obvious in that the disease (s) would be kept from spreading through the rest of the population.  There is something about this separation that is a parable or type of our spiritual condition before God. 

In this essay I want us to learn a few things.  First, we will look at the symbolism God teaches us by separating his people from the other nations in the Old Testament by dietary laws and cleanliness codes. Second, we will look at the way in which God told the Israelites to live and worship after their exodus from Egyptian slavery. The role of the tabernacle (tent of meeting) and the structure of the Israelites camp will be discussed here as well.  Finally, we will look at the issue of our spiritual condition before God and how it is illustrated by the brokenness and fragmentation of our physical bodies—even with various nasty skin infections.  With that said, lets jump in and get our hands dirty…or, uh, unclean.

The Purpose of the Levitical Codes

The book of Leviticus is not as well known today and it is at times a chore for modern readers to grasp its meaning without a broad knowledge of the larger biblical narrative.  Yet, did you know that America’s Liberty Bell takes its name from Leviticus 25:10? In fact, inscribed on the bell itself are the words “Proclaim Liberty Lev 25:10.”2  Seriously, read the verse, it is pretty sweet. The second greatest commandment (Matthew 22:39), quite the favorite of Jesus himself, is found in the pages of Leviticus. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is from in Leviticus 19:18. Yet also in the book we read stuff like this in Leviticus 13.

1The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, 2“When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling or an eruption or a spot, and it turns into a case of leprous disease on the skin of his body, then he shall be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons the priests, 3and the priest shall examine the diseased area on the skin of his body. And if the hair in the diseased area has turned white and the disease appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a case of leprous disease. When the priest has examined him, he shall pronounce him unclean.

There are also verses about sexual immorality as well as very specific dietary regulations.  The book also has detailed descriptions of various sorts of sacrifices God’s people were to offer with a mind towards atonement3 for sins. We do need to ask the question, what is up with all the clean and unclean talk?  Scholar and Pastor Mark Dever gives a very succinct summary of the book of Leviticus and in it we find a bit of a clue for what is up with all the quirky, strangeness in this inspired book from God:

First, we see that God’s people are distinct; so they should live holy lives.  Second, we see that God’s people are sinful; so they should offer sacrifices. 

For our study, we have the first purpose of the book in view.  God gave his people certain cleanliness codes to display to the people his holiness and how they are to be a people set apart (made holy) for him. 

The cleanliness codes of the Old Testament have obvious and helpful public health purposes.  They are for the common good of the community to limit the spread of disease and infection through unwise behavior.  Yet to stop the discussion there would entirely miss the point God is making in this book and in the instruction of the ancient community.  Leviticus 10:10 gives clarity to this issue: You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean. 

Some of you might remember the movie, Meet the Parents, where the lowly male nurse Gay Focker was meeting the somewhat psycho Dad of his fiancé.  In the movie the father tells Gay about his “circle of trust” that he would either be in that circle or outside of it.  Mark Dever uses a similar analogy of circles to describe the notion of clean or unclean things.  In this case, a large circle would represent all that is clean and the normal state of things.  Outside of this circle God placed certain foods, certain behaviors and certain temporary states like curable diseases.  Outside the circle would be all that is “unclean.”Furthermore, unclean things were not always and necessarily the result of sinful activities but activities that made one ceremonially and temporarily unclean for worship. Dever calls all things clean and unclean things that are “common” to being human. One more category is brought to bear on life in Leviticus.  There were things that could be set apart (or sanctified) as holy. To take a holy thing and connect it to anything unclean was forbidden and the gravest of offenses.4   The diagram below illustrates these ideas.

Holy, Clean and Unclean

In giving these categories to Israel God is teaching them that all of life matters to God and that he is not to be worshipped by perverse sexual practices, religious prostitution, sacrificing children or the abuse of human beings. It is interesting that Leviticus speaks about how all these make one unclean for worshipping God.  They are not to worship as the idolatrous nations which surround them.5  In summary, God is teaching his people in Leviticus that he is holy so he is setting them apart as holy.  The law shows them that they are to worship the one true God differently that the way others will pursue idolatrous spiritualities.  God has declared things clean and unclean, holy and profane.  His people should see all of life this way and seek to live and worship in the way that he shows us. 

One more aside is necessary before moving on.  Do all these laws apply to us now? The simple answer is no.  Many of the Old Testament teachings had a purpose to point forward to the coming Messiah and are literally fulfilled in Jesus Christ.  Jesus himself now “sets apart, sanctifies, and makes holy God’s people” (See 1 Corinthians 6:11; Hebrews 10; Hebrews 13:12). Another example relates to the Old Testament sacrifices. Jesus is the very lamb of God; he was God’s own sacrifice for sin so animal sacrifice is no longer necessary. The Old Covenant sacrifice was a shadow that pointed to the reality of the coming one who would give his life for the sins of the world (See Isaiah 53, Hebrews 8-10). It is not that these laws were bad in their time, their purpose in pointing us towards Jesus has been fulfilled. Further, we are free to eat all foods with thanksgiving as we come to God in Jesus (Mark 7:14-23).  Jesus made it clear that the point of the Levitical law was to show us that clean/unclean are actually pointing to issues of the heart; in fact, this was the point of Leviticus all along.

The Camp and the Unclean

After God delivered his people from slavery in the Exodus (see Story in the biblical book of the same name) he led them in the dessert to teach them how to worship and about his character and nature.  Part of this education was in the very way they lived, traveled and set up for worship.  God gave very clear instructions of how to design a tabernacle/tent for worship.  This tent was a series of courts/chambers that were progressively more set apart from the people.  The further you went in, the holier the place was in which the person traveled.  The outer courts contained the holy place, then further inside was the most holy place where the very presence of God was said to dwell.  Outside of this tabernacle was the camp, the place where the people lived in smaller tent dwellings.  The whole structure looked as follows, of course much less SIM6 like.

Tabernacle

The Israelite would be very aware of proximity to God as being holy.  To be outside of the camp would be a separation from the community of God and far away from the presence and worship of God.  To be outside the camp was to be an “outcast” - a place where the unworthy and the unclean would be found. 

Now, lets go back to the story of the 10 lepers.  In the Old Testament and the New the leper, whatever form of skin disease one had, would be separated from the people and thereby be seen as stricken by God.  Let me be clear.  The Scriptures do not teach that the leper was afflicted and cursed by God but it was a common idea in the mind of the Jew and the non Jew.  In light of the social and religious stigma, in light of having to dwell outside of the camp until deemed “clean” again by the priests, ten lepers cried out to Jesus in Luke 17. 

Jesus, Going Outside of the Camp

What does Jesus do when he hears the cry for mercy coming from outside the camp?  The incarnate son of God, who has left the holy of holies at the right hand of the Father goes outside of the camp to show mercy to the outcast.  He tells them to go show themselves to the priest, the very action they would do if they were already healed.  He calls them to trust him and act by faith on his words.  As they were going, Luke’s gospel tells us, they were healed of their affliction.  At this point the most scandalous thing occurs in our story.  Almost all of the lepers who were healed did not come back to thank the one who had healed them. Only one of nine returns in order to express praise and gratitude. He is the outcast of outcasts for he was not simply a leper, he was a Samaritan. He was doubly “unclean.” 

Spiritual Lepers—He Suffers and Calls us Outside of the Camp

The tabernacle was not a bad set up, but it was a teaching aid for God for all time.  It was to show us the amazing grace and radical nature of the love of God in the gospel.  God is holy, he is separated from us and we dare not enter the holy place in our sins and spiritual leprosy.  Yet what does God do for humanity?  First, he goes outside of the camp and dies as a cursed man (Deuteronomy 21:22,23) for the sake of those under the curse of sin and death.  Galatians 3:10-14 says it clearly:

10For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 11Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” 12But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” 13Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— 14so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

Furthermore, Jesus went outside of the camp to show mercy on the leper, the one separated from God due to sin and rebellion.  He shows mercy upon human beings who trust him by faith and as he told the Samaritan leper, he saves them. Hebrews 13 wraps all of these ideas together for us in a sweeping panorama of the grace of God shown to unclean sinners in Jesus Christ. 

7Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. 8Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. 9Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them. 10We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. 11For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. 12So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. 13Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. 14For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. 15Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. 16Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

Hebrews 13:7-16 (ESV)

In this passage we see cleanliness by eating foods superseded.  We see that a final sacrifice has superseded the sacrifice of animals to cover and cleanse sins.  We see that Jesus sets us apart and then calls us outside of the camp to live on his mission to save sinful people through the gospel.  All of this is in light of the eternal camp, the eternal coming city of God in the Kingdom known to many simply as “heaven.”  In this age now we have been forgiven of sin through Jesus and now offer this same grace to others in the proclaiming of good news to those who need the love and mercy of God.   Finally, we see the purpose of our lives in Jesus.  We are to offer up a sacrifice of praise to God through our lips, through our service to others, through joyful generosity.  Why? For such sacrifices are pleasing to God who through Jesus was pleased to seat us with him in the most holy place.  None of this is of our doing, it is all the manifest, glorious, revealed plan of God in Jesus.  As such we must echo with the apostle Paul, that early leader of the church: For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. 

Worship God you lepers! And say thanks, you have been healed and saved to the uttermost.

Notes

1. The phrase, much like God helps those who help themselves, is found nowhere in the Bible. It is not even in the book of 2nd Opinions.  Apparently it dates back to 17th century England and the words of Francis Bacon.  We do know that the exact wording appeared in one of John Wesley’s sermons in 1791. See William and Mary Morris, Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (HarperCollins, NY, 1977, 1988).

2. Mark Dever, The Message of the Old Testament (Wheaton, Crossway Books, 2006) 110.

3. The word atonement means to satisfy or repair an injury to a relationship or an offense given. It means the reconciliation of two estranged parties through sacrifice.

4. See the excellent discussion in Dever, 115-116.

5. Ibid 116.

6. SIM refers to a whole genre of computer simulation games made popular in the last few decades, particularly the series of games by designer Will Wright.

Rich and Poor in the Kingdom of God

Our world measures importance,  success and social status by various measures.  Abundance of wealth or lack thereof being a prominent one indicator of who is doing well in the world and who is not.  Jesus did not see it this way and we see this through his interactions with two very wealthy men. The gospel according to Luke touches on wealth and poverty quite a bit.  In fact, Luke’s gospel has a strong focus on Jesus’ identification with and love for the poor  Furthermore,  it has much to say to those who are wealthy and how we might worship God not coin.

Luke records several interactions of Jesus during what is called his “travel narrative.” So yes, if you were wondering, Jesus did indeed have skills with teaching on the road trip and Luke’s gospel has quite the travelogue.   Jesus’ journey was heading to a different sort of destination.  He was traveling towards a cross awaiting him in Jerusalem and in the accounts of his journey towards that destination he interacts with two rich men.  One simply known as the rich young ruler and another a little guy named Zacchaeus.

Luke 18:18-27—The Rich Young Ruler

In Luke 18 we see a young ruler1 approaching Jesus with some flattering words asking what he must do to receive eternal life.  Jesus simply tells him to follow the commandments of God and the man replies that he is on point with all of that.  Jesus then tells him…”oh yeah, one more thing—give away all your money to the poor to have treasure in heaven and come follow me.”  Now it is clear that Jesus is not telling all of his followers to never have any possessions.  There are too many counter examples in the Bible for this to be the case.  What he is doing though is asking the rich man to stop worshiping his money, value the Kingdom of heaven above the systems of the earth and be a true follower and worshipper of God.  Well, the guy was not so happy after that. In fact, Scripture teaches us that he went away περίλυπος, a word that means “extremely sorrowful.”  Luke casually reveals to us the source of his sadness; the man was extremely rich.  Jesus had gone after his god and the man chose to worship and love even over his devotion to God. Jesus then tells us that it is very hard for a wealthy person to enter the Kingdom.  In fact, his followers seem to think that nobody is going to be able to change in such ways to follow Jesus.  The response of the master was simply this “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”  Then just a few passages later he shows us just how true it is that God can save even the most money grubbin and corrupt rich dudes.

Luke 19:1-10—The Rich Tax Man

When one arrives to Zacchaeus in Luke’s narrative, the rich young ruler immediately comes to mind when you read Luke 19, verse 2. And there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. Ok, another rich guy, we know how this will go. Or do we? For some reason this tax collector wants to see Jesus, he is curious and goes out to see what the buzz was about concerning this man. What happens next was probably a bit unexpected.  The late London preacher Charles Spurgeon said it this way:

Zaccheus’ motive was purely one of curiosity—he wished to see Jesus, who he was. He was curious to know what kind of a man was this who had set all Judea on a stir? Who was this that made [KING] Herod tremble, was reputed to have raised the dead, and was known to have healed all manner of diseases? Zaccheus, the rich publican, is a lover of sights, and he must see Jesus. But there is the difficulty—he is too short; he cannot look over the heads of the crowd. Yonder is a sycamore tree, and he will for once imitate the boys and climb. Mark how carefully he conceals himself among the thick branches, for he would not have his rich neighbours discover him in such a position. But Christ’s eye detected the little man, and standing beneath that tree, unasked, unsought, unexpected, Jesus said, “Zaccheus, make haste and come down, for to-day I must abide in thy house2

So whereas the rich young ruler “went away” in deep sorrow, Zacchaeus has Jesus come over to hang with him at his house.  The results are staggeringly different. The ruler remained bound to his money and his little god; Zacchaeus was set free to bless others with his wealth and be changed by the living God.

These two stories tell us much about how we should view wealth in light of the teaching of Jesus and Scripture.  We’ll use the second half of this essay to explore this in a very simple fashion.

The Inversion of the Kingdom

One thing we see all over the Bible is that the values and distinctions that we make in the world are radically inverted, turned upside down, by the rule and reign of God.  Jesus teaches us that in the Kingdom, the last will be first and the first will be last (Matthew 20:16). He teaches us that those who are meek and humble will inherit the earth (Matthew 5-7).  The poor who know God are in no way “worse off” than the one who loves sin, self and riches yet remains under the condemnation of a holy and just God. In Jesus’ Kingdom being a servant is actually a “higher” position than that of an oppressive King (Matthew 23:11,12).  In fact, our God quite literally came to earth as our servant King.  Being a Christian means to see the world as he does and realize that it is we who are upside down.

A Biblical View of Money

The view of Scripture clearly states that God is owner of all things (Psalm 24:1; Psalm 50:10,11) and we are stewards and co-rulers with him (Genesis 1-2). He grants to us what we have and we are to use our resources—be it time, talent or treasure for his Kingdom and purposes. It is also true that in this world some have little, some have much. In fact the one of Jesus’ stories teaches us that this will be the case (see parable of the talents in Matthew 25). However, we cannot make judgments upon people purely on the size of one’s bank account or the roll in his pocket.  Jesus taught us that our treasure is a heart matter; a matter of worship.  Where you place your treasure and where you find value indicates our heart’s disposition towards God. Frightening if you think about this for a moment.

Let me also be clear. Poverty and not having one’s basic needs met is not presented as a blessing in and of itself in Scripture. Yet someone who is poor can be deeply blessed and dependent upon God despite circumstances. The poor, the meek and the oppressed who trust in Jesus will receive a great reward in the Kingdom (Luke 6:2—23) but starving is not a good thing. Second, material prosperity is not always a bad thing either, yet if riches become our God it is the worst of traps that lead us in all manner of sin. 1 Timothy 6 teaches us this clearly:

But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.

Rich and Poor — Withhold simplistic Judgments

Most of us are taught to see the world in terms of haves and have nots.  We are taught to see rich and poor as on two competing teams that must be at enmity with one another.  If you swing from the left the poor are the good guys and the rich sit next to the devil along with people who run corporations. If you swing from the right the rich can be seen as the only people of merit, hard working and responsible. The poor—well, not so much. Scripture does not pit these teams against one another and God will not be the pawn of either left or right wing political spin. You see, Jesus cares much more about the heart of the matter than simply the amount of gold, or lack thereof, stuffed under your mattress.

Rather than a simple class war of the worlds, the Scripture teaches us that there are ways that both poor and rich can honor or dishonor God.  Furthermore, there are rich and poor that can both be blessed of God (See Matthew 6, Luke 6, Proverbs 11, 1 Timothy 6). The following represent four different realities. 

  1. You can be poor in wealth and rich in the Kingdom—honest, working, doing things right but just not pulling in much money.
  2. You can be poor in wealth and poor in the Kingdom—lazy, dishonest, scheming and broke on top of it.
  3. You can be rich in wealth and poor in the Kingdom—wealthy, hoarding, not generous, oppressive, dishonest and ripping people off.
  4. You can be rich in wealth and rich in the Kingdom—wealthy and extremely generous.

How we see money is of utmost importance. Some will see their money as theirs and will help others only if and when they feel like.  Others will realize that God owns everything and seek to use their money for Kingdom purposes and to help others. Jesus taught us to seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness and he will take care of our needs (See Matthew 6).  This should free us to live in generosity.

Joy and Generosity in Mission

One of our core identities at Jacob’s Well is finding joy in generosity and mission.  We want to be a people that lives life with open hands giving our time, talents and treasure to the mission of God with people. In fact, the solution to the worship of money in Scripture is what Paul, an early Christian leader, called the grace of giving (2 Corinthians 8:1-7). In being generous we declare that money is not our God, life is more than the abundance of our possessions (Luke 12:15) and we are free to give. Jesus was very clear with us—it is better to give than to receive (Acts 20:35). Most of the time we simply don’t believe him as Christians today give away very little of their incomes to their local churches and charitable causes.3

Christians are certainly called to provide for the needs of their families (1 Timothy 6: and 1 Timothy 5:8) but we are not called to simply hoard up stuff for ourselves. In fact, Scripture clearly exhorts those who are wealthy “to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.” (1 Timothy 6:18, 19)

There is no “rule” I can give you about your lifestyle and your generosity, but we must not miss the joy of responding to God in worship with generosity.  He has lavishly given life and grace to us and our gratitude is expressed as we give back to his work. You must decide how you will steward what God has placed into your hands whether it is a lot or a little. You must decide what sort of material provision is appropriate for you and your family. Yet the stories of the rich ruler and Zacchaeus should be fully in view as you decide how to live and invest God’s resources. 

Will we be ones who make little or no sacrifice for others and continue to worship things and treasures on earth? Or will we worship our God together in generosity?

Notes

 

  1. We cannot be sure of what this man was ruler of. Matthew’s description of him as being “young” seems to rule out his rule in the Jewish synagogue. See Henry Morris, Luke—Tyndale New Testament Commentary, 283-284.
  2. C. H. Spurgeon, The Sword and Trowel: 1872 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009), 24. Note, Spurgeon uses British spellings for several words.  He has that right I suppose, he was an Englishman
  3. For instance, 20 percent of US Christians give ZERO money to anything, the mean average Christian gives 2.9 percent of their incomes. When the median giver is considered it iis a paltry 0.62 percent. See Smith, Emerson and Snell Passing the Plate—Why American Christians Don’t’ Give Away More Money (Oxford,2008) 29-56.

 

Jesus' Prayer for Unity...

John 17 contains what has been called “The High Priestly Intercessory Prayer” of Jesus. This prayer, recorded in John’s gospel just before the arrest of Jesus, contains timeless insights to the mission of Jesus and his intimate desires for his followers. A few of the themes in this prayer include the glorification of God the Father by the Son and the culmination of the Son’s mission on the earth. Additional themes are the mission and the sanctification of the church, the desire of the Son for unity among his disciples, and the unity of “those who will believe in me through their message.” In examining Jesus’ desire for unity the following points will be discussed: (1) The high view Jesus has for unity by way of a Trinitarian analogy; (2) The task for the contemporary church to be called out and different than the culture; and finally (3) The opportunity and power of the unified worshipping community.

Jesus’ High View of Unity

The heart of Jesus for the unity of his followers is given two times in this prayer. In John 17:11 (ESV) He says “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. ” In John 17:21-23 (ESV) we see several more statements of Jesus about unity. He says that his prayer is that “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you” He says that the purpose of unity is “so that the world may believe that you have sent me” and it is something that his church must be “brought to,” suggesting unity will be a sustaining process. The prayer of Jesus reveals the following three principles for unity amongst His followers:

  1. Unity requires God’s protection.
  2. Unity is not superficial but should be a reflection in the church of the unity of God himself.
  3. Unity has a purpose to glorify God and bear witness to the world.

Unity Requires God’s Protection

Perhaps an often-overlooked passage on unity in the New Testament is Jesus’ prayer for the protection of his people “so that they can be one as we are one.” Protection is obviously a necessity and precursor for Christian disciples to be brought together in unified love and community. It seems that Jesus reveals to us that though unity is given to us by God, we grow into it as a process. It must be worked towards in his body although it is his gift for the church (Ephesians 4:1-6). The sin of his followers, the lies and attacks of Satan against the church, and the unbelieving world will all threaten the unity of his people. Jesus knew his children would need protection from these strong enemies in order for unity to be actual and maintained. It is a comforting truth that Jesus promises in Matthew 16:18 that the gates of Hades will not overcome his church. This promise brings hope even in the midst of what appears to be a fragmented rather than a unified Christian church.

Unity is not superficial, but a reflection of the unity of God himself

The question of what it means to have unity in the body of Christ is an often-discussed topic in today’s world of denominations, Para-church groups, and unaffiliated or non-denominational churches. What kind of unity is Jesus describing here in John 17? Does he mean unity in purpose? Unity in doctrinal correspondence? In love for one another? Practical sharing of life and mission with other believers? It seems at times that the church can be too quickly satisfied with a conceptual version of unity; a simple statement that we believe that we are unified with our brothers and sisters in spirit and purpose. What makes such a position of conceptual unity without practical outworking difficult to defend is Jesus’ analogy to his own unity with the Father as the model or ideal for his church. The very triune nature of the mysterious God of the Bible is the parallel given for unity among Christians.

A brief survey of some of what we know of the unity of the Trinity makes this parallel all the more profound. The Trinity is an eternal loving community and enjoys an inseparable relational unity. The Trinity is mysteriously a complete unity in essence, while having distinction in persons; the Trinity is one what (unity) comprised of three whos (diversity). The human search for unity in the diversities of life is long and recorded in the history of philosophy. The Greek attempt to bring unity out of the four essences earth, wind, fire, and water gave birth to the word “quintessence.” This word was born out of the search for a “fifth essence” that would unite (unity) all the other essences (diversity). In our own country, America, we find the motto “E pluribus Unum,” out of the many - one. We find the concept of searching for the unity in the diversities of knowledge in the word “University” which gives name to the institution once dedicated to that search.1 It is not surprising then that an ideal so sought after since the dawn of philosophy, this unity in diversity, is present in the very nature of the first cause and Creator of the universe. Listen to how Dr. Ravi Zacharias explains the importance of understanding the Trinity:

A proper understanding of the Trinity not only gives us the key to understanding unity in diversity, but also brings us a unique answer to the great struggle we face between races, cultures, and—and for that matter—even genders. The Trinity provides us with a model for a community of love and essential dignity without mitigating personality, individuality, and diversity.2

Jesus’ allusion to the Trinity as our model for unity does not solve the problem or answer all our questions about what unity means, but it certainly challenges us not to come up with any patronizing or simplistic answers. Our unity must be modeled after the loving community of the Godhead and therefore will not come easily to sinful human beings. With God’s protection the church can and must work for a unity that is not only conceptual, but one that is visible to the lost world around it.

Unity has a purpose to glorify God and be a witness to the world

In Jesus’ teaching we see that unity is a beautiful concept spawned by the union of the Father and Son. However, Jesus shows this is not just theoretical but also practical. It is to be lived out in community with each other and has some powerful purposes in God’s plan for the evangelization of the world. First, God’s glory is given to the church in order that we may be one and reflect praise and honor to God. The glory of God brings unity and the unity that results reflects even more glory to God. Second, Jesus clearly says that the world will believe and know that Jesus was sent from the Father as a result of authentic and visible Christian unity. This powerful apologetic for the truth of the gospel will be examined in detail later in the paper.

The Task for the Contemporary Church

In light of Jesus’ heart and high vision for church unity we must ask ourselves what needs to be done. The local church, denominations, networks and Para-church organizations all must evaluate what it means to be unified with our brothers and sisters in Christ and work towards this ideal. Jesus’ desire for us to be “brought to” complete unity must call Christian leaders to put practical steps in place to work towards unity in the church. Some areas and suggestions for the work in maintaining and restoring unity are as follows: doctrinal unity, unity in mission (evangelism) and unity in compassion.

Doctrinal Unity

Many Christians have pursued unity at all cost, many times at the sacrifice of the doctrines central to Christian belief. This does not necessarily have to be the case. The proverbial saying, “In essentials, unity, in non-essentials liberty and in all things charity,” must be continually taken to a deep level of discussion and worked out incarnationally among believers. The apostle Paul exhorted Timothy to “watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them…” because he knew that many false teachers would come into the church to distort the essence of the revealed message of God. Doctrinal unity should be pursued among denominations, Christian organizations, and seminaries in a spirit of cooperation, but not at the expense of the clear meaning of Scripture. Theological debate on non-essentials is not only possible in the context of Christian love and leadership of the Holy Spirit, but the debate itself can continually draw us together.

Missional Unity

Another area in which Christians need to work together for unity is the area of mission. Jesus gave the job of evangelization and discipleship to his entire church and such a task must bring us together. Today I cannot help but think of the couple of hundred men in our Acts 29 church planting network. Kasey and I just spent time worshipping, resting, laughing and dreaming with this family about the task of gospel mission in our time. There are men and women from many Christian groups and affiliations uniting in gospel mission. Baptists, Presbyterians, Charismatics, Bible Churches and Non denominational churches working together. There are people of various races and backgrounds uniting together around gospel mission. There are urban, suburban, hip hoppers and hipsters uniting around taking the gospel to various people in culture. There are pastors uniting in India, Pakistan, Uganda, Congo, Czech Republic, Great Britain, South Africa, Guatemala and Thailand for the sake of bringing Gospel witness to our world.3 Unity in mission is more effective, more enjoyable and brings God glory. Our unity is in theological conviction, not simply in unity itself and this propels us in the same direction for the glory of God, the good of our cities by extending hope to others in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Unity in Justice and Compassion

A final area that demands unity in effort is Jesus’ call for the church to take care of the poor, the outcast, and the downtrodden. This ministry of compassion has inspired numerous cooperative efforts among those in urban ministry and ministry among the poor. Christian ministries dedicated to urban renewal have shown the power of Christian unity in the cities of America.4 These areas of unity must continue to bring us together because the enemies of unity are numerous and strong. Doctrine, mission, and compassion can bring us together to help us overcome the barriers that develop in the church .

As little Jacob’s Well we are committed to unity in all of these areas. For us to fulfill the call which God has upon us in the Northeast, we must urgently work to maintain unity in each. Our enemy is real, spiritual darkness will persist and push to divide us. Yet in the word’s of Martin Luther’s great hymn we are reminded who must win our battles:

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.5

Unified in Him,

Reid S. Monaghan

Notes

  1. For a more thorough look at the philosopher’s quest for unity in diversity please see Zacharias, Ravi Can Man Live Without God (Dallas: TX, Word Publishing, 1994) pp 147-150.
  2. Ibid, p148
  3. See Bob Thune’s summary of the current state of Acts 29 Network: http://www.cdomaha.com/blog/?p=1366
  4. We will be taking initiative to serve with others in central New Jersey in the upcoming year. Our views on gospel centered social ministry can be read online here: http://www.powerofchange.org/storage/docs/justice_web_jw.pdf
  5. Martin Luther, A Mighty Fortress is Our God—For some reading on this hymn see the wiki at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Mighty_Fortress_Is_Our_God


How do we Change?

A Reflection on Jesus' teaching in Mark 7 

One thing is universally agreed upon on planet earth.  Things are not perfect and things need to change.  Some in pride situate the needed change only in others, fully confident of their own righteousness and goodness.  They think, If THOSE PEOPLE would get their act together the world would be a better place.  Yet, just in case I may be writing to some people who realize that they themselves might need to change, I hope this essay is of some help to you.  In this brief discussion I have but modest goals.  I first want to diagnose the problem of the human heart following the teaching of Jesus in seventh chapter of Mark's gospel.  I then want to look at the biblical prescriptions and ways by which we actually change.  In doing so I will touch briefly on Christian sanctification, the teaching or the Bible about how we are conformed to the image of Jesus where sin is defeated and we are changed.  So following the great prophet Michael Jackson, lets start with the man in the mirror and ask him to make a change.  And when we find out that we cannot change ourselves we'll land in a good place.  The place of grace and transformation in the hands of our good God and Savior Jesus Christ.

What's Wrong with Us?

Years ago the British Journalist GK Chesterton was asked along with others to write an essay for the London Times responding to the question "What is wrong with the world?"  Chesterton wrote back a simple editorial which read: Dear Sirs, I am. Sincerely yours, G. K. Chesterton.  Of course he had much more to say about the problems of the world and he did indeed write an essay dealing with this question.1  Yet Chesterton's understanding of the question and his pithy response shows something profound and unique in the Christian worldview. 

Perhaps one of the more offensive, honest and easily verified teaching of Jesus and his apostles is that of the sinfulness of human beings.  Other worldviews present man as essentially good or morally neutral, it is simply his behavior that is out of line.  If we only teach a person the right things he will act better-hence there is a sort of belief today in salvation by education.  Yet in the face of this is the fact that sin is found both in the simple and the intellectual elite.  In fact, the most educationally sophisticated nation of the 20th century perpetuated the most evil of crimes in recent history.  Nazi Germany was not an ignorant people, but a sophisticated child of enlightenment thinking which resulted in atrocities unspeakable.   When we are honest we see that we all have sin in us, it is not simply "out there" in others.  Today many secular thinkers such as Steven Pinker of MIT are finally rethinking the "man as basically good" shtick teaching that human nature is in fact bent towards doing bad things.2  The problem is that he reasons that we are genetically predetermined to be selfish, fight each other etc. and we have no choice in matters anyway.  For in this view we are but the machinations and fluctuations of DNA with no heart or soul left to speak of. Of course many other secular minds do not want such a dark view of ourselves and Pinker has his critics.3  Thankfully, Jesus presents a much different picture of the problem of the human condition, one more devastating, but ultimately one that brings liberation to all who believe.

In Mark chapter 7 we find Jesus teaching a parable to some religious folks about what makes us unholy or unclean before God.  While today's secular minds might say our DNA makes us bad, the ancient religious person thought it was all manner of external things which separated them from God.  Being around the wrong people, eating the wrong foods, not maintaining proper hygiene or even some aspects of the human body itself were what made people unholy.  These external things would make us dirty and unacceptable to God.  Jesus blows this idea up with a simple statement that it is not what goes into a person that makes them unholy, it is what comes from his heart that is the problem.  In other words, Jesus diagnoses is much more severe than we would like.  He does not say that we are sinful because we do sinful things.  His teaching is that we do sinful things because our very hearts, the center of who we are, are sinful.  So what is wrong with me.  I have a sinful heart, a heart that turns from God and attempts to live life my own way.  I will have all things on my terms, my own morality, my own way of treating people.  So Jesus teaches us that what comes out of a person is what defiles him. "For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person" (Mark 7:21-23). Our world is filled with all of these things-and they come right out of human beings not from evil aliens from galaxies far, far away. 

Sanctification-How the Sinner is Made Holy

The Bible's teaching on sanctification, or becoming holy, is wide and deep and beyond a full treatment in the junk drawer.  There are several views on the subject so for those interested I refer you to the discussion in the book Five Views on Sanctification edited by Stan Gundry.  The following will simply be a summary of the biblical teaching about how sinners becoming more saintly-in a real, not religious, sense of the term.  A quick definition is in order-this one is from the late Anthony Hoekema and I find it covers the breadth of the topic concisely:

We may define sanctification as that gracious operation of the Holy Spirit, involving our responsible participation, by which he delivers us from the pollution of sin, renews our entire nature according to the image of God, and enables us to live lives that are pleasing to Him.4

Many see sanctification as a work of God which takes place over time but begins at a definitive point in a person's life.  We will discuss it in these two ways, new life given and life change over time.  To these we now turn.

New Life Given

When a person gives her sin to Jesus, begins to trust him alone and his work on the cross for them for her sins, she becomes a Christian, a person forgiven by and reconciled to God.  At this point many things take place which the Bible describes in beautiful language.  The person experiences a new birth (John 3:5), he becomes a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17, Galatians 6:11-15) and is set free from slavery to sin to walk in newness of life (Romans 6).  All of this is done by God, by his grace, through the work of Jesus on the cross and the Holy Spirit's direct regenerating power.  This is a work of God the Trinity and is not a result of the believers own efforts, it is something accomplished for her and applied to her.  

Some have argued that human beings have in themselves the ability to turn to God on their own and obey him by their own moral ability.  The ancient heretic Pelagius erred in teaching this long ago and many have followed similar teachings throughout time.  Yet the Scripture teaches us that the solution to the human heart comes not from within but from a gracious and good God.  He moves us from a dominion of darkness to the new kingdom and rule of Jesus.  The Scriptures say many things about our initial conversion, our becoming a follower of Jesus, but one thing is clear-it is his work, not our own.  His work changes us, puts thanksgiving into our hearts and excludes boasting.  It is not by our own education, religion, morality, or will-that the human heart is changed, this remains the work of God alone.  Theologians call this initial sanctification (to set apart as holy) as definitive sanctification.  God no longer sees us as sinners but as saints.  This is good news-gospel. Yet this begins the journey of life change where we become more and more like Jesus over time.  Old habits, thoughts, indwelling sin must be fought and defeated by the power of God and the existence of new loves in our lives. 

Life Change-Joy, Affections and Battle

If all we were was "new" life would be somewhat easy.  We would skip through the tulips of this world singing "hakuna matata" without a care in the world.  Yet sanctification has a second part-the process by which God defeats indwelling sin and puts it to death in us daily.  This process is one in which we have a role to play.  He calls us to obey him, but we find that our hearts are prone to wander.  So our lives now are mingled with temptation to go back to a former ways of life or to succumb to the lure of sin which faces us in the world each day.  We are called to become more and more like Jesus and to he has given us means to this end-prayer, study, meditation, solitude, fasting, scripture, communion as well as others.  He calls us forward in order that we might grow in righteousness and mortify, or put to death, the sin which can cling so closely.  It is a process that begins when we come to Jesus and continues until we are made perfect by God in the fullness of the Kingdom of Heaven. 

As we follow Jesus over time we find that we become more and more aware of our sin and how much we need the grace of the gospel.  As we see our sin more clearly, the cross of Christ and God's grace towards us grows larger as well.  God saves us by grace and also gives grace to us that empowers continual change as well (1 Corinthians 15:10) It is in the gospel, in thankfulness of heart, that our joy increases and gives us fuel in following him.  We know he has paid our debt and that we never can repay him so joy rises in us that helps want to faithfully obey Jesus.  If we ever make following Jesus a duty without delight we will find ourselves in empty legalism which Jesus rebukes so strongly in Mark 7:1-23.  It is the gospel that saves, it is God who sanctifies us in the gospel.  Our motivation for obedience and walking in God's paths is his gracious work for us in Jesus Christ.  When we love him, we obey him.  So our steadfast prayer is for the love of God to be poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5).  In this way he receives glory and we receive joy and new affections for him that give us hope to fight sin tomorrow. 

The British theologian John Owen years ago wrote a great work on the nature of our battle with sin.  He taught that the Scriptures do not teach that we arrive at a state of complete sinlessness in this life but the power of sin over us can grow dimmer and dimmer over time.6  It is a walk of faith to trust God, practice spiritual disciplines, and confess and repent of sin.  It is in love and joy we do not grow weary and lose heart in this struggle, for it is indeed a battle.   Our God has promised to complete the work he began in us so even in our darkest valleys and deepest failures we can get back up and live tomorrow.  The author of Hebrews reveals to us the beauty of this race called life and he needs to be repeated as it sums up the process side of sanctification so well:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. 

We indeed look to Jesus, who looked ahead to the joy of the mission of God accomplished on the cross.  We look to him in joy and love so that we may rise and choose the path of life each day.  God will one day deliver us finally and fully from sin and temptation so we are mindful of this as we fight the good fight together today.  Remember, we are not alone in this thing, we walk together as his people the church-discuss your struggles with a friend today and do not forfeit the hope we have in the gospel.

Notes 

1. You can read some of fuller thoughts on the matter in his essay What is Wrong with the World? Available at http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext99/wwwtw10.txt
2. Steven PInker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, (New York: Penguin Putnam, 2002)
3. See Simon Blackburn's  essay Meet the Flintstones http://www.phil.cam.ac.uk/~swb24/reviews/Pinker.htm
4. Anthony Hoekema, Saved by Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989) 192.
5. Ibid 202-209.  A great discussion of both definitive and process sanctification.
6. To read Owen's works see the recently published Justin Taylor and Kelly Kapic Overcoming Sin and Temptation: Three Classic Works by John Owen (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2006)

The Gospel of the Kingdom

The teaching of the Bible regarding The Kingdom of God is perhaps some of the most complex, mysterious, beautiful and awe inspiring realities.  This essay will be but a gnat scratching on the surface of the moon in attempting to describe the teaching of Scripture on this topic.  Yet it is also a matter of great importance because it is deeply connected to the gospel as taught by Jesus and the apostles.  The sections of this essay will be excessively brief as my goal is to introduce rather than rigorously present all the issues.  For those interested there is a short and accessible book by the late George Eldon Ladd entitled The Gospel of the Kingdom which I recommend.

The Kingdom Defined-Rule and Reign

When we hear the word Kingdom today we are tempted to define it in terms of a geographical realm with a castle and certain people being ruled by a monarch.  At least in my kids’ fairy tale books and DVDs this is usually how it rolls out.  Or if you are up on world affairs you might thing of a middle eastern monarchy such as Saudi Arabia or perhaps history buffs will think of historical western kingdoms before the advent of democratic nation states.  Either way, both impressions will not help us in thinking of what the ancients meant when they spoke of the Kingdom of God.  A kingdom as described in Scripture is the actual rule and reign of a King himself.  Rather than a geography or a people, the kingdom is the expression of an authority and the nature of that rule.  To put it very simply, the Kingdom of God is the rule and reign of God.  It is his exercised rule or sovereignty, not the realm in which it is implemented.1  Additionally, there is great agreement that the Kingdom or Rule of God is one of complete justice, the eradication of sin and death and the peaceful ordering of all things by Christ our King.

So this brings to us an important question.  If the Kingdom is the rule of God, is it now here with us?  Or is the Kingdom a future reality coming in the time which we call “Heaven.” Our answer will be yes…and yes.

Did it already come?  Still Coming? 

The idea of the coming Kingdom is rife with discussions of temporality (issues of time).  Did Jesus bring the Kingdom in AD 33? Is God in charge now, or is that still coming?  What does the second coming of Jesus say to the reality of the Kingdom?  Does the Kingdom have to do with righteous and just rule or the salvation of sinners by a holy, wrathful, loving, good and forgiving God?  Additionally, is it God’s job to bring about his rule and reign on the earth, or is it our job as the church?  Or both? There are so many questions associated with this.   Christians throughout history have fallen on various sides of these questions and the issue is very important in many conversations today.  The witness of the Bible on this is precisely the source of the struggle for it clearly teaches that the Kingdom came with Jesus in some way (i.e. Mark 1:14,15) and it is with us in our present reality (Romans 14:17).  It teaches that those who believe in Jesus are moved into the Kingdom, yet at the same time there remains a dominion of darkness (Colossians 1:13,14).  Our greatest mistake is to be reductionist about the Scriptures teaching, silencing some parts in favor of others.  This is what Christians have done from time to time with the teaching on the Kingdom of God.  A few examples.

Too Much Now

Over time many Christians see the rule of God as perfect justice for all people and creation itself.  It is a state where all is made right on the earth.  So they see the gospel in these terms.  The good news is that there is a different life available now.  We can live lives of love and justice and bring the Kingdom to the earth more fully.  Liberal Christianity of the late 19th and early 20th century made this push.  Today, the idea that the gospel is “the Kingdom is here now” and live that way is becoming popular among Christians flying the flag “Emergent.”  The call of the gospel is to live the Kingdom way now.  That is the good news brought by Jesus.  This is in some sense true.  Yet the casualty of “Kingdom Now” thinking is that the salvation of sinners from the wrath of God, the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus “for our sins” is lost.  Many in this camp no longer teach that sin is individual, but only social.  They no longer teach the reality of eternity and the right judgment of God.  They no longer teach that Hell even exists but instead that our only focus should be “bringing the Kingdom” now.  It you choose to believe that the Kingdom is all Now, we miss some incredibly important truths about the Later.   If you like theology-you would call this over realized eschatology. 

Too Much Later

On the other extreme is the teaching that the gospel is only about getting a “go to heaven card” and not a call to followership of Jesus, transformation of communities, and reflection of the saving gospel of the Kingdom in our lives today.  All the focus is on the second coming of Jesus and the coming judgment and not living the way of Jesus today.  If all we are to do today is get folks saved-and I do believe we have a job to call sinners to repentance and faith-we will neglect building a Kingdom culture now that reflects the reign of God.  God desires for us to proclaim justice for the oppressed, to feed the hungry and to steward creation as representatives of another Kingdom.  You might say that under realized eschatology ignores some very important aspects of the rule of God-NOW for the sake of thinking about the Later.

Of course all this is too simplistic-but these issues are important.  The solution to this is not reductionism but to see all the teaching on the Kingdom-that it is a present in breaking reality, that it is not fully here, that it will come definitively at the second coming of Jesus as important.  We must like Now and Laters, not just Now or Later.  Sorry, you knew that was coming…

Now and Not Yet…

The Kingdom is Now

What we want to hold in tension is that the Kingdom very much appeared with the incarnation of Jesus, who is our covenant King.  The Kingdom also expresses itself when people enter into it by repentance and faith in Jesus.  When someone becomes a Christian, a follower of Jesus, for whom Christ has paid for their sins and reconciled them with God, the person very much enters the Kingdom.  After the first coming of Jesus we now can be set free from the power of sin, death, Satan.  All of these are thwarted-Jesus is the first fruits, the promise of our own resurrection and eternal life.

The Kingdom is Later

Yet Scripture is clear that this current age is under the dominion or rule of sin, death and Satan.  Our great enemy is called the prince of the power of the air, the ruler of this world (or age) and we know very well that sin and death still hold fast on the earth.  George Ladd summarizes this very well:

This age is dominated by evil, wickedness and rebellion against the will of God, while the age to come is the age of the Kingdom of God…The point is this: it is the character of this age to choke the working of the Word of God.  The spirit of the age is hostile to the gospel.2

Yet, in becoming a Christian now we receive the promise and evidence of the final destruction of these things as sin looses it power over us (sanctification) and death itself is not the end for us any longer (See John 11:17-27).  Finally, the second coming of Christ will fully bring the reality of the Kingdom in forever.  It will be definitive.  The dead will rise to immortality, evil and wickedness will be judged completely and demonic powers removed for all time.  As such all things will be made new and the redemption of God in all things will arrive. 

The Gospel and the Church-A Resistance Movement

In our day Jesus is still at work in the world saving sinners and adding folks to his community known as the church.  In this group of people we have a counter cultural community that lives according to the gospel of the Kingdom.  It proclaims good news of the death of Jesus for sin and the resurrection of Jesus for our hope.  It loves others and cares about injustice and empowering the poor.  The church is an in breaking of the Kingdom and this reality is proclaimed in the preaching of God’s Word and visible in the practice of the ordinances of baptism (entry sign into the Kingdom) and the Lord’s Supper (a continuing sign of the Kingdom).  This community exists for the world but does not subscribe to the systems and power of the world.  It is a revolution, an Inversion by which God is transforming people and extending grace into communities.  We are much like a resistance force in occupied territory.  Though sin, death and hell still have power, we proclaim hope through the gospel. We are a rag tag group of folks who are desiring the Lord to come and working hard for the sake of others.   We hold out the gospel and call people to Jesus for their salvation.  Then we walk together as a broken community giving our lives away for the sake of others.  When we fail we practice and live in regular repentance and hope in the gospel because we all fall short of the glory of God.  This is why we need Jesus.  We cannot bring his Kingdom or deal with our sin.  He does.  This is why the gospel is central to our lives and mission.  Once someone becomes a follower of Jesus, he is then part of the Inversion…Dallas Willard said it well:

To become a disciple of Jesus is to accept now that inversion of human distinctions that will sooner or later be forced upon everyone by the irresistible reality of his kingdom. How must we think of him to see the inversion from our present viewpoint? We must, simply, accept that he is the best and smartest man who ever lived in this world, that he is even now “the prince of the kings of the earth” (Rev 1:5). Then we heartily join his cosmic conspiracy to overcome evil with good.3

What is the Gospel of the Kingdom?  It is two fold.  It is to see sinners saved and involves individual salvation.  Yet it also calls us to see a new society or culture formed-the church.  The gospel saves us and will ultimately redeem all things.  It is Christ died for our sins (1 Corinthians 15) and a uniting of all things under God (Ephesians 1.10).  In our lives today we live as part of a revolution, not a fortress to keep out the world.  The gospel saves you and me and makes us part of God’s restoration of all things. I’ll give the late British journalist GK Chesterton the final word.

In the upper world hell once rebelled against heaven. But in this world heaven is rebelling against hell. For the orthodox there can always be a revolution; for a revolution is a restoration. 4

Yours in the Revolution,

Reid S. Monaghan

Notes

  • 1. George Ladd, The Gospel of the Kingdom; Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God. Grand Rapids, Mich.,: Eerdmans, 1959 20.
  • 2. Ladd, 28, 29
  • 3. Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy : Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God, 1st ed. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), 90.
  • 4. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Image Books ed. (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 113.

 

 

Mark 1:1-14 Jesus, the wilderness and the Gospel

The following are some additional notes given out along with the message The Gospel is Our Life, given at the Inversion Fellowship on Sept 6, 2007.

A Tale of Two Titles

There are many names or titles given to Jesus in the Scriptures. He is called the lion of the tribe of Judah, the rose of Sharon, the son of man, the great I AM, the Lamb of God, the Lilly of the valley, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Prince of Peace, the Good Shepherd, the Word of God, the Light of the World, Savior, Lord. Indeed, you could keep going as this just scratches the surface.1 Yet perhaps two of the most significant and radical titles ascribed to Jesus in Scripture appear in startling fashion in the prologue to the gospel of Mark. In one simple verse, something unbelievable is seen:

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Now for many of us the names here are so familiar that the awe they bring may be lost to us. We are so used to hearing or reading "Christ" and "Son of God" in reference to Jesus without really pausing to see what they mean. Christ has become something like Jesus' last name...sort of like Fred Jones-but Jesus Christ. Son of God is taken for granted so we forget the radical nature of calling a human being such a thing. Lets look very briefly at each of these.

Jesus, Who is the Christ

The term Christ is derived from the Greek term Χριστός or Christos. Rather than a last name it is a title which means "anointed one of God" its Old Testament equivalent is Messiah. The term comes from the practice by which certain people were "anointed" or called by God and set apart for a special ministry. In the OT the priests (Exodus 29:7, 21), prophets (1 Kings 19:16), and kings (1 Samuel 10:1) were anointed with oil for their specific roles with God's people. When Jesus is called the Christ, or the Messiah, it simply states that Jesus is the completion of the work of God in history in whom all the covenant promises are fulfilled. He is the great high priest connecting human beings to God. He is the great prophet incarnating and speaking to us the Word of God. He is the great king that we long for who will benevolently rule for all eternity. To say Jesus is the Christ is to say that the hopes and longings of Israel-the hopes of all who will become children of God by faith-are fulfilled. The promised coming is on the ground-this is a new beginning, nothing will ever be the same.

Jesus, The Son of God

Muslim people have misinterpreted this title for years. The term Son is many times understood in the wrong context to mean that God had a physical offspring through copulation with a human being. It hasn't help that Mormonism actually teaches this, but nonetheless this sort of thinking is not what Scripture means when Jesus is called the Son of God. Philosopher Peter Kreeft sheds great light on how this term was used in the time of Jesus.

Son of a dog, is a dog, son of an ape an ape, son of God, is God - Jews were Monotheistic, only one God-Son of God is the divine title of Jesus and everyone at his time understood this title to mean just that.2

In titling Jesus as the Son of God they were clearly stating that this human being was God become man. This was no ordinary person walking the ancient landscape-the world's very creator, the second person of the triune God, was making an appearance.

In writing this inspired book, Mark structures the account of Jesus' life, teaching, death and resurrection using these titles. - Christ and Son of God. Here in the prologue they land on us in the first words of the gospel. Jesus, the Messiah, God come to earth is on the scene. Everything is about to change. From the middle of Chapter 1 until the middle of the book Jesus is living out a ministry of healing, exorcism and authoritative preaching in the areas of Galilee and Judea. In Chapter 8 Peter makes a confession as to Jesus' identity-"You are the Christ." From this point the narrative is heading towards Jerusalem. Finally, at the end of the book another confession is made; this time the words are from a Roman centurion. After observing the death of Jesus on an executioners cross, the words are uttered-"Truly this man was the Son of God!"

From the Wilderness to the Cross

The appearance of Jesus was not before the political powers and religious leaders, no, rather God came to his people in a dusty wilderness. Outside the pomp and regality of the powers that be, the man born in a humble manger, would now begin his ministry on the outskirts of town. From this lonely outpost would launch the most significant, world changing, universe changing work of all time. God would have it no other way. In the Exodus he led his people in a wilderness. In those days his people were disciplined and tested so that they would learn to trust God (Psalm 95:7-11). In Jesus coming to meet God and his people in the wilderness he will pass the test, be affirmed by the Father and by the Spirit launch his ministry onto the public scene. The Jesus release party took place not in a big ballroom or the hippest scene in town. It took place in the mysterious, dangerous and lonely place where God provides for and meets his people. He still calls to us in our own wilderness of sin and death today.

Where Mark begins his gospel he brings it full circle. He is recognized as the Christ, the Messiah and then he heads towards his ultimate mission of dying for the sins of the world. When this mission has been accomplished, a gentile, who would have access to God through Christ has his eyes open to what has just taken place. The crucified before him was indeed God. The coming resurrection would kick off the mission of the gospel in the world which continues into our day. This gospel continues to shape peoples' destinies in our day. The risen Jesus is still entering and saving lives today by the Holy Spirit sent into the world to glorify Jesus among his people. The gospel presented in Scripture is the defining story of our lives. 

The Gospel, our A-Z not our ABCs

What is the gospel? So many times we associate the term with some simple truths that we believe in order to go to heaven and then move on with life. Let me be clear. The gospel is the story of God's redemption of people through faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Yet the good news of Jesus Christ extends further into our lives than simply getting us to a preferred afterlife. Dr. Timothy Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City has written and spoken extensively on the gospel and its all encompassing role in our lives as followers of Jesus.

We never "get beyond the gospel" in our Christian life to something more "advanced." The gospel is not the first "step" in a "stairway" of truths, rather, it is more like the "hub" in a "wheel" of truth. The gospel is not just the A-B-C's of Christianity, but it is the A to Z of Christianity. The gospel is not just the minimum required doctrine necessary to enter the kingdom, but the way we all make progress in the kingdom. 3

The gospel is not something we hear at camp, pray a prayer and then get on with life. It is not just for people who are not Christians, but it is the story that must define our lives. If we do not see our relationships, our vocational choices, our time, our money, the use of our lives on the earth in light of the gospel our lives will not be transformed as they ought. The following is but a brief recounting of the gospel, the large story of Scripture, which invades us anew each day that we follow by faith in the way of Jesus. Let me summarize in short form, the good news found in Scripture.

The Gospel

The gospel is the large story of Scripture of the working of God throughout time and history to bring about the redemption of his people and all things. The gospel is the story of the one Creator God, making all things, space, time, matter, energy in order to display his nature to his creatures. God created human beings in his own image and likeness to know him, love him, and reflect his character in the world to one another for their joy and his glory. Our first parents then gave God the proverbial Heisman, choosing to live life their way rather than God's way. They turned away from God and his provision for them, disobeying his commandment and thereby bringing fracture in their relationship with God, one another, and creation. God thereby cursed man and creation subjecting it to futility, bondage and decay. Yet God in his grace set about to redeem a people back to himself and has pursued us throughout history to this end. He promised in the very early days to send a human being, a seed of a woman to bring people back to God, reconciling them to himself and all things (Genesis 3:15) Throughout history he communicated with us and connected with us through prophets, men called to speak God's message to humanity. He made covenants with his people that would culminate in his sending of his own Son to the earth. He would be a Jewish person, the offspring of Abraham (Genesis 12, 15). He would fulfill God's commandments perfectly satisfying the demands of the law completely and live without sin (Hebrews 4.15). He would be a king to his people (2 Samuel 7) guiding them into a life of love, joy and peace. He would teach us the truth, show us perfected humanity, and ultimately die to take our place and pay the penalty for our own rebellion and sin (1 Corinthians 15:1-3). This person, Jesus, gave his life for us in what Martin Luther called the great exchange. Our sin was placed on him as he took our deserved judgment and punishment by dying on a cross. We then receive his righteousness and favor and good name before God the Father (2 Corinthians 5:16-21). We are thereby forgiven, brought back into relationship with God, our guilt is removed, God's wrath no longer is upon us, and we now become his followers and agents of reconciliation in the world. We receive all of this by his grace, none of it is earned by our works or actions. God will someday bring his kingdom in fullness where Jesus will completely and finally bring an end to all evil and usher in an eternal age of life and peace for all who follow him. Those who persist in rebellion against God will face his justice in Hell for all which was done in this life, eternally receiving the due penalty for sin.

Seeing Through The Gospel

  • How I see myself -It is devastating and liberating to see myself as a sinner saved by grace. I need to know that I was bad enough for Jesus to die and loved enough that he joyfully did so.
  • How I see and relate to others-If God has forgiven me, how ought I to live with others who sin against me. If we cannot learn to forgive those who make mistakes, who hurt us, we will simply be unable to love and be loved in relationships.
  • How I understand where I live, where I work-I will spend most of my time in my workplace and in the place I call home. How does the gospel speak to where I live, who I associate with, what people I deem lovable, how I seek to invest my free time?

Seeing the gospel applied to all areas of life is Christian faith. If we miss this we will make following Jesus about morality or a set of religious rules we create for ourselves and by which we judge others. Legalism and relativism are equally poisonous.4 Our sinfulness and need for grace should slay legalism in our hearts. God's holiness and leadership in our lives should lead us to embrace God's ways and follow him because we are accepted and loved by him.

Notes

  1. Names of Jesus, Rose Publishing-This handy little pamphlet has 50 names http://www.rose-publishing.com/productdetails.cfm?PC=757.
  2. Norman Geisler and Paul Hoffman, Why I Am a Christian (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2001). For a defense of the doctrine that Jesus is the Son of God and how this title is used see Part 5, Chapter 13-Peter Kreeft, Why I believe Jesus is the Son of God, 222-234.
  3. See Timothy Keller-The The Sufficiency of Christ and the Gospel in a Post-Modern World at TheResurgence.com
  4. See Timothy Keller - Preaching in a Post Modern City - Part 2.

SignPosts - Paper and Video

An Introduction to the New Testament,
Gospel Literature and the Book of Mark
By Reid S. Monaghan
 
Also, check out our teaching intro video.
Hats off to Matt Eldredge for pulling this one together.

SignPosts for Our Journey

...Continued from The Gospel of Mark

As we begin a new season together we will all be following Mark's story of Jesus which was a Journey towards the cross of Christ and living in light of his resurrection.  In our short few months together in Mark will have no illusions that we will be able to probe the depths of this book.  However, while we cannot plumb its depths, we will ascend its heights and run across its peaks.  Our main concern is having our vision of life transformed by the wonders we see in Jesus Christ and his gospel.  It is our hope that our vision and love of Jesus is aroused and our feet made swift in following.  

The Gospel is Our Life - Signpost in Mark 1

The book of Mark begins with a resounding clarity of purpose: The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  Here we find a beginning of a new chapter in an unfolding story, here we have good news coming forth, here we find the name of a person which means "The Lord Saves," here we find a person unique in all of history; a Son but no ordinary man.  Human beings have been made and fashioned for worship and our hearts will glory in all manner of things be it through religion, the pursuit of pleasure, the identification with a certain group or the exaltation of self.  Yet our lives will wander adrift without the lifting of our burdens of sin and the receiving of grace and peace with God. 

When religion beckons we must find the root of our story in the good news.  It is not what we do that makes us acceptable to a holy and good God, it is what has been done by Jesus himself in the fullness of time on the earth.  Jesus' first words in the gospel of Mark beckon us to action: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel."

Healing Comes from Jesus - Signpost in Mark 1, 2, and 3 

In a world that daily echoes the remnants of the fall of man we know that we are in desperate need of healing and wholeness.  Our bodies are broken and will surely pass away at an appointed time.  Our relationships are broken with communities constantly separating and being fractured.  Spiritual powers torment and destroy lives daily around the world and our souls are stained with the reality of sin.  We live today with the present world groaning and longing for redemption and renewal.  Jesus tells us that the self-righteous, the proud, the self-sufficient and the denial of our condition have no place with God.  For he tells us in Mark 2:17 - "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners." All sinners may come to him and none will be cast out.

We Live In His Story - Signpost in Mark 4 

There are many ways to define life and communicate its ultimate meaning and purpose.  Many have chosen to describe the world only in scientific terms.  Many have chosen to weave complex philosophies for the consumption of humanity.  Others have danced through a myriad of political visions, cultural revolutions and social engineering.    Yet how did Jesus teach us and define for us the ultimate reality and the Kingdom of God?  He told stories to teach those who could hear.  Stories designed by God to both reveal the hidden secrets of the rule and reign of Jesus and to conceal them from those who would have no part in worshipping their Creator.   In the parables of Jesus life finds form and definition.  In his stories we see our story with clarity and soul humbling and soul refreshing life.  In fact, in the large story of the gospel we find the truth and see our faces as we are meant to be. 

The Hero of Every Story - Signpost in Mark 4

If life is the unfolding of a great story, the story of God, then that story has a beginning, a climax, and a final resolution.  It also has a hero, a great rescuer and every story of Scripture whispers his name[1].  The identity of Jesus, Son of Man, Son of God is the most important issue in all of history.  In the last part of Mark four we see a question emerge from the lips of the disciples, "Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?" In this signpost we look at the hero of history in a story that includes uncertainty, calamity, fear, peril and chaos - sound like life?  It ends with Jesus speaking definitively into hearts filled with trepidation and the peace and calm that results.  

A New Living Way - Signpost in Mark 7

So many times we get consumed with the external realities of appearances, morality, religion and wearing masks for people all around us.  Yet what is the reality of the human heart?  The picture that Jesus paints for us is not pretty as he tells us all matter of sin and wickedness flows out from our hearts.  Though his picture of humanity is one of depravity, he does not leave us there.  He knows that a mere coat of paint to cover our brokenness will crack and crumble in life.  No, instead of a simple pious makeover, he reminds us that the problem we have is not simply our poor religious performances.   In order to transform us into new people and place us on a path of life, it requires radical heart surgery.   It is what comes out of a man that makes him unclean, and it is a renewal and recreation of our very selves which we most desperately need.  Is this possible?  Seeing Jesus in Mark 7 tell us YES!  But we must come to God needy and hopeful - in faith - for the work only he can do. 

A Continual Unfolding - Signposts in Mark 8, 9 and 10

There are some high mountain peaks in every narrative, crucial plot turns which move the story to its climax.  As the story of Jesus unfolds in Mark we see some very important events go down.   First, Peter confesses Jesus to be the Christ a confession upon which the church will be built.  Second, Jesus begins to foretell what was prophesied about him long ago, that the Son of Man must suffer, be murdered and rise from death.  This was an unexpected turn of events for the disciples that he repeats with them driving home the central focus of his mission.  Third, God reveals Jesus is his glory on the top of a mountain.  His radiant beauty and manifest glory was displayed for the disciples just before they turn towards leading the mission towards a cross in Jerusalem.  The cost of following Jesus, a Jesus who would be rejected by people and die an ignoble death, was being made clear. 

Do We Really Want Jesus? Signposts in Mark 11 and 12

Upon his entry to Jerusalem Jesus was being treated like a political religious rock star.  He was on the Jay Leno show, Carson Daly wanted to hang out and pretty much the whole town was in an uproar at the arrival of Jesus.  Their hero had come to save the day for Jerusalem and the reigns of the Roman oppressor would soon by conquered by the Messiah, a great warrior King! Or was there another plan?  Many of the people who welcomed Jesus would soon stand on the other side of his cause.  He would threaten religious power by bringing the salvation of God.  Those who desire to lead men in religion, rather than to the throne of grace, would soon shout out with ferocity "Crucify Him!"Even his closest of friends, the man who just had confessed him as the Christ of God would turn on his friend in a moment of trial.  Peter himself would deny Jesus. So I ask us...do we really want Jesus? 

Death by Love and Life By Death - Signposts in Mark 14, 15, and 16

The final apex of Mark's story comes to a head in the final chapters of the book.  Everything that began in chapter 1 has moved to this final station where death will come by love and life for God's people will come by death.  Jesus, the creator of all things, is mocked, rejected and tried as a common criminal.  His people abandon him and he submits himself to a shameful death, even death on a cross.  Yet such was the will of a loving God, for it pleased the Father to crush the Son.  Putting an end to sin, death and hell in one act and by death would come life to all men who believe.  This is the crown jewel of our faith.  The songs of men might sing of self-sufficiency and the triumph of our human ingenuity.  We will have no portion on this plate - we will preach and live Christ. Christ crucified, victoriously raised, on mission on the earth today beckoning to each of us...Follow Me. 

This is my prayer - joy in following Jesus in the mission of God on the earth,

Reid S. Monaghan



[1]This phrase is borrowed from the subtitle of what I consider to be the best children's Bible available today.  Sally Lloyd-Jones, The Jesus Storybook Bible - Every Story Whispers His Name (Grand Rapids: Zonderkidz, 2007).

The Gospel of Mark

Continued from The Gospels - A Reliable and Biased Testimony to an Unparalleled Life

In terms of historical attention, the gospel of Mark has been a bit of a little step brother to the longer gospels of Matthew, Luke and John.  In fact, many in the ancient world considered Mark to serve the church as a sort of abstract, or a short outline version, of the Gospel of Matthew.[1] Historically there has been much more preaching on John and Matthew. Even today, you will not find as many sermons preached from Mark's gospel as you will from the more theological gospel of John.[2]  In recent times much more scholarly focus has been given to this gospel due to its helpfulness in a solution to the Synoptic Problem (see above).  The work is a mere sixteen chapters and is a fast paced accounting of the teaching and life of Jesus.  It contains no birth narrative as do Matthew and Luke and is very concerned with presenting Jesus' Passion Week as the focus of the story.  In fact, about half of the book is about the last week of Jesus life.  This will be only a brief introduction to the background of the book and its teaching.  For those who want more just follow the yellow brick road called the footnotes.  I am convinced that Jesus just loves footnotes.  At least I do.

Authorship of Mark

All of the gospels do not have the authors name as part of the text itself, but the four gospels have never really been anonymous in church history.  The author's name which is associated with the book is that of a man named Mark.  This person is mentioned several times in the New Testament and was commonly known as John Mark.  The earliest church traditions all associate this gospel with Mark and his task to record the account of the apostle Peter in writing.  The earliest sources we have are from the writings of Papias a church leader in Hierapolis and Irenaeus bishop in Lyon (modern day France).  Papias' work survives in a text written by the prominent early church historian Eusebius.  It reads as follows:

And the Elder said this also: "Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatever he remembered of the things said and done by the lord, but no however in order." For neither did he hear the Lord, nor did he follow him, but afterwards, as I said, Peter, who adapted his teachings to the needs of his hearers, but not as though he were drawing up a connected account of the Lord's oracles.  So then Mark made no mistake in thus recording some things just as he remembered them.  For he took forethought for one thing, not to omit any of the things that he had heard, nor to state any of them falsely. [3]

It is estimated the Papias tradition is very early and dates perhaps to within 90-100 AD.[4]  Irenaeus, writing in the second century recorded the following:

After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him.[5]

The oldest traditions all hold that Mark was the other who arranged the teachings of Peter to give a written account of Jesus Christ to the church.  In addition to the tradition there is good internal evidence in the book that Mark's gospel greatly reflects the preaching of Peter that we see in the book of Acts.[6]  New Testament scholar Daniel Wallace provides a great summary of the internal connection with Mark and Peter; I will quote him at length:

  • John Mark had contact with Peter from no later than the mid-40s (Acts 12:12) and it appears that the church met at Mark's own residence.
  • Both Peter and Mark were connected to the churches in Antioch and Jerusalem.
  • Paul sent Mark from Rome to the Colossian church and to Philemon in 60-62.  If Peter were in Rome at this time, Mark would have had contact with him there.
  • 2 Timothy 4:11 we find Paul giving Timothy instructions to bring Mark with him from Ephesus to Rom (c. 64).  It is possible that he had been outside of Rome since his departure in 62.
  • Mark is with Peter in Rom in c. 65 (1 Peter 5:13) perhaps after his return at Paul's request.  Peter also calls Mark his "son" in this passage indicating a more long-standing relationship.
  • The book of Mark's outline follows the Petrine teaching recorded in Acts 10:36-41.  (1) John the Baptist  (2) Jesus Baptized by John (3) Jesus' miracles show he is from God (4) he went to Jerusalem (5) was crucified (6) he was raised on the third day.  This shows that perhaps Mark even received a framework for the oracles of Jesus from Peter.
  • The low view of Peter and the other apostles in Mark shows that the person writing was not trying to put them on a pedestal.  A non-apostolic writer would have done this unless he was recording what he actually had received from Peter.[7]

So we have good reasons, both external testimony from tradition and content of the book itself that John Mark arranged the instruction of Peter who gave eyewitness testimony to the life and teaching of Jesus Christ his Lord.

Who was John Mark

John Mark is mentioned several times in the New Testament as an associate in ministry of both Peter (1 Peter 5:13) and Paul (Acts 12:25, 15:37-39; 2 Timothy 4:11).  In some ways he is one of the key players in the early church as he is a disciple and co-laborer of the two men who most shaped the Christian movement after the ascension of Jesus.  In the early days in Jerusalem the church apparently met in his house (Acts 12:12), the same house in which the last supper was held.[8] He exhibits great ability as a storyteller and takes us on a journey to the central focus of the gospel - the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.

One of the things I appreciate most about John Mark is that he is a bit of a comeback kid.  In his relationship with Paul we see him as one of the earliest missionaries taking the gospel out into the world.  Then apparently he becomes a little freaked out in the field and abandons the mission.  This of course had Paul a little miffed and Paul and Barnabas actually part ways.  Paul simply doesn't trust him after Mark punked out on him.  Yet Barnabas, whose name means son of encouragement, gives him a second chance and Mark was greatly used by God.  He eventually becomes Peter's right hand man and what God does in his relationship with Paul is amazing.  Paul's last comments about him are very endearing.  Just before Paul's death, he asks Timothy to send for John Mark; apparently he wanted his friend at his side in his last days.

Dating of Mark

Many events factor into a dating of the gospel of Mark and knowing some important and confirmed/accepted times from the first century is always helpful.  These dates will be brought into our discussion of a date for Mark's writing.

Event

Date (AD)

Fall of Jerusalem

70

Martyrdom of Paul and Peter

64-68

Epistles of Paul

45-68

Some Oral Tradition

32-70

Crucifixion of Jesus

32

In looking at Mark's date we find several important issues.  First, if we accept the tradition that he recorded the teaching of Peter then we must place it somewhere in the locus of the life of the apostle.  Second, if one finds the two source/Markan priority hypothesis as a good solution to the Synoptic Problem, then Mark must precede Matthew and Luke and this affects its dating.  Third, we have testimony from the early church that Mark wrote either just before or just after the death of Peter which we date to the persecution under Nero after a great fire in 64 AD.  With the theme of suffering so prominent in Mark and Peter's execution in the mid sixties, most prefer a date for the gospel between 60 and 70, usually right around 65. 

Yet some who favor Markan priority place it in the mid 50s[9] for the following reasons.  If Mark was written first then the gospel of Luke must be dated after Mark.  Dating Luke's gospel is not so difficult.  We know from the text itself that the same author composed by Luke and Acts as a two part volume with Luke compiled first.  A few dates help us position Luke-Acts.  First, Acts has no mention of the fall of Jerusalem which we date conclusively to 70AD.  This would be strange if this painful event had already occurred.  This gives us confidence to place the writing of Acts to before 70.  Additionally, Acts also ends with Paul living under house arrest in Rome.  We estimate that Paul is martyred in between 64-68 so this would place Acts some time before his death.  If Luke came before Acts we find that gospel coming on to the scene in the very early part of the 60s with some placing it around 62AD.  So if one favors the thesis that Mark was written first, then a date preceding Luke, sometime in the late 50s seems to be preferred.  However, if you hold to the tradition that Matthew was first, then Mark can be happy at around 65AD.  With either consideration, Mark is one of the earliest gospels recorded to pass the teaching and story of Jesus on for generations to come. 

Provenance of Mark

Here is our big word for the day...provenance.  It simply means the origin of the writing or the place where it was written. The church has always held that the gospel was written from Italy, in the imperial capital of Rome.  The use of technical Latin terminology, the use of Roman accounting of time (6:48; 13:35) all point towards Rome. Mark's use of the Greek version of the Old Testament, his explanation of Jewish customs and practices, his translation of Aramaic terms indicate he was writing with a Gentile audience in mind. [10]   Finally, Mark's lack of inclusion of a Jewish genealogy for Jesus perhaps points to a Roman audience as well.  We have no good reason to doubt that the gospel originated in the first century Christian community in Rome. 

Context and Purpose of Mark

Ben Witherington's commentary on Mark calls to mind two very important cultural contexts which are in play in Mark's gospel.  First, the culture of early first century Galilee/Judea in 20-30 AD and second, the mid first century culture of Rome in the 60s.[11]  It is an interesting fact that both contexts presented great difficulty for both the Jewish and early Christian communities.  Galilee/Judea was under Roman occupation and rule where Jesus and his following appeared a religious-political threat to imperial power.  Rome in the mid 60s presented an intense, though brief, time of suffering and persecution under the maniacal leadership of Nero.  That story needs a brief explanation.

In the early days of Nero's reign Christians lived in relative peace in the empire.  They were seen with some suspicion due to their rejection of pagan gods and festivals as well as their preaching of the gospel.  Aggressive seeking of converts put them at odds with the established and ancient religions of the day.  Though Peter and Paul were executed for their leadership in preaching the gospel, aggressive, wide spread persecution of Christians as a class of people was not yet the reality.  This changed around 64 AD with a widespread fire in Rome.  The cause of the fire is uncertain with some blaming the emperor as the source.  Nero, however, found a different scapegoat to turn suspicion away from him.  He blamed the Christians.  This was significant for two reasons. First, he was the first emperor to treat the Christians as followers of a different religion than that of the Jews.  This made them believers in a new religion, not an ancient and accepted faith.[12]  Second, he declared open season on Christians and set off unprecedented abuse of Christian people. After the time of Nero's persecutions, a brutal account was recorded by the ancient historian Tacitus.  Oh, how our sisters and brothers suffered for the sake of the name of Christ.  Here is the account of Tacitus:

But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man's cruelty, that they were being destroyed.[13]

Nero sounds like a pretty big jerk to me and just making an educated guess I imagine that he received a really, really warm reception in the afterlife.  The themes in Mark reflect this context of suffering and persecution.  In the gospel Jesus is presented as the suffering servant, wrongly and brutally punished by the hand of Rome.  Christians in Rome under Nero's reign would have understood this message.  Follow the example of Jesus in the midst of suffering. 

Such is our own call - we are called to Jesus and to live together in his mission.  Whether we live in times of open suffering or lulled to sleep by comfort and familiarity we must be shaken loose from our current views of life in order to follow Jesus in our world today.  We need his life and story to constantly define our own.  This is our invitation, to see Jesus as the founder and perfecter of our faith, the definer of life and the person whose story gives us signposts for ever turn of life ahead.


[1] William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark; the English Text with Introduction, Exposition, and Notes (Grand Rapids,: Eerdmans, 1974), 3.

[2] This is not a scientific survey, but if you compare the two pages on SermonCloud.com and you will see the disparity.  Mark - http://www.sermoncloud.com/sermons-on-Mark/ and John - http://www.sermoncloud.com/sermons-on-John/

[3] Lane, 8.

[4] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2002), 4.

[5] Irenaeus, Against Heresies(Christian Classics Ethereal Library, accessed August 15 2007); available from http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.iv.ii.html.

[6] Lane, 10-12.

[7] Daniel Wallace, Mark: Introduction, Argument, and Outline(Bible.org, accessed August 15 2007); available from http://www.bible.org/page.php?page_id=1093.

[8] Edwards, 5.

[9] This is the position favored in Carson, Moo, and Morris.

[10] Lane, 25.

[11] Witherington, 31.

[12] Ibid., 34-35.

[13] Tacitus, The Annals (MIT Internet Classics Archive, accessed August 15 2007); available from

The Gospels - A Reliable and Biased Testimony to an Unparalleled Life

Continued from The Books of the New Testament

Skeptics throughout the ages have asked whether the gospels are to be trusted because they were written by biased people, the followers of Jesus himself.  They surely must have had a skewed point of view as to who this Jesus is.  After all, you cannot trust someone's biggest fans to give an objective account of someone's life...can you?  Recently this skepticism has been found unwarranted for a couple reasons.  First, we know that eyewitness accounts are always the most reliable when looking at events that we ourselves did not observe.  If the gospels demonstrate themselves to be the testimony of eyewitnesses they are then the most trustworthy views of Jesus we possess.  Second, the claim that someone is unable to correctly convey a story because they are "biased" is highly unwarranted.  We will look at each of these issues.

Eyewitness Testimony in the New Testament

When asking the question "What happened with this Jesus guy?" the first persons we should ask are those who walked with him, talked with him and lived their lives with him.  Or as 2 Peter 1:16 rightly records, those who were eyewitnesses of his majesty.  This requires us to look at the claims of the gospels to be just that - a written record of eyewitness testimony.  This was a view taken for granted for years until the advent of critical scholarship in the 19th century where the origin and source of all the gospel writings was brought into question.  Revisionist historians and liberal New Testament scholars began to claim the gospels were 3rd or 4th century compilations of Christian communities which did not reflect anything close to eyewitness testimony. 

However, there has been much movement in New Testament studies over the last several decades which has ruled out the revisionist ideas of liberal theology.  The late 3rd and 4th century dates have been utterly repudiated and we have been able to date all the gospels conclusively to the first century.  This has been due to amazing archaeological discoveries such as a fragment of John's gospel dating to around 125 AD.  Additionally, recent scholarship has shown that there are very good reasons to understand the gospels as testimony.  In 2006 Scottish Richard Bauckham published Jesus and the Eyewitnesses - the Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony which makes a strong case for our understanding the gospels as containing the testimony of those who knew the life and teaching of Jesus directly.  More and more scholars are coming to the position which the church has always held.  The gospels are the most reliable portrait of the life and teaching of Jesus because they contain the accounts of the people who were there.  But where these people just Jesus fan boys, too biased to be trusted?  Good question.

Bias is not Always Bad 

The question of bias is important, after all, the gospel writers did not leave us with a simple narrative that records nothing more than rote historical facts.  No, they were convinced of the truth of Jesus' teaching and their account of history contains the teaching of theology about Jesus as well as historical data.  Yes, there are towns, rulers, times and places mentioned, but also teaching as to the identity of Jesus and his mission from God.  But does this one sided account, that of Jesus' followers, disqualify their testimony as being valid?  In fact I will argue that if you want to know something about something or someone, you are better off asking people who are passionately committed to the story he shares.  A few examples can help us see that Bias is not always bad.

One example comes from the world of technology and through a simple question.   If you desire to know about the ins and outs of Macintosh computers, would you ask someone has never touched a Mac to be your teacher?  Of course not...who would you ask?  You probably would ask one of those MacIdolaters who are loyal subjects of the cult of Steve Jobs.  You know that crazy Apple guy who has to put down Windows every time the subject arises.  You know the guy who is flossing[1] his iPhone for all to see.  You may be that guy.  My point is this.  The people from whom you will get the best information about Macs are probably the ones who are the most biased; the ones who are passionate about their elite computers.  In like manner, NASCAR fans should be consulted on the intricacies of Stock car racing, indie rockers should be the ones you talk to about what is happening in the music scene and his original followers are the ones we should consult about Jesus Christ.   

One final example of a more serious kind should be mentioned.  To exclude a person who was involved with an event, who passionately cares that the story be told, as being a reliable witness would be quite odd indeed.  This sort of reasoning would rule out the accounts of Jewish historians of the Holocaust.  They are most interested as they were the ones most closely involved with this horrific course of events.  We would not think of discounting someone's testimony because they are "biased" against the Nazi's because their family went through the Holocaust.  No, rather we trust them as they were the closest people to the events and care most passionately about conveying and passing on this history.[2] 

Until someone is shown to be an unreliable witness we ought to take their word for something until they are shown to be not trustworthy.  The philosopher Immanuel Kant rightly showed some time ago that an assumption that all people are lying all the time is self-refuting.  We should assume truth telling unless we have good reason to think that someone is not telling the truth.[3]  If we find that someone is in their right mind and capable to tell the truth, is willing to do so, his words are recorded and preserved with integrity and his testimony is validated by other witnesses, we should trust the words of that person.[4]  It seems that this is precisely the sort of reality that we find in the writers of the gospels. 

It was their intention to tell the truth

  • Most of them were religious Jews who thought that intentional falsification (lying) was a direct violation of one of the Ten Commandments.  Lying was not a virtue in their community.  This does not mean there were not religious Jews who were liars at the time, but it was not a virtue extolled in the community.
  • The New Testament writers were concerned with "delivering" the teaching of Jesus and the gospel to the next generation in their writing.  The Apostle Paul specifically says that he delivered or passed on to the Corinthian church the gospel.  This gospel was considered by the early Christians as a matter "of first importance." See 1 Corinthians 15:1-3.  There is good evidence that they believed they were passing on what they saw as a holy tradition through their writings.[5]

They were able to tell the truth

  • They were a culture steeped in a tradition of oral teaching and memorization.  In fact, scholars have shown that ancient peoples could memorize massive amounts of information, with an important focus on maintaining the very words of their teachers.[6]
  • If they experienced any external pressure it was against the preaching of their message. They gained nothing in the way of position, power and possessions for faithfully telling the Jesus story.  To the contrary most of them were killed for it.  

 Their Words Preserved Accurately

  • It is beyond the scope of this paper but there is good textual evidence that we have the New Testament documents today in a form that is extremely close to the original manuscripts.  This is non controversial.  Most scholars agree that the current Greek texts of the New Testament are very accurate.  To put it simply, we have pretty much what was written.  Interesting enough, one of the few controversial passages, Mark 16:9-20, is in the gospel of Mark.
  • Additionally, there was very little time between the actual events of Jesus and the writing of the New Testament.  The less time that passes the less likely legendary development occurs.  The gospels were all finished by around 90AD with Mark and Matthew likely within just a few decades of the resurrection of Jesus.  In the period in which the gospels were written down many eyewitnesses of the events would have still been alive.  As Richard Bauckham states, "The Gospels were written within living memory of the events they recount.  Mark's gospel was written well within the lifetime of many of the eyewitnesses, while the other three canonical Gospels were written in the period when living eyewitnesses were becoming scarce, exactly at the point in time when their testimony would perish with them were it not put in writing"[7]

They are Corroborated/Validated by Others

  • If an author shows that he tells the truth on matters that are verifiable externally, he is thought to be a reliable witness.  The New Testament writers note at least thirty historically confirmed people in their works. The gospels in general and the passion narrative in particular find corroboration in several ancient sources outside of the New Testament.[8]  In addition, we find quotations at length from the gospels in the sermons and writings of the early church fathers.
  • When the gospels are examined, they show a strong historicity which is only doubted when a bias against the supernatural is brought to bear.  Many skeptics have written off the testimony of the gospels because they were written down by men who believed in God, who record the occurrence of the miraculous and the resurrection of an incarnate Savior God.  Yet such bias against the supernatural is just the work of a closed mind.  Someone who says - I cannot believe the words of the New Testament because I don't believe in God or miracles - is already closed off to any amount of evidence.  They are saying "I don't believe because I don't believe."  Such views are intellectually stifling and hardened to what God might say if they simply read the gospels with an open heart and mind to see the unparalleled life of Jesus on display.

In closing, the gospel literature is unique indeed.  It is part biography, part history, part theology yet passionately what Bauckham simply calls testimony

Understanding the Gospels as testimony, we can recognize this theological meaning of the history not as an arbitrary imposition on the objective facts, but as the way the witnesses perceived the history, in an inextricable coinherence of observable event and perceptible meaning.  Testimony is the category that enables us to read the Gospels in a properly historical way and a properly theological way.  It is where history and theology meet.[9] 

Let's go get some history and theology, in a portrait of the person of Jesus, truthfully set forth in the gospel of Mark.



[1] See the Urban Dictionary for a definition of the word floss - The Urban Dictionary, (accessed August 14 2007); available from http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=floss.

[2] For a more sophisticated look at the uniqueness of Holocaust testimonies see the treatment in Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses : The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2006), 493-502.

[3] James Porter Moreland, Scaling the Secular City : A Defense of Christianity (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1987), 137-138.

[4] Ibid., 138.

[5] Ibid., 144.

[6] See particularly chapters 10 and 11 of Bauckham, 240-263.

[7] Ibid., 7.

[8] See the chapter "The Corroborating Evidence" interviewing history professor Edwin Yamauchi in Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ : A Journalist's Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 73.

[9] Bauckham, 5,6.

The Books of the New Testament

Continued from Introduction to the New Testament... 

The New Testament, shared by Protestants, Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians is comprised of 27 individual books of varying length and literary genre.  A genre is simply a kind of writing.  Poetry, narrative stories, legal literature, prophecies are simple examples of different literary genres.  The New Testament contains four main genres of literature: gospel, narrative, epistle/letter and apocalyptic.  Many of these genres contain different sub genres such as parables, poems, creedal material as well as personal testimony.  The following is only a brief description of the parts of the New Testament.

The Gospel Literature - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John 

There are four books in the New Testament classified as gospel literature.  The books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are considered to be gospels. The word gospel is derived from the Greek term euangélion, which simply means good news or good tidings.  So the gospels are books containing good news, but not just any kind of news.  It would be one thing if a historical rise in the stock market or the fortunes of a nation are recorded dispassionately as history.  That might be interesting, but it would not be world changing.  The New Testament gospels however record something different-they record good news of God's action in history, to bring people into a relationship of love and worship through Jesus Christ.  The gospels are a fairly unique form of writing comprising several literary forms.  In some ways they are part biography, part history and part theology.  They have the goal of presenting and persuading - they endeavor to present Jesus but also to teach us who he is and what our response to him should be.  Each of the gospels had a different audience which originally received the work and each was composed by a different author.  As such they record some of the same details of Jesus' life but at times in different ways.  There is a commonality in the events, but a different recording depending on the purposes of the author and his intended audience.

The Synoptic Gospels

The gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke are known as the Synoptic Gospels, in that each provides a synopsis, or outline of the life and teaching of Jesus.  The word synoptic is derived from two Greek terms that when combined mean to see together.  When examined together, these gospels present a multifaceted view of the life and teaching of Jesus.  There is an interesting body of scholarship whose goal has been to investigate the origin and compiling of the synoptic gospels from early oral tradition and eyewitness accounts.  Scholars call this the synoptic problem.  The question arises from both the similarity and differences between the texts of Matthew, Mark and Luke and the literary and source connections between them.  A complete summary of the synoptic problem is well beyond our purposes here, but I think a brief summary will help you at least know some of the issues.  I will lay out a few of the issues that make the synoptic puzzle an interesting area of New Testament studies.  For those interested in a very brief, approachable, but scholarly summary of the current discussion I recommend Rethinking the Synoptic Problem published by Baker Academic.[1]  It is only about 160 pages so throw it in your Amazon.com shopping cart.

First Issue - We know the Gospels are Compilations 

The fact that the evangelists, the writers of the synoptic gospels compiled their accounts from other sources is non controversial.  It is the clear teaching of the Bible and of church tradition.  For instance, Luke begins his gospel with the following statement:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.

Luke 1:1-4 ESV

A few things should be noted about Luke's goals in writing his gospel.  First, he acknowledges others have taken up the task to compile a written narrative of Jesus.  Second, these compilations are based on eyewitness accounts from those who were with Jesus and ministers of the word.  Third, his concern was to put together a written, orderly, factual account of the teachings of the Christian faith.  Additionally, there is a strong tradition stating that Mark's gospel is a compilation of the account and preaching of Peter which was written around the time of the apostle's death.  We'll have more on that later.   So if the gospels are compilations which were written down at different times, for different communities, by different authors it is likely that they shared some of the same sources and perhaps used one another's writings. 

Second Issue - Same Stories, Different Accountings 

If you ever interact with people who are skeptical about the Bible they are sure to bring up the so called "contradictions" in the gospel narratives.   You see some of the stories are the same, sometimes verbatim (see next issue), but sometimes the stories are similar but have some pretty significant differences.  A quick read of the resurrection narrative accounts in the synoptic gospels will suffice to illustrate.  How many angels were there at the empty tomb?  If you go after answering that question for a moment you run into a feature of the synoptic problem.  My answer?  Probably, at least two...but each does not always get props in the story.

Third Issue - Same Stories, Same Wordings 

Many times the synoptic gospels contain the exact same stories and teachings of Jesus Christ.  This would be rather uninteresting as a mere accounting of the same life would suffice to explain this occurrence.  However, many times in the gospels we find Matthew and Luke repeating Mark almost word for word.  Additionally Matthew and Luke contain some of the same sayings of Jesus that are not found in Mark. This asks the question: Who was using what writings in compiling their work?  In any account, there appears to be a literary interdependence of the synoptic gospels and their sources.  This has led to the dominant position among many scholars today known as the Two Source hypothesis.

The Dominant Solution - Two Source Hypothesis

  • Mark was written first.  The view that Mark was the first gospel is simply assumed by many in New Testament studies today. [2] For example, Ben Witherington begins his commentary with a simple statement regarding studies of the gospel of Mark: "The sheer volume of recent studies, however, suggests that we are trying harder to grasp the meaning of this, the earliest of the gospels."[3]  There are many reasons for thinking Mark may have been written first. [4]
  • Matthew and Luke had Mark available to them as they wrote
  • Scholars have formed a hypothesis (a good and educated guess) of another source which they have called "Q"[5] (from the German quelle for "source").  It is held that this source contained sayings that Matthew and Luke share in common but are absent from Mark.  Q is a working hypothesis used by some scholars.  There is not a single shred of archaeological evidence of its existence.  We do not have one copy of this source.  Yet it is a reasonable inference due to the material shared by Matthew and Luke.  It is questioned by some scholars and an assumed hypothesis by others.
  • Today, Markan priority and the use of Luke/Matthew of Mark/Q remains the dominant view.

However, in the last several decades there have been others who are arguing quite convincingly for the priority of Matthew.[6]  This holds promise for a couple reasons.  First, the tradition and teaching of church history is univocal that Matthew was written first.  This was unchallenged for over 1800 years.  Second, this school of thought is giving much more credence to patristic studies, studies of the writings of the church fathers.  For those interested in this school of thought will want to see Why Four Gospels by David Allan Black.[7] 

Let me close briefly by saying that all evangelical scholars-whether those who hold to the two source hypothesis or the priority of Matthew-hold that the synoptic gospels were written down by the inspiration and direction of the Holy Spirit.  All evangelical New Testament scholars agree that each view is compatible with the truth that the writers of the gospels recorded scripture as inspired by God. 

Dr. Craig Blomberg sums this up well: 

...it is important to state up front that none of the major solutions to the Synoptic problem is inherently more or less compatible with historic Christian views of the inspiritation and authority of Scripture. [8]

Though the precise solution to the literary connectedness of the gospels is not of central importance to our faith, it is good to be aware of these issues.  Many so called "contradictions" skeptics claim to find in the synoptic narratives are easily resolved when we realized that each other arranged his material to tell the story of Jesus to a specific audience of Christians from a particular perspective.  Our chief concern with Matthew, Mark and Luke is the person to whom they testify.  Our gaze is the person of Jesus who lived in history, taught us many things, gave his life as a sacrifice for sin and rose from death to set people free.  This Jesus is the Jesus of the synoptic gospels - and to him, the final gospel calls boldly to us...Believe! 

John's Gospel - Believe!

John's gospel states its goal forcefully and with clarity in the twentieth chapter of the book.  These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20:31 ESV). John is writing for the purpose of presenting Jesus as the Christ, the one sent from God to deliver his people from sin, and calling us to believe.  It is a narrative of the miracles and teaching of Jesus which has a different feel from the synoptic gospels.  John wrote his material with the divinity of Jesus in the forefront and wants no neutral readers.  To read John is to be brought close to the Son of God in his glory with majesty on display.  The fourth gospel cannot be ignored and calls for a radical commitment of life to the Savior.  All who hear his voice in Scripture will follow and believe and no one who comes to him will he cast out; this is the radical message of John.

Narrative Literature - The Book of Acts

The book of Acts is primarily narrative in nature as it records the unfolding and preaching of the gospel from Jerusalem outward through the Roman Empire.  It begins with the story of the coming of the Spirit at a Jewish feast known as Pentecost and people in Jerusalem becoming followers of Jesus.  It continues with opposition and persecution in Jerusalem and the spread of the gospel outward in the first missionary efforts of the church.  The bulk of the narrative contains the travels of Paul and his companions establishing Christian communities throughout the trade routes of the world.  It tells a story and as such it is narrative literature

Epistles and Letters - From Paul and Others

A large portion of the New Testament is made up of letters written and distributed widely to teach and instruct the early church.  Whereas the gospels lay out the life teaching of Jesus, the epistles expound on the gospel leading us in how to live as followers of Jesus on his mission.  The epistles further explain the gospel, give us instruction on how to move into the world as Christ's followers and teach us how we are to live together as the church.  The letters are usually divided into two groups, the letters of Paul and those known as the general epistles.  We'll look briefly at both groupings. 

Paul's Letters

Much of the New Testament was written by a guy named Paul. Paul was sort of a big time guy in his day that had it on his mind to stamp out the new Christian movement.  As a religious Jew he saw the followers of Jesus as departing from the way of their fathers and began to persecute the church heavily with permission from civic leaders.  On his way to give some people a beat down the tables were turned on him.  Jesus smacked him around, blinded him for a few days and told him that he would now be a Christian and bring the gospel to the Gentiles (non Jews).  Paul then became a pretty radical guy who nobody could silence.  He preached the gospel with courage and at great peril to his own life.  In establishing new churches Paul would write to them, inspired by God, to teach and instruct the new followers in the way of Jesus.  Thirteen of Paul's letters make up a large portion of the New Testament.  Many of the letters are named after cities where the new churches were living.  The book of Romans was written to those in Rome, 1 and 2 Corinthians to the church in Corinth, etc.  If they were written today they would be something like 1 Nashvillians.  The Pastoral Epistles were written to Paul's younger disciples teaching them how to be servant leaders in the church and named after these men.  Finally, Philemon is the name of a friend of Paul and that letter bears his name.  Here is a listing: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Galatians; The Prison Epistles - letters written during his house arrest in Rome - Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon; The Pastoral Epistles - 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus 

General Epistles

The remaining letters of the New Testament were written by apostles and early Christian leaders dealing with particular concerns of missional living and doctrine in the early communities.  One book, though early on held to be written by Paul, has remained anonymous in its authorship.  It simply is title the epistle to the Hebrews.  Here is a listing of these books: Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, Jude, 1, 2 and 3 John 

The Apocalypse - The Revelation of Jesus Christ

The final book of the New Testament has a unique literary genre known as apocalyptic literature.  The word apocalypse comes from the Greek word which means to reveal, to uncover, unveil or disclose.   As such the book is commonly called Revelation.  This book has proved very controversial over the centuries with many schools of thought on how we should interpret it.  The book however is very clear in its purpose from the opening lines.  It is a revelation of Jesus Christ.  Whether the book is about bar codes on our foreheads, apache helicopters, one world government, meteors crashing into the earth or being left behind I will leave up to you.  But one thing we must know, the book is about Jesus, not just the end of the world.  The book is about the worship and praise and ultimate revealing of Jesus Christ.  We would do best to focus here when reading this book. 

That is but a brief fly-over of the New Testament writings, but our focus is on the gospels and the gospel of Mark in particular.  So let us move to the gospel literature, the books that focus us on the life, teaching, death and resurrection of the carpenter from Nazareth.



[1] David Alan Black and David R Beck, Rethinking the Synoptic Problem (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001).

[2] Ibid., 17.

[3] Ben Witherington, The Gospel of Mark : A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2001), 1. Emphasis added.

[4] D. A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1992), 32-36.

[5] More on "Q" can be found at Peter Kirby, Q Document(2001-2006, accessed August 13 2007); available from http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/q.html.

[6] Most influential has been the late William Reuben Farmer, The Synoptic Problem, a Critical Analysis (New York: Macmillan, 1964).  See brief discussion in R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark : A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002), 42.

[7] David Alan Black, Why Four Gospels - the Historical Origins of the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2001).

[8] Black and Beck, Rethinking the Synoptic Problem, 18.