There is nothing you can do to start – or stop – God’s plan (Mark 2:18-28)

When I’ve had super high anxiety in times of deep distress, I developed some tendencies that bordered on OCD. I don’t say this lightly. At one point, I became so panicked about money and how I was going to make ends meet, I developed a “thing” about how I made the boys sandwiches for lunch. When I noticed it, I tried making the sandwiches a different way – make the honey sandwich first and then the vegemite sandwich. And I couldn’t. And I froze. It’s very hard to explain but the mere thought of doing it out of order made me panic and burst into tears.

Of course it had nothing to do with sandwiches or even the boys. It had to do with control and creating order in a situation I felt I didn’t have any control over. Thankfully I have an excellent psychologist who helps me work through these issues. Because if left un-checked, suddenly you have a “system” for dealing with everything you have no control over – and a deep anxiety about then not doing it that way, otherwise the thing you are trying to control won’t happen/will happen.

This could be money, relationships, work, the home and even our faith. We saw last week that the Pharisees had turned legalism into an art form. I’m not saying they were OCD but the effect was much the same. We must meet all these rules and regs or God won’t come – to the point where they fail to see that God has, in fact, come.

In our passage this week, we see this on steroids and the Pharisees see two of their most sacred cows (and yes, I’m aware of the irony) come under threat.

Fasting and the sabbath are two things which the Pharisees believed would actually hasten the coming of the Messiah. To not observe them was not just an insult to God, it would inhibit his coming.

What we see in Jesus’ handling of these issues however, is that the kingdom, which is centred on God, is therefore centred on Jesus himself. This starts to illuminate for us who Jesus is and, that if the kingdom is centred on Jesus, it does not cease to be centred on God – far from it.

So in 2:18 we see that the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist are fasting but Jesus and his disciples are not. This makes me wonder. The Pharisees fasting is obvious. Jesus actually is the Messiah and so he and his disciples don’t need to fast. We are not sure at this point if his disciples understand that, but they follow what he does. But John’s disciples? Surely they knew the Messiah was coming? So why are they still fasting? I wonder if John’s disciples only part-understood. John has come to prepare the way with his baptism of repentance. Given that that’s only part of the story though, his disciples understanding may have been stunted – especially as John has been imprisoned by this point (cf. 1:14) and so wasn’t around to explain it to them. But maybe they were doing it because it was habit – because that is how it had always been done – and not doing it…..well, maybe that was a step too far. There’s no real rhyme or reason. It’s just the way it always has been.

Anyway, enough of my musings. Jesus explains clearly that they have no need to fast because the “bridegroom” (ie the Messiah”) is already there – there is no need to fast anymore. In fact, to do so would be an insult to him, because it denies that the Messiah has come, but also it gives the people a demeanour of mourning when they should be rejoicing.

Now the Old Testament has many references to God as the bridegroom. It denotes a consummation of a covenant between two parties that cannot get any closer. It is a time of trust and relationship and festivities. So in saying he is the bridegroom, Jesus is saying two things – first, he’s saying he is God, and second, he is saying that new age has come.

Look for example at Joel 1:8 where the prophet says “Mourn like a virgin in sackcloth grieving for the betrothed of her youth.” meaning that Israel grieves for God with whom they had a covenant (and which they have broken with their disobedience). Then in Joel 2:12 he says “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” And in 2:19, after the people have rent their hearts (ie repented) God says “I am sending you grain, new wine and olive oil, enough to satisfy you fully.” What is described at the end of Joel is a wedding feast, a celebration with the two parties reunited in a new covenant.

The Pharisees are stuck in Joel 2:12. Jesus knows they are at the wedding feast.

After giving a portent of his impending death, Jesus doubles down to explain more. He describes “new cloth” and “new wine”. In parable-speak, we see Jesus’ relationship to the old establishment. Let’s unpick this, because it’s significant. In Matthew 5:17 Jesus said that he didn’t come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfil them. And yet here he says that he is a new wine, not poured into the old wine skins but needing to be poured into new. Can both be right? If he came to fulfil the old, isn’t that him (new wine) being poured into old wine skins (the law)? This is more nuanced. He is the new but he is not new in and of himself. He is not a single final piece of a jigsaw puzzle. He isn’t a final piece that just finishes off the old. He brings a new age, a new era. And the old itself needs to become new with him. The new era brings with it a new framework that is linked to the old, that is a culmination of the old but which supersedes it.

What does this mean? Well, in the next episode, we see that the old is cherished for what God intended, but Jesus gives a new interpretation. I saw this with a hint of a smirk because his interpretation is not new – he’s actually reminding the Pharisees of what the sabbath is supposed to be about, but that in all their legalism, they have forgotten.

In trying to obey God to a tee, the priests had long before tried to set a list of dos and dont’s for the sabbath. This included things like not walking further than 1km from ones own house. And deliberate sabbath breaking was punishable by death – that’s how seriously it was taken. Breaking the sabbath was an obstacle to God’s deliverance of his people.

In a cornfield, Jesus’ disciples pick some ears of corn to eat. This breaks the sabbath. Jesus relays a story of David when the High Priest of the tabernacle gives David and his men consecrated bread from the altar because there is nothing else to eat, on condition they we ritually clean (which they probably weren’t). So Jesus shows that the local Pharisees are stricter than the high priest of the actual tabernacle was on King David. That’s how far their legalism had got.

He reminds them that the sabbath was made for man and not man for the sabbath. If man was created for the sabbath, that would place the sabbath above God – and this is how the Pharisees were treating the sabbath. They had idolised it. The sabbath was created for man by God for them to rest and remember him. That’s the point of the sabbath. By the way, if you’re interested in some history of the sabbath, you can read here one of my previous blogs.

So, where does this leave us? Jesus gradual revelation of himself is beautiful and simple. He is the bridegroom. He is the Messiah. This is not a time for fasting but for rejoicing. But he is also bringing in a new era. The obvious corollary is that the law and the Pharisees are old, fulfilled – superseded. This is dangerous. We can see why the Pharisees would be so determined ultimately to dispose of Jesus.

Jesus’ final words in this passage are “So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:28). He is the Messiah – and he is God. The sabbath was made for man. So if Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath, he is also Lord of all man. This seemingly innocuous statement has such depth, and such significance that’s its earth shattering.

Don’t forget, they are on the other side of the cross and even though God is standing literally right in front of them, they are still waiting for him to appear. In addition, they are doing everything they possibly can to hasten his coming – fasting, observing every rule, squeezing the most out of every regulation so they can (supposedly) get closer to God.

But nothing they do, or could ever do, could bring God to them. Nothing that they did, or that we can do, can push “go” on God’s plan for salvation. By the same token, nothing we can do can stop it either. Jesus came. The plan has already happened – it happened at the cross. Nothing we do can possibly change the fact that God’s single act of salvation is already done.

We are in Jesus’ new era. We’re already in it. What we do now, is based on love and gratitude. We are obedient. We seek to grow in Christ likeness. We nurture our discipleship. We depend on God for everything, in humility. This is a work in our hearts that affects what we do, because our salvation is already done. The Pharisees wanted what they did to affect their salvation.

But it’s already done. And frankly, thank God. Because if I, in my anxiety, can’t make sandwiches a different way when my finances are out of control, I have got no chance of getting into heaven on my own efforts.

The new era has already come and it is in our hearts and in our relationship with God. That doesn’t mean we do nothing. He did it all, but we still progress in our growth to christlikeness. There is a work happening in us. Our sanctification is ongoing but our salvation is fixed. Once we have accepted Jesus as our Lord and saviour, there is nothing we can do but follow.

Note: This is a stand alone blog that doesn’t depend on any other piece. But it runs as part of an online Bible study in Mark and throughout there are links to previous observations. You can dip in and out or start at the beginning if you like. If not, that’s also fine – you don’t need to have started at the beginning to be able to get into this blog.

If you want to start at the beginning though, it starts in Mark 1 and you can follow along from here.

Jesus didn’t come for the super religious – he came for you (Mark 2:1-17)

I often think I should be more religious. I should pray more, read my Bible more, meditate on God’s word more. I spend too much time on inconsequential things, I think. I should be doing more, doing better. I become filled with doubt. Is my faith active? Is it enough?

Partially I suppose this is my own insecurity. Partially this is an inherited view of what it looks like to be “worthy”. Me? I’m just me. Nothing special, mostly spiritually limping through life and just managing to get through every day.

Maybe you feel like this too. I should be doing more. I should be doing better.

Note: This is a stand alone blog that doesn’t depend on any other piece. But it runs as part of an online Bible study in Mark and throughout there are links to previous observations. You can dip in and out or start at the beginning if you like. If not, that’s also fine – you don’t need to have started at the beginning to be able to get into this blog.

Thankfully, we’re exactly the people that Jesus came for. He said so quite clearly.

Last week we saw that Jesus has communicated some things about himself, and is controlling how the information is delivered so his ministry is not hijacked by those who are desperate for a military and political overhaul of the Roman Empire.

Jesus had been in Jerusalem, but when John the Baptist is arrested, Jesus and his followers head north to Galilee, which is quite some distance away.

Source: https://www.blueletterbible.org/study/pnt/maps/palestine/capernaum.cfm

There’s still a sense that people’s understanding of Jesus is fledgling. In verses 2-5 we see the friends of a paralysed man bring their friend to Jesus to heal. They have enormous faith in Jesus ability to heal him – but not necessarily anything else.

What’s also interesting is that Jesus heals the paralysed man, not because of his faith but because of the faith of his friends. The Bible is silent on the thoughts of the paralysed man. We don’t know if he was a person of faith or if he was even ok about being dragged all over the place and lowered from a great height through the roof.

Jesus sends a powerful message by forgiving the mans’ sins, even though he knows they came for physical healing.

Why would he do this? This is not what they came for. But this is part of Jesus’ communication. First, what you think you need, is not what you need. Second, I have the power and authority to meet both needs.

In large part, this is a demonstration for the Pharisees. When Jesus forgives the mans sins, they accuse him of blaspheming because none but God can forgive sins. So is Jesus saying he has the same power as God? Or is he saying he is God? For those experiencing this first hand, this is what they are trying to work out. Who is this man?

Jesus makes it even clearer for us. He uses his power to heal an irreversible physical state to prove his ability to forgive sin.

He also uses a specific name for himself – “the Son of Man” is taken from Daniel 7 as a means of communicating that he has authority on earth to forgive sins:

“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14)

That’s HUGE.

Take a moment. It doesn’t matter if you’re a new Christian or have been one for 60 years. This truth of what Jesus is communicating about himself is mind bending.

Well, this leaves us amazed and wondrous, just like the people in Mark 2:12. And even though Jesus has demonstrated his power and authority, he has come into conflict with the establishment. In the next episode, he comes into conflict with them again.

Jesus calls Levi the tax collector. Tax collectors are the “baddies” of the Roman Jewish world. They are collaborators. They collect the taxes of their own people to give to the Romans and along the way, skim kick backs for themselves. In our world, this would be the corrupt landlords we see on A Current Affair – the low lifes who only care about lining their own pockets. And Jesus calls this guy??

This is not a comment on favouritism or that bad people get all the good stuff with no penalties. Levi got up and followed him. Levi had an encounter with the living God and he followed him. The implication is that he changed. He didn’t keep his horrible life and then take more. He left his horrible life to follow Jesus – and you only follow Jesus when you have become aware of your own sin and the deep need you have to be saved.

I think the juxtaposition of this story with the last one is interesting. The paralysed man got up and walked out. Levi got up and followed Jesus. I don’t want to push the analogy too far as it’s a different Greek word for each instance of “got up”. But I think it’s interesting that a man who has very visible issues on the outside who is physically healed and forgiven, is juxtaposed with a man who is outwardly OK but carries his darkness on the inside. Jesus heals physically. But the point is that he heals spiritually. In both cases, the object of Jesus actions walk away into a new life.

The conflict with the Pharisees – our resident super religious types – continues as they question Jesus eating with sinners.

We see this as obvious. Of course Jesus would eat with sinners. But back in the day, the legalism of the Pharisees had a genuine intent. They believed that their religiosity and strict adherence to the law, would bring them closer to God and hasten the coming of the Messiah. It was that important. So Jesus eating with sinners and tax collectors, where purity at the feast table could not be assured, was not a matter of being snooty. It was a question of creating barriers between Israel and God. Without adherence to the law and regulations around food and purity, God’s presence was inhibited and there was a serious impact to his coming.

Of course the irony is that God had already come and their religiosity was creating barriers between them and the living God. It was even inhibiting their ability to see him.

The trouble with religion is that it becomes the focal point of faith. It stops you seeing the wood for the trees. You become so intent on following certain rules and regulations that you forget to have a heart for God and a relationship with Christ.

And Jesus didn’t come for those people. He came for us. Sinners.

We may not be the corrupt land lords who get chased down the street by a roving camera reporter, but we are in the same category. We have our darkness on the inside. We are sinners.

But being a sinner who has the opportunity of forgiveness from God, is infinitely better than being a super religious type who thinks they will earn their way to heaven by following rules.

We must never forget that we are sinners, and while we already have our salvation, we depend totally on him. We look to him in faith for our growth in Christ likeness. And we only keep growing because we have an awareness that we are prone to sin. We must always remember not to rely on rules and regulations, thinking we are better than others or that it will get us closer to God – it will alienate people and it will take us further away.

There are things that we will do regularly – church, small groups, praying, reading our Bibles and so on. But we do these because we are already saved, because we already have a relationship with Christ and we want to grow to be like him. We don’t do those things because we get salvation points, like it’s a crazy rewards program.

Rules and regs, or a relationship with the Son of Man. Ponder what Jesus said about himself and know that he came for you.

“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14)

The who, the what and the why (Mark 1:21-45)

One thing that I get terrifically irritated by is when someone hijacks my message. I choose my words carefully, I try and articulate myself thoughtfully and then someone willfully mis-communicates me. For example, you can be in a work setting and you present your opinion on solving a particular problem. Someone else chimes in enthusiastically “Yes, yes, I see! I think what you’re saying Julia, is that its all Eric’s fault!” Suddenly everyone is whipped up into a frenzy and there’s practically a hiring freeze on anyone called Eric or sounding anything like Eric.

This can happen in so many settings. At home, with school mums and teachers, and even at church. Sometimes its how the words are offered and sometimes it depends on what ears you listen with.

Note: This is a stand alone blog that doesn’t depend on any other piece. But it runs as part of an online Bible study in Mark and throughout there are links to previous observations. You can dip in and out or start at the beginning if you like. If not, that’s also fine – you don’t need to have started at the beginning to be able to get into this blog.

In today’s passage, Jesus knows what ears people are listening with and is careful to craft what he is communicating. Last week we saw it all started with a bang – like a big opening musical number. Jesus has been very publicly identified as the Messiah, and the Son of God. We saw that these two roles were not necessarily linked in the Jewish consciousness at the time. The Messiah was just someone to be sent by God – not necessarily his Son. They were expecting a prophet, or another David – a knight in shining armor who would arrive on flaming chariots and drive out the oppressive Romans.

In the passage from verses 21-45, Jesus makes some very clear and pointed statements about himself which links him to deeper messages expressed in Old Testament prophecies.

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In verses 21-28, Jesus drives out demons. Now, we see in other places other people driving out demons (check out Luke 9:49) so this doesn’t necessarily announce Jesus as anything truly spectacular. The difference here is that the demons know Jesus. They know who he is. How would the spirits and demons know who he is? In James 2:19, James says to his audience “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that.” The demons are from the spiritual realm – they know the one who is from God and is God. While demons may be driven out by others, they do not know them.

Jesus however has authority. The people were amazed at his teaching (Mk 1:22) because he had authority. We would associate that with someone who has qualifications to teach. But Mark says the people were amazed because Jesus was not as the teachers of the law. The Greek, exousia which is translated here as “authority” carries more weight than we assume. It carries with it a sense of authority delegated by God. It means Jesus’ words were heard by the people and they knew this was no ordinary teaching. The words carried the weight of God himself.

So we had the big opening musical number that announced Jesus’ presence. Now we see he has the authority of God and demons recognise him. Could Jesus be the avenging angel of God come to save the Jews?

Here’s where it gets really interesting. Verses 29-40 remind us particularity of Isaiah 35:5-6. Here, Isaiah prophecies that “the eyes of the blind [will] be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.” These are the very signs of the Messiah in whom, Isaiah 35:2 says “they will see the glory of the Lordthe splendor of our God.” And here is Jesus in vv29-40, healing “many who had various diseases.” (Mark 1:34)

But healing people is not why Jesus came. In verse 28 Jesus says “Let us go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” He came to preach the gospel. The healing is so people might know that he is the Messiah. It is so he might communicate that in him, people are seeing the very glory and splendor of God.

But in the same significant passage of Isaiah, the prophecy continues “your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.” (Is. 35:4). This is what the Jews were expecting. Yes! A bit of vengeance and some victory on the battlefield. Some smiting and some slaying! Of course we, on this side of the cross, can read this from the perspective of Jesus’ sacrifice and God’s righteous judgement. But 2,000 years ago, Jews were looking for a Thor-type hero to come dashing in on a chariot.

This is what Jesus had to avoid. Because it was a very real risk that people, in hearing with ears of desperate hope, could hijack his message and his ministry. In the gospel of John, we read that “after the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say,Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.” (John 6:14-15).

So, Jesus is communicating his messages, but he has to do it carefully – spoon feeding his hearers so they have time to adjust their cultural expectations to be able to hear and understand the truth of why he had come. They were expecting a prophet and a king. They were not expecting God himself, made human, to sacrifice himself for the world. That’s why, when Jesus heals the man with leprosy in Mark 1:40-45, Jesus told him not to tell anyone. Jesus needed to control the message as much as possible. He told the healed leper to present himself to the priests (for giggles check out Leviticus 14:1-32 where people cleansed of skin diseases had to be “cleared” by the priest to re-enter community). But the healed man was not to tell anyone else (which of course he did).

So the thread of this is:

  1. Jesus presence is announced
  2. We begin to see that he is from God by his authority
  3. His actions realise the prophecy of Isaiah 35:5-6
  4. Which leads us to realise that we are seeing the very splendor and glory of God (Isaiah 35:2)
  5. Jesus has come to enact God’s vengeance and judgement (Isaiah 35:4)
  6. But not in the way that the people think and so the message has to be carefully controlled and communicated. People need to be able to understand and follow along because –
  7. In Isaiah 35:8-10 Isaiah had continued his prophecy “and a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way. The unclean will not journey on it; wicked fools will not go about on it. No lion will be there, nor any ravenous beast; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there, and those the Lord has rescued will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.

Jesus is not just here to drive out the Romans. Jesus is here to preach the good news. There is a way, a journey. This is so much bigger than anyone could have anticipated. This is a heart journey.

At this point, Mark’s readers must have been asking each other “what the….?” and “what is this “way”?” Their minds must have been absolutely blown. They must have been on the edge of their seats trying to put it all together in their minds.

This is exactly where the disciples must have been. Everything they thought they knew is kind of right but sort of wrong. Who is this guy? And where is this going?

 

Post me your comments and questions and lets get some online chat going!! And if you want to follow along, I’ll post the next online Bible study about the same time next week 🙂

The beginning (Mark 1:1-20)

The beginning. While this gospel is focussed on reaching a non-Jewish audience (see last weeks intro to the gospel for some background here), Mark still wanted to anchor his work in the narrative arc of all scripture – that means the Old Testament. That means showing that Jesus wasn’t some random, and that his coming was foretold even before creation and that he was God himself.

When I’m reading, I like to highlight and make notes as to what strikes me. Each blog in Mark I do, I’ll post mine. There’s no right answer to this, it’s your personal observations and questions and meditations as you read God’s word.

The beginning takes us back to Genesis 1:1 – the creation work of God himself. Mark actually doubles down on this reference when Jesus is baptised in 1:10. It says that they saw the Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove. There is only one other place in scripture where the Spirit is likened to a dove – in Genesis 1:2 where the Spirit hovers over the waters. As Tim Keller says, to capture this vivid image, the rabbis translated this passage as “the Spirit of God fluttered over the face of the waters like a dove.”

This is something new. A new act of creation is happening.

It’s interesting that Mark names Jesus twice in the first verse. He calls him Jesus the Messiah and the Son of God. Why both? Aren’t they the same thing? Actually no. To understand this we need to try and put ourselves back in the place of a first century Jew or Gentile. We understand the “Messiah” as being Jesus and all that he encompasses. But remember, they were still grappling with who Jesus was and what he had come to do. The concept of the Messiah for them was someone God-sent who would bring about the salvation God promised. The Messiah was not necessarily anything more than a prophet. In Deuteronomy 18:18, God had promised he would send another great prophet, and since Elijah, there had been an expectation of another saving one sent from God. To add “the Son of God” was to hit people between the eyes. This was a whole new dimension. A Messiah was expected. The Son of God was NOT expected.

“As it is written in Isaiah” Mark says – again, anchoring Jesus story in the narrative arc of all scripture. He was known, he was expected, he was foretold. What he actually quotes is an amalgam of Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3. This mix and matching is not surprising given his audience. What is interesting though is that God gave those words through Malachi and Isaiah when his people were lost and feeling alone and needing God’s peace and grace. He promised resolution. Just no timeframe. And now it had come. The waiting…the hundreds of years of waiting, were over.

The words that link paragraphs are always interesting and important. Here, Mark says “and so”. This shows a clear link that Baptist was again, no random. He came specifically as foretold by scripture. He is the messenger to prepare the way. The description of John links him specifically to Elijah, the last great prophet sent from God. 2 Kings 1:8 describes Elijah as wearing a garment of hair and having a leather belt around his waist. So, this Elijah-like prophet is preparing the way for the Lord.

There is a sense of a two step progression. John is the messenger, Jesus is the Lord. John will baptise with water and Jesus will baptise with the Spirit. John preaches a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus preaches that the kingdom of God has come near and so repent and believe. In every sense, John is preparing the way. This is something sort of expected, but also so new, it requires the way to be prepared.

It is striking that Mark highlights Jesus’ divinity and humanity. His divinity is clear in the baptism narrative. But he mentions he was in the wilderness 40 days, being tempted by Satan. We know more detail of this from the other gospels. I remember my doctrine lecturer once posing a question “Was Jesus unable to sin, or was Jesus able to sin but didn’t?” I also remember him, after we had talked ourselves round in circles for an hour, saying “like all good theological questions, the answer is Yes.”

What is always find startling is Jesus, in his humanity, was tempted beyond all endurance. He was genuinely tempted because he is genuinely human. He experienced everything that we do. He must have been exhausted, agonised, anguished, starving, thirsting even to the point of death. And yet still he did not bow to Satan.

So yes. He is divine and has the power to save. But he is human and has experienced everything I have and triumphed. He triumphs in his divinity as the Son of God. In his weakness and frailty he triumphs in his humanity.

This is mind bending. In a few short verses, Mark has placed Jesus in the narrative arc of scripture, he had proclaimed Jesus as both messiah and Son of God, he has declared the gospel of repentance and belief and has highlighted both Jesus divinity and humanity.

This is as new now as it was then. And there’s a newness in re-remembering the depth of what Mark is communicating to us.

Let me know your questions – there’s so much in here we could spend many weeks! We could look at the concept of baptism, what happened to John when he was sent to prison and why, we could go SO much more deeply into repentance and belief. We’ll cover a lot of these as we go on, but please feel free to post questions or comments here or on the Facebook post if you want to engage!

“Who do you say I am?”

Last week I asked what book of the Bible I should choose if we were to try a follow-along-Bible-study. There were some great suggestions and I was really torn. But with prayer, it seemed to me we should start at the very beginning – with the gospel. You might roll your eyes and wish I’d picked a juicy Old Testament nugget. And I was so close to going with Judges or with Ezra! However, sometimes even the most theologically savvy Christian needs to go back to the beginning and to re-remember who Jesus is.

The gospels are absolute gold mines of wisdom. I am also a crazy history nerd and there’s a lot in the gospels that we miss because we’re not 2,000 year old Jews. So, I’ve chosen the gospel of Mark as our first follow-along-Bible study (acronym FAB – how awesome is that?).

It’s commonly believed that Mark was the first gospel to be compiled, and on which both Matthew and Luke were partially drawn. It’s shorter and it’s written in “fisherman’s language” – that is, unlike Matthew which has quite dense Jewish references, and Luke which is quite polished and lyrical, Mark is clear, simple and down to earth.

The date of this gospel could be anywhere from the mid-50s AD to the late 60s. Clement of Alexandria (writing in the late 100s AD) claimed that it was written while the apostle Peter was in Rome (this was in the 50s or 60s). The early church historian Eusebius (writing in the early 300s AD from memories of earlier church fathers) claimed that Peter actually came to Rome when Claudius was emperor (which would have been more in the early 50s). Church tradition says that Peter was executed in Rome during the reign of Nero (around the mid-60s). There’s no way to tell for sure. What’s interesting though is that while there’s lots of academic reasons for chasing a date, we should remember that even in the 60s, this was a mere 30 years after Jesus’ death. That’s like having a memoir written today for John Lennon or Ronald Reagan. It’s really not that long between events and writing.

Who was Mark? That also is a mystery. Popular tradition has it that he was Peter’s interpreter. This mainly comes from Papias who was a Christian leader in 120-ish AD – within 100 years of Jesus’ death. Papias was born after Jesus died but is said to have been a disciple of the apostle John and so had many memories of a direct eye witness who was close to Jesus. Papias is quoted by Eusebius as saying “Mark, who had been Peter’s interpreter, wrote down carefully, but not in order, all that he remembered of the Lords sayings and doings.” And that “he had one purpose only – to leave out nothing that he had heard, and to make no mis-statement about it.”

So Mark himself had not known Jesus but was writing down Peter’s memories some time in the mid-50s to 60s. At this time, there was no other gospel (as far as we know). It had spread by word of mouth as the first Christians spread from Jerusalem with the first persecution that had started with the martyrdom of Stephen (as told in Acts 7). There were some letters. 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians and Philippians were all in existence before there was a formal gospel.

With the early church and the converts stretching to Rome, Mark’s gospel in its fisherman’s language and easy style, is targeted at Gentiles. He explains Jewish concepts and leads the reader through an exploration of who Jesus is, from the perspective of a Jew but to readers who have no messianic tradition.

It has a strong and fast-paced narrative style. As we go through, notice how many times Mark uses terms like “Immediately…” as the next thing happens – it appears 42 times in Mark (compared to only 5 times in Matthew and once in Luke). He uses several other devices deliberately designed to draw the reader in and lead us to the truth of Jesus. We’ll talk about these as we go through.

So, once a week, we’ll take a chunk at a time and look together at this gospel. If you have any questions about the setting, authorship, historical context and date or anything I’ve talked about here, feel free to post. This is meant to be as open and interactive as you want.

If you want to read a commentary, there are some that read as easily as novels. My absolute favourite is Mark: The Servant King by Paul Barnett. It’s a brilliant read. King’s Cross by Tim Keller is also good. If you want to go crazy with reading, David A deSilva’s An Introduction to the New Testament is a chunky text book but one of the most interesting I’ve read. It includes lots of historical, literary and cultural context to all the New Testament books.

My prayer for all of us is that we will get to know Jesus again, and get to know him more. I pray that we will be drawn together and to God. I pray that we will find some online community with respect and gentleness – because the reason we are all here is Jesus. It is he that brings us together and binds us all.