Category Archives: Bible study

Bible studies in Mark

Each Monday, we have been working out way through the gospel of Mark. You can follow along each week or jump in and out. You can read it like a devotional or work through it with me. You can post any comments you like and ask questions – this study allows us to create an online community!

Each blog is a stand alone piece but you can also follow the whole series. If you miss any, here’s where you can find all the studies to date (just click the week number and it will take you straight there!):

  1. Week 1: “Who do you say I am”. Introduction to the gospel
  2. Week 2: The Beginning. Mark 1:1-20
  3. Week 3: The Who, the what and the why. Mark 1:21-45
  4. Week 4: Jesus didn’t come for the super-religious. He came for you. Mark 2:1-17
  5. Week 5: There is nothing you can do to start – or stop – God’s plan. Mark 2:18-28
  6. Week 6: Jesus wasn’t the man they wanted him to be. Mark 3:1-12
  7. Week 7: Jesus made us a new family – does church really feel like that? Mark 3:13-35
  8. Week 8: Is fruitfulness something we do or something we are to be? (Mark 4:1-20)
  9. Week 9: What will the kingdom of God be like? (Mark 4:21-34)
  10. Week 10: Jesus goes out of his way to specifically find you (Mark 4:35-5:20)
  11. Week 11: The only person who could save her was him (Mark 5:21-43)
  12. Week 12: Misunderstood, disrespected, unloved, written off (Mark 6:1-13)
  13. Week 13: How can something be a tragedy and a triumph (Mark 6:14-29)
  14. Week 14: I admit it, I want to be led, but not by anyone (Mark 6:30-56)
  15. Week 15: In the mess of the world, how can I feel clean (Mark 7:1-23)
  16. Week 16: Ever felt like a nobody? (Mark 7:24-30)
  17. Week 17: Loved, freed and given a voice (Mark 7:31-37)
  18. Week 18It’s not the the ends of the banner that are important – it’s what it says in between (Mark 8:1-13)
  19. Week 19: Sometimes the disciples remind me of my kids when they’re being really annoying (Mark 8:14-21)
  20. Week 20: I am the most unlikely Christian. But aren’t we all? (Mark 8:22-26)
  21. Week 21: The choice that affects your life here and your eternity. I know what I choose (Mark 8:27-9:1)
  22. Week 22: If God is real, why hasn’t he shown himself? (Mark 9:1-13)

How can something be a tragedy and a triumph? (Mark 6:14-29)

There’s a lot of women in the Bible who we can admire. Strong women. Smart women. Gentle women. Brave women. There are women who triumph when everyone else crumbles. There are women who save the day. There are women who believe when all hope appears to be gone.

There are other women who are the exact opposite. There are of course plenty of men in the Bible who lead the people into idolatry and death. Here though, we meet one of the women who’s inappropriate authority over her husband, leads them all into wickedness and evil.

Today’s passage deals with the death of John the Baptist.

The story is that Salome, the step daughter of Herod, dances for him and he is so enchanted that he says she can have anything she wishes. Salome, in consultation with her mother Herodias (Herod’s wife) asks for the head of John the Baptist.

There’s a mix of history and theology here that turns this Hollywood-style thriller into a tragedy and triumph at the same time.

Herod Antipas was the ruler of Galilee and Perea as a Roman client state. He was the ruler of the Jews and was also raised as a Jew. He was married to the daughter of the king of Nabatea – and he divorced her to marry Herodias, who had been married to Herod’s half-brother. It’s not clear whether she walked out on the half-brother and married Herod anyway, or divorced him before marrying Herod.

Confused yet? It’s like a plot line from The Bold and the Beautiful isn’t it?

John the Baptist had preached against Herod and Herodias’ marriage, which was against Old Testament law (although it was not against Roman law so they must have snuck it in under that). This is all attested by Jewish historian Josephus who was writing at the time of the events.*

Herod appears to have had a conflicted relationship with John. In Mark 16:19-20, Herodias wants to kill John but can’t because Herod feared him. The original Greek here implies more a reverential fear – which fits with the passage saying “Herod would listen to John” and he would be greatly perplexed but he would like it. Herod knows he is a holy and righteous man and likes listening to him, even though he doesn’t really understand.

Herod had imprisoned John because of what he was saying (6:17). But he also protected him from Herodias who wanted to kill him (6:19).

Josephus says John was imprisoned in the fortress of Machaerus where John appears to have been for a while because in the other gospels, John receives visits from his disciples and from Jesus’ disciples (Matthew 11 and Luke 7). It must have been bleak and seeing the fortress reminds us we are dealing with real people and real events.

Source: https://archaeologynewsnetwork.blogspot.com/2019/03/jordans-biblical-fortress-of-machaerus.html#OsuYcE2RGpuk130K.97

We are also dealing with a narrative arc of the Bible. Herodias’ murderous hatred of John points us back to Jezebel in the Old Testament and her hatred of Elijah. In 1 Kings 18 Elijah had defeated the prophets of Baal. In 1 Kings 19, Jezebel swears to kill Elijah too and he flees.

This echo of Jezebel is deliberate – not because Herodias is equally as wicked (although she is), but because of the association with Elijah. Since the beginning there has been association of John with Elijah and the prophet who prepares the way for the Messiah.

Herod is a weak fool. Herodias and Salome defeat him with their wits. They manipulate him and he walks right into it. Herod doesn’t want to kill John, he knows he is innocent. He is perplexing and maybe a threat to his authority but he’s done nothing wrong. And here we see a foreshadowing of Jesus with Pilate. Pilate sees Jesus as a possible threat but knows he has broken no laws.

When John is executed, John’s disciples come and take the body and lay it in a tomb – as Jesus’ disciples would soon do. Another foreshadowing.

Until this point, John has been the main landmark on Herod’s horizon. After John’s death, Jesus’ ministry really rises to the fore. When Herod hears about Jesus fears that John has been raised from the dead. Some people are even saying this. This is telling on a few fronts. Firstly, that the association between John and Jesus is evident. While people have yet to clearly distinguish them, it shows that at the time, they were not two distinct movements but seen as one a progression of the other. This is certainly what John himself had understood as he prepared the way for Jesus, and that he must become less and Jesus becomes more.

It also shows Herod’s guilt and shame. His fear almost feels as though he thinks he is being haunted by the ghost of this innocent man he has murdered.

It also points forward again the Jesus – who was raised from the dead. It’s interesting there was a rumour that John was raised from the dead, but it never went anywhere because he wasn’t. He demonstrably wasn’t. He didn’t appear anywhere and nobody saw him. When the rumour erupts of Jesus’ resurrection, he is seen in many places by many people. There’s no denying that that really happened. Here, however, it is just a rumour because of the similarity between John’s preaching of baptism and repentance, and Jesus’ preaching of repentance and faith. John baptised with water, but Jesus baptised with the Holy Spirit.

So John’s death was tragic. But it was also a triumph. It pointed us back to Jezebel to re-affirm John as the Elijah figure who prepares the way. It also points forward to what will happen with Jesus – the ultimate triumph.

I find it staggering that God provides these sign posts for us to help us understand and interpret what happened in the past, what is happening at the time and what is to come. Without John, the events around jesus’ ministry and sacrifice would be harder for us to interpret. With these events, God gives us a deeper and profound picture of what is happening and why.

God is gracious in his revelation to us. What he communicates is like a set of keys to unlock scripture. Nothing is in code. It’s not secret knowledge. It’s all there for us to read, understand, think about and look back to him in awe and reverence.

* Josephus Book 18, chapter 5. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-18.html

This blog is a stand alone piece but it is also part of a weekly online bible study. If you have missed any or would like to reference back to the beginning, the links are below:

  1. Week 1: “Who do you say I am”. Introduction to the gospel
  2. Week 2: The Beginning. Mark 1:1-20
  3. Week 3: The Who, the what and the why. Mark 1:21-45
  4. Week 4: Jesus didn’t come for the super-religious. He came for you. Mark 2:1-17
  5. Week 5: There is nothing you can do to start – or stop – God’s plan. Mark 2:18-28
  6. Week 6: Jesus wasn’t the man they wanted him to be. Mark 3:1-12
  7. Week 7: Jesus made us a new family – does church really feel like that? Mark 3:13-35
  8. Week 8: Is fruitfulness something we do or something we are to be? (Mark 4:1-20)
  9. Week 9: What will the kingdom of God be like? (Mark 4:21-34)
  10. Week 10: Jesus goes out of his way to specifically find you (Mark 4:35-5:20)
  11. Week 11: The only person who could save her was him (Mark 5:21-43)
  12. Week 12: Misunderstood, disrespected, unloved, written off (Mark 6:1-13)

Misunderstood, disrespected, unloved, written off (Mark 6:1-13)

We want to be seen – to be really understood. We want to be valued, without conditions, without hesitations. No “ifs” and no “buts”. We don’t want to be left with the idea that people are thinking “I like you but you’re kind of selfish and annoying” or “I would respect you more if you were closer to my idea of godly”. We want to be accepted by the people around us as we are. Sure, we all have rough edges and sinful areas that we need to be working on, but generally we would like people to accept us, love us and walk with us.

At the root of this is a difference in how people see you and how you understand yourself. People seem to understand us based on their understanding of the facts, or their judgement of the truth, or how they would have react in life, or working to a set of expectations that are theirs but not yours.

See the pattern? People are self-centric. They primarily see the world from their own point of view. This is natural and normal. The problem occurs when this is all they can see. It means that you can be misunderstood and then treated without value, without respect, without love and eventually, just written off.

This is a horrible feeling. What averts this is empathy, kindness and humility. We can all do better imagining where the other person is at and treating them with grace instead of judgement.

Now imagine the person who is lacking understanding, respect and love is Jesus – actual God. In Mark 6:1 Jesus and his disciples head to Jesus’ hometown. Remember, they have just come from healing massive amounts of people and even raising them from the dead. He starts to teach in the synagogue and “many who heard him were amazed” (6:2). The Greek word here for “amazed” is exeplēssonto is utter astonishment, even with a little hint of panic. They ask a rapid fire of six questions – the first three and the second three are starkly different:

  • First set of three:
    • Where did this man get these things?
    • What’s this wisdom that has been given him?
    • What are these remarkable miracles he is performing?
  • Second set of three:
    • Isn’t this the carpenter?
    • Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? 
    • Aren’t his sisters here with us?

The questions end with “And they took offense at him.” So amazement has turned to offense. What has happened here? “Offense” is eskandalizonto and relates to seeing in someone else something you disapprove of and which stops you from accepting them or what they say – its more than just being offended. These people are self-centric. That initial sense of fear-underpinned amazement turns to attack. Isn’t he a nobody?

Jesus notes that “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town” (verse 4). It’s interesting Jesus identifies himself as a prophet – in this gospel he usually self identifies with more Messianic terms. But here, he is saying they are rejecting him and the message he bears. We also know from Old Testament prophets what happens when God’s message is rejected. Judgement comes. This is a strong connection for Jesus to make.

They misunderstand and write off the man but concurrently that means a rejection of the message. The man and the message are the same thing. Rejecting either is a rejection of both – and will lead to judgement.

Is Jesus angry with them? Strangely not. He wonders as their unbelief. In some translations, this is rendered as “amazed” as well but the original Greek is a different word and gives a sense of confusion – a sad scratch your head moment, rather than deep astonishment.

And does Jesus give up? Of course not. He goes on teaching from village to village. And he sends out his disciples in twos (two witnesses are required to substantiate a testimony). And he instructs them: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” (vv8-11)

His instructions reveal two things: First, he instructs them to rely on God. They are to take nothing. Second, it instructs them to do what Jesus evidently did in response to the people in his hometown – he left that place. It doesn’t describe his feelings about it. If it was me I can imagine my feelings being rather petty “Screw you guys then….grumble grumble grumble….”

But what we do see here is the humanity of Jesus. He experienced something that we know well. He was written off by people who made assumptions about him. He was disrespected by them. They looked down on him. He was de-valued not because of anything he had done but on the basis of what people assumed about him, his message and his motivations.

Oh yes, we know this. What this means is that Jesus has experienced what we face. It means he understands our struggle, understands our fear, understands our pain.

He knows us. Not only can we learn from him and follow him, our Lord and saviour and treasure, we can have faith in him and his ability to know us down to our very deepest thoughts.

 

This blog is a stand alone piece but it is also part of a weekly online bible study. If you have missed any or would like to reference back to the beginning, the links are below:

  1. Week 1: “Who do you say I am”. Introduction to the gospel
  2. Week 2: The Beginning. Mark 1:1-20
  3. Week 3: The Who, the what and the why. Mark 1:21-45
  4. Week 4: Jesus didn’t come for the super-religious. He came for you. Mark 2:1-17
  5. Week 5: There is nothing you can do to start – or stop – God’s plan. Mark 2:18-28
  6. Week 6: Jesus wasn’t the man they wanted him to be. Mark 3:1-12
  7. Week 7: Jesus made us a new family – does church really feel like that? Mark 3:13-35
  8. Week 8: Is fruitfulness something we do or something we are to be? (Mark 4:1-20)
  9. Week 9: What will the kingdom of God be like? (Mark 4:21-34)
  10. Week 10: Jesus goes out of his way to specifically find you (Mark 4:35-5:20)
  11. Week 11: The only person who could save her was him (Mark 5:21-43)

The only person who could save her was him (Mark 5:21-43)

Sometimes it seems impossibly hard to be a woman. I have no doubt that its hard to be a man too – but I can only speak for those females among us. For us females, it can feel like an up hill climb all the way sometimes. We have uniquely female medical issues – which are never dignified. We have hormonal fluctuations and emotional swings (that aren’t even hormonal). We have anxieties and paranoias, we have hidden fears and brooding worries that we are, or will, or have, failed. And we carry on. Even when we feel like we are a complete outsider. Even when we feel like we are completely alone. Even when we feel like life will never get any better. We carry on.

Maybe this is you. Maybe you where a face to make everyone think you’re doing fine,  but on the inside you’re wracked with doubt and pain. Or maybe it’s been weeks, months, even years, and you feel like you just can’t get things to go right. You’ve tried, you’ve fought, you’ve endured, but the battles you’re fighting are on every front and feels like its never going to end. And maybe this follows you to church. You sing the songs, you pray the prayers, you listen to the sermon, but you just feel somehow separate to everyone else.

One of the characters in today’s passage was completely separated.

In Mark 5:21, we see Jesus crossing the Sea of Galilee again into Jewish territory and as the crowds press around him, a synagogue leader called Jairus pleads with Jesus to come and save his dying daughter. On the way, Jesus has an encounter with a woman:

“A large crowd followed and pressed around him. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.” (Mark 5:24-29)

This story is in the gospels of Matthew and Luke also, but Mark provides the most insights into the woman. Even so, we get precious little about her. We don’t know her name, her situation or even her specific medical condition. What we do know is that she has been bleeding for 12 years and, under the Levitical laws, that means that she has been ceremonially unclean for all that time:

“When a woman has a discharge of blood for many days at a time other than her monthly period or has a discharge that continues beyond her period, she will be unclean as long as she has the discharge, just as in the days of her period. Any bed she lies on while her discharge continues will be unclean, as is her bed during her monthly period, and anything she sits on will be unclean, as during her period. Anyone who touches them will be unclean; they must wash their clothes and bathe with water, and they will be unclean till evening.” (Leviticus 15:25-27)

What we need to remember is that all purity laws (male and female) were linked to the temple system – what that means is that the temple, the priests, temple gifts and so on had to be guarded from ritual impurity. Nothing tainted by impurity could be offered up in the presence of God. Just touching, or being touched by, someone who was unclean, communicated the impurity to the other person.

And as an unclean person, you had to keep away. Its interesting that the Hebrew word for “menstruation” here is niddatah, which has as its root ndh, a word meaning “separation”. An unclean person could not go to temple, and couldn’t really be around other people in case of making them unclean and they would have to be purified.

So this woman must have been lonely – and paranoid. Given the separation from people and temple, her condition must have been very public. Everyone would know. Nobody would want to touch her or be near her. She was an outsider (ceremonially speaking), and would have been made to feel like an outsider in every other cultural and social way.

On top of that, physically she must have been supremely debilitated. Bleeding constantly for 12 years. And without modern hygiene products or pain killers. She may have experienced anemia, dizziness and a number of other physical ailments. She must have been exhausted, depressed and emotionally drained.

The gospel says she had suffered greatly at the hands of various doctors and instead of getting better, had got worse. To give us an idea, Adam Clarke’s 19th Century Commentary on the New Testament quotes 17th century Dr Lightfoot who had studied the medical machinations of 2nd Century Rabbi Jochanan.* What Rabbi Jochanan outlined was a series of treatments (if you can call them that) for just such a complaint:

  1. Take of gum Alexandria, of alum, and of crocus hortensis, the weight of a zuzee each; let them be bruised together, and given in wine to the woman that hath an issue of blood. But should this fail:
  2. Take of Persian onions nine logs, boil them in wine, and give it to her to drink: and say, Arise from thy flux. But should this fail:
  3. Set her in a place where two ways meet, and let her hold a cup of wine in her hand; and let somebody come behind and affright her, and say, Arise from thy flux. But should this do no good:
  4. Take a handful of cummin and a handful of crocus, and a handful of faenu-greek; let these be boiled, and given her to drink, and say, Arise from thy flux. But should this also fail:
  5. Dig seven trenches, and burn in them some cuttings of vines not yet circumcised (vines not four years old); and let her take in her hand a cup of wine, and let her be led from this trench and set down over that, and let her be removed from that, and set down over another: and in each removal say unto her, Arise from thy flux.

And apparently there were many others to try if this last one didn’t work either!

Can you imagine? On top of the physical, emotional and mental burden, she had been poked and prodded and no doubt with each prospective cure, her hopes had been raised. And yet, the Bible tells us, she got worse.

And then she hears about a man who can heal.

She doesn’t even approach him face to face. Shame? Possibly. After 12 years of being an outcast I can imagine she’d want to remain as invisible as possible. Of course Jesus realises he’s been touched.

Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”” (Mark 5:33-34)

This is such a beautiful scene. He could have turned round and called her out for touching him – for making him unclean too. But he doesn’t even mention it. Elsewhere in Mark we have seen Jesus changing the understanding of the old covenant law (the sabbath laws in chapter 2 and later food laws in chapter 7). His refusal to rebuke her – his complete lack of attention to purity laws in fact – is a stunning omission here. And this was liberating, for all Jews and particularly women.

Whats also interesting here is the Greek word for “healed” here is the same as “saved”. This is complete restoration. Complete. Restoration.

Who else could give her that?

Who else could give us that?

The doctors could not heal her. The purity laws could not save her. Only Jesus could heal her. Only Jesus could save her. Only Jesus could give her her life back.

Just after this, Jesus completes his journey to Jairus the synagogue leaders house. Jairus’ daughter has died. But Jesus brings her back to life. He gives her her life back.

Who else could give her that but God?

Who else could give us that but him?

I’m not saying everything in our lives will miraculously get better. I’m saying Jesus sees us, saves us and restores us. In the middle of our mess, Jesus restores us. And we follow. We follow because he saved us first. He loved us first.

When you feel exhausted and disappointed and frustrated and hurt and betrayed and confused, when the rest of the world feels relentlessly difficult, the one safe place we have is in him. We are cleansed in him. We are perfected in him. We can find our peace in him.

 

* https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/acc/mark-5.html

This blog is a stand alone piece but it is also part of a weekly online bible study. If you have missed any or would like to reference back to the beginning, the links are below:

  1. Week 1: “Who do you say I am”. Introduction to the gospel
  2. Week 2: The Beginning. Mark 1:1-20
  3. Week 3: The Who, the what and the why. Mark 1:21-45
  4. Week 4: Jesus didn’t come for the super-religious. He came for you. Mark 2:1-17
  5. Week 5: There is nothing you can do to start – or stop – God’s plan. Mark 2:18-28
  6. Week 6: Jesus wasn’t the man they wanted him to be. Mark 3:1-12
  7. Week 7: Jesus made us a new family – does church really feel like that? Mark 3:13-35
  8. Week 8: Is fruitfulness something we do or something we are to be? (Mark 4:1-20)
  9. Week 9: What will the kingdom of God be like? (Mark 4:21-34)
  10. Week 10: Jesus goes out of his way to specifically find you (Mark 4:35-5:20)

 

 

Jesus goes out of his way to specifically find you (Mark 4:35-5:20)

Sometimes to me, the concept of “Jesus loves you” can feel a bit impersonal. It’s not an impersonal concept of course, but there can be something in us that stops us from thinking it applies individually and personally to ourselves. We might understand it intellectually – I understand that Jesus loves us as a group, enough to die for us even. But I find it harder to apply the concept to myself personally. Jesus loves me? With all my issues and sins and general losing-at-lifeness?

If this is you too, I feel you. I know it because the Bible tells me. But I find it hard to believe it because I know me.

But what today’s Bible passage shows us, is not someone telling us that Jesus loves us. It’s Jesus showing us he loves us – and specifically seeks people out, even in all their worst kind of mess.

In Mark 4:35, after teaching the crowds on the kingdom of God, Jesus says “Let’s go over to the other side.” That is, he wants them to cross the Sea of Galilee and go to the Decapolis, a series of 10 towns in what was a Gentile area. When a violent storm erupts, the disciples are terrified and Jesus sleeps soundly. They wake him and he calms the storm with a word.

Once he was rebuked the storm, Jesus turns and rebukes the disciples. “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?

I find this very challenging. Because I fear a lot. I fear for a million things over my kids. I fear not having enough money to pay all the bills. I fear making mistakes at work.

What Jesus says is that the disciples fear is evidence of a lack of faith. If they understood who he was, they would not fear. The disciples do not yet fully understand who Jesus is, and Mark uses this to great effect as a literary device to bring the reader along the same journey. The way the disciples pose the question “who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” places the reader in their shoes so they too are asking the same question.

Of course only God rules the waves. In Psalm 89:9 it says “You rule over the surging sea; when its waves mount up, you still them.” It’s similar to the the Pharisees having asked “who has the authority to forgive sins but God alone?” when Jesus interacted with the paralysed man. So the reader is starting to get it, even if the disciples are a still a bit slow.

For me though, I need to re-remember who Jesus is – because I do know, and yet I still fear. Fear is very natural, and it’s not as though we’re not supposed to fear. But for us, fear should be a prompt to take things to God. Mental note to self: when I feel the fear, don’t start furiously plotting and planning and organising. Take it to God.

When they get to the other side, they are at a cemetery and a man possessed by demons comes to meet them. This figure is one of the most tragic in the whole Bible. He had been bound hand and foot with chains, but in his demented state had torn them off. Can you imagine? So tormented that he had actually torn iron shackles from himself. He must have been covered in cuts and scratches and blood and dirt. He was so anguished that at night he would cry out and self-harm, cutting himself with stones.

He sounds terrifying and tragic. If I saw him on the street – a drunken crazed man covered in cuts, I would avoid him and get away as quickly as possible. Everything about this man should have made any Jew run a mile – he is demented, he’s a gentile, he lives among the dead and he is covered in blood. Jews are not supposed to associate with Gentiles. Blood and death make Jews ritually unclean. And yet Jesus has specifically gone to find this man. How do we know this? Because they broke away from teaching the crowd to come here, and when Jesus has healed the man, they get back in the boat and go back (5:21). Which means Jesus had done what he went there to do. Which means that Jesus specifically went there to find and heal this man, and then leave again.

This isn’t me being told Jesus seeks out individuals. This shows me.

This shows me he has and will come specifically to find me where I am. It shows me that in all my mess, in all the things in my life that I see as unclean, impure, messy, shameful and embarrassing Jesus will walk through them to save me. To save me.

I need to remember that Jesus is that personal. I need to remember that he is that powerful. I am his and he is mine and when I fear, I am lacking in faith in who he is. When I fear (which I will) I need to remember who he is and the power he has. He has the power to calm the wind and the waves. He has the power to calm me and my fearful heart.

I need to practice this so the trigger to turn to God (instead of relying on my own ability to overcome the fear with planning and organising things) becomes instinctive. This is a part of the process of growing as a disciple of Jesus. It is part of re-visiting who Jesus is and what he came to do through Bible studies like this. I must always keep reminding myself that God is far bigger than I imagine him and far more personal.

Huge and transcendent, and yet close and personal.

Everywhere for eternity and yet close by my side.

Loudly present in our world, and yet quiet and still in my heart.

This is who Jesus is. This is our God. And this is who came to find us, personally and individually. This is the God who specifically sought you out.

This blog is a stand alone piece but it is also part of a weekly online bible study. If you have missed any or would like to reference back to the beginning, the links are below:

  1. Week 1: “Who do you say I am”. Introduction to the gospel
  2. Week 2: The Beginning. Mark 1:1-20
  3. Week 3: The Who, the what and the why. Mark 1:21-45
  4. Week 4: Jesus didn’t come for the super-religious. He came for you. Mark 2:1-17
  5. Week 5: There is nothing you can do to start – or stop – God’s plan. Mark 2:18-28
  6. Week 6: Jesus wasn’t the man they wanted him to be. Mark 3:1-12
  7. Week 7: Jesus made us a new family – does church really feel like that? Mark 3:13-35
  8. Week 8: Is fruitfulness something we do or something we are to be? (Mark 4:1-20)
  9. Week 9: What will the kingdom of God be like? (Mark 4:21-34)

What will the “kingdom of God” be like? (Mark 4:21-34)

I like to think about what heaven will look like. Partially that’s because my kids ask me, and partially it’s because when I’m really tired – like, really tired – I like to imagine what it will be like when there is perfect rest and peace. I’ve written about this before (you can read “Praying for peace when you can’t even finish this sentence” here). This is a very human approach though – I’m tired, what will heaven be like? That is not really the question that Jesus answers though.

Jesus, in this passage, gives four parables that specifically describe the kingdom of God. And they don’t answer the question I have. Jesus however, does provide answers.

The first parable is the Parable of the Lamp: “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand? For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open.” (Mark 4:21-22)

A lamp is to bring light. The kingdom, the gospel, is not meant to be hidden. In addition, there is an ambiguity in the Greek grammar and what has been translated “whatever is concealed” is more correctly “whatever was concealed”. If this is the case, what this parable describes is the kingdom (in Jesus) is now being brought into the open in these parables.

The second is the analogy of the Measure: “Consider carefully what you hear,” he continued. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” (vv 24-25)

The easy way of saying this is that you reap what you sow. If you listen openly and eagerly, Jesus’ teaching will provide enormous insight. For those who listen with hardened hearts, they will hear but not understand. To this we’ll return.

The third is the parable of the Growing Seed: “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.” (vv 26-29)

Just because every day seems the same, doesn’t mean the kingdom isn’t growing. But if they are complacent, the harvest when it comes will be a surprise. We must know that the kingdom is growing – and that at some point judgement will come. We must be aware and ready and help others be ready too.

The fourth is the parable of the Mustard Seed: “It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.” (vv 31-32)

This final of the four images shows us the kingdom growing disproportionately to its small beginnings. In this, we see God’s sovereignty clearly at work.

So when we wonder “what is the kingdom of God like?”, the answer is, from this passage:

  • It is a light, meant to illuminate;
  • It is to be revealed, and so we need to listen expectantly and responsively;
  • Once sown, it keeps growing, slowly but surely – and there will be a last day of harvest/judgement;
  • The kingdom will be enormous and disproportionate to its small beginnings.

On the face of it, this could seem disappointing. I want to know whether the kingdom looks like its in a nice rural setting or by the sea, and if everyone I know will be there. But I don’t need to know that. I need to know what Jesus is telling me. I need to know that the kingdom is the light by which the rest of the world can be seen. I need to know that I need to listen in great measure, because great measure will be given to me. I need to remember that there will be a last day, even though every day seems the same and I need to look to explosive and inexorable growth of this kingdom to remind me of God’s unstoppable power.

But lets talk about having ears to hear. Jesus repeats this in Mark 4:9 and again in 4:23 saying “let them hear”. And yet, he had also said in Mark 4:11-12 (quoting Isaiah 6):

The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, “‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”

Why speak in parables? Doesn’t Jesus want people to be able to immediately understand the gospel?

As Mark L. Strauss says in his commentary, the clauses and grammar in the Greek “makes this passage one of the most difficult in the NT, since Jesus appears to be saying that he teaches in parables in order to blind the eyes of the listeners.” (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Mark, 2014, p184). In exploring the many possible interpretations, Strauss settles on a negative function. In Isaiah chapters 5 and 6, God uses the unbelief of the Israelites to accomplish his judgement. Through an allegory of a vineyard, Isaiah relays God’s warning of pending judgement and describes that the prophesy will fall on deaf ears – because his judgement is set. In this way, says Strauss “He will use their rejection to accomplish his sovereign purpose.” just as he did with Moses’ Pharoah and others throughout scripture. So Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah specifically links what he is saying to a time when God was visiting judgement on his people.

What that means here is that on one hand, parables are easy to remember for those with ears to hear. For others, their hardened hearts are the very thing that God will use against them for their judgement. This is hard teaching. It shows us that Jesus’ arrival, while a sign that the new age has come, is also an instrument of judgement – those who will hear and believe, and those who will reject him. The wheat and the chaff. As Jesus is quoted in Matthew 7:13-14 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

BUT we don’t know who is chosen. We don’t know who is predestined. We don’t know what soil people are. We don’t know which road and which gate they will go through. So we can only be faithful and obedient. We follow Jesus. We grow in our discipleship. We remember what Jesus tells us about the kingdom – not what we want to know. Because the kingdom will be enormous, and provide us all with a place to rest and nest in the shade.

I feel comforted just hearing that.

The other stuff? That makes me feel queasy. The whole hardened hearts as an instrument of people’s judgement thing. But I think that sense of unease is a prompt to act. Because if we don’t know people’s destination, but we know it is one of two places, it gives us a sense of urgency in our interactions with others. It compels us, in obedience, and knowing there will be a harvest, to live authentically to our beliefs. This should show in our words and our behaviours as our hearts and minds are shaped by Jesus’ teaching. I find these passages hard. But they give me a boost to avoid being complacent as a Christian.

We cannot be sleepy in our faith.

This blog is a stand alone piece but it is also part of a weekly online bible study. If you have missed any or would like to reference back to the beginning, the links are below:

  1. Week 1: “Who do you say I am”. Introduction to the gospel
  2. Week 2: The Beginning. Mark 1:1-20
  3. Week 3: The Who, the what and the why. Mark 1:21-45
  4. Week 4: Jesus didn’t come for the super-religious. He came for you. Mark 2:1-17
  5. Week 5: There is nothing you can do to start – or stop – God’s plan. Mark 2:18-28
  6. Week 6: Jesus wasn’t the man they wanted him to be. Mark 3:1-12
  7. Week 7: Jesus made us a new family – does church really feel like that? Mark 3:13-35
  8. Week 8: Is fruitfulness something we do or something we are to be? (Mark 4:1-20)

Is fruitfulness something we do, or something we are to be? (Mark 4:1-20)

We humans love secrets. Secrets form the basis of most click-bait on the internet. We love whats new and novel, we love to be in the know. But only to a certain point it seems. If it’s a secret that means we know what others don’t, we can’t wait to hear it. If it’s a secret that means we have activities and obligations, suddenly everybody is backing away and not making eye contact.

I know I get nervous when I sense I’m getting myself into something that’s going to require my time and effort. Life is full. Like, it’s FULL. I work full time, I’m a single mum, I’m studying part time, oh, and I’m a blogger. Anything else? Nope. Nope. Nope.

I don’t think I’m alone in this and I certainly don’t have a monopoly on having a full life. We have learned to fill the gaps in our lives with stuff. Work, overtime, kids, pets, sports, housework, caring for older family members, second jobs….the list of things we can fill our time with is endless. So when we sense an obligation coming, our hearts sink. Even in our church life we can get “full up” – Bible study, pastoral care, making a meal for that friend who’s having a hard week, checking in on people, church events, prayer triplets….. There can be so much church “stuff” that this can feel overwhelmingly like a chore too.

Jesus himself said that we should be fruitful. This statement in enmeshed with the “secret of the kingdom of God”. Ohh a secret! Oh. Fruitfulness. <heart sinks>

But are these chores and time fillers what Jesus meant by fruitfulness? Is it something we’re supposed to do?

Let’s start with the secret of the kingdom of God. What is the secret? Strangely, the secret is the Parable of the Sower. You may know this parable:

A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.” (Mark 4:3-8)

It’s one of those parables we hear heaps and so tend to skip over. It can also be taken out of context. So lets get back to basics and see what it’s really saying. The “seed” is the word of the gospel. The “soil” Jesus described are four different receptions to the gospel:

  1. For some, when they hear the gospel, it doesn’t even get planted. The seed falls by the wayside and doesn’t take root at all. So we have some who hear the gospel and reject it.
  2. For others, the gospel initially finds reception. But it seems when things get tough and the seed is put under pressure, the roots are not deep enough to withstand the heat.
  3. For others, the seed falls on soil that is choked with weeds and thorns. This means the gospel never has a chance to really go down deep. The seed is planted it seems, but never bears fruit.
  4. Finally, some seed is thrown on good soil. The result is fruitfulness disproportionate to the number of seed.

There are several pointers and questions in here. First, the seed is thrown out in abundance. It is not carefully planted one by one. It is cast out liberally across all ,and any soil types. Does that mean the “soil type” is up to us? Do we have to be the right soil type to hear God’s word? I don’t think this is the point of the parable but it is worth a quick excursus to explore this point.

It is not incumbent on us have the right kind of heart. God prepares the way, and just because he foreknows who will be receptive, doesn’t mean he doesn’t cast out the seed for everyone.

However, when the word is cast out, we rely on godly teachers to help us make sense of it. This is why ministers are held to so much of a higher standard (see James 3:1). We need our ministers to help us appreciate the gospel so it can go deeper into our hearts. So we can read it, understand it, meditate on it, prayer about it, apply to our lives and be discerning and wise about it. Without this help, our roots are shallow and we are at spiritual risk.

In addition, there are two things at play here: Faith and Fruitfulness. Faith is where the seed takes root (Soils 3 and 4) but fruitfulness is where the good soil provides an environment for faith to bloom and replicate the seed (Soil 4). What the parable implies is that it is this good soil that is our goal. Truly good faith will produce fruitfulness.

Does this mean we have “stuff to do”? Yes and no. If we have received the gospel and the roots have gone down deep, fruitfulness will come from a response of the heart. Like a knee-jerk reflex. When the patella is tapped, the knee flinches. It’s a direct connection and is a reflex – not a conscious decision. What we aim for in our discipleship is this kind of reflex. We see a need, and our hearts are so gospel aligned, that our response is unconscious and immediate.

So yes, it is stuff we do. We care, we pastor, we speak, we pray and we throw out our own seeds.

But also no. It is not stuff we do, it is something that we are. By being gospel aligned, our hearts change. Our hearts determine what words we speak and how we behave. It’s what makes us look different. So our fruitfulness also comes from just who we are.

But this is the secret to the kingdom of God (Mark 4:11) and it has been given to us. so what are we to do with this?

First, we cannot know for sure what kind of soil we are (or were when we heard the gospel). We can pray that we are good soil. We can pray for God’s help in the Spirit to be good soil. But one marker of our soil is our fruitfulness.

How can we tell if we are fruitful? By our lives and by our deeds. Does your life look different to the world? For example, do you notice that you swear less than the non-Christian people around you? Is what you read, listen to and look at different to the rest of the world? Are you boundaries different? Do you pray? Do you self-reflect? Do you repent? If the answer to any or all of these is Yes, you are guarding your heart and the difference will show in your attitudes and behaviors. It will show in the choices you make and in how you conduct your life.

And it will show in your deeds. Do you give have a spirit of generosity? Do you give to your church and to missions? Do you give to charities and support causes? Do you give of your time and of yourself to support people around you? Do you open your home to fellowship with people? Do you share words of the gospel as you can, among those you meet? Deeds are an integral part of the faith – not as a means of salvation (which we already have) but as evidence of our faith. James talks about this, explaining that our deeds will be a product of a changed heart (cf. James 2:14-26).

What gets in the way of doing this? Jesus himself tells us what faithful but unfruitful soil looks like:

Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.” (Mark 4:18-19)

We don’t know if this is the soil we were when we heard the gospel. But we can work now to ensure we are avoiding and reducing the worries of this life and chasing wealth and other things that we tend to idolise. This means we must remain self-reflective and we must remain vigilant of our hearts. This doesn’t mean being Puritanical. For example, we don’t have to hate money and fun. We just need to be wise and intentional in how we approach them. It’s not bad or ungodly to want or to make money. Idolising it and letting it rule our lives is.

Similarly, in looking at what soil we were/are, we can’t know or assume what “soil” other people are as we share our lives and the gospel with them. Remember, the sower threw out his seeds liberally on all soil types. He didn’t select the right soil and focus on that. We must not make that mistake. We must throw out the seeds of the gospel liberally, making no assumptions as to its reception. Part of our fruitfulness is obedience. In obedience, we throw out our seeds – whether that be direct expressions of the gospel, or servant evangelism, or living by Christian example – even blogging.

That’s the extent of our job. We don’t judge the reception. We just throw out the seeds. Let’s face it. If our soil type was judged before we received, none of us might be here.

This blog is a stand alone piece but it is also part of a weekly online bible study. If you have missed any or would like to reference back to the beginning, the links are below:

  1. Week 1: “Who do you say I am”. Introduction to the gospel
  2. Week 2: The Beginning. Mark 1:1-20
  3. Week 3: The Who, the what and the why. Mark 1:21-45
  4. Week 4: Jesus didn’t come for the super-religious. He came for you. Mark 2:1-17
  5. Week 5: There is nothing you can do to start – or stop – God’s plan. Mark 2:18-28
  6. Week 6: Jesus wasn’t the man they wanted him to be. Mark 3:1-12
  7. Week 7: Jesus made us a new family – does church really feel like that? Mark 3:13-35

Jesus made us a new family – Does church really feel like that? (Mark 3:13-35)

Churches can be like an old fashioned village. Small, parochial, cliquey. Alternately, they can work like a well-oiled machine. Or, there can be different political “factions” that oppose each other over everything from church finances to how the biscuits should be put out at morning tea. They can be hubs of support and love and care. And they can be enclaves of grumbling and toxicity.

What we forget among the brokenness, and even among the awesomeness, is that our church is supposed to be our family. We say it, of course, but do we really know what it means? What did it mean in the early church – for those who knew Jesus? And what did Jesus mean it to be?

In the early church they were suspected and accused of immorality and incest because their doctrine was love and they called each other “brother” and “sister”. A second century document outlines a mock debate that discusses the principle charges. In response to “we also hear that you meet in secret, even before sunrise, and the gross immorality that we hear goes on in those places is repulsive — especially the incest.

The second party says: “If you came to one of our meetings you would find that the lovemaking and intimacy you are so quick to imagine is of a totally different nature. We meet before sunrise because we are working people. We have jobs to go to. We do not always meet in secret, but we have no temples or synagogues, so we use somebody’s home which has enough room. We call one another brother and sister and pledge to love one another because that is what our Lord commanded us to do. And we greet one another and bless one another with a holy kiss, not out of lust but out of genuine love and concern for one another. Come and you will see that we demand the highest standards of morality among all who join us.

Source: https://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1-300/why-early-christians-were-despised-11629610.html

The concept of “family” for the Israelites centred on the household – that is, the immediate family, extended family and slaves and servants. All these made up the household. Outwards from this centre was the clan, which could refer to a group of households tied by kinship. Outwards from this orbit was the tribe, which included multiple clans within one of the 12 tribes of Israel. Each circle was bonded by close ties of kinship, patronage and obligation. We see this working throughout The Old Testament – Boaz was a kinsman redeemer to Ruth, under Jewish rules of kinship and obligation for example.

What we see in Mark 3:13-35 is a series of scenes:

  • 3:13-19 Jesus calls the 12
  • 3:20-21 Jesus’ family Part 1
    • 3:22-30 Conflict with the Pharisees
  • 3:31-35 Jesus’ family Part 2

The order of events is important here. In the calling of the 12, Jesus draws his “family” to him – and they are chosen. And, they include the one who will betray him. Jesus knows this when he calls him. I find that staggering. As God, Jesus knew this. As a man, I really feel for him. Imagine picking the people who you would work with forever, and included is the person who you knew for a fact would stab you in the back. How would you go interacting with them, working with them, loving them, knowing that they would do that to you?

Anyway, it’s significant that Jesus calls 12 – an embryonic new Israel, representative of a new covenant.

Next comes what is known as a “Markan sandwich” – its a literary device where Mark starts a story, then puts in another one, and then finishes the first story afterwards. So a meat in between two bits of bread if you will. Its a literary device but it has a purpose in bringing to light something the author wants us to see, so lets dig deeper.

In the first scene, we see “Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat.  When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”

Just as his own family say that Jesus is out of his mind, we switch to a scene in which the Pharisees – the leaders of Jesus’ Jewish “family” – say that he is possessed by Beelzebub. But what is it about this conflict with the Pharisees that provides the key to interpreting the “Markan sandwich” literary device?

The Pharisees say he is nuts because he is driving out demons in the name of Beelzebub. Note that they don’t disagree that Jesus is driving out demons – he seems to be doing this pretty successfully. They are arguing about in who’s name Jesus is doing it. That is remarkable. The miracles are real. They just argue about the authority behind them.

Jesus, by way of explanation, gives two responses. The first is “How can Satan drive out Satan?” and the second is “no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house.” The former says basically, how can you have a civil war with both parties on the same side? They would just be killing each other for no reason and with no winner. So what the Pharisees are saying makes no sense. They are saying the spirits are from the devil and Jesus’s authority comes from the devil. Nope. No sense.

In the latter response, Jesus gives more. He is saying that something or someone has already gone ahead of him and tied up the strong man. Then the house can be robbed. So he’s saying that the devil has already been tied up and then Jesus can complete the work of casting him out. The devil has already been defeated! But what Jesus says next is truly astonishing.

“Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.”

What does blasphemy against the Spirit mean? Many conflate this with “taking the Lord’s name in vain” which minimises this statement to a slip of the tongue. In the context of what Jesus is saying here though, blaspheming against the Spirit is a rejection or a refusal to acknowledge the existence and work of the Spirit in people’s hearts and minds. The devil is defeated by the work of our triune God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To deny the Spirit, is to deny the Father – which is the eternal sin.

From here we go back to Jesus’ immediate family. Jesus’ mother and brothers had arrived. In Mark 6:3 his brothers are identified as James, Joseph, Judas and Simon. James, it should be noted, was not one of the disciples, but later became the leader of the church in Jerusalem and was martyred in the early 60s AD. At this point however, James and Mary and the rest of the family, were definitely not acolytes.

Both Jesus’ immediate family, and religious family, say he is out of his mind. This whole scene started with Jesus choosing the new representatives of the new covenant. And ends with his assertion that all those who do the will of God are his family. Again, this “family” includes Judas – his betrayer – and I’ll bet it includes all manner of other great people, boring people, annoying people, nice people and awesome people. They are not a group of shiny holy Christians surrounded by doves and soft lighting. They are the family of God, joined together in Jesus. This is the point of the Markan sandwich – showing the ties that bond the family of God outweigh the earthly ties of our other circles. This is a new society, a new covenant, a new age.

If we look around our churches, do they feel like family? Bearing in mind, that our church family is similarly not meant to be a perfect soft-lighting tableau either, but a rag-tag mixed bag of the good and the bad and the faintly annoying. BUT they ARE our family. We are bonded to them by Jesus – a source stronger and more profound than any other. And we will be with them in heaven.

This can be difficult, especially for those whose churches and ministers have disappointed them. I have no answer for that, and, in love, I pray everyone finds their home in a church that will love you exactly how you are and where you’re at.

But hurts meted out to us by the church or those who lead it, cannot drown out the scriptures. And Jesus says clearly that those who do the will if God are his family. However, in this Jesus is not abolishing his earthly family. He is however, establishing his church family along lines that would have been shocking at the time. The assembled “family” was not drawn along kinship or household lines, it was open to Jew and Gentile, any race and gender, and even cut across hierarchical lines. This is a new family whose primary allegiance was to God and whose citizenship was in heaven.

This includes us.

All who do God’s will are in Jesus’ family. That includes you. And what is God’s will? Go to Matthew 22:36-40 and Micah 6:8 which Jesus paraphrases in Mathew 23:23. Look at them. Meditate on them. Pray about them. They are not how you get into Jesus’ family – you’re already in it. These are the bedrock of our discipleship. These are the foundations of our familial obligations.

Look afresh at your church. They are you’re family. And look to your discipleship. Maybe it needs a kick start. Maybe it’s something to share with your Christian family. But above all, know that you are already in Jesus’ family. When he said “whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” he was talking about you.

This blog is a stand alone piece but it is also part of a weekly online bible study. If you have missed any or would like to reference back to the beginning, the links are below:

  1. Week 1: “Who do you say I am”. Introduction to the gospel
  2. Week 2: The Beginning. Mark 1:1-20
  3. Week 3: The Who, the what and the why. Mark 1:21-45
  4. Week 4: Jesus didn’t come for the super-religious. He came for you. Mark 2:1-17
  5. Week 5: There is nothing you can do to start – or stop – God’s plan. Mark 2:18-28
  6. Week 6: Jesus wasn’t the man they wanted him to be. Mark 3:1-12