Category: Church

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)

Why I don’t know what to think this week

A while back I wrote a blog about how the world throws up big issues and there are generally two extreme camps and the rest of us in the middle. In these situations, the extremes throw rocks at each other for a while and social media makes the entrenchment of each position more stark and vitriolic. The rest of us sit in the middle looking at each side and wondering how to make sense of it.

This week is no exception.

Big things have been happening in New South Wales this week. On 8th August, the Reproductive Healthcare Reform bill passed the lower house with 59 votes to 31. This bill makes abortion legal upon request up to 22 weeks. Past this point, the consent of two doctors is required but abortion is available up to birth. If you want to read the bill itself, I highly recommend it – it’s far better to read the original rather than summaries on Facebook. You can access it here. It still has to make it through the upper house but this is as it stands at the moment with a few minor amendments.

Here’s why I don’t know what to think.

I am hugely grateful that I have never had to go through the kind of decision making process required to choose to have an abortion. I cannot imagine what it must be like. It would be easy for me to think “Oh, I would never do that.” But I have never been raped and fallen pregnant. I have never discovered that my unborn child has such extreme medical issues that they would face death imminently after birth, or have no quality of life (no physical or brain function). I have never been diagnosed with a medical issue that would mean going to full term pregnancy would be a serious threat to my life.

I have never been alone in a foreign country and placed under pressure to terminate. I have never been in the kind of violently abusive relationship that places some women in fear of their lives if their medical condition were revealed.

At the same time, I have never faced an unplanned pregnancy. I have never had to look to abortion as a way that could solve the problems a pregnancy presents to me.

People often go to the extremes to prove the “norm”. But what is the norm when it comes to abortion? Some portray the scenario as women choosing abortion frivolously. Some portray the scenario as choosing abortion because they are women facing death.

Of course the answer is that there is no norm. People’s reason for abortion is far too diverse and nuanced.

Me personally? I wish that nobody had to have an abortion. I wish that people didn’t even have to make that choice. In that sense, as a Christian, as a woman, as a humanitarian, I am pro-baby. But I also recognise that people do and will make this choice – for whatever reason – and so having access to safe health care is a must. To not have access to safe healthcare would take us back to the horrific days of the backstreet abortionist. Thousands of women sought terminations in this way in the UK before eventual de-criminalisation in 1967, and far too many were rendered infertile or died because of the effects. So in this sense, I am pro-woman.

(I do not want to use the terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice” because they are such heavily loaded terms and I don’t think they are helpful. I think the baggage they bring weighs down the debate and takes us to extremes when we need to think and talk lovingly about this deeply personal issue.)

What troubles me most about the recent debates around the Reproductive Healthcare Reform bill is our apparent ability to sustain antinomy. An antinomy is a paradox – holding two things that are entirely contradictory in perfect balance as though they are both true.

Here’s the issue:

Society talks about abortion being a part of women’s rights. But these rights only extend to the mother, and not the girl-child – how can both be right? Before now, we (the west) have rallied against developing countries for the “heinous crime” and “social evil” of female infanticide and feticide and sex-selective abortion (as an example, see this piece from last year from Save the Children India).

In fact, one of the amendments proposed by Tanya Davies MP for the Reproductive Healthcare Reform bill was that “if a live child is born, the child must be given the same neonatal care as would be given to any other child born at the same stage of pregnancy and in the same medical condition.” (Hansard, NSW Legislative Assembly Thursday 8th August p21).

We should be clear here. Currently there is an obligation on medical professionals to render care to a live-born foetus so this amendment would not change Current practice. However, I think a lot of us would have been way more comfortable if this had been enshrined in this reform bill.

This amendment was rejected though because it was one of four sub-parts of an amendment that sought to limit the places where an abortion could occur (in a hospital with a neonatal intensive care unit) and would limit the access to late term abortion unless on the grounds of necessity to save the life of the mother or the baby.

The other sub-part of that amendment would have meant that if the foetus was compatible with life, that the same neonatal care be provided as any other child at the same stage of life. I think (although I am a Bear of Little Brain) that means that the child would necessarily be delivered by natural birth or by C-section (as any other child at that stage would) rather than a termination procedure. I don’t know enough about the differences in procedures to comment but what makes me nervous here is that one is treated as a child and the other is not – and not because one is more medically viable than the other.

Tanya Davies also proposed an amendment that “Termination not to be used for gender selection. Despite anything else in this Act or any other law, a medical practitioner may not perform a termination on a person – (a) for the purpose of gender selection, or (b) if the medical practitioner reasonably believes the termination is being performed for the purpose of gender selection.” (Ibid, p87)

This amendment was also rejected.

So the very “heinous crime” Save the Children is trying to stop in India (and UNICEF and hundreds of other charitable organisations) will be permissible under law in Australia.

I know many will argue that “Australia is not the same”. I know. There is nuance and there is hundreds of years of cultural differences that culminate in a very different set of circumstances. BUT I genuinely don’t understand how an amendment to enshrine life giving care to a live baby, and to prevent abortions on the basis of gender selection could be rejected. Pro-woman access to safe healthcare is one thing. These amendments have nothing to do with that. And I am just lost for words as to why we, as a society and our parliament on our behalf, would think this is OK?

Which leads to the second antinomy.

On 9th August – the very morning after the parliamentary debates on abortion – an article appeared that described the new mission to reduce stillbirth rates. Obviously this is very different to abortion (but no less personal). But the rates of stillbirth are still so alarming that the medical professional in the piece notes that “Its time to act.” And this the very day after the Reproductive Healthcare Reform bill rejects amendments that would potentially save more babies.

Similarly, the Crimes Amendment (Zoe’s Law) Bill 2017 was introduced in March 2017 after a woman (Brodie Donegan) was hit by a car while 32 weeks pregnant, after which the pre-born baby died. The long title of the Bill was “An Act to amend the Crimes Act 1900 to prohibit conduct that causes serious harm to or the destruction of a child in utero; and for other purposes.” and it included a clause that the Bill not apply to any harm done during a medical procedure (ie an abortion). (You can read the Bill here and the Second Reading speech here). This bill never made it to law.

What makes me very queasy in all this is that what has become apparent is that a child does not have intrinsic value in and of themselves. Their value lies in whether they are wanted or not. A child killed in utero in a hit and run is horrific and wrong. A child lost to miscarriage or stillbirth is agonising and tragic. A child aborted by gender selection and a child dying after being aborted alive……

The only difference is whether the child was wanted or not. And having that as the moral line that distinguishes our political decisions, our cultural bias and our law making makes me want to cry and vomit at the same time.

I am not talking about the access to safe healthcare. I am not talking about the woman who is being forced into it by a violent partner. I am not talking about the parents who have to make the agonising decision after being told their baby cannot live.

For me, this debate has not come down to the provision of abortion, it has come down to what we, as a society, accepts as morally right. Its about what has been exposed in the rejection of amendments that I would have thought would be a no-brainer. Its about our moral pendulum swinging where it is convenient for us.

And its about how we no longer seem to look at alternatives.

I feel odd about abortion up to 22 weeks (the amendments wanted to cap this at 20 weeks) but I can understand why medical practitioners have pushed for it. The kinds of serious medical issues that might show up, are often only picked up at the second scan had at 18 or 19 weeks. This means that if they are placed in that decision-making position, the parents would potentially have to make that choice in the space of a week. That is an extreme mental and emotional load to place on a shocked and probably grieving couple. There is not enough time to think through the implications. There is not enough time to think through the possibilities and the opportunities. There isn’t enough time to explore all the options. There isn’t enough time to access an unplanned pregnancy support centre.

For me, these centres, such a Diamond Women’s Support, help the mother look at all those options. They support and counsel. They help to remove roadblocks and barriers to having the child and, if the mother decides to go ahead with an abortion, they support her for a full year afterwards with counselling, because they know that an abortion is a trauma that needs to be processed and the woman herself needs to feel loved, valued, supported, listened to and understood. They are wonderfully pro-woman and pro-baby.

And this for me, is the middle ground. I see the nuance. I see that this is deeply profound for all of us (not just women). I see the medical needs. I also see that it is possible to become myopic in our views. It troubles me that “more time” could mean “More time to decide to have an abortion” as though its the only viable option and is a foregone conclusion – because this is where our cultural bias ultimately leads us. “More time” doesn’t necessarily mean “More time to evaluate all the options and seek support”. And this is where I feel like we need to pull the pendulum back.

As godly people, I want to support women and support babies. I also want to glorify my God and support the church. Which means entering the debate with love and respect and grace. It means knowing its OK to air how I feel about this and encouraging my sisters and brothers to know their feelings and views are valid and valued. It means supporting centres like Diamond Women’s Support so they can go on supporting women who are in this position.

But I believe that children, men, women – all humans – have intrinsic value. All are worthy of love and grace. If we believe that, then we should act accordingly. That’s the only thing I think, and know, this week with any clarity.

 

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

“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.