Tag: Theology

How anxiety can interfere with your relationship with God

Anxiety can manifest in different ways. A particular brand is a fear of people thinking badly of us. This can manifest as people-pleasing, mulling and stewing over things we should have done or shouldn’t have done and things we did say, didn’t say, how people will have taken things we did or didn’t say, or did/didn’t do or how they might have misinterpreted our facial expressions, messages and body language or how they might have disliked or disagreed with things we said or posted on social media.

You’d think the one place we could feel safe is with God, right? Wrong. Because there is a difference between what we intellectually know and what we believe to be true.

We know what we are supposed to think. We know what we are supposed to feel. And yet, when life is throwing us curve balls, it would be very easy to think its because we had displeased God.

Recently, life has thrown me some flaming missiles that felt like I was being dive bombed by enemy aircraft in an old war movie. Last year, I felt God’s blessing and providence palpably. I could see it in the many problems that were solved out of thin air. I saw it in the thousand kindnesses from random friends and strangers. My recent experience was the exact opposite. Unexpected bills out of nowhere – lots of them, and big ones. Things that were unjust and unfair all crowding in, heap on heap.

The result was tears and sleeplessness and a feeling that I had displeased God. Was I not faithful enough? Was I not obedient enough? Had he removed his blessing and providence? I don’t mean salvation – I know nothing will remove that. But I was left with this feeling that I had made God unhappy with me and so he had removed his providential blessings.

I know what you’re thinking. Of course that’s not the case. But let me talk you through the “logic”.

Last year I praised God for his providence and how he was heaping blessings on me in abundance. They came thick and fast. The timing was unfathomable. I knew they were from him. So this year, when tribulations came at the same rate and with similar conspicuous timing, I had to think these were also from him.

If blessings were from God, then the tribulations must also be from him. If the tribulations were just a product of a fallen world, then the blessings had to similarly just be coincidence. We can’t claim one and ignore the other. So, for the anxious person, if we are given blessings, then we are pleasing to God, and, if tribulations follow, then we are doing something to displease him.

What we need to unpick here is the logic.

I assume I have done something to deserve the tribulations – that I have displeased God somehow. But the truth is that tribulations are not deserved. Just in the same way that blessings are not deserved. No blessing is deserved but God is gracious to the humble – James quotes Proverbs when he says “But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.”” (James 4:6)

Does that mean I have been overly proud?? That takes me back into that anxiety loop about things deserved.

What I realised is that my brain was doing the same somersaults that Job’s was doing. Job says to his wife (who is telling Job to curse God for the tribulations that have befallen him) “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:10)

Throughout Job, his friends keep telling him that he must have sinned and that’s why God is visiting these tribulations on him. Job stays faithful by refusing to pay religious lip service – what his friends are basically telling him is to sacrifice for atonement on the off chance he’s done something. That’s not a heart thing. That’s an outward show of religion.

Of course what we know is that the book of Job is about whether a righteous man will stay faithful during the bad times as he stays faithful in the good times. I am not comparing our situations – I  am not suggesting that God and Satan are fighting over me in a spiritual courtroom. What I am reminded though, is that when tribulations come, I am focused on me and what I might have done wrong. While it is wise and correct to self-reflect and assess my motivations for things, it is not wise to be so focused (in my anxiety) on my own deficiencies and how they make me displeasing to God.

This over-emphasised self-focus is, itself, sinful. I know that sounds harsh. But thinking I am deficient and not pleasing to God assumes I know what is in God’s mind. I don’t. It assumes I know how he sees me – the only thing I know about how he sees me is that he loved me so much that he sent his only son to die for me. Outside of that, I am speculating.

So putting aside what I believe to be true (that I am deficient and God is displeased with me), what do I know?

I know that no blessings are deserved. That is not something to be anxious about. That is just a fact and there is no moral judgement in it.

Despite none of us deserving blessing, I know that God is gracious to us – not because we are pleasing to him but because he delights in it.

While God is gracious to the humble, his blessing is not a reward for good behavior, it is because it glorifies him. When he blesses us, we praise him and others can see his work in our lives.

So, what I also know is that on that level, this is not about me. This is about him.

So, if this is about him – when these things happen, I need to re-work the logic and remember to stop thinking about myself (especially in such a negative way). When I have re-worked the logic, I need to self-reflect a bit more dispassionately on my motivations to see if there’s anything I genuinely need to repent of. Then I need to re-focus back to God again and pray in Jesus’ name to help me and deliver me.

Our faith needs to stay in God, not the blessing. Because if too much of our faith is in God’s willingness to bless, we will too quickly crumble when tribulations occur. If too much of our faith is in God’s willingness to bless, it means too much of our faith is wrapped up in our ability to please God. And that’s not how God works. Sure, he requires us to be faithful and obedient, but his salvation, blessing and providence is not based on us being able to maintain a certain level of goodness – as though when we meet the bar we are blessed and when we dip below the line he removes his goodness from us.

To many this may seem obvious. To people of an anxious persuasion, this can be a useful corrective. This blog itself came from a process of self-correction.

Here is a super important point. When we experience low self-esteem we tend to fall into the trap of believing God thinks less of us. Then we will start to agree with this perception we have imagined. It becomes our new truth. Then we will wonder why God would ever love someone like us. And suddenly our self-esteem is in the basement. And so it continues.

This does not glorify God. In fact, this is where we have let Satan in. Because if our self-perception is so low, what we are witnessing to others is that our God only loves us when we are being super holy. Remember, in the Garden, all Satan had to do was sow doubt. “did God really say…..” (Genesis 3:1). This is how we fall into sin “Surely I am not good enough for God….Surely I have been displeasing to God…..”

This is hard for people with anxiety. It’s not a quick fix. Especially because when you’re in this state, it feels like you’re drowning in these thoughts and it’s hard to get your head above the water line. But please persevere. See your mental health professional. Talk to your Christian friends and pastors.  Admit out loud that you  are struggling with these feelings. Take the time to read scripture and pray – even if your prayer is just “Please God help me”.

Because God does not see you like you see you.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-5)

 

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

Jesus wasn’t the man they wanted him to be (Mark 3:1-12)

I find it an interesting quirk of human nature that we turn on our celebrities when we find out they’re different to how we thought they’d be. If a hot superstar turns out to be gay, or a stunning model turns out to have cellulite, or a Hollywood couple get divorced and publicly scrap over the kids or if a mega-church pastor turns out to have problems with humility. We turn on them like a lynch-mob as if they had deliberately lied to us.

Of course what this means is that these people are normal. What it also means is that we somehow want them to not be normal. We want them to be something else. Something we don’t see in our ordinary, mediocre lives. We want to believe that perfection is real, that the hunky movie stars don’t smell when they sweat and they always look like they walked out of the gym. We want them to be their movie characters. We want them to be what we imagine them to be.

We want them to be what we want them to be.

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In Mark 3:1-12, we see two sides of this. We see the Pharisees wanting Jesus to be a bad-guy. And we see the people wanting Jesus to be a rock star savior.

Last week we saw Jesus communicate that he is the Messiah and the Lord by communicating he is the Lord of the Sabbath. As the Lord, he is the new wine. The old wine has been superseded, which was dangerous teaching. He was publicly saying that the established order was being renewed in him.

In that instance, it was Jesus’ disciples who had “broken” the sabbath (according to Jewish regulations). That’s why, in Mark 3:2, the Pharisees watch Jesus closely to see if he will heal on the sabbath (and thereby break it). They want him to break it. They want an excuse to accuse him. According to scripture, sabbath breaking was a capital offence (cf. Numbers 15:32-36). It should be noted here that what Numbers describes is not a prescriptive response to sabbath breaking. The man is punished for breaking the sabbath insofar as his attention was deliberately not on God – which was the purpose for the sabbath in the first place. The Jewish leaders had taken this to be prescriptive and so death was the punishment for all sabbath breaking. Again, we see the history of minimising God’s relationship through a misguided attempt to maximise obedience.

But since the Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus into sabbath breaking, why would Jesus make the man with the shriveled hand stand up in front of everyone? why wouldn’t he be a bit quieter about it? Doing it publicly seems to play into the hands of the Pharisees. Perhaps to highlight the point above. Jesus is performing a public sign for the purposes of teaching. The Pharisaical approach would be to do nothing in the face of need so as not to break the sabbath. What Jesus shows is the hypocrisy of their approach. What is lawful on the sabbath? To do good or evil? To save a life or to kill? If Jesus is saying that doing good and saving life is lawful, the corollary is that the Pharisees have made evil lawful.

It’s interesting that Jesus is angry and distressed. Even in the divinity with which he heals the man, we see the ragged humanity of his emotions.

The Pharisees, faced with the hideous truth of what they do, go away and plot in secret, away from light where their deeds could be seen clearly. To accuse Jesus of sabbath breaking at that point, would be to publicly admit that Jesus is right.

And think about that. The Pharisees need Jesus to be the bad guy. If Jesus is right about this, their whole approach to the Sabbath crumbles. And if that crumbles, fractures appear in their whole system of maximising obedience/minimising relationship.

Interesting side note: The Herodians and Pharisees were enemies. The Pharisees wanted the restoration of the kingdom of David. The Herodians were a political party and supporters of the Herodian dynasty: the client kings installed by the Romans. What each party wanted therefore was completely different – and yet in this they were united. They needed to get rid of Jesus. Jesus was a threat to both. If he ushered in the kingdom of God, the Pharisees and Herodians were out of business and out of power.

After this, we see Jesus withdrawing to the lake (that is, the Sea of Galilee) and people come from as far north as Sidon and as far south as Idumea to see him. “Beyond the Jordan” even refers to the area around the Decapolis. What we see here is people coming from great distances, and even from Gentile areas.

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Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:First_century_palestine-es.svg

What we see here is like a scene at a movie premier that everyone knows the star of the show is going to. The crowds are pressing and they all want something. They want to be healed. They want to be touched. They want to touch Jesus. They all want a piece of him.

What did they want of him? They wanted something he had, but not what he came to do. They wanted him to save them, but not in the way that he had come to do.

I guess I look to some people the same way. Bobby Kennedy is one of my heroes. I wanted Barack Obama to be the next Bobby Kennedy. I wanted him to bring light into a dark and dismal world. I wanted to believe that change was possible. I wanted to feel that there was something better, aspirational, inspirational. I wanted to believe.

The way the people press forward to Jesus feels familiar to me. There is a hunger in the crowd – a need. What Jesus was doing had spread by word of mouth so far and so quickly that people were coming from everywhere to see him. Were they coming because they believed? Or because they wanted to believe? Perhaps both. But what they wanted was only a tiny slice of who he was and what he had come to do. Because while they might have flocked to him as I would have to Bobby Kennedy had I been around in the 1960s, Bobby Kennedy was just Bobby Kennedy. The person they had in front of them was God himself.

But Jesus seems content to let them follow for the moment. When he casts out evil spirits, he commands them not to tell anyone. Why? Surely he would want to bring his followers along with him – we have seen previously how he was carefully controlling how his ministry was communicated. Surely now he can start communicating more clearly as the crowds press towards him?

I don’t think it was that simple. In John 6 we see Jesus starting to be more open about what his message is and what following him truly means and people turn away from him. Jesus knows that this will happen, but his ministry is too new for this to happen just yet. He needs his followers to learn as they follow at this point. In fact Mark as a gospel takes this approach – as we follow the story, we learn for ourselves the truth of who Jesus is.

Humans are horribly flawed. We have enormous expectations and we hold to them rigidly. Changing them requires time and gentleness, and largely we have to decide to change our expectations for ourselves. If others change them for us, we feel attacked and betrayed. For the moment, Jesus needs his followers to gradually learn the truth. As his teaching becomes more explicit, their expectations will already have been shaped and molded. People will still turn their backs when he turns out to not be who they thought (or wanted him to be), but more of them will represent the fertile soil in which seeds can grow.

This is why we still need the gospel of Mark. Today we like to see Jesus as the guy who is all about love and forgiveness. This is true – but before love and forgiveness comes knowledge of our sin. Just look at the sinful woman in Luke 7:36-50. There’s a woman convicted of her sin and comes to Jesus in repentance. After that, there’s justification but there’s also sanctification. There is work to be done in our relationship. This isn’t easy.

Some of us want Jesus to be the love guy whose name we can pray to God in for the things we need. This is normal and valid – because he is the love guy we pray to God in, and we are supposed to bring our requests to God. The problem occurs when he is only that.

Who do we want Jesus to be?

The answer is, Who is Jesus telling us he is. The work and person of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with what we want him to be. He is who we need him to be.

And who do we need him to be? This is what we’ll explore as Mark leads us through the nuance of Jesus as a man, as God, as the Messiah and our Lord.

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:

Week 1: “Who do you say I am”. Introduction to the gospel

Week 2: The Beginning. Mark 1:1-20

Week 3: The Who, the what and the why. Mark 1:21-45

Week 4: Jesus didn’t come for the super-religious. He came for you. Mark 2:1-17

Week 5: There is nothing you can do to start – or stop – God’s plan. Mark 2:18-28