Saturday, June 28, 2014

003-Signs of the Kingdom

Magic produces amazement (almost never a favorable term in Mark’s Gospel), but amazement is not faith.[1]

Jesus has announced the arrival of the kingdom of God. He is proclaiming the gospel of God and calling on hearers to repent and believe (1:14-15). The next section of Mark’s gospel account provides examples of the gospel, the kingdom of God, repentance, and what it means to be a part of the kingdom of God.

imageThe telling of the call of the first disciples is just as abrupt as the arrival of John the Baptist and Jesus in the gospel. Modern readers may be tempted to read it from the perspective of a “fifth gospel” where all the accounts are harmonized and we are able to explain why Simon, Andrew, James, and John leave and follow Jesus, but that does injustice to Mark’s purposes. This is not a factual account in our sense of the word, but a highly stylized account that highlights the immediacy of the decision in light of the judgment motifs of the kingdom and provides an example of the repentance that Jesus calls for.

In this account we see no mention of personal “sin” from which the disciples are repenting of. Rather they are rearranging their priorities. Following Jesus into the kingdom takes precedence over tending to the family business (but as we see a little farther down, they do not abandon their families). What this says about repentance is that we need to spend less time talking about and addressing sin and far more focus on the proper arrangement of priorities in light of Jesus and the kingdom of God. 

(See discussion outline for some historical and religious perspectives on the significance of “fishing” that sheds light on why “fishermen” being called to “fish for people” is far more than just a play on words.)

imageIn the next episode Jesus is seen in Capernaum, in a synagogue, on the Sabbath. these three  motifs appears again in chapter 2 where we are given a contrast to what is portrayed here in chapter 1. Here there is no confrontation between Jesus and the people. The people are amazed by Jesus’ teaching. When an unclean spirit tries to challenge Jesus’ authority by speaking his name and title, it is immediately rebuked, silenced, and driven out. The people are further amazed and Jesus’ authority over the kingdom of Satan is demonstrated.

(See discussion outline for significance of demons attempting to utter Jesus’ name and divine title as a way to exert control over him. It is not merely a confession of their knowledge about Jesus.)

The people are amazed but they do not show faith/trust in Jesus. They are impressed by Jesus and want the benefits of his “magic” but they have no desire to repent and direct their lives toward God. Just as with the crowds that came to John the Baptist, they confess but they do not repent.

The scene moves to Simon’s mother-in-law’s home where she is sick. Here Jesus demonstrates authority over disease by healing her. Jesus has now performed two “works” on the Sabbath, something that will soon bring him into conflict with the religious leaders.

In response to her healing, the mother-in-law’s response is to serve. Jesus does not call her to follow as he did her sons, but her response is still a response of a disciple and a demonstration of repentance: to serve when God’s power, authority, and kingdom brings a change in circumstances. Once more there is no mention of personal sin. Here we see that not everyone is called to follow as Apostles were called. Some are called away from their current lives; others are called to stay and serve. Both are necessary in the building up of God’s kingdom.

imageIn the final vignette for this session we see that a crowd has gathered outside the home. It is now after the Sabbath and people can carry the sick and ask for healing without violating any of their laws and traditions. Out of compassion and mercy Jesus offers healing and freedom, but the people are not looking to change their priorities – repent. Thus we will see next time that Jesus cannot stay. He must move on to continue to “fish for people” that are receptive to repentance.

In these opening stories we begin to gain a portrait of what a disciple of Christ – a Christian – looks like:

A Christian is not merely someone who professes and confesses Jesus Christ.
He is not merely someone who follows Christ.
She is someone who imitates Jesus’ acts of freeing the oppressed.

[1] Feasting: Mark, location 1689.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Topical Organization Mark 1:14-3:21


Over the next several sessions in Mark I will be referring to this organizational table. The upcoming session will look at 1:14-1:34.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Reblog: Saved from What?

Here is a blog article I found today that bears relevance to our discussions in Mark. It has to do with rethinking what “salvation” means in the Gospels in light of what the word meant to its original audience.

Saved from What? by Dr. Craig Evan Anderson, Ph.D.

Salvation is central to Christianity. Yet, despite the fact that salvation is central to Christian existence, few people seem to understand it.

Perhaps we should expect non-Christians to misunderstand salvation, which most do. But this misunderstanding certainly isn’t limited to non-Christians. Christians themselves often don’t seem to understand the Bible’s concept of salvation.

Christians readily claim that they are “saved.” However, the natural follow-up question to this is: They are saved from what?

As obvious as that follow-up question should be, it does not get asked nearly as often as it should. Consequently, some really weird ideas seem to surround the pop-Christian notion of salvation.

Read more…

002-What’s So Great About Repentance?

Unlike Matthew, Mark seems to have no difficulty with Jesus undergoing John’s baptism of repentance even though Jesus had no need to repent.[1]

As we read Mark, we can make assumptions about the traditions about Jesus that he knew. If he was recording Peter’s knowledge, Mark certainly knew that Jesus was personally sinless. Yet in these opening verses, Mark chooses to deliberately omit those parts of the tradition that object to Jesus being baptized. Jesus is baptized with a “baptism of repentance.” We, as the audience, are left to wrestle with Mark’s choices of inclusion and exclusion.

Repentance and repenting are not exactly popular concepts within modern Christianity. I’ve noticed one of two ways of dealing with it. One is for churches to not talk about it – to churchignore it. It is too embarrassing, too uncomfortable, it evokes too much in the way of guilt and shame. Don’t talk too much about sin, and don’t talk too much about repentance – seems to be the first way of dealing with it.

The second way is to talk about it all the time. The world is lost in sin and the Christian has been commissioned to identify that problem and bring people to repentance. Sermons frequently identify different types of sin and exhort listeners to repent and be saved. The constant focus, conscious or not, is on the ongoing failure of humanity to measure up to God’s standards and thus our need of repentance. The question is always there: have we sufficiently repented of our sins? For many this constant reminder of sins and guilt and shame leads to fear and in some cases, abandoning Christianity.

Both approaches to repentance – ignoring it and dwelling on it – are based on the premise that “repent” is defined primarily in its relationship to sin and more specifically, personal sin. But is this what Mark (and Peter) had in mind when the gospel opens with both John the Baptist and Jesus calling on people to “repent”, and when Jesus himself undergoes a baptism of repentance?

Sin Infects the Entire Community

The biggest mistake Western Christians make about sin and repentance is to see it primarily through our individualistic culture. For decades and even a couple of centuries now, Christianity has spoken primarily of personal salvation and a personal relationship with Jesus and/or God. But such a notion would have been rather foreign to Mark and his audience.

Do not forget that Metanoeite! [Repent!] is a plural verb. Over the years, in English, we have downsized this powerful Greek verb into a singular, private affair. Of course, a person’s decision whether or not to follow Jesus is deeply personal, but Metanoeite! is a plural imperative that extends beyond one’s personal decision. Mark refuses to reduce Metanoeite! to a privatized response, as though the invitation of Jesus involved “just me and Jesus.” Mark will have none of that. “Believing the gospel” is a group effort. Christian life is lived in community, always in community, no matter how many blemishes or scars.[2]

Sin has infected the entire human community. It doesn’t matter if just one individual sins or all of them. All have sinned. When Jesus chooses to become incarnate as a human, he chooses to take uponBaptism himself sin. He does not have personal sin, but that is of little consequence. He has placed himself under the curse of sin, and to exit the curse, to defeat it, requires that he too, repent. Therefore, Jesus must undergo a public demonstration of his repentance.

But for Jesus (and Mark as he writes) turning away from sin is a very tiny part of repentance. For Jesus repentance is turning to God, committing himself to God’s will and purposes, and making the decisions all through his life in line with a journey toward God. Jesus rejects the temptation to sin of self-preservation. He rejects the basis of power and empire of this world and reveals a different kind of kingdom, one based not on self-preservation but on self-sacrifice.

To prepare for participation in the reign of God means a complete reversal of mindset (metanoeite is usually translated "Repent!" but this is much more all-encompassing than mere regret or admission of fault). This reversal of mindset amounts to putting unreserved trust in the good news from God and about God that will unfold in the course of the narrative. That is all the Markan Jesus asks- a complete reversal of humanity's values, priorities, and ground of security.[3]

Testing Continues Through This Life

Unlike the gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke, there is no “finish” to the period of testing/temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. There is no decisive victory. By this lack of a “finish” Mark tells his audience (Christians undergoing crisis and persecution) that like Jesus, the testing and suffering will continue through their entire lives, that they may well not experience any respite from it in this life. But the encouragement is that a “wilderness experience” is not a sign of God’s abandonment but quite to the contrary, God’s will can be accomplished through it. Not only that but heavenly ministers will minister to them during this trying period. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark writes that angels minister to Jesus throughout his testing period.

The Kingdom Is Here – Repent!

The Kingdom of God is vastly different from the kingdoms of the world. The two are based on diametrically opposed systems of power and governance. All human systems are based on hierarchy and power that leads to tyranny and corruption as those more powerful attempt to retain their positions and privileges through manipulation, deceit, and force.

Human history is a continued record of one kingdom conquering another, to be conquered by yet another. In many cases the conquering kingdom has noble vision and high ideals, but as it is established it falls to the same temptation that caused its predecessor to fall.

The same can be said not just of political powers but business and religious groups.

Therefore, repentance is the good news of the kingdom of God.

“The kingdom of God” here means the rule of God, and Jesus' message signifies that God has begun to establish his rule in a world viewed by many religious Jews as under the tyranny of Satan and evil.[4]

Jesus' action in confronting Satan, sin, disease and death, and subduing nature is the sign that the end stands as the next act of God in man's future. Provision has been made for men to repent, but there is no time for delay. Only through repentance can a man participate with joy in the kingdom when it does break forth… Either a man submits to the summons of God or he chooses this world and its riches and honor. The either/or character of this decision is of immense importance and permits of no postponement. That is what repentance is all about.[5]

We do not have to repeat the past. We can have a new beginning and enter into a new way of life. This is the meaning of Jesus’ opening announcement in Mark’s gospel account.

Without question, Metanoeite! carries with it the notion that we have some changing to do, some new directions to take; its primary orientation, though, is toward God’s future rather than our past. In Mark, Metanoeite! is an invitation to trust in a future made possible by the grace of God. The first word Jesus New beginningspeaks in Mark’s Gospel is “Metanoeite!” Why? Because in Jesus, God makes it possible for God’s people to do more than rerun the past. That is the gospel, the good news, the glad tidings toward which Jesus invites us to stop, turn, or turn again, and hold on to for dear life. Metanoeite! says our Lord; things do not have to stay the way they are now! In fact, to follow Jesus means that things cannot stay the way they are…[6]

[1] Exploring Mark, p.43.

[2] Feasting: Mark, location 1284.

[3] Reading Mark, 1:1-13.

[4] UBC: Mark, 1:14-20.

[5] NICNT: Mark, 1:14-15.

[6] Feasting: Mark, location 1260.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

001-Background and Introduction

How can the one “crucified in weakness” (2 Cor. 13:4) be the Mighty One of divine power? This tensive question drives the plot of Mark’s Gospel.[1]

Colosseum in Rome, Italy - April 2007.jpg

"Colosseum in Rome, Italy - April 2007" by Diliff - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

The author of Mark’s gospel account redefines what euangelion (i.e., gospel) means to its audience. To its Roman audience the gospel is about a new royalty that supplants Caesar. To its Jewish audience the gospel is transition between the Present Age and the Age to Come – it is the promised Day of the Lord.

The word “gospel” (euangelion), “good news,” refers to the church’s message of God’s saving act in Jesus, the message proclaimed by the church of Mark’s day and ours. It does not here refer to a book representing the life and teaching of Jesus, a meaning the word did not attain until the middle of the second century.[2]

The opening of the gospel account is a recounting of an invasion; an invasion of God and his power into the realm of sin and darkness.

Mark is the story of an invasion, an invasion of this world by God and God’s reign… This is an invasion that is going forward without any invitation. This is an invasion that neither expects nor requires any real receptivity on the part of those for whom the invasion is planned.[3]

Mark was written to a church in crisis; a church facing persecution, martyrdom, and even death. How does the story of a crucified Jesus give strength and hope to a suffering church? Mark invites his readers to place themselves in Jesus’ place, to experience his trials, and to take strength and encouragement in his story of faithfulness, even to the cross. Mark introduces the “wilderness” as a place where God is most present, where he draws closest to his people, where the exodus and salvation takes place.

The biblical concept of repentance, however, is deeply rooted in the wilderness tradition. In the earliest stratum of OT prophecy, the summons to "turn" basically connotes a return to the original relationship with the Lord. This means a return to the beginning of God's history with his people, a return to the wilderness.[4]

Summary Points

  1. Mark’s gospel account: written for Christians facing crisis with all the questions of theodicy and the like that suffering and persecution raises
  2. “The gospel,” for Mark, is the explanation and meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and how that speaks to Christians
  3. Mark’s gospel account is not primarily for evangelism, but for encouragement and exhortation to those that already believe
  4. Mystery surrounding Jesus and who he is figure prominently in Mark’s gospel
  5. It might be seen as midrash (commentary) on the second half of Isaiah
  6. The Exodus and wilderness wanderings figure as prominent motifs of salvation story
  7. The gospel is not static – it continues with every generation of the Church

What could it mean for congregations to believe that we, here today, are part of this ongoing story of good news, that the end of the story has not yet been written?[5]

[1] Feasting: Mark, location 658.

[2] Feasting: Mark, location 617.

[3] Feasting: Mark, location 522.

[4] NICNT: Mark, 1:4-5.

[5] Feasting: Mark, location 674.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Study and Discussion in Mark

Our small group in Petersburg has gone through a number of New Testament books over the course of the past few years. We’ve worked through John’s Gospel, Galatians, Colossians, John’s Epistles, Romans, Revelation, and 1 Corinthians. We now undertake the gospel account according to Mark. It is generally acknowledged as the first of the gospels to be written and it is the shortest.

As with the other books we’ve studied, we will incorporate many different perspectives (see the About page for a list of resources). We will do our best to hear the text as the first century Christian would have heard it. With the help of the many scholars represented through the resources we will seek to interpret the text through appropriate cultural, historical, theological, social, literary and rhetorical lenses.

Study outlines and discussion audio links will be provided as we go through the gospel. For those not part of the immediate small group, the outlines will likely be the most meaningful and useful. The discussion audio assumes many years of close history amongst its members and likely will not be as interesting or helpful. Its primary intent is for group members to catch up on sessions they miss while away.