Tag Archives: Jesus

What Does the Structure of Mark 6:31-8:30 Teach Us About Spiritual Growth?

Talk about a click-bait title!

The Bible teaches, not only in its content, but also in its design and structure.

Check it out. The structure of Mark 6:31-7:37 is as follows:

  • Jesus feeds the five thousand (6:31-44)
  • The disciples cross the sea and land (6:45-56)
    • The disciples show a lack of faith and understanding
  • Jesus conflicts with the Pharisees over the nature of defilement (7:21-23)
  • Jesus talks to a woman about bread (7:24-30)
  • Jesus heals a deaf and mute man (7:31-36)
  • The crowd makes a confession of faith (7:37)

Mark 8:1-30 follows this sequence:

  • Jesus feeds the four thousand (8:1-9)
  • The disciples cross the sea and land (8:10)
  • Jesus conflicts with the Pharisees over the need for a sign (8:11-13)
  • Jesus talks to the disciples about bread (8:14-21)
    • The disciples show their lack of faith and understanding
  • Jesus heals blind man (8:13-21)
  • Peter makes a confession of faith (8:27-30)

Some of the parallels are clear, like feeding of the crowds and healings – in both cases Jesus uses spit in the healing process (7:33, 8:23). Other parallels are less obvious. But I am convinced that the overall structure holds. This begs the question: Why did Mark structure his book like this or, the related question, why did Jesus repeat similar miracles like feeding the crowd?

There may be many reasons for this, but I think the most obvious is this, our first lesson about spiritual growth: Jesus knows we need to learn and re-learn the same lesson. We need repetition before we “get it”. Take a look at the disciples. In both sequences, though at slightly different times, the disciples lack of faith and understanding is pointed out:

Mark 6:50-52

Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” 51 Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, 52 for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.

Mark 8:14-19

14 The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat. 15 “Be careful,” Jesus warned them. “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.”

16 They discussed this with one another and said, “It is because we have no bread.”

17 Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened?18 Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? 19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”

The disciples don’t get it, which is kind of surprising given that they have had the inside track since he called them. They left everything to follow him. Jesus explained the parables to them when their meaning was hidden from the crowds. They saw the miracles of the loaves and the fishes. And yet, they are still described as lacking in spiritual insight. They have ears but don’t hear and eyes that don’t see. At this point, they are much more like the hard soil than the good soil, except for the grace of God.

And this teaches us the second lesson about spiritual growth: Most of us don’t totally “get it” all at once. We need repeated encounters with Jesus.

When I think back over my life I can think of a handful of pivotal moments of spiritual growth but, in all honesty, even those “big ones” only produced a small amount of the spiritual fruit that I’ve seen in my life. Most of my growth (if I can point to any) has come from “routine” encounters with Jesus and his people: Reading scripture, study, attending church, prayer, confession, and working through daily toils.

Will a single sermon change your life? Maybe not, but a lifetime of them will.

Will you have an epiphany the next time you open Scripture? Possibly, but it is more likely that your daily routine of reading the Bible will slowly but steadily enlighten your mind and align your values.

Will that camp experience bring about lasting transformation? Yes, but only if it is followed up through discipleship in a community of faith.

The disciples had their ups and downs and so will we. Jesus was patient with them, and I am incredibly comforted by that fact. The best news is that the disciples ended well. God faithfully completed the work he started in them – by teaching and re-teaching them through his power and presence.

Hand Washing and Defilement

We have a lot in common with the Pharisees these days. We are obsessed with hand washing.

In Mark 7, the Pharisees confront Jesus because they saw “some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed” (7:2). My wife would confront me about that, too. But, the concerns of the Pharisees were a different from those of my wife. The Pharisees were concerned less about a viral infection than they were about moral infection or, as they called it, defilement.

We have hand washing charts. The Pharisees had “the tradition of the elders.” Both involve rule and ritual to defend against an unseen contagion. Let us consider more closely the logic of the Pharisees: God had established the Israelites as the holy people of God – a people set apart from the nations. As such, everything they did should be holy. Since the priests had rituals for washing their hands and they were set apart, it followed that the people, also being set apart, should follow the practices of the priests. In doing so, they set apart even common meals as holy meals.

The opposite of holy and set apart is common, and a synonym for common is defiled. So, to fail to wash your hands in the right ritualistic way defiled your food. Add to that the idea of defilement as a contagion that spreads and eating defiled food with defiled hands defiles the person who eats it. Defilement, like a viral infection, comes from the outside, and we need to protect ourselves against it through rule and ritual. Such was the logic of the Pharisees.

The logic has a certain appeal to it, but it fails on two counts.

First, in practice, it was hypocritical.

We err when we think that the Pharisees were simply too strict in following God’s laws. We often use the word legalism to mean something like that. But, according to Jesus, their problem was not that they were too strict, but that they disregarded God’s law. He says they “let go” (7:8), “set aside” (7:9), and “nullified” (7:12) God’s commandments in favor of human traditions. Some of their “traditions of the elders” were not just unnecessary add-ons, but downright contradictory.

Jesus gives the example of the practice of Corban which prevented children from following the commandment to honor father and mother by preventing them from using property set aside as “Corban” (banned) for such a “common” use.

Their practices, then, were hypocritical because while they gave an appearance of piety, below the surface they exposed “hearts far from God” (7:6). Or, as Jesus says elsewhere, they were greatly concerned about tithing on the mint and cumin, but neglected for justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23).

Second, in principle, it misplaced the source of defilement.

The hand washing rule showed that the Pharisees were concerned about defilement from an external source – unclean food or unwashed hands. After revealing their hypocrisy, Jesus next shows that they have misunderstood the source of defilement: “Nothing outside a person can defile them” (7:15). Food just goes into the stomach, Jesus says, not the heart.

What goes in does not defile. What comes out does. Our thoughts and behaviors defile us – they make us unholy. And what comes out has an interior source: our hearts. Our hearts – the core of our being – lead to what we think and do. What we think and do defiles us.

The fact that moral defilement comes from inside is both good and bad news. The good news is that nothing outside of us can make us morally dirty – not the food we eat, not dirt on our hands, not a virus or disease, not evil that someone else has done to us. Many people live with a sense of shame because of the wicked actions of others. Jesus’s words here are a comfort.

Bonus: In saying this, “Jesus declared all foods clean” (7:19) so… bacon!

The bad news is that the only way for us to avoid defilement is for someone to transform our hearts. We need to be cleansed – not through healthy eating or hand washing – and utterly remade. Thanks be to God, that’s exactly what Jesus does for us.

Postscript: Food and hand washing still matter

The Bible does not denigrate the body. There is a moral component to how and what we eat. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and the agents of how we carry out much of our service and obedience to God.

We have a responsibility to care for our bodies. But that’s not to say that some foods are inherently “clean” or “unclean” (the language of having a dietary “cleanse” is oddly religious language), but that how we treat our bodies comes from the heart – a heart interested only in pleasing the flesh or a heart concerned with keeping in step with the Spirit.

Rejecting an image of Jesus

Read Mark 6:1-6. Jesus was rejected in his hometown, not because the people knew too little about it, but because they that they knew too much.

Or rather, they thought they knew who Jesus was, and their preconceived notions about him blinded them to his true identity.

They were familiar with him and with his family and they couldn’t get past that familiarity. Even though they heard of his miracles and were amazed at his wisdom, they just didn’t – couldn’t – believe that this carpenter was someone special.

I suspect the same dynamic in this post-Christian world is true today. Many of us are so familiar with Jesus – or rather, with a preconceived notion of Jesus – that we fail to recognize the real man. We have constructed an image of Jesus (a self-help guide, a political mascot), found that image wanting, and then rejected it. We tried the Jesus thing, and gotten past it.

Maybe that’s true for you. Have you rejected Jesus? Consider whether you have rejected Jesus, or an image of Jesus. Approach Jesus in the gospels themselves. Approach him in prayer.

Maybe it’s true for your friends. Consider that they have a false notion of Jesus but may experience that their notion of Jesus as over familiarization: “I already know all about Jesus, I don’t want to know any more.” Through God’s grace, point them to the real man.

Don’t let over familiarization with Jesus lead you away from him. In the narrative of Mark 6, this attitude led to offense, and, in Luke’s account, violent rejection. Instead approach him as a disciple, as a new wine skin ready for his new wine.

Dear church, What will define us?

What will define us as a church?

Churches could be, and are, known for many things: “That’s the political church.” “That’s the cool church.” “That’s the mega church.” “That’s the church with traditional worship.” They can be known for good things: biblical preaching, inspirational worship, or friendliness. Or they can be known for not so good things: decline, apathy, or scandal. Each church needs to reckon with their own identity, not just with how they are known, but with who they are, with what defines their center.

So do we.

For a long time, I believed that we are defined by what we do: We preach the Bible. We build community. We serve our neighbors. We proclaim the gospel. I defined myself by what I did, too, and by how well I did it. Too often, I still do. But my thinking has been shifting recently. It’s a shift from performance to grace.

What makes a Christian?

In our church tradition, we love to quote Ephesians 2:8: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” When it comes to salvation, we place grace at the center. From there it’s easy to fall into two traps – legalism or lawlessness.

In legalism, having been set free by God’s grace, we submit ourselves again to the yoke of slavery by establishing rigid rules. We’re saved by grace, but as far as we or anyone else is concerned, we’re defined by how well we conform to our rules.

In lawlessness, we rejoice in the grace of God and then go on to abuse it as a license to fulfill our own desires. We deny the transforming nature of grace. We say we’re defined by grace, but the “grace” we’re defined by is counterfeit. We’re not defined by grace after all, we use a caricature of it, but end up being defined by our own selfishness.

Jesus rejects both legalism and lawlessness. We’re saved by grace, transformed by grace, defined by grace, and we live by grace. And since grace is more than a concept, it’s more accurate to say that we’re saved by Jesus, transformed by Jesus, defined by Jesus, and we live by Jesus. Or, with Paul we can say “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20)

For the Christian, not only our salvation, but everything is grace. Everything is a gift: Our daily bread, our families, our resources, our skills, our breath, the community of faith, our perseverance, our holiness, the revelation of God in the Scriptures. All of it comes from the hand of a generous and good God. And, not only that perspective, but that reality, will work its way out. Grace is the heartbeat of the Christian life. Grace brings us to life and sustains us, so that not even death can separate us from the love of Christ.

What makes a Church?

As with the Christian, so the church. The church was birthed through grace and is sustained by grace. Jesus gave us life and the Spirit of grace sustains us. We’re animated by “Christ who is our life” (Colossians 3:4).

I’m saying nothing new or surprising. Of course, a church must be defined by Jesus. But I’ll submit to you that I believe we will be tempted to be drawn away from our Center. Or, perhaps, to drift away.

There’s a Presidential election coming in 2020. Will we be drawn away? Will we allow politics to define us?

We have some major capital improvement projects on the calendar. Will they define us?

We may stay the same size. We may grow. We may shrink. Will our size define us? Will it take center stage? (“We’re the growing and vibrant church” or “We’re the faithful few”, we always interpret in our favor.)

There will be challenges. There will be interpersonal conflict, differences of opinion, arguments over strategy, hard words. On those days, will there be evidence of God’s grace?

We’re finding ourselves more and more out of step with prevailing notions of morality. Will the culture war define us? Will we draw in for protection or push out in grace? Will we welcome or wall off?

Perhaps all will go well. Will we be drawn to pride? Will we come to believe that it was our power all along? Perhaps we will fail. Will we be begin to distrust the loving hand of our good father?

Weeds abound in this field, and they threaten to separate us from our Source, to make us unfruitful. It’s going to take tenacity and perseverance to keep Jesus the center.

Action which grows out of identity

By placing such a high premium on identity, I don’t mean to denigrate action or set aside mission. But identity must always be prior. The disciples had power because they had Jesus. They had authority because he gave it to them. Their mission grew out of the personal indwelling reality of Christ.

Grace comes in from the outside, it transforms our inner reality, and then it manifests itself in action. We see it and feel it. What does it look like? What does a church look like that has truly internalize the grace of God? That’s a future post.

Did Jesus speak in parables to be confusing?

Why did Jesus speak in parables? Did he use parables to make is abstract teaching concrete by connecting it to everyday life or did he use parables to intentionally obscure his teaching? Passages like Mark 4:11-12 make it seem like the second option:

He told them, “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!’”

This seems to contradict Mark 4:33 which says that Jesus spoke to the people in parables “as they could understand.” And, more significantly, 1 Timothy 2:3-4 which says, “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” Could it be that Jesus speaks in parables to intentionally prevent people “on the outside” from understanding and being forgiven?

Jesus the Prophet

Jesus’s language in Mark 4:11-12 is that of an Old Testament prophet so his words here are best understood in that light.

The word translated as “secret” in the NIV can also be translated as “mystery” (NASB). I prefer “mystery” because “secret” connotes something that should not be revealed. Secrets are meant to be kept. But for prophets, mysteries are meant to be revealed, in the proper way and time. A mystery, then, is a message that was hidden, but is now being revealed. Jesus is on a mission of disclosure as he says later in verse 22: “For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open.” However, he is disclosing his message in different ways to different people, directly to his disciples and through parables to the crowd.

Next we come to his quotation of Isaiah 6:9,10. God gave Isaiah an impossible task. God called him to be his messenger to wayward Israel, which was already under God’s judgment. Their hearts were hard and their necks were stiff against God’s word. At one level, God’s word could be a message of salvation, if it was accompanied with repentance. But, because they had already turned off their spiritual senses, they responded to Isaiah with only more hostility. In this way, God’s word was transformed into a word of judgment as the people became guilty of yet another rejection. Isaiah asked how long he would need to speak to deaf ears. God’s response: until his judgment was completed.

Jesus came into a very similar environment. The people had already rejected God so he know they would also reject his word. They would also reject his Son. For those closed off to him, his words intended to bring salvation would only bring more guilt. For those closed off to Jesus, everything about Jesus would be a riddle, a puzzle, a parable. They would see the outer layer but could never perceive it’s meaning. Jesus is speaking as a prophet, revealing the hearts of men.

Parables, then, function as a sort of filter. For those of the “good soil”, they are an open gate, an invitation to dig deeper. They reveal in a way that leads to further revelation. For others, they function as a wall. The word falls on soil and the devil comes and snatches it away. Jesus is offering a stern prophetic warning: “Whoever has ears, let them hear” (4:9).

Clarity doesn’t seem to effect response

This becomes clear when we realize that Jesus’s method doesn’t seem to really have a big impact on the response of his hearers. Jesus’s disciples, to whom he gave the most clarity, to whom he revealed the “mystery of the kingdom” are consistently the most spiritually blind in the book of Mark. They act more like the bad soils of Jesus’ parable than the good.

The experts of the law and the religious teachers, those with the most knowledge, saw Jesus’s miracles – a clear indication of his power – as the work of Satan.

But those who, from a human perspective, were “on the outside” respond with the most faith: lepers, the demon possessed, the Syrophoenician woman.

The parables in Mark 4 point to one of the mysteries of the kingdom: It’s growth and influence seems to defy logic. It is met with obstacles and enemies and still yields its crop. It starts out tiny, almost imperceptible, but grows to have massive influence. It has a power of its own, an internal vitality that works completely apart from human influence. Those we expect to respond, don’t. Those we don’t think will, display the greatest faith. All we can do is watch in expectation as it happens.

From the prophetic perspective, it’s unsurprising that the word will be rejected, what’s incredible is that despite all the obstacles, the word will not fail to produce a crop, an explosive harvest, for the life of the world.

Note: I’m primarily following the argument of William L. Lane in the NICNT Gospel of Mark commentary.

Six observations on Jesus, the Sabbath, and the Law

Six observations on Jesus, the Sabbath, and the Law:

1.       Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath

The gospels tell several stories about Jesus offending the religious leaders of the time by “working” on the Sabbath. Sometimes that work involved plucking grain, which the Pharisees would have interpreted as harvesting (Mark 2:23-27), but more often it involved healing someone (Mark 3:1-6, John 5:1-15).

Part of me wants Jesus to defend himself by arguing that he’s not really working, but that’s not what happens. Instead he appeals to his divine authority (John 5:16-18). In Mark 2:27, for instance, Jesus states “the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

2.       Jesus saw the Sabbath as a life-preserving gift

Does this mean that Jesus was “above the law” or that he was a “law breaker”? In one sense, Jesus is above the law since he is the author of it. But in another sense, he placed himself under the law, in full submission to the Father. In the end, there can be no contradiction between Jesus and the law, since it would make God out to be a liar, or unfaithful, or both.

No, Jesus was not a law breaker and he was not breaking the Sabbath law as the Pharisees supposed. His actions and words hinged on his interpretation of the Sabbath. The Pharisees had made the Sabbath a burden, adding rules upon rules and interpreting Old Testament commands in the strictest possible sense.

Jesus, however, saw the Sabbath as a life-preserving event. He saw the Sabbath as a way for God to bless his people, to preserve their lives in the land, to grant them rest from their toil, to experience a day of Eden in a fallen world.

3.       Jesus used the Sabbath as an opportunity to do good, to save life

When Jesus says he is the Lord of the Sabbath he means first, that he is the author of the Sabbath and, following that, that he can authoritatively interpret its meaning. That explains his actions. If he saw the Sabbath as a gift from God to preserve life, then it makes sense that he would specifically use it to heal those who need him.

In the Mark passage Jesus asks the religious leaders “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” (Mark 3:4) The leaders, who had clung to a strict (and false) interpretation of the law are offended by Jesus and plot to kill him (Mark 3:6). Jesus, on the other hand, fulfills the purpose of the Sabbath to do good, to save life.

4.       The Law, if obeyed, is a life-preserving gift

This brings up a broader question: What is the purpose of the law? Like the Sabbath command specifically, the law was given as a life-preserving gift to Israel.

I’m not quite sure I have chosen the right word to describe the law as “life-preserving” so please allow me to expand on what I mean. God is the giver of life. He is the Creator, the sustainer, and the redeemer.

He gave Israel the law so that through the law they might experience life as God intended. For instance, when Moses set before Israel the choice between life and death he was setting before them obedience and disobedience. In choosing obedience to the law they were choosing God. In choosing God, they were choosing life.

The Bible, then, can speak of the law giving life: “The law of the LORD is perfect, refreshing the soul” (Psalm 19:7), and it does so through connecting the faithful with the very heart and life of the Law Giver.

But here a problem arises: No one is faithful to the law – at least not consistently and not in our inmost beings. The law preserves life only if we obey it. For those who disobey the law it is not a means of blessing. Instead, it becomes a curse. Not that the law itself is bad, but in our disobedience of the law we forsake God and reject him and, in doing so, we forsake the very One who gives us life.

5.       Jesus fulfills the Law, and so can give us life

Here’s the good news: Jesus fulfilled the whole law, and not just the letter of the law. Jesus fulfilled the spirit of the Sabbath by giving life on the Sabbath. He fulfilled the spirit of the law by loving God with all of his heart, mind, soul, and strength and loving his neighbors as himself.

As the one who fulfilled the whole law, he qualified himself as the one who could not only preserve life but save life and give life. In his death he took our curse. Through his life he can give us blessing, the blessing of his life.

6.       In Jesus, we find Sabbath rest

The question remains, then, what is our relationship to the Sabbath?

Jesus does not “unhitch” himself from the law, nor does he leave it unchanged. Instead, he “fulfills” the law. For instance, through his sacrifice he fulfills the sacrificial system, therefore making it obsolete. The law is not repudiated, but completed. In the same way, by making us clean through his death he does away with ceremonial food laws intended to keep God’s people ceremonially clean. He can, therefore, declare all foods clean.

I don’t think we have the precedent to rule Sabbath rest obsolete in the same way we can with the sacrificial system and the ceremonial food laws. However, I don’t think that Jesus has left the Sabbath law unchanged.

For instance, we can see that very early on Christians began setting aside Sunday as the Lord’s Day. This was the day that Jesus rose from the dead and in it Christians find a new sort of rest, the rest of God’s redemption. I also take as evidence Colossians 2:16-17 “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”

Jesus fulfills the Sabbath and in him we find the reality to which the Sabbath points. How, then, should Christians celebrate Sabbath rest? Let me say, first, that I am in process here and cannot either speak from great expertise or experience. Nevertheless, here are some observations about which I am fairly confident.

·         Find rest in Jesus by accepting the life-giving gift of salvation.

·         Set aside time to worship God and remember that he is the Creator and Savior.

·         Trust God with your work. Intentionally rest as a way of practically trust the work of God.

·         Take warning from Jesus’s rebuke of the Pharisees. Don’t view the Sabbath as a burden which must be followed to the strict letter of the law. View it, instead, as a gift from a good God.

Food Won’t Save You

Food Matters

My diet has changed drastically from when I worked as a manager at Burger King in college. The changes came in a series of shifts that my wife and I made in response to health issues her or I have faced over the past decade and a half. The most recent shift happened about two weeks ago. In an attempt to lower my blood pressure without medication I have been cutting out more sugary foods and adding more spinach, celery, and kale. I have even choked down a couple bottles of beet juice.

What we eat matters and it matters a lot. It matters for our health. From a Christian perspective, it matters to God. Our bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit. How we treat our bodies isn’t just a question of health or disease, but a question of obedience or sin. We obey Jesus when we eat food that nourishes our bodies and prepares us for embodied works of service.

If we relegate obedience to the spiritual/cognitive realm, we fall into the platonic error of imagining that the body is unimportant. Our bodies matter to God. Therefore, what we put into our bodies matters to God.

Food Idolatry

False worship means worshipping the created thing instead of the Creator, worshipping the gift instead of the giver. For a health-conscious culture, and for health-conscious Christians, this is a real danger. “Worship” is a funny word that we often associate with specifically spiritual practices like singing and prayer, but here I mean something more expansive. We “worship” food when we mentally grant it divine attributes, when we come to believe that it can save us.

For some, food is the answer to all our problems: We seek the right diet to improve our health, our mood, and our body image. There’s an important aspect of truth here. Better food can make your life measurably better (and bad food can make your life measurably worse).

But food has its limitations. It won’t fix your relationships. It won’t give you peace with God. It can’t protect you from tragedy. Even for what it sets out to do – to make our bodies healthy – it is only one aspect of a whole matrix of complex factors: genetics, germs, environment, community, exercise, etc.

If you put your hope in food, it’s eventually going to let you down. You might make aging a little less painful, but you cannot stop the inevitable.

A healthy perspective on food

I don’t think that we’re left between the false dichotomy of saying either that “food is the most important thing” or “food doesn’t matter.” No, we need to simply view food for what it is: A good gift from a good Giver. That enables us to receive it with thanksgiving.

Note Paul’s advice to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:3-5

“[False teachers] forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.”

God is good and he has given us the blessing of good food. That food, and the bodily benefits it confers, do not point to themselves, they point us back to our Creator. This perspective on food calibrates our expectations about what food can and cannot do.

The Food that Saves

Jesus said some shocking things while he was on earth, and perhaps one of his most shocking statements centers around food.

Jesus had just finished feeding 5,000 men with just a handful of loaves and fishes and a great crowd was following him asking him questions. That’s when he drops this bomb:

“I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” John 6:48-51

Thinking that Jesus was advocating some sort of cannibalism the people questioned him amongst themselves. To that, Jesus doubled-down:

Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” John 6:53-54

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the story concludes with this statement: “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (John 6:66).

My Catholic brothers and sisters say that Jesus is talking about the Eucharist and that eating the bread of the Eucharist really is eating Jesus’s flesh in obedience to his words in John 6.

Personally, I think that Jesus pointed us away from this interpretation when he states: “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life.” (John 6:63).

What, then, is the logic of Jesus’s words? Simply this: We need Jesus. Specifically, we need his life and the eternal nourishment that he offers. The manna God gave Israel from heaven was a good gift and it sustained them in the wilderness, but it could not save them from death. It did, however, point them to the One who could.

Jesus is the bread of heaven. He is the food that saves. How do we “consume” this food? “Then Jesus declared, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’” (John 6:35).

What is a Christian vision of Authority?

I have recorded and published a new podcast in my “What Does it Mean to Be a Christian?” series. This one takes on the topic of authority.

Here are a few of the highlights:

Introduction:

  1. Christianity uses the language of authority. For example: God is sovereign, Jesus speaks with authority. Jesus is the King. Christians are servants, of Christ.
  2. As a culture we have become uncomfortable with authority. It feels oppressive. Freedom comes when we throw off authority. In fact, a lot of good has come from throwing off oppressive authorities.
  3. There have been many abuses of human authority in the realms of government and religion. We misuse authority when it becomes merely a tool of the powerful against the weak as a way of securing self-interest.

A Christian vision of Authority:

  1. Jesus came as a King, but did not act like the people thought a king should act (with power, coercion, military strength).
  2. Instead Jesus came in humility. He taught an “upside down kingdom”. He died on the cross.
  3. Nevertheless, his death (and subsequent resurrection) was an act of victorious power over our most vicious enemies: Sin and Death.
  4. The pattern of Jesus’s life and death undermines the human vision of authority of the powerful over the weak and gives a truly Christ-centered vision of authority that serves instead of demanding service.
  5. Finally, God has authority as Creator that humans can never have. Abuse of human authority comes when we reject Jesus’s pattern or try to take God’s authority for ourselves.

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Why was Jesus baptized?

We first come across baptism in the context of John the Baptist. John’s baptism is a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). John came as a prophet, calling people to repent and, as a visible way of showing that response, to be baptized in the Jordan River. John saw this “baptism of repentance” as an act which prepared Israel for the coming Messiah, the one who would “baptize with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8).

This context makes Jesus’ own baptism by John all the more perplexing. If submission to John’s baptism was an act of repentance, then does that mean that Jesus needed to repent? Did he need to turn from sin? Did he need to be forgiven?

What didn’t happen at Jesus’ baptism?

First allow me to stress two things that didn’t happen at Jesus’ baptism. First, he did not repent from sins. Second, he was not adopted as God’s Son.

He was not repenting of sins.

John had just finished saying that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit. In Matthew, he goes on to describe Jesus as the Judge of all: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12). Jesus was the Judge who could adjudicate true from false repentance, he had no need of repenting himself. That is why John expressed disbelief when Jesus came to be baptized by him by saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:13) Jesus never sinned (Hebrews 4:15), so he had no need of repentance.

Jesus was not adopted as God’s Son at the baptism.

There was a popular heresy in the early church that said God adopted Jesus as his Son at the baptism. This heresy arose out of a misunderstanding of Mark 1:11 and its parallel passages in the other synoptic gospels when the voice from heaven declares “You are my Son, whom I love; and with you I am well pleased.” But what we have here is the same thing we have in Romans 1:4 when Paul says that “through the Spirit of holiness [Jesus Christ] was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead.” In neither event, the baptism or the resurrection, is Jesus made the Son. Instead, he is declared to be the Son. That is, his divine Sonship is made clear. His identity is confirmed, not formed, by these events.

So why was Jesus baptized?

If Jesus didn’t need to repent or be forgiven, why then did he submit to John’s baptism?

Jesus was identifying with Israel.

When the people came to John in the wilderness they were re-enacting a portion of Israel’s history. By coming to the wilderness they were entering a place associated in the Old Testament with testing and decision. When Israel rebelled in the wilderness they were met with judgment. When Israel trusted God, they were brought through the raging waters of the Jordan, into the Promised Land. By being baptized, the people of Jerusalem were committing themselves to trust God. They were, in a sense, identifying themselves with past Israel.

Jesus was doing the same sort of thing, not as an act of repentance, but of solidarity. He was saying, in a sense, “your story is my story.” I am willing to walk in the same steps as Israel, committing myself to God alone.

The problem for Israel, though, is that even though they had periods of repentance, they quickly fell back into sin. Indeed, even though “all of Jerusalem” came out to be baptized, it was also those from Jerusalem who called for Jesus’ execution. While many heard and responded to John’s call to turn from sin, they never responded, or didn’t properly respond, to John’s call to look to the Greater One.

Jesus was identifying with fallen humanity

Israel’s story, though, is a microcosm of humanity’s story. And Jesus is not only identifying with Israel, but with all of humanity. The need to trust God fully goes back not just to Israel’s wilderness wanderings, but to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. In submitting to a “baptism of repentance” which he did not need, Jesus identified himself in solidarity with all fallen humanity.

Jesus was declared as the true Son

After Jesus was baptized we’re introduced to a marvelous scene: “he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased.’” (Mark 1:10-11)

The Father describes Jesus as “my Son.” In the Old Testament, the phrase “God’s son” can sometimes refer to heavenly beings, to kings (especially in the line of David), and to Israel itself. Here Mark wants to show us Jesus’ special relationship with the Father and restate his Messianic role. Jesus is not just son, He is The Son, a truth which becomes ever more clear throughout the gospel and the rest of the New Testament.

We begin to see a continuity and discontinuity with Israel and its kings. Israel was God’s “son” who was trapped in a cycle of repentance and failure. The same story goes for its kings. But Jesus comes along as the true Israel, and as the true Messiah-king. The rest of the story reveals to us that Jesus does not fail, that he remains faithful to the Father even to death on the cross.

Again, we can go back even farther than Israel’s story, to the story of Genesis. In the creation story the Spirit hovers over the waters and it is by God’s breath that Adam becomes a living being. God’s revelation of the Spirit in Jesus’s baptism ought to draw our minds back to creation, back to Adam and Eve. Here, though, the Spirit is at work empowering Jesus to take up the role of the true human who would succeed where Adam and Eve failed.

Why does it matter that Jesus was baptized?

Jesus’ baptism doesn’t prove his unique identity by itself, but it does remind that Jesus stands both with humanity and above humanity. The rest of the New Testament shows us that Jesus was fully man and fully God. In his baptism he fully identifies himself with fallen humanity, not because he himself is fallen, but as an act of solidarity. This is a sort of “proto-cross” event. On the cross Jesus goes a step farther. He doesn’t just identify with humanity, but he takes the penalty for humanity. Jesus’ baptism sets us up for that reality.

But it’s also clear that Jesus doesn’t just come as a normal human being standing in for the rest of all normal human beings. If he did that, his death could at best only save himself. He would only be giving to God what he already owed him. No, the voice from heaven, the presence of the Spirit, and the declaration of the Father all point us to the fact that Jesus is something more. He is the Son who pleases the Father. And, because he is the true and infinite Son, his stand of solidarity can really be effective in our salvation.

Seven notes on Kristoff’s “Pious Paul” hit piece

Earlier this week Nicholas Kristoff wrote a hit piece on Paul Ryan (specifically regarding the GOP health care bill) which ended by using Jesus’s words to condemn “Pious Paul” to hell. Here are seven quick notes on the article.

  1. Before I criticize the article I want to recommend Kristoff’s book Half the Sky. It’s an important book which sheds light on the oppression of women worldwide. It’s “prophetic” in a secular sense in that it tells the brutal truth and has enough content to annoy liberals and conservatives alike. (Personally, I think the authors are unfair in their treatment of the Apostle Paul.) But there’s also a massive amount of common ground on which all people can find unity and the stakes are incredible.
  2. The article consistently takes Jesus’s words out of context.
  3. It’s hard to know how to apply Scripture to public policy. As I’ve tried to make the case here, what I want is a government which is informed by biblical values and acts within its realm of limited responsibility based on those value. Often, partisan liberals and conservatives opt for a more wooden application, one that is rightly identified as hypocritical. (See Matt Walsh’s tweet “Liberals on entitlements: “The Bible says give to the poor!” Liberals on gay marriage: “This isn’t a theocracy! Keep religion at church!”)
  4. Kristoff opts for this simplistic approach and uses it to bludgeon Paul Ryan. Two important layers of religious/moral reasoning are missed. First, Kristoff implies that Ryan does not care about the poor. Perhaps he has already forgotten what he wrote in Half the Sky, that Christians give significantly more of their incomes to charity – including non-religious charity – than non-religious people. I don’t know Paul Ryan’s heart, but it’s wrong to assume that his (or conservatives in general) don’t care about the poor. The question isn’t just whether or not we have concern, but what role the government should play. Second, even if we agree that the government plays a role, we have to exercise wisdom in developing policy. Some government charities do more harm than good, particularly through undermining social structures which form the basis of a well-functioning society. All this is dismissed in Kristoff’s piece.
  5. Since I just read Haidt’s The Righteous Mind what I see in Kristoff’s article is a clash of moral visions. Kristoff, like most liberals, bases his moral reasoning primarily on the care/harm moral foundation. Something is right/wrong based on whether or not someone is helped or hurt. He then applies Jesus’s words to back up his moral intuitions. Ryan, as a conservative, also bases moral reasoning on care/harm, but uses other foundations as well. Specifically, he probably cares about proportionality (“do people get out of the system what they put in?”) and liberty (“is the government impinging on personal freedoms through excessive taxes?”) These other foundations stand in tension with care/harm, making for a more morally nuanced approach to healthcare (I’m not saying better) that Kristoff either doesn’t understand or ignores. Kristoff should read Haidt if he hasn’t already.
  6. The article perpetuates the false narrative that religious conservatives are hypocritical and don’t care about the poor. Whether or not you agree with their policies, this myth about motives needs to end. Are there some hard-hearted religious conservatives out there? Yes, and I’ve met them. But Kristoff himself noted in Half the Sky, those same religious conservatives are often the only ones on the front lines of caring for those most in need.
  7. I’m not going to offer an assessment of the Health Care Plan. I have too little knowledge. Maybe it deserves a strong critique. But Kristoff doesn’t need to malign Paul Ryan’s motives to do so.