Tag Archives: Mark

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.

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.

The Rest of the Sermon. Or, an Important New/Old Clarification

I couldn’t properly finish my sermon this morning thanks to what has to be one of my most embarrassing moments in preaching – the distinct feeling that I was very close to fainting. In order avoid making a bigger scene, I “landed the plane” rather quickly and sat down.

Preaching in Mark 2:18-22, the main point of the sermon was rather simple: We cannot simply patch Jesus onto our old lives. We need to be open to his transformational work. We need him to make us new.

In this passage the key distinction is between “old” and “new”, where the “old” represents those who rejected Jesus and the “new” represented Jesus and those who, by faith, receive him.

But here I feel like I need to make a clarification I didn’t have a chance to make this morning. We could misunderstand Jesus’s teaching to mean something like this: What is New in time is superior to what is Old.

In other words, we could take up a position of what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” This is the idea that modern is greater than ancient, the new idea greater than the old, the novel technique greater than tradition, what comes later is greater than what came before. In doing so, we could become unmoored from the anchor of our faith, “blown here and there by every wind of teaching.” (Ephesians 4:14) No, even though the Bible speaks about the superiority of the New, chronology is not exactly what is in mind.

22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires;23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. Ephesians 4:22-24

Consider this passage from Ephesians. First, you’ll notice that there is a chronology here. Paul speaks of their former way of life. In time, the Ephesians heard the gospel, believed, and confessed their faith. However, chronology is only part of the equation.

What really makes something new is its relation to God: “Put on the new self, created to be like God.” What makes something old is its relation to the self apart from Christ: “put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires.” Notice that there is a possible progression in both directions – a continual corruption of the old self, or a renewal of the new. Both happen in chronological time, but only one can properly be called “new” in this sense.

God, in time, makes things new. Indeed, he is making all things new: A new people, a new creation. But not everything new is of God. That means that we are free to mine the ancient, the historical, even the traditional, for the beautiful “new” treasures God has in store for us.