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Monthly Archives: April 2016

Mark, Episode 6: How People React to Jesus

Believe in Jesus or reject him. Devote your life to him or deny him. Praise him or criticize him. There are many ways to react to Jesus, but one thing you can’t do is ignore him. There is no middle ground.

From the end of Mark 4 to the beginning of chapter 6, Jesus continues his tour across the sea and back home. Along the way, he interacts with many different characters. But they all choose to react in either fear or faith.

Read Mark 4:35-6:6.

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Credit: Benjamin Disinger (https://flic.kr/p/oQ8px5)

This section is a little long, but these stories are interesting to compare side-by-side. At first, Jesus crosses the sea with his disciples and settles down for a much-needed nap. The disciples rudely awake him when a sudden squall threatens to capsize the boat. I imagine them pointing at the waves breaking over the boat and shouting, “How can you sleep when our lives are in danger? Why are you not freaking out like us?” Maybe one of them shoved a bucket into his hands and cried, “Help us bail out the boat!”

Jesus knew buckets were not enough to save the boat. Mere human power could not save their. So he stood up and stopped the storm at its source. Then looking at his disciples, Jesus questioned their trust in him. He was saying, “You don’t need to be afraid when I am with you. I am in control of the happy ending. My actions have proven you can trust me.”

The disciples were stunned. Their faith may have increased, but I wouldn’t be surprised if his power over the storm scared them too.

For the rest of the trip, Jesus naturally draws people to him, either to send him away or ask his help. And they are all afraid of something. The possessed man ran to him while he was still far off. The unclean spirits were afraid of his wrath. The people in the area, afraid of his power, come to beg him to leave (imagine the negative economic impact of losing 2,000 pigs). The freed man wanted to be with Jesus. Across the sea again, Jairus falls at his feet afraid for his daughter’s life (even though the Jewish religious leaders like himself were Jesus’ greatest critics). The sick woman was so desperate that she struggled through the crowd just to brush her fingers on his cloak. She was afraid to ask his help because her disease made her unclean. But her faith was stronger than her fear.

Her response to Jesus couldn’t have been more opposite to the reception waiting for him at home. When Jesus returned to Nazareth, his hometown where all the neighbors watched him grow up, the people there couldn’t grasp that the boy they knew from infancy had become a travelling rabbi and sensational miracle worker. They were so offended by his presumption that Jesus couldn’t show them as great of miracles as he had done elsewhere. “And he marveled because of their unbelief” (vs. 6:6).

The people who knew Jesus the longest were blind to his miracles and deaf to his teaching. Like his family, they may have worried his antics would embarrass or otherwise mar their community. He was defying the expected social norms, and they wanted nothing to do with his new movement.

They chose fear over faith.

Jesus has offered the choice between fear and faith ever since. Either we can continue living in fear–fear of change, fear of consequences, fear of what Jesus might do in our lives if we let him. Or we can surrender it all and listen when he says, “Do not fear, only believe” (vs. 5:36).

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Posted by on April 25, 2016 in Other thoughts, Uncategorized

 

Mark, Episode 5: Why Jesus Told Stories

Sometimes it’s easier to teach truth with a bit of fiction. Think of all the fairytales that manage to teach children about life, lessons like generosity, kindness, and honesty. A child might not listen to, let alone understand, a straightforward harangue on always telling the truth, but they won’t forget the boy who cried wolf.

 

Jesus was king of the metaphor. He wanted to teach people about the kingdom of God, so he told stories. Like Aesop’s fables, every one of Jesus’ parables had a message.

Read Mark 4:1-34.

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Jesus used parables that the common people could easily understand to introduce complex concepts harder to grasp. He was speaking in their language, which was richly agricultural. The Israelites lived everyday with the realities of livestock, crops, and harvests. So those were the subjects Jesus would use to talk about other, less relatable concepts.

Theologians have analyzed and interpreted each of his parables, sometimes devoting entire books to the study of a single one. You can find those books if you’re curious to really get into the details. I won’t do that today. Instead I will focus on the same theme of my previous posts: what does Mark tell us about Jesus?

First, Jesus is still being careful about his public image. He would teach the general public, but he wouldn’t tell them everything. He saved that confidence for his closest disciples. The last two verses of this passage are a perfect summary: “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.”

I believe this reveals a careful shrewdness in his character. He knew the public would not be able to accept everything he had to say, so they heard abridged versions–fairytales–while the disciples traveling with him heard the full story. Why? It isn’t much different from mass media today. Every story is bound to get distorted or misunderstood at some point between the original source and the audience. Personally teaching a small group of students, though, creates much more accurate and effective communication. Jesus says the disciples are given “the secret of the kingdom of God.” They are the good soil that received the seed and will produce an abundant harvest.

Jesus quotes a vision of Isaiah, when the Lord told Isaiah to prophesy to the Israelites: “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive. Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed” (Isaiah 6:9-10).

I’ve never studied ancient Hebrew, but my friends who have told me the verb tenses can be tricky to translate. In the case of these verses, I’ve heard it explained that the prophecy states Israel’s already hardened heart rather than declares a curse to make it so. It’s saying how things are, not how they should be. God didn’t want Israel to hear and not understand. But that was exactly what Israel was doing. It was their own indifference that kept them from repentance and healing.

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In quoting this prophecy, Jesus compares Israel of his day to the Israel of Isaiah’s. The people still had hard hearts. Even if Jesus explained everything to the public like he did for the disciples, they would not understand, would not repent, and would not receive forgiveness. They were the bad soil where the seed could not grow.

But Jesus did not give up on them and ignore the crowds. Here we see his compassion for Israel. Matthew and Luke quote Jesus near the end of his ministry saying, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matt. 23:37; Luke 13:34). Jesus yearned for Israel to have an open heart and receive the word he described as producing a harvest to the hundredfold. He kept teaching, even if in parables, because good soil can be hidden in the path, rocks, or thorns.

He invested more time, though, where it would be most useful: his disciples. They were the ones who would keep sowing after he was gone and until the whole world heard the word. They were the ones who would watch the seed grow without knowing how (Mark 4:27). They were the ones who would gather the fruit, making more disciples just like Jesus taught them (Matt. 28:19-20).

 
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Posted by on April 19, 2016 in Other thoughts

 

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Mark, Episode 4: Who People Think Jesus Is

Just calling yourself the next president of the United States doesn’t make it true. And plenty of people will argue about whether you’re fit for the job. It’s the same case if you claimed to be the Messiah in first-century Israel.

Lots of spiritual leaders had made the same claim before, and many have since. Not all of them could be the Messiah. Obviously, it was a grandiose statement to announce and worth evaluating critically. Even though Jesus had already associated himself with the Messiah, there was a lot of debate about who he was reallyThe rest of chapter 3 describes the growing controversy surrounding Jesus.

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Read Mark 3:7-35.

Different groups of people took sides on who they thought Jesus was. “Unclean spirits” (demons) possessing people called Jesus the Son of God. He didn’t deny it, but he did tell them to shut up about it (vs. 12). A normal human being claiming divinity amounted to blasphemy, which was punishable by death. So calling yourself the Son of God was much riskier than claims to being the Messiah.

The religious scribes knew the messianic prophecies forwards and backwards. When they saw Jesus banishing unclean spirits, they deduced that he must be Beelzebul, the prince of demons. How else would he have power over demons? Jesus told them their logic was flawed. If he really was on Satan’s side, then he would be a double agent. Ordering demons to leave weakens Satan’s kingdom rather than strengthens it. Then he turned the scrutiny around and accused them of blasphemy for slandering the Holy Spirit. Basically he said, “I have the Spirit of God in me, not a demon, and you are liars to say such a thing.”

The family of Jesus came forward with a third explanation. Jesus finally returned home with a huge following, like a superstar who needs a cohort of bodyguards just to get from the hotel to his car. Imagine if your brother or son with no political or legal background decided to run for president. He started a viral social media campaign and a national tour. People would pack stadiums to hear him speak. He promised to save the country. Like Jesus’ family, you might say he’s crazy. For goodness sake, this is little “JJ”, the boy you watched play in the sandbox. He’s no president, let alone a savior. Since Israel was a communal society, where everything you did reflected on who you belonged to, Jesus’ family was probably shocked and ashamed. So they physically attempted to “seize him”.

When that didn’t work, they returned later and called him outside for a talk. Jesus said something really crazy in a communal society. He denied his family waiting outside and instead called the people around him and anyone else who obeys God part of his family. It’s like saying, “If my mother and brother don’t support what I’m doing, then they don’t really love me and I’m going to keep doing God’s work anyway.” Could you imagine being the guy who had to give his family that message?

So we see the demons, the scribes, and even his own family speaking out. None of them are on his side. I think it’s interesting that the only people who would claim him were his disciples and the people who wanted to be healed. These followers benefited from his miracles and teaching while everyone else argued about his identity. At this point, his apostles may have had some ideas about whether or not Jesus was the Messiah, but I think they were more concerned with the amazing things he did and said. They were busy watching and listening to him.

Jesus wasn’t telling them, “Here are the things you must believe about me to follow me.” He was again pointing to his words and actions and letting his apostles think for themselves about what it all meant.

 
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Posted by on April 11, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

Mark, Episode 3: When Jesus Breaks the Rules

So far in this Mark study, we’ve found out why and who for Jesus came. The next stories tell us a bit of the how. Even though Jesus made clear claims to be the long-expected Jewish Messiah, he was not the Messiah that the Jews expected. I’m not denying that he was the Messiah, just that he wasn’t the one the Jews thought he would be.

 

The general public loved him and he quickly gathered a large following (without the help of Facebook or Twitter). But the religious leaders of the day, the Pharisees, were skeptical. Why? In short, because he didn’t follow their rules. Because he wasn’t the kind of Messiah they wanted. He didn’t fit in their box.

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Credit: Pat Dalton… (https://flic.kr/p/6K1ih2)

Read Mark 2:18-3:6.

If you know anything about the origin of the Bible, you might know that the original writings didn’t have either chapters or verses. The recent organizational invention is usually helpful if often arbitrary. In this case, I’ve chosen 2:18-3:6 because the three stories here have a common thread: Jesus breaks the rules.

Necessary background info: the Pharisees loved the rules. Not the beautiful and good kind of love, but the one that’s obsessive to the point of restraining orders. To the Pharisees, rules were the whole of their religion. Their theology was that good obedience to the rules meant acceptance from God. But as Jesus points out multiple times in his ministry, the Pharisees’ rules superseded God. They worshiped not God but the rules.

In The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard, he presents two extreme views of spiritual discipline. The modern view, he writes, is that discipline is unnecessary to good spiritual health and growth. Most Christians reject discipline, instead favoring closeness with God that comes “naturally” (read: relying on highly unpredictable, varying moods to experience the spiritual).

Willard contrasts this with the early church view, which was based on the teaching of Jesus and Paul. The early Christians believed the spiritual, just like the physical body, needed rigorous, diligent exercise to be strengthened. However, over time, long after the Apostles were gone, some Christian leaders took spiritual discipline to ridiculous extremes. Examples include: “eating no cooked food for seven years, exposing the naked body to poisonous flies while sleeping in a marsh for six months, not lying down to sleep for forty or fifty years, not speaking a word for many years, proudly keeping a record of the years since one had seen a woman, carrying heavy weights everywhere one went, or living in iron bracelets and chains, explicitly vying with one another for the championship in austerities.”

Willard goes on to compare this fanatic level of asceticism to someone consumed by their diet or bodybuilding. He writes: “The point no longer seems to be health or strength, but self-admiration, self-righteousness, and self-obsession. In such bodybuilding groups, we often see muscle for muscle’s sake. Similarly, in the excesses of spiritual ‘asceticism’ we see asceticism for asceticism’s sake. These people are no longer truly ascetic, no longer are they truly concerned about taking pains for the end of a healthy, outgoing union with the healthy, outgoing, and sociable Christ who also loves himself and all of God’s creation. … Here it is a matter of taking pains about taking pains. It is in fact a variety of self-obsession–narcissism–a thing farthest removed from the worship and service of God. It is actually losing one’s life through trying to save it.”

The Pharisees had lost the point. The rules had never been about gaining God’s approval. And they definitely were not about the rules themselves. As if God felt bored one day and made up random laws for the hell of it.

Rather, every law was for the good of humans, not much different from a parent’s rules for the health and safety of their children. As Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Letting the disciples starve for the day would defeat the Sabbath’s purpose.

Jesus does not deny that fasting or honoring the Sabbath are important disciplines and should be followed, but he also does not advocate for obedience regardless of whatever other harm it may cause. He’s also not saying that the laws depend completely on personal judgment, but neither are they as inflexible as the Pharisees believed. Sometimes the question needs to be asked, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?”

Which extreme do you lean toward: laissez faire abandonment or tyrannical diligence? How have you seen either one come between you and God?

 
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Posted by on April 4, 2016 in Other thoughts

 

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