Thursday, February 28, 2013

Mark 7:31–37

Mark 7:31–37 (ESV): Jesus Heals a Deaf Man


This passage is interesting to me not so much because of what Jesus does, but more because of the way in which he does it. As Jesus continues his travels some people bring to him a man who is deaf and has a speech impediment to be healed. Jesus takes the man aside privately, puts his fingers in the man’s ears, spits, and touches the man’s tongue. He then looks up to heaven, sighs, and says “Ephphatha,” which means “be opened” (verse 34 (ESV)). I don’t know what language “Ephphatha” is; I’d guess Aramaic, but it’s just a guess; the study notes and footnotes I had available didn’t tell me.

At this point the man’s ears are opened and he is able to speak plainly. As is so often the case, Jesus tells them to keep it to themselves, and as usual they disregard him and go out and proclaim it. Or, as verse 36 (ESV) puts it:

And Jesus charged them to tell no one. But the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.
The reason they can’t help but tell people is given in the next verse: they’re “astonished beyond measure” that Jesus is able to do such things, even making the deaf hear and the mute speak (verse 37 (ESV)).


As I say, it’s interesting how Jesus goes about healing this man. In some instances He simply says the word, sometimes even from great distances without ever laying eyes on the person being healed, and it just happens. But then you have this instance where Jesus pulls the man aside and touches the areas which are not working. Why does Jesus need (or want) to do so much for this man, when in other instances simply saying “be healed” is enough?

The ESV Study Bible notes say that Jesus took the man aside for his healing so as not to draw attention to it, which is feasible, and they also say that the reason Jesus sighs toward heaven is that he is sighing “over the hard-heartedness and physical weaknesses that had arisen on account of mankind’s fall,” which, to me, is definitely a plausible theory, but since the text doesn’t actually tell us why Jesus is sighing it’s just that: a theory.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Mark 7:24–30

Mark 7:24–30 (ESV): The Syrophoenician Woman’s Faith


In this passage Jesus travels to the region of Tyre and Sidon, and once again, though he would prefer to remain hidden, he is immediately recognized. One of the people who recognizes him is a Gentile woman who comes and falls at Jesus’ feet, begging him to cast out a demon which has possessed her daughter. His response might seem shocking to modern-day readers:

And he said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” (verse 27 (ESV))
In other words, the bread is only for the “children,” the Jews, not for the “dogs,” the Gentiles. Her response, however, is that even though this is the case, the dogs under the table still eat the children’s crumbs. Jesus tells her that for this response she can go her way, for the demon has left her daughter, and when the woman goes home she finds that it is so.


As mentioned, many modern-day readers are probably shocked by Jesus’ response to the woman. After all, we live in an age where it’s obvious that Christianity has spread outside of the Israelites, and is for all people rather than just for a specific people group. It might surprise us to learn that when Jesus was on the earth His ministry was focused on the Jews. This is one of only a few examples of Jesus ministering to a Gentile.

As surprised as we might be, however, the woman herself doesn’t seem surprised at all from what is indicated in the text. There doesn’t seem to be any kind of “how dare you” attitude; instead she simply points out that the “children” aren’t consuming all of the “bread,” so maybe it couldn’t hurt for her to take some of the crumbs that are left over. And I guess Jesus agrees with this reasoning, since He heals the woman’s daughter. (The ESV Study Bible notes make the assumption that Jesus had planned to heal the daughter all along and was simply testing the woman, which I’d mostly go along with. I’d probably put it more along the lines of Jesus specifically having this conversation with the woman to call the disciples’ attention to it, and thus calling the attention of the the Bible’s readers to it.)

I’m wondering if there are also cultural issues clouding modern readers’ understanding of this text, since Jesus calls the Gentiles “dogs.” In our society that’s considered insulting, you wouldn’t equate someone with a dog in this day and age, but it wasn’t necessarily insulting in Jesus’ culture. Again, I go by the woman’s response; she didn’t seem to be insulted at all by Jesus’ words. I’m thinking that this might have just been a metaphor, not the insult that it seems to be to our modern eyes.

Very, very minor change

I’ve long recognized that what I’ve been calling “synopses” are much, much more detailed than synopses; a synopsis should be short and concise, and mine are anything but. So I’ll stop calling them synopses.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Mark 7:1–23

Mark 7:1–23 (ESV): Traditions and Commandments, and What Defiles a Person


This passage starts off with a conversation between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees. The scribes and Pharisees notice that Jesus’ disciples don’t wash their hands before eating. (Or maybe just not washed in the way the Pharisees expect them to be? I don’t know much about their rules for handwashing.) In a parenthetical remark, Mark explains why the Pharisees and scribes find this surprising:

(For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) (verses 3–4 (ESV), parentheses in original)
So they ask Jesus about this; they ask him why his disciples do not “walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands” (verse 5 (ESV)). Jesus doesn’t directly answer their question, though. He takes things to a higher level, and turns the accusations back around on the scribes and Pharisees:

And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,

“‘This people honors me with their lips,
   but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
   teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’

You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

(verses 6–8 (ESV))

He goes on in verses 9–13 (ESV) to tell them that they have “a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God” for their own “traditions,” and gives an example of this: The Scriptures commanded the Israelites to honour their fathers and mothers, but they have a tradition which allows them to set that commandment aside, and tell their parents that anything that otherwise would have been theirs will instead go to God. Thus, they have created a tradition which they believe somehow supersedes the scriptures.

Jesus then goes back closer to the point the scribes and Pharisees had originally been making by calling the crowd back to him and telling them that people are not “defiled” by things that they consume, it is the things that come out of a person which defile him. But this issue isn’t just misunderstood by the Pharisees; when Jesus is along with the disciples they ask him about this. His response goes into more detail:

And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (verses 18–23 (ESV))


So the scribes and Pharisees find it surprising that Jesus’ disciples don’t wash (or don’t wash properly) before meals, and because I’m always trying to see things from others’ points of view—even when I know they’re wrong, as is the case here—I am thinking that this might be more than just them picking a fight with Jesus for the sake of picking a fight. It’s possible that they really are surprised that Jesus’ disciples aren’t washing before eating. By this point in history the Pharisees and scribes would have these rules so ingrained in them that they would automatically assume that any rabbi or teacher, even one that they disagree with, would at least adhere to traditions such as this.

Why do I mention this? Because I always wonder, when reading passages such as this, if we have our own “traditions” that we adhere to more fully than we adhere to the Scriptures. For example, our society will tell us that it’s okay to be “religious” as long as we’re not too religious. Do we, as Christians, believe that? Do we, like society, believe that we should be Christians on Sundays but chase the ALMIGHTY DOLLAR from Monday–Saturday? Do we feel that we can be “too Christian?”

Maybe that’s not a good example, but if I can’t think of many examples it makes me all the more worried that I might be blinded to them; that my culture or my upbringing or the wisdom of the day might be causing me to think improperly on some issues, which cause me to simply not see things that are there in the Scriptures. Things that people from other generations or cultures would see clearly. Make no mistake, this is part of the problem of the scribes and Pharisees Jesus is talking to in this passage. I do firmly believe that they firmly believed they were in the right; I think they were jealous of Jesus’ power and influence and wanted to eliminate a competitor, but I also think that they really did believe that they were Godly men, and that following their traditions was pleasing to Him. They shouldn’t have thought that, as Jesus points out to them they should have known better, but they did. So I come back to: what things in our generation and our culture blind us to the Scriptures? I would like to think—I would love to think—that there aren’t any such issues, and we’re doing fine, but somehow I doubt that’s the case.

Of course, in this passage we have the benefit of Jesus specifically telling us how the scribes and Pharisees were wrong, so there’s no guesswork. Anytime anything is considered more important than the Scriptures it’s a problem, and that’s obviously the case here. I sometimes go easy on the Pharisees and other religious leaders because I think their original intent was good; the rules they were creating were supposed to help them obey God. The Scriptures say “keep the Sabbath” (for example) so they tried to define how one keeps the Sabbath. Their problems were, in my mind, that: 1) they went too far in defining their rules and tried to get too precise (which I think has to do with a lack of faith, but I haven’t articulated in my mind how that’s the case), which led to, 2) they started to consider the rules to be more important than the Scriptures they’d originally been trying to clarify. They lost sight of the goal they’d originally had, and ended up in much worse shape than they’d started in. The problem, of course, is that this happened over the course of hundreds of years, so that gradual process made it very easy to get used to the status quo.

I’m sure they were even more surprised when Jesus told them that nothing outside of a person can defile them. On the face of it this actually contradicts the Old Testament Scriptures, because if you examine the laws, all kinds of things could make a person unclean. Touching a dead body, or a man’s emission, or a woman’s monthly flow, or, yes, eating forbidden food… there were many ways for a person to be unclean. In fact, even touching another person who was unclean would make you unclean; uncleanness was communicable. If you read Leviticus 11, as an example, you’ll get quite a list of clean and unclean food. (The link is to my post on Leviticus 11, not the chapter itself, but the post has a link to the text.)

But as is so often the case, Jesus is taking things a bit deeper than the Pharisees are. You can’t just follow the letter of the Law and think you’re good with God; He actually demands more of us than what the Law explicitly states. If you follow all of the dietary laws and wash your hands thoroughly, but have evil thoughts, or are sexually immoral, or steal, or commit murder (or hate people), or commit adultery, or covet, or are deceptive, or envy, or slander, or are proud, or even if you’re foolish, then you’re not clean.

There is actually a change to the law here, too. Or at least a change to God’s expectations of His people. In this passage Jesus tells his listeners—and Mark makes this explicit in verse 19 (ESV)—that food cannot make a person unclean, which means that the Old Testament Jewish dietary laws no longer apply. I’m not sure what to say about this, though; 2,000 years later we’ve taken for granted that there are no longer “unclean” foods that we need to avoid, but I’m guessing that at the time this was a bombshell from Jesus. This is no longer “you’ve been misinterpreting the law, here’s what it really means,” this is, “the law used to say something, but I’m now telling you that it’s changing.” However, I obviously don’t understand the nuances of this situation, because when the Pharisees and religious authorities put Jesus on trial they never mentioned this incident; I would have thought they’d be very upset by this. Frankly, it might even have been something that they’d have a leg to stand on, legally speaking, but they didn’t go there (at least not in the recorded events in the Gospels), so I’m assuming I’m missing something on this one.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Mark 6:45–56

Mark 6:45–56 (ESV): Jesus Walks on the Water, and Jesus Heals the Sick in Gennesaret


Once again I’ve decided to combine a couple of ESV section headings into one post; the first is a significant miracle of which we’re all familiar, while the second seems (to me) to be more of an aside between stories than a significant event itself. I won’t push that point too far, though; it’s in the Bible, which means that God wanted it there for a reason.

After feeding the 5,000 in the last passage, Jesus has the disciples get in a boat to cross over to Bethsaida. He is sending them on ahead while he dismisses the crowd, and then he goes up on a mountain to pray.

That evening, when the disciples are already well out on the sea (though moving slowly because they are going against the wind), Jesus walks out toward them on the sea. At first he means to walk right on by them, but when they see him they assume he’s a ghost and cry out in fear, so he reassures them that it’s him and gets in the boat with them. As soon as he does the wind ceases. But the disciples still don’t understand what’s going on:

And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. (verses 51b–52 (ESV))
Once they get to the other side of the sea, to a place called Gennesaret, people immediately recognize Jesus and start sending sick people to him to be healed. In a stark contrast to Jesus’ reception in his hometown at the beginning of this chapter, Jesus heals many people here:

And wherever he came, in villages, cities, or countryside, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and implored him that they might touch even the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well. (verse 56 (ESV))


Once again we have an instance of Jesus going off by himself to pray. In fact, that might very well be the reason that he sent the disciples ahead: so that he could get some time alone to devote to prayer. And so I make my usual comment that I make whenever Jesus specifically takes time for prayer: If Jesus, who is God, feels the need (or desire) to take time to pray to the Father, then how can we mortals possibly think we don’t need to pray?

One of the things that interests me about Jesus walking on the water, one of his most famous miracles, is that he didn’t appear to intend it to be famous. When he first sets out he doesn’t even plan to stop and get in the boat with the disciples, he seems to intend to simply walk all the way across the sea and meet the disciples on the other side. I’m sure that would have been considered a miracle too, that Jesus had somehow beaten them to the other side of the sea, but not in the way that it was received when the disciples actually saw him walking on the water.

This passage gives one of the main reasons that I don’t ever let myself think that I’m somehow smarter or better than the disciples. They didn’t understand about Jesus feeding the 5,000 because “their hearts were hardened.” They didn’t understand what was going on because God had not [yet] given them the supernatural understanding necessary to figure these things out. Anything I understand now that they didn’t understand then is only because the Holy Spirit has enlightened me, not because I’m somehow smarter or more spiritual than they were. And of course it’s always easy to have perfect hindsight, whereas the disciples had no idea how any of these situations they were in were going to turn out, so I do my best to keep that in mind too.

It’s also interesting that Chapter 6 starts with Jesus being essentially rejected by the people of his hometown, and ends with him being very well received at Gennesaret. When Mark originally wrote this letter it didn’t contain chapter or verse numbers, but I’m sure the people who introduced chapter numbers later on did this on purpose, starting the chapter with Nazareth and ending it with Gennesaret.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Mark 6:30–44

Mark 6:30–44 (ESV): Jesus Feeds the Five Thousand


In the last passage we diverted from the storyline for a flashback of John the Baptist’s execution, but in this passage we continue on from verses 7–13. The Apostles come back and report to Jesus all that they’ve done and taught, and he brings them with him to a desolate place where they can rest. Unfortunately, the crowds that Jesus had been trying to avoid realize where he and the Apostles are going and rush to get there ahead of them, so that when Jesus gets off the boat he sees that the crowd is already there.

One might think that Jesus would have reason to be exasperated at this, all he wanted was some rest and he isn’t able to get it, but of course his reaction is not one of exasperation:

When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things. (verse 34 (ESV))
But eventually day turns to evening, and the disciples come to Jesus asking him to send the crowd away so that the people can go into the surrounding countryside and villages to look for something to eat. Remember, Jesus had purposely picked a desolate place for he and the Apostles to go rest, so it’s not like there are a bunch of restaurants around for the people to go to for dinner.

But Jesus’ reply is kind of surprising, even to me reading this story for the hundredth time: “You give them something to eat,” to which the disciples reply sarcastically, “Shall we go and buy [two hundred days’ wages] worth of bread and give it to them to eat?” (verse 37 (ESV)).

The text doesn’t record any reaction Jesus had to the disciples’ sarcasm, he simply asks them how many loaves of bread they have. They go off in search of bread, and come back to report to Jesus that they have five loaves of bread, along with two fish. (Maybe I’m being extra hard on the disciples, but I can almost see that last addition as being more sarcasm. “We have five loaves of bread… and two fish.” As if this tiny amount of food would place even a dent in the hunger of this huge crowd.)

Jesus then has the crowd break up into groups, looks up to heaven and gives a blessing, and breaks the loaves and divides the fish and gives them to the disciples to distribute to the people. Not only does everyone eat, they are “satisfied” (verse 42 (ESV)), so it’s more than just a microscopic amount for each person. Not only that, but there is food left over; twelve baskets of food remain after the crowd finishes eating. (If memory serves my old New Student Bible had a note mentioning that the word used here for “basket” meant that it was a very large basket, not a small one, but the main point is that they actually ended up with more food than they’d begun with.)

Verse 44 (ESV) tells us that there were 5,000 men there, meaning that there were way more than 10,000 people there altogether (assuming that most men had wives there, and many would have had children with them as well).


Right off the bat in this passage I like that the Apostles come back to Jesus to report to him all that they have done and taught (emphasis mine). There sometimes seems to have been a tendency in the Gospels for the people around Jesus to focus on his miracles—such as the one mentioned in this passage—and that’s no less true today; we love the power displayed by God’s miracles in the Old and New Testaments. But the true power of God is not displayed through His miracles, it’s through His Word, preached to unrepentant sinners, causing the unrepentant to repent and be changed and come to Him. The true power of God is displayed in Him accomplishing the impossible: finding a way for us to be in His presence.

It’s also interesting that Jesus’s immediate response is to bring the Apostles away on their own so they can rest. I’m sure many modern-day pastors and preachers can relate, though anecdotally I believe that many refuse to take the rest they need and end up burnt out. They may feel that they’re doing it for God’s sake, but working people to the point of being burnt out doesn’t seem to be His way of operating in the Bible. I wonder how much faith plays into this; we have to have faith that God will accomplish what He wants to accomplish, rather than feeling that we have to do it all for Him.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we can always rest when we want to, either, as this passage also demonstrates. The timing is always up to God, even the timing for our rest. As usual, when it comes to questions of the Man Jesus vs. the God Jesus, I don’t know if Jesus was truly taken by surprise when he saw the crowds there, or if he knew all along that they would be there waiting for him. His choice of location definitely made this miracle necessary, since there would be no food around other than what he miraculously supplied.

The Apostles and the disciples don’t always behave well in the Gospels, and they sometimes misunderstand Jesus’ teachings, but that doesn’t mean that they always have bad intentions or miss things. Personally, I think that they really do have the crowd’s well being in mind when they ask Jesus to send them away to find food. I don’t applaud them descending into sarcasm when he instructs them to feed the crowd, but initially I think their hearts were in the right place.

But that brings us to Jesus’ request: “You give them something to eat” (emphasis added). One’s first reaction when reading this would be to wonder what Jesus could have possibly expected them to do with this command. He can’t have expected them to know what was going to happen, he can’t have expected them to look at the miniscule amount of food they had on hand and decide that it would feed the crowd. So what did he expect? I think this passage is somewhat similar to 4:35–41 when Jesus calmed the storm; Jesus had told the disciples that they were going to the other side of the lake, so the disciples should have known that they were going to get there. Similarly, in this passage Jesus tells the disciples to feed the crowd, so the disciples should have had faith that Jesus was going to allow them to do it… somehow. He wouldn’t expect them to know the details, but he would expect them to trust him.

I find this miracle interesting because of the detail of it. Frankly, Jesus could have simply zapped the people sitting there and caused them to be full instead of going through all of the business of taking some bread and fish and dividing it amongst them. I sometimes wonder if perhaps he worked it this way to “hit them over the heads” with the fact that this was indeed a miracle that was happening; the human heart is hard, so if he’d simply caused them to be full they might have doubted that it was a miracle after all. “Hmm. Maybe we weren’t actually hungry,” they might have said. But in the way that Jesus did it, they had a distinct amount of food, which was clearly not enough to feed even the disciples let alone the whole crowd, then that small amount of food was used to feed a huge number of people, and then finally they ended up with leftover food in an amount which was clearly more than what they’d started with.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Mark 6:14–29

Mark 6:14–29 (ESV): The Death of John the Baptist


This passage uses a literary device we’re very familiar with: a flashback. In the previous passage we read about the Apostles being sent out to tell people to repent and to drive out demons and heal people. A lot of people are speculating about how this is possible, thinking that Jesus might be Elijah or John the Baptist or a prophet. Herod leans toward the second hypothesis, wondering if John the Baptist has been raised from the dead to perform all of these miracles. Why does he assume that? Because he is the one who had John beheaded, which brings us to the flashback, where we learn the story of how this happened. The story is this:

Herod married his brother’s wife, Herodias, and John told Herod that this wasn’t lawful. Herodias doesn’t like this, however, and wants to have John put to death, but Herod fears John (knowing that he is a righteous and holy man), so the furthest he will go is to have John imprisoned. In fact, Herod gets into the habit of listening to John, even though it “perplexes” him (verse 20 (ESV)).

Herodias gets her chance when Herod throws a party at which Herodias’ daughter dances for the guests. Herod is so pleased that he offers to reward the girl by giving her whatever she wishes, so she asks Herodias what she should ask for and Herodias tells her to ask for John’s head on a platter. Herod doesn’t like this, but because he made his promise in front of everyone he feels that he has to honour it, so he has John executed and his head brought to the girl on a platter.


I’m assuming that the reason Herod immediately goes to the place of assuming that Jesus is the resurrected John the Baptist is because of his own guilt on the subject. He’s obviously reluctant to act too rashly against John, and only does so when pressed into a corner. That’s not to imply that I think John is innocent in this matter; on the contrary, he seems to be pretty spineless in this story, which is how John ends up coming to a grizzly end.

And other than that, I don’t have much of a spiritual nature to say about this passage. It’s an interesting story, for sure.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Mark 6:7–13

Mark 6:7–13 (ESV): Jesus Sends Out the Twelve Apostles


In this passage Jesus sends the Apostles out on their own—that is, without him—to proclaim that people should repent, and to cast out unclean spirits. He gives them authority over the unclean spirits (verse 7 (ESV)), and some instructions for the journey:
  • They aren’t supposed to take anything with them, not even food or money
  • They are to wear their sandals, but not bring or wear extra tunics
  • Whenever they enter a new place, whatever house they stay at first they are to continue staying at until they leave that region. (This is my interpretation of Jesus’s meaning; his actual words in verse 10 (ESV) are: “Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you depart from there.”
  • If a particular place will not receive or listen to the Apostles, they are to shake off the dust from their feet when they leave as a testimony against them.
So the Apostles follow Jesus’ directions, proclaiming that people should repent, casting out demons, and healing people who are sick.


The first thing that interests me about this passage is that it exists at all: Jesus is sending the Apostles out without him. The overall impression we get throughout the Gospels is that the disciples in general and the Apostles in specific don’t always “get it” when it comes to Jesus’ ministry, and though they are sometimes praised by Jesus they are more often criticized for not understanding what is going on. So on one level I’d expect Jesus to want them to better understand His message before sending them out on their own; couldn’t the time that they were gone have been better spent in further instruction and teaching? But the message for me is that one doesn’t need to understand things perfectly to be sent out by God to spread His Word. This is directly applicable to us when we give the Gospel: we should strive to understand it properly and to deliver it properly, but even when we don’t God can use it for His purposes.

Jesus’ instructions to the Apostles as to how they were to go out—don’t bring any extra money, don’t bring any food, just wear what you’re wearing and go—seem to have two purposes: 1) there is an aspect of dependence on God to supply their needs, and 2) it harkens back to the Exodus, and the way the Israelites were to eat the Passover.

There’s another interesting aspect to this passage, which is Jesus instructing the Apostles to “shake the dust off their feet” when they leave a region which has rejected them. This was a Jewish custom of the time, which they would follow when leaving a Gentile region, and later on it became a custom of missionaries when people rejected the Gospel. When I wrote the post on Matthew 10:5–15 I mentioned my assumption that this Jewish custom has to do with not wanting to be unclean by even having the Gentiles’ dust clinging to them; I still think this is the case, and think it’s why Jesus tells his Apostles to do the same: when we give the Gospel to people, whether they accept it or not, we are [obviously] going to be interacting with them, and probably conversing with them and exchanging worldviews. There is always a danger that some of their beliefs will “rub off” on us, or cling to us like the dust of a Gentile region. I think Jesus is symbolically telling his Apostles not to let the peoples’ beliefs cling to them.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t listen to people when we give them the Gospel. In fact I’d argue quite the opposite. I think we need to be as sympathetic and empathetic as possible, and really try to understand where people are coming from, so that we can better deliver the Gospel to them in a way that they’ll understand. We can’t just talk at them, we have to talk with them. (In the past I’d sometimes invited Jehovah’s Witnesses into my apartment, and they would try to evangelize me and I’d try to evangelize them. When I moved into my current house there was a new guy who would come around and in the beginning I tried to do the same but it was impossible to have a conversation with him because he would refuse to listen. I don’t mean he wouldn’t hear the Gospel—I was expecting that—I mean he wouldn’t engage in two-sided conversation, he would simply talk over me any time I’d try to speak. So I’ve had to stop talking to him, because I simply can’t converse.)

Personally, I believe that this is especially true in multicultural environments, like my city of Toronto, partially because a lot of the disagreements that will arise can be more cultural than theological and partially because explaining the Gospel to a Muslim vs. explaining it to a Hindu vs. explaining it to a lapsed Christian vs. explaining it to an Atheist can be a very different conversation. If you simply have a script you want to follow, and refuse to deviate from that script, the conversation will quickly get derailed and the person you’re talking to will be right in thinking that you never wanted to have a conversation at all, you just wanted to steamroll over them. Instead, be prepared to actually talk with the person and understand what they’re saying, just as you want them to understand what you’re saying, and then let the Gospel do its work.

Of course, in order for this work you need to know your stuff. In other words, you have to actually understand the Gospel and know your Bible. When you get into an actual religious conversation with someone you never know where the conversation will lead, so you should be prepared to go there. Have the honest conversation. Most of the people you’ll talk to aren’t stupid, they have a reason for believing what they believe, and despite what you might think in 99% of the cases it will be more than just blindly believing what their parents have taught them. They’ll have thought things through to a greater or lesser extent, and it will make sense to them, so pretty much by definition you’ll be trying to present them with ideas that won’t initially make sense because your ideas will conflict with ideas that they’ve already internalized.

I’ve taken all of this space to say that we should listen to people when we give them the Gospel; to converse with them rather than speaking at them, and actually listen to what they are saying. But this two-way conversation doesn’t mean that we accept all of their ideas either! This goes back to knowing our stuff; we need to see to it that nobody takes us “captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8 (ESV)). This isn’t always easy; sometimes it’s easier than others. But we should shake this metaphorical dust off of our feet, and not let non-Christian philosophies cling to us.

But perhaps I should also state the obvious: We can’t shake that dust off of our metaphorical feet unless we actually go out and collect it in the first place—we have to actually give the Gospel to people who need it, or there will be nothing to shake off. That brings us full circle back to the beginning of the thoughts on this post: we may not give it perfectly, but we do have to give it. Let God take care of the rest.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Mark 6:1–6

Mark 6:1–6 (ESV): Jesus Rejected at Nazareth


In this passage Jesus goes back to his hometown and tries to teach there. To my mind, the story takes a very sharp turn; in verses 1–2 (ESV) it seems like it’s going one way:

He went away from there and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands?”
To my ear, that is starting to sound like people are pretty impressed with Jesus. But then in verse 3 (ESV) we see the reverse:

“Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.
Jesus seems to take this in stride, however, at least from what we see in the text. In verse 4 (ESV) he says that, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household,” and we are told that he is not able to do any “mighty works,” except for the healing of a few sick people. However, in verse 6 (ESV) we are also told that he “marveled” because of the unbelief of the people.


Since Jesus is both fully man and fully God, it can be difficult to talk about his reactions to particular situations; as God He seems to understand that He is being rejected just as other prophets have been by their relatives, but as a man is he hurt by their rejection? Did he hope for more? We are told that Jesus marvels at their unbelief, so to me that seems to indicate that he might have been hoping for more, even though he understood the reasons why he didn’t see it.

To a lesser extent, I think we still see this today. Many Christians feel that it’s more difficult to give the Gospel to close friends and relatives than it is to give the Gospel to complete strangers. In Jesus’ case it was difficult because people had known him all his life; they couldn’t believe that he was more than they’d been believing for all that time. Is that the same for us? Is it that, when we become Christians, others who have known us can’t believe that we’ve become better than we were? Or is it because we’re afraid that they see how sinful we are, day by day, and that therefore they won’t understand what we’re saying about changing; if they haven’t seen a change in us (we worry), then all that we’re saying must be hokum. Hopefully, for most of us, it’s more the former than the latter…

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Mark 5

Mark 5 (ESV): Jesus heals some people


Once again I’m combining a couple of ESV section headings into one post because they’re thematically connected: verses 1–20 (ESV) talk about Jesus healing a demon-possessed man, and verses 21–43 (ESV) talk about him healing a young girl who has died—with an aside in which he heals a woman with a “discharge of blood.”

The first healing takes place in a place called Gerasenes; I don’t know if that’s significant, but that’s what we’re told. A demon-possessed man is living there among the tombs, crying out and cutting himself with stones. We are told that people have tried to subdue him in the past but that they haven’t been able to because of the man’s strength: he wrenches chains apart and breaks shackles in pieces. But when he sees Jesus from a distance he runs over and falls down before him.

And crying out with a loud voice, he said, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” (verse 7 (ESV))
Jesus asks the man—or rather, asks the demon living in the man—what his name is, and the demons respond that their name is Legion, for there are many demons living in the man. The demons beg Jesus not to send them into the countryside; since there is a herd of pigs feeding nearby they ask Jesus for permission to go into the pigs instead. Jesus gives the demons permission, they go into the pigs, and then the pigs rush into the sea where they drown.

At this point the men who’d been herding the pigs run into town to tell everyone what happened, and people from town come out to see for themselves. Those who had witnessed the event recount it for them, and, perhaps more importantly, they see the man sitting with Jesus, clothed and in his right mind, and that’s the best proof of all as to what has happened. Proof enough, in fact, that the people become very afraid, and beg Jesus to leave their region. Jesus does so, and the formerly demon-possessed man asks to go with him, but Jesus tells him to stay where he is instead and spread the word throughout the region as to what the Lord has done for him. The man does so, and people marvel at his words.

Meanwhile Jesus goes back across the sea, and is met by a ruler of the synagogue named Jairus, who falls at Jesus’ feet and implores Jesus to come home with him to heal his daughter, who is “at the point of death” (verse 23 (ESV)). Jesus agrees and goes with Jairus, but on the way, as he is passing through the crowds, a woman touches him hoping to be healed of her own illness.

For the last twelve years she has had a “discharge of blood” (verse 25 (ESV)) and has spent all she had on physicians, but is getting worse instead of better. Her faith in Jesus is strong enough that she feels she can be healed just by touching his clothes, and her faith is rewarded because as soon as she does so she can sense that she is healed. She may also be trying to soften the blow of touching a clean man, since she herself is unclean from her continual bleeding. According to the ceremonial law this would make Jesus unclean, and perhaps she is hoping that by confining her touch to his garments, and not his physical person, this will not be the case.

However, her attempts to conceal herself fail because Jesus realizes that power has gone out from him, and turns to the crowd to ask who touched him. His disciples get a bit sarcastic with him on that point—he’s in the middle of a crowd, all kinds of people are touching him—but he will not take that for an answer, he wants to talk to the person who was just healed. The woman realizes that the game is up and comes to fall down before him and admit to what has happened. Instead of getting in trouble for making him unclean, however, Jesus praises the woman’s faith and tells her to go in peace.

But even while he is talking to her some people come from Jairus’ house to inform him that his daughter has died, and therefore he doesn’t need to bother Jesus anymore. Jesus overhears them, and tells Jairus not to fear. He then brings just a few of the disciples (Peter, James and John) with him and Jairus and goes to Jairus’ house, where people are wailing and mourning for the loss of the little girl. Jesus tells them that they don’t need to mourn because the girl isn’t dead, only sleeping, but the people laugh at him because they know that the girl is dead. But Jesus takes his few disciples and the girl’s parents into the room with her, takes her by the hand, and tells her to get up, whereupon she does. They are amazed by this, but Jesus instructs them not to tell anyone. He also tells them to give the girl something to eat.


In the last passage Jesus’ disciples saw Him calm a storm, which gave them an idea of who He really is. They don’t yet have the full picture, but they’re starting to move in the right direction. In this passage it seems that the demons might be a step ahead of the disciples; when they see Jesus, even from a distance, they immediately know who He is and recognize his power over them. Perhaps the disciples can be somewhat excused on this point since the spiritual realm is somewhat hidden from us whereas the demons live in that realm (I think), but it’s interesting nonetheless.

I’m not sure why the demons prefer to go to the pigs rather than being cast into the countryside, but we see Jesus’ power over them in that they can’t do it without His permission. They resist Jesus up to a point, and don’t come out of the man immediately, but eventually they must succumb.

And then, once the townspeople see what Jesus has done, they react the same way that the disciples had when He calmed the storm: they are afraid. Well… it’s not exactly the same reaction, because they go further and ask Jesus to leave. The disciples didn’t ask Him to leave.

I don’t know how important it is to the story, but by the time the woman approaches Jesus she is in pretty rough shape. She is penniless (or nearly so) because she’s been spending all of her money on doctors; she is probably continually weak from loss of blood; she would be unable to worship with her fellow Jews because this continual bleeding would make her ceremonially unclean—and that last point is definitely important to the story because she probably doesn’t believe that Jesus would be willing to touch her, because it would make Him unclean. Little does she know that Jesus is the one person who can actually touch an unclean thing and make it clean, which is not how the ceremonial laws typically work. She was trying to be sneaky and touch him without his knowledge, but it worked out fine in the end.

It has always struck me, when Jesus goes to Jairus’ house, how quickly the people turn from wailing and weeping to laughing at him. However, the ESV Study Bible points out that some of the people in the crowd are probably “professional mourners,” who are paid to weep and wail in this manner, so I can easily see them quickly turning from “doing their job” to laughing at something which struck them as funny. Obviously Jesus has the last laugh in this case.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Mark 4:35–41

Mark 4:35–41 (ESV): Jesus Calms a Storm


This passage starts with Jesus telling his disciples, “Let us go across to the other side” [of the Sea of Galilee] (verse 35 (ESV)). So he and his disciples get into a boat to cross the sea, and Jesus goes to the stern to sleep on a cushion. During the night a great windstorm arises, and the disciples get scared—so scared that they wake Jesus, and ask him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (verse 38 (ESV)).

Jesus wakes up and “rebukes” the wind and the sea, telling them to “be still” (verse 39 (ESV)), and the weather stops.

At this point Jesus rebukes his disciples:

He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” (verse 40 (ESV))
This fills the disciples with even more fear, however, but now their fear is of Jesus, as they wonder who this could be that even the wind and the sea obeys him.


I purposely started this post by quoting Jesus telling the disciples, “Let us go across to the other side.” Jesus never promised his disciples that they wouldn’t die. He didn’t promise them that their lives would be easy. (Quite the opposite!) But, on this one occasion, he did promise them that they would go to the other side of the sea. He didn’t say so in so many words, of course; he didn’t come right out and say to his disciples, “Hey guys, I promise you, we’re going to go to the other side of the sea. Even though there will be a bad storm during the night, it won’t prevent us from getting there.” He just said, “Let us go across to the other side.” Normally that would be enough for the disciples; “Jesus said we’re going to the other side of the sea, so we’re going to go to the other side of the sea.” It’s only in the face of a huge storm that they question it, and think—even if not in their conscious minds—that “surely this storm makes Jesus’ earlier statement null and void. He said we’re going there, but he didn’t have this storm in mind when he said it.”

It’s important that we note, however, that this probably isn’t anything that the disciples were specifically and consciously thinking. I don’t think anyone thought to himself, “Jesus said we’re going to the other side, but I don’t believe him anymore.” I think they just saw the storm, got afraid, and thought about nothing more than their fear. And I make that point because I think that’s how we all fall into our occasional bouts of faithlessness. I very much doubt that Christians get into situations and consciously think to themselves, “God is powerless in this situation! There is absolutely nothing He can do—it’s out of His control!” Yet, though we’re not thinking that consciously, that is in effect what we’re thinking when we get into situations that cause us to panic; there is no reason to panic unless God is not in control, so if we panic it’s because we believe, on some level, that He is not.

Or perhaps we are thinking that He is in control, but simply doesn’t care about us. As the disciples asked Jesus, “do you not care that we are perishing?” Perhaps, when we get into bad situations, we forget God’s character, and start to wonder if perhaps He has abandoned us. But if that’s the case, the best way to combat our panic would probably be to meditate on His character.

This passage ends with the disciples even more afraid of Jesus than they had been of the storm—but I’m thinking that this fear is more acceptable to God, since it is now “fear of the Lord.” The wind and the sea had been scary enough, but humans are used to the fact that we can’t control the weather. When the disciples met someone who actually could, it shook them. Their question is a valid one: “Who is this?” This situation gave them a glimpse of who He actually is.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Mark 4:26–34

Mark 4:26–34 (ESV): The Parable of the Seed Growing, and The Parable of the Mustard Seed


In this passage—which is actually two ESV sections combined together—Jesus explains what the “kingdom of God” is like using metaphors involving seeds:
  • In verses 26–29 (ESV) we have the Parable of the Seed Growing, in which Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God is like seed scattered on the ground: we don’t really know how it grows, we just know that it does—and when it does, we know to get out the sickle for the harvest.
  • In verses 30–32 (ESV) we have the Parable of the Mustard Seed, in which Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a mustard seed: the smallest of all seeds, yet when it is planted it grows into a plant which is larger than any other garden plant—large enough that birds can even make nests in its shade.
Verses 33–34 (ESV) reiterate that Jesus only speaks to the crowd in parables, whereas he privately explains all of these parables to his own disciples.


In my mind these two metaphors are pretty straightforward: just like seeds which are planted in the ground, we don’t really know all of the mechanics of how the kingdom of God works, but that doesn’t change the fact that we know that it does work, and we behave accordingly: we “plant the seed” (i.e. spread the Gospel to people who haven’t heard it), and we “reap the harvest” (i.e. disciple those who have come to faith). We don’t have to know how it works, we just have to know that it does. And just like planting a mustard seed produces a very large plant, spreading the Gospel has produced a very large Church, which continues to grow day by day.

We can push this metaphor even further: although we might not always have been able to understand all of the mechanics of how seeds grow (though I’m sure science has come far enough in the last 2,000 years or so that we understand most if not all of it by now), we have always had certain techniques for planting seeds, and known that some techniques worked better than others. For example, if you plant seeds in fertile ground they will grow better than if you spread them over bare rock. Techniques have improved over the centuries, much of the growth of civilization on this planet comes from improvements to agriculture, but we’ve always known that some things work better than others. Similarly, if you want to “grow a Christian,” how do you do it? You give them the Word of God. It may or may not work—the seed planted doesn’t always take hold—but nothing else does. There are lots of techniques and formulae and methodologies for evangelism, and many of them have merit, but any attempt to evangelize without actually giving the Gospel will fail to produce saving faith. You might convince someone to try a new lifestyle, or think about a new philosophy of life, but only the Gospel will produce true repentance leading to saving faith.