Archive for the ‘Gospels’ Category
I preached a couple of weeks ago (again!) and I decided to use Matthew 13 as my text. I had been doing some light research on the chapter and taught a little of it in my Sunday school class so I took the next logical step and went ahead with a full blown manuscript. It preached fairly well although I would agree with anyone who said it's a bit long. It preached long too. Anyhow, here's the text of the sermon. Enjoy.
The Kingdom of God
Sermon Text: Matthew 13
One of the things we understand from Jesus, that is, things explicitly taught by Him, to us–about how to do something–is how to pray.
So, when Jesus, for example, said “I will make you fishers of men,” it’s not like he explicitly told you and me–and I assume the majority of us are not fishermen in the sense that Jesus’ first disciples were–how it is that we are to go about doing such a thing. For that matter, what does it mean to be a ‘fisher of men’?
But some will argue that he did in fact teach us how to make disciples at the end of Matthew 28 and thus we do, in actuality, have our blueprints for how to be fishers of men.
We might also take the idea of worshiping in Spirit and truth. We do not really gather from his conversation in John 4 what that means or exactly how such worship might look–and I assume it would look profoundly different in our culture than it would in Samaria in the first century, or in Africa in the 21st century.
But whatever else we may decide about such things as these, and they may be radically different from person to person while remaining profoundly orthodox, is that at the end of the day, Jesus did teach us how to pray. We know the sort of things he taught us to pray–things that are typically quite different from the things we pray for, safe travel, sunshine and safe travel–not that there’s anything wrong with these things but that they are different from what he specifically said to pray for.
And, to put a fine point on this, Jesus told us specifically to pray, “Your kingdom come.” I have heard a lot of people pray before that the Lord provide us with daily bread, and forgiveness of sins, and that his will be done. But I have heard few, very few, people–elders, deacons, preachers, prophets, or little old faithful ladies–pray that God’s kingdom come.
And why? What is it about this kingdom that prevents us from praying ‘your kingdom come’?
It seems that even in this context of Matthew 6, it’s not as odd as it might seem to find Jesus talking to his disciples about the Kingdom. Matthew has had the kingdom in mind from the beginning of his Gospel when he started with a genealogy of ‘Jesus Messiah, the son of King David, the son of Abraham.’ When you start a book by talking about kings, the reign of kings, and the sons of kings well, then I suppose we ought to assume that perhaps the idea is going to be featured in the rest of the book.
And so it is and so it goes. Over and over again in Matthew we see a clash of kingdoms: Jesus collides with Herod near his birth, he collides with the satan after his baptism and many other times too, at times he collides with his own disciples, and other times with the leadership of Israel. Finally, he collides with the kings of Rome.
Matthew’s Gospel is one telling you and me not so much about how to be saved–in some strange sense of going to heaven when we die–but about how God was once again becoming the King of this earth and thus bringing about to fulfillment his plan which he announced in creation–if He created this heavens and the earth, then the heavens and the earth and everything in them are his and he will rule them–and specified in the person of Abraham in Genesis 12–that is, his plan to bless all nations through Abraham and the promised Seed who would crush this earth’s kingdoms which are so masterfully under the control and direction of the serpent.
And in some way we see God becoming King in Jesus and we see Jesus reclaiming the heavens and the earth for God through his death and his resurrection: All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me, he said, now you go and tell this story and make disciples.
Scott McKnight writes, “I lay down an observation that alters the landscape if we embrace it–namely, we need to learn to tell the story that makes sense of Jesus. Not a story that we ask Jesus to fit into. No, we need to find the story that Jesus himself and the apostles told. To us common idiom, If Jesus was the answer, what was the question?’ Or, better, ‘If Jesus was the answer, and the answer was that Jesus was the Messiah/King, what was the question?’ (22) McKnight goes on to state, quite bluntly: “What is the kingdom story of the Bible? Until we can articulate the Bible’s kingdom story, we can’t do kingdom mission.’ (23)
Part 3: What the Church Needs. Now.
We've been taking the last Sunday of each month the past couple of months to visit other churches in our area. This, in conjunction with our travels to preach in various churches, gives us the opportunity to see how the Lord is working in our part of the world.
It appears, from what we can tell, that God is working in one of two ways. On the one hand, there are struggling, dying, small churches dotting the land around us. They are congregations full of few generations (which is a nice way of saying that they are filled with older people who have never left the small town where they were born). There's nothing particularly fancy about these churches. They still have fellowship dinners–carry-in–and sing songs from a hymn book. They still do traditional things like read Scripture as a call to worship and clutter up the spirit of worship with strange meditations before communion and too many announcements.
Yet these churches plod on day after day. They turn over their preacher every couple of years and operate on significantly small budgets. But they are still here, alive, and contributing to the Kingdom of God, in some way, right where they are. They wield very little power in this world. Yet here they are still here–living, breathing, and worshiping.
On the other hand, there are what I call hip churches. They are large and have virtually cut themselves off from anything resembling tradition. Their preacher is young and doesn't own a suit. They are spread out over large areas and consume a lot of resources. Their buildings are new and ergonomic. Everything is a production. The music is loud and modern and has a lot to do with singing about how great our problems are in this world and how God is somehow greater if we just open our eyes and see. These churches wield a lot of power and influence in the world precisely because they are so large.
And they too are here. They press on every day and face problems that are proportional to their size. Every church has problems and really it's simply a matter of size that determines the nature of the problem and solutions. They have large budgets and I suppose this might be one of the problems they face: how do we keep people interested and the money flowing? They are, nevertheless, here and they, too, are contributing to the advancement of God's kingdom–sometimes in spite of themselves–but here they are: living, breathing, and worshiping.
In Mark 1, we have seen that Mark had something to say to the church about preaching and repentance. In this third post of my short series, I'd like to look briefly at what he says about power. Here's what John the baptist said, "After me comes the one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
If I hear him, and I think I do, he is saying something like this: the One who comes after me will not only come in power but he will also empower you. Now it could be that John was talking to the individuals in his audience that day and probably was, but it could also be, and I think it is more likely, that Mark has him speaking to us, the Church in every generation who reads this verse. After all, these words were recorded for us and we read them. Right? So I suspect that even though these words were uttered a long while ago by a preacher we would surely not listen to then any more than now, the words nevertheless mean something to us or at least should.
I also noticed this: John makes a connection between power, baptism, and the Spirit in verse 7-8 and then in verse 9-11 he makes another connection between power, crucifixion, and Jesus. Here's how I see this. Mark uses a word in verse 10 when Jesus is baptized that our Bible's have translated 'ripped' or 'torn.' There's nothing particularly fancy about this word in Greek. We sometimes transliterate it as 'schism.' The interesting thing about this word, though, is that Mark only uses it's verb form two times. Once, here in Mark 1:10 at Jesus' baptism and again in Mark 15:38–at Jesus' crucifixion: "The curtain in the temple was torn in two from top to bottom." So, if I hear Mark, and I think I do, he is saying there is a serious connection between this Jesus who comes in power, who baptizes us in the Holy Spirit, and his crucifixion.
The crucifixion and the necessary resurrection are both a part of this powerful arrival of the Spirit of power.
Here's my point: this is what John the baptist preached. Look what Mark wrote: And this was his message. Or: And he was (continually) preaching saying. He was constantly preaching to whoever would listen that someone was coming who would do things in power of the Spirit. This echos the Older Testament prophets who made similar statements. In particular Zechariah who said, "This is the Word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: 'Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,' says the Lord Almighty." (4:6). Now John says that this Spirit is the power of Jesus and that it was beginning with the arrival of Jesus and that it's full manifestation was to be realized at his crucifixion and resurrection. This is why he makes the connection between Jesus' baptism and his crucifixion.
This is what the prophets preached. John was another in that long line of Israelite prophets who announced this powerful arrival. Paul the apostle would later make this connection too when he wrote to the church at Corinth: "For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power" (1 Corinthians 4:20). The kingdom is about power. The prophets said it. John clarified it. Jesus brought it. Paul preached it. The Spirit is it. Here it is: the power of the church is the presence of the Holy Spirit.
It just so happens that this morning I listened to a rather old lecture by Professor NT Wright from 2012. In this lecture, he made something of a similar point as I am making here. He said:
"The way God rescues people from sin and death is by overthrowing all the powers that held them captive. And the way he does that is not with superior firepower of the same kind, but with a different sort of power altogether…The power that is let loose transformatively in the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus. And it will continue to work until every tongue confess and every knee bow."–NT Wright, How God Became King: Why We've All Misunderstood the Gospels (my emphasis)
So what am I saying? And how does all this tie together? What does visiting churches around the area where I live come into play here? What does the church need? Now? Well, I think it's rather simple, isn't it? The church needs prophets who will proclaim this message of the power of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. John didn't come in any fancy way. He came as a prophet of old, like Elijah. He used words that reminded us of Zechariah and Isaiah (or quoted them outright). He's the one prophesied by Malachi. He preached a message that pointed unalterably to Jesus–the one who came with power and the Spirit.
John didn't come doing miracles. John didn't come from a high class of people. He didn't stand in the temple. He didn't write books or anything like that. He simply, continually, preached the good news, the Gospel, that God was beginning to do what he had promised he was going to do: return to his temple and set all people free from the bonds of captivity and exile. There had been 400 years of silence, sin, and exile in Israel–490 years said Daniel–and this is what God did: He sent a prophet to proclaim his Good News. Nothing more. Nothing less. He sent a preacher to preach, prepare, and proclaim in power the coming of Jesus.
John came along and simply said: you want to be free? The power to set you free is in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
That is power!
I think this is what the church needs now. We live in desperate times, don't we? People are desperate for hope and healing and many churches and christians do little more than point to a political candidate and say 'vote for her or him.' Churches keep plodding along as they always have–but with remarkably little demonstration of the Spirit's power. Some are old and dying and plodding along. Some are new and living and plodding along. But where is the Word of God? Where are the prophets? Where is the Spirit? Where is the Power? We will get things done not by strength and might but by the Spirit of God. How are we, as the prophets of God, manifesting this Spirit of power, the Spirit of God here, among ourselves and in the world in general?
Or is the church devoid of prophets?
How can we get out of the way so that the Spirit's power is evident among us?
How can we preach in such a way that when we are finished people will know that Jesus is arriving? How can we preach with such power that people know who empowers us?
What the church needs right now is the sort of prophets who will stand up, like John did, and take their place among the long history of Israelite prophets who proclaimed God's enduring message of hope that in Jesus God is becoming King of this world for all people and that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue will confess.
So here's a further point: it makes no difference if the church is small and dying or if the church is large and living. The same power is available to both and ought to be manifest in and among both. The same Holy Spirit of Jesus is available to the dying church as the living church. And perhaps if more dying churches recognized this there would be less dying churches. And if the living churches recognized this perhaps their fruit would be even greater.
Most of what we preach in the church is superfluous. Seriously. What we need in the church is prophets. Prophets who stand up and proclaim the unfiltered, unadulterated, Word of God. I'm tired of fluff. How are we, as the church, demonstrating the power of the Spirit of God among us?
I want power. Let's hear the prophets speak and so say with the congregations of generations gone by: Maranatha! Come Holy Spirit!
Or maybe our prophets will speak so powerfully, as a demonstration of the Spirit, that the Spirit will simply come among us, shake the place where we are meeting, and enable more of us to go forth and proclaim the Good News that Jesus is King!
Part 1 of 3: What the Church Needs to be Doing. Now.
Been thinking about church. I do that a lot for some reason. It's not like I have anything else to do with my time. (/sarcasm). The truth is, I'm fairly heavily involved with my local church through helping lead worship (singing, playing guitar, reading Scripture), teaching a Bible school class, and teaching at a small, local Bible College. I also do pulpit supply whenever I can, wherever I can. I wish every day was Sunday, sometimes.
I have a love/hate relationship with the church. I have spent my entire life married to the church. It has seen my best days (baptism, wedding) and my worst days (termination, heartbreak). I am almost 46 and the church has never not been a part of my life in some way, some shape, or other. So this post isn't about any church in particular, it's about the church in general. It's a short sermon sans a pulpit.
Here's the first of three things the church ought to consider when the church considers its appearance and mission to the world. All three will be drawn from Mark's Gospel, chapter 1.
First, preparing the way. The last thing faithful Israelites heard from the prophets before a what must have been a dreadfully long 400 year silence, was this: "I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me…I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes" (Malachi 3:1, 4:5). There's a lot more to Malachi's thoughts, but this is where Mark's Gospel begins. That is, he begins by telling his readers that this is what the prophet(s) said, and this is what happened, "And so John the baptist appeared in the wilderness" (Mark 1:4a).
I doubt seriously this is what people had in mind. Maybe they expected some flashbang or shock and awe. Maybe they thought about fire from heaven or miracles galore. Maybe they thought and end to the Roman occupation with a giant military coup. Yet there was John. Preaching a "baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." So, it seems, what Mark is telling us is this: the way John prepared the way for the Lord's arrival, the way he prepared people for the appearance of the Lord in his temple, was this: Take personal inventory of your sin and repent. Imagine that such a task–preparing the way of the Lord–could be accomplished with such an unflashy medium. Preaching: repentance.
This is decidedly not how we prepare the way of the Lord in the church. Instead we draw them in with fidgets and gadgets and gimmicks. And all churches do it. To an extent, some churches even make repentance a gimmick. John did nothing fancy. He simply went out and preached that people needed to repent. Interestingly enough, when Jesus took up the mantle of gospeling after John was put in prison, he did the same thing: "The time has come. The Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news" (Mark 1:15). John didn't even draw people in with supernatural power. He went as far away from them as he could in fact–the wilderness. He didn't hang out at all the swank places eating rich fair–he simply at locusts. He didn't look particularly fashionable–he wore scratchy camel hair and a belt. Yet people went to him. And listened. And were baptized by him.
Maybe there is something to what John was doing? Maybe the Lord knew what he was doing? Maybe we need to imitate John? Maybe part of our preaching objectives ought to be calling people to repentance from their sin?
How is it that such a simple message was able to prepare a generation of people for the arrival of the Lord in his temple? And why don't we do more of this in our churches? I mean, isn't the Lord going to return someday to claim his bride? Maybe the best message that the church can preach to the world and to the church is that they and we need to repent.
I've been thinking about it. There's a lot to do in the church in America, here in the last days. Maybe it is time for the church to stop pushing a gospel of America and to start preaching repentance again. It's just a thought. Maybe it is time for the church to abandon all the tricks and gimmicks and all the sermon series' about How a Good American Can Have a Happy Outlook on Life.
Maybe it's time for real power in our pulpits again.
I saw the other day in my Twitter feed where someone quoted a certain political candidate as saying if he is elected to the presidency Christians will have power in this country. Everyone knows that such statements are merely populist in nature, but if it has even a thread of truth in it, the church ought to be afraid. The church doesn't need power (and I'll demonstrate this in a future post). The church needs prophets. The power will come, but not from politicians. This is all another post. In the second post, I'll write about preaching the Kingdom.
Eugene Peterson wrote, in his book Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, "Jesus' imagery, to be followed soon by his sacrifice, is totally counter to our culture of more, more. Could Jesus have made it any clearer? We don't become more, we become less. Instead of grasping more tightly to whatever we value, we let it all go: 'He who loses his life will save it.' 'Blessed are the poor in spirit' is another way Jesus said it." (102)
This tenth chapter of Matthew continues to expound upon this cost of following Jesus that Jesus began outlining in the 5th chapter. I'm not convinced that in the church here in America we give sufficient though to what it means to follow Jesus. I really don't. Often times, it's a matter of being baptized or catechized or initiated–the church is like another club we join with a set schedule and dues. That's not what the church is nor is it what Jesus said it would be like.
Even now, here in America, we are beginning to feel the crunch of a lot of things. A lot of the things we are feeling are trickling down and having an impact on the church. Jesus called it! Jesus said that discipleship is not a walk in the park or a trip to Wal-Mart. Let's be honest: the church in America hasn't had it rough. At all. It's not persecution when people call you names or when they disagree with you over evolution or climate change. Let's be frank, can we? We have it made as Christians here in America.
But maybe we are starting to feel the tables turn a little. Maybe the economic woes have affected Christians and churches? Maybe the constant threat of terrorism affects us too. Maybe job insecurity is another factor? But you know what? None of this is persecution of the church. None of this is persecution of Christians.
Jesus did speak to his disciples, the original twelve, and gave them a hint of what it might be like to belong to him, to follow him, and to be with him. I'm not sure how far we want to apply these things to our lives as Jesus followers here in America or even in this 21st century. Maybe the things Jesus said in the tenth chapter of Matthew were only intended for those original twelve? Whatever the case may be, Jesus sent them out, gave them clear instructions, and give them a clear indication of what they were going to face along the way.
He promises they will be provided for. Sounds fair enough. It may not always be a piece of pie with whip cream, but they will get along. It sounds boring and wrong for an American to say this, but I wonder how many American Christians would still be Christians if 'getting along' were the sum total of their daily existence? Our motto is typically something like, 'We need to get ahead.' Jesus said in the sixth chapter, pray for daily; pursue the path of righteousness; don't worry about what you need for each day. Our problem in America is often that we think material blessings are blessings. To an extent, we are 'persecuted' with too much. Ask yourself, can you be a faithful Christian if Jesus asks you to simply 'get along' each day with what he provides?
He promises there will be persecution. Yep. Sheep among wolves, serpents among the innocent and all that. Devious children who will kill you for a quarter. Immoral judges. Constantly on the run to this place or that place. We are told we will be no better than Jesus. Ask yourself, are you better than Jesus? Do you suffer with the righteous? Do you pursue justice? Have you been called the satan yet? Has something you have done been called the work of the devil? Can you be a faithful Christian if Jesus asks you to suffer for righteousness? If we are the sort of people who think that we will escape all this, ask yourself this: when secular America finally collapses under the weight of its own hubris and immorality, do you think that the church will be spared? Judgment begins with the house of the Lord. Are you prepared to be faithful?
He promises an opportunity for testimony and proclamation. I suspect, however, that we may not very much like the opportunities provided for us. Where will you be when Jesus asks you to testify? Where will you be when he asks you to acknowledge him before men? Where will your heart be when the time comes to confess with your mouth what you claim to believe in your heart? Are you prepared not just to confess some random, generic God but specifically the Jesus who makes exclusive and divine claims to being the only way to life? It's a tall order. You may have to reject your family. You may have to reject your children. You may lose your children or parents or siblings because of it. Are you prepared?
Are you prepared to take up your cross?
Are you prepared to lose your life?
The upside down culture of the Kingdom of God–the very one that Jesus told them to proclaim: 'And proclaim as you go, saying, 'The kingdom of heaven is at hand' (7)–is about such things as losing to gain; dying to live; starving to eat; being poor to be rich; being called the devil in order to oppose him; revealing the hidden and hiding the revealed; giving away your last cup of water in order to receive a reward you cannot hold; proclaiming not peace, but war? Are you prepared to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons? Are you prepared to live hand to mouth? Are you prepared to be uncomfortable? Are you prepared to beg for a place to lay your head or a mouthful of food? Maybe Jesus didn't mean we would do all this, but where does it say he didn't? The upside down nature of this kingdom is this: what the world values, Jesus does not. And yet everything matters–even our hair.
I cannot help what is written. I can only talk about what is there. And what is there in the tenth chapter of Matthew is scary stuff. Just ask yourself: Is this what you signed up for? Or were you hoping to skate by? Are you prepared to die in order to live? It's upside down. I know. But there it is.
Where are you?
Let. Life. Go.
Read: Matthew 7; Revelation 7; Genesis 12; Ephesians
I had a short, interesting 'conversation' with someone on Twitter tonight. I'd like to tell you he was a thoughtful fellow, but after one exchange he unfollowed me. Luckily for me, the conversation was picked up by another person who thoughtfully engaged me for more than a few tweets and we became sort of friends.
The original tweet, written by a self-described 'author and campus pastor' (whatever that means) went like this: "Proximity breeds compassion. If u don't understand people of a different skin color ask yourself if your friends and church are all the same." Well, I took exception to this tweet because it's based on a profoundly ignorant and unnecessary premise that a person's lack of understanding is necessarily due to a person's associations or, put more negatively, if a person has all the same color friends at play or at church then one probably doesn't understand people whose skin color is different. Ugh. I'm not sure a person can possibly be more ignorant about race relations than this person.
And what's worse is his follow up to my response. He wrote: You're going to be miserable in heaven. Look around: you live in a multiethnic world. My point was ways to understand others.
Clearly. Maybe instead of approaching things negatively he should have said: If you don't understand people of a different skin color go hang out with some of them. But instead, he chose judgment which is not very Jesus-like.
So, because I don't spend my evenings and weekends with people whose skin color is different from mine, I'm going to be bored in heaven. Even though Jesus will be there and I'll be fellowship with people of all sorts of backgrounds…I'll be 'miserable.' Somehow I doubt it.
Anyhow…what about 'race' relationships? I wonder if the best way to forge relationships, compassion, and understanding is to force a relationship where one does not exist? I wonder if that's what Jesus had in mind when he created the multi-ethnic church of Israelites and Gentiles, men and women, black and white, and so on and so forth? Or maybe the people Jesus wants me to understand are the people that I happen across each and every day of my life? I'm thinking of the little children in my classroom–disabled children, black, white, male, and female. Or maybe he was thinking of the white folks my wife and I ran into at a restaurant this evening? Or maybe it was the black men I used to work with many years ago in a small shop? Or maybe it was the black women I went to graduate school with? Or maybe it was the African man that I hosted in my house for dinner and conversation about 2 months ago? Or maybe it was math teacher who happened to be from Iran?
You see my point is this: I don't think Jesus requires us to force anything as far a relationships are concerned. Why would he? He was fairly consistent about his commands for us: Love people. Love people whoever they are, wherever they are, and whatever skin color they are. Love people. If you don't understand people of a different skin color, don't ask questions, love them. Go and love them. Or, better, whenever 'they' happen across your path, love them. If 'they' are laying in a ditch, love them. If 'they' ask for your cloak, give them your tunic as well. The point is that the Christian is defined by his/her love for other people–and it makes no difference who that person is.
If you have to force something, you really need to ask if it is love. If it isn't love, you really need to ask yourself if you are of Messiah.
And this works both ways, my friends because guess what? In all likelihood my pasty white Ohio winter skin is different from your skin color too.
Really it's that simple. Or, here in the seventh chapter of Matthew he says it this way: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This sums up the Law and the Prophets.
Do you see that? Do you hear it? Jesus is saying something like this: Along life's way you are going to come across a lot of people. They might be black; they might be white. They might be an Israelite; they might be a Samaritan. They might be purple; they might be pink. They might be a man; they might be a woman. But it doesn't matter who you come across if you belong to Jesus, treat all people with the dignity and love you hope to be treated with by others. Jesus isn't saying we have to go out of our way to force relationships because what he is saying is that if you are a Kingdom person you won't have to force relationships. You won't have to because you will already be in a relationship built upon a foundation of love. Relationships will happen naturally and easily. We can simply move from place to place, from person to person, without fear or awkwardness, loving them all as Jesus calls us to do.
So here's a final point. I don't think Jesus is saying we have to go crazy in this life trying to understand every single person and every single ethnic identity. In some cases, this will be virtually impossible. On the other hand, what he is saying is this: don't do the world like the satan, don't do the world like Herod, but instead go and be kingdom people. When you are a kingdom person your life will be markedly different and people will notice as much without you having to actually announce it. So go! Be my disciples and be marked by your pursuit of the kingdom of righteousness, be marked by your love for your enemies, be marked by your willingness to do more than is asked of you, be marked your prayers for those who persecute you, be marked by your inconspicuous love for others, and be marked by being willing to do for others (love) what you would have them do for you (love).
Do you see? Jesus called us to be different and when we are different…things will be different. We will love people without them having to call attention to their skin color and without us having to announce that we love them. A few months back, a man from Liberia, Africa came to my house. He sat at my table. I served him a bodacious Mexican cuisine that my wife and I prepared. Afterwards he sat in my living room and I served him a cup of hot tea. We talked about Liberia. We talked about his work. We talked about Jesus. When it was done, we prayed together.
We were like old friends who were meeting again for the first time–two friends who had no past, but certainly shared a future. He loved me and accepted my hospitality. I loved him and shared with him whatever he asked for. But you know what? It makes no difference because at the end of the day, he didn't eat with a white man from the USA and I didn't eat with a black man from Liberia. Two disciples of Jesus sat, ate, shared, enjoyed fellowship, and loved each other. And that was enough. I'm certain that in heaven, I won't be miserable because it will be just like that day: unforced, unrehearsed, pure love in Messiah.
Every now and then I come across a book that hooks me with the title. Sometimes after turning the cover and reading the first couple pages I find the old adage to be true that I should not judge a book by its cover or, as in this case, the title. This was not one of those times. I had previously seen this book on Amazon and added it to my wishlist and by chance came across it when I was browsing NetGalley's publishers one day. I was thrilled to find the book. I was even more thrilled to read the book. And, now that I am finished with it, I am absolutely ecstatic about its content. I don't think I am overstating the case when I suggest that this reading of Luke-Acts is one of the most significant and important readings since Robert Tannehill's reading in The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts was published.
Kuhn's thesis is stated succinctly in the introduction (and repeated periodically for emphasis): "This study aims to introduce reader's to Luke's two-volume work, focusing on its urgent call for Theophilus and others to embrace Jesus and the Kingdom of God" (13*). And introduce us he does. But he does even more than merely introduce us to a theory or an idea about the Gospel according to Luke. Kuhn digs deeply even as he surveys the landscape of the massive two volumes. He reaches into the nooks and crannies and sheds like in the darkened corners of Luke's literary masterpiece. He explores the caves of literary technique and rhetorical devices. He demonstrates how Luke parallels characters and stories in the two books. What I appreciate the most about this book is that Kuhn looks at Luke as a piece of literature that should be, and needs to be, interpreted. In other words, Luke had a purpose in mind when he wrote and it is the readers' job to read his work as a piece of literature and discover that meaning. Kuhn's thesis demonstrates that the purpose behind the book isn't all that difficult to discover if the reader reads well.
It is Kuhn's contention that Luke is writing a piece of Kingdom work designed specifically for Theophilus and generally for anyone who reads it. There are things associated with this Kingdom of which he (Luke) writes that Theophilus needs to thoughtfully consider before, or now that he already has, walks in this Kingdom way, this following of Jesus: "This is meant to challenge Theophilus and others to understand that they cannot truly embrace the Kingdom while still participating in the norms and values of Rome" (232). When I read this statement, I leaped with excitement. 'Yes!' I shouted as I took out my phone and started to Tweet the quote. It is this, I think, that we most often miss as Christians saturated by American values and norms. Somehow or other we have taken to believe the silly notion that being American is equivalent to being a 'Christian.' Kuhn goes to great lengths to demonstrate to Theophilus that he cannot have it both ways. And if Theophilus cannot, how much less can we?
But this is exactly what makes this work by Kuhn so special: everything is kept in context. The books of Luke and Acts are kept in there historical and social contexts so Kuhn's work begins with a fairly detailed exploration of Roman culture. Part 1 thus takes up about the first 70 pages or so of the book. Frankly, this part of the book is kind of boring although essential to Kuhn's theory of Luke-Acts as a whole. I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as I did the second part of this contextual reading of Luke-Acts: the literary context. Part 2 thus spans pages 71-202 and is, in my opinion, the best part of the book. Granted, it gets repetitive at times because as he explores one literary aspect there is necessarily some overlap with another. Kuhn spends a significant amount of space writing about Luke 1-2 and 24 and draws such beautiful meaning out of the chapters that I am tempted to say I will never read those chapters the same way again. And, to be sure, some of the most brilliant exegesis is on display in part 2 that I have seen in a long time. Part 3 tells of the book's theological context and spans pages 203-274 and Kuhn reasserts his position that one of Luke's main objectives was to "call Theophilus and other members of the elite to abandon their privileged stations and their allegiance to Rome and to embrace the Kingdom of God and Jesus as Lord" (299).
It may be that Kuhn overstates his case when it comes to Luke's focus on the 'elite' and I'm not sure it will hold up under closer scrutiny. Others will no doubt challenge his idea of this being Luke's focus but I'm not so sure that the idea should be waived off–especially if Theophilus was in fact Luke's patron and Luke himself was a member of the Israelite elite. If Kuhn is correct then perhaps Luke-Acts is even more significant for the American church than previously thought. The problem of course lies with those who will preach these books. If the preaching of Luke-Acts continues to be a mere monologue before an invitation to something we tend to call 'salvation', as is often the case, then the bulk of the books will be nothing more than prolegomena to Jesus' death and Resurrection and Pentecost. But if by some strange chance preachers actually start reading Luke-Acts and discerning his entire message then perhaps the affluent American Church might start to be challenged the way Luke intended the affluent to be challenged: "Instead, as indicated regarding Acts 17, the gospel proclaimed by Luke is one that calls upon humanity to turn their allegiance from Caesar and the kingdom of Rome to another realm and another as Luke. Luke's aim was not accommodation but resistance" (15).
I think this is a message the American church desperately needs to hear.
Which leads into my final point. In college I remember hearing and learning how one of Luke's purposes in writing the books was to demonstrate to certain Roman officials that Christianity was no threat at all to the pax Romana of the time. Christians are peaceful people as is demonstrated by Paul on several ocassions in Acts. So: "Luke's aim was not accommodation but resistance. He considered the reign of God to be not a benign reality but a deeply subversive and disturbing force that was already undermining the foundations of Rome and all earthly claims to power" (15). He writes later, "I find it equally unlikely that Luke-Acts was a narrative designed to convince elite persons used to squashing resistance to their rule that the Christian movement was compatible with Rome's maintenance of elite wealth, status, and control" (307).
Christianity is dangerous and subversive. I think American Christians need to hear this message too and it needs to start being preached more thoughtfully from the pulpits of our churches. The problem is that we have been coddled by American culture and lulled to sleep by this coddling. But Luke will have none of this: the Church is the force, the movement, The Way, that turned the world upside down. It was the world that put Jesus to the cross, how can we then partner with this world? It seems to me that the church nowadays is far more content to set the world right side up again by being satisfied to work hand in hand with the very kingdoms that Jesus came to destroy. Not only do we tell the world, "the Church means you no harm," but we have listened to the world when they tell us, "we mean the Church no harm." This is not the experience of the church or Jesus in Acts and Luke.
This should be more carefully considered by pastors, preachers, and theologians and more prophetically proclaimed in our pulpits. I think we are seeing more and more the results of this hand holding experiment in the church.
I could go on and on but I must stop. I love this book. I'm not ashamed to confess that this is a book I absolutely love and will read again soon. I am glad publishing companies are making more space for books that talk about the real, Biblical meaning of the Kingdom of God and in the case of this present book, Baker Academic has done us a huge favor and I applaud them. More publishing of these kind of books where the literary purposes of the bible's authors are discussed is necessary. I cannot say enough about how important and well done this book is and how, if you are a preacher, you should buy it, read it slowly, and carefully consider how you will challenge your congregation to live up to the high call of God: "…as one who manifests the identity and mission of Yahweh, Jesus the lowly one, not Caesar, is Lord and Savior of all" (267).
The book utilizes end notes and the hyperlinks to and from these notes worked well on my Nook. There is a substantial bibliography which is most helpful and also a large subject index which also had working hyperlinks. The book is of a scholarly flair, but it is accessible to most readers who share an interest in reading such works.
Buy this book. You will not be disappointed and you just may find that your own world is being turned upside down in the process.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase The Kingdom according to Luke and Acts Amazon (Kindle, $15.65) CBD ($19.99) Baker Academic ($28.99) (Prices current as of July 7, 2015)
- Author: Karl Allen Kuhn
- Publisher: Baker Academic
- Pages: 367 (Nook epub version); 336 (paper)
- Year: 2015
- Audience: Christians, pastors, preachers, college professors, students of New Testament
- Reading Level: College Level
- Disclaimer: I was provided a free reader's copy courtesy of Baker Academic via NetGalley.
*All page numbers I note are references to the epub version of this book on my Nook reader and may not correspond to the pages in a paperback version or location on a Kindle.
Title: Permission Granted
Author: Jennifer Grace Bird
Publisher: Westminster John Knox Press
"To the Church, then, has been given the charge of proclaiming the Word of God. This revelatory Word is not a concatenation of human opinions and ideas but rather is God's own proclamation, the very means by which he speaks, even into postmodern society."–David Wells, Above All Earthly Pow'rs, 176
If I had been paying attention, I would have seen the endorsement by Rachel Held Evans on the front cover and I would not have selected this book for review. I should have known better. Here's the bottom line to this book: Jennifer Grace Bird did 'take the Bible into her own hands' and she made an absolute wreck of it and embarrassed herself along the way. There is nothing new whatsoever about what she wrote: she is regurgitating the arguments of folks like, Bart Ehrman, Elaine Pagels, and John Dominic Crossan (and others) all over again–time worn arguments that question whether the Bible is God's Word and whether or not we should pay attention to it, and whether or not we can believe in the God who is there. I've heard that argument before, "Did God really say…?" And although she says: "My intention is not to leave you in the lurch, with your entire faith system challenged," she writes. "My ultimate intention has been to have you look at where you have placed your faith. Is it on the words in the Bible, or on the God the Bible points to?" (187) this is not what one comes away with after reading this book. (And, to be sure, this is a false dichotomy which I have not the space in this review to address.) (Interview)
There is nothing original about Bird's intellectual pursuit to 'read what the Bible really says.' There is nothing interesting about it. There is nothing compelling about it. It has a niche audience: those who are already on board with her absurd ideas about Scripture and her silly angry-feminist hermeneutic (I invite you to read carefully and slowly her work and notice how many times she makes pejorative remarks about men). What's amazing is that there are hundreds and thousands of women scholars and preachers who read the same Bible Bird reads and come away with a radically different understanding and application of the words written.
I think a large part of the problem is that Ms Bird seems to think that just because it is written in the Bible that this automatically translates into God's approval of it. Take for example polygamy in the Bible. Just because the Bible records many instances of polygamy is not an indication that God approves of polygamy. Remember in the garden, there was one man and one woman, which later Jesus affirmed. This was the ideal. After sin enters the world, then we see a break from the garden ideal and marriage corrupted. Bird seems to think that we should read the Bible at face value without our bifocals: one lens reminding us that we are sinful and live in a sinful world and the other lens reminding us that Jesus has redeemed us. To be sure, there is a lot of stuff in the Bible–stuff like rape, murder, slavery, and war–that God is not in favor of and certainly doesn't approve of, but is God at fault because the authors of the Bible truthfully report these events? Or is God evil because these things happen? Bird spends a lot of time in this book saying things about God that made me shudder. For all her talk about those who 'read the Bible literally' Bird seems to suffer from a profound sense of inability to distinguish one type of literature from another (she does acknowledge on page 7-8, and 11 that readers of the Bible should be aware 'of genre', but I do not recall that she employs this warning herself and her favorite term to use is actually 'myth'). In other words, she is, frequently, a worse literalist than those she accuses!
Pause for a moment and consider what that means.
I do not know too many preachers or scholars or theologians in general who would argue that there are not 'issues' when it comes to parts of the Bible. That is to say, I do not know of anyone who thinks that Genesis 1 and 2, for example, are telling us the exact same story of creation. On the other hand, I do not know anyone who believes this means they are also contradictory either. So too with the Gospels. Just because we are given four 'versions' of the Jesus story, where each author makes a particular point about Jesus (which I thought Bird handled and explained fairly well), does not mean that we are given contradictory stories about 'how to be saved' or that we have to decide 'which Jesus is the real Jesus.' Bird is rather difficult because she believes that variety means disunity and that differences mean contradiction. She actually had some good thoughts in chapter 9 ("Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?"), but she takes her conclusions from these thoughts in strange and rather unorthodox directions. Hmmm.
And to be sure, one really only needs to read her introduction to the book (xi-xvi) to understand what she is going to do with every single chapter in the book–whether writing about sex or violence or the virgin birth or John 3:16 (she made a big fuss out of John 3:16 only to tell us that we ought to read all of John 3; duh.), it is all too much for her. In her mind, we cannot trust many, many parts of the Bible because it contains things that do not pass her 'litmus test' of 'who God is and is not' (188). So she has created a god, held this god before her face while she read the Bible, and anything that does not comport with this god of her creation is suspect and therefore worthy of being tossed out into the rubbish heap. Think about that for a minute. Does that sound like the sort of author who is not trying to 'leave us in the lurch' or 'poke holes in' our faith? Hmmm.
Every now and again the book has text boxes where Bird engages in a brief excursus on some topic she finds particularly in need of reinterpretation (e.g., heaven and hell, the name 'christians', fun facts, depiction of Jews in the Newer Testament, etc.). There are also a few charts that are somewhat useful and also some charts for the reader to fill in to help better understand a concept she discusses (e.g., creation accounts, dualism in John's Gospel). Unfortunately, there is no index for subjects discussed or for Scripture referenced or discussed (although, to be fair, looking at the table of contents should give the reader a fairly good idea of what scripture can be found and where.) Each chapter ends with a series of discussion questions which may or may not be helpful after reading the chapter they are attached to. Finally, I was frustratingly disappointed that there is not a single page of references. She quotes several scholars in the book and I would have been pleased if there were references where I could check her work or dig deeper for myself.
I'm not going to bother addressing her conjectures about the sexuality of people such as Paul (whom she conjectures, based on the letter to Philemon, might be a homosexual) or David and his relationship with Jonathan. I'm not going to bother addressing her quite apparent disdain for men and the way 'they' have handled Scripture throughout the generations and kept women like her from being 'ordained' (a wholly unbiblical concept in it's own right if she would take time to investigate it). Nor will I address her rather lazy attitude towards sexuality (all of it). And I'm not going to bother dignifying her stupid idea that it was 'actually God who has misled the humans, not the serpent' in Genesis 2-3. Hmmm.
All of this, and much more besides, gives me reason to pause and question what exactly her agenda is in writing this book. Bird assures us that her task is 'not to poke holes in anyone's faith' (19) but rather to go 'for the 'mark of an educated mind,'" (121; she assures us of these things frequently). But I don't think she accomplished either point. Her questions will cause weak minded people to stumble in their faith and intellectual people to question how she got this book published in the first place. What follows, on page after page, is simply lazy exegesis with a lack of enthusiasm towards understanding.
Her 'questions' and controversies have been written by others, have been answered by others, and these questions and controversies have always been full of holes, based on faulty logic, and, frankly, in no way intellectually astute. I tend to mine books when I read them so, yes, there are times when I think she has a rather brilliant insight (e.g., much of her discussion on Job was helpful and, in my opinion, on the mark; and in one of her excursions, the one on 'heaven and hell' (p 182-183), she makes some good points too; and other places). And, yes, she is decidedly correct that we should read all of the Bible and not just the parts that make us all warm and fuzzy. Furthermore, she is also correct that there are difficult things in the Bible for us to accept about God, about ourselves, and about the Christian faith in general; nevertheless, her questions have been answered a thousand times over by scholars, preachers, theologians (men and women alike). The nuggets I was able to mine in this book are too few and too far between to make this worth the time of serious readers in search of an intellectual pursuit or faith strengthening exercise.
There's just nothing new here (literally, she retreads time worn arguments with hip language for a new generation of skeptics and they will eat it up!) and it literally brings me to tears that she is in this place (and that she teachers students in a university). I think this book comes up way, way short on both supporting faith or providing stimulation for the intellect. I would like to meet the people she claims 'confront these issues in the Bible and come out the other side…often even stronger in their faith than when they began!' (187). Seriously.
So again I will note that I think this book has a niche audience and it is those people who already believe like she does. This book will in no way strengthen the faith of anyone and it will not provide intellectual stimulation for anyone either. In fact, you will probably left with the same 'sinking feeling in' your gut when reading it as Bird often expressed she had when writing it. The church right now needs a high view of Scripture and Bird's isn't even off the ground.
[I wrote this a few years ago for a blog I have long since deleted. I don't recall what exactly was going on that particular day, but for some reason, at that point in my life, God's sovereignty and my free will were on my mind. Lately, I have been studying the book of Daniel with my Bible school class at church and when I 'accidentally' stumbled on this short post in an old file on my laptop, I thought maybe revisiting it would be a good idea. Here it is in its original form with only spelling corrected.–JLH]
Luke chapters 1 through 3 are instructive if one ever starts feeling like their life has run amuck or gotten out of control or that God has somehow loosed his grip on the events of this world. Looking around daily and seeing and hearing about wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes and suchlike, it is easy to think that God has, somehow or other, forgotten about us.
Or at least given us too much of our desired freedom.
So this morning I had to pray it all over again: God I’m sick of being free. It’s a daily struggle: the desire for freedom, the need for control. I grew up in a tradition that has emphasized freedom and free will. And, frankly, I don’t know that I have heard five sermons about God’s sovereignty, in my life, from preachers in my denomination. That’s a terrible way to grow up, that is, thinking that I have it all under control—that I have to make all the decisions, that I have to be so cunning and wise, that I have to figure out a way to get through this or that sticky situation.
It’s a terrible way to live thinking that, as I have done for the better part of 40 years, my life is dependent upon my freedom. The older I get, the less concerned I am with my own freedom and free will. The older I get, the more I want God to be as Sovereign as some believe. But I continue to kick against the goads of God’s sovereignty and probably because I want his sovereignty to be more than a theological proposition: I want it to be as real as I see it in Luke 1, 2, and 3. The older I get, the more suspicious I grow of my competence, of my uniquely human freedom.
I have other reasons, but one line in particular in Luke 1 caught my attention this morning: “For no word from God will ever fail” (Luke 1:37) In Greek it says it is ‘impossible’ for God’s word to fail. So when I think back on all that God has said, all that is written in the Bible that he said, and all the promises he has made—and the fact that the book of Hebrews says it is impossible for God to lie—I think to myself: I should be trusting God’s word far more than I should be trusting my own ingenuity and intellectual prowess.
I know we all say we trust God’s word, but experience has taught me that we don’t trust it nearly as much as we’d like to believe we do. We still find ways to scheme and plan and devise and concoct ways to survive and get ahead. We all say we trust God because we believe that’s what good Christian folks do. Practically speaking, however, I’m willing to bet that there are far more atheists sitting in pews on Sunday mornings that we are willing to admit. (I have firsthand experience of those atheists and I have, at various times in life, been included in their number.)
So it is impossible for God’s word to fail.
What’s amazing about Luke 1, 2, and 3 is that all these things took place while the kings of the earth slept. In chapter 1:5, ‘the time of Herod king of Judea…’; in chapter 2:1, ‘In those days Caesar Augustus…’; in chapter 3:1, ‘In the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanius, Annas and Caiaphas…’ All these things took place right under their noses. They ruled, often forcefully (see 3:19-20), violently, ignorantly and with little regard for anything but their taxes (see 2:1-3). And while they did, prophets spoke (see 2:25ff, 2:36ff, 3:4ff, 1:46ff, 1:67ff.), angels announced (1:11ff, 1:26ff), and the host of heaven sang (2;13-14).
While these rulers ruled God was moving quietly in the backwaters of the House of Bread and in the lives of small, unnoticeable people. While these rulers ruled God was bringing about the promises of his word (notice how many times in chapters 1-3 we are told about Abraham and David, for example). While these rulers slept at night, God was stirring in the hearts of women who couldn’t get pregnant and young girls who wouldn’t get pregnant. While these rulers ruled, God was undoing their rule, waking up the world, subverting the world’s economy, and announcing to all who would listen that it was time for the true king of this world to be born.
God was sovereignly moving, putting all the pieces into place, getting all the right people onto the earth—the fullness of time had come upon the world and the world didn’t even notice: “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.”
It’s kind of amusing that all things were going along rather well until John, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, cousin of Jesus, started making speeches about these rulers. When John started subverting their rule, their authority, their sovereignty—then things started getting out of control for them.
So we see God moving. We see God acting. We see God challenging the status quo of this world. The rulers of this world oppress and control. The rulers of this world believe they are the power. Luke 1, 2, and 3 teaches us otherwise. Those poor saps had no idea what even hit them. As I get older, I find myself submitting to God’s sovereignty more and more. I find myself relying on my own strength more and more. I find myself choosing to love him precisely because he is in control and less and less because I feel like I need to demonstrate my own self-sovereignty. You know what I mean, I hope. It’s that attitude that wakes up saying, “I am the master of my life. I am in control. I will worship God because I can.”
I’m done with that sort of life. I want to wake up each day to the God who kept the world from free falling into the sun and who kept Betelgeuse from exploding. I want to wake up to the God whose mercies are new every day. I want to wake up, even now, to the God who takes this world—yes this world, run into the ground by political agendas and want for power—and shakes it, bringing it into continual alignment with his purposes and his will. I’m reminded of a song by Rich Mullins:
From the place where morning gathers
You can look sometimes forever 'til you see
What time may never know
What time may never know
How the Lord takes by its corners this old world
And shakes us forward and shakes us free
To run wild with the hope
To run wild with the hope
I cannot run wild with hope that I feel like I have created or mustered up because I have schemed my way to safety. I can run wild with a hope that God has in his wisdom crafted out of the circumstances of hurt and disappointment. I can run wild with the hope that the God who shakes this old world has created and given us in Jesus even while the kings of this earth rule. I can run wild with the hope created by God who subverts this world by sending a baby to grow and live in this world and change it from the inside.
I started reading Mark's Gospel last night. Burned through 8 chapters and enjoyed it immensely. I should finish the book tonight if all goes well. Mark is without a doubt my favorite of the four Gospels.
Another thing I cannot help but notice when I read Mark's Gospel is that there is an overwhelming sense that everything Mark writes is designed to evoke a response from us. There is a question that is being asked by the author that stretches from the front of the book to the back: What are you going to do with Jesus? Or, perhaps, How are you going to respond to Jesus when he invades your world and disrupts your life? Because disrupt it he will–either for better or worse–and we will be confronted with a choice to do something about this strange person who seems to appear out of thin-air and walk onto the world's stage: "At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan…After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God" (1:9, 14).
Everything is going along for people in those days and then Jesus comes along and starts making a mess of things: he is binding up strong men, turning children against parents, driving demons out of the land and ruining animal herds, and rattling the theological cages of the religious elitists: "Who is this man?" people ask. Winds obey. Demons obey. Storms are calmed. He doesn't fast. Disease flees. He eats with dirty hands. He speaks in riddles. This is the fellow who dares to talk about the nature of the kingdom of God? He cannot even tell the difference between someone who is dead and someone who is sleeping. Yet he teaches as one with authority, he heals, and he forgives sin. Worse yet, he eats with sinners and tax-collectors.
And react people did. They tried to trap him. The laughed at him. They begged him to leave. They begged to go with him. They accused him. They thought he was out of his mind. They ignored him. They trusted him. They listened to him. They were amazed by him. They pleaded with him. They took offense at him. They amazed him. They took advantage of him. They demonstrated faith. They lacked faith. All that, probably more, in just the first eight chapters.
So it gets me thinking every time I read Mark: how would I respond to Jesus if one day he just showed up in my neighborhood or my school or my funeral or my wedding or a party I was hosting or while I was rowing a boat across a lake? I wonder what I would do. I wonder how I would respond? I wonder how I would feel if I met a person who just looked at me and loved me for no other reason than the fact that I am me.
Because that is who people met when they met Jesus.
"So Dark is our situation that God Himself must enter and occupy it in order that it may be light. We cannot fully understand the Christian 'God with us' without the greatest astonishment at the glory of the divine grace and the greatest horror at our own plight."–Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, The Doctrine of Reconciliation, IV.1, p 13
There are lonely times in life, times when we don't understand why things are the way they are, times when we do not understand why God is so silent, times when we feel like the presence of God is galaxies away–or question whether he exists at all. The Psalmists were not afraid to ask such questions or feel such feelings. I am learning not to be afraid to ask the same questions, to use the words of the Psalms to express what I cannot otherwise express. I mean, God forbid a god-fearing Evangelical Christian ever dare to question whether or not God is 'there.'
Even an uncareful reading of the Psalms brings us back to reality. Seriously, why would the Psalmist say something like 'come quickly, Lord, to help me' (Psalm 40:13) if, in fact, God were already there helping? Surely the Psalmist was feeling the full of weight, or lack thereof, of the theological vacuum: Where was God in my time of need, in my darkest hour, when others were running roughshod all over my name, reputation, family, and career? Why does the Psalmist have to 'wait patiently' (40:1) for the Lord if the Lord is already there and not, as it were, making sure things were going well on another planet fully of people?
That's just one Psalm. Believe me, if you haven't read them, there are others. Many others that utter the same audacious things: Where is God when I need him most? This is how we can talk to God who is 'with us.'
Growing up in the church we are taught that reverence for God is important (it is!) and that we should whisper our prayers and be careful what we say to God. We should have our heads down and hands folded, bowing, as it were. I think maybe we should learn to pray from the ancient Hebrews who wrote the Psalms: they were loud, audacious, fish-shaking, crying, weeping, moaning, complaining, shouting, worried, fearful, and honest with God. They held nothing back from him at all.
So, Matthew's Gospel and God with us. It starts and ends the same way, not with someone asking 'where are you God?' but with someone noting or telling us that 'God is with us' (1:23, 28:20) and that he has promised never to leave us. It is God who came into this space–not merely to inhabit space, but to walk with us, among us, and beside us. To be near us, is part of the goal. 'God with us' when Mary and Joseph were running all over the earth to protect that very God from the likes of humanity that he came to save.
Author: RC Sproul
Publisher: Reformation Trust Publishing
Date: December 12, 2011
Pages: (e-pub version): 434
[The FCC has made it perfectly clear that if I do not abide by their rules, then someone may end up in trouble one way or another. So I am advised to tell you that I received this copy of Mark (e-book) for free from Ligonier Ministries in exchange for my unbiased review. I was in no way instructed to write a favorable review, just a fair one. There you go.]
I haven't read through a commentary for fun for a long time. Back when I was preaching full-time, I devoured commentaries the way some folks devour the daily paper. Thus it took me a little longer to get through this book than I had originally intended.
I read through this commentary at the same time I have been working my way back into a daily habit of Scripture reading. So in the course of reading this commentary, I read the Psalms twice and Proverbs once. They were a nice complement to one another and I found that hearing the voice of the Psalmists echoed in Mark was a wonderful addition to my daily reading regimen.
This commentary was a good read for me as I work my way slowly back into theological reading. It was not a terribly complicated book to read. It was not overly-scholarly. Sproul focused on a more-or-less verse by verse commentary while offering the occasional theological excursus when he felt it necessary–most memorable was the excursus on Jesus' temptation in Gethsamane. It is not difficult to discern Sproul's theological bent towards Reformed theology in the commentary and this, at times, made the book terribly frustrating to read.
These things noted, this is actually my main gripe with the book. There was a time when the verse by verse commentary was especially useful, but I'm not inclined to think that way any longer. In my opinion, the verse by verse format in this commentary caused Sproul to miss what I think is the main point of Mark's Gospel as literature, as gospel, precisely because he had already committed himself to a theological perspective that guided his exegesis: Mark is writing to make a point, a point that Sproul believes is, in one way or another, to 'prove' the divinity of Jesus. So there are times when Jesus is referred to as the 'Son of God' (notably Mark 1:1 & 15:39 which form a rather nice 'sandwich' to the book as a whole), but it is important to ask what this might mean. What does 'son of God' mean in the Bible and how does that inform our understanding of Mark's theological point?
Surely Jesus is the God of Israel in the sense of being somehow divine–whatever that might mean–and there are times when I think Sproul did an absolutely masterful job of connecting the text with the Hebrew Scriptures in order to show the reader how Mark makes this clear (I'm think in particular of the walking on water episode in Mark 6:45-52 & the scene where Jesus enters Jerusalem in Mark 11:1-11). So I'm not disputing that for a minute; however, I do not think that is necessarily the point that Mark is trying to make in the Gospel as a whole. [Sproul wrote, "Remember, Mark has been at pains to demonstrate to Gentiles that Jesus is the divine Son of God" (214). I just do not think that Mark is at pains about this at all as much as he is at pains to do something different.]
It seems to me that Mark's point is made clearly in 1:1 & 15:39: Jesus is the Son of God. The question is, however, one of how we understand that phrase. In the Hebrew Scriptures, 'son of God' is a phrase that is given to the King of Israel (see especially Psalm 2). So what Mark does is this: he tells us in verse 1 that Jesus is Messiah (the anointed one, the King), the Son of God. Then he goes about showing us all throughout his Gospel what that means, how people do not get it (even his own family 3:20-34), how they misunderstand it, how they try to misappropriate his power, and what being King really means–what it means for God's power to be unleashed on earth (see Mark 3:23-29). Jesus in turn, goes into hiding, tells demons to be quiet, tells people not to say anything about his power, and is crucified after refusing to defend himself against charges brought against him. Yet it is here, after he dies death on a cross, that one person says something about Jesus that he is not rebuked for: "Surely this man was the Son of God."
The one place where we are truly allowed to hear a confession of who Jesus is, is while he is on the cross. It is there he was enthroned. And there he does not tell the centurion to keep quiet. It is this point which I wish Dr Sproul had made more clear to his readers because I think this is Mark's point: Here is our King! Here is our God! Here is the one who came to bring us back to life! He is the One! He is Jesus! (that's a David Crowder Band lyric). Sproul touches on this periodically, but in no way sustains this throughout his commentary which is unfortunate. (Note the heavy iron in chapter 15 verses 2, 9, 12, 17-20, 26, 32, 43.)
I have a couple other complaints which are minor by comparison with what preceded. First, I dislike that there were any footnotes or end notes of any kind. Sproul frequently says things like 'a commentator' or 'an author' or 'I once heard a speaker' and fails to give us any point of reference. This is bothersome. I get that the book is not a commentary for scholars, but there are some who read it who would like more information about who is it that he is interacting with on various pages.
Second, he tells too many stories about himself. I'll leave it at that. I make this complaint in nearly every book I review because if I have learned anything about being in ministry it is this: don't make yourself look good and nearly every story Sproul tells in this book makes himself look good. Third, there's way too much Reformed Theology. Mark certainly didn't write his commentary to explain the finer points of Drs Calvin and Luther and seeing such theological perspectives in Mark seems far more imposed than exposed.
Finally, I wish he had spent less time taking us to the other Gospels to make a point. Mark is sufficient in an of itself and sometimes, frankly, Mark's point is obscured when we bring in material from other Gospels (Matthew, Luke, and John). It's not that such a practice is wrong or evil, it's just that Mark has plenty to say on his own and he says it well on his own. Tying Mark together as one piece of literature, written to it's own audience, for its own sake seems to me a far better way to understand the book than trying create a bigger picture by bringing in other facts that Mark left out of his work. Maybe he left them out for a reason.
What I enjoyed most about this book was that Sproul makes some rather brilliant observations about the text that are easily overlooked if one is not careful. I will note just a few that I found especially wonderful.
I very much like how Sproul drew from the Old Testament to make points about such passages in Mark, such as the parable of the sower (Mark 4). I think his point about compassion when Jesus exercised demons from a man named Legion is brilliant, "…Jesus was not displaying a lack of compassion; he was exercising proper compassion. He was willing to sacrifice two thousand pigs, as valuable as they were, to rescue the demon-possessed man" (105). Well, of course! Folks often accuse Christians of being anything but compassionate–probably because we too often align ourselves politically with those who wish to exploit and terrorize the poor, but here Jesus gives us a fine example of compassion and forces us to ask the question of ourselves: just what are we willing to sacrifice in order to save one life? (Which was a nice question asked in the film Schindler's List.) And of course Jesus did what no one else could do or wanted to do: he saved the man!
I have already mentioned the brilliant points he makes when Jesus walks on the water and 'is about to pass them by' being an echo of the story of Moses who was hidden in the rocks when God passed by and the story of Jesus entering the temple being an echo of the Ezekiel story where the Spirit of God left the temple by stages. He also makes observations about the text that I find brilliant. For example, a young man runs up to Jesus with an important question (10:17-31) and Sproul notes how, at the end of the story, the man slowly walks away. Finally, his interpretation of the Bartimaeus story (10:35-52) and its juxtaposition with the request of James and John to sit right and left of Jesus is spot on (274).
Another valuable aspect of this commentary is the historical background Sproul provides for his readers at various points in the text. This historical background is necessary and vital for understanding such things as the Triumphal Entry, Gehenna, and the character of Pharisees and Saducees and Scribes among others. I am especially fond of the point that he made on page 310: "First, the Pharisees stressed the sovereignty of God. They were the Augustinians and Calvinists of their day." It made me smile, just a bit, when Dr Sproul, almost certainly inadvertently, announced that the Calvinists of our day were the Pharisees of Jesus' day. Who would have guessed. 🙂
Still, it took until page 423 for Sproul to rightly direct our attention to the point Mark had been making all along and even then it is made from a portion of Mark that is disputed as original to the text. Nevertheless, I agree with Sproul
Second, we see the session of Jesus. His reign in power at the right hand of the Father….This ministry flows out of his ascension and coronation. He is reigning as King of kings and Lord of lords, governing every event in this world, so that there are no maverick molecules (423).
There's nothing in this book that is so dangerous it will cause anyone to wobble in faith and, on the contrary, I think if an unbeliever reads it they might be persuaded to have faith in Jesus. Believers alike will be edified, as I was, and probably be even hungrier for more of the Scripture after reading it.
It's not a weighty book, but that is no insult. It is a book helpful for getting people involved in the Scripture and giving them a rudimentary understanding of what was happening. It is excellent devotional reading and perhaps for sermon preparation as much of the time it reads like short sermons that were written and preached, and that's fine too. I'm glad there were times at the end of chapters when Sproul challenged my faith and, in light of what Scripture said, forced me to come to grips with aspects of my life that were in contradiction to the Word of God.