Posts Tagged ‘Mark’s Gospel’
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!
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.
I have posted new prayer thoughts and homiletical points at A Pastor’s Prayer Journal. Here’s an excerpt:
I have studied through Mark in depth five or six times and taught it in various situations at least four or five times. It is my favorite Gospel of the four perhaps because of it’s quick pace, literary value, and brutal honesty. The Gospel itself is marked (no pun) by the constant use of a small Greek phrase ‘kai euthus’, which means something like ‘and then’ or ‘immediately’ or ‘at once.’ The NIV, as do most translations, I noticed translates it differently so as to give the Gospel ‘flavor’ (although it appears that the NASB is fairly consistent in its use of ‘immediately’). This creates a sense of urgency in the Gospel as if Mark were always in a hurry to get us from one point to the next, never content to leave us lingering too long at one scene. In the overall picture, we know where Mark is in a hurry to get us and by the time we get to the crucifixion the pace has slowed (in my judgment) considerably. He wants us to drink deeply at this point.
The thoughts are from Mark 1 and 2.
“No serious discussion of the relation of Christianity to other faiths can proceed very far without coming to grips with the towering figure of Jesus. Sooner or later, the blunt question put by Jesus to his followers–‘Who do people say I am?’ (Mark 8:27 NIV)–must be confronted.”-Harold Netland, Dissonant Voices: Religious Pluralism and the Question of Truth, 235 as quoted by DA Carson in The Gagging of God, 315