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The literary structure of Mark 2:23-28

Five conflict stories handout

We’re continuing to work our way through the five stories of conflict in Mark 2-3:6. And today we come to the fourth story, where Jesus defends plucking grain on the Sabbath. Our story begins in Mark 2:23, if you would like to turn in your Bibles.

Let me say, first of all – this text is difficult. It has generated many different interpretations.

And also, this topic is controversial. Should Christians keep the Sabbath? Is Sunday the new Sabbath? My own view is that in Acts 15 the Jerusalem council ruled that Jewish Christians would continue to observe the Law – which would include keeping the Sabbath, but that Gentile Christians are not required to keep the Law of Moses (The apostolic decree). Although, of course, you can choose to keep the Sabbath or another day as set apart to God if you like.

Let’s look at story –

Mark 2:23-28

And we begin with the accusation of the Pharisees

23One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?”

The concern here is not that the disciples are stealing. They’re gleaning, which is allowed in the Law (Deuteronomy 23:25). The concern is about what constitutes work on the Sabbath.

Keeping the Sabbath, as you know, is the fourth of the ten commandments. Exodus 20:10 says in part – “on the Sabbath you shall not do any work.” The problem is that the Old Testament is a bit vague on what all the word “work” covers. (But see Exodus 16:22-30 – no gathering manna; Numbers 15:32-36 – no gathering wood; Exodus 35:3 – no kindling a fire; Nehemiah 10:31, 13:15-22, Amos 8:5 – no trading; and Jeremiah 17:19-27 – no carrying loads).

One text that is more specific, Exodus 34:21 forbids plowing or harvesting. But are the disciples really harvesting? They’re picking a few heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands and then eating the good part (Luke 6:1). The Law is concerned with going out into the field with a sickle as a part of your yearly work load.

The Pharisees here do specifically define this as a forbidden Sabbath practice. This is their interpretation of Exodus 34:21. But not everyone at this time accepted the Pharisaic view on things on any number of topics and Jesus is clearly one of them. (As we will see in Mark 7 he rejects the traditions of the Elders.)

That the disciples are plucking grain on the Sabbath shows that Jesus has taught them that this is acceptable on the Sabbath. Which is why, as we will see, he goes on to defend them. And I would just note that a later Rabbinic tradition held that plucking grain on the Sabbath was fine, as long as no tool was used – which is the case here. (b. Shabbat 128a – “And one may pick them with his hand and eat, as long as he does not pick them with a vessel. And one may crush and remove the seeds with his hand and eat them, as long as he does not crush a lot with a vessel”; Yong-Eui Yang) (No tools could be used in gleaning).

So this is not about whether to keep the Sabbath or whether it can be broken. Both sides agree that it’s to be kept. [Although many commentators come to this story with an inbuilt assumption that Jesus and the disciples had no problem breaking Sabbath law, this is surely wrong. From the point of view of the text of Mark what we know so far is that Jesus is concerned about keeping the Law. Note his instructions to the leper. And to break the Sabbath was punishable by death. Why would the disciples knowingly do this when they still are not clear that Jesus is even the Messiah? This comes later in chapter 8. And why would the Pharisees later need to seek to trap Jesus to accuse him if this was a clear cut case of breaking Sabbath? They would already have him. And why wouldn’t they have been arrested or why wouldn’t this be a part of the charges against Jesus in Mark 14, warranting his death? No, this story is like its parallel in Mark 3:1-6. It’s a question about how to observe the Sabbath, not about the freedom to break the Sabbath, for whatever reason.] [We will look at Mark 7 later and see that Jesus does not set aside the Mosaic food laws for his Jewish followers.]

The debate is about who has the authority to declare what is proper Sabbath observance?

Jesus begins his response by referring to an interesting story from 1 Samuel 21:1-6

25And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: 26how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?”

Now, Abiathar wasn’t the high priest at this time. His father Ahimelech was, although he was almost certainly there when this happened. But Abiathar is the better known of the two, later being David’s high priest. So he’s used as a point of reference here.

There are some analogies here, from Jesus’ point of view, between David’s situation and what’s going on in Mark 2:

  • David’s a type of the Messiah and Jesus, is the fulfillment, the Anointed one
  • David’s men compare to Jesus’ disciples
  • David’s a king in waiting yet to be revealed, as is Jesus
  • David and his men are hungry. Jesus’ disciples are hungry
  • And David and his men do something unlawful. The disciples do something the Pharisees say is unlawful

But there’s a key difference. Although what happened in 1 Samuel 21 may well have taken place on the Sabbath (this is when the bread would be available to eat – Leviticus 24:8-9; and according to some later Rabbinic traditions) Jesus doesn’t focus on this. Jesus focuses on how it was unlawful for them to eat the bread of the presence, which was only for priests (Leviticus 24:9).

Another difference highlight’s Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees here. In this story an actual violation of the Law is permitted both by the high priest and Scripture, in the sense that it doesn’t condemn David. But the Pharisees condemn what is not a violation or at least what is a disputed violation based on their view. Whereas Scripture here is flexible, given human need; the Pharisees are super strict.

But I think the key reason Jesus refers to this story is to emphasize two crucial themes:

1. David and his men’s need. Jesus says in v. 25, “David was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him.” Now, there’s no indication that they were starving, but they were in need of food. [1 Samuel doesn’t actually mention anyone with David and some commentators think that there weren’t. This was a part of David’s fabrication. Jesus, however, takes this part of David’s statement as true.] This shows that the Law has a humanitarian bent to it that takes into account human well-being.

And 2. David’s authority in this matter. Jesus’ reading of 1 Samuel 21 accentuates this. As he says in v. 26, David “ate the bread of the Presence . . . and also gave it to those who were with him.” David was able to do this because of who he was. And David is a type of the Messiah. The unspoken implication is that the Messiah, his son, will also have similar great authority with regard to the Law.

Both of these points set up what Jesus has to say about the Sabbath.

The Sabbath was made for human well-being. This takes up the first point.

 27And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

The point of Sabbath observance is to bless humanity. It’s a gift of God for rest from the normal routines of work.

I like the NLT of this verse, “The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath.” The rules of the Pharisees, although well intentioned, make Sabbath observance a burden (Matthew 23:4) which is the opposite of rest.

Jesus teaches here that the Sabbath should have a humanitarian bent to it. It shouldn’t cause human need, but should allow the meeting of basic human needs – here simple hunger. (In Matthew 12:7 the quote of Hosea 6:6 stands in for this saying on the Sabbath.)

And then finally, Jesus speaks of his authority to declare proper Sabbath observance. This takes up the second point of the 1 Samuel story about David’s authority. (This is the core argument. Notice that Luke 6 leaves out the humanitarian argument.)

28So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”

In 1 Samuel 21 David was lord over the law on the bread of the presence. “So” the Son of Man (Daniel 7:13-14), that person who will rule and judge the nations on the final day alongside God, whom Jesus connects to himself as the Messiah, David’s son — so the Son of Man is Lord not just of a onetime exception to a matter of minor cultic law – he is Lord even of the Sabbath, as important as it is.

To say it another way, if David, the prototype of the Messiah can authorize a breaking of the Law, surely Jesus, his son, the Messiah and Son of Man can rule in a mere dispute over interpretation of the Law on proper Sabbath observance. (Sigal; Davies and Allison). And he rules that plucking grain on the Sabbath is proper.

What about us?

What should we take from this? It’s a fairly complicated discussion about a topic – plucking grain on the Sabbath, that most likely none of us has ever even thought to raise.

Well, we are reminded of Jesus’ true identity and thus his great authority. This is a constant theme in this part of Mark.

In the Old Testament the Sabbath is God’s. For instance, Leviticus 19:3 says, “You shall keep my Sabbaths: I am Yahweh, your God.” The Sabbath is God’s, but here Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath. It is his. Once again, Jesus takes on the role of God. This is who Jesus, our Savior is.

Keeping Sabbath should take into account caring for human need. This certainly gives guidance to Jesus’ Jewish followers, and should be applied to any Gentiles who keep the Sabbath or Sunday as a holy day. This is a part of the new wine for new wine-skins (Mark 2:22).Whatever guidelines you might use – don’t create human need, but rather place human need and caring for it at the center.

Finally, Jesus is our teacher in all things. He has authority over every part of our lives, not just on this topic. As he says in Matthew 23:10 – “You have one teacher, the Messiah.” And as he says in Mark 8:34, “follow me.” We are to follow his example.

So, if you want to know God’s will on any matter – look to what Jesus has taught and modeled for us in the Scriptures. See how this interacts with what the Old Testament taught. And then see how the rest of the New Testament helps us to understand Jesus. And that’s how you know God’s will.

And if you do this and then someone accuses you of not doing God’s will, as with the disciples in this story, you have the confidence to know that Jesus will defend you with his full authority, just as he does in this story.

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The literary structure of Mark 2:18-22

We’re in the gospel of Mark, chapter 2:18-22. This is the third story in a sequence of five stories of conflict that we’ve been working our way through.

You have a handout – Five conflict stories on how these stories are put together. I would just quickly highlight three things. 1) You can see in the left and right hand columns how these five stories parallel each other in various ways. 2) Each story tells us something about who Jesus is (center column). And 3) the two parables at the very center reference all five stories, not just ours, the third.

Alright, let’s work our way through our verses for today.

Mark 2:18-22

We begin with some background.

18Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting.”

The Law of Moses only requires one fast, a 24 hour fast on the day of atonement (Leviticus 16:29). (Although later there were other fasts that began to be observed – Zechariah 8:19; Esther 9:31; Nehemiah 9:1).

In our story we’re dealing with voluntary fasts, that go beyond what is required. These were usually from sunrise to sunset. Voluntary fasting was one of three key practices in ancient Judaism, along with prayer and giving alms. And it was highly regarded as a mark of devotion to God.

In Scripture, fasting is connected to things like mourning a death, repenting for sins, or when you’re dealing with hard times and you’re desperate for God’s help. It’s self-denial – not eating – connected to humility, lowliness and sadness. (In Matthew 9:15 the word “fast” is replaced by “mourn,” the two ideas are so closely related. Also in Matthew 6:16 Jesus criticizes putting on a show of mourning when you fast.)

Fasting is also associated with prayer (Luke’s version of this story adds in prayer to the topic of fasting – 5:33). It’s a way of intensifying your prayers in order to make your feelings or your needs known to God; the urgency of the situation (Matthew 6:16-18).

  • Regarding John the Baptist, Jesus describes him as someone who came “eating no bread and drinking no wine” – Luke 7:33. That is, he was known for fasting and not drinking alcohol. His disciples must have followed suit.
  • The Pharisees were also known for fasting. They did this twice a week (Luke 18:12) on Mondays and Thursdays.

So both John’s disciples and the Pharisees maintained a lifestyle characterized by rigorous voluntary fasting.

This brings us to the question.

 18And people came and said to him (Jesus), ‘Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’”

There were different religious groups among the Jews, and there is a comparison going on here. John’s group and the Pharisees seem really serious and devout. And so the question is “Are you guys slackers?” This question may well have been raised because, in the previous story Jesus and his disciples are feasting with tax collectors and sinners. And although the question is addressed to Jesus about his disciple’s behavior, it’s meant as a challenge to Jesus who is their teacher.

Jesus’ answer

19And Jesus said to them, ‘Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.’”

Now, Jesus and his disciples would have fasted from time to time, for instance on the Day of Atonement. And since Jesus gave them teaching on voluntary fasting in Matthew 6:16-18, it seems reasonable that they put this into practice on occasion. But they were not known for fasting. They did not maintain a rigorous lifestyle of fasting. This is the issue here.

Fasting, as we saw, would more likely be linked to funerals, where there is mourning and lowliness. But Jesus makes the case that his presence among the people is like a wedding. And weddings were all about celebrating and feasting – for seven whole days! Fasting would have been unheard of at such an event. As Jesus says, “they cannot fast” in such a setting.

So he’s making a claim about himself – Jesus is the bridegroom. The image of God as the husband of Israel was well known in the Old Testament (Isaiah 54:5-6; 61:10; Ezekiel 16; Hosea). But here Jesus has this role (See also Ephesians 5:22ff; Revelation 19:6-9; John 3:29) – and his disciples are his groomsmen or wedding guests.

His coming signals the enactment of the new covenant between God and his people – his bride, seen as a marriage renewal. His coming also signals the arrival of the promised kingdom of God which was also depicted with wedding imagery. (For the coming of the kingdom and wedding themes in the New Testament see Matthew 22:1-14; 25:1-13 and Revelation 19:7-9)

And so it’s a time of celebration. This is why Jesus was a “feaster,” not a faster. He maintained a lifestyle of celebration and joy, not mourning and sadness. As he says about himself in Luke 7:33, in contrast to John the Baptist, “the Son of man came eating and drinking.” And he celebrated so much that some slandered him as “a glutton and a drunkard.” And this is why he and his disciples were feasting in the previous story.

So Jesus is saying, the new has come! I’m here! The kingdom of God is here. And this has an impact on some traditional practices. The old has to change.

If these other Jewish groups had recognized Jesus’ claim, they too would have changed their practices from a lifestyle of fasting – to a lifestyle more associated with feasting. But they didn’t accept Jesus’ claim, and so they didn’t change their practices.

20The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.”

If v. 19 emphasizes Jesus’ presence with them and what this means, v. 20 emphasizes when Jesus will be absent from them. The phrase “is taken away” is ominous. It’s a veiled reference to his death. (It’s likely an allusion to Isaiah 53:8) Jesus is saying that after his death, in those days, his disciples will fast. (Fasting and death/mourning/a funeral are once again connected.) (See John 16:19-20 for a similar idea)

So this new thing, a lifestyle of celebration, is a change of practice specifically related to Jesus’ presence on earth.

Next comes two parables about the new and the old. 

21No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made.

22And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins.”

These both make the same point, there’s an incompatibility between the new and the old.  In the first, the new is the unshrunk cloth. If you sew this onto an old garment, the patch will shrink and everything will be ruined.

In the second, the new is the new wine. If you put it into an old wineskin that has already been stretched out and is brittle, when the wine continues to ferment and expand, it will burst the wineskin and everything will be ruined. There’s an incompatibility.

Jesus draws out the positive point in the last line –

22But new wine is for fresh wineskins.”

The new of Jesus’ presence and the kingdom requires some new practices, not grafting the new onto the old (the patch) or putting the new into the old (wine). With Jesus’ coming – things get changed up!

Some things to take home

1. Jesus’ divine identity. As we have seen several times now, most recently when Jesus forgave a person’s sins, Jesus takes on the role of God. Or to say it another way, he is the Son of God.

In our text today he identifies himself as the bridegroom of God’s people, who of course, is God. This is who Jesus is. He is not just a prophet. He is not just the Messiah. He is not just a son of God – a powerful ruler or heavenly being. He is the Son of God. This is who our Savior is.

2. Do you fast? This is a challenge that this passage presents to us. Jesus specifically says that after his death, “they will fast in that day.” This is the time we live in now.

If you don’t already, I encourage you to try fasting as a way of engaging in intense prayer, lifting up your sorrows and problems to God. And God will hear you since he is especially attuned to the lowly.

Although, remember to do it according to Jesus’ teaching – so that we don’t advertise our fasting by playing the part of a mourner, as he teaches in Matthew 6:16-18.

3. Are you living in the new that Jesus teaches? As we saw, the change with regard to fasting was temporary, being specifically related to Jesus’ bodily presence with us.

But as I pointed out, the two parables on the new and the old, at the very center of the five stories of conflict, also point back to the first two stories and forward to the last two stories.

  • In the first two stories – with Jesus’ coming the kingdom brings in a time of mercy and forgiveness, so that Jesus now announces forgiveness and extends mercy even to notable sinners.
  • And in the second two stories – with Jesus’ coming the kingdom brings with it a new way of observing the Sabbath for Jesus’ Jewish followers, that emphasizes that it’s made to bless people, and doing good to others on the Sabbath is encouraged.

The coming of the kingdom changes our practices in these ways also. And if the fasting example is mostly temporary, these are long-term changes that clarify for us what God’s will is with regard to how we treat “sinners” and how we might observe Sabbath.

 

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The literary structure of Mark 2:13-17

We’re in the Gospel of Mark today, looking at the call of Levi and the subsequent meal in his home. This is the second in a sequence of five stories of conflict. Last time the conflict was over Jesus’ claim to forgive someone’s sins. Today it’s his practice of sharing fellowship with sinners.

Let’s jump right in –

Mark 2:13-17

v. 13- “He (Jesus) went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them.”

As we have seen, Jesus was a celebrity, especially because of his ability to heal. Crowds followed him everywhere. He was always getting mobbed. And so here he takes advantage of this to continue to teach them about the coming of the kingdom of God (1:15).

v. 14 – “And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth. . .”

[Notice the parallels with 1:16-20, the calling of Peter, Andrew, James and John: Jesus took the initiative, he was “passing by”; it took place beside the sea; Jesus saw; there is a reference to occupation; the call “follow me”; and an immediate response of leaving their occupation]

It’s interesting that in the first gospel the name of the person in this story is “Matthew,” not Levi. And there’s also a James the son of Alphaeus, who is one of the twelve. Most likely Levi and Matthew are the same person. And perhaps Levi/Matthew and the apostle James, the son of Alphaeus were brothers. It’s hard to know how it all fits together with the information we have.

In any case, Levi was a tax collector (technically a toll collector). Specifically he would have been employed by someone to collect customs fees and road tolls. He most likely had a booth along the road through Capernaum, which was a significant trade route (the Via Maris from Damascus to Caesarea). The money would go to his boss, who would give the proper portion to Herod Antipas, who ruled in Galilee.

Tax collectors were despised and treated as outcasts, for several reasons. I’ll mention just two. First, they were seen as collaborators with Rome, Israel’s oppressive overlord, since they worked for Herod, Rome’s installed puppet leader. And also they were often dishonest and charged too much, to increase their own income. They are associated in the New Testament with prostitutes (Matthew 21:32), extortionists, the unjust, adulterers (Luke 18:11) and Gentiles (Matthew 18:17). None of these kept the Law of Moses and all of them were classified as “sinners.”

So Jesus sees Levi sitting at his toll booth, doing his work.

v. 14 – “. . . and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he rose and followed him.”

When he says, follow me, Jesus is asking Levi to leave his current life behind so that he can travel with Jesus, learn from him and minister with him, just as he has already done with Peter, Andrew, James and John.

It’s possible that Levi had previous interactions with Jesus. Peter did before his call from Jesus, even though Mark doesn’t tell us about them. So it’s possible. Either way, Levi makes a radical break. He leaves his career behind. We will see in a moment that he had a house. But one can also wonder, was he married? Did he have kids? Was he supporting his parents? Whatever his exact circumstances, he had to sacrifice to follow Jesus in this way.

v. 15 – “And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him.”

[Jesus is a bit like David here collecting outcasts to himself – 1 Samuel 22:2].

The references “he” and “his” in the first phrase are vague. But it’s best to say that Jesus is eating in Levi’s house (Luke 5:29). Usually you would sit to eat. It was only for a special meal or banquet (Luke 5:29) that you would you recline, that is, lay on cushions or a couch and eat off of a short table.

“Sinners,” as we saw,  is a broad term that covers Gentiles and also Jews who don’t keep the Law of Moses in significant ways. Maybe they aren’t even trying. It’s a lifestyle of sin.

What’s going on here is that Levi, now a committed worker for Jesus, has invited his friends and coworkers, fellow tax collectors and sinners, to meet with Jesus, and to hear his message of the kingdom.

Many tax collectors and sinners were interested in Jesus and many “followed him,” our verse tells us, perhaps in the crowds that followed Jesus around, or perhaps as repentant disciples. (As Jesus said to the Jewish leaders in Matthew 21:31, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.”)

And Jesus freely joins in with them in this feast.

v. 16 – “And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’”

The scribes of the Pharisees, or experts in the Law, want to see what’s going on. A meal like this would’ve been public knowledge in a small town like Capernaum. And they aren’t happy with what they see. They ask Jesus’ disciples, “What in the world is he doing?”

That’s because the Pharisees took a separation approach to sinners. The righteous must be separate from those that are morally or ritually unclean. And the walls of separation must be maintained. And they especially applied this to who you ate meals with.

To be with sinners (especially to eat with them) is to send the wrong message; one of condoning their disobedience to God. And in ancient cultures to eat a meal with someone did convey open fellowship with each other.

And then there is the concern that if you are with them you will be contaminated by them, through ritual impurity for sure, but also by means of bad moral influence.

Perhaps they even said, “if sinners want to repent, they know what to do according to the Law of Moses. Let them get their lives in order first. Then we’ll fellowship.”

So Jesus’ actions were disconcerting and threatening to their way of looking at things. He isn’t playing by their rules.

v. 17 – “And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’”

Jesus uses a common proverb to make his point: What good is a doctor who never goes around a sick person? Of course doctors have to be with them. How else can they help them? In the same way Jesus has come to call sinners to repentance and kingdom entrance; he calls them to be made whole. This is precisely why Jesus came. God sent him to do this.

Now, when Jesus says, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” he acknowledges that there is a difference between a person who seeks to follow God and when they fail, finds forgiveness and moves forward – and a person who isn’t even trying to follow God; sinners who live a lifestyle of sin. And Jesus speaks of those who are righteous (Mark 6:20; Matthew 10:41; 13:17; 13:43; 25:37; Luke 1:6; 2:25; 23:50).

But we also have to acknowledge that with the coming of Jesus even these relatively more righteous ones are called to repentance in light of the fuller revelation of God’s will that he brings. (Just as those with faith in God are called to have faith in Jesus and his bringing forth the promise of the kingdom.) (This saying is similar to Luke 15:7, given in a very similar context, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who need no repentance.”) (The Pharisees saw themselves as righteous – Luke 18:9, but Jesus often pointed out the ways that at least some of them failed in this regard.)

Instead of a separation approach, Jesus took a redemptive approach to sinnersYou have to be with them to give them the message of new life. Yes, this can seem scandalous because people might think that you’re condoning sin, or even sinning yourself. But the point is to be able to share the message of the kingdom and repentance and forgiveness and new life. So it’s worth the risk.

Instead of sin contaminating him, Jesus saw his love and truth as able to transform them; to make them well. Righteousness is contagious, not sin. Yes, you risk ritual impurity, and you do have to be careful of moral influence if it’s an area of weakness for you. But other than this, it’s worth the risk.

It’s no wonder that so many people responded to Jesus. They were used to rejection and scorn. And this didn’t lead to their transformation. But now Jesus comes to them, and he comes with grace – “I know you’re sinners, even notorious ones, but God is offering you the kingdom too. Repent and you can enter in and have new life.”

Let’s end with –

Some questions

 How do you treat sinners? Are you more like the Pharisees or more like Jesus? Here’s a test: There was a Christian man who went to biker bars so that he could be with those who needed Jesus. God put them on his heart. He sought to befriend those he could, to show them the love of Jesus. But when others in church found out about it they were shocked! John goes to bars every Friday night! We’ve never heard of such a thing. What’s he thinking? That’s not a place for good Christians to hang out. He should be thinking about his witness!

Do you agree with John or those in his church? Whose concern for witness is more genuine – John’s actual witness to people or the church’s concern for mere reputation?

Jesus calls us to be with sinners, not stay away from them. Unless, of course you have a weakness, that particular people or circumstances might tempt you to give in to. Short of this we are called to be with them, not just to hang out with each other, the “well” ones; those that we are comfortable with in the church building. We are to be with them so that we can share with them about Jesus, his love and his grace.

And this is not just about outside the church. Sinners should be welcome in our church. Do people have to clean up their lives before they come to church? No! Church is the place they need to be, to be able to get clean and be transformed by Jesus.

Do you introduce your friends to Jesus? Levi’s an excellent example. He immediately invited everyone he knew to a banquet so that they could meet Jesus and hear his message. In what ways might you connect your friends and co-workers to Jesus?

Are you struggling with sin? Are you stuck in a lifestyle of sin? If this describes you, Jesus comes to you today and he comes with love and grace. He comes to offer you new life; a new start; forgiveness. He comes to you as the good physician to make you well.

What must you do? Receive his grace. Be like Levi, repent of your sins and give yourself fully, radically and sacrificially to follow Jesus. This is the path to wholeness. I encourage you, respond to Jesus today.

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The literary structure of Mark 2:1-12

We’re back in Mark. Today we enter a new section of the book – “five stories of conflict” which runs from chapter 2 through chapter 3:6. These stories demonstrate that although Jesus is loved by the crowds – mostly for what he can do for them – his message and his display of authority created opposition from many, especially the Jewish leadership.

In our story today, the first of the five, the conflict is over Jesus’ authority to forgive a person’s sins.

Mark 2:1-12

1And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. 2And many were gathered together, so that there was no more room, not even at the door. And he was preaching the word to them.

Last time we saw how Jesus expanded his ministry into all of Galilee (1:38). And now “after some days” he returns to Capernaum, his home base. But he does so quietly because of the press of the crowds (1:45). Nevertheless word gets out and he is once again swamped by a crowd. The house, most likely Peter and Andrew’s, is packed with people.

We also saw last time that his priority is preaching (1:38). And this is what he’s doing in the house, “preaching the word.” As stated in 1:15, he proclaimed, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

3And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. 4And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay.

So this man is so disabled that he can’t walk or otherwise get to Jesus, but must be carried by four friends. The word used for “bed” here refers to a poor person’s mat or mattress.

Well, on their way to Jesus they encounter an obstacle, the crowd around Jesus is blocking their way. Undaunted they make their way up the outside staircase onto the flat roof – both typical features of a Palestinian home at this time.

It says literally that they “unroofed the roof” and they were “digging it out.” That is, they removed the material between the roof beams to make a hole for the man to be lowered through. (Luke says there were tiles involved – 5:19)

Can you imagine the mess that would have fallen on those below? And I wonder what Peter and Andrew thought of their new sun roof? Whatever others were thinking, Jesus saw faith.

5And when Jesus saw their faith. . .

When Jesus says “their faith” this includes the faith of the disabled man, who is surely a participant in this quest to get to Jesus.

And here is a lesson on faith from these five men. First, it overcomes all obstacles to get to Jesus. Faith is persistent and doesn’t give up. And also it can be seen. Our verse says, “Jesus saw their faith.” He could see it because faith is not just about words, but is demonstrated in actions that can be seen.

. . . he said to the paralytic, “My son, your sins are forgiven.”

This is surprising to us. He came for healing not forgiveness. But this would not be surprising to a Jewish audience. In Scripture, sin and sickness are often connected (Deuteronomy 28:25ff; Numbers 12:9-15; 2 Chronicles 26:16-21; Isaiah 38:16-17; James 5:14-16;1 Corinthians 11:27-30; Psalm 41:3-4; Psalm 103:3; Psalm 107:17; Isaiah 33:24). There’s a connection in general – sickness is a part of a fallen world marked by sin. But also an individual’s specific sins can bring sickness upon them.

Now, Jesus is clear that there is not always a direct connection, as he points out in the case of the blind man in John 9:3 (See also Luke 13:1-5; 2 Corinthians 12:7; Galatians 4:13-14; and, of course, the book of Job). But this doesn’t mean that sometimes there isn’t a direct connection (See John 5:14). And there is a direct connection here, according to Jesus. None of this would have been controversial to his audience.

 What’s controversial is that Jesus personally forgives the man’s sins. (The phrase “your sins are forgiven” could be interpreted as a divine passive so that Jesus is saying, “God forgives yours sins.” But this wouldn’t be controversial (2 Samuel 12:13). The conflict that follows and Jesus’ further statements only make sense if he is personally forgiving this man’s sins. See also Luke 7:48-49) In Scripture, only God forgives sins. How could someone who is not God, a mere human, do this for God?

6Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, 7“Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

Scribes are experts in the Law of Moses. Their response is understandable. It is true, only God can forgive sins. (The phrase “God alone” can also be translated “except the one God” – a reference to the Shema). Forgiveness is a divine prerogative or right. And for a mere human to claim this is to blaspheme. And the penalty for blasphemy is death by stoning – Leviticus 24:10-16. (He is later executed based on this charge – Mark 14:63-64.)

Now notice that they do not say these things out loud, they think them in their inner person.

8And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question these things in your hearts?

Jesus has already displayed the ability to know what is in a person’s heart when he knew what the disabled man’s sins were and forgave them. Now here he knows what the scribes are thinking. But they take no notice of this.

Jesus continues in his response to their thoughts.

9Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’?

 The argument Jesus is making is from greater to lesser. He’s saying, if he can do the more difficult thing, this guarantees that he can do the easier thing. It is easier to say “your sins are forgiven” because there’s no way to see that the person is or isn’t forgiven. But the results of saying “be healed” can be seen. The person is either healed or is not healed. This is harder.

So his ability to heal the man, the harder thing to say, shows that he can also forgive the man, the easier thing to say.

And in context these two things are connected. Since Jesus sees the man’s ailment as a consequence of his personal sins and the others would almost certainly agree his healing would demonstrate his forgiveness. God would not heal the man unless his sins were forgiven. So the fact that, as we will see, he is healed shows that Jesus’ pronouncement of forgiveness was indeed effective. It becomes a visible evidence that he’s forgiven.

And finally, God would not honor the words of a blasphemer. But here the man is healed.

10But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”-

The phrase Son of Man is how Jesus characteristically refers to himself in the Gospels. Jesus seems to like this title because it concealed his identity to those not interested in following him, but revealed who he is to those who were.

It conceals in that in the Old Testament it mostly just means “a human” or “a mere person” – in contrast to God (Psalm 8:4; Ezekiel).  And Jesus is talking in the 3rd person. So the outsider would ask, “Who’s he talking about?”

But for his followers they know he is talking about himself and he is referring to Daniel 7:13-14, which refers to a human being who is given “authority  which will not pass away . . ..” (LXX) and who is involved with God in the judgment of the nations.

Jesus is saying, “This is who I am; and I have this divine prerogative to forgive – not just on the final day in the courts of heaven, but also now ‘on earth.'”

To demonstrate that he has this authority, picking up the end of v. 10 –

he said to the paralytic— 11“I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” 12And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all . . .

So he gets up off the ground, then bends over to pick up his bed and then walks home – a clear demonstration of his healing. If he had trouble getting through the crowed before, I bet he doesn’t now!

And after this it goes on to say about the crowd –

. . . so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!”

The crowd is astonished and gives praise to God. They have never seen a man forgive sins like God does and then prove it by healing the person.

Let me end with 3 more brief lessons from this story.

Jesus has all authority. As we have seen he has authority or power to teach new things; to cast out demons with a word; to heal people by simply speaking; and now we see that this includes forgiving people their sins. Jesus has all this power.

And we learn about Jesus’ unique identity in this story. He tells us that he is the Son of Man of Daniel 7; the somewhat mysterious, exalted figure who is with God when the nations of the world are judged on the final day.

And even more than this he is the Son of God in human form. In answer to the question of the scribes, yes only God can forgive sins, which is why Jesus can forgive sins. Here we see again Jesus’ divine identity.

And then finally, in all this Jesus is making the kingdom of God present. He does this when he sets people free from Satan – exorcisms; when he brings new life – through healings and making people whole; and here when he forgives sins, extending God’s mercy (Jeremiah 31) and bringing people into new relationship with God.

(Now, he forgives, not by saying sin doesn’t matter, but on the basis of his coming death which atones for sins (Mark 10:45; Mark 14:22-24.) This is the basis of all these kingdom blessings. And his death is alluded to in our story. For the charge of blasphemy is a capital offense and is indeed why he was eventually executed on the cross (Mark 14:64).)

Jesus makes the kingdom real in people’s lives.

As we think of who Jesus is and what he does in this story, we too should respond as the crowd does by giving praise to God.

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The literary structure of Mark 1:35-45

We’re back in Mark, and as we’ve already seen Jesus has established a home base in Capernaum, has started his church by choosing leaders and beginning his first house church and has displayed his authority in his teaching, healing and exorcism ministries. In our passage today, 1:35-45, he struggles with the crush of the crowds. Word is getting out about his power to heal and the press of people is overwhelming. We see in our verses how he hopes to counter this, but in the end fails.

Let’s begin with the first few verses that talk about –

Jesus’ purpose in coming: Mark 1:35-39

35And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed.

Remember, Jesus has just spent a very long day preaching in the Synagogue, casting out a demon there, and then healing Peter’s mother in law. And then that evening, which in the Jewish reckoning is the next day, many of those in need in Capernaum came to Jesus to be healed and helped; a crowd gathered at the door of Peter and Andrew’s house.

So Jesus likely hasn’t gotten much sleep. And yet he’s up very early in the morning. He does this so that he can find time to pray.

He gets away from the weight of the needs around him to get alone with God. “A desolate place” here doesn’t mean a desert. It means somewhere where people are not. (See also Mark 6:46; 14:32-39 for Jesus at prayer.)

This leads us to the first of three lessons I want to highlight for you today: #1. The importance of prayer. Jesus depended on it as his source of strength and guidance. He needed his power replenished by the Spirit and wisdom as he is about to make a big decision. And if he depended on it, how much more do we need it!  And he models for us that when things get hectic and stressful, this is not the time to cut prayer out of our lives to make things more simple for us. This is precisely when we need prayer the most.

36And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, 37and they found him and said to him, “Everyone is looking for you.”

You can just imagine that early in the morning the crowds came back to Peter’s house looking for Jesus with the sick and needy. And so Peter and Andrew and then the other disciples wake up and are like, ‘Hey where’s Jesus?’ And they begin frantically searching for him.

38And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” 39And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.

Instead of staying in Capernaum and healing everyone who had a need there, after prayer, he decides to expand his ministry throughout Galilee.

And notice the focus, Jesus didn’t come to heal every person. Jesus came to preach the word of the kingdom. As chapter 1:15 says, he proclaimed “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the good news.” Healing and miracles are intended to draw attention to the message; to verify that it is true. But they aren’t the end all and be all. They aren’t the point in themselves.

But now in Capernaum the crowds are focused on these signs and not necessarily on responding to the message of the kingdom with belief and repentance.

This brings us to the second lesson from our passage: #2. The Word is more important than healing and miracles. In terms of Jesus’ ministry, he didn’t come to fix people’s earthly needs, even though compassion for needs is important. He came to call people to faith and repentance. And remember all the people he healed, eventually still died. But those that came to faith and repentance experience new life into eternity.

It’s the same with us. We can pray to God for healing, but it’s not God’s purpose to heal everyone now. It’s his purpose to call all to faith and repentance. On the final day we will all be healed. Yes, God heals now and we should pray for it. And God answers, I believe, especially as a sign that the message is true. But he doesn’t always heal now.

And as a church we need to remember this lesson on priorities. Some churches practically abandon preaching the word and seeking a response to show compassion to those in need. Yes, we must show compassion. But our purpose in everything is to call people to faith and repentance.

So along these lines, Jesus goes to other towns and synagogues to minister there, hoping people will respond to his message – not yet being focused on his healing power. But then something happens that messes up his plan.

Jesus heals a leper: Mark 1:40-45

40And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.”

Leprosy here refers to several skin diseases, not just what we call leprosy, which is Hansen’s disease. It could even include things like psoriasis and eczema. To have leprosy was to have a serious skin disease, but it was also to be a social outcast, since you would be classified as perpetually ritually unclean (and probably contagious as well).

Leviticus 13:45-46 says this about a leper: he “shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ . . . His dwelling shall be outside the camp.”

According to Numbers 12:12 the leper was seen as similar to a corpse. They were the walking dead. And it was held that only a miracle from God could cure a leper. It was like raising someone from the dead (2 Kings 5:7).

Although lepers were to stay away from others, in this case the man ‘understandably’ breaks the rule, because this is not a normal situation. Here is someone who can make him clean. And so he comes right up to Jesus and kneels before him. He has faith that Jesus can heal him, the only question is if Jesus wants to heal him and make him clean.

41Moved with compassion, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.” 42And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.

 [More people are now accepting the textual variant “Jesus was indignant” (NIV 2011). If this is the correct reading it would mean either that Jesus was angry at the ravages of the disease on this man (Edwards, Judges 10:16) or that he is angry because he knows his plan to focus on preaching and to get away from the crush of the crowds will now be upended by healing him.]

Jesus has compassion on the man. Clearly this was a terrible life he was living. He didn’t turn him away out of revulsion for his condition. He consented and healed the man. He made him clean from his leprosy. Again, Jesus’ amazing healing power is evident. He can heal what others think is impossible to heal and he can do so “immediately.”

Jesus’ compassion is displayed in that while most would run away horrified, he touches him. Now, normally if you touch a leper you become ritually unclean. Becoming ritually unclean wasn’t wrong, it was just a part of life. And as long as you follow the Law to be cleansed you’re fine. But here it’s probably better to say that Jesus transmits his cleanness to the man, rather than saying that the leper transmitted his uncleanness to Jesus. (See also Mark 5:41 ff.).

Our final lesson is: #3. Jesus’ great compassion. Even though the man is an outcast, loathed by all and even though healing the man will make his life harder because he will be mobbed by even more crowds, he does so because he’s moved by concern for the man’s problem.

And we need to remember that Jesus is ever the same. He has the same compassion on us in our times of need and suffering; when we are revolting and filthy. And we can come to him knowing what his heart is towards us.

And in turn we are to have the same compassion on others in need. Even if it makes our lives more difficult. Even if they are people that are considered unclean or outcasts, we are to allow Jesus to touch them through us.

43And Jesus sternly charged him and sent him away at once, 44and said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them.”

Leviticus 14 outlines the process of being declared clean from leprosy by a priest. Remember it was not just about being healed, he had to be certified as clean by a priest in order to reenter society. Jesus wants this to be a witness to the priests and all involved in this process that Jesus and his message are true.

Notice Jesus’ concern for the details of the Law of Moses. Some portray Jesus, especially in Mark, as indifferent to the Law, but this is wrong as we will see.

v. 43 says that Jesus “sternly charged” the man to tell no one. He’s really serious about this. Perhaps he thought that by the time the leper completed the process of being declared clean, a minimum of 8 days, plus travel to Jerusalem and back for sacrifice, he could finish his preaching tour without being mobbed by crowds looking for healing.

45But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter.

Before, the man understandably disobeys the Mosaic rules to get to Jesus. And now he ‘understandably’ disobeys Jesus’ instruction. How can he keep quiet about his healing? He’s not only healed, he has a life again. For sure, it’s not right to disobey Jesus here, but we can understand it.

And what he does is not bad in itself – he becomes a proclaimer of Jesus; he spreads the word. It’s just that it derails Jesus’ plan to be able to preach throughout Galilee without the crush of crowds seeking healing.

Finally, notice how Jesus and the leper trade places. The leper was not able to enter any town. But now that he is healed he can. At least once he’s certified as clean. But since he told everyone about this, now Jesus is not able to enter any town. At least not openly. The problem Jesus had at the beginning of story remains. He has to go out to desolate places to escape being mobbed by crowds.

Let’s remember together our 3 lessons:

1. The importance of prayer, especially when life is crazy.

2.  Preaching the Word is more important than healing and miracles or more generally helping meet people’s earthly needs.

3. Jesus’ compassion. Even though the man is an outcast, even though it will make his life more difficult, he helps the man.

Let me end with a question: Who might God bring across your path this week that he wants you to have compassion on,  even if the person is repulsive to you and even if helping the person will make your life harder. Keep your eyes open!

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Series: Markan prologue

The literary structure of Mark 1:1-15

(Rewritten)

We’re beginning a new series today on the Gospel of Mark. A few things about Mark to begin with. It was most likely the first gospel written. And it likely contains the stories and teachings of Jesus that the apostle Peter passed down [Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses] and John Mark (Acts 12:12, 25; 13:5, 13-14; 15:37-40; Colossians 4:10; Philemon 1:24; 2 Timothy 4:11) later wrote out. These things are likely, I think, but they’re not from Scripture.

With regard to the Gospel itself, a few observations:

  • It’s fast paced. “Immediately” seems to be one of Mark’s favorite words.
  • Its stories are usually longer with more vivid details than Matthew or Luke.
  • And yet it’s the shortest Gospel, because it has less teaching material in it than either Matthew or Luke.

We begin with Mark’s introduction which covers the first 15 verses of the book. Notice that it’s bracketed by the phrase “good news” (or Gospel) in v. 1 and in vs. 14-15 (2x). And both of these sections have elements of timing in them – “the beginning” in v. 1 and “the time is fulfilled” and the kingdom is “at hand” in vs 14-15.

The whole introduction turns on the first three verses, which contain a prophetic word that a messenger is to come first, and then the Lord will come. [This sequence is reinforced in v. 7 by John’s message, “after me” he will come.]

Alright, let’s jump in.

Mark 1:1-8

The first phrase

1The beginning of the good news of Jesus, the anointed one, the Son of God –

When Mark says, “the beginning,” this has to do with the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, following John the Baptist’s work of preparation [see Acts 10:37]. But it can also refer to the whole Gospel. Mark is saying, this is how the Christian movement began.

We learn several things here about who Jesus is. 1) He is the “Christ.” This is the Greek version of the Hebrew word which means “Messiah” or more literally “the anointed one,” which is what I’m going with. This refers back to the Old Testament practice of anointing someone with oil when they are commissioned by God to do something. It was especially connected to the expected son of David who would come as the anointed one, to save God’s people.

2) Jesus is the “son of God.” This phrase is most often associated with the kings of Israel (2 Samuel 7:13-14; Psalm 2:7; Psalm 89:26-27), and sometimes Israel itself (Exodus 4:22-23; Hosea 11:1; Jeremiah 31:9, 20). It can also refer to divine beings or angels (e.g. the sons of God in Job). Basically it means one who rules, although we will see that Jesus is God’s son in unique and special way (e.g. Mark 1:11; 14:61-62).

3) Finally the phrase “good news” tells us something about Jesus. In Isaiah it refers to the coming of God to save Israel and to establish his rule or kingdom (Isaiah 40:9; 52:7; 61:1). In the Roman world it was used to announce the success of an Emperor or the birth of a new Emperor. In both contexts it is a royal announcement. And so this tells us that Jesus is a king.

By means of his introduction Mark gives his readers the privilege to know a good bit about who Jesus is before the story begins, while the people in the story struggle to understand who Jesus is, to the end.

The prophecy

2as it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, 3the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”

This is the only place in all of Mark that he quotes Scripture. And, of course, this happens right at the beginning of his Gospel. So this is really important.

Although Mark says, “as it is written in Isaiah,” he is actually quoting two (or more) passages. This is just how they sometimes did things at this time, combining passages like this and just using one name.

Let’s look at the two key quotes here in reverse order. Isaiah 40:3 says in part, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘prepare the way of the Lord, make straight the paths of our God.’” (LXX). In context this refers to the announcement, by the voice, of the end of exile in Babylon and God’s promise to bring Israel back to its land. This is framed by Isaiah as a second Exodus from Babylon to the land of Israel. [The path here is God’s, but like with the original Exodus, it is God and his people who journey together to the land. The Isaiah Targum speaks of the way of God and the congregation of our God.] [Mark’s quote here can also be translated to match the parallelism of the Hebrew version – “A voice cries ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Witherington]

And then we have Malachi 3:1 which says in part, “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me.” [Mark’s version is a little different, which we will look at later]. This person is further identified in Malachi 4:5-6 as Elijah, who is commissioned to bring about repentance in Israel before God comes to visit them.

In Mark’s narrative, John the Baptist is the messenger, as we will see today. But also Jesus is the Lord who comes. In both passages God comes after the messenger. This, then is an amazing statement about Jesus’ divine identity, which we will come back to in a later message.

Now, by quoting these passages we get Mark’s insight into what’s going on with the coming of John the Baptist and then Jesus. As I said, Isaiah speaks of a second Exodus out of exile back to the land. And several prophets spoke of how things would radically change; how God would reign in glory in a splendid temple and Israel would be established in the land and at peace. Well, the people came back, but they struggled, still under Gentile rule, the Persians, and still with no sense that anything had really changed. So there was disillusionment.

Well, the book of Malachi picks up in this context. He tells the people that the holdup on the fulfillment of the promises is due to their sin. And so he predicts that God will send a messenger, Elijah to prepare Israel for his coming in power to reign. And he is to prepare them by calling them to repentance so that when God comes, it won’t end in further judgment. [I am indebted to Rikk Watts for this construal of Malachi’s role.]

So Mark is saying – this is what’s going on with the coming of John and then Jesus. God is working to bring about his kingdom; to fulfill his promises to his people of salvation and blessing.

The fulfillment – John in the wilderness 

After the prediction of the messenger who will first prepare the way, John shows up doing just this.

4John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

Now, not everyone came, of course, but Mark is emphasizing his success.

The connection between the messenger and John is clear. The messenger is to prepare the way, which includes calling for repentance on the part of Israel (Malachi 4:15-16). And John calls the people to repentance.

Also, the messenger is associated with the wilderness as is Elijah.  Well, John is in the wilderness and he is telling people to prepare the way.

And then we have v. 6.

6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey.

The messenger is identified as Elijah in some sense and John looks just like Elijah. In 2 Kings 1:8 someone describes Elijah in this way: “He wore a garment of hair with a belt of leather around his waist.” As Jesus says later in Mark 9:13, “Elijah has come” and he is referring to John the Baptist. (See also Luke 1:17).

Notice how what John is doing fits with Isaiah and Malachi’s vision of the need to prepare the people for the coming of God. In the first exodus, Israel crossed through the Red Sea. And then with Joshua the Jordan river. John is symbolically having Israelites go through the waters again (here the Jordan river.) So John is calling Israel to be reconstituted as a new people, ready for the coming of God. And since the leaders in Jerusalem rejected him, he is calling out a remnant to make them ready for the Lord. All of this points to the fulfillment of the promise of the prophets about Israel’s salvation. It all fits together.

The fulfillment – John’s message

7And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

A key part of John’s ministry was calling people to be ready for the coming one (Matthew 11:3, Acts 13:25). He describes him as the mighty one.

There’s a Jewish saying that a disciple is to act as a slave to their teacher, except for taking off their sandals (b. Ketub. 96a). But here John is saying he is not fit even to do this slave work for the mighty one.

John also speaks of the coming one as the Spirit baptizer. The one who will inundate people with the Spirit, like he does with water.

This has reference to several promises God makes to his people in the Old Testament:

  • Joel 2:28-29 – “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit.”
  • Ezekiel 36:27 – “And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”
  • Isaiah 44:3 – “I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants.”

John’s water baptism was preparatory. The coming One’s Spirit baptism brings the reality of the promises.

What do we learn?

This teaches us about God’s plans. They are from of old. This was all pointed to by the prophets, Isaiah and Malachi and repeated by John. God’s plans are orderly. The messenger come first to prepare and after this comes the Lord to bring salvation. God’s plans are sure and true. It came to pass just as it was supposed to, which is the story Mark is telling us about. This should lead us to trust in God’s full outworking of his plan to bring it all to completion, as we wait our Lord’s second coming.

And speaking of his coming, we need to continue to be prepared for God’s coming to us. Are we single mindedly focused on God and serving him? Or are we off following the world, waiting time, focused on this life and not finishing the mission he gave us to expand his kingdom? Are you prepared? He could come at any time.

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For me it is interesting to note the different emphases of the various gospel writers. For instance, Mark is the shortest gospel, but when it tells stories about Jesus they are usually the longest and most lively. Matthew and Luke are longer gospels, but have shorter stories and then use that space to record more of the teaching of Jesus.

And then there is the contrast between the emphasis on the Holy Spirit in the Gospel of Luke compared to that of the Gospel of Matthew. Luke has quite a bit more material on the Spirit. Yet, having said that we have in Matthew two statements about the presence of Jesus with us that do not show up in Luke or anywhere else and have to do with what we understand to be the work of the Spirit, that is, making Jesus present to us. (more…)

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