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The literary structure of Mark 3:20-21; 31-35

Jesus’ early Galilean ministry – Mark 1:16-3:35

Jesus’ new community take shape

We’re in a section in Mark that I am calling ‘Jesus’ new community takes shape.’ Jesus has chosen the leaders of his new community – the 12 apostles, and today we see who makes up the rest of this new community; which is the remnant of Israel.

We’re dealing with verses 20-21 out of order because these verses go with vs. 31-35. Mark is famous for putting one story in the middle of another. A kind of story sandwich, if you will. He does this because he wants the two stories to be read together, because they have something in common. In this case we see that it is not just the scribes from Jerusalem who reject Jesus – his family does as well.

Mark 3:20-21; 31-35

20Then he went home, and the crowd gathered again, so that they could not even eat.

So this verse starts just after Jesus has finished choosing the 12 apostles. When it says “he went home” (or into a house) it most likely means that he’s back in Capernaum, his home base and also it probably means that he’s in Peter and Andrew’s house again.

As always, the crowds gather around Jesus. In this instance there are so many people that “they could not even eat,” referring to Jesus and his disciples.

21And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, “He is out of his mind.”

His family back in Nazareth hears about the crowds and perhaps specifically that Jesus is not able to eat because of them and they decide that they need to do something.

What’s translated “family” here is literally “those of him.” It’s kind of a vague way of talking about his natural family. (That it is indeed is family is made clear in v. 31)

They come to “seize” him or take control of him. The word can have the sense of arresting or forcibly seizing someone. It sounds like they want to bring him back with them to Nazareth away from the crowds and the spotlight.

They do this because they think he’s out of his mind; he’s saying and doing things that they don’t understand and he’s so caught up in what he thinks is his mission from God, that he’s not eating.

Their charge that he’s out of his mind is not the same as the scribes’ charge that Jesus is demon possessed. But it’s at least analogous since demons were sometimes thought to cause insanity (John 10:20-21). As will become even more clear below – they don’t believe in him as the Son of God and anointed one at this point (See also John 7:3-5).

And so they decide to stage what we would call today a “family intervention.”  It’s unclear if their motivation is for Jesus’ own well-being or if they are primarily concerned about their family’s reputation. Maybe a bit of both. Certainly his actions reflected back on them for good or ill and family honor was a huge concern in that day.

What a painful rejection Jesus endures in our story. Can you imagine? You’re doing God’s will and your own family thinks you’re crazy. So when Jesus calls others to leave family behind or if their commitment to him causes their family to reject them just know that it happened to Jesus also.

Well our verse tells us that they set off for Capernaum. Then we skip down to v. 31.

31And his mother and his brothers came . . .

They arrive. That Joseph isn’t mentioned here suggests that he has already died. So Mary leads the delegation.

The word “brothers” can also mean more broadly “siblings.” In v. 35 Jesus mentions sisters and Jesus’ sisters may be in this group as well. Mark 6:3 – tells us that Jesus had four brothers – James, Joses, Judas and Simon – and more than one sister.

There’s no reason to think that the siblings here are anything other than Jesus’ actual step-brothers and sisters, that is – children of Joseph and Mary – born after Jesus. (Certainly actual brothers and sisters fits better the picture he paints below of his new family – Hurtado).

. . . and standing outside they sent to him and called him. 32And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.”

This is strange since usually one’s family is inside the house and others are outside, but we’ll see how it’s actually not that strange in a moment.

Now the crowd in vs. 20-21 is distinguished from Jesus’ disciples and they are disruptive to Jesus’ work. Here the crowd is sitting around him. Sitting at Jesus’ feet is the position of a disciple or student (2 Kings 4:38; Luke 8:35; 10:39; Acts 22:3). In other words, the crowd here is a group of disciples. In fact, this is where we meet the rest of Jesus’ new community, that is, beyond the 12 apostles. This is the remnant of Israel gathered around Jesus. (See also Mark 4:10, 34 for this group of disciples around him) (The 12 are to be “with him” 3:14, and these here are similarly “around him.”

There’s a strong contrast going on in these verses:

  • Jesus’ natural family is standing and they are outside (2x). Both of which point out spatially what is true spiritually – they’re not followers of Jesus. They’re not in a position of learning, but are on the outside looking in.
  • Jesus’ disciples are sitting and they are inside. They are the learners; they are the insiders.

And taking into account vs. 20-21:

  • Jesus’ natural family is described as “those from him.”
  • Jesus’ disciples here are described as “those around him.”

So the very way the story is told – the spatial language – (sitting, standing; outside, inside; from, around) points out the differences between the two groups in relation to commitment to Jesus and the kingdom of God.

33And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”

This would have been quite shocking to ancient ears. And maybe we don’t even get this when we hear the story. Family was much more important than it is today and loyalty and great honor were required. But Jesus seems dismissive. But what he’s really doing is redefining family and prioritizing his relationships.

34And looking about at those who sat around him, “Here are my mother and my brothers!

His true family is made up of his disciples; those who are part of his new community of the kingdom of God; the remnant of Israel. And they have priority over his natural family.

What sets these people apart from others?

35Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.”

 (See a similar idea in John 15:14)

Now everyone in the story – the scribes, Jesus’ family – they all think they’re doing God’s will. Jesus means, more specifically – doing God’s will according to his preaching and teachingThose sitting around him are listening to just this. And that’s what it means to be a disciple of Jesus – you learn his teaching and you put it into practice.

Notice the open ended language, “whoever.” His natural family, and all people are invited to be a part of his new community.

What Jesus teaches here raises a number of points. First we learn that the church is God’s family made up of believing Jews and Gentiles.

God is our Father. Jesus taught us to pray “our Father in heaven” – Matthew 6:9. And we are God’s children – Romans 8:14-17. And we are all brothers and sisters. In Matthew 23:8 he says, “you are all brothers” – which means brothers and sisters. And this language is used throughout the NT. And Jesus is our older brother, or the firstborn of the family – Hebrews 2:11; Romans 8:29. We are a family and this is how it’s set-up.

God’s family takes priority over our natural families. You’ve heard the saying ‘blood is thicker than water.’ This means family always has the highest priority and loyalty. Well, for Christians ‘water is thicker than blood.’ That is, the water of baptism by which we commit ourselves to Jesus takes precedence over our loyalty to our biological/legal family.

Now, don’t think this means you can ignore your family responsibilities. Jesus taught that apart from sexual immorality there is to be no divorce in Mark 10:2-12. So men can’t just dump wives they don’t like, which is a lot of what was happening. And he taught very strongly about caring for aging parents in Mark 7:6-13 (See also John 19:25-27)

It just means that if our family pressures us to do something other than what Jesus teaches, we always go with Jesus. Just as we see modeled here by Jesus. They wanted him to stop his mission. But Jesus said no.

Listen to what he has to say in Matthew 10:35-37 – “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” That is because of commitment to Jesus. And then he goes on, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” Jesus and his family take priority.

Rightly understood, believers have more in common with each other than with their unbelieving natural family members.

And all of what I’ve just said applies to our country as well – our extended natural family based on biology and law. If our government tells us to do something other than what Jesus teaches us – we go with Jesus. As Peter said in Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than men.” Rightly understood, American believers have more in common with believers in other countries – Congo, Iraq, Russia, Colombia or wherever – than we do with unbelieving Americans.

Our new family supports us as followers of Jesus. Jesus tells those that must leave family in order to follow him that they will gain a new family. “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands . . .” – Mark 10:29-30. We may have to leave our natural family but we gain the family of Jesus.

And Jesus warns his followers that our natural families can turn on us because of our commitment to him. “And brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death.” – Mark 13:11. Our believing family, however, is here to encourage us and help us as we seek to do God’s will in this world.

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Jesus’ new community takes shape

The literary structure of Mark 3:22-30

Last week we saw how Jesus chose 12 apostles as leaders of his new community; a remnant of faithful Israel. Today we see how the leaders of old Israel decisively reject him. There’s a parting of the ways taking place here.

Next week we’ll see how Jesus’ family rejects him, although later they come to believe. So this part of Mark that talks about Jesus’ new community taking shape is also defined by rejection of Jesus by those who are not a part of this new community.

In our story today there’s a very serious exchange between Jesus and the scribes on the topic of casting out demons, the work of the Holy Spirit and what is sometimes called the unpardonable sin.

Mark 3:22-30

22And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.”

Jesus’ casting out of demons is emphasized in the gospel of Mark. Jesus’ authority over them is quite amazing. They’re afraid of him (e.g. 1:24). And he silences them and casts them out with a mere word.

Notice that there’s no debate that Jesus can cast out demons or heal people for that matter. Everyone agrees that he can. The debate now is about how he does this.

Scribes were the educated class of ancient societies, and given that Israel’s culture was governed by the Law of Moses, they were experts in the Law. These particular scribes came from Jerusalem, and so it looks like this is an official delegation sent to investigate Jesus on behalf of the leaders in Jerusalem. (We have already seen that some of the crowd around Jesus has come from Jerusalem – 3:8.)

The scribes come out against Jesus and begin to accuse him and try to discredit him before the crowds. They claimed that the reason Jesus is so amazingly successful at casting out demons is that he’s possessed by a demon, specifically “the prince of demons” – Beelzebul, which is another name for Satan. That’s why he can do what he does. [For this charge see also John 8:48, 52; 10:20] [Beelzebul is made up of two words: “Baal” – the name of a Canaanite god, which means “lord.” And “zebul” which most likely means “dwelling” or “house.”] [In 2 Kings 1:2 ff. Baal the god of Ekron, is called Baal-zebub, which seems to be an intentional change of his name by Israelites to mean – Lord of the flies or the filth.] [Note the house metaphors in this passage and how there appears to be a word pay in Matthew 10:25 between “master of the house” and Beelzebul.]

[The scribes make one charge not two. Mark summarizes their words in v. 30 by simply saying, “he has an unclean spirit.” See also Matthew 12:24; Luke 11:15.]

There’s a lesson here in the scribes’ response: Miracles don’t always convince people. We sometimes think, you know, if God would just do something miraculous people would believe. But miracles can be doubted and they can be interpreted differently. Jesus’ miracles did get peoples’ attention, but in the end they didn’t convince many people. Most of the crowds came to reject him.

Jesus’ first response to the scribes is to point out that their charge is absurd. It’s illogical.

23And he called them to him and said to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan?”

(The word “called” is the same as the one used when Jesus called the 12 apostles. So this sets up a contrast between these two sets of leaders.)

He called them to him because they were spreading slander about him and he’s confronting them and warning them. (France). This is a good example to us. When someone sins against you go to the person to deal with the issue. This is what Jesus teaches in Matthew 18:15. Don’t do what the scribes do – go and talk to everyone else. Go to the person or persons face to face.

It says that he spoke to them in parables. The word parable (Hebrew – Masal) has a broad meaning. We usually think of a story parable but it also includes things like proverbs, metaphors or riddles like we have in our passage. A parable is anything that compares two things to make a point.

That their charge is absurd is pointed out by his question: How can Satan cast our Satan The demons that Jesus defeats are Satan’s agents who are doing his will. It really would be like casting himself out! Satan wants to oppress, possess and destroy people. Why would he want to give freedom and release from himself? This doesn’t make sense.

He gives two illustrations –

24If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.

The comparison to a kingdom is apt because Satan is called here a “prince.” Jesus also uses the metaphor of a house, or since Satan is a prince, we could say a royal household. (This last example is likely a play on words with the name Beelzebul). And the point is, if there’s a civil war going on or if a household is fighting – these entities will fall apart.

He then applies this to Satan –

26And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end.

If Satan is in revolt against himself things really are falling apart. But that’s not the case. That Satan’s kingdom has not collapsed refutes their charge (Stein). This is shown by how many demons Jesus is casting out. Satan is alive and well.

Jesus gives us the correct assessment of what’s going on when he casts out demons in verse –

27But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder his house.

(Jesus continues with a house metaphor.) In this parable:

  • The strong man is Satan
  • The house is world. As Jesus says in John 12:31 Satan is “the ruler of this world.”
  • His goods are the people who are under his control – specifically here the demon possession.
  • To plunder is to set people free by casting out demons.
  • To bind is to overpower Satan so that he can do nothing about it. (There is no necessary reference to a one-time event when this happened. Jesus is just more powerful. And whenever he engages Satan or his representatives he wins.)

Jesus is this stronger one (Luke 11:22) who can enter Satan’s domain and set his captives free (Luke 13:16). All Satan and his demons can do is submit to Jesus. So this is what’s really going on. Jesus is assaulting Satan’s kingdom. He has come to establish the kingdom of God and he is doing so by the power of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:28: Luke 11:20), as our next verse will make clear.

Jesus’ other response to the scribes is that their charge is unforgiveable blasphemy.

28Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter . . .

The word “truly” is literally “amen” which means “confirmed” or “verified.” This way of talking is unique to Jesus. It’s similar to the Old Testament, “thus says the Lord.” And he uses it to say something really important.

Jesus is pretty broad here – “all sins” can be forgiven, and “whatever blasphemies.” Blasphemy means to slander, defame or speak against someone, in this case God. And blasphemy against God is a capital offense (Leviticus 24:13-16). But notice what Jesus says. All sins and blasphemies can be forgiven (with one exception, as we’ll see). There’s good news in this statement. What are the worst sins you can think of? What are the worst sins you have committed? Jesus tells us these can be forgiven. This speaks to the depths of God’s mercy and grace toward us.

There’s only one exception to Jesus’ statement –

. . . 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”

(See also on blasphemy of the Spirit – Luke 12:10; Matthew 12:32)

The scribes were not just slandering Jesus, which is forgivable (Matthew 12:32). They’re slandering, blaspheming or speaking against (Matthew 12:32) the Holy Spirit of God — since it’s the Spirit that empowers Jesus to do what he does. Notice the double emphasis – “never has forgiveness;” and “is guilty of an eternal sin.” The point is clear. It won’t be forgiven.

 How does one commit this sin? People sometimes fret or are afraid that they have done this or will do this. Well, Mark makes it clear –

30for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

 You commit this sin if you say that what the Holy Spirit did through Jesus – casting out demons, miracles, healings – is the work of a demonic spirit.

Now the Spirit works through others, but never more powerfully and clearly than through Jesus. And I believe that Mark is showing us that this sin has to do specifically with the work of the Spirit through Jesus. As he says, they said that Jesus has an unclean spirit.

And this sin is committed by those who know better, in this case the scribes. It’s not made by someone who doesn’t really understand things. It’s not a stray thought that comes into your mind. It’s a position you that you take about the Spirit’s work through Jesus – that it’s of Satan.

To say this is to say that black is white and white is black. It’s like Isaiah 5:20 says, “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness.”

We see here that the honor of the Spirit, who is gentle, quiet and pure is zealously guarded by God.

Let me end by emphasizing the main point. Jesus has complete power and authority over Satan and his demons. He is the stronger one who overpowers Satan and there is nothing Satan or his demons can do about it.

Now, you don’t have to be demon possessed to need Jesus’ deliverance. Satan is the ruler of this world and we all have been or need to be set free to one degree or another. So in whatever way you need to be saved – Jesus can do it. Even Christians can give him a foothold in our lives when we walk in sin. Look to him! He will break you out of the strongman’s house. He will set you free! And he will receive you into his kingdom, the kingdom of God.

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The literary structure of Mark 3:13-19

Jesus’ new community takes shape, further rejection. The structure of Mark 3:13-35

We’re in a new section of Mark today, which I’m calling “Jesus’ new community takes shape.” We are looking at the beginning of this section, Mark 3:19-20 where Jesus chooses 12 apostles as the leaders of new Israel.

Let’s jump into our passage for today, and as we go along I will point out five brief lessons for us in these verses.

Mark 3:13-20

13And he went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him.

 So Jesus has left the crowd that he ministered to in 3:7-12, as we saw last week, and has gotten away to a private place. In this case he’s up on a mountain.

In the Old Testament mountains are where some pretty important things happen. Remember, for instance, that God formed the 12 tribes of Israel into a nation, his people at Mt. Sinai – Exodus 19.

Now, Jesus has already called Simon-Peter, Andrew, James and John. (1:16-20). He has also called Levi the tax collector to follow him (2:14). And there were others who followed Jesus as disciples. Mark 2:15 talks about his disciples and says, “there were many who followed him.”

So out of this larger group of disciples he selects some for a special role. And he chose them himself. He called them, just as God still calls people today to be leaders among his people. And, it says, “they came to him.”

14And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) . . .

If we ask, “Why 12 apostles?” The answer is that just as there were 12 tribes of Israel, so there are 12 apostles to show that Jesus is intentionally reconstituting Israel. He is creating a new Israel out of the old Israel; a faithful remnant. He is creating the new, messianic Israel. And so the 12 apostles represent the 12 tribes of this new Israel. And this happens on a mountain, just as in the Old Testament in Exodus 19, when Israel was originally formed.

We have already seen how the leaders of old Israel have opposed Jesus. And in fact, some have already schemed to try to kill him. And just after this story, we have a delegation of leaders from Jerusalem who come and condemn Jesus as being possessed by Satan. So Jesus is calling out and forming a remnant and these are the leaders of this new remnant.

Here’s our first lesson, We are a part of this renewed Israel, made up of believing Jews and also believing Gentiles; those who own Jesus as the anointed one and God’s Son, and who walk in his ways. This is who we are as the church. We are the renewed messianic Israel, spoken of by the prophets of old. We are God’s people.

As Peter says, echoing the language of Exodus 19 when Israel was formed at Mt. Sinai,“you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” – 1 Peter 2:9.

Here’s another lesson from this, Jesus fulfills the role of God in creating this new, faithful remnant. Just as it was God who chose and established the 12 tribes of Israel as his people; here Jesus is the one who chooses and establishes the new Israel. He is not one of the 12, but the one who established them. He takes on God’s role. This is just one more way that we see Jesus’ unique divine identity in the gospel.

So in these lessons we learn about who we are – we are renewed Israel, and we learn who Jesus is – he is the Lord of all.

So Jesus chooses these twelve –

. . . so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach 15and have authority to cast out demons.

 Here we learn a bit about what they are to do. First they are to “be with him.” They are to follow Jesus around, witnessing what he does and learning what he teaches.

And second, they are to perform certain tasks. The word apostle itself means “one sent with a task.” And the verb in the phrase “he might send them” comes from the same root word. Two tasks are highlighted. They are to preach/teach & cast out demons. 

Although it’s not mentioned here they also healed people just like Jesus did when he sent them out (Mark 6:13). And they also did many other things – from crowd control to helping Jesus distribute food when he miraculously fed the crowds.

Beyond this the apostles are chosen to officially represent Jesus. This is also a part of what the word apostle means, they are his authorized agents or representatives. They speak and act for him.

And it’s because of them that we have the Gospels; they preserved and passed on Jesus’ stories and teachings (Luke 1:2). And it’s because of them that what we have as the New Testament has authority. What is apostolic, or from the apostolic church, is what is authoritative, because they are his official representatives. Rightly understood this is the basis of New Testament scriptural authority.

And in light of Jesus’ upcoming death, which is even alluded to in our passage (v. 19), they are chosen to carry on the mission and lead God’s people after he is gone as we see in the book of Acts.

And finally, they will be rulers in the fullness of the kingdom. Jesus said this to them in Matthew 19:28, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

Here are a couple of lessons about how ministry works for leaders or anyone: We need to be with Jesus first; in relationship with him, learning from him – and then we can do the tasks he calls us to do. Without being in his presence, we will not able to do the tasks he gives us to do. What I’m saying is that the very way this is written shows the priority of being with Jesus first.

Also, Jesus empowers those he chooses. Here we see that he gave them specific tasks, and it says he gave them “authority to cast out demons.” He gave them of his authority/power, which we have been amazed by in the gospel of Mark thus far. When God calls you to do something, he will empower you as well. He will not leave you hanging.

Next we learn the names of the 12 –

16He appointed the twelve:

There are four lists of the apostles in the New Testament (Matthew 10:2-4, here in Mark, Luke 6:13-16 and Acts 1:13). In each list the names break down into three groups of four people (except Acts does not list Judas Iscariot). (For references to the 12 in Mark – here and in 4:10; 6:7; 9:35; 10:32; 11:11; 14:10, 17, 20, 43).

Let’s go through this briefly. The first is –

Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter)

In all the lists, Simon Peter is first. He’s the leader and spokesperson of the 12. Jesus here gives him the nickname “Peter” which means rock or stone. (For more on Peter as a rock see Matthew 16:17-19) (Up until this point Mark has called him Simon, but hereafter will only call him Peter.) (Peter was also known as “son of John” – John 1:47; Matthew 16:17.)

 Next are –

17James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder)

 James and John are brothers, the sons of Zebedee. Jesus also gives them a nickname, although what “Sons of thunder” means isn’t clear. Some have noted that they come across as brash in several places (Mark 9:38; 10:35 ff; Luke 9:54). James is the only apostle whose death for Jesus is recorded in the New Testament (Acts 12:2).

These first three make up Jesus’ inner circle who accompany him when the other 9 do not. And they were leaders in the early church, although James died pretty early on.

And then we have –

18Andrew

He’s Peter’s brother. He was a part of the inner circle at least on one occasion (13:3). He is talked about more in John’s gospel (1:40-44; 6:8; 12:22)

Our passage goes on –

and Philip

He’s always the first name in the second group of four. He plays no further role in Mark, but is mentioned several times in John (1:43 ff; 6:5-7; 12:21-22; 14:8-9)

 and Bartholomew

He doesn’t show up again in Mark or anywhere else. Although some think he is the Nathanael mentioned in the gospel of John (1:43-49; 21:2).

 and Matthew

According to the Gospel of Matthew, this is the same person as Levi (Matthew 9:9), whom Jesus called from being a tax collector in Mark 2:14. (It’s unclear why Mark wouldn’t have made this connection explicit in his gospel.)

And since Levi is the son of Alphaeus, he may be the brother of James the son of Alphaeus, another member of the 12. This would mean that there are three sets of brothers among the 12 – a full half of the list.

and Thomas

His name means “the twin.” He’s not mentioned again in Mark, but is more prominent in the gospel of John (11:16; 14:5; 20:24-28; 21:2.)

Our passage goes on –

and James the son of Alphaeus

 He’s always first on the last group of four names. He doesn’t show up again anywhere. (Although he may be the same as James the younger – Mark 15:40). “Son of Alphaeus” differentiates him from James the son of Zebedee.

 and Thaddaeus

 On the lists in Luke and Acts his name is Judas, son of James. Judas would be his Jewish name and Thaddaeus his Greek name. This was not uncommon in that day. He shows up once in John’s gospel (14:22).

 and Simon the Cananaean

 Cananaean doesn’t mean Canaanite. It means “zealot.” (Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13). Perhaps he was formerly of the group who threatened violence to Jews who broke the Law. Or he was simply a very devoted Jew. Nothing more is known of him.

19and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

He’s the infamous one, who turned Jesus over to be crucified. He’s always listed last (except in Acts 1:13 where he isn’t listed). Iscariot probably means “from Kerioth” a town in Israel. This is probably where his family was originally from (This was also his father’s name – John 6:71; 13:2, 26).

Do you remember who replaced him? Acts 1:26 – Matthias.

A more interesting question is, “Why did Jesus choose him, knowing what he would do?” Apart from that it was predicted in Scripture.

Let me end with a lesson from this list of names. God uses ordinary people to do great things for his kingdom. All of them were common, everyday people, fishermen, a tax collector and the like. Some of them we know next to nothing about even though they are one of the 12. And they all had weaknesses and failures, for instance all deserted him. And we see numerous problems in Peter, James and Johns’ lives.

Well, this is good news for us, because we are ordinary people, and we are not well known by the world, and we have weaknesses and fail from time to time – so God can use you and me too. If he could use them, and he did to change the world, he can use us just as well to do great things for his kingdom.

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The literary structure of Mark 3:7-12

We’re entering into a new section of Mark today, although it’s a short one. This passage is actually a counterpart to an earlier section we’ve already looked at in 1:35-45, where Jesus is mobbed by crowds. [These are the parallels: 1) Jesus went to desolate places – Jesus withdraws to a boat on the sea. 2) People searching, coming to him – a great crowd came to him. 3) The leper kneels to ask for healing – the crowds “fall upon” him for healing. 4) The leper seeks Jesus’ touch – the crowd seeks to touch Jesus. 5) There is geographical expansion in Jesus’ ministry around Galilee – and then throughout the region of Israel and beyond.]

And notice that these two stories about crowds and Jesus are on either side of the section on the five stories of conflict that we just finished.

A. Jesus is mobbed by crowds – Mark 1:35-45

B. Five stories of conflict – Mark 2-3:6

 A1. Jesus is mobbed by even bigger crowds – Mark 3:7-12

It was the attraction of crowds by Jesus in the first section which led to opposition from various Jewish leaders. Yet this opposition did nothing to stop even more people coming to him.

Alright, let’s go through our passage and see what God has for us today.

Mark 3:7-12

7Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the sea . . .

He withdrew to get away. This means he left the city of Capernaum to the more remote seashore along the Sea of Galilee in that region.

It’s possible that this is in response to the threat against his life in 3:6. (This is how Matthew takes it – 12:15). But it may also just be that he’s trying to get away from the conflict and the crowds. Jesus did this, or tried to, from time to time as we will see in Mark 6:31 where he said to his disciples, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.”

In this case his attempt to get away didn’t work so well, as v. 7 goes on to say –

. . . and a great crowd followed, from Galilee and Judea 8and Jerusalem and Idumea and from beyond the Jordan and from around Tyre and Sidon. When the great crowd heard all that he was doing, they came to him.

There are seven place designations in all. The crowd here is bigger than any before. Mark calls it a “great crowd.”

Despite the opposition of Jewish leaders, Jesus’ influence continues to grow throughout all Israel and beyond. People are hearing about what he’s doing and want to receive from him -just as they have heard others have received from him.

It’s interesting that the crowds even come from the areas connected to the leaders who oppose him. Idumea is where Herod the Great is from, whose family the Herodians support. And Judea and Jerusalem are the home base of the Pharisees and scribes.

9And he told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, lest they crush him . . .

Jesus takes action. He places a restriction on the crowd by getting into the boat. Verse 10 tells us why –

10for he had healed many, so that all who had diseases pressed around him to touch him.

The people in the crowd all wanted to touch him,  not just see him or have him say something to them to be healed. So this actually presents a danger to Jesus that he will be trampled by the eager, and in some cases – desperate people in the crowd.

Although no specific healings are recorded, it’s assumed that he healed people in the crowd here as well. (Matthew 12:15 says he healed “all.”)

The phrase, “pressed around” more literally can be translated “fell upon” him. It parallels the very similar word in our next verse – “fell down before” him.

11And whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him . . .

  • So those who wanted healing fell upon Jesus to try to touch him to be healed.
  • And those who were demonized fell down before him, a position of humility.

and (they) cried out, “You are the Son of God.”

The demons are responding to Jesus’ authority and power. They kneel before him and say who he is. And what they say is correct. Jesus is the Son of God. This is what God called Jesus at his baptism in 1:11. And this is what Mark calls him in 1:1. Jesus is truly the Son of God and the Messiah or anointed one.

As we saw before, Mark tells us that the demons know who Jesus is (1:34). They’re from the spirit world and know these things.

12And he strictly ordered them not to make him known.

The demons know who he is, but others don’t yet understand this. And because demons aren’t the best witnesses and because Jesus wants to reveal himself in his own way and according to his own timing, he silences them. Just as he restricted the crowd, so he restricts the voices of the demons.

Again, no exorcisms are recorded, but it’s assumed that Jesus didn’t just silence them but also cast them out, as was his normal practice (e.g. Mark 1:25; 34).

Here are several things I would highlight for you from this brief passage:

1. Jesus’ amazing power and authority. This is the central theme of this whole part of Mark. In our story, Jesus can heal anyone. And he has complete power over demonic spirits. This teaches us that he has the power to save us whatever our need is; whatever our situation is. This is just who Jesus is.

2. By way of contrast, in this passage we learn what Jesus really wants. With regard to the crowds Jesus patiently ministered to their needs. But as John 2:24 says, “he did not entrust himself to them.” He knows that most of them are coming to him because they want something from him. This is very different than being a disciple, which involves confessing Jesus as God’s son and Messiah and sacrificing to follow him.

He also knows that the crowds are fickle. They like him now, but will eventually turn on him and yell for his crucifixion.

What Jesus really wants is not crowds. Crowds are not a mark of true success in the kingdom of God. What does Jesus want? Disciples who will give their lives for him. This is the mark of kingdom success. (See Luke 14:25-33; John 6:60-67)

With regard to the demons, they do correctly confess that Jesus is the “Son of God.” Yet this is meaningless because they do so, not out of allegiance to him, but from a position of disobedience. You can have right belief – and their confession is orthodox – but still be rejected by God. As James says, “even the demons believe that God is one – and shudder!” 1:19. What they believe is right, but it does them no good.

This is true for people as well. In Matthew 7:21 Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” These people correctly called Jesus “Lord.” They knew who he was. They even did miracles in his name. But they’re rejected (7:23) because they don’t do God’s will as Jesus teaches this.

What does Jesus want? Not just a correct confession of who he is, he wants disciples who will obey his teaching.

3. Jesus’ patient love on full display in this story. Jesus’ ministry was grueling. It was very demanding – endless crowds with endless needs. Yet still he patiently ministered to them.

His ministry to the crowds, healing and casting out demons brings to mind two passages from Isaiah, which Matthew notes in his gospel. In his version of this story in Mark, Matthew quotes Isaiah 42:1-3. I’ll just highlight one phrase from this passage. It says, “a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench.” (Matthew 12:20; Isaiah 42:3)

What a beautiful picture of Jesus caring for the weak and needy. The reed that is almost broken is not crushed. The wick that is barely burning is not extinguished. Jesus gently brings them healing and wholeness.

A second passage, Isaiah 53:4 is also quoted by Matthew. This comes from a different episode, but where Jesus is doing the same thing – healing and casting out demons. It notes that this ministry “was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.’” Matthew 8:17; Isaiah 53:4. (It’s possible that Mark’s word for diseases alludes to Isaiah 53:4, more literally “afflictions.”)

Now we usually only apply this verse to Jesus’ death on the cross. But here Matthew shows us that Jesus bore human brokenness throughout his ministry – to bring healing. He takes on and bears their brokenness and gives them healing and wholeness.

Jesus’ labors during his ministry present a portrait to us of his love, which continues on today for each one of us. Just as he patiently ministered to and loved the crowds in his day, so he patiently ministers to and loves us in all of our brokenness and need and brings us his salvation.

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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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