Monday, December 30, 2013

Thoughts on Mark 16: Ending the gospel

I'm not sure any scholar is absolutely sure how Mark is supposed to end in its original version.  Most agree through verse 8 of chapter 16, but not everyone agrees on what, if anything that follows is authentic.

For purposes of this post, I'm going to assume that only the first 8 verses are authentic.  This means Mark ended the book in a very odd way for a first century writer.  He ended with women finding out about the resurrection, and then dropped the story.  First of all, that isn't much of a conclusion.  Second, the special people at the end are women (something you didn't do back then).  Women were given this place of extreme religious honor.  In essence, Mark gave the version of the story that would be least believable to most readers.

Perhaps that was the point.  This gospel wasn't written as an apologetic treatise.  He starts off with Jesus violating a lot of societal norms early in his ministry.  Then he ends the gospel by breaking societal norms.  It seems like he was trying to make a point.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Thoughts on Mark 15: Beware of religious leaders

One of the things that strikes me in Mark 15 is the level of influence the religious leaders had over the masses.  When Pilate offered the people the chance to free Jesus or a murderer, the religious leaders convinced the crowd to have the murderer released. 

I'm not sure how this happened, but it isn't the only time something like this has happened in the history of the world.  Religious leaders can be very good at convincing people to do bad things.  Modern dictators take this lesson and create their own "fake religion" to stir up followers into a religious fervor.  (Think Hitler in Nazi Germany.)

As Christians, we need to beware of such things.  Paul admonishes us to be sober minded in all things.  I wonder if some sober minded people in the crowd could have talked down the mob mentality that spared a murderer at the expense of one who had no guilt.  Perhaps not, but at least those sober minded individuals would not have guilt of their own.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Thoughts on Mark 14: The poor you will always have with you

There is a lot in Mark 14.  Things far more important than what I will talk about today.  But, for some reason, I feel drawn to address this.  In verse 7 it says
For you will always have the poor with you, and you can do good for them whenever you want. But you will not always have me!
It sort of disgusts me every time I hear this verse misconstrued.  I've heard many argue that because, "you will always have the poor with you," that nothing should be done to work toward the elimination of poverty.   That is not what Jesus was getting at in any way, shape, or form.  This should be obvious from the rest of the sentence, "and you can do good for them whenever you want."  Jesus was not calling for the end of helping the poor.  Rather, his focus was on prioritizing.

This is where other groups really disgust me.  Those who place the primary importance on helping the poor and tend to ignore other important things, like the role of Christ's sacrifice.  I am saying this as someone who works at a nonprofit whose primary objective is to help the poor.  I also attend a church where that is a major focus.  However, it cannot be the primary focus of the Church or of individual believers.  It is important, but there are more important things.  Most notably, sharing the Gospel.  Both should be done and they are not mutually exclusive.  I just wish the idea of mutual exclusivity wasn't so prevalent in US churches today.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Thoughts on Mark 13: Stay alert for the unpleasant

During my rather pathetic walk through Revelation, I repeated frequently that I tried to avoid eschatology because I really don't know what I'm talking about.  Well, here, in the middle of arguably the most pragmatic of the gospels, is a chapter full of eschatology.  I still don't know what to make of it. 

Here is sort of a theme I get.  Whatever it was Jesus was talking about, it won't be pleasant. Jesus calls his listeners to remain alert for these unpleasant times.  This, I think, is good advice for all times.  We shouldn't let unpleasant times turn us away from the faith.  Questioning God is perfectly understandable, but just because hard times come, we shouldn't interpret it as God turning His back on us.  After all, he warned us that it was coming.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Thoughts on Mark 12: Trying to trap Jesus

Every time I read Mark 12, I can't help but being a bit amused.  Yep, I get to see the guy I follow outsmarting all the scholars and thinkers of his day.  I love it when I get to see stuff like that.  Of course, I'm also a nerd with a degree in philosophy, so I tend to geek out on things like that.

But when I think only along those lines, I miss out on some important points.  As a thinker, I am too often guilty of trying to trap Jesus in my own sophistry.  As a teenager, I tried to convince myself that I was too intelligent to be a Christian (which probably had something to do with the fact that I didn't have any intelligent Christian role models).  As an adult I tried to justify actions (even those not necessarily wrong) through complex logical models rather than simply putting my focus on God's will. 

How God deals with me when I act like this is very interesting.  Sometimes I am able to reason my way to truth.  More often, though, God makes himself real to me in a way that I can no longer deny Him and His will.  But I wonder that if Jesus was with me in physical form, if he would just make me look like an idiot like he made the thinkers of his day.  I would certainly deserve it.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Thoughts on Mark 11: The meek Jesus?

Too many theologians try to present Jesus as this meek figure who never stood up and fought.  While there are certainly times this was the case, it was not always, as is apparent from Mark 11.  In this chapter, Mark describes a very bold, arguably militant, Jesus.  From something as simple as cursing a fig tree to overturning the temple commercial system, Jesus demonstrated a boldness and fighting spirit most modern Christians lack.

What marks the difference in circumstances between the meek and fighting Jesus?  To be honest, I'm not sure.  One can make an argument for righteous indignation with people making money off of worship in the temple courts.  Or perhaps it was a social justice fight.  But cursing a fig tree for not bearing figs when it wasn't fig season?  I've encountered a lot of theories about what that was about, but I haven't been satisfied by any of them. 

What lesson can we then learn about when it's appropriate to fight and when it is better to be meek?  I'll have to think more about that one.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Thoughts on Mark 10: They walked away sad

In chapter ten, Mark tells us of a rich young man who came to Jesus asking what was necessary to inherit eternal life.  Jesus responded that he must sell all his possessions, give to the poor, and follow him.  The young man walked away sad.

Later John and James requested to sit at Christ's left and right in heaven.  Jesus responded that the position was not his to give.  The brothers walked away sad.  (Okay, I don't actually know that.  It's just what I picture.)

How often do we walk away sad when we hear something hard from God?  We don't want to face the truth--to give up something in our lives or something to which we aspire, and walk away sad. 

Note that the young man and the disciples did not even ask something inherently bad.  The young man wanted eternal life.  James and John wanted to be next to Christ for eternity.  These are even admirable in their convoluted ways.  Jesus did not deny either of their wishes.  He simply told them the truth about the realities of their situations.  The rich young man had to give up what was most important to him.  The disciples had to adhere to orders beyond their control. 

Thoughts on Mark 9: Glimpse of heaven--realities of earth

Mark 9 is a chapter of sharp contrasts.  On the one hand we see the transfiguration, arguably the one point in the gospels where the deity of Jesus is most on display.  On the other hand, we see Jesus frustrated with the lack of faith he finds among those who surround him.  There is a glimpse of heaven and the realities of dealing with humans on earth.

But in the midst of the frustration with a lack of faith in this chapter, Jesus finds ways to help those around him with their faith.  He helps the father's unbelief.  He helps the disciples understand why they were unable to cast out a demon.

I wonder how often God gets frustrated with our unbelief and helps us get past that so we can get on with our lives and ministry.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Thoughts on Mark 8: Peter gets it right and wrong

Among the interesting things in Mark 8, one finds Peter's confession that Jesus is the Christ and a few verses later Jesus telling Peter to "get behind me Satan".  Peter recognized Jesus as Christ, but did not understand what it meant to be Christ.  He probably had in mind that which was common among his people in that day that Christ would come and destroy all of Israel's oppressors.  When Peter heard Jesus say that he was going to die, Peter rebuked him.  (What an odd thought...You go from saying someone is the Christ to rebuking him.)  Peter clearly didn't get what the job of the Christ was (or at least in a proper timeline).

So Peter, who was the first to really declare faith in Jesus as Messiah, was soon after rebuked for not accepting what that entailed.  I wonder how often we try to place our own picture of who Christ is supposed to be in our little box and then try to rebuke him when we find out our picture was wrong.  How many of us deserve to be rebuked just like Peter was.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Thoughts on Mark 7: Uncleanness and dogs

From a Jewish perspective, this may be the most challenging chapter in Mark.  Here Jesus clearly overruled the law of Moses by declaring all foods clean.  He then exorcised a demon from a "gentile dog", indicating that the Jews no longer had exclusive rights to God's power. 

Both of these would be major blows to 1st century practicing Jews.  The law set them apart as God's chosen people.  If the law was being changed the person who changed them gave equal (or nearly equal) treatment to gentiles when Jews were present, that would be offensive.  More than offensive, if one was a follower of Jesus, it could be disruptive to ones self-identity because Jesus just took away the thing that make your people unique.  The floodgates to the rest of the world were just opened.

This may seem odd to hear from a 21st century gentile perspective, but we should not belittle the paradigm shift this was to its audience. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Thoughts on Mark 6: The model of discipleship

One of the many things one finds in Mark 6 is Jesus's idea of discipleship.  For the previous few chapters he allowed them to follow him around and observe.  He taught them and modeled ministry for them.  Then he sent them out to copy his ministry.  After a time they came back and reported what had happened.

It's a very simple model.  It's so simple that I sometimes wonder why the church so often doesn't use it.  Some churches view discipleship as more mature Christians hanging out with newer Christians.  Some view it as going through a workbook.  Some view it as a ministry apprenticeship.  None of these are intrinsically bad (I actually think they are generally good, but it might depend on the workbook).  My concern is that they are not holistic enough.  Each model gets at part of discipleship, but misses other things.  I think an important question to ask in any discipleship is how effectively we are equipping new people for ministry.  Both for the act of ministry and for the spiritual depth required for effective and proper ministry.  If we aren't preparing the next generation, then what are we doing?

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Thoughts on Mark 5: Jesus's priorities

In chapter 5, Mark spends an unusually large amount of time (for him, at least) on two stories.  The first is when Jesus cast out a legion of demons from a single person and into a herd of pigs.  The second was Jesus healing the daughter of a local religious leader.

In the first story, Jesus does several things one would not expect a good first century Jewish man to do.  He made a stop in gentile territory.  He interacted with a man who was clearly demon possessed and who had extraordinary strength.  He cast out the demons into a herd of pigs.  And then he instructed the healed man not to follow him, but rather to tell the townspeople about him (and how he destroyed a significant portion of their income).  In taking these actions, Jesus flaunted both Jewish tradition and gentile economics.  Besides the healed man, I don't know who would have been happy with his actions.

In the second story, while going to the religious leader's house to heal his daughter, he is distracted by a woman who healed herself by touching Jesus's clothes.  Jesus stops to find out who touched him.  Normally, someone would rush to the religious leader's home because he was clearly the more important person.  But Jesus stopped to encounter a poor woman who demonstrated enough faith to force a healing.  This delay was enough for the leader's daughter to die.  But, Jesus goes anyway and raises her from the dead. Again, not what people would have expected.

One of the lessons I take from this is that Jesus does not have the same priorities that we do.  He looks at things at a different perspective from us.  I think it's valuable to try to see his perspective in reading through the gospels and asking ourselves how different we are and what we need to change.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Thoughts on Mark 4: Jesus was not as clear as we try to make him

Oftentimes in evangelical Christianity we make it sound like the Gospel is the easiest thing in the world to understand.  Well, it isn't.  Millions of people around the world don't get it every day.  I'm not even sure the Gospel is supposed to be easy.  I'm taking my cue from Mark 4, where Jesus explains why he teaches in parables.  He is essentially trying to not be understood by a majority of the people. 

So, if this is the case, what does it mean for us?  For one, I think we should stop over-simplifying the gospel message.  Yes, there can be a "kids version", but most adults are not satisfied with that.  (I think we can even do a more sophisticated "kids version" where they can grasp holiness and separation from God better than the standard thing I've seen in most curriculum...)  Most adults understand that restitution with a holy God can't be that easy.  That's why they are so tempted to earn their salvation through works.  That's why my Hindu in-laws really do not get why my wife and I can be Christians.  They see relationship with god (or "the gods", depending on which one you speak with) as being dependent on pleasing them.  They are sort of right on that, but they still don't get the concept of holiness.  That we can never be good enough to approach God through our own works. 

Jesus did not provide a simple gospel.  He provided deep teachings that spoke of an expanding Kingdom and of some refusing to enter it.  This isn't the easy gospel of modern evangelicalism.  It's much deeper and more profound than that.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Thoughts on Mark 3: Jesus chose his own family

In Mark 3 we see Jesus choosing those with whom he will closely associate.  He effectively rejects his biological family (unless you adhere to the Roman Catholic position on Mary's virginity, in which case he rejected his step-brothers) and chooses 12 men to be his close followers.  And some of these 12 were odd choices.  For instance, one was a tax collector--someone who essentially sold out his Jewishness in order to make money from the Romans.  Then Jesus selected someone who was described as a "zealot".  Although we aren't certain about this, Simon the Zealot was probably a militaristic pro-Israel, anti-Rome guy (which would have made hanging out with Matthew the tax collector quite interesting).  Then we have a few fishermen, someone best known for doubting him after the resurrection, and some guys who never seemed to make a major mark.  On, and we can't forget that the one who seemed to have the most going for him, Judas, was the one who ended up turning on Jesus.  So, yeah, this was an odd group of people Jesus had following him around.  But, it must have sent a message, especially in the dismissive way he treated his family.

Let me emphasize that this is not the end result of Jesus' family relations.  Before his death, he instructed John to take care of his mother.  At least two of his brothers became prominent in the Jerusalem church.  There appeared to be a family reconciliation.  But, for his ministry years, Jesus chose his own, eclectic family through whom he would eventually reach the world.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Thoughts on Mark 2: Jesus violated "proper theology"

In my discussion of Mark 1, I talked about how odd Jesus must been in his day, in that he did not meet expectations.  We see that even more in chapter 2, except here he flaunts expectations.  He is accused of blasphemy, cavorting with sinners, and breaking the Sabbath.  With each of these, Jesus proclaims himself superior to the religious leaders of the day.  None of them would consider forgiving someones sins, dining with sinners, or doing anything resembling work on the Sabbath.  But Jesus did all of these, and he did them fairly early in his ministry. 

At this point, I imagine the religious leaders went from thinking, "Who is this odd man?" to "Who does this man think he is?"  They recognized some of the actions in chapter two (forgiving sins and breaking the Sabbath) as being the prerogative of God alone.  But, he obviously couldn't be God in the flesh because he was cavorting with sinners, who God wouldn't be able to stand in his presence.  To be honest, I think this would have been my reaction as well.  It's simply proper theology.

But Jesus violated "proper theology".    The Holy God came down to earth and started interacting with people in ways before unimaginable.  He forgave sins and then started hanging around with those committing them.  Then He broke the letter of his own law.  It doesn't make sense in a stringent theological framework. 

I think it's good, then, for us to have our theology match God's revelation of himself rather than try to force God into our own "proper theology".

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Thoughts on Mark 1: Not meeting expectations

First, since this is the first set of thoughts on Mark, I want to lay out a few foundational thoughts.  Much more than the other gospels, Mark doesn't beat around the bush.  He skips the birth of Christ and jumps right into the baptism and ministry.  Mark is somewhat non-stop.  One theory behind this is that Mark recorded the memories of Peter.

In the first chapter, Mark describes a Jesus who jumps right into controversy.  He starts with a simple message to fishermen (rather than the religious elite) and then goes into the synagogue (where the religious elite thought he should have started) and spoke "as one who has authority" (much more than religious elite).  He then breaks the law by healing lepers, and throws it into the face of the religious elite by then following the law and having the leper present himself to the religious elite.  Scattered throughout this narrative Jesus repeatedly orders demons not to tell people who he is.

It's a whirlwind of a narrative.  It's almost a shame to tackle all of it in one sitting.  But here it goes:

Jesus was not what people expected the Messiah to be.  He doesn't go out of his way to fit the model of the religious elite.  Rather, he flaunts the ways in which he does not match norms. 

I fear Christians today might miss Jesus if he showed up today as well.  In what ways would he flaunt modern religious expectations if he walked among us today?  I would be more surprised if I was not surprised by his actions than if he met expectations. 

Monday, December 9, 2013

Thoughts on Revelation 22: What is "soon"?

At the end of this complex book is the repeated theme that the events described in it are coming "soon".  Well, it's 2000+ years later and most theologians of all stripes would agree that at least chapter 21 hasn't happened yet.

So, what does "soon" mean?  One of the nice things about being an anonymous blogger rather than an established Bible teacher is that I don't need to have answers.  That's good, because I definitely don't have one.  My best guess (and let me emphasize that it is a guess) is that God wanted to create a sense of expectation.  If we continually think that the events described in Revelation are "soon", then it might impact how we live our lives.  How do we live differently if we believe judgement and Christ's return is around the corner?  Do we clean up our actions?  Do we evangelize more?  Do we focus more on God?

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Thoughts on Revelation 21: The New Jerusalem

Every time I read the description of the New Jerusalem, I find it very interesting.  I'm not one to dissect the meaning of every gemstone, etc.  Rather, what I find interesting is that it seems to merge traditional Judaism with Christianity.  For example, there is no temple, which fits with Christianity, but the rationale is almost Jewish--because there is no need for a special place for God to dwell.  There are twelve gates for each tribe of Israel, but twelve foundations for each of the apostles.

All of this makes me wonder about the long-term importance of Israel.  Not in an eschatological sense, but more in the sense of whether God ever really abandoned His people after they abandoned Him. 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Thoughts on Revelation 20: Wait, you let him out?

There are many things in the Bible that confuse me.  The events of this chapter are one of them.  In the previous chapters, we have God soundly defeating the dragon, who is identified as Satan.  In the beginning of the chapter he is locked up for a thousand years, and then is let out.

Wait a sec...God let Satan out of prison to wreak havoc again?  I really don't get it.  I don't.

To make it worse, even after God's thousand year reign, Satan is able to deceive the nations of the earth to fight against God.  This indicates to me just how screwed up people are.  They get to experience rule under God and then are quickly deceived into fighting against Him. 

I won't get into the chronology debates that go along with this chapter.  I want to focus on what I learn about God.  First, even with Scripture, I do not understand everything God does or His reasons behind them.  Second, those calling for rule by Christians seem to be deluded about the long-term positive impacts.  Here we have God ruling for an extended period of time and the people still, when given the chance, rebel.  What good will it do to have Christians rule if the hearts of those being ruled are not regenerate?

Friday, December 6, 2013

Thoughts on Revelation 19: Party in heaven

Chapter 19 of Revelation describes the party in heaven after the beast and the dragon are defeated.  You have some of what modern readers might expect: creatures in heaven praising God, a great banquet...  Then there was something my modern Western eyes did not expect.  Twice in this chapter there is reference to birds gorging themselves on the flesh of the slain enemies of God.  That is part of the party.  Getting to enjoy something I personally find gruesome.  I'm not sure what to do with this, but I do think it shows me an aspect of God that I don't normally think about.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Thoughts on Revelation 18: Come out of her, my people

Chapter 18 is sort of a gloat over the destruction of the powerful Babylon (which is probably metaphorical and not actually Babylon).  It describes all those who will be upset at its fall--mostly capitalists who made money off of it.

God calls on the saints to come out of this wicked city.  In the city they are surrounded by sin and will be susceptible to any punishment it receives.

This always makes me think.  What is the balance between being a light in a dark place and coming out of evil surroundings (and therefore letting it to it's own demise).  I definitely prefer living in the country, but for various reasons I have lived in the heart of cities for the past 16 years. 

I think that if all Christians abandoned cities to their ways, they would culturally self-destruct (at least in the U.S.).  Based on the whole of Scripture, this doesn't seem to be what is meant.  The Revelation 18 admonition to "come out of her" seems to be a specific admonition for a specific situation.  In this case, God is about to reign judgement down on her, so the people had best come out of her while they can.

While I think this is the primary point, there is also the consideration of those Christians who can't handle the temptations of the specific set of sins that one finds in the cities.  If you are in a city and you find yourself unable to resist certain temptations, then perhaps moving is appropriate.  Keep in mind, though, that many of those sins are just as available elsewhere, they are just more frowned upon culturally.  It is better to surround yourself with Believers who will keep you accountable.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Thoughts on Revelation 17: A call for interpretive humility

I'm not really sure what to make of Revelation 17.  It speaks of a prostitute who apparently represents Rome.  It speaks of a beast who could be any number of things (including Rome).  I've seen too many eschatologies built off of dogmatic interpretations of this chapter (not all of which can be correct).  I've seen the beast referred to as the Holy Roman Empire, as the Roman Catholic Church, as the European Union, as Iraq, as Iran, as Russia, and as NATO.  I'm sure there are a lot more.

It is entirely possible that one of these interpretations is correct.  It's also possible (or probable) that none are.  Hebrew scholars who studied the Old Testament prophets played similar games to what Christians play with Revelation.  The vast majority of them totally missed the true nature of Christ.  I fear modern Christians are making the same mistakes and might even miss real events as they come.  I just pray God gives us the wisdom to truly see what we need to see when we need to.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Thoughts on Revelation 16: Egypt's lessons redeux

As Moses tries to lead Israel out of Egypt, God sends seven plagues on Egypt, but Pharaoh does not relent and allow the people to go.  In a parallel, God sends plagues on the world in Revelation.  As happened with Egypt, the leaders of the world did not repent and the plagues kept coming.  This continues until a final military confrontation.

What does this tell us about the stubbornness of the human spirit?  We see in this Revelation passage that the people recognized the plagues came from God, yet they not only refused to repent, but they rather blasphemed God.