Monday, September 24, 2018

Devotional: Jesus’ Kingdom Authority, Mark 4:35-5:43

Mark 4.34 - 5,43 outline

In the first four chapters of Mark, Jesus (and Mark) are making some pretty radical claims; that Jesus is YHWH, the Son of God and has come to bring in the prophesied new age of the kingdom of God. Jesus has come to open up a new way of access to God and provide the blessings of this new age to the whole world. It’s a huge claim and Mark does not expect the reader to accept it without evidence of its truth. This next section (4:35-5:43) provides this evidence and deepens the revelation of Jesus’ identity through three spectacular miracles and and Jesus’ teaching that accompanies each one. It is important to pay close attention to what Jesus says as to what he does in these miracle stories.

In the first miracle, the calming of the sea (35-41), Jesus shows that, as the Creator, he has authority over the sea, seen in the ancient world as the most untamed and dangerous part of creation. Jesus engineers this object lesson from the beginning with his command to cross the sea. The storm represents the powerful forces of chaos that only a god could deal with. There is no hint whatsoever that there is any doubt about what will be the outcome of this battle.Jesus sleepily dispels the forces of chaos with a commanding word. Just as YHWH ordered the watery chaos  at creation, Jesus brings order and calm to the troubled sea and asks the disciples “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:40). When we realize who Jesus is and what he has promised us there is no reason to be afraid of anything. The person who fears God need not fear anything else.

When they reach the other side of the lake they are in Gentile territory. Jesus now goes into the enemy’s home turf and “plunders the strong man” (3:27) of his possessions; a man oppressed and bound by demonic power. Not only is Jesus not in his home area, he takes on a “legion” of demons. It is an “away game” and Jesus is badly outnumbered. Nevertheless he takes on the enemy with just a word. The legion of demons recognize Jesus’ authority to do what he wants with them and the inevitability of his victory. He sends the demons into a heard of pigs which then stampede off a cliff into the lake and drown themselves; a graphic picture of what the enemy wants for humanity (Remember that the next time temptation looks attractive!) Jesus then commissions this man as an apostle (he sends him) to announce the gospel (ἀπάγγειλον, apangellion) and the mercy (covenant blessings) to his Gentile countrymen. Jesus is already extending the covenant to “bless all the families of the earth.”

Finally, the section moves the story back into Jewish territory and concludes with a double miracle in which Jesus heals a woman with a bleeding issue and raises a young girl from the dead. In both of these miracles it is the “touch” of Jesus that is emphasized. The woman who touches Jesus is healed and Jesus takes the little girl by the hand before commanding her to rise. With both, Jesus breaks down the barriers that would have separated these women from God. A new situation has dawned in which sickness, sin, and not even death, can separate people from God. The gap has been permanently closed. God touches sinful people and overcomes death. Just as sin had infected the whole human race, Jesus’ resurrection is now communicated to all and is able to “save” (5:34) all.

The question the disciples asked, “Who is this (4.41)” is answered. This is the creator who controls the chaos and you can trust him to bring peace to your chaos. This is the one who has decisively defeated all the forces of evil in the world and in our lives and calls us to announce this good news to those around us. This is the one whose touch reverses the results of sin, heals them and brings us into the presence of God. Trust and follow him.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Reading Through The Revelation #5 (Chapters 15-18)

Revelation WrightI am continuing the read-through of the Revelation in my 2017-18 devotional read through of the New Testament, accompanied by The Early Christian Letters For Everyone by N.T. Wright. Chapters 15-16 describe the bowl judgments and the destruction of “Babylon.” With these God puts an end to violence and oppression and judges the people and empires that profit from the enslavement and abuse of others. I am posting from my reading in the New Testament accompanied by various commentaries on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and welcome comments and discussion on my Facebook page. I am using the Logos version of the book. As usual my comments are in black and quotes from the book are in blue.

The bowl judgments are introduced in chapter 15. This will be the completion of judgment, because God's wrath will have accomplished its goal, the removal of all evil. The picture is one of celebration and worship in the throne room of God. The martyrs sing a song of victory as they are vindicated, through Jesus, as their blood will be the means of victory. This is a song of worship for God's righteous judgment and faithfulness to His promise to unite all nations in worship of God and defeat the evil powers of the earth (Exodus 15) and the evil spiritual rulers of the nations (Deuteronomy 32). These judgments are poured out in chapter 16. In the first four bowl judgments all creation fights back against those who have rejected God's purpose for humanity. In bowls 5 and 6 evil reaches its peak and destroys itself as the accumulated effect of sin is fully realized and all the world goes to war against itself. With the 7th bowl judgment is complete. Unrepentant evil, its systems, and all those who hang onto it are removed and God's judgment is finished. 

This is a solemn moment. The new song is exuberant, and heartfelt. Deliverance has occurred. But now we are homing in on the greatest showdown of them all. We left the dragon and the two monsters behind, two chapters ago. They have drawn many into their destructive ways. It is time, now, for the destroyers to be destroyed. This is the purpose of the seven last plagues, and of the cataclysmic judgments which follow them. 140, Revelation 15

The ‘wrath’ of the creator God consists of two things, principally. First, he allows human wickedness to work itself out, to reap its own destruction. Second, he steps in more directly to stop it, to call ‘time’ on it, when it’s got out of hand. If we knew our business, we would thank God for both of these, even though both can appear harsh. 142, Revelation 16.1-9

John is saying. I’m talking about the serious danger of deceitful spirits let loose into the world. Many of you have a poor track record at recognizing deceit when it stares you in the face...That would be the wrong mistake to make. These final three plagues, which complete the sequence of the seven bowls, are terrible indeed, and part of their terror is the sense of how easy it is to give allegiance to the systems that are here under judgment. 145-146, Revelation 16.10-21

Chapters 17-18 describe God's judgment of the world systems that began at the tower of Babel and refuse to submit to God. These "great empires" conquer by violence, oppress and enslave people, and entice them into idolatry and degradation. They create religious systems which abet and support the ruling powers and keep people enslaved. God will allow their evil to accumulate, and in one great climactic "beast empire," destroy themselves with their own violence. Those who have profited from the violence and oppression will mourn the destruction of this great economic power, but God's people will rejoice in God's righteous judgment of their persecutor. God is about to complete his judgment and that is good news for his people and for the entire cosmos.

This terrifying, multi-layered denunciation of the outwardly delightful and inwardly deceitful city ought to give pause for serious thought to all those of us who live within today’s glossy Western culture – and all others who look on and see our glitzy world from afar. Where are we in this picture? 153, Revelation 17.1-8

The brutal but seductive ‘civilizations’ and national empires, which ensnare the world by promising luxury and delivering slavery, gain their power from the monster, the System of Imperial Power...John’s readers already know that this system itself gains its power from the dragon, the accuser, the satan. Those who are caught up in the resultant battles need not feel that they are merely part of a dangerous confusion, of ignorant armies clashing by night. They are part of the lamb’s victorious army, who will conquer the monster in the usual way, by his blood and by the word of their faithful testimony. 157, Revelation 17.9-18

The angel who shouts out that Babylon has fallen (echoing Isaiah 21.9 and Jeremiah 51.8) is bringing the news that human arrogance and oppression, and the wanton luxury and vice to which they lead, will not have the last word. God will have the last word, and creation itself will hear this word as a word of freedom, a sigh of relief, a flood of glorious light (verse 1) let in upon a darkened dungeon. 159, Revelation 18.1-8

Babylon is a city founded on violence, not only the blood of the martyrs. Babylon has been at the centre of a network of violence that spanned the world, and all who have been slaughtered on earth have, in a sense, been slaughtered at the behest of Babylon. The merchants have grown rich on the back of military conquest. Money and power have done their collective worst, and John lumps them together, as we have seen, under the metaphor of fornication. Babylon the whore is gone, and will not return. 166, Revelation 18.9-24

Friday, September 21, 2018

Devotional: God’s Amazing Kingdom, Mark 4.26-34

Mark 4.1-34 outline

Mark concludes this teaching section with two parables about the nature of God’s kingdom in verses 26-34. The big point is that the kingdom will start small, just a few a people, and become very large and benefit many. This growth will not happen because of the efforts of people, but will be accomplished mysteriously by God and enjoyed by many people. Though the disciples and the subsequent generations that follow them in taking Jesus’ message to the world will be the “workers in the field,” the worldwide “harvest” that fulfills the promise to Abraham that “all the families of the earth will be blessed through you,” will be accomplished by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The first parable (26-29) is about a farmer who plants the seeds and reaps the harvest but does not really do the main work of germinating and growing the plant and its fruit. The Creator has endowed the soil (see previous parable of the soils) and the seed with potential life and laid out and energized its process of growth. The farmer’s responsibility is to announce the gospel message (Jesus is King along with what he has done to liberate and lead his people) and then reap the harvest (continue to train those who hear as Jesus trained his disciples). The work of changing lives was already done (by the time Mark writes) by the resurrected, ascended Jesus at the cross and by his advocacy at the right hand of the Father, and is done in the heart of the people who hear by the Holy Spirit. Thus, the pressure is off the one who announces the gospel. God is the one  who has done and does the real work.

The second parable (30-32) teaches that the inevitable result of announcing the kingdom will be a huge movement that provides “shade” (comfort, protection, provision etc.) for all the varieties of “birds” indiscriminately (Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female etc.). This is a tremendous promise because it means that every small action and every word spoken to announce who Jesus is and what he he has done and that serves his people, has huge cosmic significance and contributes to God’s grand plan to restore the creation and its people. As God’s people, we participate (by his grace) in the most important operation of all time.

Finally, this is all done little by little through relationships. Jesus spoke these words to the disciples “as they were able to hear it.” (Mark 4:33 ESV) Jesus worked with them as they grew to be his witnesses, This is our calling and makes every relationship, every prayer, every deed done and every word spoken significant.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Devotional: Hearing Jesus, Mark 4.1-25

Mark 4.1-25 outline

Jesus’ two parables, The Soils/Sower and The Lampstand, illustrate the kind of response that Jesus expects to his teaching and Kingdom gospel. The Soils parable teaches that Jesus expects a wholehearted response, “hear,” “accept,” and “bear fruit,” (Mark 4.20 ESV) in which the hearer meditates on what is said and the implications of the teaching for one’s daily life, believes it and commits to following it and then acts according to it. Jesus promises that this kind of response will accomplish the goals of the kingdom (“bear fruit”) in the believer’s life (conformity to Christ) and for the world (its restoration). The lampstand parable illustrates the need for open, committed response to his kingdom message so that all the world can see. The Spirit of God takes the word of God (see John 14-16, the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5) and progressively produces the likeness of God/Christ in the believer, whose witness becomes God’s means to transform the world.

The poor soils and the lampstand under the bed represent bad hearing of the kingdom gospel. Those who hear without commitment (along the path), or accept the word only for self-benefit (rocky soil) or just incorporate the word as one option to add the other commitments in their lives (thorny soil), or accept it privately without being willing to openly apply it before the world (lamp under the bed) will not accomplish the goals of the kingdom. This is a little scary because all of us have sometimes listened to the word in these ways. If salvation were dependent on how well we hear we’d all be in trouble. The good news is that Jesus’ faithfulness to his message has been applied to us and plows, fertilizes, and prepares us to become the good soil. We receive this by faith as we come to Christ and then each day as we “hear” we become more and more like the good, fruitful soil. The more we listen to Jesus the better we get at really “hearing him.” (verses 24-25)

So the next time you hear a sermon, study the Bible, or participate in Christian fellowship take the time to really hear." Meditate on the word and its implications for your life so that when you see and hear you will really understand. Take time to listen to the Spirit so that he can “make manifest the hidden” and bring your “secret things to the light.” (v. 22). Then, don’t ever walk away from the Word without committing to apply it to something specific in your life. Hearing the word without application makes one insensitive to it, while hearing the word with conscious commitment and application produces that intimate connection that brings the hearer into the ongoing conversation within the Trinity (Romans 8.26-27). Do you have “ears to hear?” Use them!

Monday, September 17, 2018

Devotional: Jesus’ New Family, Mark 3.13-35

Mark 3.13-35 Outline

Mark 3:13-35 frames a section (22-30) about the source of Jesus’ kingdom and authority within two sections contrasting Jesus’ new kingdom family (13-21) with his biological family (31-35). Jesus was not only creating a new and fulfilled way of worshipping God , but he was also creating a new community to do it. This new community was more than just a group of students and adherents, they were bound together as a new family with a common Father (God) and spiritual ties that were deeper than blood ties and obligations. Jesus names 12 to be his delegated leaders and the nucleus of this new family. First, he renames them to show their new allegiance and connection to him. Then he calls them “apostles” (“sent out ones”) with authority, derived from Jesus, to announce the kingdom gospel and do the same kingdom actions that he was doing. Jesus then widens the extent of this family to all Mark’s readers (v. 35) who hear Jesus’ words and respond by “doing the will of God;” that is they become followers of Jesus. Thus, Jesus’ followers are joined at a deeper level than that of biological ties or blood relations. They are joined as a family at the deepest level, the spiritual level. Followers of Jesus are joined because God is their Father, Jesus is their brother, and believers are now brothers and sisters. Now, in this new age, this family relation with all other believers supersedes all other relationships and all other allegiances.

Of course this brought opposition from Jesus’ biological family and from the religious leaders of his day. When anyone says, I am God and I am creating a new “forever family of God” here on earth,” it is an understandable reaction to say, “He is out of his mind.” (Mark 3:21 ESV).  That is, unless the one who is saying it has been healing diseases, raising the dead, and defeating the forces of darkness with just his authoritative word. The religious leaders recognized the supernatural power behind Jesus; words and actions, but they attributed it to the powers of evil and darkness. Jesus countered their point with the logical argument that Satan, and the principalities and powers aligned with him, do not fight against their own kingdom. If Satan, the “strong man,” and his kingdom are being defeated this is a sure sign that God and his kingdom are doing it. The religious leaders were failing to see reality as their own scriptures described it, as Jesus’s words described it, and as his actions proved it. To fail to see things as Jesus describes and demonstrates them is to separate oneself from God  and commit a sin with eternal ramifications, unless one repents. The Jewish leaders and Jesus’ own biological family, in their failure to believe him, were separating themselves from God and his blessings despite his presence right there with them.

This brings up two applicational questions. Do we see the way things are according to Jesus’ view (and his view sees the whole picture) or according to our own view of reality? Faith, and its growth is directly related to knowing, through his Spirit, Jesus, and his calling for our lives and becoming more like him. Second, do we place our allegiance to Jesus and his family as the priority and order all of our other allegiances around this primary relationship? This is what it means to follow Jesus.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Reading Through The Revelation #4 (Chapters 10-14)

Letters WrightI am continuing the read-through of the Revelation in my 2017-18 devotional read through of the New Testament, accompanied by The Early Christian Letters For Everyone by N.T. Wright. Chapters 10-14 complete the trumpet judgments and, in the presentation of 7 signs, give the reader an overview of the battle between good and evil, decisively won at the 1st coming of Jesus and which will be completed at his 2nd coming. I am posting from my reading in the New Testament accompanied by various commentaries on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and welcome comments and discussion on my Facebook page. I am using the Logos version of the book. As usual my comments are in black and quotes from the book are in blue.

In chapter 10 John is given the task of announcing the final judgment as he "eats the little book." The final judgment of God, announced by the strong angel, is about to commence and John is brought into the council of God to announce it to the world. The word of God is sweet to believers but bitter judgment to unbelievers. John's message is a mixture of bitterness with joy and comfort. Chapter 11 introduces two witnesses. Wright sees this as the historic martyr witness of the church which produces the repentance described at the end of the chapter. I think this is true, but the final persecution will bring a heightened fulfillment of this vision. Finally, the 7th trumpet announces the end of the present age and final judgment. God has begun to reign and the prophets, saints and worshippers are about to be rewarded. John sees the heavenly temple opened and the ark of the covenant symbolizing the presence of God with His people.

Eating the scroll’ is a vivid metaphor for the way in which the prophet, then or indeed today, can only speak God’s word insofar as it has become part of the prophet’s own life. It may be nourishing; it may be bitter; it may be both. This is part of what it means to say that God desires to act in the world through obedient human beings. 94-95, Revelation 10

The martyr-witness of the church, in other words, will succeed where the plagues have failed. This is how the nations will come to glorify their creator. This is how ‘the kingdom of the world’ will become the kingdom of ‘our Lord and his Messiah’ – which is precisely the point that follows immediately in verse 15. 100, Revelation 11.1-14

The Messiah, God’s son-king, will overthrow the nations as they rage and fight. Their best course, says the Psalmist, is to submit, to sue for peace. In John’s vision, here in this chapter, it has already happened. Notice the difference between verse 17 and passages like 1.4. There John spoke of God as the one ‘Who Was, and Is, and Is To Come’. Here he simply describes God as ‘Who Is and Who Was’, because the future has now arrived in the present. The ‘is to come’ has become reality. 105, Revelation 11.15-19

In 12-14 John goes back over the decisive battle between good and evil which begins its conclusion with the incarnation of Christ and comes to its final consummation when Christ returns to fully remove evil and all its effects and sets the world right. The first sign is the "woman" who probably represents the people of God from the Eve prophecy (Gen. 3.15), the nation of Israel from whom the Messiah comes, to Mary the mother of Jesus. The second sign, the dragon, represents Satan and his control over the world system which has always opposed God's kingdom and plan. The child represents Jesus Christ, his life, death, resurrection and ascension which defeat all the forces of evil. The war in heaven represents the fight that Satan makes through temptation and persecution of the church throughout the present age, and which will intensify in the end. The Beast from the sea probably represents Satan-inspired governments that persecute the church throughout the church age; Rome in John's time and the final attempt of Satan to rule at the end. The beast from the sea represents these evil governments attempt to replace God with, again, a final Satanic empowerment resulting in the beast and Satan being worshipped in the place of God, with messiah-like universal dominion and temporary authority to persecute believers. Believers throughout the age are called to persevere through this persecution and win this victory, as Christ did, through their suffering and death.

The decisive battle has been won, and the devil knows it; but his basic nature of ‘accuser’ is now driving him, more and more frantically, to the attack, to accuse where it’s justified and where it isn’t, to drag down, to slander, to vilify, to deny the truth of what the creator God and his son, the lamb, have accomplished and are accomplishing. This is the ongoing battle in which all Christians are engaged, whether they know it or not. 113, Revelation 12

It is through the faithful witness unto death that the lamb wins the victory, that God’s kingdom replaces the kingdom of the monster, that the dragon himself is to lose the last remains of his power.  118, Revelation 13.1-10

The parody, though, which was gaining ground all the time in western Turkey through the first century, was that the Roman empire, gaining its ultimate authority from the satanic dragon, was putting itself about as the world ruler. That was the first monster. And the second, like it but subordinate, seems to be the local elites, in city after city and province after province, who do their best not only to copy the monster at a local level but insist, in order to keep the monster’s favour, that everybody in their domain should worship the monster. 120, Revelation 13.11-18

This battle will be won by these "martyrs" who receive the "mark of God" in their person rather than the "mark" that identifies people with the "beasts." These "144,000 elite warriors for God" counter the power of the beast with their faith and their willingness to bravely stand up for God's truth to the point of death, in the face of the lie that humans can live independently of God. Verses 6-20 announce the judgment on the systems of the world (typified by the "monster" Babylon/Rome) that teach that humans can thrive apart from God and "prosper" on the backs of the people they oppress and God's people who they persecute. The judgment of the oppressor is pictured as a "harvest," a time of celebration in the ancient world, because evil, oppression and all that comes with it will be finally removed forever from the earth.

For John, one of the major features of the dragon’s whole system is the lie: he creates a world of untruth, a fake world, a sham system from top to bottom... Truth and lies may sometimes be hard to tell apart, but this is where we stand at the watershed. God’s victory is about the real world, the whole creation. The closer we are to God and to his lamb, the more we see everything clearly and should speak everything truthfully. 126, Revelation 14.1-5

This is ‘the gospel’, the ‘good news’, for those who live under ‘Babylonian’, monstrous, rule. First, God the creator is at last going to sort everything out (verse 7). Second, Babylon is fallen, after all her efforts to make the nations drunk with her own immoral wine (verse 8). Third, God’s judgment will be just, thorough and complete (verses 9-11). All this is, in this sense, ‘good news’ for those who have lived in a world of horror, torture and squalor. God is going to sort it all out! 130-131, Revelation 14.6-13

God’s time will come; God will bring his people safely home; God will take even the wickedness and rebellion of the world and make it turn to his praise and to the salvation of his people. And in the meantime his people are to be encouraged in their suffering. Martyrdom itself will be part of God’s purpose to bring his wise, healing order – which includes his relentless judgment on relentless sinners – to bear upon the world. 135, Revelation 14.14-20

Friday, September 14, 2018

Devotional: “Lord of the Sabbath,” Mark 2.23-3.12

Mark 2.23-3.12 Outline

In Mark 2.23-3.7 Jesus makes an amazing claim, “So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” (ESV, Mark 2:28) This means more than just that he  is the authoritative interpreter of what the Sabbath in the Old Testament means. It is a claim to be the God who ordained the Sabbath. First, he uses the term “Lord” (kurios). This is the term used for the divine name, YHWH,. in the Greek translation of the OT, which was the Bible of the early church. Secondly, the Sabbath was more than just a day of rest and relaxation. It was designed by God to celebrate him as Creator and Sustainer of the universe. To call Jesus the “LORD of the Sabbath” is to call him the “LORD of creation.” This is a big claim and the word “so” in Jesus’ claim invites the reader to see how Jesus demonstrates this by his actions in this passage.

First (2.23-28) he shows himself to be the “Lord of the Sabbath” by wisely interpreting the Sabbath law and taking authority to interpret it. If the law came directly from God (and it did, see Exodus 20) only God has the authority to amend and interpret it in new ways. Jesus here is claiming access to the mind of the Father in explaining the purpose of the law. The Sabbath (and all the law) was meant to be a blessing to human beings and all creation. Because God made a good creation and promised blessing, the Sabbath was to celebrate that by giving all people and animals a “day off” to rest and celebrate God’s good provision. Jesus, the “Lord of the Sabbath,” was calling his people back to that.

The next section (3.1-5) provides the evidence for Jesus’ claim. The Sabbath was a holiday (in the real sense of the word a “Holy Day”) that also looked forward to the day when all creation would be made right; when sin, sickness and death would be removed and the new creation would begin. If Jesus was “Lord of the Sabbath” he should be able to renew creation. This is the meaning behind the healing of the man with a withered hand. That it took place on the Sabbath was most appropriate because this is exactly what the Sabbath looked forward to. Jesus is giving a preview of the coming kingdom and his ability to “save life.”

The rest of the section (3.6-11) invites the reader’s response. Ironically, it is only the demons that really understand what is going on here. They confess to Jesus, “You are the Son of God.” but do not follow him. The Jewish leadership takes counsel to make a plan to murder Jesus. The crowd hails him as a miracle worker and want what he has to offer but don’t understand what he is all about. The crowd were pressing and crushing him instead of following him. Are we willing to move beyond intellectual assent to doctrines about Jesus, to move beyond just wanting a Jesus that meets our needs and desires, to truly following Jesus and his self-sacrificing call? This is the commitment that the rest of Mark challenges the disciples, and us, to make.