Mark 5: Jesus’s cleansing power

In chapter 5 of Mark, we see what it means to usher in God’s kingdom and the power of the good news. Jesus shows his authority over evil spirits, sickness and even death itself. We’ve also previously seen how Jesus has power over sin. It’s Jesus’s power over all of these things that makes him the only candidate to be able to redeem us all forever. He has dominion over evil, sin and death; being able to irradiate it and free his people from it. Furthermore, this chapter reveals how Jesus removes everything that is impure.

First, we see Jesus remove a legion of impure spirits from the possessed man. The man lived in tombs, which automatically made him unclean, but he was also possessed by unclean spirits, which of course was the bigger issue here. He would have been a bloody, bleeding, dirty, ritually unclean , presumably naked mess. Jesus deals with this by allowing the impure spirits enter animals that were considered impure — pigs. (Note, that Jesus did not drive the pigs off the cliffs, the entry of the demons did.) The drowning of the possessed pigs echoed the drowning of Pharaoh’s army. Jesus was the new Moses, defeating the true enemy: the spiritual forces of evil.

In the second half of this chapter, Jesus interacts with two unclean people: one by virtue of her illness, the other because she is dead. However, Jesus is able to change their unclean states into those of being clean.

Therefore, if you ever feel too dirty, unclean or somehow damaged for Jesus, it is unlikely to be the case. You have to be more spectacularly unclean than someone possessed by a hoard of demons, someone who has been bleeding for years, or someone that is dead. So, it is reassuring that Jesus can restore us to cleanliness, no matter how bad it gets.

Mark 4: a fruitful gospel

In Mark 4, we get various parables about preaching and the Kingdom of God. A lot of these are quite well known, especially the first, which is the Parable of the Sower. The interesting thing is, though, that other than the initial planting in each of the parables, the farmer does not do much else until harvest.

First, in the Parable of the Sower, the farmer only does that. He casts the seed. The rest of what happens is not really due to any effort on his part. The destruction of the seed is not because of faulty action of the farmer; there is no judgement on him for where his seed lands. Then the seed that does produce the crop does so because of the soil, not the efforts of the farmer. Even the multiplication of fruit seems arbitrary. Jesus says that some seeds produce crop thirty times the original, some sixty, some one hundred. What Jesus doesn’t tell us is the reason. He doesn’t say, because the farmer was diligent in his weeding, watering and fertilising. It just says the seed that fell on good soil produced crop of some number.

In another parable within this chapter, it seems to be making this point more explicitly. Again it uses an analogy of seeds. Verses 27-28 says,

Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.

The passage literally tells us that it does not matter what the farmer does. The farmer could rest or toil, but the seed, which symbolises the Kingdom of God here, grows regardless. The farmer does not even know how it grows; we, if we are honest with ourselves, don’t know how the Kingdom of God grows either. The seed produces crop all by itself.

Of course, that does not mean that God does not use us and that we do not have a role in spreading the gospel. (This has been used as an argument against mission; it’s up to God not us.) But what it does tell us is that it is not under our control. So I don’t know why some churches are number obsessed when the Bible literally says, sometimes it’s thirty, sometimes it’s one hundred but there is no reason. Basically, our job is to sow the seeds. Then we watch as God allows his Kingdom to take root and to grow. And what a marvellous miracle that is.

Mark 3: Conflict

In this chapter, Jesus gets in to more conflict. First it is with the Pharisees, who disagree with him healing someone on the Sabbath. Then he gets into conflict with his own family. He famously says that those around him are his mother, brother and sisters, rather than those looking for him.

This does make me wonder whether conflict is just a normal part of the Christian faith. Will there always be people who disagree with us, even to the point where they want to kill us. Now obviously this is tricky for a number of reasons.

First, it is discerning whether the conflict is motivated for righteous and good reasons. The conflicts Jesus found himself in were obviously acceptable. He was sinless; it was always the other parties that were wrong. How do we know then when our conflicts are sinful or righteous? This is especially the case when, throughout the New Testament, Christians are called to show unity and love for one another. In fact, unity is one of the most important pieces of evidence that we are sent by Jesus. Therefore, if we are in conflicts with one another then we are not being particularly good witnesses for Christ. So, I suggest, that if the conflict is with another believer, it is wrong. Of course, the fact that we are reminded so often to live peacefully, patiently and lovingly with one another means we are likely to forget this. (You don’t remind someone to do something that comes naturally to them.) It takes effort but it’s an effort we should take.

Then, it is perhaps that we should expect conflict with non-believers. Perhaps not to the extreme shown here, but we should expect it nonetheless. But, we need to check our hearts and be humble. I don’t think we should be antagonistic, frustrating, stubborn or arrogant in this, as this is not a good witness. In fact, our words should be seasoned with salt and our answers should be full of grace. We should not pick a fight the the sake of picking a fight. However, we should not be surprised if opposition comes our way.

Mark 2: do you know Jesus?

Mark 2 continues with providing Jesus’ authority, but also that he has the ability to heal both our outward problems in the form of sickness but also our inward sin. This is not to say that a person’s sickness is caused by their sin, rather that sickness and sin are both a type of natural evil that has no place in God’s kingdom.

Now there are some really interesting things in this passage. First, the order in how Jesus responds to the paralysed man. First, he heals his sins. Then, he heals his body. God’s concern for our internal sickness, the sickness of our heart, which is sin, is greater than his concern for our bodily sickness. This is because God knows what is of a more eternal importance. Unless God deals with our sin in this lifetime, we are unable to be eternally healed.

Another thing that people often seem to overlook is the Pharisees’ reaction. They said, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” They are absolutely correct; their theology is spot on. One thing that amazes me is about the gospels is that the Pharisees’ theology was, in fact, often right. You could not fault their Biblical knowledge. Yet, they did not recognise Jesus. You may have memorised the whole of scripture. Your arguments might be water-tight. But if your knowledge of scripture does not help you to know Jesus better, you’ve missed the point somewhere. It is through Christ that the meaning of Scripture is revealed.

The theme of the teachers of the law not really knowing Jesus continues through this chapter. They rebuke Jesus for associating with sinners. They ask him why he doesn’t fast. They argue with him about the purpose of the Sabbath. Each time, they do not recognise who he is and what he has come to do.

So, my question is this: do I know Jesus? I might have a good theoretical knowledge; I might be able to sing all the names of the books in the Bible in the right order; I could probably do a good flannel-graph version of most the parables. I could know the Bible inside and out. But do I actually know the person of Christ, who is the Son of God?

Mark 1: Jesus’ authority

So, I’ve finally read all the New Testament books with fewer than 10 chapters! There are quite a few Old Testament books that are below 10 chapters that I’ve still yet to read (in some cases, ever). However, I thought I would tackle one of the gospels. Mark is the shortest, so I thought I’d start there.


Mark is certainly fast-paced, which probably accounts for why it’s the shortest of the gospels. In the first chapter, you start with John the Baptist, then you have Jesus’s baptism, temptation, some healings and casting out of demons, the proclamation of the good news and the calling of the first disciples (but not in that order). Mark does not linger over each event, and moves quickly from one to the next.

One of the interesting things is how Mark gets straight to Jesus’ identity and his ministry. Luke and John have introduction that come before Jesus is explicitly mentioned. Matthew has a similar introduction, but gives us Jesus’ genealogy and nativity story. Mark begins with the idea that this is about Jesus, then gives us a prophecy to show how Jesus is the fulfilment of scripture. We have John the Baptist proclaim Jesus’ importance, and then the heavenly declaration of Jesus as God’s son. So, in a matter of ten verses we’ve had Isaiah the prophet, John the Baptist, the Holy Spirit and God declare who Jesus was. The temptation in the desert is dealt with in one sentence, but we are told Jesus was attended to by angels, again, showing the readers who he is.

Therefore, when we get to his public ministry in verses 14, we have a good idea that what is going to happen is going to be amazing. He is the son of God, of course. He declares that God’s kingdom his near. The way he shows this is by showing how God’s kingdom has power over sickness and spirits. God’s kingdom is wherever God’s perfect nature and will rules over earth. Therefore, evil, in the form of sickness and unclean spirits, is driven out as Jesus proclaims the kingdom. Furthermore, this just proves Jesus’ authority (the demons recognise it in verse 24, then the people realise it in verse 27).

Mark 1, then, sets up Jesus’ power in authority in two ways: through the testimony of others (including in scripture and from God, himself) and through is powerful deeds. It encourages us to know that Jesus is the fulfilment of scripture and that he does have this power. Especially as believers know we have been given this same authority and Jesus is with us until the end of the age.

Jude: A against false teaching

It’s somewhat reassuring (at least I think it is…) that there are so many New Testament passages about false teachers. That might seem like an odd statement to make, but hear me out. As I hear about some preachers today, many of them with a lot of fame and a lot of money, who distort the truth, it’s hard not to become disheartened. However, we are warned time and time again that false teachers will come. They will distort the message of God into something evil for their own desires and gain. So, I may get disheartened, but God knew what would happen and God, in his justice, will deal with the issue.

So, what do these false teachers look like? There’s a number of things that they do or say, which tells you they are false teachers, set out to only help themselves:

  • they give permission for immoral behaviour;
  • they reject other authorities;
  • they pollute their own bodies;
  • they think about profit;
  • they are grumblers and fault-finders;
  • they boast about themselves;
  • they flatter others to manipulate;
  • they scoff;
  • they are divisive;
  • they follow their own desires or instinct;
  • and, most importantly, they deny the significance of Jesus Christ.

So, then, this helps us realise what a real teacher is:

  • they don’t permit immorality;
  • they are humble and submit to others;
  • they lead a life of purity;
  • they are self-sacrificing;
  • they are joyful and encouraging;
  • they admit their faults;
  • they praise others with authenticity;
  • they honour and respect others;
  • they seek unity;
  • they seek the kingdom first, pursuing the Lord’s will through the leading of the Holy Spirit;
  • they preach the importance of Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord.

Jude also tells us how to treat others, and given the context, perhaps those who are caught up by these false teachings. It is to show mercy, “snatching them from the fire” (v. 22), but also to hate the practices of those who err.

He also gives advice on how to stay in line with the faith. You are to build up your faith and pray in the Holy Spirit. In that way we can stay in God’s love and be patient for the mercy of Jesus’ arrival.

And finally, Jude ends with this doxology, which I am just going to paste here because it’s great:

To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy— to the only God our Saviour be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.

verses 24-25

3 John: being hospitable

This letter is addressed to a particular recipient, a man named Gaius. This letter to serves to encourage Gaius in what he is doing and to commend him in his role is supporting the wider church.

Whereas 2 John warns against letting false teachers stay in the believers’ homes, this letter praises Gaius for his hospitality towards genuine teachers. Gaius is contrasted against a man called Diotrephes. Diotrephes seems controlling, overbearing and power-hungry. He is not welcoming to travelling teachers.

I suppose the lesson in this letter, who would you rather be: Gaius or Diotrephes. Gaius is remembered for putting others’ needs before his, for opening his home up and accepting fellow believers. He often, it seems, opens his home to those who he has never met before. I’m sure that wasn’t an easy decision, as it can open yourself to being vulnerable. (I imagine it could have been even riskier in those times.) Diotrephes, as verse nine tells us, “loves to be first”. Therefore, he seems to spread rumours about other authority figures and refuse to welcome them.

Of course, we answer, I want to be Gaius! But do our lives actually reflect that? Are we sometimes eager to cling onto our power or reputation? Are we intimidated of those that might be seen as better than us? Do we belittle others in order to bolster our ego and reputation? Or, are we open handed and hospitable? Do we welcome travellers and strangers into our homes? Do we put the needs, reputations and honour of others before ourselves? I wonder what the church would look like if everybody followed this better example.

2 John: love and truth

2 John is a single chapter and it is pretty short. Essentially it is the ancient equivalent of snopes.com or factcheck.com. It is warning the members of a church (who the author – probably the disciple John – calls the lady chosen by God and her children) about false teachers that are travelling around spreading a false gospel.

It essentially says that if the teacher does not teach about Jesus Christ coming in the flesh then they are wrong. He also reminds the church to continue in love.

This short letter is actually quite a helpful lesson in the age of fake news. What are the main criteria of what we consume, post and share? Well, perhaps that it promotes love and testifies of Jesus Christ? I wonder what social media would look like if we followed those rules.

1 John 5: the Holy Spirit’s testimony

This chapter repeats a lot of the same ideas of the whole book but also introduces some new ones. A few of these I do not fully understand and might have some symbolic significance I’m not that familiar with.

The first statement is that we need to believe that Jesus is the Messiah: the one that was sent to save us and God’s people. This means that we know God. Another aspect of loving God is our obedience to God. I love what verse 2 and 4 tells us about God’s commands. They tell us that they are not burdensome but help us to overcome the world. Through following the Lord’s commands we get to be free as we are released from the burdens of this life in the world. If you are wondering why we need to overcome the world the chapter answers this for us. Verse 19, a little bit further down warns us the whole world is under the rule of the evil one. But through the victory of Jesus, we can have victory too.

This chapter also tells us about how we come to believe. It is never through hearing a person explain the gospel that we come to believe. It is in fact through the testimony of the Holy Spirit. (There’s also the testimony of water and blood, which confuses me. I assume the blood is the death on the cross, as remembered in communion. The water part stumps me and could me baptism or refer to a particular moment after Jesus died. That’s one for research.) The Holy Spirit, being one person in the triune God prepares our hearts and ears to hear and receive the truth. Without the Holy Spirit’s testimony no one can believe. Often people think they are under pressure to convert non-believers, but in reality there is nothing of the sort. Instead, we just have to be obedient to God’s life giving commands.

Once we have accepted the Holy Spirit’s testimony about Jesus, we are one with Christ. This means that we are given eternal life (verses 11-13). We are also able to pray for things, in accordance with God’s will, and know that God hears our prayers. We are also protected by God who prevents us from sinning. There is also the role of the body of the church in helping lead us to repentance when we sin. But once again, only God can transform the heart of humans.

Ask a Missionary: Host Culture

I’ve got a whole bit of a series going on about missionary life. A while back, I wrote a post about what questions you could ask a missionary if you were stuck for ideas.I began to answer them. So far I have answered the basic questions and then questions about getting out and about. So this is the third in the series (hopefully there will be more). This one focuses on my relationship with what is sometimes known as the “host culture.” That’s the culture that they are surrounded by the most. This might not be the majority culture within the country as often missionaries work with ethnic minorities and tribal groups. Also, some missionaries will work with multiple cultures.

What is the predominant host culture? 

Cambodia is very homogenous, so is predominantly Khmer. There are other minority groups within Cambodia that missionaries live among or work with. However, I do work and live with Khmer people.

Tell me something about what you’ve learnt about your host culture. 

I’ve learnt quite a bit in the three years that I’m here, but I know I’m just scraping the surface. I think one major consideration is the difference between urban and rural culture and the intergenerational differences in culture are quite significant.

What do you like most about your host culture? 

Their hospitality and how welcome they are, their cheerfulness and light-hearted nature, their care and compassion. In 2016, I wrote a whole list here and not a lot of it has changed.

What has surprised you most about your host culture? 

How far they would go to help you and how, if you are “in” their circle, they will go out of their way to make sure you are looked after. (When I’m talking about circles, I do not mean cliques. In Cambodia, there is a definite sense that you have a group of established relationships. This can be landlord-tenant; colleague; friend; relation. When you fall in that circle you fall into a set of reciprocal responsibilities of care and respect. Those bonds are pretty binding.)

What advice would you give to those visiting to your country about your host culture? 

Expect relationships to take time and start off small, gradually allowing that relationship to form. Cambodians are generally quite shy and reticent to make friendships but once you are welcomes in, you’re set.

How is your own culture and the host culture similar? 

I think how we form relationships. Someone asked how I had managed to create quite close bonds with Cambodian people. I think he went in trying to be friendly and chatty straight away. I started off with a smile the first few times, then a conversation and then worked from there. In the UK, it can often take years to form strong relationships.

What differences have you found it easy to adjust to? 

The food, the friendliness, the karaoke parties. I think just sitting and watching is also perfectly acceptable so there isn’t too much pressure in social situations to be the life of the party.

How integrated do you feel with your host culture? 

I feel integrated with my Khmer family (the one I live with). However, a part of this is due to their acceptance and ability to be flexible with foreigners. I think in situations where I’m a stranger, I find myself feeling more alien.

What barriers are there for you feeling a part of your host culture? 

There’s still a bit of a language barrier. I’m also an introvert so I can often find situations overwhelming and exhausting.

Have you experienced culture shock yet? What do you think contributed to it? 

I have been very lucky. I have not had major culture shock. I have had moments of cultural conflicts (not fights but clashes in cultural values and expectations) and they will be on-going for many years. These tend to crop up every now, especially when you are tired, rather than being constant issues. However, I have not felt the need to flee the country or have not had any resentment or long-lasting frustration with Khmer people. One reason is that I often ended up in places where the Khmer people already understood how foreigners might approach things so they were considerate and flexible. Another could be that I had a team that were careful to warn me about potential issues. It could be that, at first, I a short time in Phnom Penh then moved to Siem Reap. Perhaps this transition interrupted the usual process of culture shock slightly. Lastly, I’ve just been blessed by getting to know some amazing Khmer people.

What conflicts are there between your cultural background and your host culture? 

I’ve written about some of them here. I also wrote about how I needed to adjust to some of the cultural conflicts created by moving in with a Cambodian family.

Where might your perspective have to change in order to understand your host culture better?

My attitudes have already been changing and it means that I often inhabit a bizarre grey area or have a Cambodian way of doing things and a British way of doing things. One clear example (that fortunately does not come up that much), would be gift-giving and relationship building. This is what I call the social phenomenon you might call bribes. Now, I would probably not hand over a gift at the point of need, especially if it was a judicial matter and if there had not been a prior relationship formed. However, if I was in a role or situation where diplomacy was needed or where I often had to use the services of those in official positions, I would definitely try to establish a good relationship with them just to make the process better for everyone. I am naturally deferential and respectful of authority, so it is just a more tangible expression of that. It is not a bad thing to recognise kindness or the help of those who did not need to help you, is it?

Where are there Biblical conflicts with your host culture? 

The drinking at parties can be very enthusiastic. There is idolatry of status and the status symbols. (Of course, there are some other major conflicts with Biblical principles but this is not the whole of the society, only the criminal elements. This is true of all societies.)

What does your host culture do that you feel is in line with Biblical values? 

I think their hospitality, desire to show care and community orientation is more in-line with Bible practices.

Which language / languages are you having to learn? 

Khmer. I may learn another language after I’ve done this, but just as a hobby (perhaps Vietnamese or a Chinese language).

How is language learning going? 

It’s going well, I think. I can read and write quite well. I can type in Khmer, which seems to amaze everyone. It’s just that you have to remember which Khmer letters correspond to which Khmer keys. However, there is a bit of logic to it, so that makes it easier. It’s only when you get to the more obscure letters that it gets annoying and you just end up bashing your keyboard in various combinations. There are about 100 characters (including punctuation markers, etc.) that you need to find so that means they are often found in various combination.

What have been the biggest successes in your language learning journey? 

I had to write and give two long talks on two different subjects. The first was about the social problems in Cambodia. I spoke about how poverty was the reason, or at least factor, for the other social problems within Cambodia, including trafficking, drug and alcohol dependency, domestic abuse, prostitution, poor health, etc. Although a deep and intense topic, it was interesting to talk about. I also had to give a talk in Khmer about the Bible. I chose Joshua 1. I was really proud I was able to do that.

I thought I was doing well! Then I asked for corrections…

What challenges have you faced in language learning? 

The trilled r sound. In fact, getting my mouth to do what it’s meant to be doing.

How do you feel about language learning? 

I generally enjoy it. I love it when I learnt a word or piece of grammar and I get to use it in a real life context or hear it and understand what someone is saying. It might seem a bit sad but it I really enjoy it. There are of course frustrations, when you can’t make yourself understood or when you simply can’t get a word right.