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.

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

2 Peter 3: remember Jesus

The last part of 2 Peter reminds us to think wholesomely, remember the words of the prophets and to anticipate the last days. It then goes on to describe the end of days. They seem awesome and terrifying at the same time, but Peter reminds us that our gaze will be on the arrival of God’s promises: the new heaven and the new earth.

We are to remember the prophet’s commands and the words of Jesus. This means, I expect, that we need to know them well and probably try to remember them. This will help us be blameless and spotless on the day of judgement. It may be that the day of judgement does not come in my time, but I need to remember that patience equals salvation. There’s a lovely verse: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (v. 9) Of course, that doesn’t mean that everyone goes to heaven and it’s like the handouts at the Oprah Winfrey Show. It just means that God’s heart is leans toward salvation not toward condemnation.

Peter warns that we need to be on our guard so that we don’t fall away. This probably is in the context of the previous chapter. And how do we go about doing this? We grow in grace and our knowledge of Jesus Christ. I think this takes us back to the very beginning of the letter, remembering that God has given all that we need. We need to be living according to the promises of God’s salvation and learn more about Jesus. This is also linked to the statement to remember the words of Jesus. By doing this, and daily reminding ourselves of them, we are able to know Jesus more and more.

We need to be reading our Bible and just seeking a deeper knowledge of Jesus in everything we learn.

2 Peter 1: an invitation to participate

The introduction of 2 Peter seems to wrestle with ideas that can cause confusion within the church. In fact, it probably has been seen in a number of the large theological debates since the death of Jesus. It is this: how much of our salvation and sanctification depends on us and how much depends on God. I’m not going to make an effort to delve into these deep topics and the history of such debates, but here is my rather simple and probably flawed interpretation of the matter.

We are told first that God has given us everything we need to live a godly life. This puts the power into God’s hands: he provides. It goes on to say that he has called us, again making the impetus God’s. Furthermore, he has given us promises for us to cling onto and to receive. Then it goes on to say that this is so we can “participate in the divine nature” of God. First, before I analyse it to death, let me just say what a beautiful statement that is. Through our salvation, we get to live in the holiness of God. That sounds crazy and wonderful and strange. But, going back to my first point, “participate” tells us that we get a role to play.

God does all the ground-work and all the hard stuff. He sent his son to die so that we may live. He saves us. He has the absolute power and authority in this. But, he still invites us to join in with him. He invites us to use our mind, hearts, strength and soul in what he is doing. I get the picture of a father doing a job and letting his young son or daughter “help”. Their child imitates their father but doesn’t really do anything particularly constructive in the effort. The father could have easily done the task on his own. Instead, it’s about the participation and the communion between father and child. That is what our Heavenly Father daily invites us into: a participation and a communion with him as he builds his kingdom. It really does not depend on me. I’m just to join in and enjoy the relationship I have with God.

We are also invited to participate in our own spiritual growth and development. We are to add goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, mutual-affection and love to our faith. This, again, seems to be something for us to do as well. A metaphor perhaps for this could be a patient following the exercises to allow them to recover effectively after an operation. The surgeon does the hard work to fix the problem and oversees the recovery afterwards; the patient makes sure that they live in a way that enables them to take the best advantage of the operation and new lease of life they have been given.

So, how do we participate? Well, it seems that we do it through constantly reminding ourselves of the grace we have received and the cross. We look to Jesus. This inspires us to participate and to make the most of the freedom and salvation we have received.

1 Peter 1

Peter is writing to believers throughout Asia Minor and the Middle East. In the first few verses, he recognises those as God’s elect, God’s chosen, those sanctified by the Holy Spirit and those who are obedient to Christ.

Peter praises God for what he has given us: hope in difficulties, an imperishable inheritance, mercy, new birth. Although the believers may have sufferings, they are filled with an abundance of joy and faith, rejoicing in God. I wonder if the first thing that people say when they think about Christians is, “they have an abundance of joy”? I don’t think it is. But it’s such a crucial part to our faith. We are called to be joyful people, always thinking of the many mercies we have received from God and of our salvation through Christ. How do we do that? Well, Philippians 4:8 gives us a clue.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

Philippians 4:8

I wonder how often we are distracted or frustrated needlessly. I know I am. Even minor issues or difficulties can cause me to lose sight of God’s goodness and the hope I have in him.

Peter then goes on to tell us what we are to do in response to God’s grace and mercy: be alert, hopeful, obedient and holy. We are to shun the desires that we had previously and seek holiness. This holiness should pervade all we do, and it a holiness that reflects God’s holiness.

2 Timothy 3

This talks about the terrible times in the last days. I someways, the words seem scarily familiar. I’m not going to start shouting “the end is nigh!” on the street corner, but it does make me think about the state of the word. It’s also strange how something written thousands of years ago can go so far to capture the world today.

It characterises the people during these times as

  • lovers of themselves
  • lovers of money
  • boastful
  • proud
  • abusive
  • disobedient to their parents
  • ungrateful
  • unholy
  • without love
  • unforgiving
  • slanderous
  • without self-control
  • brutal
  • not lovers of the good
  • treacherous
  • rash
  • conceited
  • lovers of pleasure rather than God.

Now, that’s quite a list. I feel like, especially in the media, a lot of these attributes are present, if not even celebrated. Even a few powerful and famous people come to mind.

I think, however, the important message of this section is not giving us a way to point the finger. Rather, it is to check ourselves as Christ’s holy body and to make sure that we are far removed from these things.

In the second half of the chapter, Paul reminds us of his persecutions and tells us we will be persecuted. These types of statements always worry me, but not in the way you think. I have experienced very little persecution in my life, so it makes me wonder if I’m doing it all wrong.

The chapter ends with describing the importance of the Bible:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,  so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3: 14-17

Therefore, if we want to be effective in anything we do of any significance, it and we must be rooted in the word of Christ.

1 Timothy 2

Well, it was bound to happen at some point. I’ve reached a controversial part of the Bible. This is probably a good time to address some things. First, I’d like to point out that this blog is really just for myself. I enjoy blogging and if you stumble across this blog then great. If you stumble across this blog, disagree, then you can walk away quietly. It wasn’t meant for you anyway. Why blog, then? I think I need a sense that there is an audience, whether fictive or not, to help me articulate my thoughts.

However, in this post, there’s not going to be much to disagree with, bringing me to my second point. I’m not going to engage too much with these sections, mainly because I don’t think I have the authority or the knowledge to do so. You could argue that it’s typical white male privilege or intellectual sloppiness, but it is one of the issues (one of the many topics of the Bible) that I’d like to research a bit more before giving my two cents on. What I have to say isn’t really worth much and it’s probably better to read and listen first.

So, this might be a bit of a post that talks more about how to address these types of issues rather than addressing the issues.

So, this chapter starts with encouraging prayers and petitions – for all people, which is interesting. Then it narrows its focus to those in authority. Luckily, I’m a day ahead on this one. Just as I process the Bible by writing (on this here blog), and have a book where I write out my prayers. I did pray for Donald Trump and for Boris Johnson. Whether you agree with them or voted (or would have voted) for them or not, you should still pray for them. I’m not sure Paul was a fan of the Roman rules (especially as they imprisoned and killed him), but he still said we should pray.

We should especially be praying, in the light of verse 4, for their faith and salvation. Trump says he’s a believer, although others argue his read the wrong book, and I don’t know about Johnson. Hun Sen (the leader of my adopted home) is Buddhist. But I should be praying for them and their salvation. For God is a kind God “who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” What a wonderful saviour we have! A lot of politicians wouldn’t be on my priority list, but God still wants them.

I think it’s easy for us to think of them as different and somehow lofty and unreal. But they are humans, and God still sees them as people made in his image that have been corrupted by sin. God still sent his son to die for them, from dictators to incompetent leaders and everyone in between. God humbles rulers and exalts servants, so to him, we are all one and the same. And we should try to see our leaders with the same compassion and love as he does. I know I fail and get angry. But, it’s also worth praying that God softens our hearts too. Verse 8 tells us to pray, with raised arms, without anger or disputing. It’s a somewhat strange and alien concept in the age of twitter witch hunts and petty politic-fuelled squabbles. So, I think I should try to be better at this. So, I shall try (and probably fail quite often) to respond in prayer at the next frustrating twitter or facebook post than ranting and arguing.

Amos 1

Chapter 1 of Amos is pretty much about the divine judgment of God against the nations surrounding Israel. These nations have committed terrible sins against God’s people: Israelites being killed and enslaved, breaking treaties with them, women were killed and even the pregnant women were slaughtered. The atrocities they did were horrible.

But God will punish them, tearing down the walls of their capitals, bringing fire to their cities. Their kings will flee or perish.

Often, the Old Testament prophecies are somewhat unpalatable for modern readers. They speak of retribution and revenge. God seems cruel and hard.

But we need to remember, God is holy. He is just and good.

Our societies see guilt and innocence in very black and white terms: you did it or you didn’t. However, I think the Biblical idea of sin is far more complex and pernicious than that. It kills and spreads. It’s like a disease that infects and ruins, like yeast in dough. Therefore, when we read these chapters, we perhaps have to think of sin as being more than we can define and therefore the cost of it more than we can say.

But it does make us ask a number of questions of our faith and reflect upon what we believe:

  • Do we trust God enough to believe in his justice?
  • Do we have faith that God’s plan is right?
  • Do we believe that God’s ways are perfect?
  • Do we believe that he is love?

This passages definitely challenge our thinking.

However, God loves his people. He loves other nations too. This is why prophets are sent: they warn people. God want the people to turn back to him and to find his mercy. However, sadly with the case of a lot of prophets, they don’t heed the warning. Because of God’s just nature, something needs to be done about the wrongs they have committed. So, when they fail to seek God’s mercy, they find themselves at the hands of his justice.

Joel 3

This chapter concludes the book and ends with the judgment of the enemies of Israel and justice for God’s people.

All the nations seem to come together at the Lord’s command at the Valley of Jehoshaphat. Jehoshaphat means “the Lord judges”, so therefore suggests that this about when everyone is finally judged at end times. God will judge the nations for what they did to Israel and his people.

God almost taunts the nations in this passage to come fight him. He tells them to bring everyone, even the weakest, to attack him in battle. And then he says that he will sit to judge them. He doesn’t even attack back, he just sits. Then he plucks them like a ripe harvest. It’s not the image of an epic battle; it’s a picture of God just harvesting them like crops. There’s no resistance, no power to fight back. He tramples them like grapes in the winepress.

The whole of heaven and earth will tremble at God’s judgment, but the people of Israel will find refuge in him.

At this, Jerusalem will never be threatened again. She will always be holy and blameless; full of wine and milk. The other nations will be desolate and empty, but Jerusalem and Judah will live forever.

I think this chapter just goes to prove the awesome judgment of God. His judgment is right and holy but also mighty and powerful. We often turn God into Santa Claus, who merely gives good things and if you’re really bad, you might get cross off the list. But that’s it. However, this chapter speaks of a God who is so powerful, he does not need to defend himself against all the nations. They’re a joke to him. He just destroys them like grapes underfoot.

Proverbs 9:10 tells us that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” Joel 3 perhaps goes to show why.

Colossians 3

Like in his other letters Paul lets us know what living as a follower of Christ should look like and what it doesn’t look like.

First, he tells us to focus both our hearts and minds on heavenly things. Our desires and our perspectives should be based on higher things than the earth.

Then he tells us what the markers of Christian life are:

  • Compassion
  • Kindness
  • Humility
  • Gentleness
  • Patience
  • Forgiving others
  • Love
  • Unity
  • Peace of Christ ruling our hearts
  • Thankfulness
  • The message of Christ dwelling among us
  • Wisdom
  • Psalms, verses, songs to God in our conversation and in our hearts
  • Wives submitting to their husbands
  • Husbands loving their wives
  • Children obeying parents
  • Servants obeying their masters
  • Working as if for God not man

Christian living does not involve these things:

  • Sexual impurity
  • Lust
  • Evil desires
  • Greed (which is idolatry)
  • Anger
  • Rage
  • Malice
  • Slander
  • Filthy language
  • Lying
  • Fathers embittering their children

Again, these are quite a list.

But if we do it with our focus upon Jesus in his throne, then we will desire to love and serve him.