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 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.

1 John 2: being without sin

This chapter picks up where the previous one picks up: in the tension of being a sinful but also redeemed. Here it reminds us that we should not sin but that we also have Jesus to rely on. It reminds me a bit of when Peter writes about how God provided everything but invites us to have a role. We often try too hard to rely on our own strength to reach purity, but the fact is we can only have it because God redeemed us through his son Jesus Christ. Our human efforts do nothing; it’s only through the cross and the good work Jesus is doing in us that we can achieve anything.

Verses 3 to 6 expand on us further. We are to keep Jesus’ commands out of love for him. Therefore, it’s so important to daily focus on him and what he did for us to motivate us. In times of trouble or temptation we look not to ourselves or our own strength but we look to the cross. Then we can love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.

The next part of John looks at another way the love for our Lord is express: our love for others. It’s not coincidence that Jesus responded to the question about the greatest commandment with a twofold answer. We are to love our God, which is expressed here in how we love others. These verses also remind us of how Jesus said in Matthew 5. You can’t offer worship if you know a brother has something against you. Jesus came to redeem us with God and each other. Therefore, if there are relational issues within the church, we aren’t living in the fullness of Christ’s redemption.

Verses 12-14 are interesting, exciting and encouraging. The fact that we are told that we have overcome the evil one is an interesting concept in the fight against sin. As we battle against evil desires, we must remember: the victory is won! That’s another good reason to look toward the cross.

The last sections talk about not loving the world because it is temporary and to love what God has given you. We are also warned not to deny Christ. We are to remain in him and remain confident in his promises. In that way we can be pure when he comes again.

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 2: avoiding falling for false teaching

Yesterday, I wrote a post on 2 Peter 2 about how false teachers were condemned and how Peter is very emphatic about how much he detests them.

It left me with a lot of questions, which I posted up on Facebook. (Forgive the poor grammar on the post below, it was for an informal context.)

I got a few responses, some of which were surprising. Mostly, I was surprised about how many people have encountered false teaching of some kind. This made me sad and somewhat concerned. However, I’ve had a brief chance to reflect on this and also to distill the answers I got.

Fear of the Lord

Whenever we are discussing what is the right and what is wrong interpretation of the Bible, I think the starting point is always this:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,

    and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.

Proverbs 9:10

If we want the wisdom to avoid false teaching, we need to start off with a fear of the Lord. Is this that we are meant to be shaking in our boots when we think about our faith? No, I don’t think that’s what it means. However, what it does mean is that we are not to be confident in our own intellectual capabilities when trying to discern the Lord’s ways. Here are a few verses to back this thought up:

  • He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed, miracles that cannot be counted. (Job 9:10)
  • “Can you fathom the mysteries of God? Can you probe the limits of the Almighty?” (Job 11:7)
  • Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; his greatness no one can fathom. (Psalm 145:3)
  • Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! (Romans 11:33)

This does not mean we accept all teaching blindly, or shrug our shoulders and decide we’re going to stop thinking about things. God gave us brains and the ability to reason; these are to be used not wasted. But even those abilities are God given and, as we are created in the image of God, it is God who is the ultimate source of all truth and knowledge. Therefore, our first step is to humbly submit ourselves, our intellect, or assumptions, to the Lord.

I know that I am often guilty of doing the exact opposite: I doggedly and stubbornly argue a point because I have decided that my intellect is far superior than everyone else’s. However, I have tried to get into a habit (perhaps an annoying one) of always asking questions first. The other day, I was in a Bible study and we were reading Matthew 3. It talks about the Kingdom of God. I could probably articulate a response in what the Kingdom of God is, but I put myself in the position of not knowing and I asked what it meant.

So, prayerfully humble yourself and acknowledge you need the Holy Spirit’s help and the help of the wider church, the wisdom of those around you, to be able to grasp God’s ways and purposes.

Know your master’s voice

The Pharisees got pretty angry for what Jesus said and even wanted to stone him. (If Jesus can be declared a false teacher, that’s a warning for all of us.) In John 10:25-30, he tells the Pharisees this:

Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”

If we are to be disciples of Jesus, sheep to the great Shepherd, we need to be listening to his voice so that we may follow him. The shepherd in Jesus’ day was more than just a kid that sat in fields, playing the pan-pipes, cuddling lambs. The sheep were in danger from wild animals and could easily be killed. The sheep listened to the shepherd’s voice because he kept them safe, he provided them with food by leading them to areas with grass and water. We are to be pursuit of Jesus’ voice through scripture and prayer in order to receive protection and nourishment. Jesus taught us to pray that we would be delivered from the evil one. In the passage above, it clearly shows that it is Jesus and God the Father who keep us safe, and this is safe from erroneous teaching, too.

The more we will know the Bible, the more we can spot false teaching. The more we understand the nature and the character of God, the more we can discern his ways. But God takes an active role in this as well, as Romans 12:2 says, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” We need to let the scripture transform our mind as we read it.

It’s all about Jesus

If the message you are hearing glorifies something other than Jesus, it is wrong. If a teacher puts their thoughts, theories, ministries, miracles, fame and fortune on a pedestal above Jesus, they are wrong. If it puts anything other than Jesus at the centre of your life and your world it is wrong. If the teaching puts your wealth, your job, your health, your family, your sexual desires, your hobbies, your comfort, your security, your sense of control, your reputation, your to-do list, your pride, your friendships, your home, your sense of self-worth, your intellect, your feelings, your deepest wishes at the centre of your life instead of Jesus… it is wrong. All of those are to be put into submission to Jesus. There is no desire in your heart that should be left out of this. It all has to be chucked in the bin in pursuit of Jesus. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is complete nonsense. The Christian hierarchy of needs is just a triangle with Jesus in the middle.

The apostle Paul puts it like this:

The very credentials these people are waving around as something special, I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash—along with everything else I used to take credit for. And why? Because of Christ. Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him. I didn’t want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness that comes from keeping a list of rules when I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ—God’s righteousness.

Philippians 3:7-9 (The Message Version)

This is not because Jesus is horrible and wants us to be miserable; it is in fact the opposite. Jesus is God; he is from heaven. Anything he can offer is far better than anything we can get here. Jesus is so, so generous; so generous in fact that he gave his life for us. He owes us nothing more than this, and yet he still shows us new mercies each morning. We just need to make sure that Jesus is the priority in our life.

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Matthew 6:33

This isn’t some cosmic manipulation: Jesus saying that if you give me good ratings I’ll give you good things. It’s just that Jesus knows what’s good for us. We were made to live with God in the Garden of Eden. But we get distracted by shiny things here. Nor is it some divine vending machine: put a few prayers and worship songs in, stick a few coins or notes in the offering basket, and we get what we want. In fact, the more we look to Jesus, the less important our dreams and desires become to us. We start realising that we have our fullness and identity in the work of Christ.

If you want to check whether your views of Christ align with the biblical truths of Christ, I would take some time in Colossians. (I’ve linked Biblegateway.com showing to two versions side-by-side, the NIV and The Message.) In fact, read the whole New Testament, and then the Old Testament. But in the mean time, I’ll just put one of my favourite passages about Jesus here.

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.

Colossians 3:15-23

2 Peter 2: false teachers

This is definitely one of those passages that you read and you find yourself more uncertain that when you started. It is definitely on my “go back to and read more on” list (which, by now is about six pages long). It reveals my woeful and inadequate knowledge of scripture and leaves me in awe of those who have a more comprehensive knowledge. Maybe, one day I will get there.

The passage is mostly about false teachers and the consequence for their actions. (It doesn’t look hopeful for them.) It compares them to fallen angels, who, having known the truth, have turned their back on it. Peter actually goes as far as to say it would have been better had they not known the truth at all, rather than knowing and still preaching heresies.

One interesting point is that in verse two, it suggests that false teaching will bring the way of truth into disrepute. I certainly think this is true and I can see how people have become cynical about Christianity due to what they have heard from preachers.

I think this passage raises certain questions:

  • How do we make sure that we don’t become on of the “many” that follow false teachers?
  • How do we test the motives of teachers?
  • How do we make sure that our motives are always God honouring when we preach the good news?

I perhaps don’t have certain answers on this. I think this is an opportunity for prayer and pondering. (Granted, all Bible reading should be an opportunity for this.) I wonder if you have any thoughts on the matter. I might do a follow up post on this.

1 Peter 5: A lesson in humility

1 Peter reminds us of the need for humility. He directs this both to the leaders and to the flock. The leaders are to be humble shepherds, gently guiding them. They are not to lord it over them, and they are to serve eagerly, because God has entrusted this job to them. This is a really beautiful picture of leadership: one where the leaders are compassionate, joyful, wise and understanding.

The humility, however, is not just for the leaders. The younger people in the church are to submit to their elders. The motivation for this humility is interesting: because it is what God wants and God delights in the humble.

Often, we equate humility with modesty: a playing down of our achievements. But there is more to it than that, I think. There is an inherent knowledge that God is King and that we are sinful and fallen. Where Paul writes that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of who I am the worst” in 1 Timothy 1:15, that is an expression of humility. When we recognise our dire need to God, we will be eager to find leaders to guide us; we will refrain from think ourselves better than those we lead.

Therefore, when Peter tells us to humble ourselves under God’s mighty hand, it is this. It is us recognising that God is in control, he is mighty, his purposes prevail; whereas we are weak, poor and not in control of our surroundings. But, in this comes blessing. God will lift us up. Also, when we recognise that our situations are beyond us, it becomes easy to cast our anxieties on God. He cares and he is capable to help us. I know that the act of letting God take control of my life and my problems requires a great act of will-power. I arrogantly assume I can handle it but it is obvious I can’t.

The next few verses perhaps then give us cause for anxiety: the devil is on the prowl. I don’t know, but my list of worries often excludes this one (it’s usually where I put my passport or about some plan). Are we, then, called to think about this more often. We are meant to be in a state of readiness, prepared to go into battle. I don’t know about you, but I don’t often feel that way.

Another interesting thought, is that we are to stand firm in the faith but with humility and grace. We are to have absolute confidence in the faith we have. But this is not born out of our intellectual capabilities or knowing the right answers. In fact it’s the opposite. We know we can’t fathom the acts and purposes of God. They are far beyond our reason. But because of that, we can be confident in something greater than ourselves.

We are, therefore, called to fight knowing that we have the victor on our side.

2 Timothy 2

Again, this chapter tells us that we are to be strong, but the source of our strength is not within ourselves, but in the grace of Jesus. Paul provides three examples of what it means to be strong in the power of grace, using the analogies of a soldier, athlete and farmer.

The first example tells us to embrace suffering, not to get entangled in civilian affairs and to be a soldier for Christ. Again this begs the question of what it means by civilian affairs. Where do we put our focus and what are we to ignore and not be distracted by? What counts as civilian affairs? It does tell us that we are to be single-minded and to only seek our general’s pleasure. Therefore, whatever we do, we do it to glorify God.

The athlete analogy again shows strength, endurance and hard-work, but within a set of rules. These rules are to show us that we are to be obedient to the word and to the commands of Christ Jesus.

The final example of the farmer suggests the fruitfulness of pursuing God’s purpose. By living within the will of God, we will receive his promises.

Then Paul reminds Timothy of Jesus’ death and resurrection, to encourage him to share in this suffering for the gospel. He also mentions his own suffering, that was endured in the pursuit of fulfilling this gospel. Verses 11-13 tells us that if we die and endure in Christ, we live and reign in his resurrection power. However, he we disown him, we, too are disowned.

The final part of this chapter shows how Timothy is to focus on the word of God and avoid quarrels and Godless chatter. He is to be kind and gentle, even in his rebukes. Then, Timothy can present himself as someone who is not ashamed of the gospel he has heard.

Control

When Christians back home think of missionaries, I expect they often think of sacrifice and what they’ve had to give up. God has been incredibly gracious to me, and has not asked me to sacrifice all that much (or at least has only asked me to sacrifice a few things that are important to me). I know that I have been abundantly blessed here in Cambodia.

However, recently I have moved house. I have gone from living on my own in a cute one bedroom flat to an entire house with an entire family. For the most part, it is great. But this means I’ve had to sacrifice something that is apparently very important to me: control.

They say that a British man’s home is his castle. There’s a sense of guarding it, controlling it and also isolating yourself within it. Living on my own and also back in the UK with my relatively introverted family meant that guests were invited, we knew when they would arrive and approximately when they would leave. It was very much within the realms of our control.

When I invited a family to move in with me, I forgot I would be inviting Cambodia into live with me as well. Previously I had managed to manufacture a British fortress, or enclave, my little colony. My apartment was a tiny Gibraltar jutting out into the sea that is Southeast Asian culture.

However, with British Imperialism long dead (despite nationalist attempts to flog that dead horse), it wasn’t going to last. So I now live in a Cambodian house. Yes, it’s more of a fusion of our two cultures. But it is a Cambodian family in a Cambodian style house living in Cambodia. Therefore, Cambodia has the upper-hand.

As a result, the come and go nature of Cambodian living (cousins, nieces, nephews, grandparents, brothers and sisters all appearing unannounced) is very much a part of my life. And I’ve found it hard. I’ve found it hard that the drawbridge to my fortress has been irrevocably lowered and the gates swung wide opened.

Then twitter post came along to convict me of my selfish thinking.

God has bought me to Cambodia not to set up impenetrable walls and to be at arm’s length from those around me. He called me to be his messenger, his ambassador and his hands and feet. Sometimes it will be messy and uncomfortable and unfamiliar. But me stepping into this situation is nothing compared to Jesus stepping from heaven into the mess and discomfort of our fallen world. So even when I’m tempted to pull up the drawbridge, I’ll remind myself that embassies don’t have them.