The People of the God of Abraham

jerusalem2At a time when the daily news trumpets the latest political scandal, our Facebook walls vomit forth more madness, our Twitter feeds grow ever darker, and the comment boxes on our favored websites grow more vile by the moment, a Christian ought to pause to consider the end-game. Christ will return, and there will be true peace on earth for all those with whom He’s favored. Then, on that day, there will be no more “fake news,” no more victimized gymnasts, no more predatory medical doctors – no more sin at all.

Christ declared to the Apostle John, “Behold, I make all things new!” (Rev 21:5). This passage of Scripture (Psalm 47) gives us a brief glimpse of what this day of rejoicing will look like.

Clap your hands, all peoples!
Shout to God with loud songs of joy (Psalm 47:1)

This is clearly a psalm celebrating a momentous event. All the people are commanded to clap, and shout to God with riotous joy. Is the psalmist referring to the Israelites in the congregation, or to “all peoples” who belong to Yahweh, including Gentiles? This is interesting, but we’ll have to wait for more context before making a decision. For now, just consider – why should the people shout for joy, and clap with such glee?

For the LORD, the Most High, is terrible
a great king over all the earth (Psalm 47:2)

It’s a celebration about who Yahweh is. He’s the Most High, He’s terrible (i.e. “fearful,” [NEB]; “to be feared” [NASB]; “awesome” [NLT; LEB]; “awe-inspiring” [NET]. He’s a great king over all the earth!

Yahweh is the King now, even as He allows Satan to be the “prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience,” (Eph 2:2). You can’t read the story of Job, for example, without seeing God in complete control over His creation (Job 1:6-12; 2:1-6). Satan operates only because God permits it. This means people who reject Yahweh and His promise of salvation through the coming Messiah are criminals in God’s universe. He’s already the King; He just hasn’t come back quite yet.

Some readers might quibble, and suppose this psalm is only describing some future event. Perhaps so, but this psalm was sung by faithful Israelites as they worshipped. It had meaning then, too. Yahweh was their king then and, in this New Covenant era, He’s our king, also. It’s a present reality, with a still future fulfillment.

He subdued peoples under us,
and nations under our feet.
He chose our heritage for us,
the pride of Jacob whom he loves (Psalm 47:3-4)

The congregation praises Yahweh for what He’s done. Through His blessing, this small nation “dispossess[ed] nations greater and mightier than yourselves,” (Deut 9:1). This only happened because He chose the Israelites from among the pagans, made them His own, and blessed them abundantly. It was a corporate election to salvation and service, and it was all of grace (Deut 7:7-8; 9:4-5). This is why they clap and shout with such joy in their hearts and souls. God is good, and He’s full of mercy, grace, love and kindness.

God has gone up with a shout,
the LORD with the sound of a trumpet.
Sing praises to God, sing praises!
Sing praises to our King, sing praises!
For God is the king of all the earth;
sing praises with a psalm (Psalm 47:5-7)

Again, God is the king of all the earth. It’s a present reality that all people are commanded to acknowledge and respect. They do this by confessing their sins, believing in Yahweh’s promise of a future Deliverer, Messiah and Savior, and then proving their love by following His law in sincerity and truth. God’s people will love Him, and want to praise Him for who He is, and what He’s done. This kind of universal joy and praise to Yahweh will only come when all creation bows in submission to Him. As another psalmist wrote, “The LORD sends forth from Zion your mighty scepter. Rule in the midst of your foes!” (Ps 110:2).

The scene here almost reads like a coronation, as if the King has just assumed His throne, been crowned as “Lord of Lords,” and is accepting the rapturous praise of His servants. The psalmist is viewing the event as if it’s just happened, and he’s recording it all in his trusty notebook. This song may have been sung at coronations for Israelite kings at some point, or it could be purely prophetic – the Israelite people looking forward to that glorious day when Messiah would come and assume David’s throne. Some people assume the Old Covenant saints were largely ignorant about the details of the Messianic prophesies. Perhaps they were, but David certainly wasn’t (compare Ps 16:8-11; Acts 2:25; 13:32-36).

God reigns over the nations;
God sits on his holy throne (Psalm 47:8)

Yahweh will reign on earth one day. The Book of Revelation tells us this will be an entirely new earth, situated in an entirely new creation. And, in a new holy city, Yahweh will sit on His throne with His eternal Son, and they’ll reign together over the nations (Rev 21:22-27).

The princes of the peoples gather
as the people of the God of Abraham.
For the shields of the earth belong to God;
he is highly exalted (Psalm 47:9)

What a wonderful picture! This is so different from the Jewish attitude in Jesus’ day; an attitude which was racist, prejudiced, and characterized by a sneering nationalism borne out of centuries of the most rabid and insatiable persecution. God told the Israelites they would “be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” (Ex 19:6). Their task was to represent Yahweh to the pagan world around them, loving Him with everything they had (cf. Deut 6:4-5), as they modeled His kingdom by living according to His laws. They came closest during Solomon’s reign (1 Kgs 10), but even that wasn’t very close at all

The exile changed everything, and the Israelites gradually began to emphasize orthopraxy instead of orthodoxy; right behavior over against right belief. This subtle shift had enormous implications, which compounded themselves as the years went by. The Book of 1 Maccabees, for example, speaks of “the Gentiles” over and over again (e.g. 3:25-26; 3:52; 3:58-60, etc.). It doesn’t matter who Judas and Jonathan’s enemies were, they were always “the Gentiles.” The Maccabees weren’t concerned with a “circumcision of the heart” at all. Theirs was a religion of law, of right behavior, of cultic ritual. There is no mention of devotional piety; only external conformity. Judas sallied forth and “hunted and tracked down the lawless” (3:6), and “destroyed the godless” (3:8). He forcibly circumcised young Israelite boys (2:46), and “thus they saved the law from the Gentiles and their kings …” (2:48). On his deathbed, Judas’ father Matthias exhorted his sons to “draw your courage and strength from the law, for by it you will win great victory,” (2:64).

By Jesus’ day, He encountered an externalism that boasted an elaborate, blasphemous theology of ritual defilement from contact with Gentiles. It was this perversion that prompted His condemnation of their ceremonial washing rituals (Mk 7:1-13); “you leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men!” (Mk 7:8). Peter had enormous trouble getting rid of this baggage (Acts 10:34-48; Gal 2:11-13). The Jerusalem church likewise struggled mightily with the very idea that Gentiles could be joint-heirs of living grace. They criticized Peter (Acts 11:1-2), were wary of the Antioch congregation’s Hellenistic makeup (Acts 11:22-23), and had repeated issues with some of their own members advocating a perverted, works-righteousness salvation (Acts 15:1-2). Even the Apostle James treaded lightly around these men (Acts 21:17-26).

And yet … this psalm knows nothing of this prejudicial attitude. Instead, the author catapults over this madness and lands squarely in the New Jerusalem. The princes of the people (i.e. the Gentiles) have gathered together as (some translations render this “with”) the people of the God of Abraham. The Gentiles are joint-heirs with the Israelites. This is the glorious future for all who believe. The Gentiles and the Israelites will serve Yahweh together, worshipping Him in spirit and in truth. There, in the true celestial city on a new and perfect earth, all God’s people from every nation will come to the tree of life to eat freely. After all, “the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations,” (Rev 22:2).

Yahweh is the King of all who believe. This psalm paints a glorious future. The King will reign. The people, Jew and Gentile alike, will clap, shout and “rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory,” (1 Pet 1:8). Oh, the half has never yet been told!

The Son Who Reveals the Father

peter walksThe interesting thing about the Gospel of Mark is that Jesus doesn’t tell us (over and over again) He’s the Messiah; He proves it by His actions.[1] This passage (Mk 6:45-52) is full of trinitarian implications. It follows right on the heels of the feeding of the 5000 (“for they did not understand about the loaves,” Mk 6:52), and it can’t be rightly understood without that connection.

Jesus’ prayer

Alarmed at the crowd’s blasphemous intentions to make Him a dime-store King (Jn 6:15), Jesus “immediately made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side,” (Mk 6:45).

Commentators are divided about why He “went into the hills to pray,” (Mk 6:46). Some suspect He prayed that the disciples wouldn’t be seduced by these wrong Messianic ideas;[2] a notion some scholars reject.[3] Others think He prayed the disciples would have a safe voyage.[4] If that was His intent, then God surely didn’t listen! Some think Jesus prayed for Himself, that He wouldn’t yield to the temptation to take a shortcut to His Kingdom and bypass Calvary.[5] Options one and three are the most likely.

But, for our purposes the content of His prayer is less important than the fact of it – who did Jesus pray to? Oneness Pentecostal theologians would have us believe Jesus’ human will is praying to His divine will for strength;[6] a rather extreme form of Nestorianism. In light of the evidence we’ve seen for a distinction between Divine Persons,[7] this is a desperate dodge. Jesus, as our divine substitute, truly prayed to the Father for strength to avoid this temptation[8] as part of His lifelong active obedience to the law for our sake.

Walking on the waves

Several hours later, as the disciples made their way across the lake, Jesus “saw that they were distressed in rowing, for the wind was against them,” (Mk 6:48). In recent weeks, Jesus has:

  • Called and commissioned the twelve, “gave them authority over the unclean spirits,” the ability to miraculously heal the sick, and sent them out to preach the Good News of the Kingdom (Mk 6:7-13). In short, Jesus commissioned them to duplicate His message and the signs which accompanied it (cf. Lk 7:22-23; Isa 35:5-6).
  • He’s fulfilled the role as Israel’s true leader and shepherd, preaching the Kingdom of God to a massive crowd and healing their sick (Mk 6:34).
  • Like Moses before Him, Christ fed the Israelites in the wilderness by miraculous provision. He did it as a teaching lesson; e.g. “Look what I’m doing here – what does this say about who I am?”
  • But, where Moses prayed to God for food and waited, Jesus simply produced it Himself – because He is Moreover, He allowed the people to gorge themselves on the food (“they all ate and were satisfied,” Mk 6:42); a rare treat for people who did not have much.

What follows is a deliberate display of divine power, to show these disciples who He really is. Before, during an earlier storm, they’d asked, “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?” (Mk 4:41). As if they didn’t have enough evidence, Jesus will show them one more proof and answer that question. This story is not an allegory about how Jesus helps His people in difficult times; that is a terrible misreading of the context.[9] Rather, this miracle acts as a crescendo, an epic finale of self-disclosure to men haven’t quite grasped the truth yet.[10]

Mark tells us that, somewhere between 0300 – 0600:

… he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out; for they all saw him, and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; have no fear,’ (Mk 6:48-50).

Some commentators try to explain away this miracle, as if Christ were merely splashing through the shallows along the shore, or perhaps this account was a later invention. Others worry this story presents a docetic Jesus; a phantasm who is less than human (“they thought it was a ghost,” Mk 6:49).[11] This assumption relies on the idea that Jesus somehow renounced His divine attributes or the use of them and, thus, cannot use them without compromising His humanity. This is incorrect; Jesus continued to exercise all His divine attributes, while assuming a human nature in such a way that He now “lives and acts in both natures forever.”[12] As God the Son Incarnate, He lived His life (including the exercise of divine and human attributes) in accordance with the Father’s will[13] – and it was evidently His will for the Son to reveal Himself in this unique way.

What, then, should we make of Jesus “walking on the sea?” The contrast is between the Old Covenant revelation of Yahweh as distant and frightful, and Jesus’ New Covenant revelation of Yahweh as personal, intimate and close. The Book of Job tells us God “alone stretched out the heavens, and trampled the waves of the sea … Lo, he passes by me, and I see him not; he moves on, but I do not perceive him,” (Job 9:8, 11). There are two points to notice; Yahweh shields Himself from His people, and He has awesome power:

  • Job knows Yahweh as the One who is invisible, indistinct and unapproachable. “If he should pass over me, I would not notice, and if he should pass by me, likewise I would not perceive,” (Job 9:11; Lexham LXX).[14]
  • Likewise, His power is so great, He “walks about upon the sea as upon a floor,” (Job 9:8b, Lexham LXX).

This is precisely what Jesus does in our passage; “he came to them, walking on the sea,” (the NT phrase is nearly identical LXX text).[15] But, where Yahweh hides His divine presence from His people (“you cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live,” Ex 33:20), Jesus, “the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known,” (Jn 1:18). Jesus is equal with the Father, and is Yahweh, God with them, showing Himself to His chosen disciples. Like Yahweh, He, too, was “walking on the sea.” He would have passed them by. Instead, unlike Yahweh in the Old Covenant, He stops and joins them.[16]

I AM

Jesus says, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear,” (Mk 6:50). This phrase ἐγώ εἰμι could mean “it is I.” Or, it may be a deliberate reference to the Divine Name. Commentators are divided,[17] and context is key. Here, in the midst of a culminating series of miracles and expressions of divine identity to the disciples, it’s hard to see this as an innocent, “Hey, its me!” greeting.[18] Even if that’s all it is, the greeting has no meaning without a context for who Jesus is. Also, even if the disciples didn’t understand Jesus to be saying, “I AM Yahweh!” at the time, the Lord may have wanted us to understand this when He moved Mark to write these words.[19]

It’s best to see this as Jesus’ deliberate identification with Yahweh. This is more than simple oneness with the Father; Jesus is explicitly claiming to be Yahweh. In a truly delightful way, Father, Son and Spirit work in a correlative way, so the seeming actions of one are actually performed by all three as a single unit.[20]

Having revealed Himself as the true shepherd, teacher and leader of Israel who preached God’s Kingdom (Mk 6:34), miraculously provided for the people in the wilderness as Moses’ preeminent and divine successor (Mk 6:35-44), having then come to the disciples as Yahweh Himself (Mk 6:48), walking “about upon the sea as upon a floor” (Job 9:8; Lexham LXX), then told the disciples to be calm because He is Yahweh Himself in the flesh (“I am!” Mk 6:50), Jesus caps this crescendo by stopping the storm (Mk 6:51).[21]

After all this, why are the disciples “utterly astounded,” (Mk 6:51)? Mark tells us they still didn’t understand who Jesus is; “for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened,” (Mk 6:52). This series of divine unveilings was intended be a bright mirror, showing who this Messiah is.[22] Yet, it didn’t work here.

Today, as we reflect back on the passages like this one (and so many others), I hope Christians are committed to progressing beyond these disciples to actually know who Yahweh, our triune God, is.[23]

David Bernard, a Oneness Pentecostal theologian, has well said:

Many church members do not really understand the doctrine of trinitarianism and, as a practical matter, are closer to Oneness belief … Most Catholics and Protestants do not have a well-developed concept of the trinity, do not know in detail what trinitarianism teaches, and cannot explain Bible passages in trinitarian terms.[24]

I’m afraid he is correct. It is a shame the very identity of our great God and Savior is such a neglected doctrinal subject. Carl Trueman has observed:[25]

Ask yourself this: if my church put on a conference about how to have a great Christian marriage and fulfilled sex life, would more or fewer people attend than if we did one on the importance of the incarnation or the Trinity?

The answer to that question allows an interesting comparison between the priorities of the church today and that of the fourth and fifth centuries. It is not that the people in your church do not believe that, say, Christ rose from the dead and the tomb was empty; rather it is that such belief has no real usefulness to them other than as it provides them with what they are looking to obtain in the here and now.

In such a context, orthodoxy as expressed in the great creeds and confessions is not rejected; it is simply sidelined as irrelevant and essentially useless.

The Trinity is all over Scripture; it’s certainly all over the Gospel of Mark. Jesus shows us who He is, and He shows us the Father and the Spirit, too – our One God, who eternally exists in three co-equal, co-eternal Persons. If we seek to love God with all our heart, soul and might (Deut 6:5), then we ought to want to know who He really is – in all His triune glory.

Notes

[1] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, in PNTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 199.

[2] See Edwards (Mark, 196-197) and William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, in NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 235.

[3] “The feeding miracle certainly has messianic overtones (cf. Isa 25: 6– 8), but Mark presents it as an act of compassionate shepherding and nothing about the crowd’s behavior indicates messianic ambitions or expectations,” (Mark Strauss, Mark, in ZECNT [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014], 284).

[4] William Hendriksen, The Gospel of Mark, in NTC (Grand Rapids, MI: 1975), 258-259.

[5] This is the view advocated by many theologians, such as James A. Brooks (Mark, vol. 23, in NAC [Nashville: B&H, 1991], 111); R.C.H. Lenski (The Interpretation of St. Mark’s Gospel [Columbus, OH: Wartburg, 1946], 271; and Albert Barnes (Notes on the New Testament, vol. 9 [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998], 155-156).

[6] “We do not say Jesus prayed to Himself, for this would incorrectly imply that the man was the same as the Spirit. Rather, we say that the man prayed to the Spirit of God, while also recognizing that the Spirit dwelt in the man,” (David K. Bernard, Oneness of God [Hazelwood, MO: Word Aflame Press, 2000; Kindle ed.], KL 1737-1738).

[7] Mk 1:1-3, 8, 10-12, 14, 24, 35; 2:10, 12, 28; 3:11, 28-30, 31-32; 5:7; 6:41.

[8] Jesus, in the incarnation, was made in a state in innocence and holiness, just like Adam. His temptations did not come from a wicked disposition from within, but from without – just like Adam and Eve.

[9] “As with the stilling of the storm, this miracle has been interpreted from patristic times as an allegory of the Church, subjected to hardship and persecution, and wondering if the Lord would ever return: the story is then understood as a message of hope in a dark hour—a promise that Christ will indeed come. This interpretation was natural enough for those in that situation, but Mark himself gives no indication that he understands the story in that way; rather his concern here, as elsewhere, seems to be with the question ‘Who is Jesus?’ The answer is clear to those who grasp the significance of the story,” (Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel according to Saint Mark, in BNTC [London: Continuum, 1991], 169).

[10] “Jesus’ walking on the water to his disciples is a revelation of the glory that he shares with the Father and the compassion that he extends to his followers. It is a divine epiphany in answer to their earlier bafflement when he calmed the storm, ‘Who is this?’ (4:41). In this respect Mark’s Christology is no less sublime than is John’s, although John has Jesus declaring that he is the Son of God (John 10:36), whereas Mark has him showing that he is the Son of God,” (Edwards, Mark, 199).

[11] See Hooker (Mark, 168-169). She doesn’t agree with this perspective, but she discusses it briefly.

[12] Stephen J. Wellum, God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ, in Foundations of Evangelical Theology, ed. John Feinberg (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 435. Wellum explains, “From the moment of the virgin conception, the eternal Son ‘took into his own divine person a complete set of human characteristics and components – including everything that pertains to humanity – so that from then on he is said to possess a human nature as well.’ The direction of metaphysical movement is crucial. The Son did not come to an existing human being or even human nature to form an artificial or ad hoc union. Rather, through the virgin conception, God created a new human nature for the Son, who assumed that nature as part of his subsistent existence,” (435).

[13] “The best way to account or the asymmetrical relationship in Christ is in terms of the Trinitarian relations worked out in redemptive history for the sake of the Son’s incarnational mission. The Son lives out his divine and human lives in relation to the Father and Spirit as our Redeemer. Against all forms of kenoticism, the Son does not renounce his divine attributes or even the use of them. Instead, the Son’s entire life is best viewed through the lens of his filal dependence on the Father in the Spirit. The Son does nothing except what he knows that Father wills him to do,” (Wellum, God the Son, 441).

[14] Rick Brannan et al., eds., The Lexham English Septuagint (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012).

[15] The Lexham LXX reads: καὶ περιπατῶν ὡς ἐπ᾽ ἐδάφους ἐπὶ θαλάσσης. The Gospel of Mark reads: περιπατῶν ἐπὶ τῆς θαλάσσης. Mark left out the editorial flourish, “like on a floor/ground.” The sense is the same.

[16] Matthew 14:28-33 includes an additional element to the account, which I won’t deal with here.

[17] For example, Lane (Mark, 237) and John Grassmick (Mark, in BKC, vol. 2 [Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1983], 132) believe this is a theophany. Walter Wessel (Mark, in EBC, vol. 8 [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984], 676) and Strauss (Mark, 286-287) disagree.

“The phrase ‘I am [he]’ (ἐγώ εἰμι) is a normal way of self-identification in Greek and so would not by necessity recall these OT allusions. In the present context, Jesus’ purpose is to assure the disciples that it is he and not a ghost. Furthermore, an explicit divine claim would be unusual in Mark’s gospel, where Jesus reveals his divine authority through his actions, but never directly through his words (but cf. 14: 62, where the same phrase is used). It seems unlikely, therefore, that Mark understands Jesus to be saying emphatically, ‘I am Yahweh!’ Whether Mark’s readers in the post-resurrection church would have picked up such an allusion is a more difficult question,” (Strauss, Mark, 286-287).

[18] “God cannot be fully seen, but Jesus can. The one who comes to them on the sea is not simply a successor to Moses, who fills baskets with bread in the desert. Only God can walk on the sea, and Jesus’ greeting is not simply a cheery hello to assuage the disciples’ fears. He greets them with the divine formula of self-revelation, ‘I am,’” (David E. Garland, Mark, in NIVAC [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996], 264).

[19] “It is not clear that Mark interpreted the words in this way, but others may well have soon done so (cf. John 18:5f.),” (Hooker, Mark, 170).

[20] Carl Beckwith observed, “If the essential attributes, like the external acts of the Trinity, belong equally and indivisibly to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as the church rightly confesses, why do Scripture and our creeds sometime assign them more particularly to one person? The explanation given by the Fathers and reformers has been that the external acts and essential attributes of God may be appropriated or attributed more particularly to one person in order to more fully disclose the persons of the Trinity to our creaturely ways of thinking. This doctrine of appropriation assists us conceptually and aims to focus our prayers and worship on the divine persons,” (The Holy Trinity, vol. 3, in Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics [Fort Wayne, IN: Luther Academy, 2016; Kindle ed.], KL 9443-9448).

[21] Lane doesn’t believe this was a miraculous act (Mark, 239).

[22] “But the principal charge brought against them is blindness, in allowing so recent an exhibition to fade from their memory, or rather in not directing their mind to the contemplation of Christ’s divinity, of which the multiplication of the loaves was a sufficiently bright mirror,” (John Calvin and William Pringle, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, vol. 2 [Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010], 239).

[23] “Within the one Being that is God, there exists eternally three co-equal and co-eternal persons, namely, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” (James White, The Forgotten Trinity [Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 1998], 26).

[24] Bernard (Oneness of God, KL 2963 – 2964; 2971 – 2972).

[25] Carl R. Trueman, The Creedal Imperative (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012; Kindle ed.), KL 532-538.

The Man from Uz – Thoughts on Job (Part 1)

jobMy family and I are working through the Book of Job together, several nights per week. I’ll be posting some questions, thoughts and reflections on the text as we go through the book. I’ll briefly address some of the questions, and I’ll leave others alone. Perhaps they’ll encourage you to think about this wonderful book, and the timeless questions it raises about God’s eternal purposes in our lives!

The opening sentences establish Job as a good and godly man. He “was blameless and upright, one who feared God, and turned away from evil,” (Job 1:1). This doesn’t mean he was perfect, of course – just that he was a godly man. In an economy based largely on agriculture, he was clearly a very wealthy man (Job 1:3). His wealth and character marked him out as “the greatest of all the people of the east,” (Job 1:3). He was the proud father of ten adult children.

This book is likely set before the Old Covenant era,[1] perhaps in the aftermath of the Tower of Babel incident. Job acts as the priest for his family, and routinely brings burnt offerings to the Lord on his children’s behalf; “for Job said, ‘It may be that my sons have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.’ Thus Job did continually,” (Job 1:5).

Why does Satan have direct access to Yahweh’s throne room, in heaven (Job 1:6)? What does this tell us about fallen angels? Is this still normative today? It at least tells us Satan had access during this particular time. We have no idea if this is normative, or if all fallen angels have this privilege. The author of Job isn’t interested in this detail, so I’m not too interested in it, either.

Why does Yahweh even mention Job to Satan (Job 1:8)? His tone sounds sarcastic and taunting – what’s His point? Satan responds with a bit of commonsense logic:

Does Job fear God for nought? Hast thou not put a hedge about him and his house and all that he has, on every side? Thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But put forth thy hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse thee to thy face (Job 1:9-11).

How many alleged “Christians” today only claim to love and worship God because their lives are comfortable? If circumstances change, what will happen to their “love” and “devotion” for the Lord? I think, for many professing Christians, Satan’s words are perfectly applicable.

Satan acknowledges Yahweh has “put a hedge about him and his house,” (Job 1:10). Is this normative? Can Christians expect God has done the very same thing to them? What does this “hedge” consist of? An angelic host of bouncers? Restraining the evil impulses of those who would do us harm? All of the above? Or, is this not a normative thing? How does the notion of “common grace” fit in, here? Does it?

The text tells us Satan can only attack Job because God permits it:

And the LORD said to Satan, ‘Behold, all that he has is in your power; only upon himself do not put forth your hand.’ So Satan went forth from the presence of the LORD (Job 1:12).

What does this tell us about God’s power, in relation to Satan’s – who is in charge? What are the implications for our lives? Does anything happen unless God specifically permits it? So, why do bad things happen to Christians? What does this say about God? What does this say about our perspective, that we would ask this question and implicitly doubt God’s holiness and goodness? Are we offended by the idea that God might intend that His people suffer through difficult times?

Is God’s goal to make our lives comfortable; or, are we supposed to serve Him in whatever way He wants us to serve? The Book of Job is one long treatise about God’s sovereignty and human suffering; this means it’s probably the most extended teaching God has given us on this subject. How should this inform how we read and understand the rest of the Bible, particularly when it comes to the issue if God’s sovereignty and the nature of evil?

In rapid succession, on the same day, all Job’s children die and all his world possessions are stolen or destroyed (Job 1:13-19). Take a moment and think about this. Think about your life, and your possessions. Really think about it, and imagine this happened to you. Then, imagine you’re Job – how would you feel? What would you be tempted to say? What would you be thinking about God? About His goodness, holiness, and righteousness? About fairness? Is He cruel for allowing you to raise ten children, only to snatch them away in an instant?

Job responds with mourning, which is to be expected (Job 1:20). However, what he says is not expected:

And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong (Job 1:21-22).

What is his point? What does Job seem to think about God’s goodness, holiness and fairness? What does he think about God’s sovereignty, and His providence?

Notes

[1] The date for Job is widely discussed, and I have no interest on weighing in on this. I believe Job lived sometime during the era of the patriarchs.

“Scholars have traditionally placed the events of this book in the patriarchal period, citing the absence of any reference to covenant or law. Two facts join to support the conclusion that the book is set before the time of Moses: Job’s service as the family priest and the lack of reference to a sanctuary. Against such an inference, we need only note that Job is not an Israelite (he is from the land of Uz, 1:1). We would therefore not expect any reference to covenant or law, priest, or temple,” (John H. Walton and Kelly Lemon Vizcaino, Job, in NIV Application Commentary [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012], 23).

Likewise, Elmer Smick concluded, “It seems likely that Job himself lived in the second millennium B.C. (2000 – 1000 B.C.) and shared a tradition not far removed from that of the Hebrew patriarchs,” (Job, in EBC, vol. 4 [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1988], 853).

Robert Alden summarized, “The facts about him, which are mainly in the first two chapters, suggest that he lived around the time of the patriarchs. His wealth was measured in cattle rather than in the precious metals of the time of Solomon. He reflected no knowledge of organized religion, Mosaic, Levitical, or otherwise. Like the patriarchs he was a priest to his own household (1:5). The only other explanation for this absence of anything from the Pentateuch in Job is that he lived outside the promised land and beyond the influence of the law of Moses. Probably both explanations are correct; that is, Job was very early and he lived in a region well outside Canaan,” (Job, in NAC, vol. 11 [Nashville, TN: B&H, 1993], 26).

A Word from David

jerusalem

How does God expect His people to live? This is an old question, but the answer isn’t any less relevant. King David asked the same thing, a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away:

Psalm 15:1 O LORD, who shall sojourn in thy tent?
Who shall dwell on thy holy hill?

His opening line is rhetorical. David knows the answer. But, the question itself is worth mulling over for a moment or two. Who can live in God’s tent? Who has a place in His house? Who has, as it were, a seat at His family dinner table? As Israelites and the Gentile proselytes came to Jerusalem three times per year, and began the climb up the “holy hill” to God’s city, who among them had an eternal home with the Lord?

David is not asking for the identity of all the people who belong to God; he wants to know what kind of people belong to God. What do God’s people act like? What motivates their heart and infuses their soul? To quote the great philosopher Jerry McGuire, what “completes” them?

At this point, the reader has to make a decision – is David explaining how a man becomes a child of God, or is he describing how a child of God will want to live? That is, is his answer prescriptive (e.g. do this, and become a child of God) or descriptive (e.g. a child of God will want to do this)?

The Scripture teaches us David is being descriptive. Man cannot earn his way to salvation, or else Christ wouldn’t have had to come in the first place (Galatians 2:21).

Psalm 15:2 He who walks blamelessly, and does what is right,
and speaks truth from his heart;

David locates the desire for righteous and holy behavior in the heart. Outward conformity is meaningless and cheap. We all know people who are frauds. They speak and act one way, but we know it’s an act – because we’ve seen the mask slip.

No; a man who belongs to God will want to walk blamelessly, and he’ll honestly try to do it. He won’t do it to earn salvation or buy favor from God; he’ll do it because he loves the Lord and wants to do what He says (Deuteronomy 6:4; Mark 12:28-30). This last bit is critical – an ungodly man can be morally upright. There are plenty of decent, “moral people” who have good manners. David isn’t talking about this.

To borrow a legal phrase, God doesn’t recognize behavior that is the fruit of a poisonous tree. A child of God will love God, and this love produces a real desire for loving obedience. A child of Satan (i.e. somebody who is not a Christian; see Ephesians 2:1-4) has no love for God, and therefore his actions don’t flow from that love. The motivations are different, therefore the moral weights of each action are different, too.

Consider this:

  • A co-worker named Cynthia knows you like Lee Child’s novels featuring Jack Reacher, so she snags an old paperback from a used bookstore and gives it to you for a birthday present.
  • Your wife gives you the same birthday present later that day, when you return home

You received presents from both women; identical presents. Which one carries more weight? The one from your wife, of course. Why? Because the relationship is clearly different. You’re in a covenant relationship with your wife; whereas Cynthia is the nice 65-yr old grandmother from work.

In a similar way, God weighs the believer’s actions differently than the unbeliever’ actions. In fact, in God’s case, the unbeliever’s actions have no moral value whatsoever, because they’re not being done out of loving obedience.

Psalm 15:3 who does not slander with his tongue,
and does no evil to his friend,
nor takes up a reproach against his neighbor;

It’s fascinating how David’s descriptive proofs for a child of God focus so much on action. There is much to be commended about a focus on internal motivation as a check against rote legalism. After all, we don’t want to be hypocrites, going through the external motions while our hearts are harder than stone.

But, David (and God!) don’t let us off so easy. The other side of the ditch is just as treacherous. It’s so easy to excuse external conformity with pious appeals to “the heart,” isn’t it? A man claims to be a Christian, but has lived like a reprobate for years. “Oh,” he says, “I love God! I want to serve Him, honest!” At some point, every Christian needs to be honest with himself – where is the fruit?

David expects there to be fruit. Period. A godly man doesn’t slander, doesn’t betray his friend and doesn’t slander and reproach his neighbor. In other words, he seeks to be holy, because God is holy (Leviticus 19:2; 1 Peter 1:14-15).

Psalm 15:4 in whose eyes a reprobate is despised,
but who honors those who fear the LORD;
who swears to his own hurt and does not change;

This bit is particularly interesting. A godly man will despise a reprobate (i.e. a vile person, a flagrant sinner). This is somebody who is nominally part of the Old Covenant community, but lives in complete rebellion against God. David says Israelites should despise this person; have contempt for him. In contrast, a godly woman will honor those who reverently fear the Lord.

What’s the purpose? It’s likely about shame. There is something to be said for peer pressure. But, doesn’t this concept go completely against our modern church culture? We prefer to love people to death, even when they deserve contempt, rebuke, or censure. In short, we’re wimps.

To be sure, David isn’t saying we should hate everybody who sins; we’re not on witch hunts for non-conformists. But, if you have somebody who (1) is a professing believer, (2) who is a reprobate; a vile and habitual rebel, and (3) he refuses to try to conform to God’s word, (4) then you need to take action – once all lesser means have failed. The man is hardened in his perversity and his rebellion is deliberate and calculated.

Part of this action is for the rest of the covenant community to have open contempt for the offender, and shower honor on those who honestly love the Lord.

Psalm 15:5 who does not put out his money at interest,
and does not take a bribe against the innocent.

He who does these things shall never be moved.

Isn’t is fascinating how sin so often revolves around money? In my experience in law enforcement and regulatory investigations, people do wrong for three reasons – money, sex and power. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Christian; these three temptations are universal. Godly people will fight against these urges; thus we have David’s warnings against shady business practices. To be sure, sometimes we’ll lose against these urges. But, the general trajectory of our personal lives should be trending towards more Christlikeness, not less.

This is a short little psalm; five whole verses. Yet, it sums up an entire theology of the Christian life. Who will dwell with the Lord, and dwell in His tent? The one who proves his love for God by concrete action. What kind of action? All kinds; but this psalm gives us a good start.

This isn’t an ethic that an unbeliever can have, because only a believer’s actions flow from his love for the Lord. This was one of Jesus’ points in the Sermon on the Mount. It’s David’s point here, too.

Leviticus . . . and the Burnt Offering

lev 1(4)The Book of Leviticus is a strange place for many Christians. They usually avoid it. It’s strange, they think. Weird. Isn’t all that Old Testament stuff over and done with, anyway? Well, as they say, “it’s complicated.”

I’m starting a short audio teaching series through the Book of Leviticus, chapter by chapter. Every teaching lesson will be stored here.

This is the first installment, on (of course) Chapter 1 – which covers the burnt offering. I know you’re excited to hear all about it. I can tell. Take a listen; hopefully this series will be a help to you – it was to me as I studied for it!

Power Over the Demons (Mark 3:7-19)

jesus boatThis article originally appeared at SharperIron.org. Reprinted by permission.

In this passage, we read that the Pharisees are seeking to kill Jesus, but the demons confess Him as the Son of God. This is a great irony of the Gospels. The leaders who ought to recognize him hate Him. The fallen angels who should hate Him bow before Him. Meanwhile, the people who should gladly receive Him ignore His message.

Power Over the Demons

Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the sea, and a great multitude from Galilee followed; also from Judea and Jerusalem and Idumea and from beyond the Jordan and from about Tyre and Sidon a great multitude, hearing all that he did, came to him (Mk 3:7-8).

After the latest confrontation, Jesus withdraws from Capernaum “to the sea.” We’re not sure where Jesus went, because Capernaum is on the Sea of Galilee. He probably went to a more secluded location along the coast, away from the city.[1] It is clear Jesus doesn’t intend to wage a full-out theological assault against the Pharisees. To borrow a military analogy, His confrontation with the Pharisees in the synagogue (3:1-6) is better seen as a strategic raid than a declaration of all-out war. More direct confrontation will only result in a premature arrest, torture and execution. The Father has a divine timetable (cf. Ecc 3:1-8), and Jesus follows it – thus He beats a tactical retreat.[2]

What a contrast between the Pharisees’ homicidal intent, and the response from the crowds. They come to Him from everywhere; Jews from Jerusalem and Judea, and Gentiles from the south, east and north.[3] They come separately, meet together and form one mass of pilgrims.[4] John the Baptist didn’t draw this many people (Mk 1:5), and only preached to Israelites (cf. Lk 3:1-17).[5] Jesus, on the other hand, indiscriminately preaches to the Gentiles and the Jews. He does not have the racist, exclusivist mindset that is so foreign to the Old Covenant Scriptures, but was so common in His day.[6] He truly was a light for the Gentiles (cf. Isa 49:6). Jesus is Jewish, but many Israelites forgot that their Jewish Messiah came to be a Messiah for all people (cf. Lk 2:29-32, Acts 13:46-48).

And he told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, lest they should crush him; for he had healed many, so that all who had diseases pressed upon him to touch him (Mk 3:9-10).

For Jesus, crowds are no indication of success. Then, as now, people often followed Jesus for selfish and unholy reasons. These crowds followed Jesus because they wanted divine healing.

Jesus, always a practical fellow, orders a boat prepared so He can flee, if necessary.[7] He’s in danger of being crushed and trampled. In a modern context, Jesus would be preaching on a street-corner in front of the open, sliding door of a minivan, the engine running, a disciple at the wheel!

Mark describes a nearly out of control mob. The scene is at once frightening and exhilarating. Jesus fears being crushed because His healing miracles have incited a frenzy. The mass of people, Jew and Gentile alike, press forward relentlessly, fighting and clamoring to get near. This is very different from the silly stereotype of gentle Jesus, meek mild, teaching the adoring masses from a landscaped hillside while He cradles a lamb in His lap.

These people don’t care what He preaches, what He says, or who He is. They’re pressing forward to touch Him, so they might be healed. He’s a rabbit’s foot, a talisman – somebody who can give them what they want.[8] Yet, it is remarkable that Jesus did not angrily send them away. He evidently healed many of them.[9]

Little has changed. Many people do not seek Christ because they want forgiveness and justification. They seek Jesus because of what He can do for Him. He’s a Cosmic Butler, who lives to serve us.

I recently listened to a sermon from a pseudo-megachurch near my home. It was blasphemy of the worst kind. The message was, “come to Jesus so He can make your life easier, give you a better job, more money and make you happy.” In this church, Jesus’ actual message, His doctrinal content and ethical commands to repent, believe and deny yourself and follow Him, are meaningless. Christ is just a prop for charlatans to hang blasphemy on.

These crowds in Mark’s Gospel are the same. His message is irrelevant to them; they just want healing.[10] The implications of that healing are lost on them (cf. Lk 7:18-23, Mk 3:22-27).

And whenever the unclean spirits beheld him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.” And he strictly ordered them not to make him known (Mk 3:11-12).

The Pharisees are plotting to kill Him. The crowds don’t care what He says. Yet, the demons give Him the glory! Many people in this crowd are demon-possessed. Whenever they see Him, they fall down and literally scream and shriek their confession.

Can you imagine the scene? This is an ongoing event. The crowds press forward, anxious to touch Jesus and be healed. In the midst of this mob, demon-possessed men, women, boys and girls alternatively scream and howl, loudly, that Jesus is the Son of God.[11] They do this whenever they catch sight of Him. In the crush of the crowd, they don’t have an unobstructed view. As they catch periodic, fleeting glimpses of the Christ, they scream their confession, despite themselves. They fall down before Him, wherever they are, and confess His identity in the most public way possible.

Demons are fallen angels. Jesus is their creator. He is their ultimate adversary, and His power over the forces of darkness is absolute. Those who have Christ as their King and God as their Lord should respect Satan as a formidable adversary indeed (cf. Jude 9), but they need not wonder how this conflict will end. Satan will lose.

Why does Jesus forbid the fallen angels to make Him known? The text doesn’t say, and a whole lot of ink (and even more kilobytes) have been spilled trying to figure it out. It is clear the true nature of Jesus as Messiah can only be appreciated in light of the Cross, the Resurrection, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the inauguration of the New Covenant. This is as good an explanation as any for why Jesus commanded the demons to be silent.[12]

Because He is God and they are not, the unclean spirits obey. What else can they do? This decisive confrontation with the forces of darkness is a prelude to perhaps the key passage about the purpose of His miracles (Mk 3:22-27).

Delegating Authority

And he went up on the mountain, and called to him those whom he desired; and they came to him. And he appointed twelve, to be with him, and to be sent out to preach and have authority to cast out demons: Simon whom he surnamed Peter; James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James, whom he surnamed Boanerges, that is, sons of thunder; Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him (Mk 3:13-19a).

After Jesus demonstrates such complete mastery over the fallen angels, He delegates this authority to His chosen disciples. They did not choose Him; He choose them.[13] This is the church in embryo form; a group of called out believers in Christ, who are sent forth by Christ, bringing His Good News indiscriminately to the wide world beyond.

Jesus appoints twelve:

  • To be with him. You cannot be a follower of Christ unless you have fellowship with Him. You cannot have fellowship with Christ unless you believe what the apostles heard, and saw with their eyes, and looked upon and touched with their hands – the truth about Jesus Christ, the word of life (1 John 1:1-4). You learn about this from the books they and others wrote, which tell you all about it (i.e. the New Testament). This implies a community of believers who learn from Christ.
  • To preach. This is the point of their community, of their training. They will be sent out to preach and proclaim the message He gives them. The kingdom of God is here! Repent, believe, and join this kingdom![14]
  • To have authority to cast out demons. The One who has such complete mastery over Satan and His minions also has the authority to delegate this power to His children. This is clearly a divine power and authority.[15] And, this power is only meant to accredit the preaching – to prove the kingdom of God has broken into this dark and evil world and vanquished that darkness.

Conclusion

Jesus is God. He has clear and obvious power over the unclean spirits (cf. Mk 1:27). He delegates and dispenses this power to His apostles, and will eventually send them forth as His representatives. The demons see and recognize Jesus’ authority. They scream, fall to the ground and confess His identity at the very sight of him. They obey His commands. They are putty in His hands.

In contrast, we see the Pharisees in Capernaum plotting their little plots. We see the crowd as a near mob of half-crazed pilgrims who seek only physical healing. His own disciples are spiritually dull; their training has only begun. Ironically, only the demons truly give Him the glory. Yet, as they do so, they testify to His divinity, and His co-equal and His co-eternal status with the Father.[16] He confirms their testimony in the most appropriate way possible – by silencing them.

We believe that there is one, and only one, living and true God, an infinite, intelligent Spirit, whose name is JEHOVAH, the Maker and Supreme Ruler of Heaven and earth; inexpressibly glorious in holiness, and worthy of all possible honor, confidence, and love; that in the unity of the Godhead there are three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; equal in every divine perfection, and executing distinct and harmonious offices in the great work of redemption.[17]

Notes

[1]  See James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, in PNTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 103. Ezra Gould also suggests Jesus sought solitude on another portion of the seashore (The Gospel According to St. Mark, in ICC [Edinburgh, UK: T&T Clark, 1896], 55).

[2] William Hendriksen observed, “We must bear in mind also that the time for the decisive head-on confrontation with the religious authorities had not as yet arrived. According to the Father’s time-clock Calvary is still some distance away. For the present therefore the seashore is better suited to the Master’s purpose than the synagogue,” (The Gospel of Mark, in NTC [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1975], 118).

James Brooks, however, suggests “probably it refers to nothing more than Jesus’ desire to extend his ministry beyond the towns and their synagogues,” (Mark, in NAC, vol. 23 [Nashville: B&H, 1991], 69–70).

[3] “Mark seems to have been suggesting that all peoples should seek Jesus and that they may be assured of acceptance. Readers and hearers of his Gospel naturally think about the later Gentile mission,” (Brooks, Mark, 70).

[4] A.B. Bruce, The Synoptic Gospels, in Expositor’s Greek Testament (London, UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 1910), 357.

[5] For an argument that the “soldiers” John addressed were Jewish, see Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1-9:50, in BECNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1994), 312-313. One need only read the Baptist’s preaching to realize this is an exclusively Jewish message, and the context of Malachi’s prophecy (3:1) makes this quite clear.

[6] Peter’s comment to Cornelius (Acts 10:27-29) reflect this blasphemous view of Gentiles. Even as a fully-illuminated and Spirit-filled Christian, Peter still struggled for a time to get rid of this baggage. So did the Jerusalem church (Acts 11).

[7] Mark Strauss suggests, “The boat may have been for escape in case the crowd crushed forward, but more likely is meant for crowd control, a kind of platform or podium to keep from being jostled,” (Mark, in ZECNT [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014], 154). I find this explanation unlikely. Jesus ordered the boat to be prepared in order that (ἵνα + subjunctive) they would not press Him (μὴ θλίβωσιν αὐτόν). The reason is to avoid the crush of the crowd.

Matthew Henry suggests this was simply a practical measure, so “that, when he had despatched the necessary business he had to do in one place, he might easily remove to another, where his presence was requisite, without pressing through the crowds of people that followed him for curiosity,” (Commentary on the Whole Bible [Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994], 1782).

[8] See especially Edwards’ discussion of crowds in Mark’s Gospel (Mark, 74-75). Each person will have to come to his own understanding of the crowds. I believe the Gospel of Mark (indeed, all the Gospels) are clear that crowds followed the Christ for unholy and selfish reasons.

[9] Matthew Henry remarked, “What abundance of good he did in his retirement. He did not withdraw to be idle, nor did he send back those who rudely crowded after him when he withdrew, but took it kindly, and gave them what they came for; for he never said to any that sought him diligently, Seek ye me in vain,” (Commentary, 1782).

[10] Again, Strauss has a positive interpretation of the crowd. “It is excitement and enthusiasm for Jesus’ healing power that is motivating the crowds,” (Mark, 154). R. Alan Cole also has a positive interpretation of the crowd (Mark, in TNTC, vol. 2 [Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP, 1989], 135-165). Similarly, Gould writes, “[T]he verb is a strong word . . . and is intended to bring before us vividly the turbulent eagerness and excitement of the crowd,” (St. Mark, 55).

Brooks suggests, “apparently the crowd sought Jesus because of his healings, not to submit themselves to the reign of God,” (Mark, 70). This reflects the wide gulf of opinions about the crowds.

[11] Some commentators suggest the demons are attempting to exercise dominion and authority over Jesus by crying out His name. See, for example, William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark, in NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 130. Strauss (Mark, 155) and Walter Wessell (Luke, in EBC, vol. 8 [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984], 641) also follow this line of interpretation.

[12] Strauss suggests the demons were not the kind of beings Jesus wanted testifying who He was. “[T]he demons are inappropriate heralds of his person and mission (cf. 1: 25). Jesus will reveal his identity in his own time and through his own words and deeds,” (Mark, 155).

This doesn’t go far enough. Jesus tells both demons and healed men to not tell anybody about Him (cf. 1:44, 5:43). The real reason must be deeper than this. One good explanation is that the true nature of the Messiah cannot be fully appreciated until after His death, burial, resurrection and ascension. He comes the first time as the suffering servant; the second time as the conquering king.

[13] “Christ calls whom he will; for he is a free Agent, and his grace is his own,” (Henry, Commentary, 1782).

[14] “The proclamation which they were to make was the coming of the kingdom of God,” (Gould, St. Mark, 57).

[15] “This showed that the power which Christ had to work these miracles was an original power; that he had it not as a Servant, but as a Son in his own house, in that he could confer it upon others, and invest them with it,” (Henry, Commentary, 1783).

[16] This is one of the implications of the title. “As the Son of God, Jesus shares the Father’s glory, power, and authority,” (Strauss, Mark, 155).

[17] 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith, Article 2.

Jesus and the Sad, Angry Little Men (Mark 3:1-6)

man with handI originally wrote this article for SharperIron.org. Reprinted with permission.

This is a sad little story, because we see sad little men rejecting their great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. They have made void the word of God through their tradition (cf. Mk 7:13). In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ early confrontations with the Pharisees come quickly, one after the other. This particular account is where the water boils over.

Mounting Opposition

First, they questioned why Jesus shares a meal with such “worldly” and “disreputable” people (2:15-17). They don’t ask Jesus; they ask His disciples (Mk 2:16). We’re not sure why the Pharisees don’t approach Jesus directly. But we can guess, knowing ourselves, that they’re a bit tentative and unsure of themselves. Perhaps, they thought, it’ll be better to take the indirect route and cast doubt on His credentials to His followers.

Jesus, ever the polite diplomat, answers immediately with a burst of sarcasm. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners,” (Mk 2:17). This is a warning shot across the bow, and it’s the first direct contact Jesus has with the Pharisees in Mark’s gospel. This is clearly an adversarial relationship from the very beginning. Jesus didn’t mince words when it came to self-righteous and blasphemous legalism. Matthew preserved another bit of the story, in which Christ verbally backhanded the Pharisees (“Go and learn what this means . . .” Mt 9:13) with a quote from Hosea 6:6.

The next episode follows right on the heels of this discussion (2:18-22). The Pharisees[1] demand to know why Jesus’ disciples don’t fast. Jesus responded and prophesied His own death (2:19-20). He then explained the Old Covenant (the old garment) cannot be patched up like an old sweater, or jerry-rigged to accommodate the New Covenant; “new wine is for fresh wineskins,” (2:22). We’re not sure how much of this the Pharisees understood, and Mark didn’t tell us. But, I doubt it was a pleasant conversation.

The final episode is the alleged Sabbath violation (2:23-28). Jesus cited a Scriptural precedent for violating the strict letter of the law under emergency circumstances (2:25-26). He then claimed a divine and Messianic title (“son of man”) and declared He was “lord even of the sabbath,” (2:28).

Mark gives us these incidents one after the other, and the reader is left almost reeling as this freight train of hostility and opposition springs forth from seemingly nowhere. This early enmity comes to a crescendo with the Pharisees storming out of the synagogue and colluding with their enemies to kill Jesus (3:6).

The Confrontation in the Synagogue

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. And they watched him, to see whether he would heal him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him (Mk 3:1-2).

Again, Mark doesn’t tell us who “they” are, but the context assures us it is the Pharisees.[2] Why is the man there? Is this a coincidence? We know the Pharisees are watching all the time,[3] waiting, their little black notebooks at the ready, cellphone cameras on standby – anxious to gather evidence against Jesus. It is tempting to see the man as a prop, a poor sucker planted there as bait. We don’t know whether that is the case. But, we do know Jesus is being set up. If the Pharisees didn’t plant the poor man there, we can be sure they were at least “pleased” he was there.

Ironically, the Pharisees deny Jesus the right to do good on the Sabbath, while they actively plot to do evil![4]

This little episode is about more than proof for Jesus’ divinity. It is about this single miracle as one of a series of signs and wonders which announced the kingdom of God to those who had ears to hear. The prophets wrote that, when God returned for His people, the blind would receive sight, the deaf would hear, the lame will leap for joy and “the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing,” (Isa 35:5-6, 10). Christ appealed to these texts as proof that He was, indeed, the Messiah who had come to bring His people into the figurative promised land of eternal rest (Lk 4:16-21; 7:18-23; cf. Heb 4:1-11).

Rather than ponder the implications of Jesus’ teaching coupled with these signs and wonders, the Pharisees lie in wait in the synagogue like impotent little spiders, weaving a pathetic web of trickery. The man with the withered hand may have been a plant, or just somebody who happened to be there, but one thing is certain – the Pharisees didn’t care about him at all. He was a prop. He was nothing. They didn’t care if Jesus did heal him; they just wanted the evidence for a trial. Like serial killers who take genuine civic pride in obeying the speed limit, these legalists have it all backward.

And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come here.” And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent (Mk 3:3-4).

Jesus knew everything (cf. Jn 2:24-25; Lk 5:6-7; Lk 6:8, etc.). He knew what the Pharisees were up to. He did not run away to fight another day. He felt discretion was no valor at all. He asked an open and rhetorical question designed to unmask their legalistic and blasphemous tradition about the Sabbath. This is the only time in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus initiates a healing without being approached. Clearly, He decided to make a decisive stand here.[5]

Nobody answered. Nobody said a word. Why not? Jesus had what we now call “command presence.” People listened to Him. He taught with authority (Mk 1:27). I suspect the Pharisees couldn’t have spoken even if they’d wanted to. Mark recorded another, similar incident later in his Gospel (Mk 12:34). They are speechless before this teacher who had such passion, such presence and such intrinsic authority.

What does Jesus mean by asking, “to save life or to kill?” Some commentators believe Jesus was referring to the Pharisees’ own intentions towards Him (cf. 3:6).[6] If that is so, no wonder they dared not answer. “While Jesus is preparing to do good, they are plotting his death! Which is the real Sabbath violation?”[7]

And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored (Mk 3:5).

This is an instantaneous healing, and a true miracle. Jesus does not appeal to God for healing; He simply performs the action Himself. This is very, very different than what the OT prophets did (cf. 1 Kgs 13:6). Jesus is a prophet, but He is as qualitatively different from His Old Covenant counterparts as a glowworm is from a floodlight. He is divine. They were not.

What about the Pharisees’ hearts upset Jesus so much? Their inability to answer His question? Their callousness by using this poor man as a prop for their own wicked ends? Their inability and unwillingness to face the implications of His own teaching and the signs and wonders He performed? Perhaps it was all of this.

The word is usually rendered as “hardness” or “stubbornness” here. Hardness implies they are spiritually insensitive (e.g. Tyndale, “blindness”). Stubbornness gives the sense of stiff-necked inflexibility; they are wilfully rebellious. The NEB translates it as “obstinate stupidity,” which is a delightfully appropriate phrase!

Yes, this miracle is more proof for Jesus’ divinity. But, that is not why Mark wrote it. His didactic purpose is to highlight the scribes’ and Pharisees’ growing opposition in the face of Jesus’ explicit preaching, teaching and divine signs. These miracles are proof that “the kingdom of God is come unto you,” (Mt 12:28). People are healed. Demons are cast out. Jesus, by the Spirit of God, has bound Satan and is plundering his house (Mk 3:27). What must this mean!?

The Pharisees don’t care what it means. They have their evidence. The healed man is irrelevant. He’s served his purpose. Away with him! They ignore him, like some men would ignore a filthy dog (cf. Jn 9:34). Jesus is all that matters; not the implications of His teaching, but the evidence for His alleged “blasphemy.”

Throughout His ministry, Jesus shows a deliberate contempt for the oral tradition which “fenced” the Old Covenant law. The Pharisees feel this is a fundamental betrayal of orthodoxy, and act in fury out of righteous indignation. They are sincere, but they are sincerely wrong. Jesus, however, is not moved by pettiness or or self-righteousness. He is filled with righteous anger.

The Pharisees went out, and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him (Mk 3:6).

The “Herodians” were widely castigated as liberal compromisers.[8] They were not devout. It says something that the Pharisees sought to form an alliance with these men – all in order to kill the Lord of glory. This is their furious response to a whole host of escalating confrontations.[9] Their blood is up. Jesus is a blasphemer who despises the traditions of the fathers. He has now violated the Sabbath twice, and they have the evidence to prove it! Jesus must be destroyed – the law demands it (Ex 31:14-17)! Surely, they reason, God agrees with their zeal . . .

They Did Not Recognize Him . . .

So, off they go, in a huff. Jesus has righteous anger, these Pharisees have self-righteous resentment.[10] The Kingdom of God has broken into human history. The proof is here – behold the signs and wonders! The Messiah is here – behold His teaching! The legalistic externalism of the Pharisees is condemned. True worship flows from the heart and is proven by devoted action (cf. 1 Sam 15:22-23).

This little miracle proves Jesus’ deity, but it is a sad account. Confronted with their Savior, the Pharisees plot His death. The Apostle Paul was right:

For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets which are read every sabbath, fulfilled these by condemning him (Acts 13:27).

Notes

[1] The Greek doesn’t specify who came to Jesus; it is simply a third-person plural verb (ἔρχονται). The closest antecedent are the scribes of the Pharisees (2:17). It is reasonable to conclude the Pharisees asked Jesus this question.

[2] See Walter W. Wessel (Mark, in EBC, vol. 8 [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984], 639) and Mark Strauss (Mark, in ZECNT [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014], 147).

[3] The verb here is imperfect (παρετήρουν αὐτὸν), which gives the general sense of an unfolding, continual action in the past. I think the NASB did well to render it as a descriptive imperfect (“they were watching Him . . .”).

[4] Mark Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, in PNTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 98.

[5] Strauss (Mark, 147).

[6] Edwards (Mark, 100) and William Hendriksen, Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1975), 116.

[7] Strauss (Mark, 148).

[8] For more on the Herodians, see H. W. Hoehner, “Herodian Dynasty,” 5, in Dictionary of the New Testament: Backgrounds, ed. Craig Evans and Stanley Porter (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000), 493-494.

[9] See William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, in NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 121-122.

[10] Hendriksen (Mark, 117).