On Divine Persons and Three-Headed Dogs

On Divine Persons and Three-Headed Dogs

This series of more academic articles are the fruit of my own study about divine Personhood in the Trinity. Eventually, I will make more popular versions for “normal” people. For those who, after reading this article, are on tenterhooks wondering what my own framework is, see this sermon I preached on Trinity Sunday 2020.

It’s not partisan to declare that social trinitarianism abandons Nicene concepts of divine Personhood.[1] It does. It adopts a completely different framework. Many non-confessional evangelicals likely adopt it unwittingly.

With one exception, the most influential social trinitarians are not widely read in evangelical circles; certainly not by the average seminary-trained pastor. They are Jurgen Moltmann,[2] Leonardo Boff,[3] Wolfhart Pannenberg,[4] Robert Jenson[5] and Millard Erickson.[6]Pannenberg’s influence is profound; Erickson, Jenson and William L. Craig each studied under him.

Is revision allowed?

First, we need to decide whether it’s possible to put a new framework on biblical truth. Millard Erickson suggests three ways to contextualize theology:[7]

  1. To transplant. You simply state the message using biblical categories, and do no contextualization at all
  2. To transform. The faith needs to be “updated” for modern times, and truth is not found in outdated doctrines.
  3. To translate. “The translators attempt to say what the Bible would say if it were being written to us in our present situation.”[8]

Erickson is a translator, and his social trinitarianism is an example of him doing just that.[9] If you believe it’s possible to re-frame theology in contemporary terms, if necessary re-working allegedly outmoded frameworks while retaining “timeless truth,”[10] then you’ll be open to accepting a re-framing of divine personhood in the Trinity.

What do these social trinitarians do with “personhood?”

A new framework

The first thing to note is a dissatisfaction with the classical understanding of Person.[11] Robert Jenson, for example, rejects divine simplicity as incoherent.[12] He dismisses Augustine’s thinking on the trinity,[13] claiming he was undone by “the old dissonance between the metaphysical principles of the Greeks and the storytelling of the Gospel.”[14] If the Persons are just active subjects of the same, identical nature, then it does not matter which Person does what. It’s irrelevant. Jenson criticizes Augustine, who admitted as much.[15] The classical doctrine has Father, Son and Spirit as the same Being, so all their actions are the same action. The Persons do not merely work together, they do the same thing. Their actions are indivisible.[16]

How, then, can we know the Persons at all!? Pannenberg observed that the idea of “person” seems to requirean individual subsistence, but this is “not compatible with the unity of divine essence.”[17]

So, social trinitarians argue, we must cast aside the straightjacket of Greek metaphysics and see the Persons as scripture sees them.[18] The answer, Jenson argues, is in the Cappadocian scheme of perichoresis and unity of action.[19] The Persons don’t perform the same action, but the same thing together. If there is no meaningful self-distinction within the Godhead, Jenson insists, then we are really speaking nonsense. We’re inventing formulas without meaning, and that makes dogma useless.[20]

What is a person?

So, we have a quest to define “person” more precisely; to put flesh on what is otherwise an alleged abstraction. Leonardo Boff is one such pilgrim.[21] Pointing to John 14:11 and 17:21, he sees divine Personhood as defined by an “I + Thou” relationship:

… a knot of relationships, an identity formed and completed on the basis of relationships with others … Interiority (consciousness in its ontological aspect) and openness to the other (freedom and ethical dimension) constitute the mode of being proper to a person.”[22]

Pannenberg explains:

If the trinitarian relations among Father, Son, and Spirit have the form of mutual self-distinction, they must be understood not merely as different modes of being of one divine subject but as living realizations of separate centers of action.[23]

The classical position, remember, sees the divine Persons as active subjects of the same nature. Consciousness, will, emotion (etc.) all each proper to a nature, not a person. The Father does not think one thing, while the Son thinks another. The Son does not will one thing, and the Spirit another. There is no individual self-consciousness. Everything is collective, because the Persons are the same Being.  

Social trinitarians say no. Each Person has his own will and self-consciousness. The old, stale view of Personhood is “merely an item of linguistic debris knocked from Hellenistic philosophy by collision with Yahweh.”[24]

“A person,” Boff declares, “is a subject existing as a centre of autonomy, gifted with consciousness and freedom.”[25] But, in the closeness of their union, they are really one:

the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are three intelligent and free subjects; but they possess the same intelligence and the same will, like a triangle with three angles but only one area. All three Persons affirm themselves as an ‘I,’ not in order to close in on themselves, but in order to give themselves to the other two. What emerges is a real psychological perichoresis.[26]

Boff explains he does not reject the classical position; he “develops and completes it.”

since there are not three consciousnesses there, but only one … At most we can say that in the Trinity there is one substantial consciousness (nature) which is really expressed by three divine, conscious beings (Persons). What we can say is that, analogically, each divine Person is a center of interiority and freedom, whose raison d’etre (nature) consists in being always in relation to the other Persons.”[27]

His contribution is that he sees a divine Person as more than a particular active subject of the divine nature; more than even a specific, unique existence of the divine nature. He emphasizes the personal, conscious, relational aspect of each to the other in the same nature through perichoresis. Jenson suggests we drop person and use the term identity; “there are three identities in God …”[28]

Jurgen Moltmann believes it is a strawman to say social trinitarians believe in a “modern” understanding of Personhood. Critics like Karl Rahner, he charges, are actually imputing a caricature of extreme individualism.[29] Instead, real “personhood” can only truly be defined as an individual in relationship with others; “the ‘I’ can only be understood stood in the light of the ‘Thou’ – that is to say, it is a concept of relation. Without the social relation there can be no personality.”[30] Pannenberg warns that, if the only way you can distinguish the Persons is by their manner of origin, then “one cannot do justice to the reciprocity in the relations.”[31]

In this way, social trinitarians have re-framed the doctrine of God. However, to Moltmann, because the classical position understands the Persons as merely active subjects of the same nature, this means God communicates only with Himself in an internal, self-dialogue. There is no “I + Thou” conversation; there is only the one subject speaking to Himself. There is no community. Interpersonal relationships with the Trinity are surrendered. Man looks to God for a communal example and can only become “turned inwards and solitary,”[32] for God speaks only to Himself, about Himself.

So, Moltmann flatly denies that the Persons are the same identical essence.

If we search for a concept of unity corresponding to the biblical testimony of the triune God, the God who unites others with himself, then we must dispense with both the concept of the one substance and the concept of the identical subject.[33]

Moltmann points to the imago dei for support. “A person is only God’s image in fellowship with other people.”[34] Many theologians, independent of this controversy, have agreed.[35] Accordingly, the Persons must relate to one another in a real “I + Thou” relationship. This means the Persons must have individual self-distinction, intelligence, consciousness and will.

Thus Erickson, the one conservative evangelical proponent of social trinitarianism, suggests the Trinity must be understood as a society of persons.[36]

In union with each other

How do social trinitarians avoid tri-theism? Through perichoresis, a doctrine first formulated in the East by the Cappadocian Fathers. The Persons are united without confusion and mutually indwell one another without any blending or mingling, without change or division. Erickson calls perichoresis the “guard against tritheism.”[37]

If God is love (1 Jn 4:8), then He must be more than one person. Love needs an object. “Thus, if there were not multiplicity in the person of the Godhead, God could not really be love prior to this creation of other subjects.”[38] Unlike human persons, however, the Trinity is incorporeal and has no spatial limitations that hinder interpersonal relations. Their union is such that there are no separate experiences and so none of the typical barriers to perfect love. Nor is there any self-centeredness.[39]

Moltmann likens this union to a “circulation of eternal divine life.”[40] He explains that “[b]y virtue of their eternal love they live in one another to such an extent, and dwell in one another to such an extent, that they are one.”[41] There is not one subject; there is only “the living fellowship of the three Persons who are related to one another and exist in one another. Their unity does not lie in the one lordship of God; it is to be found in the unity of their tri-unity.”[42] Erickson, echoing Moltmann, explains the Persons “are so intimately linked and intertwined that they are unable to live apart from one another. Each supplies life to the others. What they do, although it may be primarily the work of one of them, is done together.”[43]

He suggests we stop thinking of God as metaphysically simple and consider Him as an organism; a union.[44] In a similar fashion, Pannenberg describes God’s essence as a “single constellation.”[45] No Person can exist without the other; “[n]one has the power of life within itself alone.”[46] Boff notes, “[t]heir relationship is one of reciprocal participation rather than production and procession.”[47] This abolishes the classical doctrines of eternal generation and procession. Yet, Moltmann avers, without this “perichoretic unity, then Arianism and Sabellianism remain inescapable threats to Christian theology.”[48]

Indeed, Moltmann contends that this perichoresis of three individual centers of self-conscious Persons is the only way to make sense of salvation history.[49] All ideas of subordinationism are now gone; the concept “has no validity within the eternal circulation of the divine life.”[50] Each Person eternally brings glory to the other in this circulation.[51]

Analogies

Following the classical model, we recall that Donald Bloesch proposes the analogy of the Trinity as different dimensions of the same space; height, width and depth.[52] The dimensions, though real, are distinct aspects of the one shape. If the dimensions had independent status, you would have three shapes. But, you do not have three shapes. You have one shape with three facets.

Social trinitarians cry foul and see this as modalism by any other name. William Craig is a social trinitarian. In perhaps the very worst analogy in the history of the Church, he offers up the analogy of Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guards Hades, to explain the Trinity.[53] In a more responsible fashion, Erickson suggests the idea of the human organism consisting of heart, brain and lungs. Each is distinct, but not separable. Each depends on the other for existence. They can only exist together as a unit. They share the same life. He also proposes the analogy of Siamese twins who share the same organs. There are two, but also one.[54]

We close by returning to Erickson’s notion of “translating” doctrine. Can it be done? Donald Bloesch, independent of this issue, warns, “We can and must avail ourselves of philosophical concepts, but we must not let these concepts rule our thinking. We must always be prepared to modify them and perhaps set them aside as new light breaks forth from God’s holy word.”[55] If this be true, have social trinitarians done it here?

Barth warns that, if you have three separate objects of worship, you have three gods.[56] In denying the Persons’ numerical identity of essence (homoousia), is this what the social view hath wrought?

It is time for thinking Christians, especially pastors, to decide what “Person” means. Unfortunately, most don’t know it’s an issue. One may be right to stand in opposition to Church doctrine that is nearly 1600 years old. But, you should at least do it consciously!

A special thanks to my friend, Tito Lyro (Pastor, Bible Presbyterian Church, Olympia, WA and President of Western Reformed Seminary, Lakewood, WA) for reviewing this article!


[1] Robert Letham declares, “The idea of social Trinitarianism is alien to the classic doctrine, for which the unity and indivisibility of the Trinity, together with the inseparable works of God, are axiomatic,” (The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship, revised ed. [Phillipsburg: P&R, 2019; Kindle ed.], KL 386).

[2] Jurgen Moltmann, Trinity and the Kingdom, trans. Margaret Kohl (reprint; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993; Kindle ed.). 

[3] Leonardo Boff, Trinity and Society, trans. Paul Burns (reprint; Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2005).  

[4] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, trans. Geoffrey Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991).

[5] See both The Triune Identity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1982) and Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997). 

[6] Millard J. Erickson, God in Three Persons: A Contemporary Interpretation of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995). Erickson did postdoctoral studies under Pannenberg and dedicated his Christian Theology (in part) to him.

[7] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013; Kindle ed.) KL 1681-1842. 

[8] Erickson, Christian Theology, KL 1771.

[9] In addition to Erickson’s God in Three Persons, see his other two monographs on Theology Proper and Christology in which he goes his own way on a number of issues; (1) God the Father Almighty: A Contemporary Exploration of the Divine Attributes (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998; Kindle ed.), and (2) The Word Became Flesh (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991). 

[10] “… the really crucial task of theology will be to identify the timeless truths, the essence of the doctrines, and to separate them from the temporal form in which they were expressed, so that a new form may be created,” (Erickson, Christian Theology, KL 1842).

[11] Robert Jenson believes that, had the gospel been birthed in a culture other than one steeped in Greek thought, then the Church would have used a different framework for understanding God. “The fathers did not, as is still often supposed, hellenize the evangel; they labored to evangelize their own antecedent Hellenism, and succeeded remarkably if not fully,” (Systematic, 90). 

[12] Jenson, Systematic, 110-114. 

[13] “Augustine imported Eastern doctrine, interpreted it according to his lights, and passed on the result … he was mostly blind to Athanasius’ and the Cappadocians’ specific achievement, and where he saw it he rejected it,” (Jenson, Systematic, 110-111). 

[14] Jenson, Systematic, 112. 

[15] Jenson, Systematic, 111.

[16] Augustine, “On the Trinity,” 15.5, in NPNF1, 14 vols. (Buffalo: Christian Literature Company, 1887), vol. 1.3. “He who is sent is not therefore less than He who sends because the one sent, the other was sent; since the Trinity, which is in all things equal, being also equally in its own nature unchangeable, and invisible, and everywhere present, works indivisibly.” Emphasis added.

[17] Pannenberg, Systematic, 1:286. 

[18] “To find a basis for the doctrine of the Trinity we must begin with the way in which Father, Son, and Spirit come on the scene and relate to one another in the event of relevation,” (Pannenberg, Systematic, 1:299). 

[19] Robert Letham has a good initial definition but, as a classical trinitarian, he shows his cards in his description: “The mutual indwelling of the three persons of the Trinity in the one being of God. In social Trinitarianism, the word is used in a quite different way, to claim that the three hypostases are like three human persons engaged in a dance around one another, a development hinting at tritheism,” (Holy Trinity, KL 11553). It is not an accident that theologians allow no wiggle-room on the issue of divine Personhood; it goes to the heart of who God is.

[20] Jenson, Systematic, 113. 

[21] Boff, Trinity and Society, 118ff. 

[22] Boff, Trinity and Society, 89. 

[23] Pannenberg, Systematic, 1:319. 

[24] Jenson, Triune Identity, 108. 

[25] Boff, Trinity and Society, 115.

[26] Boff, Trinity and Society, 116. 

[27] Boff, Trinity and Society, 89. 

[28] Jenson, Triune Identity, 111. 

[29] “What Rahner calls `our secular use of the word person’ has nothing in common with modern thinking about the concept of persons. What he describes is actually extreme individualism: everyone is a self-possessing, self-disposing centre of action which sets itself apart from other persons,” (Jurgen Moltmann, Trinity and the Kingdom KL 2133-2134).

[30] Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2135-2136.

[31] Pannenberg, Systematic, 1:319.

[32] Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2290.        

[33] Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2199-2200. 

[34] Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2277.

[35] Robert Reymond quotes Charles Hodge approvingly, who believed the imago dei consisted in both knowledge of God and moral rectitude toward one’s neighbor. The fall ruined both our vertical relationship with God and our horizontal relationship with our neighbors (A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, revised ed. [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998], 429). To be in the image of God includes the concept of relationship.

Erickson takes a structural view and explains that God made us a certain way in order to fulfill the relationships He meant us to have. “Humanity qua humanity has a nature encompassing all that constitutes personality or selfhood: intelligence, will, emotions. This is the image in which humans were created, enabling them to have the divinely intended relationship to God and to fellow humans, and to exercise dominion,” (Christian Theology, KL 10321).

[36] Erickson, God in Three Persons, 221ff. 

[37] Erickson, God in Three Persons, 228-238. 

[38] Erickson, God in Three Persons, 221. 

[39] Erickson, God in Three Persons, 223-225. 

[40] Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2548. 

[41] Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2547-2548. 

[42] Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2558-2560. 

[43] Erickson, God in Three Persons, 234-235. 

[44] Erickson, God in Three Persons, 231, 264. 

[45] Pannenberg, Systematic, 1:359. 

[46] Erickson, God in Three Persons, 264. 

[47] Boff, Trinity and Society, 145; see 145-147. 

[48] Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2208-2211. 

[49] “For this trinitarian history is nothing other than the eternal perichoresis of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in their dispensation of salvation, which is to say in their opening of themselves for the reception and unification of the whole creation. The history of salvation is the history of the eternally living, triune God who draws us into and includes us in his eternal triune life with all the fullness of its relationships. It is the love story of the God whose very life is the eternal process of engendering, responding and blissful love. God loves the world with the very same love which he is in himself,” (Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2300-2303).

[50] Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2562. 

[51] Moltmann, Trinity and Kingdom, KL 2567-2568. “The Persons of the Trinity make one another shine through that glory, mutually and together. They glow into perfect form through one another and awake to perfected beauty in one another.”

[52] Donald Bloesch, God the Almighty (Downers Grove: IVP, 1995), 186. 

[53] William L. Craig and J.P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove: IVP, 2003), 593. 

[54] Erickson, God in Three Persons, 233-234. 

[55] Bloesch, God the Almighty, 35. 

[56] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 1.1, trans. G. W. Bromiley, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975), 349.

Modalism Redux? The Concept of “Personhood” in Classical Trinitarianism

Modalism Redux? The Concept of “Personhood” in Classical Trinitarianism

This series of more academic articles are the fruit of my own study about divine Personhood in the Trinity. Eventually, I will make more popular versions for “normal” people. For those who, after reading this article, are on tenterhooks wondering what my own framework is, see this sermon I preached on Trinity Sunday 2020.

The doctrine of the Trinity tells us there is “One Being, three Persons.” Of course, it’s more complicated than all that, but we’ll leave it there. In this definition, what is a “person?” That’s a hard question. Two main views are common today; the classical model and the social model. The Church has traditionally held to the classical view. However, if you ask the right questions, you’ll likely find most Christians actually believe in the social model.

Why does this matter? Well, because it’s probably the most practical question you can ask about the Trinity! If the Scriptures show us three Persons who relate to one another in the Gospels, it’s important to know what “Person” means. If you hear “Person” and think of an autonomous individual with his own self-consciousness and will, then you don’t believe in the classical view, you’re at odds with all the great creeds of the Church, and you’ve abandoned the Nicene and post-Nicene understanding of God. Depending on who you ask, you may be a heretic.

Are you interested, now? 

Classical view of personhood

The Church has done most of the heavy lifting about divine Personhood in the context of Christology, so we ought to begin there. That first Christmas, the divine Son added a human nature to His divine nature. That’s why we confess that Jesus is one divine Person with two natures.[1]

How does this help us? It helps us by defining the terms “person” and “nature.” The latter is the seat of the will, mind, emotion and self-consciousness. The former is the active subject or owner of a nature. Think of a “person” as the engine that actuates a nature. The nature gives shape and color to a person, who is simply the active subject who animates or gives life to the nature.[2]

This is why, for example, the Church believes Jesus has two wills; because “will” belongs to a nature.[3] Jesus the Person acts in accordance with the will of either nature. Most Christians aren’t used to this kind of metaphysical thinking, but there it is. I won’t explain the long and difficult road the Church traveled to reach these conclusions from Scripture; a good historical theology text can do that for me.[4]

If this definition of “Person” is sound, and we have the host of Christological creeds to assure us that it is, then we know a “Person” is simply the active subject of a nature. But, God is “One Being, three Persons.” So, now we have a metaphysical conundrum. Because they’re “Persons,” are Father, Son and Spirit different active subjects of the same divine nature?

The classical position says they are.

The Church says Father, Son and Spirit share the same substance, nature or being. The Nicaean Creed says Christ is “of one substance [essence] with the Father.”[5] But, here’s the catch; the Church doesn’t understand this to mean that Father, Son and Spirit share the same category of class of “deity.” I’m a human being. You’re a human being. So, we’re each human. We share the attribute of “humanhood.”

That’s not what the Church believes about the Father and the Son.

The Church believes Father and Son are the same Being, and thus have the same essence, energy and concord of mind. They are, quite literally, identical (“I do not say similar, but identical”) and so these three Persons “have one and the same movement.”[6]

This distinction, that Christ was not a similar essence but literally the same essence as the Father, was the flashpoint for decades of bitter theological combat.[7] It’s the basis for every orthodox Church creed of any denominational flavor. We’ve already seen Nicaea. Here are a few more:

  • 1647 Westminster Confession; 2.3: “In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance …”[8]
  • 1561 Belgic Confession; Article 8: “we believe in one only God, who is one single essence, in which are three persons …”[9]
  • 1530 Augsburg Confession, Article 1: “there is one divine essence which is called and is God, eternal, without body, indivisible …”[10]
  • 39 Articles of the Church of England, Article 1: “in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance …”[11]

God is not divisible. God is One. This is why you’ve likely heard your pastor say that each Person is fully God in and of Himself. The Son is not 1/3 God, etc. In a way that’s beyond understanding, each Person is fully God because each Person is the same, identical essence. In the words of these same creeds, God is simple or indivisible.

Long ago, Augustine explained “the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit intimate a divine unity of one and the same substance in an indivisible equality; and therefore that they are not three Gods, but one God.”[12] There has always been one God. And, the Son isn’t a creature. This means, by default, He must be of the same numerical substance with the Father.[13]

Words basically fail us at this point as we seek to express the inexpressible. Augustine famously said that we use these terms because we don’t know what else to say![14] John of Damascus lamented that these things are “dimly understood,” but advised “we cannot do else than express ourselves according to our limited capacity.”[15] R.C. Sproul, commenting on the excerpt from the Westminster Confession we saw above, explained:

The subsistences, or persons, are more than offices, more than modes, more than activities, more than masks, and more than ways of appearing. The church historically has said that we do not understand how God is three in one. But we do understand that He is not three gods, and that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all divine.”[16]

How to tell ‘em apart?

It’s clear the main conceptual problem is how to distinguish the Persons if they are, in fact, the same Being. The Church has done this by highlighting incommunicable, unique characteristics each Person has that the others do not. John of Damascus explains:

For in these hypostatic or personal properties alone do the three holy subsistences differ from each other, being indivisibly divided not by essence but by the distinguishing mark of their proper and peculiar subsistence.[17]

These distinctions are:[18]

  • Paternity. The Father begat the Son.
  • Sonship. The Son is eternally begotten in an incorporeal, non-physical (“begotten, not made”[19]) and timeless manner (“begotten of the Father before all worlds”[20]) in a way we can’t ever understand. But, this does not imply that the Son is somehow not equal to the Father, that there was ever a time He didn’t exist, or that the Son was created.
  • Procession. The Holy Spirit is sent forth from both the Father and the Son.

How can you distinguish the Persons, then? By these unique characteristics. The Son doesn’t beget; the Father does. The Spirit isn’t begotten; the Son is. The Father doesn’t eternally proceed from the Spirit; the reverse is true. This is how the classical position avoids the charge of modalism.[21]

Robert Letham, perhaps the current dean of Reformed scholarship regarding the Trinity, calls the principles of identity of nature + personal distinctions “the heart of the doctrine of the Trinity.”[22] This is why those same creeds each speak of eternal generation and procession. However, theologians have long struggled to explain these doctrines. John of Damascus admitted they are “quite beyond comprehension,” and could not explain the functional difference between the two concepts.[23] Gregory of Nazianzus built a polemical fence more around what the doctrines are not, rather than what they are.[24]

These doctrines have been criticized by numerous 20th century evangelicals,[25] and it’s likely many non-confessional seminary students and graduates don’t understand them and can’t coherently explain them. It’s telling that the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message[26] and the GARBC Articles of Faith[27] do not mention eternal generation and procession at all. It’s as if the doctrines don’t exist.

The fruit of this negligence, in the eyes of the classical advocates, is that many conservative pastors and seminary graduates don’t understand the Trinity at all. They likely don’t appreciate that homoousia (“same substance”) means identity of essence, and that eternal generation and procession are the linchpins holding the doctrine of the Trinity together. They likely assume a modern version of “personhood.”

Lewis S. Chafer epitomizes this tendency. He explains the Persons act as agent and object to one another and “exhibit intelligence, consciousness, and moral agency.”[28] If Christology tells us that self-consciousness and moral agency are attributes of nature (and it does), then Chafer is quite wrong. This is why, in the eyes of some classical trinitarians, many evangelicals are functional tri-theists. Perhaps it’s not a stretch to suggest that, to classical eyes, many ordinary Christians are functional modalists and too many pastors are unwitting tri-theists.

The 20th century has seen an explosion of interest in the doctrine of the Trinity. That’s why it’s no surprise this past century saw some re-considerations of classical trinitarianism. The idea Father, Son and Spirit were merely active subjects or subsistences of the same exact Being seemed abstract and stale; like a flat Diet Coke. Does that sum up the Gospels? Does it sum up Jesus? When we worship Jesus, are we worshipping a “distinct manner of subsisting?”[29] Is that all there is?

When we read the Gospels, there’s a relentless urge to see the Persons as real individuals with their own self-consciousness, will and intelligence. But, remember, this is not what “same substance” means at all! It means an identical sameness of Being. For if you have three independent centers of consciousness and volition with the Godhead, you have tri-theism. Thus, you have heresy.

Donald Bloesch offers perhaps the best analogy for the classical model. “I prefer to speak of one space with three dimensions – height, length and depth.”[30] This is why two evangelical theologians have dismissed the classical model because “it seems to reduce to classical modalism.”[31]

Some theologians, Emil Brunner in particular, believe it’s dangerous to probe into this metaphysical abyss. It’s “a temptation for the intellect,” he warned, “to which we ought not to give way.” For it is impossible, Brunner believed, to understand “three persons” otherwise than in a tri-theistic sense.[32] To him, it’s a fool’s errand.

We may order people to think thus: ‘Thou shalt think these Three Persons as One,’ but it is no use: there still remains an uncertain vacillation between Tritheism and Monotheism. Not only the idea of ‘substance,’ but also this idea of ‘Person,’ was much too wooden to express the mystery of the unity of the Revealer and what was revealed.[33]

Thomas Watson warned that the Trinity is a mystery, “but where reason cannot wade, there faith may swim.”[34] Nonetheless, some Christians are content to continue wading. So, what do social trinitarians have to offer in return? We turn to that in the next article.

A special thanks to my friend, Tito Lyro (Pastor, Bible Presbyterian Church, Olympia, WA and President of Western Reformed Seminary, Lakewood, WA) for reviewing this article!


[1] As the Chalcedonian Creed says, “… the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence …” (Philip Schaff, ed. The Creeds of Christendom, 3 vols. [New York: Harper & Brothers, 1890], 2:63).

[2] For a great discussion of these concepts in relation to Christology, see especially Stephen Wellum, God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 424ff. 

[3] See the decrees from the Third Council of Constantinople (680-681) in Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, 2 vols., ed. Norman J. Tanner, S.J. (Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1990), 1:124-130. 

[4] There are a number from which to choose. See (1) David Beale, Historical Theology In-Depth, 2 vols. (Greenville: BJU Press, 2013), 1:207-333; (2) Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition: 100-600 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1971), 226-277; (3) J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, revised ed. (New York: Harper One, 1978), and (4) Kenneth S. Latourette, A History of Christianity: Volume 1: Beginnings to 1500, revised ed. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1975).

[5] Schaff, Creeds, 2:59.

[6] John of Damascus, “An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith,” 1.8, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. S. D. F. Salmond, in NPNF2, 14 vols. (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1899), vol. 2.9. 

[7] J.N.D. Kelly argues convincingly that Nicea didn’t intend the phrase to mean Father and Son were identical. He believes they meant they shared the same category, like you and I do as human beings (Early Doctrines, 233-237). He argues the homoousia was a later development that was read back in. However, Kelly agrees that orthodoxy requires homoousia because of God’s simplicity.

[8] Schaff, Creeds, 3:607-608

[9] Schaff, Creeds, 3:390.

[10] Schaff, Creeds, 3:7. 

[11] Schaff, Creeds, 3:488.

[12] Augustine, “On the Trinity,” 1.7, in NPNF1, 14 vols. (Buffalo: Christian Literature Company, 1887), vol. 1.3.

[13] Augustine, “Trinity,” 1.9. 

[14] Augustine, “Trinity,” 7.7. 

[15] John of Damascus, “Orthodox Faith,” 1.2.

[16] R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess: A Systematic Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith, revised ed. (Sanford: Reformation Trust, 2019; Kindle ed.), KL 1262. Emphasis added.

[17] John of Damascus, “Orthodox Faith,” 2.8.  

[18] For the sake of my sanity and yours, I’m using the Western interpretation of the Holy Spirit’s procession and I won’t dare to discuss the filioque controversy. 

[19] See the Nicean-Constantinople Creed of 381 (Schaaf, Creeds, 58). 

[20] Ibid.

[21] Thomas Aquinas observed, “the Father is denominated only from paternity; and the Son only from filiation. Therefore, if no real paternity or filiation existed in God, it would follow that God is not really Father or Son, but only in our manner of understanding; and this is the Sabellian heresy,” (Summa Theologica, Q28, Art. 1, Obj. 4).

[22] Robert Letham, Systematic Theology (Crossway: Wheaton, 2019), 120.

[23] John of Damascus, “Orthodox Faith,” 1.8; “… there is a difference between generation and procession, but the nature of that difference we in no wise understand.”

[24] Gregory of Nazianzus, “Orations 29 and 30,” in On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius (Yonkers: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002).

[25] John Feinberg, for example, says, “Despite their firm entrenchment in both Western and Eastern traditions, the doctrines of eternal generation and eternal procession are unclear and are not required by Scripture,” (No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God [Wheaton: Crossway, 2001; Kindle ed.], KL 11901).

For a critical look at the historical development of the doctrine of eternal generation, see Beale, Historical Theology, 2:142-170.

Millard Erickson noted, “It must be acknowledged that for many persons today, the doctrine does not seem to make much sense. Just what does it mean to say that the Father eternally generates the Son, yet that the Son is not therefore inferior to the Father? How can the Father be the basis of the Son’s being but without this constituting some species of creation of the latter by the former? It may well be that the difficulty of making sense of this concept today is because in our time we are working within a different philosophical framework than that which these earlier theologians were utilizing,” (Who’s Tampering with the Trinity?: An Assessment of the Subordination Debate [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2009; Kindle ed.], KL 1874-1878).

See also (1) J. Oliver Buswell, A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1962), 1:110-112; (2) Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), Appendix 6; (3) Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology (Chicago: Moody, 1999), 62, and (4) William L. Craig and J.P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove: IVP, 2003), 594.

[26] See http://www.sbc.net/bfm2000/bfm2000.asp

[27] See https://www.garbc.org/about-us/beliefs-constitution/articles-of-faith/.

[28] Lewis S. Chafer, Systematic Theology, 8 vols. (reprint; Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1976), 2:293.

[29] Karl Rahner, The Trinity, trans. Joseph Donceel (New York: Herder & Herder, 1970), 110f. 

[30] Donald Bloesch, God the Almighty (Downers Grove: IVP, 1995), 186. 

[31] Craig and Moreland, Philosophical Foundations, 587. 

[32] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God, trans. Olive Wyon (London: Lutterworth, 1949), 227.

[33] Brunner, Doctrine of God, 239. 

[34] Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (reprint; Birmingham: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2016), 78. 

Thoughts About the Trinity

The doctrine of the Trinity is hard to teach, because there are so many ancient heresies to guard against and because, well … it’s complicated. But, the Scriptures present God as triune. That means we need to teach about Him. We need to teach Christians to know Him and love Him as He is; and He’s triune.

I’ve spent a lot of time reading about the doctrine of the Trinity; probably more than most pastors. That, and Christology, are my own hobby horses. Some people find joy in making complicated end-times charts. Others find fulfillment in being a Baptist fundamentalist. Still other Christians find their religious self-identity in a particular view of the doctrine of salvation. I like to study about who God is, and how He’s revealed Himself.

I just finished Millard Erickson’s God in Three Persons: A Contemporary Interpretation of the Trinity. It’s a very good book, but probably not the most engaging thing for the “average” Christian to read. It presupposes a lot of theological training. Erickson’s book is one of the most helpful works on the Trinity I’ve read. On balance, I’d say Carl Beckwith’s The Holy Trinity may have had a more formative influence on me, but this might be because I read it first. Beckwith is a good Lutheran, and Erickson is a irenic conservative Baptist, but they’ve both produced very fine works on this most important of doctrines.

As I think on the doctrine now, here is a non-exhaustive list of things (in no particular order) I think need to be emphasized if one wishes to teach the Trinity in a comprehensive way.

1: The “three foundations” James White mentioned in his excellent book The Forgotten Trinity

  • Monotheism; there is only one God
  • There are three divine persons
  • Each person is co-equal and co-eternal

I think the best way to do this is to walk through several passages of Scripture that support each foundation. The trick is to be comprehensive without being exhaustive.

2: The definitions of “Being” and “Person”

Both these terms have baggage, and were fought over during the Christological controversies of the 4th and 5th centuries. We need to consider how the great creeds seem to use these terms, but we shouldn’t be slaves to, for example, 4th century expressions of theological categories. In other words, just because the 4th century creeds may not have intended to convey a more modern concept of “personhood” which includes self-consciousness, this does not mean this modern definition of “personhood” is wrong!

The terms “being” and “person” are good; but their proper definitions must always comport with Scripture. I am concerned with a kind of rote confessionalism that encourages an almost slavish devotion to old formulations of eternal doctrine. This isn’t a call to jettison historical theology; it’s simply a call to not be a slave to it.

3: The Trinity as a society of persons

This is Erickson’s term, and I like it. He wrote, “The Godhead is a complex of persons. Love exists within the Godhead as a binding relationship of each of the persons to each of the others,” (221). He explained:

… the fundamental characteristic of the universe is personal … The supreme person is indeed a person, with identity, thought, will and personality, with whom it is possible to have a relationship, conscious to both parties. This supreme being, however, was not content to remain solitary. He acted to create reality external to himself. This involved the creation of the material universe and all physical objects within it. It also involved bringing into existence other selves besides himself. These persons, to a large extent, exist for relationship with the creating and originating God. If, then, the most significant members of the creation are persons in relationship, then reality is primarily social. This means that the most powerful binding force in the universe is love.

Erickson, God in Three Persons, 220-221.

This is good, but I think he could have brought more of the holiness attribute into play. God’s love is defined by His holiness. It doesn’t exist apart from it. I buy that God didn’t have to create creation (and, particularly, human beings), so clearly He desired worship and social interaction, so clearly He is social.

But, is “love” the best way to get this across? Probably. I struggle to express this without having to toss in caveats about how this isn’t narcissism on God’s part. He didn’t want us because of who we are; He wants us to worship Him because of who He is. In other words, we aren’t doing God any favors by being believers! God isn’t a harried middle-manager who’s “so happy to have us on the team,” so to speak.

4: Perichoresis as the guard against tritheism

I never heard about this doctrine at seminary; or, at least, I don’t remember. I first came across it in Carl Beckwith’s volume. Erickson echoes it here. Briefly, Erickson explains, “[p]erichoresis means that not only do the three members of the Trinity interpenetrate one another, but all three are intimately involved in all the works of God,” (235).

This is perhaps most clearly seen in Jesus’ promise about the coming of the Spirit, in John 14-16. In a recent sermon on that same passage, I described this interpenetration as an eternal, divine union between Persons. I was happy to see Erickson echo my own thoughts and state, “[t]he Godhead is to be thought of as less as a unity, in the sense of oneness of simplicity, than as a union, involving three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” (264).

The generic, conservative expressions of the Trinity (even in some theological texts) is often a functional tritheism. This doctrine of perichoresis was revolutionary to my own thinking, and I think it’s rightly the key to avoiding the charge of tritheism.

5: Analogies can be useful

There are lots of really bad Trinity analogies. Some theologians believe we should cast aside all attempts to make analogies, because they each inevitably fall short. Erickson disagrees, and sees them as useful symbols for pointing to a larger reality. Erickson explains:

It is simply not possible to explain it [the doctrine of the Trinity]unequivocally. What must be done is to offer a series, a whole assortment of illustrations and analogies, with the hope that some discernment will take place. We must approach the matter from various angles, ‘nibbling at the meaning’ of the doctrine, as it were.

Erickson, God in Three Persons, 268.

What I’ve taken away from this is that some analogies are useful to get at different aspects of the doctrine of the Trinity.

  • for the idea of a composite union forming one entity, Erickson suggests the analogy of the brain, the heart and the lungs forming distinct but integral parts of a human body. Each is quite useless on its own, and by itself each could never be called “human.” But, combined together, we have a human being. Thus it is with the Persons of the Trinity; they do not exist and have never existed without each other. They are more than the sum of their parts.
  • for the concept of interpenetration as closeness of relationship, Erickson suggests a marriage.

6: There is no eternal subordination of function or nature

Most conservative evangelical pastors are taught that there is an eternal subordination of function in the Godhead. That is, Father, Son and Spirit are equal in power, glory, honor (etc.), but they have different roles in accordance with their functions. The Father is always “in charge,” as it were, because He has a particular role to play. This is why the Son always obeys the Father, etc.

Advocates for this position often reach to the analogy of complementarian marriage; men and women are equal before God, but the husband is in charge because he’s been assigned a superior role. There is equality in essence, but subordination in function.

I couldn’t agree less. I think this idea, variously called eternal functional subordination (EFS) or eternal subordination of the son (ESS), is terribly misguided. I disagree with EFS wholeheartedly. I’ve read Bruce Ware’s Father, Son and Holy Spirit (EFS) and I’ve read Erickson’s book against EFS. As far as I’m aware, only Erickson, Kevin Giles and D. Glenn Butner have written book-length works against EFS – the rest of the generically conservative evangelical folks seem to tilt towards EFS.

The issue of eternal generation is tied up with EFS; it’s advocates generally don’t hold to eternal generation. Interestingly, Erickson opposes EFS and dislikes eternal generation. J. Oliver Buswell Jr., who didn’t address the issue (‘cuz it wasn’t an issue in his day), presents Christ’s functional subordination as temporary and strongly suggests we get rid of eternal generation altogether. David Beale, a theologian and historian much closer to home, dedicated perhaps 30 pages of his historical theology to arguing against eternal generation. 

Speaking for myself, I don’t understand eternal generation and have never read an account by a theologian who seemed to understand it, either (including Beckwith, who is otherwise excellent). I think Shedd came close, but I forgot his reasoning one day after reading it – it’s very convoluted. It smacks of some kind of ontological subordination to me, no matter which way you slice it – and it doesn’t seem tied to the text.

Erickson writes:

I would propose that there are no references to the Father begetting the Son or the Father (and the Son) sending the Spirit that cannot be understood in terms of the temporal role assumed by the second and third persons of the Trinity, respectively. They do not indicate any intrinsic relationship among the three. Further, to speak of one of the persons as unoriginate and the others as eternally begotten or proceeding from the Father is to introduce an element of causation or origination that must ultimately involve some kind of subordination among them …

There is no permanent distinction of one from the others in terms of origination. While the Father may be the cause of the existence of the Son and the Spirit, they are also mutually the cause of his existence and the existence of one another. There is an eternal symmetry of all three persons.

Erickson, God in Three Persons, 309-310.

Erickson unpacked this at great length in his book examining EFS, Who’s Tampering With the Trinity, which I recently read and agreed with.

Now what?

I want to teach the Trinity in church one day, unpacking these concepts in a way average, ordinary Christians can understand. These concepts, mentioned briefly above, will likely form the backbone of what this teaching series will eventually look like. The problem, again, is how to be comprehensive without being exhaustive. I don’t think I can do that, right now.

So, for now, I nibble around the edges a bit, emphasizing what I can as the text suggests it. Right now, I preach a sermon on either the Trinity, or Father, Son and Spirit each time we observe the Lord’s Supper, which is monthly. In this manner, I’ll likely cover all of this eventually but I’d like to bring it all together in two sermon or two, one day. I don’t know if I can do that!

But, I can at least say that I’ve read (and continue to read) widely on the subject, and I’ve gotten to a point where I can accurately sketch out where I need to go. The latest three watershed revelations for me are that (1) the concept of perichoresis is extraordinarily helpful and biblical, (2) EFS is quite dangerous, and (3) the doctrines of eternal generation and the Spirit’s procession (i.e. some sort of taxis with the Godhead) are likely extra-biblical and can be dropped.

I plan to order Erickson’s book on God’s attributes, and his tome on the incarnation soon. It may not come as a great surprise that Erickson is my favorite theologian! I need to read Beckwith’s book again, and I plan to see what Moltmann and Brunner have to say about the Trinity, too. I also need to delve into the patristic authors more. There’s always more to read, but it’s always fun.

The Isaiah Connection (Mark 7:31-37)

isa 35 (5-6)The New Testament is soaked in the glorious experiences and expectations of the Old Covenant scriptures. This is clear in Mark 7:31-37, where the entire passage hinges on understanding the miracle account in the context of the Old Covenant promises.

The prophets often warned Israelites to turn from their sins and return to serve Him with their whole hearts. Yet, Yahweh knew many wouldn’t listen; “they are a rebellious people, lying sons, sons who will not hear the instruction of the LORD,” (Isa 30:9). God often juxtaposed these warnings of certain judgment for rebellion with promises of His future blessing, despite their wickedness. Here, I’ll briefly journey from Isaiah 32:1 – 35:10, to provide Messianic context for the miracle account from the Gospel of Mark (7:31 – 37). This context will help us appreciate the trinitarian implications of Jesus’ actions.

A vision of the kingdom

Isaiah promised, “a king will reign in righteousness, and princes will rule in justice,” (Isa 32:1). These leaders, particularly the king, would be a true shelter in the time of storm for the Israelites (Isa 32:2). Eyes and ears will be opened (Isa 32:3-4), and the upside down moral value judgments of corrupt men will finally be set right; “the fool will no more be called noble, nor the knave said to be honorable,” (Isa 32:5).

But, that’s all far in the future. For the moment, the women of Israel should cry and plan for the worst, because Jerusalem will be made a wasteland in the meantime (Isa 32:9-14). What will be the trigger for this glorious renewal? When will it happen? When will God’s curse be lifted from His people? Isaiah answers; “until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high,” (Isa 32:15). Then the national blessings will flow (Isa 32:15). Then justice and righteousness will flow from the very wilderness and the fruitful fields, “and the effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust for ever. My people will abide in a peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places,” (Isa 32:17-18).

This king will be the promised Messiah, and the Spirit will be poured out in the blessings of the New Covenant (cf. Mk 1:8) during the king’s reign, when Yahweh Himself will return to Zion (cf. Zech 8). Isaiah explains that it’s Yahweh (“the LORD”) who will be exalted in that day, who “will fill Zion with justice and righteousness,” (Isa 33:5). The king and Yahweh are both distinct from one another and united together (cp. Isa 32:1, 33:5). And, the treasure they’ll both bring to the world is “abundance of salvation, wisdom, knowledge [and] the fear of the Lord,” (Isa 33:6).

Again, the evil order will be overthrown, and things will be set right (Isa 33:13-16)! Yahweh tells the people, “your eyes will see the king in his beauty,” (Isa 33:17; another distinction between Divine Persons), and they’ll never see their oppressors again (Isa 33:18-19). Why? “For the LORD is our judge, the LORD is our ruler, the LORD is our king; he will save us,” (Isa 33:22; note that now Yahweh is King)!

The nations will be destroyed, “for the LORD is enraged against all the nations, and furious against all their host,” (Isa 34:2). They’ll be annihilated, and God will gather His people by His Spirit back to their home (Isa 34:16). National blessings will follow, and God encourages the Israelites, “Be strong, fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you,” (Isa 35:4).

And, when all this happens, what will it look like? What will the Messiah’s reign over the whole world be characterized by? Isaiah tells us, in this all-important passage (Isa 35:5-10):

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a hart,
and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

And a highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not pass over it,
and fools shall not err therein.
No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

These promises are like glittering diamonds, shining bright with glory. The curse of the fall will be removed (or severely curtailed) for God’s people, God’s world and God’s city. There will be a highway of holiness leading to the celestial city, and Yahweh’s people will come to Him singing salvation’s song and praising Him all the day long! These are Messianic markers, signs that the promised Kingdom of God has come. These are the very signs Jesus showed a preview of during His ministry in general, and this miracle story in particular (Mk 7:31 – 37).

The man from gentile country

This miracle account is one specific incident from the general situation Matthew summarized in his own story (see Mt 15:29-31).1 Jesus has left the region of Tyre and Sidon (cf. Mk 7:24) and taken a meandering route back to the region of Decapolis near the Sea of Galilee (Mk 7:31). He’s been here before, when He healed the demoniac and sent him back to tell his Gentile friends about the Gospel (cf. Mk 5:1-20). That missionary assignment clearly had some impact, because “they brought to him a man who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech; and they besought him to lay his hand upon him,” (Mk 7:32).2 Perhaps the former demoniac was there, that day!

Notice this poor man was deaf and couldn’t speak. These problems are representative of the curse of the fall which Isaiah promised the Messiah would reverse, once for all. They wanted Jesus to “lay his hand upon them,” but He chose a different way.3 Jesus took the man aside privately and mimed what He was about to do. Commentators have speculated endlessly about Jesus’ actions. Was He appropriating cultural expectations, and implying His saliva had magical properties?4 Did He do the same for His ears? The truth is that the man couldn’t speak and couldn’t hear. Jesus simply mimed His actions so the man would understand what followed, as if to say, “I’m going to fix this, then I’ll fix this.”5 And, in addition to this simple communication technique, Jesus also made it clear to the man by the results that He alone had the power to perform this miracle.6

Jesus continued to mime His actions, looking up to heaven as if to say, “Now, I’ll ask my Father if this is His will.” He sighed, to physically communicate His depth of compassion for the poor man through silent prayer.7 He then spoke, and issued one simple command, “Be opened,” (Mk 7:34). Immediately,8 the man’s “ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly,” (Mk 7:35). There’s no reason to assume, from the word “released,” that the man’s speech was held captive by a demon. This is a straightforward miracle account, not an exorcism.9

The Isaiah connection

Isaiah identified the coming King as both distinct from Yahweh, and as Yahweh Himself (cf. Isa 32:1; 33:5, 17, 22; 35:4). Elsewhere, Isaiah wrote that Yahweh would come, marching along the highway through the wilderness that His own people would prepare (Isa 40:3-5). “He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, he will carry them in his bosum, and gently lead those that are with young,” (Isa 40:11). And yet, Mark tells us Jesus came, the Father’s eternal Son, to do just that (Mk 1:1-3).

Jesus’ healing of this man showed, in microcosm, that the kingdom of God had broken into human history in Himself, the promised King. That king is both human and divine, distinct from Yahweh and yet one with Him, too. When John the Baptist’s disciples wondered if Jesus really was the Messiah, He pointed them to Isaiah:

And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me,” (Lk 7:22-23).

If Satan has been bound, and Jesus is the stronger man who’s cheerfully plundering His house, then what should a reasonable person conclude? “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you,” (Lk 11:20).

The context of the Messianic promises from Isaiah (and many other prophets) shows us who Jesus really is. He’s the king who’s been sent from God, yet He’s also God in the flesh at the same time. He can heal and restore the sick on command, and He looks to the heavens above for confirmation of His Father’s divine will as He does it all. Even Isaiah speaks of the Spirit as a separate entity from the King and the LORD, one who’ll be “poured upon us from on high,” (Isa 32:15). We see the doctrine of the trinity in the ordinary, unassuming way the Old Testament at different points distinguishes and conflates Yahweh and His eternal Son, and by the way the New Testament clarifies their roles.10

This miracle account is a trailer of coming attractions, a preview of the kingdom breaking into this wicked world in a small way. And, irony of ironies, Jesus performs this work in Gentile territory, among the people to whom His message should have sounded stranger than ever. The story makes us long for that kingdom and for that King and Savior, as we worship our triune God and await the Son’s return.

Notes

1 Read the passage for yourself, and see especially Robert L. Thomas and Stanley N. Gundry, A Harmony of the Gospels (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1978), 112.

2 Robert Guelich wrote, “Those bringing him to Jesus obviously have an expectation which implies knowledge of at least Jesus’ reputation to heal. Read in the larger context of Mark’s narrative, their coming may have resulted from the ‘preaching’ of the Gerasene demoniac in the Decapolis (cf. 5:1–20) about all that Jesus had done for him,” (Mark 1-8:26, in WBC, vol. 34a [Nashville, TN: Nelson, 1989], 394).

3 “In dealing with people the Lord chooses his own methods,” (William Hendriksen, The Gospel of Mark [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1975], 303).

4 Mark Strauss remarked, “Spittle was commonly viewed in the ancient world as having medicinal and/ or magical powers, and the saliva of an important person was considered to be particularly powerful. Both Tacitus and Suetonius relate an account of a blind man who approached the emperor Vespasian in Alexandria, Egypt, and begged to be healed by his saliva. While the use of spittle was rejected by some rabbis as magical, others accepted its medicinal value …Did Jesus consider these actions efficacious, either medicinally or magically? Was he merely condescending to the expectations of his contemporaries? We simply do not know. Yet we should be cautious in attributing magical technique to Jesus in light of the paucity of such material elsewhere in the gospel tradition (only 8:23; John 9: 6). Whatever the significance of these actions, the healing itself does not come through any technique but through the authoritative command of Jesus: ‘Be opened!’ It is Jesus’ messianic authority rather than magic that accomplishes the healing,” (Mark, in ZECNT [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014], 322).

William L. Lane also suggests, “Through touch and the use of spittle Jesus entered into the mental world of the man and gained his confidence,” (The Gospel of Mark, in NICNT [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974], 266 – 267).

5 See especially R.C.H. Lenski, Interpretation of St. Mark’s Gospel (Columbus, OH: Wartburg, 1945), 309 – 311. See also Hendriksen (Mark, 303) and R. Alan Cole (Mark, in TNTC, vol. 2, [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989], 194).

6 “Thus, by touching the tongue with spittle, he intended to point out that the faculty of speech was communicated by himself alone; and by putting his finger into the ears, he showed that it belonged to his office to pierce the ears of the deaf,” (John Calvin and William Pringle, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, vol. 2 [Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010], 271–272).

7 Strauss (Mark, 322).

8 Some printed Greek texts do not include εὐθέως here. The UBS-5 grades it as a “C” for probability and encloses it in brackets. Mark likes this word in his narrative, and it appears in a 3rd century papyrus fragment, a 5th century manuscript, and then in the 8th century and beyond (see the CNTTS apparatus). I take it to be original and have no qualms about using it.

9 Guelich wrote, “Whereas the phrase may have its origin in the popular concept of the demonic cause of one to be “tongue tied,” reading it more than figuratively here seems to read too much into an account which offers no other hint of the demonic or even the hostility that accompanies such encounters,” (Mark 1 – 8:26, 396).

10 “The New Testament clarifies in crucial ways all of this which God has foretold through the patriarchs and prophets. It does so in terms of Jesus Christ. Christology always occupies the center of our trinitarian thinking because it is only through Christ by the Spirit that a right understanding of YHWH’s triune identity is known, confessed, and worshipped,” (Carl L. Beckwith, The Holy Trinity, in Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics, vol. 3 [Fort Wayne, IN: Luther Academy, 2016; Kindle ed.], KL 4631-4634).

 

Who is Jesus? A Bible Study

helpStudying bible doctrine can be hard. There are two approaches a bible teacher can take here.

He can do this in a systematic way, where he explains the doctrine using passages or verses from all over the Bible to present a comprehensive, thorough look at what the Scripture has to say about a particular issue. The difficulty here is that you can’t “see” the doctrine in one particular place, because you’ve been skipping around so much.

He can also teach a doctrine from one major passage, and perhaps a few more, too. But, the teacher will usually spend his time working through a major passage, allowing the students to “see it” with their own eyes as they discuss the passage, bit by bit. The downside is that not every passage will have everything “important” in it; there are always more passages to turn to!

In response to a great question from a church member (hi, Laura!), I decided to post a series of questions about Christ from Hebrews 1. This list isn’t comprehensive, and I could have thought of more. But, it’s a good start! I also decided to start by providing a very brief discussion of the doctrine of the Trinity, to get us off on the right foot.

Ciao. Enjoy …

A moment with the trinity

Here is a short, orthodox definition of God, from the 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith (Article 2):

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.

This definition tells us a whole bunch of things:

  1. There is one true God, He’s alive today, and He’s infinite in power and greatness.
  2. He is a Spirit, which means He has no inherent bodily form.
  3. His name, according to the Hebrew spelling, is Jehovah. In more modern times, we know this should actually be pronounced YAHWEH (“yaw-whey”)
  4. God made and rules over all creation
  5. God is indescribably holy
  6. God deserves all possible honor, confidence and love
  7. This one God has always consisted of three Divine people; Father, Son and Spirit.
  8. Each Person is co-eternal (i.e. been around forever) and co-equal to each other.
  9. Each person acts in unity with the other (“unity of the Godhead”), which means all three Divine People act together to accomplish everything. There is never a time when the Son acts, and the Father and Spirit take a rest on the front porch for a while. They act together.
  10. God chose to highlight different roles for each Person in Scripture, so we’d see and understand each Person taking a “starring part” in a different role, so we’d understand that He’s triune (i.e. Father, Son and Spirit). By highlighting one Person’s activity in an action more than the other two, God shows us His triune nature.

Questions, questions!

Here are some questions to consider from Hebrews 1-2:

In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world (Heb 1:1-2).

 

Jesus is God’s Son (Heb 1:2). What does that mean?

A psalmist also mentioned God’s son, in Psalm 2. What is that Psalm about? What does God’s Son do, in that psalm? Who is He king over? What kind of power will he have? Is this son, in Psalm 2, the same or different than God? Why do you think God quoted Psalm 2 at Jesus’ baptism (Mk 1:9-11), and called Jesus His Son? Why do you think God did the same thing, again, later in Jesus’ ministry (Mk 9:2-8)?

What does it mean, in Hebrews 1:2, when the Bible tells us God appointed Jesus “heir of all things?” What is an heir? What does that mean for Jesus? What are “all things?”

Who created the world (Heb 1:2)? Doesn’t the Book of Genesis say God created the world? Read Psalm 33:6-7, and especially Job 38-39. Why, in light of these passages, does it say that God (one Person) used His Son (a second Person) to create the world?

He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has obtained is more excellent than theirs (Heb 1:3-4).

What does it mean that the Son “reflects the glory of God” (Heb 1:3)? The KJV says He is “the brightness of His glory.” What does this mean? Can a created being ever perfectly reflect God’s glory?

If Jesus reflects God’s glory, then is He somehow distinct from God? After all, you can’t reflect your own glory; someone else has to reflect it, right?

What does it mean that the Son “bears the very stamp of His [i.e. God’s] nature,” (Heb 1:3)? The KJV says the Son is “the express image of His person.” What does this mean? Can a created being really have an identical nature, and bear the very stamp of God’s nature? What does this tell us about who Jesus is? Is He divine, or created?

The Son is, right now (present-tense) “upholding the universe by His word of power,” (Heb 1:3). What does this mean? Doesn’t the Bible say that Jehovah, God Almighty, created and controls the world, even now (read Psalm 33:6-7, and especially Job 38-39)? What does this tell us about Jesus, and the doctrine of the Trinity?

What does it mean that the Son “made purification from sins” (Heb 1:3)? How did He do that?

What does it tell you about Jesus that He “sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high” (Heb 1:3)?

A Psalmist used a similar phrase (i.e. sitting at God’s right hand) in Psalm 110; what is that psalm about? Who is the LORD who speaks to David’s Lord, who’s sitting at His right hand? What does the LORD send His Lord to do? Why do you think Jesus asked the same question (Mk 12:35-37)?

Why is the Son “much superior” to the angels (Heb 1:4)? If angels are God’s highest created beings, then what does this (and everything we’ve asked) tell us about who Jesus is?

For to what angel did God ever say,

“Thou art my Son,
today I have begotten thee”?

Or again,

“I will be to him a father,
and he shall be to me a son”?

And again, when he brings the first-born into the world, he says,

“Let all God’s angels worship him.” (Heb 1:5-6)

Did God ever call an angel His Son (Heb 1:5; see Psalm 2:7)? Why do you think the writer of the Book of Hebrews is making this comparison? What does he want you to “get” about Jesus?

Did God ever promise to make an angel His son, and to be a Father to an angel (Heb 1:5; see 2 Samuel 7:14)? Why do you think the writer of the Book of Hebrews is making this comparison? What does he want you to “get” about Jesus?

Of the angels he says,

“Who makes his angels winds,
and his servants flames of fire.”

But of the Son he says,

“Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever,
the righteous scepter is the scepter of thy kingdom.
Thou hast loved righteousness and hated lawlessness;
therefore God, thy God, has anointed thee
with the oil of gladness beyond thy comrades,” (Heb 1:7-9).

God calls His angels servants (Heb 1:7; see Psalm 104:4) but, the writer of Hebrews says, compare this to when a Psalmist wrote a song that called the Israelite king “God,” (Heb 1:8; see Psalm 45:6-7). This king’s throne endures forever, He’ll have a kingdom to rule over, and He loves righteousness and hates lawlessness (Heb 1:8-9). Why do you think the writer of the Book of Hebrews is making this comparison? What does he want you to “get” about Jesus? He’s the Israelite King they’d been waiting for (see Mk 11:7-10). So, what does it mean that the writer of Hebrews called the king from Psalm 45 “God?”

And,

“Thou, Lord, didst found the earth in the beginning,
and the heavens are the work of thy hands;
they will perish, but thou remainest;
they will all grow old like a garment,
like a mantle thou wilt roll them up,
and they will be changed.
But thou art the same,
and thy years will never end.”

But to what angel has he ever said,

“Sit at my right hand,
till I make thy enemies
a stool for thy feet”? (Heb 1:10-13).

The writer of Hebrews also wants you to know that a Psalmist was also talking about God’s Son when he wrote that God made the earth and the heavens, that God will last longer than both of them, and that God is eternal (Heb 1:10-12; see Psalm 102:25-27). The Psalmist said God did this, but the writer to Hebrews says this was actually talking about God’s Son! Likewise, the Book of Genesis says God created the heavens and the earth, but the writer of Hebrews says God actually did that through His Son (Heb 1:2).

It’s important you know the New Testament further clarifies things the Old Testament says. God did create everything, in the triune sense that all three People participated in creation, but the writer wants to highlight the Son’s particular role in that drama. But, when compared to this, what angel did God ever tell to “sit at my right hand, till I make thy enemies a stool for thy feet” (Heb 1:13)? Why do you think the writer of the Book of Hebrews is making this comparison? What does he want you to “get” about Jesus?

Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation (Heb 1:14)?

What does the Bible say angels do, in Hebrews 1:14? Is that what Jesus does, or does He have a much bigger role?

Finis

There are other good bible passages to turn to about Jesus. But, this is a good one to start with. I hope you find it useful.

Jesus and the Woman from Tyre (Mark 7:24-30)

syrophonecianMark’s a guy who appreciates irony, and the best part is that he never has to go looking for it – Jesus supplies it. He’s just had a very sharp disagreement about ritual, ceremonial purity with the scribes and Pharisees who’d come from Jerusalem (Mk 7:1-23). They held to a racist interpretation of ritual defilement and believed any primary or secondary contact with a Gentile made them “unclean” before Yahweh. They even believed the very air itself could contaminate them, and proscribed bizarre and arcane rituals for cleansing pots, cooking utensils, and their hands before any meal.

In dramatic fashion, Jesus rebukes this heretical invention (“Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites!”) then heads straight out of Galilee “to the region of Tyre and Sidon” (Mk 7:24), which is Gentile territory. Every Christian’s heart should be warmed as he reads this swift denunciation of legalistic foolishness. The Jewish leaders are blind as bats to Jesus and His message, whereas a Gentile woman in Tyre understands everything, and displays a mature and earnest faith. Jesus knew this would happen (cf. Lk 4:22-30). The trip to Gentile country deliberately emphasizes Jesus’ lesson against the heretical ceremonial rules of the day, and it makes the point to anyone who has eyes to see.[1]

He’s preached to people from this region before (see Mk 3:8), and even though Jesus seeks some degree of solitude, “yet he could not be hid,” (Mk 7:24). This isn’t an example of the “Messianic secret” theme that’s so common in Mark; it simply proves Jesus is so popular He’s unable to remain anonymous for long.[2] In an age before Twitter updates, “humble-brag” social media posts and Facebook Live, Jesus’ popularity is indeed startling. It’s here, at this anonymous little house far from home, where Mark shows us more evidence for Christ’s deity and the doctrine of the Trinity.

A woman shows up. Mark’s account is sparse. She “immediately” appears and falls down at His feet. But, there’s more. Matthew tells us she said, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon,” (Mt 15:22). When you consider Matthew’s addition, it’s clear this woman understood exactly who Jesus was. Skeptical commentators seem to forget Jesus went about, preaching and teaching the same message over, and over, and over, and over … and then over again. His last audience with a crowd from Tyre was as dramatic as they get. Jesus preached from a boat to untold hundreds (perhaps thousands), healed many, and the demons He cast out each screamed, “You are the Son of God!” as they bowed in homage to Him (Mk 3:7-12).

It’s difficult to think of a more memorable afternoon at the lake. We’ve no idea if this woman was there that day, but she’s obviously heard of this man from Galilee. She calls Him “Lord, Son of David,” which makes it clear her knowledge has some content. To her, this isn’t some carnival, miracle-maker; He’s the Lord of glory, the descendent par excellence from David. She knows she doesn’t deserve mercy, but she begs for it anyway. She “fell down at His feet” (Mk 7:25) in worship.

In the Tanakh, believers used the title “Lord” to refer to Yahweh Himself. When people of faith refer to Jesus as “Lord,” our mental eyebrows should raise an inch or two … or three. If Jesus is also Lord, then Scripture is showing us a distinction between Jesus and Yahweh. The woman’s second title for Jesus, “Son of David,” makes this even more explicit. Yahweh, in the triune sense, is Lord. Yet, Jesus, the Son of David and the promised Messiah, is also “Lord.” This is the same subtle distinction we see, for example, in Zechariah’s prophesies (e.g. Zech 2:9-11) where Jesus and Yahweh often switch speaking roles in the very same sentence. They, quite literally, complete each other’s sentences and thoughts. While they’re One, they’re also distinct, too.

Jesus responds in a deliberately callous manner. “Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” (Mk 7:28). It’s possible Jesus seized on this convenient analogy from the scene inside the home, with a meal either in process or just finished.[3] Commentators often engage in hand-wringing at this point; either desperately trying to salvage the “meek and mild” Jesus of fairy-tale lore or suggesting the woman’s “clever reply” changed His mind. Nonsense.

The “children” are the Israelites. The “food” is the Gospel, and the blessings the new and better covenant will bring to all God’s people. The “dogs” are the Gentiles. It’s unnecessary to re-imagine the “dog” reference as being a term of endearment (e.g. “little doggy”),[4] or to invent a twinkle in Jesus’ eye to soften this blow; this is exegesis of desperation. It’s also folly to believe the woman is stupid or ignorant, and doesn’t understand what Jesus is saying.[5] No, the woman understands very well what the issue is. She was either present that day at the lake (Mk 3:8ff), or heard a detailed, content-rich explanation of Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God, and His role as the “Son of David” who would rule and reign over the world. Her words, and Jesus’ response, prove this.

But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And he said to her, “For this saying you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” And she went home, and found the child lying in bed, and the demon gone (Mk 7:28-30)

She responds by calling Him “Lord” yet again, and this is also not an accident.[6] She understands who He is. He’s the Son of David, the promised Messiah, the Lord of glory, the One who has power over the forces of darkness and can heal her little daughter. She also understands Israel’s primary role as the vehicle of blessing and salvation for the Kingdom of God. The Israelites will be the divine conduit, the priests who will mediate the message of salvation to the world (see Zech 8:20-23) during Jesus’ millennial reign. His blessings are for them first. She can’t, as it were, skip ahead in line.

The woman understands this. The Tanakh never excludes Gentiles from covenant blessings, but makes it clear these blessings will be brokered by Israelites. She has no problem with this, and we must assume she’d received a very accurate briefing indeed from that afternoon on the lake (cf. Mk 3:8ff). Jesus tells her, “for this saying you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter,” (Mk 7:29). Another account tells us He also said, “O woman, great is your faith!” (Mt 15:28). She “got it.” Jesus knew she got it, so we should be sure she got it, too.

The woman goes on her way, and Jesus heals her little daughter from afar. The eternal Son of God incarnate, in whom all things hold together (Col 1:17), has the power to expel the forces of darkness from the girl from far, far away. “And her daughter was healed instantly,” (Mt 15:28).

The Bible suggests several important things about the Trinity from this little account:

  1. The woman knew who Jesus was; the Lord, the Son of David. This implies a clear distinction between Jesus and the Father above.
  2. She bowed before Jesus in worship. This indicates she knew He was divine, and acknowledged it.
  3. She trusted Him to have power over fallen angels, which means she understood something substantial about His identity.
  4. This understanding shows she was either present that day on the lake with others from Tyre (Mk 3:8), when Jesus preached about the Kingdom of God, conducted mass exorcisms, and the demons bowed in homage and screamed His identity as the eternal Son of God … or she had some very good intel, indeed.
  5. She confessed Jesus as “Lord” yet again, and understood the “Son of David’s” role as the leader of Israel and the mediator of blessings to the Gentiles.
  6. Jesus miraculously healed her “little daughter” from afar, demonstrating His deity.

The irony, of course, is that Jesus criticizes the scribes and Pharisees for their legalism, then high-tails it for Gentile country where he immediately meets a desperate woman with a profound theological grasp of the big picture. This woman, whom the Jerusalem clique would likely dismiss as an ignorant heathen, knows who Jesus is, and understands His role in the redemptive story. She had ears to hear, and eyes to see. I like to think she was there that day on the lake, somewhere in the crowd. I look forward to asking her one day.

Notes

[1] See especially William Lane, The Gospel of Mark, in NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: 1974), 259.  Robert Guelich remarked, “Therefore, this story about Jesus’ ministry that crosses the social boundaries of the day remains both consistent to what the tradition indicates about Jesus’ primary concern for Israel and makes clear how that ministry provided the impetus for the early Church to transcend these boundaries based on one’s response to Jesus,” (Mark 1-8:26, in WBC, vol. 34A (Nashville, TN: Nelson, 1989), 389.

William Hendriksen remarked that, if Jesus had followed the Jewish leader’s racist and prejudiced policies, this woman would have been beyond all help; “was not the door of hope closed for this mother because of her race?” (The Gospel of Mark, in NTC [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1975], 298).

[2] See Guelich (Mark, 389).

[3] Richard H. Lenski, An Interpretation of St. Mark’s Gospel (Columbus, OH: Wartburg, 1946), 302.

[4] You’ll find this suggestion discussed (if not endorsed) in most of the major exegetical commentaries, which are often incestuous in their observations. Morna Hooker observed, “There is no reason to suppose that a Gentile would consider it any less offensive to be called a ‘little dog’ rather than a ‘dog’, and descriptions of Jesus’ manner and tone of speech are, of course, sheer imagination. In its present context, the term is a challenge to the woman to justify her request,” (The Gospel According to Saint Mark, in BNTC [London, UK: Continuum, 1991], 183).

[5] Lane suggests this (Mark, 261 – 263).

[6] Guelich (Mark, 388), Hooker (Mark, 183) and Mark Strauss (Mark, in ZECNT [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014], 313) all agree this term is deliberate, here. Context also agrees!

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.

Jesus as the New Moses

loaves
“Miracle of the Bread and Fish,” by Giovanni Lanfranco (ca. 1620)

This passage covers Mark 6:35-44

A person can know who Jesus really is by looking at what He said about Himself, and what He did. His actions tells us who He is.[1] Here, in this miracle account, Jesus’ actions show He is both divine and yet distinct from the Father. And, in doing so, Mark shows us the doctrine of the Trinity.

This miracle is mentioned in all the Gospel accounts. It clearly occurred in an isolated location (Mk 6:31); likely in the hill country north of Capernaum and west of Bethsaida.[2] Mark has already identified Jesus as the shepherd who leads and teaches Israel (Mk 6:34); a metaphor of royal power and military might, not pastoral tenderness.[3] Jesus is often compared to Moses, especially by Peter (cf. Acts 3:22f), who tradition tells us was Mark’s mentor.[4] Now, Mark gives us another parallel. Just as Moses led the Israelites into the wilderness and relied on God to supply their needs in the desert, Jesus led His people into a “lonely place” and He, too, must find a way to feed them.

Moses was angry at the people, and preferred to die rather than continue to endure their treachery (Num 11:15). Earlier, immediately after the miracle at the Red Sea and their divine rescue from the Egyptian armies, the people had begun their grumbling;

Would that we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate bread to the full; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger (Ex 16:3).

Yahweh responded by miraculously supplying them with bread; “It is the bread which the LORD has given you to eat,” (Ex 16:15).[5] In the same way, Jesus will supply His people with bread. Moses waited on Yahweh to act; here it’s Jesus who acts – because He is God. He is infinitely more than Moses, or even Elijah (2 Kgs 4:42-44).

The meal itself is a stunning contrast to Herod Antipas’ court of debauchery. This man had married his sister-in-law, wanted to kill John the Baptist for condemning his behavior, and had lecherous designs upon his niece (Mk 6:17ff).[6] Jesus, though, had compassion on the people because they had no spiritual and political leadership. So, “he began to teach them many things,” (Mk 6:34). Throughout the sermon in this desert place, the massive crowd never asks for anything. They’re enthralled. In Mark’s account, it’s the disciples who begin to worry about the logistics (Mk 6:35-36).[7]

Why does Jesus respond the way He does; “You give them something to eat,” (Mk 6:37)? He’s allowed this situation to develop, and now casts the responsibilities back on the disciples. In John’s account, Jesus is the one who brings the matter up on purpose (Jn 6:5); “this he said to test him, for he himself knew what he would do,” (Jn 6:6). Jesus is using this situation as a teachable moment, to help his disciples understand who He actually is.[8] This is key to their training (cf. Mk 8:27-30), and it should be to ours, too. The crowd benefits from the miraculous feeding, but the true audience is the disciples.

They’re astonished; even 200 days wages wouldn’t be enough to feed a crowd this size (Mk 6:37).[9] The disciples have accurately summed up the logistical impossibility of feeding the crowd, even as they misunderstand who Jesus is. Christ responds by ratcheting up the confusion; he commands them to pool their resources and report back on how much food they had among them (Mk 6:38). Again, Jesus intends to heighten their confusion to teach them a lesson – His actions always prove who He is.

Mark tells us Jesus took the small amount of food they’d collected, then “looked up to heaven, and blessed . . .” (Mk 6:41). Who did Jesus look up heaven to, and bless the food to? As he prepares to document Jesus’ miracle, Mark is careful to distinguish the Son from the Father. Jesus, as God the Son incarnate, is perfectly obedient to the Father, and understands “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights,” (Jas 1:17, KJV). Jesus models obedience for us by His thankfulness for food.

Mark doesn’t tell us how the miracle occurred; only that it did occur. It probably occurred as Jesus distributed the bread and fish; it just kept replenishing itself as He doled it out to the disciples.[10] This was not a flashy miracle, accompanied by thunderclaps or a booming voice from on high. The people who were most aware of it were the disciples; who’d just pooled their supplies and produced this small meal! In an understated but profound way, they’re forced to make a determination about who Jesus is. Who is this man . . .

  • who preaches He is the Messiah,
  • who claims to be the strong man who binds Satan and plunders his goods,
  • who gave them power over demons and the curse of sickness,
  • who now provides an unending supply of food for the Israelites in this desert place?
  • Is He a normal man? Or, is He something more?

Like Moses before Him, but in an infinitely more powerful way, Jesus has provided a banquet for the Israelites in the wilderness. Moses had to wait on God for the manna. Jesus is God, and provides the bread Himself.

Some commentators suggest the crowd didn’t realize it was a miracle, and this demonstration was only intended for the disciples.[11] Unless the people in the crowd were extraordinarily dense, this is very unlikely. The obvious logistical hurdles necessary to feed such a massive crowd were surely obvious even to the simplest of men. Clearly, Jesus couldn’t have produced this feast by natural means. And, this position cannot explain the conclusion the crowd draws from this miracle (Jn 6:13-15).[12] It’s best to say the miracle was primarily intended for the disciples, but Jesus took no steps to shield the crowd from the obvious conclusion – this man who claims He is the Messiah is also divine. The dots are there, ready to be connected for all who have ears to hear, and eyes to see (Mk 4:9).

Mark tells us “and they all ate and were satisfied,” (Mk 6:42). John says they ate “as much as they wanted,” and had their fill (Jn 6:11-12). This wasn’t a light meal; Jesus allowed them to gorge themselves and eat as much as they wanted. And, once they were full, there was a large amount of food left (Mk 6:43).[13] The parallels with the wilderness wanderings are startling, and Jesus clearly eclipses Moses in power and authority. He is the shepherd who has come to lead Israel and provide for them materially, spiritually, and by divine appointment. He is the penultimate successor Moses asked for so long ago (Num 27:15-17).

Isaiah wrote about a time when Israel would return to the Lord, who would invite them to come and dine at the banquet table of salvation, sealed by the everlasting covenant (Isa 55:1ff).[14] The New Testament tells us Christ Jesus Himself is the new covenant for all who believe. The God-Man who will inaugurate this covenant sits before them, after a long day of teaching them “many things” about the kingdom of God. He produces an unending feast for them, and fulfills (in miniature) Yahweh’s call for Israel to “hearken diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in fatness,” (Isa 55:2). Yet, here, Jesus is doing the teaching and the people are listening to Him – because He is Yahweh.

These allusions (and others) explain Jesus’ instructions to some of these same people the next day. “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you; for on him has God the Father set his seal,” (Jn 6:27).

We understand who Jesus is by considering what He does. “He is like Moses, not only in providing the people with food in the wilderness, but in acting as their shepherd and teaching them. Both activities testify as to who Jesus is.”[15] This miracle is so familiar that I fear it’s lost its impact. Mark tells us Jesus fed 5000 men (Mk 6:45), and Matthew adds, “aside from women and children,” (Mt 14:21). There were likely between 10,000 – 15,000 people present! What Jesus does here is extraordinary, but you won’t ever appreciate that unless you know and love the Old Testament scriptures the incident alludes to.

The Apostle John tells us the crowd understood what Jesus did, and understood at least some of His teachings about the kingdom of God. “When the people saw the sign which he had done, they said, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world!’” (Jn 6:14). They clearly grasped that Jesus was the prophet Moses wrote about so long ago – here at last (Deut 18:15ff)! They were right, but for the wrong reasons – but that will have to wait for another article . . .

In this passage, Mark showed us Jesus as the new Moses, shepherding (i.e. leading) and teaching God’s people in the wilderness, and providing for them. He is like Moses, but infinitely better (cf. Heb 3:1-6a). Moses waited on God to provide; Jesus provided for Himself – because He is God. In a real sense, Christ re-created the wilderness exodus in miniature, but played the part of Moses and Yahweh all by Himself. And yet, the Bible shows us a distinction in Yahweh’s being, because Jesus “looked up to heaven, and blessed,” (Mk 6:42).

These subtle but critical distinctions teach us our one God has revealed that He consists of Father, Son and Spirit. This is what Carl Beckwith has called the ordinary language of faith; “ordinary on the one hand because it is so prevalent throughout the New Testament, but also because so much is assumed by the New Testament writer and left unexplained . . . it represents for us the most basic way in which the faithful talk about the Trinity according to the Scriptures.”[16] We see our triune God not only in the usual didactic passages, but in the ordinary, unassuming and everyday descriptions of Jesus’ activities in Scripture.

Notes

[1] Carl Beckwith, a Lutheran theologian, remarks, “Many New Testament scholars make a distinction between functional Christology and ontological Christology. The former focuses on the activities or functions performed by Christ, and the latter assigns metaphysical categories to the person and nature of Christ. A chief argument used by the Fathers to show the coequality of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit centered on the relationship between nature and activity.

For them, we rightly understand ‘who’ someone or something is when we grasp ‘what’ they do. The activity reveals the identity of the doer. Furthermore, for the Fathers, common works indicate common nature. This insight stands at the center of patristic trinitarian thought, and it is an insight owing to Scripture, not philosophy. Simply put, Scripture demanded the correlation of activity and identity or function and ontology,” (Carl L. Beckwith, The Holy Trinity, in Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics, vol. 3 [Fort Wayne, IN: Luther Academy, 2016; Kindle ed.], KL 3720 – 3722; 3727 – 3730).

[2] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, in PNTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 190.

[3] On this point, see the previous article in this series, entitled, “Against Cardboard Shepherds.”

[4] See Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 2.15 and 3.39.15. He called Mark “the interpreter of Peter.”

[5] It is amusing to see how, almost without fail, commentaries on Mark’s gospel which I consulted repeat the same reference from Numbers 11:13, 23. However, that passage deals with the Israelites complaining about the manna, not Moses’ conundrum about supplying them with food. The contexts are different. I’m not sure why every commentator leaps to this passage. I suspect it is incestuous; commentators repeat each other and reuse trusty prooftexts without too much critical thought. The only possible parallel is Moses’ frustration contrasted with Jesus’ omniscience. But this, too, doesn’t gel. Jesus has no reason to be frustrated, whereas Moses was frustrated for good reason.

The real parallel is positive; Moses led the people out and God provided vs. Jesus led the people out and He provided – because He is God. Jesus is like Moses, but infinitely better.

[6] For a short discussion about the niece, see Edwards (Mark, 187-188).

[7] See Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, 6 vols. (New York, NY: Revell, n.d.), 5:489.

[8] “Jesus, in contrast to the circumstances depicted in all of the other miracles, appears deliberately to create the situation in which the people must be fed . . . His instructions to the disciples, which perplex and baffle them, are intended to lead them to understanding,” (William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, in NICNT [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974], 228).

[9] A denari was “a Roman silver coin. The equivalent of a typical daily wage (e.g., Matt 18:28; 20:2–13; 22:19; Mark 6:37; Luke 7:41; John 6:7; Rev 6:6),” (“Denarius,” in Lexham Bible Dictionary, ed. John D. Barry et al. [Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016]).

[10] Some translations, like the NASB, render the imperfect verb with an iterative sense to get this across (“He kept giving them to the disciples to set before them,” Mk. 6:41).

[11] “The disciples do not understand him although they were given an abundant opportunity to see his glory. That is why they alone are reproved for their hardness of heart and their failure to grasp the meaning of the miracle of the loaves in the subsequent narrative,” (Lane, Mark, 232).

[12] Mark Strauss agrees the crowd wasn’t aware of the miracle, and suggests Jn 6:14-15 refers to the actions by a select few in the crowd who did understand (Mark L. Strauss, Mark, in Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014], 277). I also find this unconvincing. The crowd understood what happened; this is the best way to explain John 6:14-15.

[13] “Jesus is therefore able to provide the people in the desert what Moses could not. Moses had to contend with disgruntled people teetering on the edge of starvation. Those gathered around Jesus are all satisfied. In contrast to the manna that could not be gathered up and held over until the next day, Jesus’ bread can be collected,” (David E. Garland, Mark, in NIVAC [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996], 254).

[14] “The feeding also echoes Isaiah’s call for Israel to come now to God’s banquet, celebrating the salvation about to be realized,” (Garland, Mark, 255).

[15] Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark, in Black’s New Testament Commentary (London: Continuum, 1991), 165.

[16] Carl L. Beckwith, The Holy Trinity, in Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics, vol. 3 (Fort Wayne, IN: Luther Academy, 2016; Kindle ed.), KL 4743-4750.

Against Cardboard Shepherds

5000Trinitarian heresies usually stumble over who Christ is. Without fail, these heretical groups, sects and movements brand themselves as “renewal movements.” God gave us the Scriptures but, alas, things went haywire after the apostles died. The church lurched into heresy bit by bit. These groups warn us that the Greeks influenced Christian thinking, and eventually this pagan philosophy corrupted our doctrine of God, and the church was in darkness. Until . . . (cue theme music) . . . someone read the Bible for himself and discovered The Truth (insert heresy now).

For example, Anthony Buzzard, a conservative Unitarian, writes,

Though I believe with a passion the extraordinary and yet eminently sane claims of the New Testament writers, I have the strongest reservation about what the Church, claiming to be followers of Jesus, later did with the faith of those original Christians. I believe that history shows an enormous difference between what has through the centuries come to be known as the Christian faith and what we find reported as first-century Christianity.[1]

The truth is that these cults are reading the Bible in a very flat, sterile way. The Gospels are thoroughly Trinitarian, and the cults cannot find their doctrine through a systematic exposition of Scripture. Here, in our text this morning, we see Jesus as the shepherd over Israel:

The apostles returned to Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.

And they went away in the boat to a lonely place by themselves. Now many saw them going, and knew them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns, and got there ahead of them. As he went ashore he saw a great throng, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things (Mk 6:30-34)

Mark is the only Gospel writer who specifically explains why Jesus “had compassion on them.” It was “because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Why were they seeking Him? It wasn’t for the free food; that would come later (Jn 6:26)! It was probably a combination of excitement because of His status as a miracle worker (cf. Mt 14:34-36), and also His unique teaching on the Kingdom of God, which everyone acknowledged carried enormous authority (cf. Mk 1:22).

Mark tells us Jesus “began to teach them many things.” Matthew adds He “healed their sick,” (Mt 14:14) and Luke explains “he welcomed them and spoke to them of the kingdom of God, and cured those who had need of healing,” (Lk 9:11).

Who is this shepherd?

It’s easy to pass by this reference to Jesus as the shepherd without comment. That would be a mistake. Jesus has already identified Himself as Messiah, and commanded everyone to repent because the Kingdom of God was at hand (Mk 1:14-15). His entire ministry identifies Him to not be an ordinary prophet or messenger. He is altogether extraordinary:

  • He’s the one John the Baptist preached about, who would baptize the faithful with the Holy Spirit (Mk 1:7-8).
  • God ripped the heavens open to proclaim Jesus as “my beloved Son” at His baptism (Mk 1:10-11).
  • He’s the One who withstood all Satan’s temptation for forty days (Mk 1:12-13); the Last Adam triumphed where the first failed so miserably.
  • He’s the one who gathered disciples to “become fishers of men,” (Mk 1:17), to call people to repent and believe in Christ and His coming Kingdom.
  • The demons are terrified of Christ, identify Him as God’s Holy one, and beg Him for mercy (Mk 1:23-24). The congregations in the synagogues are astonished, “What is this? A new teaching! With authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him,” (Mk 1:27).
  • He heals the sick, conducts exorcisms with ease, commands the demons to be silent – and they obey (Mk 1:32-34, 39)

I don’t mean this to be a tedious recitation of Jesus’ deeds. I believe Christians are so familiar with the Gospel accounts that we often forget how extraordinary they are. Jesus has proved His credentials by the end of Mark’s first chapter, and there are 15 more to go! Remember that, when Jesus was plainly asked if He was the Messiah, He pointed to His deeds as proof the Kingdom of God had broken into this present, evil world (Lk 7:18-23).

So, realize that Jesus’ actions and words already tell us He isn’t only a king. He’s divine and equal to the Father, yet distinct. This context is important when you consider Mark’s comment; “he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things,” (Mk 6:34). This is a very important phrase throughout the Old Testament.

To modern ears, the notion of Jesus as “the shepherd” evokes pastoral images. However, in Scripture, the “shepherd” is the leader and ruler of Israel. These are echoes of military victory and royal government, not pastoral sensibilities.[2] Though, to be sure, in Jesus both these themes merge together.

Moses’ True Successor

Moses asked God to appoint a successor for him, “that the congregation of the LORD may not be as sheep which have no shepherd,” (Num 27:17). He worried the Israelites would falter if they didn’t have a strong and godly leader to show them the way. In our text, Jesus sees His countrymen who had followed Him so far; some desperate with disease, others desperate for news about the promised Kingdom. He had compassion on them because they were lost. They had no guidance. They had no leader. Remember, immediately before this account, Mark just finished recounting Herod Antipas’ debauchery and his murder of John the Baptist (Mk 6:14-29). Antipas is the nominal Jewish leader of Galilee and Perea in Jesus’ day, and what a contrast!

So, God chose Joshua, “a man in whom is the spirit,” (Num 27:18). Interestingly, Moses prophesied about a man who would be raised up from among the Israelites, who would be like him, and to whom all Israel would be obligated to listen. This man is Jesus (Acts 3:22-23), who certainly had the Spirit, too (Mk 1:8,10)! Mark is identifying Jesus as the true leader of Israel, the successor par excellence to Moses.

The Bold Prophet

In another passage, King Ahab of Israel and King Jehoshaphat of Judah form an alliance against Syria. They seek a rubber-stamped blessing form the Lord, and their hirelings oblige with flattering words. Jehoshaphat asks if Ahab has another prophet handy. Ahab admits that, yes, there is another prophet, “but I hate him, for he never prophesies good concerning me, but evil,” (1 Kings 22:8).

This prophet, Micaiah, initially offers a rote prediction of smashing success. When pressed, he gives the real message: “I saw all Israel scattered upon the mountains, as sheep that have no shepherd’ and the Lord said, ‘These have no master; let each return to his home in peace,’” (1 Kings 22:17).

Micaiah’s point is clear – Ahab is such a worthless and pagan leader that the Israelites, in effect, have no shepherd at all. The prophet exited with this warning to Ahab, “If you return in peace, the Lord has not spoken by me!” (1 Kings 22:28). In contrast, Jesus is the promised Messiah, the true shepherd of God’s people.

The Coming King

In Zechariah, the prophet tells us the coming King will come on the scene in a meek and lowly manner. Yet, this king “shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea,” (Zech 9:9-10). Because of the blood of this king’s covenant with them, He’ll set the Israelites free (Zech 9:11). He will lead them into battle and crush all Israel’s enemies; they’ll trample their foes so terribly the blood will flow like wine (Zech 9:12-15).

Why is this conquering king necessary? Because, in Zechariah’s present day, “the teraphim utter nonsense, and the diviners see lies; the dreamers tell false dreams, and give empty consolation. Therefore the people wander like sheep; they are afflicted for want of a shepherd,” (Zech 10:2).

The theme is the same. The current leadership in Israel was apostate and worthless, even in the early years of the return from exile! But, take heart – a new king would come! That king is Jesus, who came to shepherd His people.

Yahweh the Shepherd

In the Book of Jeremiah, the Lord promised the Israelites that, one day, He’d destroy the Babylonians, the very nation which was gathering to destroy Israel in their day. When Babylon eventually fell, God promised, something marvelous would happen:

In those days and in that time, says the LORD, the people of Israel and the people of Judah shall come together, weeping as they come; and they shall seek the LORD their God. They shall ask the way to Zion, with faces turned toward it, saying, ‘Come, let us join ourselves to the LORD in an everlasting covenant which will never be forgotten.’

My people have been lost sheep; their shepherds have led them astray, turning them away on the mountains; from mountain to hill they have gone, they have forgotten their fold (Jeremiah 50:4-6).

Their leaders have led them to disaster; they wander about like lost sheep who can’t find their way home. Interestingly, Jeremiah tells us that Yahweh is the shepherd who will re-gather Israel and tend to them (Jer 50:19-20). Yahweh is the true shepherd; yet, Mark tells us it is Jesus.

The psalmist also tells us, “Know that the LORD is God! It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture,” (Ps 100:3). David confessed Yahweh is his shepherd (Ps 23:1).

Jesus the Shepherd

This context helps us understand Mark’s comment better. Jesus felt this compassion for the people because He was their true and promised leader; the Anointed One. His words and actions (briefly summarized from Mark’s first chapter, above) prove He is not merely a man, but the Father’s unique Son, distinct from Him, with equal power and glory. He was their “shepherd” because He was the promised leader; the one who would succeed where Moses, Ahab, and the leaders in Jeremiah and Zechariah’s day failed so terribly. In that capacity, He “taught them many things” about the Kingdom, and about what it means to truly love God (Mk 12:28-32; cf. Deut 6). Zechariah tells us Yahweh is their shepherd, yet Jesus is the One who came. What does this tell us?

The Scripture is soaked in the Trinity; in the distinction and unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Those who deny the Trinity often protest they’re simply following the monotheistic faith of Abraham, and reinterpret the New Testament through this grid. “There is not a word in the New Testament about any such revolutionary changes in the definition of God.”[3]

These men and women would likely find nothing noteworthy in Mark’s comment about Jesus as the shepherd who had compassion on his lost people. This is a flat, sterile, cardboard way to read Scripture. Jesus’ deeds, words, and the Old Testament teaching about the coming shepherd and Messiah prove otherwise.

Notes

[1] Anthony Buzzard, Jesus Was Not a Trinitarian: A Call to Return to the Creed of Jesus (Morrow, GA: Restoration Fellowship, 2007; Kindle ed.), KL 296-300.

[2] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, in PNTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 191.

[3] Buzzard (Jesus Was Not a Trinitarian, KL 215).

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.