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.

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!

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.

The Trinity in the Old Testament

beckwithCarl Beckwith, a Lutheran theologian, explains a little bit about how God revealed His triune nature in the Old Testament scriptures:

What are we to make of Scripture variously identifying the sole creator of the heavens and the earth as YHWH, Elohim, Word, Spirit, Wisdom, and Father? The answer must be that the scriptural understanding of monotheism encompasses both Is 44: 24 (“ Thus says YHWH, your Redeemer, who formed you from the womb: I am YHWH, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself”) and Gn 1: 1, Dt 32: 6, and Ps 33: 6.

Scripture declares that YHWH by Himself made all things, stretched out the heavens, and made us from the womb. According to Scripture, however, the same may be said of the Father, the Word/ Wisdom, and the Spirit. Further, Scripture insists that we have one creation, not three, and that these three created, not that they contributed a part here and a part there. Their work of creation is one.

The only responsible conclusion according to the Scriptures is to confess the correlative and coequal working of Father, Word/ Wisdom, and Spirit, and to locate all three— equally and eternally— within the unique identity of YHWH, our Elohim.

Carl L. Beckwith, The Holy Trinity, in Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics, vol. 3 (Fort Wayne, IN: Luther Academy, 2016; Kindle ed.), KL 4538-4547.

Some Kind Words from Peter

Here are the notes for this week’s Sunday School. The audio is below:

Peter opens his first letter with these words:

Peter, [an] apostle of Jesus Christ – to [the] chosen who are resident foreigners; that is, [the] diaspora in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, [chosen] according to God the Father’s plan, by the Spirit’s sanctification, for the purpose of obedience, as well as sprinkling with Jesus Christ’s blood. May grace and peace be always increasing to you! (1 Peter 1:1-2).

Peter isn’t trying to teach the Trinity; he just assumes it as he writes the opening words of the letter. It’s interesting that Peter doesn’t feel he needs to teach these Christians about the Trinity. We worship one being who is God, and within God three co-equal and co-eternal Persons have always existed – Father, Son and Spirit.

Here are some foundational pillars for understanding the Trinity:

  1. There is only one God
  2. God consists of three distinct Persons, with different roles and responsibilities
  3. Each Person has always existed
  4. Each Person is fully divine (e.g. not ⅓ divine)
  5. Each Person is one with the others

Here is the point:

  • In 1 Peter 1:1-2, Peter discusses something specific each Person of the Trinity does when God saves somebody. Why do you think Peter spends so much time emphasizing God’s grace in salvation?

Knowing this is the truth about God, put yourself in a Christian’s shoes who heard this letter read, somewhere in Northern Turkey, on the shores of the Black Sea in the early 60s A.D.

  1. You’ve a Gentile, and you’ve grown up as a pagan. You’ve offered sacrifices to pagan idols at your temples, and worshipped many gods your entire life. Before you became a Christian, the Roman officials began encouraging people to offer incense to an image of the Roman Emperor
  2. You’ve become a Christian, and joined a small group of disciples. Most of these Christians are former Jews, whose parents first became Christians after making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover and Pentecost about 33 years before. They witnessed Jesus’ triumphal entry, His execution, and heard the rumors about His resurrection. They saw the miracle at Pentecost, when tongues of fire descended upon Christ’s disciples. They saw the results, as these men began to preach and teach the Gospel in languages from all over the world! They, like so many others, repented of their sins and believed in Jesus that day. They brought that faith back home, all those years ago.
  3. You’ve stopped worshipping the gods, you don’t go to the pagan temples, you don’t offer incense to the gods, and you refuse to worship and reverence the Emperor’s image. Your family has disowned you, and kicked you out on the street. Your entire community has disowned you; maybe they’ve even driven you from your hometown with threats of death.
  4. You have no friends, family, or social support structure – all you have is your brothers and sisters in Christ, who help provide for you as best they can.

How tempting would it would be to try and mold your pagan beliefs back with your Christian beliefs? How easy would it be to try and rationalize this kind of move? After all, you live in a syncretic culture – your friends and family would love if you’d just add Jesus to your list of pagan gods!

You’d need some pretty good reasons to stick it out and remain a faithful Christians in this kind of environment – so Peter gives you some:

  1. God has chosen you for salvation
  2. You’re resident foreigners, and part of a group of pilgrims who live in a very unholy land
  3. You’re not alone – there are others just like you scattered all throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia!
  4. You, and every single other Christian, were each chosen according to God the Father’s plan. This means you’re important (not in and of yourself), but you’re important to God
  5. You were set apart for divine service (i.e. “sanctified”) by the Spirit. God sent the Spirit to shine the Gospel light into your heart and change your mind about sin, righteousness and judgment, so that you would repent and believe
  6. This was all done so that you’d become a Christian, obey the Gospel, and have Christ’s work applied to your soul

All three Persons of the Trinity are involved in your salvation. If you’re the new Christian in Bithynia, this gives some extraordinary comfort to you as you think about life, late at night, when all your family, friends, community and entire life has gone up in smoke because of your faith. If you’re a Christian today, it does the very same thing.

Peter focus on the Trinity to give you hope. God chose you. The Spirit set you apart for service, so you’d be obedient to the Gospel and have the Son’s work applied to your soul. This is why you can continue on, day by day, week by week, month by month. This is why you can and must persevere for Christ.

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

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

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

Mounting Opposition

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

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

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

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

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

The Confrontation in the Synagogue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They Did Not Recognize Him . . .

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

[5] Strauss (Mark, 147).

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

[7] Strauss (Mark, 148).

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

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

[10] Hendriksen (Mark, 117).