Sunday, November 11, 2012

Mark 5:1-5

They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit. He lived among the tombs. And no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain, for he had often been bound with shackles and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart, and he broke the shackles in pieces. No one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones.
(Mark 5:1-5)

This account of Jesus exorcising a demon from the man at Gerasenes is quite detailed, at least relative to the other mentions of demonic possession that Mark has made thus far. There are many interesting elements to this passage, so I'm breaking it up into smaller chunks. These first five verses set the scene, briefly describing the location and the man's condition.

The country of the Gerasenes

Looking at the map in the back of my Bible the only thing I could find similar was a place called Gergesa. Therefore, I had to research a little further to find out if this was the "Gerasenes". Some sources point out that there is debate about the exact location, but tradition holds it to be in Gersa, near a place called Khersa or Kursi today. There is an Israeli National Park on the site today of a 5th century monastery discovered in the late 1960's. William Lane, in The Gospel According to Mark, comments, 

Kursi, looking at Sea of Galilee

"The point of arrival is indicated in a general way as the district of the Gerasenes, most probably in reference to a town whose name is preserved in the modern Kersa or Koursi. At the site of Kersa the shore is level, and there are no tombs. But a mile further south there is a fairly steep slope awithin forty yards from the shore, and about two miles south from there cavern tombs are found which appear to have been used for dwellings."

The man

As I read God's Word, I try to imagine myself there in the story, filling in some of the scenic details we are not provided with my imagination, even facial expressions or body language. Or if I am reading one of the epistles, I imagine it is being read to me by the author, trying to imagine the inflections in their voice, or how they might try to enhance my understanding with gestures or drawing on elements in the environment.

Because of my tendency to read in this manner, this story stirs some interesting feelings and thoughts. I imagine that being there would have been very uncomfortable for me. Mark spends some time drawing this out for us. He obviously wants us to get the full picture. Let's walk through each element, trying to appreciate what he was trying to describe for us.

"He lived among the tombs."

The parallel passage in Luke 8:27 adds a detail to this part (the emphasis is mine): For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he had not lived in a house but among the tombs.

The man lived in the tombs. From my understanding of this region, this wasn't a cemetery as I picture it, but caves (some man-made) in the mountains where the dead would be laid to rest. The area would have been an "unclean" place in the Hebrew culture (Numbers 19:11-18), so I can imagine that there was some anxiety already about having to pass by the place, let alone having this man living in the area.

Let's not skip to quickly over the fact that he had not worn clothes for a long time. The shameful exposure compounded with his constant exposure to the weather and elements would have taken physical, spiritual, and mental tolls on the man and the people in that area.

"And no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain, for he had often been bound with shackles and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart, and he broke the shackles in pieces."

Luke adds (once again, the emphasis is mine): He was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the desert.

He was really strong! The people in this area had apparently tried to keep him under control, but he kept breaking out. This had to be very intimidating, and quite simply terrifying for anyone having to go past on way to somewhere else. Matthew 8:28 speaks to this, " fierce that no one could pass that way." Being one of the disciples with Jesus during this encounter, I imagine would have been an adrenaline spiked experience being unsure of what was to happen and if you were going to be assaulted or possibly killed by this maniac. Of course, we can't know for sure. Maybe they were still thinking about the storm and how Jesus calmed the wind and water... coming upon this man may have seemed trivial. I doubt it though.

We don't know exactly how long this man had been like this, though it would seem that it had been a while since Luke says, "For a long time...". There had been time enough for him to have been caught and bound "often" only to escape later.

"Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones."

No order, no peace, no rest. He was always crying out and cutting himself with stones. The man had to be physically and mentally exhausted, and his crying out would have been a constant annoyance and persistent reminder to the people that he was still there and unpredictable as always.

But I want to step back and look at this picture as a whole now. This man was not "normal". I do not think it's unfounded to say he would have been called "crazy" or "mentally ill" today. Am I off-base here? What would this look like in modern age? How would we treat him? How would the world react him? Yes, I'm now going to broach the subject of mental illness vs demonic possession today.

Take for instance, the "cutting himself with stones" phrase in this sentence. Is this normal? Does the typical, average person do this? No, not on purpose anyway. Besides, the phrasing doesn't lend to an accidental, clumsy situation - he was cutting himself. Yet, we do see this today. The phenomenon referred to as "cutting" or "self-injury" and if you look this up, you will discover that it's a sign of depression and/or a handful of other psychiatric conditions. The Mayo Clinic says that cutting is "considered an impulse-control behavior problem" and "may accompany a variety of mental illnesses, such as depression, eating disorders and borderline personality disorder".

In all seriousness, I believe that the near-complete absence of any serious consideration to demonic possession today (in full favor of "mental illness") is not a sign that possession doesn't necessarily exist. Because in a culture that denies the existence of any objective spiritual truths, for Satan to remove all doubt to the existence of a spiritual realm by propagating possession by and through his army of demons would be counter-productive to his cause: to blind people to a spiritual war, and ultimately to Christ and the Gospel. Yet, in that 1st century Hebraic culture, that spiritual realm was believed in and an integral part of daily life. Demonic possession served its purpose: to distort the image of God and introduce fear and doubt into a culture that understood it to be what it is - an assault on God's rule and order.

So, my question is this: do we see demon possession in any way today in America? Even if the psychiatric and medical communities do not see it, does the church see it? When we see similar behaviors among the "churched", are we even considering demonic oppression or possession? What about outside America? Is it something we see in the 21st century?

Friday, October 5, 2012

Mark 4:35-41

35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, "Let us go across to the other side."
36 And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him.
37 And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling.
38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?"
39 And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.
40 He said to them, "Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?"
41 And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, "Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?"
(Mark 4:35-41 ESV)

35 Καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς ἐν ἐκείνῃ τῇ ἡμέρᾳ ὀψίας γενομένης διέλθωμεν εἰς τὸ πέραν. 
36 καὶ ἀφέντες τὸν ὄχλον παραλαμβάνουσιν αὐτὸν ὡς ἦν ἐν τῷ πλοίῳ, καὶ ἄλλα πλοῖα ἦν μετ ̓ αὐτοῦ. 
37 καὶ γίνεται λαῖλαψ μεγάλη ἀνέμου καὶ τὰ κύματα ἐπέβαλλεν εἰς τὸ πλοῖον, ὥστε ἤδη γεμίζεσθαι τὸ πλοῖον. 
38 καὶ αὐτὸς ἦν ἐν τῇ πρύμνῃ ἐπὶ τὸ προσκεφάλαιον καθεύδων. καὶ ἐγείρουσιν αὐτὸν καὶ λέγουσιν αὐτῷ διδάσκαλε, οὐ μέλει σοι ὅτι ἀπολλύμεθα
39 καὶ διεγερθεὶς ἐπετίμησεν τῷ ἀνέμῳ καὶ εἶπεν τῇ θαλάσσῃ σιώπαπεφίμωσο. καὶ ἐκόπασεν ὁ ἄνεμος καὶ ἐγένετο γαλήνη μεγάλη. 
40 καὶ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς τί δειλοί ἐστε; οὔπω ἔχετε πίστιν
41 καὶ ἐφοβήθησαν φόβον μέγαν καὶ ἔλεγον πρὸς ἀλλήλους τίς ἄρα οὗτός ἐστιν ὅτι καὶ ὁ ἄνεμος καὶ ἡ θάλασσα ὑπακούει αὐτῷ
(Μάρκον 4:35-41 GNT)

There are three things in this section that pique my interest.  
  • First, Jesus was asleep;
  • Second, He commands the wind and sea by His word;
  • Third, His allusion to the connection between fear and faith.


"But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion."  Jesus was asleep.  As far as I am able to determine, this story of Jesus calming the storm is the only recorded occurrence of Jesus sleeping (it is recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark). Obviously, I am not suggesting that He didn't sleep on a regular basis, but it's interesting that this instance was recorded.  It is a crucial part of the story.  For two reasons do I draw attention to it.  Primarily, I think it shows the absolute peace and utter lack of fear that Jesus had in these circumstances.  Secondarily, I think it shows us another part of His humanity; that He was tired and needed to sleep.

By His word

27 they reeled and staggered like drunken men
and were at their wits' end. 

28 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.

29 He made the storm be still,
and the waves of the sea were hushed.

30 Then they were glad that the waters were quiet,
and he brought them to their desired haven.
(Psalm 107:27-30 ESV)

Scripture is not soft on declaring God's command over His creation.  I challenge you to read Psalm 104 and not be humbled, even convicted, by the response of the creation to the word of its Creator. We men are often in awe of the immense power displayed in nature. Many even raise nature upon a pedestal because of this, to the point of making an idol of it (Romans 1:21-25).

Yet, man is created in God's image (Genesis 1:26; James 3:9) and charged with ruling over and subduing creation (Genesis 1:28) not bowing down before it.  Considering this, it frightens me to contrast man's posture before the God of the universe, thumbing our collective nose at our Creator, while the rest of creation lays prostrate before Him, submissive to and obeying His every word.  We fool ourselves if we really believe there are no consequences for this.

So, here in this passage we see the Lord of all creation wielding authority over His own. He rebuked the wind. I don't know about you, but I do not use that word very often, if at all. Sure, I can look it up in the current M-W dictionary and read that it means, "a sharp reprimand" or "to criticize sharply".  But, don't you wonder what this rebuke entailed?  

I looked up the Greek word (ἐπετίμησεν - epetímeesen - Strong's: 2008) in a lexicon to try to get a better idea.  It says, "to lay a value upon" and then goes on to explain it as "to lay a penalty on" or "to blame, find fault with".  Well, that helps a little. The next step is using a concordance to see other places in the New Testament where this word is used.  Perhaps we can derive some meaning from the greater context.
  • Matthew 16:22 - epitimán (2008)
  • Mark 8:32 - epitimán (2008)
  • Luke 17:3 - epitímeeson (2008)
  • Luke 19:39 - epitímeeson (2008)
  • 1 Timothy 5:1 - epipleéxees (1969)
  • 1 Timothy 5:20 - élengche (1651)
  • 2 Timothy 4:2 - epitímeeson (2008); élengxon (1651)
  • Titus 1:9 - eléngchein (1651) - to convince
  • Titus 1:13 - élengche (1651)
  • Titus 2:15 - élengche (1651)
  • Jude 9 - epitimeésai (2008)
  • Rev 3:19 - eléngchoo (1651)
These passages are the results of an ESV concordance search of "rebuke".  There are two root words commonly translated rebuke or reprove.  I think it helps to see the general idea behind "rebuke". To rebuke a person or thing appears to be an authoritative action. This does not seem to be a request or gentle counseling.  The one giving the rebuke believes they stand in a position of authority over the one being rebuked.  I say "believes" because we see Peter rebuking Jesus, which sheds a bit of light on the mindset of Peter at that time.  

All else being equal, rebuking someone or something seemingly involves a bold declaration of having found fault with the subject being rebuked and demanding immediate cessation of the offending behavior or action.  So, there it is.  It still doesn't really answer it completely.  Did Jesus say something particular in this rebuke?  Is, "Peace! Be still!", the rebuke?  

Faith | Fear

He said to them, "Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?"

Does faith equal "no fear"?  I think maybe that's too all-encompassing of a statement, but we do see that the disciples obviously were lacking faith in Jesus' command of the situation.  I believe this is often true of me.  I am slow to understand that He is in control; that He is the Master of every situation.  I may not voice it out loud, but internally I can ask, "Lord, do you not care?"  It can only be called what it is: a lack of faith.  But I would caution against blind faith in anything.  Nowhere does the God of the Scriptures call us to act on "blind faith".  Our trust in Him is not baseless, but is rooted in a consistent history of His having fulfilled His promises, and His continuing to do so.  We are not ignorant of His deeds - the Scriptures record God's faithfulness over and over again.  Therefore, when I fail to trust His sovereignty, and cower in paralyzing fear in the midst of trouble, I am effectively declaring that I do not know if He cares enough about me.  Like the disciples, I am choosing to forget what I know He has done.  I am living out my faith, and in that moment I am living without faith.

Scripture speaks to this many times.  One such instance occurs in Deuteronomy 7:17-26.  There Moses tells the people to not be afraid when they come up against the people-nations that currently possess the promised land.  However, he doesn't just tell them not to be afraid because they're "big boys and girls now" or something like that.  He explains that, "you shall remember what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt".  Israel is not called to "blind faith" when going into battle, but to a faith based on the works they have witnessed God performing in rescuing them from slavery in Egypt.

Finally, when it comes to a basis for faith, I believe there is something even more important than God's faithfulness in the past.  I believe that the follower of Jesus Christ bases his faith more so on the promises of God.  Hebrews 11:1 tells us, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."  These assurances and convictions are forward looking.  Yet. this does not diminish the benefits of looking upon already fulfilled promises, but the greater glory lies yet to come.  The faith that pleases God (Heb. 11:6) is one that believes His promises and acts on them.  The eleventh chapter of Hebrews fleshes this out more fully, but the theme is of men that trusted God to do what He said He would do, and so obeyed by faith.  Consequently, their belief was counted to them as righteousness.  And let's not divorce their acting on their belief from their belief.  As James 2 teaches, Abraham didn't just sit down and say, "Yep, I believe God" but he acted on that belief.

How will this faith look in the context of fear?  How do I grow in my faith so as to not sucuumb to fear during the troubling times of life (John 16:33)?  Paul tells us.

No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. (Romans 4:20-22)
Giving God the glory when in the day-to-day course of life we overcome sin, or undeniably perceive His working in that trial.  Giving Him the glory and praising Him for His faithfulness.  That is the answer.

Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens!
Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his excellent greatness!
Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe!
Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!
(Psalm 150)

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Mark 4:30-34

30 And he said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it?
31 It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth,
32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade."
33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it.
34 He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.
(Mark 4:30-34 ESV)

30 καὶ ἔλεγεν, πῶς ὁμοιώσωμεν τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ, ἢ ἐν τίνι αὐτὴν παραβολῇ θῶμεν
31 ὡς κόκκῳ σινάπεως, ὃς ὅταν σπαρῇ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς, μικρότερον ὂν πάντων τῶν σπερμάτων τῶν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς,
32 καὶ ὅταν σπαρῇ, ἀναβαίνει καὶ γίνεται μεῖζον πάντων τῶν λαχάνων καὶ ποιεῖ κλάδους μεγάλους, ὥστε δύνασθαι ὑπὸ τὴν σκιὰν αὐτοῦ τὰ πετεινὰ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ κατασκηνοῦν.
33 καὶ τοιαύταις παραβολαῖς πολλαῖς ἐλάλει αὐτοῖς τὸν λόγον, καθὼς ἠδύναντο ἀκούειν·
34 χωρὶς δὲ παραβολῆς οὐκ ἐλάλει αὐτοῖς, κατ᾽ ἰδίαν δὲ τοῖς ἰδίοις μαθηταῖς ἐπέλυεν πάντα.
(Μάρκον 4:30-34 GNT)

Smallest of all the seeds

Have you ever known a person that often takes everything you say literally, and calls you on it?  You might say, "I've looked everywhere in the house and can't find the TV remote."  He's sure to retort, "You looked everywhere? That must have taken a long time."  Or maybe you say, "I've never been more thirsty than I am right now."  She would ask, "Never? This is the most thirsty you have ever been?!" 

This is one of those passages in the Bible that some people are unable to resist pointing out as a supposed scientific inconsistency in the Bible.  They counter that the mustard seed is in fact not "the smallest of all the seeds on earth". They are correct. And yet, that is not what Jesus was claiming. He was not making a sweeping, universal declaration about all seeds on the planet.  

Unlike most scholars, then and now, Jesus was not interested in flaunting His vast knowledge at the expense of alienating the people listening to Him. Instead, his intent is to relate at their level in order to effectively communicate the ideas He is speaking about, in this case, explaining what the kingdom of God is like. In that 1st century agriculture-based society, it was common knowledge that of all the seeds cultivated for food or other immediate uses in that area of the world, the mustard seed was by far the smallest, and yet it also produced one of the largest mature bushes. This same, seemingly common reference to the mustard seed's size is also seen in the reference to "faith like a grain of mustard seed" (Matthew 17:20; Luke 17:6).  It was not primarily given as a factual statement about the seed itself, but as a common phrase about the small size.

What good would it have done if He had referenced, perhaps, the Sequoia tree seed or the seed of an orchid?  These are small seeds, and maybe the smallest of all seeds. But the farmers in that area would be unfamiliar with them and the point would have been lost.

Now then, we have this parable, which we've learned is a "setting alongside" so that the new idea that we are trying to explain is set alongside something with which are already familiar; the mustard bush grows quite large from a very small seed. Continuing with the already established concept of the "seed" representing the Gospel or God's Word, we can conclude that the end result is a large, branching "tree", enough so that "birds" are able to nest in it.

Birds of the air

Remembering that we shouldn't press every detail of a parable as if it is critical to the lesson being taught - parables are not allegories - I think it's safe to say that the focus of this parable is on the small seed producing a large result, or rather the amazing growth resulting from planting that seed.  I believe it could be misleading and even dangerous to try to allegorize the branches and the birds as "significant players" in this parable. I believe they are merely Jesus painting the full picture.  By suggesting that "the birds of the air can make nests in its shade", He illustrates that the plant is substantial enough to support them; it is a large bush, maybe even nearly a tree in stature. These birds, while not irrelevant, merely play a supporting role, supplementing the illustration of just how large this plant will become.

I would be remiss if I did not include the fact that I have read accounts interpreting these birds through the lens of Mark 4:4,15:

And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. (Mark 4:4)

And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. (Mark 4:15)

Their interpretation is that with the growth of the kingdom of God being so remarkable from the planting of such a tiny seed, this will allow Satan and his league to infiltrate, setup shop, and operate from within.  I do not disagree with the assertion that the forces of darkness do endeavor (quite often successfully) to infiltrate and plant "agents" within churches.  Obviously, history has proven time and again that there have been such "goats" among the "sheep", and they do manage to "build their nests" in the "branches of the church".  However, I do not think that is necessarily the reference in this parable.

Something seemed familiar about this story, specifically the birds making nests in the branches.  It reminded me of similar illustrations in the Old Testament.  After doing some searching, I found a few references in Ezekiel and Daniel.  

Thus says the Lord God: "I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of the cedar and will set it out. I will break off from the topmost of its young twigs a tender one, and I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain.  On the mountain height of Israel will I plant it, that it may bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar. And under it will dwell every kind of bird; in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest.  And all the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord; I bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish. I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it.  (Ezekiel 17:22-24 - emphasis mine)

Nearly every resource I can find suggests the obvious - that this is without a doubt a reference to the Messiah, Jesus Christ, and His Kingdom.

In another spot, Ezekiel records a reference that appears to describe the kingdom of Assyria (Ezekiel 31:3-9).

All the birds of the heavens made their nests in its boughs; under its branches all the beasts of the field gave birth to their young, and under its shadow lived all great nations. (Ezekiel 31:6 - emphasis mine)

Ezekiel's ministry ranged around 592 B.C. until about 570 B.C. and it is believed that he was a contemporary of the prophet Daniel (605 B.C. through 536 B.C.), whom he names in Ezekiel 14:14 & 28:3 as an already well-known prophet.  We read a similar reference in Daniel to birds living in the branches.  It could be suggested that this was a not uncommon word picture?

The king of Babylon has a dream and relates it to Daniel for interpretation:

The visions of my head as I lay in bed were these: I saw, and behold, a tree in the midst of the earth, and its height was great.  The tree grew and became strong, and its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the end of the whole earth.  Its leaves were beautiful and its fruit abundant, and in it was food for all. The beasts of the field found shade under it, and the birds of the heavens lived in its branches, and all flesh was fed from it. (Daniel 4:10-12 - emphasis mine)

Daniel interprets this dream for the king:

The tree you saw, which grew and became strong, so that its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the end of the whole earth, whose leaves were beautiful and its fruit abundant, and in which was food for all, under which beasts of the field found shade, and in whose branches the birds of the heavens lived—it is you, O king, who have grown and become strong. Your greatness has grown and reaches to heaven, and your dominion to the ends of the earth.  (Daniel 4:20-22 - emphasis mine)

In Daniel's interpretation, we see that the "birds of the heavens" are representative of the nations of the earth, which benefited from the wealthy and stable rule of this king of Babylon.

So, Ezekiel uses the same wording in describing the Messianic kingdom, and then the kingdom of Assyria.  Daniel uses the same phraseology in describing the Babylonian empire.  All of this brings us back to our Messiah speaking in parable of birds of the air making nests in the shade of this tree.  I believe without a doubt that He is making reference to that passage in Ezekiel, and that He is obviously foreshadowing His Kingdom and the pervasive reach that it will have.

Untying riddles

Previously, in a couple other posts I have discussed parables and how Jesus used them to explain spiritual concepts such as the kingdom of God.  Here again in Mark 4:33-34, the gospel writer explains that Jesus didn't teach the crowds apart from parables. He was always teaching them in parables, only explaining them to His disciples.  

There is something in the original Greek that I find interesting in the phrasing at the end of verse 34, "he was explaining".  The word is ἐπέλυεν and the idea contained in it, at least as much as I can determine from my study, means "to loose" or "to untie".  I just find that to be quite a mental image of what Jesus is doing with His disciples.  He is untying the riddles, He is letting loose the truth from the mysteries. His parables undoubtedly were a mystery in the minds of those that were hearing Him speak, but unable to understand what He was teaching.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Mark 4:26-29

26 And he said, "The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. 
He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. 
The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. 
29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come."  (Mark 4:26-29 ESV)

26 Καὶ ἔλεγεν· οὕτως ἐστὶν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ ὡς ἄνθρωπος βάλῃ τὸν σπόρον ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς
27 καὶ καθεύδῃ καὶ ἐγείρηται νύκτα καὶ ἡμέραν, καὶ ὁ σπόρος βλαστᾷ καὶ μηκύνηται ὡς οὐκ οἶδεν αὐτός.
28 αὐτομάτη ἡ γῆ καρποφορεῖ, πρῶτον χόρτον εἶτα στάχυν εἶτα πλήρη[ς] σῖτον ἐν τῷ στάχυϊ.
29 ὅταν δὲ παραδοῖ ὁ καρπός, εὐθὺς ἀποστέλλει τὸ δρέπανον, ὅτι παρέστηκεν ὁ θερισμός.  (
Μάρκον 4:26-29 GNT)

When I was a little boy one of the most exciting phrases I could hear my father say was, "Wayne, do you want to help me with this?"  Really?!  Dad wanted my help?  I mean, the man that I thought could do anything was asking me to help him.  As a father myself today, I now understand that he was merely condescending to my little self primarily because he loved me and wanted to include me in something that he was doing.  He was not doing so for his sake, but for mine.  It wasn't as if he was incapable of doing whatever it was without me, but he chose to have me involved because he wanted to include me.  As that young boy though, I was sure that my part was crucial to what he was doing.  I'm sure that I told everyone I met the rest of the day that daddy had needed my help with that and we fixed it together, though I couldn't begin to tell you how my standing there holding a wrench or turning a couple nuts and bolts did anything to fix the lawnmower.

In this parable, Jesus explains that our Heavenly Father includes us in His work too, but only in planting the seed.  There is a good deal to unpack in this parable, while at first glance it appears to be very simple.  It is crucial that we understand that this is primarily about "the kingdom of God".  It is easy to overlook that.  It is what Jesus is explaining here.  As usual, He explains something foreign and complex in a very familiar and simple way, so that His disciples can understand it, but also so that those that do not "have ears to hear" will be unable to discern the meaning.

Let's remember though, that this is a parable and it is not intended to be pressed to every detail.  Many times Jesus makes reference to "the kingdom of God" or "the kingdom of heaven" and with each instance He is explaining a portion or clarifying a particular attribute.  Bernard Ramm reminds us how we should interpret parables in his book, "Protestant Biblical Interpretation":

Determine the one central truth the parable is attempting to teach. This might be called the golden rule of paraboloid interpretation for practically all writers on the subject mention it with stress. “The typical parable presents one single point of comparison,” writes Dodd. “The details are not intended to have independent significance.”  Others have put the rule this way: Don’t make a parable walk on all fours.

A parable is not like an allegory, for in the latter most of the elements of the narrative have meaning. To be sure, some parables are more elaborate than others and in this regard approach an allegory. But as a general or guiding rule, look for the one central thesis of the parable. A parable is a truth carried in a vehicle. Therefore there is the inevitable presence of accessories which are necessary for the drapery of the parable, but are not part of the meaning.

The danger in parabolic teaching at this point is to interpret as meaningful what is drapery.
Ramm, Bernard. Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 1970, page 283

Taking this into consideration, it's important to identify the one central point that Jesus is making this parable, and not dwell on the "drapery".  But we should at least identify the major components.  We can draw on context for much of this. 
  1. The seed:  Having told the parable of the Four Soils recently, the seed would obviously remain the same, and that being the Gospel, or God's Word.
  2. The man:  We can infer that the man is a farmer, but I would hesitate to say that God is the farmer, at least not in this parable, because the farmer then sleeps.  God does not sleep (Psalm 121).  I think it's safe to interpret the farmer as a disciple of Jesus Christ, a Christian sowing the seed, sharing the Gospel with others.
  3. The ground:  Again, context would lend itself to understanding the ground to be the ones in which the seed is sown - the people of the world (1 Corinthians 3:9). 
  4. The harvest:  This is a reference to the end of the age when what has been sown will be reaped (Matthew 13:39).
We are familiar with the concept in verse 26 of the man scattering seed on the ground.  Reference the parable of the four soils

Verse 27 says that the man "sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how".  Pretty simple, right?  Seems normal enough.  The farmer worked hard sowing the seed, then he goes home to sleep.  We have the general passage of time: "rises night and day".  Do we not assume that time passes as usual?  It's probably safe to assume that he goes about the usual tasks involved with farming.  A good farmer doesn't ignore the field, he ensures that the conditions are right for the seed to grow.  But this is not to suggest that the farmer actually causes the seed to germinate and sprout, or cause it to develop it's fruit and then ripen to harvest condition.  He is not awake at all hours of the day fretting over the seed, digging it up and replanting it in a different place.  He leaves it where it is, attends to those things that he can do to condition the soil (water, fertilize, pull weeds, etc.) but the seed is under it's own power to take root and produce.  Such it is with the Word of God.  Once it has been planted in the heart of the hearer, it is in God's hands. 

I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God's fellow workers. You are God's field, God's building.  (1 Corinthians 3:6-9)

Verse 28 starts out with an interesting word in the Greek:  αὐτομάτη  This word means "acting of one's own will".  We would say it does it "by itself".  The point obviously being made is that it's happening apart from man's interference.  Aside from the act of spreading the seed, casting it onto the ground, there is nothing that the farmer need do to cause the seed to grow, "the earth produces by itself".

Verse 29 has some interesting Greek. 
But when the grain is ripe (παραδοῖ), at once he puts in the sickle (ἀποστέλλει τὸ δρέπανον), because the harvest has come (παρέστηκεν). could be rendered

But when the grain [is delivered up], at once he [sends the sickle], because the harvest [has been presented].

I point this out because it is all very relevant to those things concerning the end times.  What is it that God will be "harvesting" in the end times?  Is it not those that belong to Him?  Is it not the Church, the Bride of Christ?  Read this passage from Ephesians:

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present [παραστήσῃ] the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.  (Ephesians 5:25-27)

The word used in Ephesians is just a different tense of the word used in Mark.  In Mark, it is "has been presented"; in Ephesians, it is "he might present".  When the Church has been presented to the Lord, then He sends the "sickle", or those that will do the harvesting (i.e. angels). 

...the harvest is the end of the world, and the harvesters are the angels. Just as the weeds are sorted out and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the world. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will remove from his Kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. And the angels will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in their Father's Kingdom. (Matthew 13:39-43)

Our Lord, Jesus Christ, has given us a rich lesson in how the Kingdom of God progresses in stages, and a clear presentation of our part in it.  We are laborers.  Some are planting the seed.  Some are watering.  But at no time does He allow us to make claim to causing the seed to grow.  That is all of God.

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.  (Isaiah 55:10-11)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

How Firm A Foundation

This hymn is believed to have first been brought to the United States in the late 18th century by Dr. John Rippon, a Baptist minister from London, England.

While no one can say for sure, it is believed to have been written by a man named Robert Keene. Mr. Keene was the music director in Dr. Rippon's church. The hymn first appeared anonymously in Dr. Rippon's collection of hymns (here is a digital copy from early 19th century) with the author indicated merely as "K". Therefore, many believe "K" might be Mr. Keene.

Recently, while listening to this hymn on my way home from work, I found myself paying heavy attention to the words. It had previously escaped my attention just how theologically rich this hymn is, and I thought it could be beneficial to study those biblical truths to which we affirm when we sing this song.

[Unless stated otherwise, scripture references are from the English Standard Version.]

Verse 1

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in his excellent word!
What more can he say than to you he hath said,
To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?

2 Timothy 2:19 says,
"But God's firm foundation stands, bearing this seal:
"The Lord knows those who are his," and,
"Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity."

More so, it is a truth of the faith that all that God has revealed to us, all that is necessary for us to know Him by His Son, Jesus Christ, is revealed to us in His Word.
but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:31)

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. (1 John 5:13)

And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. (1 John 5:20)

Verse 2

Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed,
For I am thy God and will still give thee aid;
I'll strengthen and help thee, and cause thee to stand
Upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.

This second verse is almost an exact quote from Isaiah 41:10,
Fear not, for I am with you;
be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

Verse 3

When through deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of woe shall not thee overflow;
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

Isaiah 43:2 appears to be the reference being made in verse three:
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.

Verse 4

When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie,
My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.

I find a couple references in the fourth verse. The first being 2 Corinthians 12:9,
But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."

And from Zechariah 13:9,
And I will put this third into the fire,
and refine them as one refines silver,
and test them as gold is tested.

Isaiah 48:10,
Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver;
I have tried you in the furnace of affliction.

and Isaiah 1:25
I will turn my hand against you
and will smelt away your dross as with lye
and remove all your alloy.
As we learn in the Epistle of James, and is so often quoted in Romans 8:28-29, we know that God assures us that "fiery trials" are ordained for our ultimate good, purifying and sanctifying us, in order to make us into the image of His Son, Jesus Christ.

Verse 5

The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.

It would seem that the best reference is found in the latter part of Hebrews 13:5,
...for he has said, "I will never leave you nor forsake you."

Which is a reference to the times that God made this promise to:

Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you." (Genesis 28:15)

Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you." (Deuteronomy 31:6)

No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you. (Joshua 1:5-6)

and David:
Then David continued, "Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Don't be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you. (1 Chronicles 28:20)

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Mark 4:24-25

And he said to them, "Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you.  For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away."  (Mark 4:24-25)

Since verse 10 of this chapter, Jesus has been talking to His closest followers, including the twelve.  What He is talking about here is so very pertinent to the church today - to us - maybe more so than most any other time in history.  I say that because we have available to us so many messages today, that it is critical that the Christian be discerning.  There are so many sources claiming to be the truth that if you are out of touch with God's Word, you can be easily drawn away.

This phrase, "Pay attention to what you hear" is the central part of this entire passage.  In the Greek it is, blepete ti akouete, which, as far as I can determine from studying, means, "to look at what you hear".  Now, that is a bit confusing, so I found a teacher that explains it better.

Let me tell you what it is in the Greek, it’s a real simple phrase. In fact, this is a little bit misleading in this English translation. The actual Greek is blepeta tee akouata, two verbs and a simple particle on between...blepeta means "to see", first of all in the normal sense of physical sight, secondarily in the sense of perception. In fact, it is used to refer to mental function, to understanding, to consideration. So, what blepeta tee akouata really says is "be understanding what"... tee can be who or what... "be understanding what you hear".  In other words, listen carefully to the Word of God.  "Be seeing what you are hearing", that’s the literal Greek, "be seeing what you are hearing", perceive the Word of God thoughtfully, carefully.  (John MacArthur)

Our Lord is commanding us to consider what we hear regarding the Word of God thoughtfully and carefully.  Not every person who claims to be a preacher is necessarily preaching the true Gospel.  Charles Spurgeon speaks to this.

Be careful what you hear; hear the truth, and the truth only. It does seem to me as if some people said, "Here is a place of worship; there is sure to be a sermon, let us go in and hear it." Ah! but all that is preached is not gospel, and it is not all hearing that will be valuable to your souls. 

Especially at this present time it is incumbent upon Christians to learn how to use the discerning faculty with regard to what is, and what is not, truth. Would you eat all meat indiscriminately without tasting and testing its quality? If so, would you not soon be ill? Does a man take any drug that may happen to be upon the chemist's shelves? Does he not expect great care to be exercised in the doctor's dispensary, lest he should be taking poison where he hoped for a salutary medicine? 

Remember what the apostle John says, "Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God" (1 John 4:1).

Oh, how relevant is this to us today?  There are so many vying for our attention, plying a gospel that is not that from God, a gospel that tickles our ears, offering to us refreshing cisterns of water that are, in fact, empty pits of destruction. People are seeking answers, wandering in the wilderness without a shepherd, easy pickings for the one that is prowling around as a lion seeking to devour them.  The lone sheep that is not under the care of an under-shepherd among a flock of like is easy prey.

Continuing in His method of speaking about things that the common man would understand, Jesus is telling them about the Kingdom of God in layman's terms. He is telling them to think on and earnestly consider what it is they are listening to, not letting it go in one ear and out the other.  That's what He's speaking about when He continues, "with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you".  Jesus ties all of these parables into the same theme He started in the parable of the 4 Soils - it's a farming, agricultural theme.  In this case, He is telling them nothing they don't already understand, that you reap what you sow.  And if you sow half-heartedly, you'll reap a harvest of the same caliber.  If you give no mind to the value of what you're feeding your spirit and mind, you cannot expect to reap everlasting rewards of spiritual fruit.  Garbage in, garbage out.  The one that has no interest in hearing the truth will hear nothing of value, and subsequently will reap nothing of value.  On the flip-side, the one who is honestly seeking truth will hear the Gospel and will allow it to break up the hard ground of their heart, having the seed sown as we read in the previous parable.  

Finally, in context with the previous subjects of the lamp under the basket, Jesus is referring to the light (or the seed, if we attach to the 4 soils parable) of the Gospel we have received.  We are not given the seed or the light without the intention that we will share that light and sow that seed.  The Apostle Paul speaks to this in his letter to the Galatians.

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. 
(Gal 6:7-10)

I'll wrap up looking at verse 25.  This one is kinda confusing at first, but if you break it up and consider it closely, you can understand it easily.  There are two people: one that has, and one that doesn't have.  Luke records this a little differently, and it helped me understand it better.

Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away." (Luke 8:18) [emphasis mine]

Interesting, isn't it?  One has and more will be given him.  The other thinks he has, but even that thought will be taken from him.  
What is Jesus talking about? I believe He is coming full circle to paying attention to what you hear.  The one that has ears to hear will hear, and will hear more.  He will have an insatiable thirst for hearing of Christ and His Gospel.  It is, after all, by hearing that faith comes (Romans 10:17), and it is only through faith that one is saved (Ephesians 2:8).  
The other man, the one that thinks he has, I believe this to be one of those that will hear, "I never knew you" (Matthew 7:21-23), on that last day.  This man went to church, he participated in religious activity of all kinds, he was a "good person" - he just never truly repented of his sin, he loved it too much, and he consequently never trusted Christ to be his Savior.  Perhaps he intended to play that card in the same hand with his full house of righteous deeds, a kind of "Christ + me" formula that is wholly inconsistent with Scripture.  You see, he thought he had it - eternal life - he even gleaned some of the blessings of God's people by standing close to them, like the husband in 1 Corinthians 7 that is not a believer, but "is made holy because of his wife".  He thought he had it, but what he thought he had will be taken from him.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Theology in the Psalms - God Exists

(In retrospect, I probably should have started with this one.)

God Exists

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. (Psalm 19:1)
The fool says in his heart, "There is no God." They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good. (Psalm 14:1)
The fool says in his heart, "There is no God." They are corrupt, doing abominable iniquity; there is none who does good. (Psalm 53:1)
For the wicked boasts of the desires of his soul, and the one greedy for gain curses and renounces the LORD. In the pride of his face the wicked does not seek him; all his thoughts are, "There is no God." (Psalm 10:3-4)

The fool says in his heart, "There is no God."  I find it interesting that he says this in his heart, and all his thoughts are thus.  He believes this to his core.  Since no one can truly know the heart of another (Proverbs 14:10), the fool could be saying one thing with his mouth, and believing something else in his heart.
Yet, in passages like Matthew 15:17-19 and Luke 6:44-46, Jesus reminds us that "...what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart."  We can know something of what the fool truly believes, because it will be evident in the things that come out of his mouth.
In practical, everyday terms, how is it that family and friends that attend the same church, hear the same preacher proclaiming the same Gospel, can lead totally disparate lives?  Years later, the observer can notice marked differences in the manner of life and attitude between the believer and the unbeliever.  How is this so?  Does the apparent follower of Jesus do something that makes that gospel take root in their heart and life?  Did the unbeliever not do some critical act or not participate in a crucial ritual that leaves his heart saying, "There is no God"?  I do not believe so.  If this was true, then salvation is dependent on something I did.  If it is dependent on something that I have done, then it then is not entirely of God.

But, you might say, what about the man or woman that is really seeking God?  They are going from church to church, or tasting different religions to find God.  Let's see what God tells us in these very Psalms we're studying:

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
    They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds,
    there is none who does good.
The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man,
    to see if there are any who understand,
    who seek after God.
They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
    there is none who does good,
    not even one. (Psalm 14:1-3)

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
    They are corrupt, doing abominable iniquity;
    there is none who does good.
God looks down from heaven
    on the children of man
to see if there are any who understand,
    who seek after God.
They have all fallen away;
    together they have become corrupt;
there is none who does good,
    not even one. (Psalm 53:1-3)
Paul references these Psalms in his letter to the Romans:
as it is written:“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”  (Romans 3:10-12)
I've been there. I have been the "seeker". But what I have had to admit is that I was not seeking the true God of the Bible. I wanted a god of my own making, one that would tell me that all (or at least some) of the things I was doing or thinking were not wrong, and that I did not need to repent of those things. I wanted a god that made me feel good about myself, that allowed me to keep my self-esteem, and let me believe that what I wanted was what he wanted for me.  I was seeking for sure... just not seeking Him.  Thankfully, God is patient with us (2 Peter 3:9), and allowed me to get to the end of my self; He enabled me to really see myself for what I was (which was not a mostly good person with flaws, but a man wallowing in my own selfish, self-centered world of sin) and enabled me to see my need for Him.  As the story goes, I did do my part in my salvation: I ran from God... but because He loved me, He chased me down, caught me, and saved me.

God must enable us to be persuaded or we would never believe in him. 
"...the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God." (2 Corinthians 4:4)

Some attempt to discover God apart from His revelation of Himself in His Word and in His Son Jesus Christ.  They seek to discover Him through philosophy and the wisdom of men. However, we read that human wisdom is inadequate for coming to know God.

"For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe." (1 Corinthians 1:21)

We are entirely dependent upon God to remove the blindness and irrationality caused by sin and to enable us to evaluate the evidence rightly, to believe what Scripture says, and to come to saving faith in Christ.