Friday, March 30, 2012

Mark 4:1-20

Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land.

And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them:

"Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it.

Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away.

Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain.

And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold."

And he said, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."

And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that "they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven."

And he said to them, "Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?

The sower sows the word.

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.

And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.

And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.

But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold." 

A fun-fact I discovered in this study: this is one of only six parables that is recorded in each of the three gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. 

If you've been in a church for at least a few years, and/or if you've read the New Testament at all, then this is probably a familiar parable. I, myself, have heard a few sermons on the "Sower and the Soils", and if you have read anything on evangelism or missions, or YRR Christian blogs, etc. you'll most likely have run into this parable and it's applications. I do not think it is at all hard for anyone to find a commentary or discussion on the 4 Soils. 

With that in mind, I want to write this post looking at verses 11 and 12.

Before we go there, let's address some of the context in which those verses operate. There are a few things that most commentaries will point out.  The first is that Jesus "bookends" this parable with, effectively, "Hey, listen up... this one's important!".  The second, and most popular is that there are four "soils" on which the "seed" falls. As such, Jesus explains that these are four responses to God's Word.

A quick survey of the parable: a sower sows some seed, and that seed falls on four different types of ground: on the walking path, rocky ground, thorny ground, and good soil. Subsequently, the type of ground affects how or if the seed takes hold, and if takes hold, whether it grows to maturity.

For the largely agrarian society in which Jesus was teaching, this would have been fairly straightforward and easily understood, pretty much seen as common sense. That was the end of the lesson for the crowd at large.

The crowd

Let's just pause for a moment and try to place ourselves in this crowd; think about why those around us are here listening to Jesus.  A little context for placing the timing: Mark and Matthew write the account of this parable directly after the incident of Jesus' earthly family waiting outside for Him, and Jesus explaining that His family is truly those that do God's will. 

Luke places this differently. This isn't a great problem, as reason would suggest that Jesus probably taught this lesson many times, to many different gatherings of people. His ministry was itinerant, and He would have taught the same truth many times and in many places. But the same overall draw would have been there for whichever crowd.

Overall, this man, Jesus, had been healing the sick and leprous, dispossessing demons, and acting in so many ways different than any of the other teachers or rabbis that these people had heard or seen. It's entirely understandable that Jesus would draw a large following, at least as far as the numbers that would come out to see Him. As anyone familiar with human behavior will tell you, just because you have a great number of people following you doesn't mean they are all doing so for the same reason. 

Some of the people in this crowd were surely there because they saw something in Him that seemed to be the answer to many of their troubles. Some wanted a healing, and yet others just wanted something to do, or were just there because their friends were there. I imagine others were there for other selfish reasons, and we know that there were those in the crowd that had been sent by other parties to report back with details of what He was doing, or waiting for Him to do something scandalous or illegal for which they could undermine His ministry. 

As we meander through the crowd, we can begin to perceive that some are listening intently, probably angling for a spot up front or some place where they can see over the crowd. Others are sitting with a group, maybe picking at the vegetation, or "people watching" (like us). Still others are whispering among themselves, pointing out something they disagree with, or maybe they're anxious for the lecture portion to be over, and wondering when the miracle portion of the show will begin. Either way, we can begin to understand that all of these people aren't necessarily here for the same reason. 

(I totally believe that Jesus was entirely aware of these "crowd dynamics".  In fact, I think it plays greatly into why He does what He does in this passage.)

Withholding revelation

So, what does that leave for us to study in this post? Well, I find it interesting when Jesus explains that this parable is used to withhold revelation from the unbelieving, while also enabling the true believers to perceive the revelation (vv. 11-12). 

Wait. How's that again? It sounds like Jesus is saying that He is teaching this truth in such a way that He knows some are not going to understand, but others will. Why? 

Why wouldn't His plan be to structure the lesson in such a way that the greatest number of listeners would pick up on the truths in the oratory? Why would He purposely set it up so that some will leave with no understanding as to what He was really teaching? Why didn't Jesus just teach the plain, simple lesson here? As a nod to those in the educational system in America, why didn't He differentiate the lesson plan to account for all of the students learning styles?
Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth!
I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old  --  (Psalm 78:1-2)
I think we can totally understand when He uses a parable to explain a deep, spiritual truth that someone might find a bit difficult to grasp, but this one seems pretty straightforward, at least when He explains it later to the disciples (vv. 14-20). 

The explanation: first, the seed represents God's Word. As for the ground types: (1) the walking path is the hard heart, totally resistant to God's Word, (2) the rocky ground is the shallow, emotional response to the Word, the one that isn't ready to do what the Gospel requires, (3) the thorny ground is the unrepentant response to the Word, that tries to add Christ to everything else they love, and (4) the good soil is the true believer, that receives the Word and totally repents of their sin, cleaving entirely to Christ.

Is Jesus suggesting that if He'd laid it out all simple-like, the scribes and Pharisees might have received some kind of revelation? That they might have begun to believe Him to be the Messiah? What's the problem with that?

Free will

Believe it or not, I believe the way Jesus approaches the teaching of this crowd is actually "God playing by the rules". What do I mean by this? Primarily, I'm referring to "free will" (in the limited definition). Let's see if I can lay this out in a cohesive and comprehensive way.

First, there is God's will and there is man's will. 

God's will

God's will is eternal and cannot be thwarted, or defeated, or changed (Job 23:13; Ephesians 1:11; Daniel 4:35; Romans 9:18-20) . 

Man's will

Man's will is not like God's will (Jeremiah 17:9; Matthew 15:19-20; Mark 7:20-23; Matthew 7:11). Man was created with a will, given the power of self-determination, with the freedom to choose, including the ability to choose contrary to God's will. Man's will is not an eternal will, it is fleeting. And it changes... in fact, it could be said that it's characteristically defined by "change". 

Yet, no one changes a man's will except that man himself.  His will is entirely free to act within the moment and circumstances in which he finds himself. This does not mean that one cannot have the will of another exercised upon them, against their own will. The fact that something happened to you, that you did not will, does not mean that your will was changed to allow it to happen. That is the nature of living with others, and among other beings with "free" will. 

Example: a child that does not want to go to school, but ends up there anyway. That child wills to stay home, or at least out of school. However, the parents exercise their will upon the child, forcing him to go to school. As the teacher would be happy to confirm, just because the child ends up in the classroom does not mean he is willing to be there.  And until the child chooses to alter his will to accept the circumstances in which he finds himself, he will most likely remain stubbornly insubordinate.

Nature

Here's the trump card that only God can play: nature. Man's will is entirely free within his own nature. Within the limits defined by physics and natural processes, man is free to will as he pleases.  But not without those limits. This is what I meant above by "limited definition".  

Example: I am having a coughing fit as I write this post. I cannot stop coughing. I'm trying everything I know to try to stop it.  Problem: there is a "tickle" in my chest that I cannot appease.  I've used cough drops, I've drank hot tea, I've eaten this and that hoping something will "scratch the itch" on the way down.  Nothing.  I am exercising much of my will to stop my coughing.  Bigger problem: I'm held captive to the very nature of my flesh, to the physics, and anatomy and all manner of medical fact. All of these forces are imposing themselves on my feeble, sick body, and I am unable to change those facts by any amount of my will-power.  

How does God play this trump card?  God is the Creator.  He created our nature.  If He were to change our nature (Psalm 51:10; Jeremiah 32:39; Ezekiel 36:26; John 3:3-5; 2 Corinthians 3:18, 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15), would not our will find itself operating within a new set of rules or limitations?  Such an event would change everything about the limitations of our will, to act within these new boundaries would open up choices that were previously unavailable.  This new perspective would have to lead us to conclude that our will was not, and currently is not, "free" as we'd like to define it.

Charles Spurgeon addresses this concept of God changing man's nature:
Man is so depraved, so set on mischief, and the way of salvation is so obnoxious to his pride, so hateful to his lusts, that he cannot like it, and will not like it, unless he who ordained the plan shall change his nature, and subdue his will. Mark, this stubborn will of man is his sin; he is not to be excused for it; he is guilty because he will not come; he is condemned because he will not come; because he will not believe in Christ, therefore is condemnation resting upon him, but still the fact does not alter for all that, that he will not come by nature if left to himself. Well, then, if man will not, how shall he be saved unless God shall make him will?—unless, in some mysterious way, he who made heart shall touch its mainspring so that it shall move in a direction opposite to that which it naturally follows.  [source]

Denying nature?

"According to my nature, I can act; apart from it, I cannot." - F. J. Sheed
This concept applies across the board. No man (or woman) has ever denied their nature and exercised a choice against their own free will. (Yes, many have had the will of others enacted against them in perhaps horrible and atrocious ways, but we're speaking about one making and acting upon a choice and how that relates to one's own will.) Impersonal circumstances outside ourselves are often blamed for one's choices (or lack thereof), often engendering the accusation of "giving me no choice", but there is always a choice - it just may be that neither choice is pleasant. 

Yet, if you could be completely objective about yourself, it's often not difficult to retrace how a series of "free will decisions" led you to the current circumstances, therefore ultimately leaving you unable to excuse yourself from the responsibility for the choice you are now free to make.

Objections

Inevitably, there are always objections to this relationship between responsibility and free will - especially today, in an age of DNA and deterministic evolution.  As a matter of fact, one such deterministic (and yet theistic) objection arises from the very assumption that if God made my nature as such, then ultimately He is responsible for my choices.  As I'm able to understand it, this error (and every other one too) comes down to incorrect definitions and presumption.  This is one area that man, as a race, excels in.  We can define and re-define anything, or presume any set of circumstances, to benefit our own selfishness, or to excuse ourselves from responsibility when it's convenient.  Even the person that doesn't believe in God finds it preferable to lay aside the notion of free will in order to blame genetics, or some sociological notion of "behaving the way my parents raised me", or any other avenue that they can find to sidestep responsibility, while maintaining a lifestyle that suits their self-centered, fallen nature.

The presumptions on which we build our worldviews are often sacred and untouchable (that is, in total support of my argument, until we choose to change those presumptions to fit our change in desires).  Everyone has a worldview - you cannot be alive and interact with this world without one.  The objections to the above definition of free will spring from worldviews that are built on presumptions and definitions that are not in line with those revealed by our Creator.  It's really as simple as that.  If you currently do not believe that, ironically nothing I say to you here will change your mind on that - in the affirmative or the negative.  It is just your nature.  :)

Merciful judgement

Back to why Jesus' veiling the truth in a parable is actually "God playing by the rules".  Let's look at an Old Testament passage that Jesus references here.

And he said, “Go, and say to this people: “‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” (Isaiah 6:9-10)

Those who do not believe are not being kept from believing - it is of their own free will, their own choice.  If God were to override their free choice to not believe, and force them to see the truth, would there not be the charge that God was "playing unfair"?  (Yet, it still doesn't keep people from lodging that charge anyway.  Just another ploy to offload any presumption of guilt, typical and historical blame shifting).  

If Jesus were to proclaim the plain, simple truth, as He explained it to the disciples, and the Pharisees still rejected it, would they not be all the more guilty?  Is Jesus' decision to save them that guilt not an act of mercy, in a way?

Conclusion

Perhaps I'm simplified in my understanding, and I'll be the first to admit that I am not a philosopher or learned theologian with any certified credentials conveying authority to speak on these matters.  Yet, when you read God's Word as a whole, you find that an Everlasting and Unchanging God cannot act/say/think one way in this passage of the Bible and another later on.  If that's possible, then unraveling that thread ends up pulling apart the whole tapestry.  Therefore, I find the consistency of His revelation to actually be comforting, even when it means I have to dig at it a little to understand it.

What is the application for my life then?  It really simplifies the concept of sharing the Gospel with others.  If I believed that it was somehow determinant upon my effectiveness as a speaker, or my strategy as a debater, whether or not a person chose to believe that the person of Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, then I'd have a really difficult time leaving the house each day, let alone interacting with others.  Even Jesus Christ, Himself, presented the truth in an unobtrusive, non-forceful manner that led believers to Him, but didn't coerce or forcibly intrude on the unbeliever.  

I am not going to change someone else's mind; I am not going to change their heart; I am not going to change their will.  That card is not in my hand. But, just because I cannot play that card, doesn't mean I get to sit out of the game.  My Lord has given me explicit orders to take the Gospel to the world.  

If someone hears that Good News, and pulls a chair up to the table... maybe God will play that card.  I just gotta extend the invitation to come to the table.





Saturday, March 3, 2012

Family & God's Will - Mark 3:31-35

And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him.
And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, "Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you."
And he answered them, "Who are my mother and my brothers?"
And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers!
For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother."
(Mark 3:31-35)


Family

I have been somewhat familiar with this passage since I could read, but it wasn't until relatively recently that I began to truly understand it. At the heart of this passage is the statement that "whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother". How does this play out practically in the life of one that knows Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior?
The New Testament gives us some clues about the nature of the relationship that Jesus had with His mother and brother. In John 2:4, Jesus rebukes his mother for attempting to exercise some measure of authority over His work; notice that He refers to her as "woman", not mother. Then in this instance from Mark where He elevates his spiritual family over and above his natural family shows us the only two instances where Jesus' mother appears during the ministry years, at least up to the crucifixion. I find it interesting that some elevate Mary to a position of worship, when obviously Jesus placed nothing more than the honor due His mother by the Law.
As far as His brothers, in John 7 there is the conversation where they sarcastically coax Him to reveal Himself as the Messiah, and John mentions that "not even his brothers believed in him".
Not only that, but look at the manner in which they've come to Him. They do not seem to be among the group that Jesus is speaking to, nor do they seem to want to come in.  They've sent in someone to call Him out to their location. It seems to speak to the respect they give His ministry.
What must the family dynamics have been like during normal everyday living? Was Jesus a member of a "dysfunctional family"?

Perpetual Virginity


In studying this passage, I also went down a bit of a rabbit-trail, looking into whether these "brothers" that we read about speak to the Roman Catholic doctrine of "perpetual virginity" regarding Jesus' mother, Mary. Were these Joseph's and her sons? While I know that the R.C. church does not restrict their dogma to Scripture, but include all manner of patriarchal works and historical texts, I find that they also take any opportunity to stand on the "testimony" of those that do hold to the Reformation belief Sola Scriptura, namely the historical Reformers, Martin Luther and John Calvin:
And yet, the Protestant Reformers themselves—Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli—honored the perpetual virginity of Mary and recognized it as the teaching of the Bible, as have other, more modern Protestants. [www.catholic.com]
I just had to look into that for myself.  Did Martin Luther and John Calvin really recognize "the perpetual virginity of Mary" as the teaching of the Bible? I spent way too much time reading about this. The short answers: Martin Luther held to this belief. As for John Calvin, well... he was on the fence, as far as I can tell. Luther went so far as to call anyone that denied this a heretic. Calvin just said that scripture does not say that she wasn't. He affirms that the Bible teaches that Mary was a virgin before and at the birth of Jesus, and nothing in scripture convinces him that this changed afterward.


There seems to be an inclination to elevate Mary to a position above what Scripture seems to support. The Word does indicate that she has a position of honor (Luke 1:28, 48), and yet it appears that even during Jesus' life people were inclined to go past honor and instead place Mary on a pedestal:
As he said these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, "Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!"
But he said, "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!"  (Luke 11:27-28)
So, I leave this part of my study better informed (though unconvinced) about what I think I would classify as a tertiary point of doctrine, as it doesn't seem to hold any bearing on soteriology or ecclesiology.



God's Will

What does Jesus mean when He says, "whoever does the will of God"?  Right away I recognize that He says, "does" - not "knows".  There is definitely a difference between knowing a thing and doing that thing.  I believe that falls into the category of "walking your talk".  
But he answered them, "My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it."(Luke 8:21 - emphasis mine)

Notice the parallel drawn between the Gospels of Mark and Luke in this point. Mark says, "whoever does the will of God" while Luke says, "those who hear the word of God and do it". The word of God and the will of God are equated. Interesting concept to meditate on.


So then, does the New Testament speak of "the will of God"? Well, sure it does. [The following emphasis' are mine.]
And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.  (1 John 2:17)
"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 7:21)
If anyone's will is to do God's will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority. (John 7:17)
Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. (Ephesians 5:17)
We see it referred to but are we told what exactly it means? I believe so.
  • 2 Peter 3:9 says that God is, "not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance."  
  • 1 Timothy 2:4 states that He, "desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth."
  • 1 Thessalonians 4:3 straight out says that, "this is the will of God, your sanctification".  It then goes on to specify:
    • "that you abstain from sexual immorality;
    • "that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, 
    • "not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God;
    • "that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter"
  • 1 Peter 2:15 says, "For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men."  To what good is this referring?
    • "Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake; whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those that do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men – as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as servants of God." (1 Peter 2:13-16)
  • 1 Peter 4:19, "Therefore let those who suffer according to the will of God commit their souls to Him in doing good, as to a faithful Creator."
  • 1 Peter 3:17, "For it is better, if the will of God be so, that you suffer for well-doing, than for evil-doing."
  • 2 Timothy 3:12, "Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution."
  • 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you."
In the broad strokes, the will of God for man is encompassed in the following: salvation, sanctification, submission, suffering, joy, prayer, and giving.


In Christ's words then, those that conform to these things are His family; His brothers, sisters, and mother. Why does He not say, "and father"?  If I had to take a stab at this, it would be because He only acknowledges The Father - no one else can be His father.
And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. (Matthew 23:9)
If we that do these things are His brother, and sister, and mother, then that means He is our Brother.