Lecture: Mark 1-5
We’re done with Bibliology, so for the next four weeks, we’re going to be looking at the Gospel of Mark. I’m going to spend most of my time in the Gospel of Mark to give you an overall feel for Jesus’s ministry and his basic teaching, then we will spend a couple of weeks in Matthew on the Sermon on the Mount, and then one week on Luke. So most of our time will be concentrated in the Gospel of Mark. Today we’re going to look at the first five chapters.
There are a couple of commentaries that I want to make you aware of. I will tend to show you the commentaries that I recommend. Bill Lane’s Gospel of Mark in the New International Commentary on the New Testament is extremely good. It’s advanced, and the Greek is kept in the footnotes so you can work your way through it. It’s a magisterial volume and it’s still the one that I go to before anything else when I want to look up information.
The other one is David Garland’s commentary on Mark in the NIV Application Commentary. This whole series is very good. This is the only real series that is written by scholars, but for lay people. Some commentaries say that they are, but not many of them actually succeed. The NIV Application Commentary goes more paragraph by paragraph than verse by verse, so it doesn’t get into the extreme depth than Bill Lane’s will. However, it has a lot of application sections. Every passage has a historical meaning section, and then what’s called “bridging the context,” which describes how you bring the truth from this passage into the twenty-first century. Then the final section on how you apply this today. It’s interesting to read the same person say this is what it meant, and this is what it means today. It’s a very helpful process. The whole series is like that. It’s a very good series. Those are two of the commentaries on Mark that’s out there.
Geographical Structure and Primary Characteristics
Mark as a Gospel breaks into four basic categories that are mostly geographical. First, there’s a short discussion at the beginning on beginnings, which includes John the Baptist and Jesus’s baptism and his temptation.
Second, you have for the most part a ministry in Galilee. From the Gospel of Mark and the other Synoptics, it appears that Jesus spent most of his ministry up in Galilee. We know from John’s Gospel that Jesus attended at least three Passovers, so most people say that his public ministry lasted three and a half years. Out of that, probably a year and a half to two is spent in Galilee. It’s in this first part of the ministry that you see a very public Jesus. He’s out where people can see him; he’s doing a lot of miracles at this time. He’s preaching mostly about the Kingdom of God. The miracles got people’s attention as well as alleviate pain; they also brought credibility to his very public preaching about the Kingdom of God.
Third, you then move into what’s called the travel ministry, and starting at Mark 8:27, you have Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, which is the hinge of the entire gospel. We’ll talk about this next time. After Peter’s confession, everything changes. Jesus goes outside of ethnic Israel—that’s why it’s called “travel”; he’s traveling mostly through non–Jewish areas. It’s a very private time. You don’t find Jesus doing a lot of things in public at this point. Instead of talking about the Kingdom of God, Jesus is talking about discipleship. So, he spends the first part of his ministry proclaiming that God’s Kingdom had come, and then he spends the second part of it telling you what it’s like to live as a disciple inside the Kingdom of God. In very broad strokes that’s how his ministry breaks up.
Fourth, in Mark 11 you have what’s called the Jerusalem ministry; this is the last week of Jesus’s life—the Passion—his death and resurrection. That’s the basic division of the Gospel of Mark, and pretty much Matthew and Luke as well. Luke’s treatment of the travel ministry is much larger, and John has a different structure altogether.
John the Baptist
The Gospel of Mark starts with a story of John the Baptist. He comes and he says “I’m the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy: ‘Behold I send my messenger before your face who will prepare your way. (This refers to John who is preparing for Jesus) The voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” And we start with the story of John the Baptist and his ministry and what he did.
The thing I want to stress at this point is that this is a phenomenally exciting time. The prophet Jeremiah had prophesied that at some point in the future, God was going to bring about his new covenant. It was going to be a new relationship that God was going to have with his people. It would be a time in which God’s Spirit would be more active than he had been in the past. It’s talked about in Joel and it’s talked about in Ezekiel as well. The Jews were looking forward to this new covenant, this new relationship, this Spirit–inspired time. The other prophecy about John is in Malachi; it’s at the very end as the last thing that’s said in the Old Testament. Malachi says Elijah is going to come before the great and terrible day of the LORD. Elijah’s going to come back.
So you have this prophecy of this coming new relationship, new covenant, that God’s going to have with his people through the power of his Spirit. You have Malachi saying that Elijah’s going to come back, and then you have about 400 years of silence between Malachi and Jesus. And then all of a sudden here’s John the Baptist. He’s dressing like Elijah—that’s the leather belt and the clothing. He’s eating like Elijah, and he’s claiming to be the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy. All of this would have gone together and created a tremendous amount of excitement among the Jewish people. So when John came and started preaching the coming of the Kingdom of God, he’s getting people ready for the coming of the Messiah. (We’ll talk about what this means in a second).
John Baptizes Jesus
You could expect a real national excitement. It’s no wonder that the text says that everybody went out to be baptized by John. It was a major national movement. One of the people who went out to be baptized by John was Jesus. And I want to spend a little time on the voice that comes down from Heaven. In Mark 1 starting at verse 9 it says, “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” The general idea is that John the Baptist’s baptism was a baptism of repentance, a confession of sins, that that’s how people were going to get ready for the coming of the Lord. Jesus had no sins to be baptized of, to repent of, but he was associating himself with John’s ministry, and he was specifically associating himself with people’s sin. So as a way to formally start his public ministry he went through this baptism. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the Heavens opening and he saw the Holy Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from Heaven (and this would have been the voice of God the Father): “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.”
This is one of those passages that has a whole lot more going on than you or I would probably pick up on at a first reading, but if you were a first century Jew you would have picked up on these things almost immediately. What the voice from Heaven is claiming is that Jesus is the fulfillment of two different prophetic people in the Old Testament. There were two different prophecies, and the Jews had never put these two people together. The voice from Heaven is saying that Jesus is this prophetic person, and he is this prophetic person, and they’re the same person. What I want to do is to make sure you understand who those two people are. We’re in an area that is called ‘Christology,’ which is the study of Christ. One of the main ways we come to an understanding of who Christ is, is by looking at the names that are attached to him, because the names are full of meaning. So these two names are incredibly important.
The first thing that would have caught their attention is the statement, “This is my beloved Son.” This is a quotation from Psalm 2. Originally the Psalm is addressed to the king on the day that he becomes king, and the Psalmist here calls the king God’s beloved son. The Jews came to understand over the years that the Psalmist was talking about much more than the king, but that he was talking about a future king, a king who had not come yet. In fact, he was talking about the word “Christ,” or the person Christ. Psalm 2 became understood as a prophetic psalm about who this Christ is. In Mark, the voice from Heaven is identifying Jesus as the Christ. Now, who is the Christ? First of all, the word Christ and the word Messiah refer to the same person. The Greek is Christos, the Hebrew is Mashiach—you can hear “Christ” and “Messiah” in those names. They are English versions for the same word—Christ and Messiah.
As far as what the Jews were expecting, they believed that there would be this prophetic figure, the Christ, the Messiah, who was going to usher in, or bring about, the Kingdom of God. He was going to come with God’s power and he was going to bring in God’s rule, his kingdom, on earth. The Jews didn’t expect the Messiah to be divine. They expected him to be a human being who was empowered by God. Their biggest mistake was that they conceived, for most part, of the Christ as a political, social, and economic leader. There were some people, like Simeon at the beginning of Luke, who understood God’s kingdom to be a spiritual thing, but most Jews thought in terms of materialistic ideas. They thought that the Christ, the Messiah, was going to be a great warrior, who would, with God’s power, lead the Jews into battle, who would conquer the nations, and would elevate Israel to being in the number one place in the world. Strongly nationalistic overtones were associated with this idea, just like they were with the Kingdom of God (we’ll talk about that in a second). For example, when Jesus feeds the 5000, what did the people want to do with him? They wanted to make him king, didn’t they? Because this is the thing they expected the Christ to do, to feed them. When Jesus feeds 5000 of them, they think, “This must be the Christ; let’s crown him king.” There certainly was no idea of suffering or human failure connected with the Christ. He was a nationalistic, earthly ruler.
What’s interesting is that Jesus does accept the title of Christ; he accepts the function of the Christ, in a sense. There’s another voice from Heaven at the transfiguration; Peter calls him the Christ; the demons know that he’s Christ and they cry it out sometimes. Jesus accepted the title and function of the Christ, although it’s interesting that he never uses the title of himself. His trial before Pilate is as close as he gets to it. The reason that he didn’t use the title is all wrapped up in what’s called the messianic secret. It appears that Jesus wants his messiahship to be a secret. For example, when Peter says, “We believe you’re the Christ, the son of the living God,” Jesus says, “Shh, don’t tell anyone.” The reason is that here were so many misconceptions attached to the title “Christ,” that if he openly said “Yes, I am the Christ,” then, with all the Jewish misunderstanding of that phrase, they would have crowned him king and thought purely in physical nationalistic terms. So, he accepted the function—he was the Christ, the Messiah, God’s agent for bringing about the Kingdom of God on earth—but it was a secret; he didn’t want the title used.
The other title that comes out of this voice from Heaven is wrapped up in the very end where it says, “With you I am well pleased.” When I first heard this, I scoffed at it, because I thought it was too detailed, but now I’m teaching it, so hang with me a second. You read that and you may think, “Okay, God’s happy with Jesus. Big deal, nothing else is there, right?” But if I were talking to you about God’s love for the world, and if I said “God so loved the world, he sent Jesus and Jesus died,” what did I just do? I made reference to John 3:16, didn’t I? It’s such a well–known passage. Because most of us are versed in John 3:16, all we really need to hear are a couple of words and our minds go to John 3:16. The Jews were extremely versed in their Old Testament so you could make slight references to Old Testament passages and expect the Jews to understand. This is one of those passages. And I’m saying this because to me this means, “Well, I’m happy with him,”, but the author is quoting Isaiah 42:1. The voice is referring to a prophetic figure in Isaiah, and we call him the suffering servant. The phrase ‘suffering servant’ doesn’t actually occur in the Old Testament, but this prophetic figure in Isaiah is called a servant, God’s servant, and he suffers, and so we call him the suffering servant. In four or five different places in Isaiah, Isaiah is prophesying about this person who’s going to be coming in the future and who will be God’s servant.
Turn, for example, to Isaiah 53. This is the last and the clearest of the servant passages in Isaiah. Again, this is Isaiah over 700 years before the time of Christ, prophesying that the servant was going to come. Here’s what was going to happen. Isaiah 53:3: “he (the servant) was despised and rejected by men. A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised and we esteemed him not. (In other words, the servant’s going to be rejected by people). Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. (In other words, we thought that God didn’t like him, God was punishing him, but actually, he was bearing our griefs and our sorrows.) he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way. And the Lord has laid on him (the servant) the iniquity (the sin) of us all.” We know that this is about Jesus. The suffering servant prophesied in Isaiah is about Jesus. Go back to the first of the servant songs in Isaiah 42, in verse 1: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my soul delights. I put my spirit on him.” That’s the reference that people believe that the voice from Heaven was making. By the way, when I tell you things that are controversial, I’ll tell you they are controversial. If I just go over something, I’m probably being mainstream. When I go out on a limb I’ll tell you. I’m not out on a limb right here. Any commentary you pick up will make this connection that I’m making.
You have this voice from Heaven on the one hand, which says that Jesus is the Christ, and on the other hand, says that Jesus is the suffering servant; You can see the problem, can’t you? The Jews never would have put these two together! In fact, what happened is that early on in the history of the church, the church saw that the suffering servant was Jesus and preached it, and so the Jews had to come up with any interpretation other than Jesus, and they eventually came to the conclusion that the nation of Israel is the suffering servant. Have you ever heard the Jewish belief that they are suffering for the sins of the world? This is where it comes from. This is first and second century AD. They had to come up with a different interpretation because the church kept saying, “Look at your prophet Isaiah, he’s talking about Jesus!”
The voice puts these two together. If he goes through Jesus’s life you see that all over the place he picks up the ideas of the servant. He’ll say for example in Mark 9:35, “Whoever wants to be first must be last and be a servant of all.” Mark 10:45: “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Jesus picked up the idea of the suffering servant. I think, outside of some passages in Paul, the Isaiah passage is the best place to go when you’re trying to show someone what happened on the cross, because it says it so clearly. It was those two prophetic figures, the Christ and the suffering servant, that the voice puts together at Jesus’s baptism. It is those two things that really set the stage for all the conflict in Jesus’s life. If Jesus had proclaimed himself a nationalistic worldly leader and used his miracles to feed the Jews and defeat the enemies, and if he had been that Christ, they never would’ve killed him. But ultimately they killed him, because Jesus was both the Christ and the suffering servant, and they didn’t want a suffering Christ, they wanted a victorious Christ.
In terms of Christology these two ideas are very important in helping us understand who Jesus is. Messiah means “anointed one,” and you would anoint someone if you were getting them ready to go on a special task. You will actually find different people called “messiahs” in the Old Testament. Even the Persian king was called a messiah because he was anointed by God for a specific task. But the Jews came to believe there would come the Christ, the anointed one, and he would bring in the Kingdom of God. The question is, is this ultimately why they rejected him? Yes—(well on one hand, they rejected him because God ordained it before the beginning of time, but that’s Acts 1, we’ll take care of that later)—at a human level, that’s why he was rejected by them. And this whole nationalistic urge must’ve been really strong, because even in Acts 1 after the resurrection, the apostles say, “Is it now you’re going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” So they were still looking for an earthly kingdom. It took Pentecost for them to figure out what was going on.
The Kingdom of God (Mark 1:14–15)
Jesus has had the baptism, he’s associated himself with John the Baptist and the issue of sin. He leaves, Mark mentions the temptation, and then at verse 14 Jesus begins his ministry. It says “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God and saying, “The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the gospel.” Gospel simply means good news. The basic message that Jesus was preaching was that God’s kingdom is at hand.
We need to spend a little bit of time understanding what the Kingdom of God is about. It is the central aspect of Jesus’s teaching. Especially during the Galilean ministry, this is what he preached about, that God’s kingdom had come. So, it’s important to have a good understanding of it. Most of the parables are about the Kingdom of God. I’ll show my hand; this is a little controversial, but not too much anymore. Matthew was a Jew, and didn’t want to say the word “God,” so in Matthew, it was called the “Kingdom of Heaven.” There are some old-time dispensationalists who want to say the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven are two different things. I don’t believe that, so in Matthew, “Kingdom of Heaven,” is the same as Mark’s and Luke’s “Kingdom of God.” It is the central aspect of Jesus’s teaching.
It’s interesting that in the Old Testament (that’s where you always go when you want to understand the background to a New Testament concept), the expression “Kingdom of God” doesn’t actually occur there. It was an expression that developed in the 400 years between Malachi and the gospels. The Jews certainly had definite ideas about what the Kingdom of God was, but it’s not part of the Old Testament. However, the Old Testament does talk about God being king, and that is the antecedent of the concept of the Kingdom of God. It’s interesting how if you look at the concept of God as king in the Old Testament, there is both a present and a future idea attached to it. The Old Testament is very clear to say God is king here and now, but a lot of people don’t recognize it, they don’t see it, so there’s coming a time in the future when everyone will recognize that the Jewish God, Yahweh, is king. There’s a duality at work. (You’ll see why that’s important in a second).
When Jesus comes along, the concept had developed during those 400 years. Like the idea of Messiah, the Jews had developed the idea of the Kingdom of God as a primarily nationalistic, materialistic, economic, social, and military kingdom. So when they heard John the Baptist and Jesus say that the Kingdom of God was at hand, they were not thinking of a spiritual reality. They were thinking of a physical reality. They were expecting Jesus to gather his troops, and to go against the Romans and to kill them all. They believed that the Kingdom of God would be brought about on earth by the working of the Messiah, who would be a human being empowered by God to bring God’s kingdom on earth. Jesus meant something significantly different than what the Jews were expecting.
There is divergence on this point. If you know what the word dispensational means, I’m not a dispensationalist, and so I’m going to differ on this point. If you don’t know what the word means, I don’t want to go into a discussion of it right now. I believe that what Jesus did, just like he did with the concept of messiah, was to redefine what the Kingdom of God was about, because for him the Kingdom of God was not a physical reality, it was a spiritual reality. Pilate says to him, “Are you a king?” Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my people would have fought for me.” It’s not an earthly kingdom. The definition that I was taught in seminary was that the Kingdom of God is the reign of God in the lives of his disciples. In other words, the Kingdom of God is not some earthly kingdom that sits on Mount Zion and subjugates the Romans; it’s a spiritual reality of God ruling and reigning in the hearts of his disciples. As you read Jesus’s teaching on the Kingdom of God, you will see that there is a dual aspect on it. I have struggled to find a simple way to explain this, so I’m going to give you the same information that my seminary teachers gave me, and then you can work on it for the next thirty years.
Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God had come in his ministry. I remember Dr. Ladd, one of my seminary professors, liked to quote the verse, “If I by the finger of God cast out demons, you know that the Kingdom of God has come in your midst.” There are quite a few verses that talk about this Kingdom of God, this reigning of God, as an absolute present reality. It’s here, it’s now. Yet there are other passages that tend to talk about the coming of the kingdom as a future thing. For example, in the Lord’s prayer, when we pray “thy kingdom come,” we are asking God to send his kingdom. You might say, “well make up your mind. Is it here, or is it not here?” This is the same duality you have with the kingship of God in the Old Testament. He is king, although not everyone recognizes it, and someday he will be made king.
The dual nature of the kingdom can be explained as that God’s kingly rule has broken into history, but there’s still a wait for consummation, there’s still a wait of fulfillment of the promises. So the Kingdom of God is present here, it is working now – “If I by the finger of God cast out demons, you know the Kingdom of God has come in your midst.” You know that the kingdom is here. Yet there are many verses that talk about the future coming of God’s kingdom. In a sense, it’s what you have in Philippians 2. We know that Jesus is Lord; we know that he’s God. The hymn in Philippians 2 says, “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in Heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” He is Lord, whether our friends know it or not, but there is some day when, in his fullness of the consummation, that everyone will know that he’s Lord. That’s the duality I’m talking about.
The reason I’m pointing this out is that it goes all the way through the New Testament. If you’re going to understand the heart of Paul’s theology, it’s that the future, the eschatological age, the eschaton, the last days, (there are all sorts of names for this); all the power of Heaven has been visited to earth, but we’re not yet at the fulfillment, we’re not at the consummation of things. So we live in the tension of being between these two ages: the current age where there’s still sin, where people don’t recognize God’s kingship, and yet knowing that at some time in the future, all sin is going to be removed and there’ll be full victory. We live in the tension of God’s kingdom having come to earth, but not yet in its fullness. We look forward to a time when we get to enjoy the kingdom in its fullness. This is a tremendously important concept. The ramifications are significant and you’ll see that as we go through. Here’s an illustration: when you drive a wedge into a tree and you leave it, at what point does the tree split? Evidently if you put a wedge in, eventually it will topple because of the force of the wedge. God’s kingdom has come, and so it’s just a matter of time until the kingdoms of the earth topple. So, this will provide you background as you come across Kingdom of God in your reading.
Two Days in the Life of Jesus (Mark 1:16 – 3:6)
One of my favorite sections in Mark is 1:16–3:6. Remember, the gospel writers could’ve told us a lot of stories, but they picked the ones they did because they wanted to communicate something to us. Many times, you can ask the question, “Why is this story included, or why is this series of stories included?” This is one of those passages. Mark is consumed with the question, although he never asks it this way, “Who is Jesus?” That’s what this gospel is all about. That’s one reason I like it so much. It’s a simple gospel. Matthew has a ton of good stuff unrelated to that question; Luke has a lot of stuff. Mark is preoccupied with presenting who Jesus is, and that’s a pretty good lesson for evangelism isn’t it—to not get pulled off onto the other areas, but to ask, “Who is Jesus?”
Starting off at 1:16, Mark has something like “a day in the life of Jesus.” Here you see Jesus doing a bunch of things: he calls men to follow him and they do; they become his disciples. He exorcises demons; he shows that he has authority. He heals a leper. He goes out and he preaches in many places. He’s not someone looking for fame; when the demons want to cry out who he is, he tells them to be quiet. These are all different stories, but what they’re doing is holding out a day in the life of Jesus, as if they’re saying, “This is who Jesus is. He’s a leader. He’s someone with authority. He can heal. He’s a preacher. He’s not into fame.” Look at verse 45: This is not only the conclusion to this paragraph, but it’s the conclusion to this day in the life of Jesus. He tells this leper not to let anyone know he’d been healed. “But he went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter.” People like Jesus. They like the healing, but they evidently flock to him. They wanted to hear what he was teaching as well as what he was doing. If you look at these verses, you think, “Wow, Jesus was really popular.” This is partly what Mark wants us to see, that Jesus was received well.
It’s interesting that, beginning in chapter 2, everything changes. Jesus heals the paralytic, and the scribes grumble and complain that he claims to be able to forgive sins. He calls Levi, or Matthew, a tax collector to be his disciple, and the scribes don’t like that either. “Why’s he associating with tax collectors and sinners?” Then find out that Jesus and his disciples aren’t fasting. The scribes and the Pharisees don’t like that, so they complain about that. Then, Jesus’s disciples are walking through a field on Saturday, the Sabbath. It’s legal—as long as they’re in the corners of the field they can strip the grain; by Old Testament law you can’t harvest the corners of your field, it’s for the poor. The disciples were harvesting the grain, and the scribes and the Pharisees said, “You’re not supposed to be doing that on Saturday.” Then he goes into a synagogue, and a man has a withered hand. By this time this scribes and Pharisees are so mad at him that they’re waiting to see what he does. Jesus gets mad at them. In Mark 3:4, Jesus says 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. They weren’t going to make a commitment. So he heals the man with a withered hand. Look at 3:6: “The Pharisees went out and immediately held council with the Herodians (political party) against him, how to destroy him.”
So, this is the second typical day in the life of Jesus, but what are the two big changes? First, there’s a change of audience. He’s not dealing with regular folk. He’s dealing with the pastors and seminary professors of his day. The second big difference is that they hate him, because he is a threat to their religious traditions and their personal religious power. He’s not doing what they want him to do. He’s not playing the game they want him to play, the way they want him to play it. And so instead of being overjoyed and coming from all over the place (like Mark 1:45), they go out to find a way to destroy Jesus. See, what Mark is doing is saying, “Here’s Jesus. These are the things that he did that people loved him for. These are the things that he did that religious leaders hated him for.” These are meant to be two contrasting pictures of who Jesus is. It’s interesting that, as you read through this, Jesus’s response is getting stronger and stronger. At first he talks to them. Then he starts getting sarcastic. Then he gets flat out mad at them. So you can see Jesus’s—we call it—’righteous indignation.’ Jesus is mad at them, and he’s justified in being so, and you can see it build as he goes.
When we talk about Christianity, the lesson from this passage is that our job is not so much to present the arguments and the doctrines and the theology about him—that’s all important, obviously—but we need to present Christ. There are some people that will be very open to the presentation of who he is and what he did. There will be others that will fight him tooth and nail.
“Son of Man” (Mark 2:1–12)
I want to go back to Mark 2, to the story of the Capernaum paralytic, because with our emphasis today in Christology, there’s something very important there. This is a great story. Jesus is teaching in Capernaum, these four men have a paralyzed friend, they want Jesus to heal him, they can’t get there so they dig a hole in the roof and let him down. I wonder how the owner felt as all this was going on. They lay him down, Jesus sees their faith, (verse 5), and he says to the paralytic, “My son, your sins are forgiven.” You’ve got to understand, God and God alone forgives sins. So this is Jesus picking a fight. He didn’t have to say it this way. This is Jesus looking for instructional conflict.
I think Jesus woke up Saturday morning full of the Spirit and goes, “I want to find someone to heal; I want to tick the Pharisees off.” It’s amazing how many of these miracle stories take place on a Saturday. The one day when you’re not supposed to do anything. So Jesus is picking a fight. And since Jesus did it, and he was without sin it was the right thing to do. “My son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, ‘Why does this man speak like that? he is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins, but God alone?’” And the answer is, “Yes! That’s the point!” Remember, Mark is teaching Christology. He’s showing Jesus doing things and the only conclusion you can draw from what he does is that he is God. I’m getting ahead of myself. The passage continues: “Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’?” The answer is that it’s much harder to say, “Rise, take up your bed and walk,” because that’s proof that the sins were forgiven. “But that you may know that the Son of Man (and there’s the important phrase) has authority on earth to forgive sins, (he said to the paralytic), I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” And he did. So Jesus is trying to make a point that he is God, that he has the ability to forgive sins. People should see this man being healed and realize that Jesus is more than just a person. That’s what’s going on overall.
It’s the phrase “Son of Man” that I wanted to center on and talk about it. “Son of Man” is Jesus’s most common self–designation. While he never calls himself the Christ or the Messiah, he calls himself Son of Man a lot. Most people think that the reason for this is that the phrase “Son of Man” has meaning coming out of the Old Testament that accurately describes who Jesus is. Since the Jews had not developed a bunch of misunderstandings around the phrase, he could use it in a way that he could never use the term “Christ.”
If you go to the Old Testament, you’ll find Son of Man in two main places. First, you’ll find it used a lot in Ezekiel. God calls Ezekiel “son of man” a lot. And the reason for that is that God wants to emphasize Ezekiel’s humanity, that he’s nothing more than a mere mortal. That’s why, for example in the new RSV, with their inclusive language, they don’t want to use the word “man,” so they translate it “oh mortal.” That’s the point. God’s saying “you’re just a mortal; you’re just a human being.” Of course by translating it that way, you can’t connect the Son of Man sayings from the gospel with Ezekiel—that’s something else. It’s a common expression in Hebrew to use “son of” to describe someone’s characteristic. So someone was really rich they’d be called “son of wealth.” So by calling him “son of man,” he was emphasizing his humanity, his humility and lowliness.
On the other side of the spectrum is the use of the same phrase in Daniel. Turn please to Daniel 7. Daniel is having a vision. He’s been having a vision of a bunch of bizarre beasts and these contorted animals. Starting at verse 9, he has a vision of the Ancient of Days, which in our terminology is God the Father, and he’s on his throne. Then in verse 13 you have the actual vision: “I saw in the night visions and behold, with the clouds of Heaven, there came one like a Son of Man.” What the phrase initially means is that he’s not like the beasts, he looks human. “And he came to the Ancient of Days, and was presented before him. And to him (the Son of Man) was given dominion and glory and the kingdom, that all peoples should serve him.” In the NIV it says “worship” him. If you have an ESV cross out serve and put “worship” in there—it’s really important. “his dominion is an everlasting dominion which shall not pass away and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.”
That’s Daniel’s prophecy of this Son of Man that he sees. Now what’s important is that there are some metaphors going on here again that you might not pick up straight away. The phrase “clouds of Heaven” suggests divinity. There’s a suggestion that this Son of Man is not a human being, but something else. You will notice that he comes into God’s presence. He’s given great authority. He’s given an eternal kingdom, and that’s important because in 2 Samuel 7:14, God promised David that one of his descendants would sit on the throne forever, and that the descendant of David is the Messiah, which is Christ. That’s the tie in between Christ and Son of Man—the eternal kingdom, and most importantly, that these people should worship him. And who do you worship? Do you worship a person? No, you worship God.
So what you have—and remember the Jews are strict monotheists—is the Son of Man who has a lot of characteristics of being divine: total authority, eternal kingdom, fulfilment of the prophecies, and worship. In other words, “Son of Man” in Daniel carries almost the exact opposite set of meanings from Ezekiel, because Son of Man in Daniel is glory and exaltation and authority and power and all those things. In Ezekiel, it’s humility. It’s those two ideas that Jesus blends together when he talks about himself as the Son of Man.
Sometimes when Jesus calls himself Son of Man, there’s an emphasis on his servanthood, his humility. For example, he says, “Birds of the air have nests, foxes have holes, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.” Sometimes, when you come across these Son of Man sayings it’s a statement of servanthood and humility. And yet there are other times in which Jesus uses the Son of Man title and he’s expressing his divine authority. “The Son of Man has authority to forgive sins,” he tells people in this story. Later on in chapter 2, the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath. In these other groups of sayings, there’s a tremendous amount of power and authority behind them.
There is a third category. Sometimes it appears that he calls himself the Son of Man so many times that he uses it instead of a personal pronoun: “You say the Son of Man came eating and drinking and you don’t listen to him. I came eating and drinking, and you won’t listen to me.” He’ll talk about the Son of Man being betrayed. So sometimes there doesn’t appear to be a lot of theological background. Really, it’s the first and second types of uses that are the most important. What’s interesting is that a lot of time these two things are blended. When Jesus says, “Birds of the air have nests, foxes have holes in the ground, the Son of Man has no place to lay his head,” it’s a statement that he is a humble servant, but there’s a contrast in there, that the Son of Man who has no place to sleep is someone who’s worthy of worship, is a ruler over an eternal kingdom, and comes and stands in the presence of God. So you have this conflict that yes indeed he’s this humble servant, but he also has this immense power and is an object of worship.
The Son of Man is a fascinating title, and these are the ideas that are floating around behind it. Whenever you come across Jesus calling himself the Son of Man, you have to stop and think of these two backgrounds: humility and servanthood, or exaltation and power, and how those two ideas feed into the story that you’re reading. As I said, this lesson’s a heavy one on Christology. And these are the dominant names of Christ. Christ or Messiah, servant, and Son of Man. These are three of the most important titles. “Lord” will come later.
As we continue on in Mark, we come to chapter 4. Chapter 4 is a collection of parables, so we need to stop and talk a bit about how parables are to be interpreted. He tells the parable of the sower. “There was a man who went out once to sow seed and he threw some on hard ground and the birds ate it. He threw some other on rocky soil where the soil was shallow and the wheat grew up and then died quickly. Others of it he threw among weeds and it got choked, and other seed he threw fell on good soil and it produced a crop.” It’s called the parable of the sower.
This is one of Jesus’s primary ways of teaching, certainly in public. He loved to tell parables, but parables can be rather frustrating to interpret, so we need to spend a little bit of time with them. By way of introduction, the Kingdom of God is the primary topic of parables. Most of the parables, especially outside the gospel of Luke are about the nature of the Kingdom of God. Here is the parable of the sower, and then he continues with a few other. If you want more information on how to understand parables, if this is something that’s bothered you and you want to read more, the very best book you can read is by Fee and Stuart. The book is called How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. They’re both professors at Gordon Cornwall Theological seminary, where I taught. This book is a marvelous book because it helps you understand how to understand parables as well as other ways in which the Bible discusses things.
A parable is a story taken from everyday life for the purpose of teaching one main point. In other words, as you look at this parable of the sower and you think, “That’s stupid, why would you sow seed on hard ground and on weeds and where the rocks are?” Well that’s the way they did it then because they sowed the seed and then they ploughed. So as Jesus was telling the story of the sower everyone listening would think, “Yeah, I see that all the time.” These are stories taken from everyday life of things that they could visualize.
They’re meant to teach a point and it’s one main point. This is where people get in trouble with parables, because parables are often full of details. It’s easy to get attached to figuring out what the details mean. When you look at parables, keep asking yourself, what’s the main thing the parable is saying. Don’t get lost in the details, but there’s always one central truth, and that’s what you’re supposed to get out of the parable. Sometimes the details have significance, sometimes not. But you want that one main point.
What about the details? Here’s what I mean by details: One of the parables is the rich man and Lazarus. Lazarus was a beggar, and the rich man was, well, the rich man. They both died, and Lazarus, the poor beggar, went to Abraham’s bosom (Heaven). The rich man went to another place that wasn’t so nice. The rich man looks out and sees Lazarus and said, “Lazarus, give me a cup of water, it’s hot,” and “send Lazarus to talk to my brothers so they don’t come to this horrible place.” Jesus says no.
What’s that parable about? That people in Hell can see people in Heaven? That’s part of the detail of the story. Is it about the people in Hell, that it’s hot? Or the details that one was rich and one was poor? The main point of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is very simple. “The first will be last and the last will be first.” That’s what the parable is about. In Judaism, and in American culture, people think, “The rich are the ones that God’s obviously pleased with, I mean that’s why we all want to be rich, and they all should go to Heaven.” That’s why when Jesus says it’s impossible for a rich man to get to Heaven, Peter says, “Huh? Then we’re all going to go to Hell. If the rich can’t go, how can anyone go?” because that was part of their cultural thinking. If you’re rich, it was God’s pleasure, you’re going to go to Heaven. The parable was meant to tell us that there’s a flip flop that happens, and that what the world values is not necessarily what God values. Lazarus, the poor beggar, ends up in Heaven, and the rich man in Hell. Now you understand what I mean when I use the word “details.” You cannot expect the details to have significance. That’s going to be hard, because you may lose some of the favorite sermons you ever heard. I’ve heard some really powerful sermons preached where all the emphasis is on details, and I think, “but that’s not the point!” Otherwise, if the details of the story are necessarily true, if they’re necessarily theologically significant, you’ve got a real problem.
Take Luke 18, for example. Jesus wants to tell the disciples a parable about why they should pray often. It goes like this: There once was a widow and an unjust judge. The unjust judge wouldn’t do what the woman asked him to do. So what did she do? She nagged him. She nagged him and she nagged him and she nagged him, until finally the unjust judge says, “I don’t fear God or man, but to get this old bitty off my back, I’m going to give her what she wants.” (Paraphrase). What are the details in that parable? Who’s the unjust judge? God. Who’s the widow? You and me. So, is this parable teaching that God is unjust and that he views you and me as beggars and does only what we want when we nag him to death? No, of course not. I mean the details in this parable had no significance. It simply says, just as you can imagine someone at the lowest level of the social ladder, getting something that she deserved because she was persistent in asking, so also you should be persistent in asking your Heavenly Father. That’s all there is; there’s no significance in the details.
My favorite parable is the pearl of great worth, where a man finds a pearl of great worth and then sells everything that he has so he can buy the pearl. What does the pearl stand for? The Kingdom of God. “So, you can buy your way into Heaven. What—don’t you believe the Bible? You’re a bunch of liberals.” “The Bible says that you bought the pearl, so you should sell everything you should buy the Kingdom of God, and I’m taking your money.” No. See, if the details necessarily have meaning, you’ve got a real problem, because God’s unjust, we’re nags, and we’ve got to get money to buy our way into Heaven. The details don’t necessarily have significance. I don’t think this is that much of a controversy today—I think sometimes the details can have a significance, but they’re secondary, and they must be related to the main point. That’s the key.
For example, Jesus tells the parable of a man who had a vineyard. He goes away, and the farmers who were left to run it are supposed to give him his percentage because it’s his land. Every time he sends someone they beat him up, they don’t pay him, and sometimes they kill him. Finally, the owner says, I’ll send my son. Certainly they will respect my son. The farmers see the son coming and they say, “Hey, here’s the heir of the land! Let’s kill him and we get the land.” I don’t care how demented you are, but you’re probably not going to get an inheritance if you kill the owner’s son. As a general rule, that’s a dumb way to get an inheritance. So they kill the son, and what’s the owner going to do? he’s going to come out and cast them out of the vineyard and let new people have the vineyard.
What’s that parable about? The parable is a parable of rejection of the Jewish nation. God, the owner, had sent messenger after messenger after messenger, some they killed, some they beat. Who would that be? The prophets. He finally sends the son, Jesus. This is a prophecy that they’re going to kill the son, and then God’s going to turn them out and turn to the Gentiles. Which is exactly what happened in the Book of Acts. See, you’ve got one main point. The rejection of the Jewish nation and the going of the gospel to the Gentiles, to the non Jews. Is there significance in the details? Yes, because they all relate to the main point. And that’s the key.
Sometimes people can come up with meanings for the details that have no correlation at all to the main point. That’s when you have to be careful. My encouragement is, in your Bible study, ask “what’s the main point?” and be happy with that, because that’s safe. Sometimes, you’ll find that yes, there are cares of the world that choke out the message of the gospel, as in the parable of the sower. The parable of the sower is really easy because Jesus explains it. And he says yes the seed stands for this, the bird stands for Satan, and he goes down.
When it comes to the main point and details, parables have different rules of interpretation, and you have to follow their rules of interpretation. If you and I still spoke in parables, these rules of interpretation—one main point; details are secondary—would all be automatic to us, because we would understand them. For example, if I said, once upon a time in a faraway land, there lived a fairy princess, how do you understand what I’m saying? Do I really believe that there is a pixie with wings that lives somewhere? No. You understand that I’m using a different genre. I’m in the genre of fairytales. Fairytales tell the story as if it’s true, but everyone knows that it’s not, because their point isn’t to tell history, it’s to do something else. Likewise, parables have their own rules of interpretation.
Three Rules for Interpreting Parables
There are three rules for interpreting parables. One, a parable has one main point. In your Bible studies and your Sunday school, make sure you talk about that first. Ask, “What’s the main point?”
Secondly, the details are not necessarily significant. The key for me is that if they’re interpreted by Jesus as significant, as with the parable of the sower, then the details are significant. The details are significant only if they relate to the main point, and they’re still secondary. What’s the point of the parable of the sower? To teach you that you can’t lose your salvation? No. To teach you that you can lose your salvation? None of the above. In the parable of the sower, if you’re a farmer, which of the four soils is acceptable? There’s only one. The purpose of spreading the gospel is that fruit be borne, that there be a crop. The first three soils are worthless to a farmer. Only the soil that stands for hearing the word of God and it producing fruit in your life has value. That’s the whole point; that’s what God accepts. That’s the main point of the parable of the sower. It’s not to talk about all the ways in which seed fails to produce a crop. There is one main point.
Third, the parable must have made sense in Jesus’s day. Some of the interpretations of parables are so crazy that no one would ever have figured it out in the first century. Here’s a good example from Augustine in the fourth century. He’s interpreting the parable of the good Samaritan. There was a someone who fell among thieves, and two Jewish leaders walked by and didn’t help him. A Samaritan walked past, the social outcast as far as the Jews are concerned, and he helped this guy who’d gotten beaten up. He put him in an inn and gave him two coins and said, I’ll pay the rest when I come back. Augustine says that when it says a man comes from Jerusalem to Jericho, that that’s Adam that Jesus is talking about, because Jerusalem stands for the Heavenly city of peace. Jericho means the moon and signifies the fact that we’re human beings. The thieves that beat up Adam are the devil and his angels. When the thieves strip the man, it means they made him mortal. The priests and the Levite who passed him by stood for the priesthood of the Old Testament (I think he probably got that one right). The Samaritan is Jesus, the inn is the church, and the two coins are the two sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper. This is how parables were handled for 1500 years.
The main point of the parable of the good Samaritan is to ask, “Who’s my neighbor?” I mean the good Samaritan was told to answer the question, “Who’s my neighbor? Who do I have to help?” The parable of the good Samaritan says, your neighbor is anyone who needs you. Anyone who it is within your power to help. He tells a story where all the people that a Jew would expect to be the heroes—the priests and the Levites—walk by the beat up man and they ignore him. But one of those Samaritans stopped to help. This is an example of an outcast in society treating this man as his neighbor, and that’s what you’re supposed to do.
When I taught at Azusa, we were rivals with Biola University, so I used to retell this story of the good Biola student: There once was an AP student on his way to go surfing at San Notre, and he fell among the gangs who beat him up and left him. A professor walked by, but he was late for a meeting. Then a Free Methodist minister walked by, but he was late for choir. Then the Biola student stopped and helped the Azusa student, and put him in equality and gave him his credit card. You know, that’s the neat thing, if you understand parables properly, you can change all the specifics and they still mean exactly the same thing. Who’s my neighbor? Whoever it is in your power to help. That’s what the parable of the good Samaritan is about. The fact that it’s two coins doesn’t matter.
What are stories called where you should give attention to all the details? They’re not parables, but allegories. A parable does it teaching by issuing one main point, and allegories do all their teaching in the details. The tendency is to treat parables as allegories, and that’s where we get into trouble. What is the number two selling book of all time? The Bible is number one, second is Pilgrim’s Progress, a book by John Bunyan, written when he was in jail. He was thrown in jail because he was a preacher, and back then you couldn’t just preach, you had to be licensed. It’s a story of Christian leaving his home town and going to the Celestial City. He goes through the gates, and one of the first things he does he falls into the Slough of Despond. A friend comes by named Help. Help and pulls him up. Mom read Little Pilgrim’s Progress to us all the time, where the friend was called Help.
Is there any significance in the city being called Celestial City? Yes, it’s Heaven. Is there any significance that he goes on a trip? Yes, this is a Christian’s life from conversion to death. The significance of going through a gate is that it’s the point of conversion. What happens often when somebody becomes a new Christian? After several months, they get depressed, despondent. Something happens. They think, “I didn’t know this was what it was going to be like to be a Christian.” And they fall into the Slough of Despond. When that happens to us, what does God often do? he sends a helper, someone to help pull us out. See Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory; all the details mean something. Parables are not allegories. They’re there to teach one major point. And the details may do nothing more than make the picture come alive in the hearer’s eyes.
Summary of Jesus’s Parables
Let me give you a quick summary of some of Jesus’s parables so you can see this one main thing in action. Many of Jesus’s parables were told against a backdrop of Jewish misunderstandings, meaning that if you really want to understand the parables, you’re probably going to need a commentary. You’re probably not going to know how the Jews thought about the Kingdom of God. Jesus is using parables to correct their misunderstandings about the Kingdom of God. If you don’t understand the background, it’s hard to interpret them, so you generally need commentaries for parables. For example, the Jews believed that the Kingdom of God would come instantaneously. It would come and it would cover the earth and God would be in control. So Jesus tells the parable of the mustard seed, where the Kingdom of God is like the smallest of seeds that slowly, but methodically grows into the biggest of bushes. The Kingdom of God doesn’t come instantly, it starts small and will grow and will permeate society.
The Jews believed that when the Kingdom of God was going to come, that evil would be rooted out immediately. All evil would be gone. Jesus says no, and he tells them the parable of the weeds, where a man sows a crop and the enemy comes while the man is sleeping and sows weeds. When the weeds start to grow, the workers say, “An enemy has done this, do you want to pull out the weeds now?” And the master says, “No, we’ll wait until harvest; at harvest time there will be a separation of the wheat and the weeds.” Evil will be rooted out, but not at the inception of the Kingdom of God, at the culmination of the Kingdom of God. The Jews believed that if you were a Jew, you would instantly receive the Kingdom of God. Jesus tells the parable of the sower, and says “No, only certain people, only certain kinds of soil, will receive the message of the Kingdom of God.”
The Jews believed that all Jews were going to get into the Kingdom of God. So Jesus tells parables like the parable of the tenants that I told you earlier. He say, “No, not all the Jews are going to make it, in fact many of them are going to be kicked out, because they’re not going to be the soil that produces a crop. So the moral of the story on parables is make sure you’ve checked your commentary.
Miracle Stories (Mark 4:35 – 5:43)
I’ve used the word Christology several times and I want to go back to it. In Christology, the, the “ology” means “the study of,” so Christology is the study of Christ, who Christ is. Christology is the study of the question, “Who is Jesus?” As I said earlier, we usually look at the names of Jesus to figure out what he is like. It’s interesting how Mark starts his gospel. He says, “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” It appears that Mark 1:1 is the title of the gospel. The point, and one of the points that Mark wants to make, is to show us that Jesus is in fact the Son of God. What’s very interesting is that the phrase “Son of God” almost doesn’t occur anywhere else in Mark. It appears on the lips of one of the demon–possessed men, and the only other time it occurs is at Jesus’s death the centurion says, “Surely this man must’ve been the Son of God.” Someone like me who’s propositional, who wants logical, theological statements, thinks, “Mark, you did a really bad job. I have no conviction that Jesus is the Son of God when I read this.” That’s because I’m Greek; I’m propositional in my thinking. Most of the world does not think this way; most of the world is narrative; most of the world is story. That’s how they learn. And what Mark is doing is telling stories about Jesus, and as you look at what Jesus did, there’s only one possible answer to the question of who is Jesus, and that is, that he is God.
There is some propositional meaning in “Son of Man,” and “Messiah” and “the Son of God,”, but what’s interesting is that when you look at Mark 4, at the end of the parable starting at verse 35, there’s a marvelous group of miracle stories. From 4:35 through the end of chapter 5 is the story of Jesus calming the storm—he’s out there, and the winds come up, and the disciples are scared that the boat is going to sink. Jesus stands up and calms the storm. Then, he arrives on the other side, to the region of the Gerasenes. There’s a demon–possessed man that nobody can handle. He exorcises the demon. Then, Jesus is on the way to meet Jairus, who’s the synagogue ruler, to heal his daughter. Along the way, a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years touches him and is made whole. He gets to Jairus’s daughter, and it turns out that she has died, so he brings her back to life. Those are some powerful stories on their own, but when you realize that those four stories form a unit, you can see what Mark is saying:
Who is Jesus? he is someone who has power over the physical world.
Who is Jesus? he is someone who has the power to exorcise demons.
Who is Jesus? he’s someone who can heal the sick.
Who is Jesus? he’s someone who can raise the dead back to life.
Who is Jesus? Who can do all that? God
By the kinds of stories that Mark is including, by the narrative, he’s teaching us that Jesus is God, that he’s the Son of God. Christology is very important, but it’s often taught in Mark through stories. Sometimes, you talk to someone and you ask, “Well who do you think Jesus is?” “he’s a good man.” “That’s interesting. When I read this story of him, he can calm seas. He can raise the dead. He can heal. That sounds to me like more than just a good man. What do you think of this?” In this way, you can get away from this farce of Jesus just being a good man, and get into the ‘meat and potatoes’ of Mark’s Christology.