He Died for Me, and More

A Lenten Reflection

Christ died for me. That is a wonderful, miraculous truth. The creator of the universe thought I and my relationship with God were of such importance, that it was worth his death to restore a broken relationship and turn an enemy into a friend.

As amazing as this is, there is more. The New Testament often speaks of supernatural powers, rulers, and authorities of this dark world that are opposed to Christ. (Romans 8:38-39; Ephesians 6:12).

At the cross Christ defeated these, disarming them and bringing them into submission (Colossians 2:13-15). He destroyed Death (2 Timothy 1:9-10). He broke the power of the devil (Hebrews 2:14-15; 1 John 3:8).

During Lent we consider the cost of our salvation. At the same time, we dare not neglect that the cross reshaped the cosmos. We are part of that reshaping. Without this larger perspective, however, we diminish the cross. We fail to appreciate its full significance. The power of Sin, Death, and Hell are broken.

The cross was about us, but not just about us. We magnify Christ even more when we extol the universe-shaking story that lays low the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

photo credit: WikiImages Pixabay

The Grand Landscape of Scripture

When it comes to the Bible, scholars and non-scholars have something in common. We can both get lost in minutia.

Academics can get lost in the details of philology and morphology. The rest of us are prone to proof-texting, ripping verses or phrases out of context as if the Bible were a book of disconnected timeless truths or a mere handbook for living.

When we miss the big picture, Chris Wright and Gary Burge come to our rescue with excellent companion volumes—The Old Testament in Seven Sentences and The New Testament in Seven Sentences.

Each offers seven grand themes sparked by iconic verses in the Bible that help us see the majestic vista of God’s work. Wright’s choices from the Old Testament are creation, Abraham, Exodus, David, prophets, gospel, and wisdom. In the New, Burge walks us through fulfillment, kingdom, cross, grace, covenant, spirit, completion.

The two books link together in another way. Wright appropriately notes how the Old Testament points to and is fulfilled in Christ. Burge regularly points out how the New is based on and rooted in the Old. In plain and engaging language, both authors provide this necessary service because we have little hope of understanding Jesus or the apostles without engaging both testaments.

The result is a complete, brief, and readable overview of the Bible. Each book provides discussion questions for each chapter. Taking one a week, then, any church or small group could in under four months lift their heads from the weeds to see the grand landscape that is God’s story.

Note: I received complementary copies of both books from the publisher. I also was responsible for signing Chris Wright to do his book for IVP, though I had retired before the book was released and did not participate in its development or final form. My opinions are my own.

A Welcome Approach to Mark’s Gospel

One of the besetting sins of churchgoers throughout the ages has been to take verses out of context. We show disrespect for and do damage to the Bible when we act like it is a grab bag of timeless truths we can rummage through at will. We mislead others and ourselves about what the authors actually meant.

The paragraphs surrounding a particular verse are key, of course. But so is the way authors structure their work—how episodes are laid side by side or paired in different sections. Structure conveys meaning which we are wise to pay attention to that lies beyond the surface of the text.

In Dean Deppe’s tour de force, The Theological Intentions of Mark’s Literary Devices, he systematically unpacks the dense networks of meaning embedded in Mark’s gospel. Though not organized as a commentary, the book covers virtually the entire gospel.

Mark is famous for his “sandwiches” (also called intercalations or chiasms) in which he divides a narrative in two, inserting another in the middle. The story of Jairus’s daughter, for example, is interrupted by the woman who has been sick for twelve years.

In this academic work, Deppe also considers other devices such as framing (matched episodes that bookend a section), allusionary repetitions (recurrences of Old Testament references), mirroring (reflecting the experiences of the community Mark wrote for), and narrative surprises (such as a response of fear or lack of understanding to a miracle rather than amazement or faith).

Under his detailed analysis, four themes emerge: the Messiah is a suffering, crucified servant; discipleship will also be met with suffering, confusion, and failure; the Gentiles are welcomed into the new community in Christ; many Jewish regulations are fulfilled in Jesus and are no longer in effect.

In these last two themes, Deppe sees Mark closely aligned to the theology of Paul who pioneered mission to the Gentiles. Luke and Matthew, by contrast, regularly soften Mark’s diminishment of OT regulations (e.g., eliminating “The Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean,” and others). In this vein Mark likewise suggests that Jesus’ temple action is more than a symbolic cleansing but a symbolic destruction.

Deppe comes to these conclusions partially through his use of biblical criticism. While this results in seeming to set Jesus against Mark at times, his approach also unearths interesting insights regarding Mark’s use of geography. His work on the absence of Jesus (when Jesus is separated from the disciples) is also worthwhile.

I have long favored Deppe’s general approach of paying attention to Mark’s sophisticated use of literary devices. In Mark Through Old Testament Eyes, I especially consider two interpretive keys. The first is, as the title suggests, Mark’s intertextuality and the second is the way he structures his gospel.

I welcome Deppe’s comprehensive work both for the overall emphasis he gives to these and other devices for understanding Mark as well as for the thirty, sixty, hundredfold yield of insights into the gospel that he harvests in this important book.

Did Jesus Make a Difference?

In the last century millions were killed in genocide, a hundred million in armed conflicts, fifty million more in political purges. Has Jesus, acknowledged as the most influential person in world history, really made any difference?

Thomas Cahill begins to answer this question in Desire of the Everlasting Hills by considering the written record of Jesus’ life and the other documents his earliest followers left behind. He doesn’t make the mistake of homogenizing the four gospels into one bland account. Instead he recognizes the distinct emphases of the gospel writers, devoting a chapter to each of the four, and as a result giving us a richer picture.

While starting with an introduction on the Greek and Roman history that led up to the New Testament era, chapters on Paul and the early church round out his account. Throughout he shows respects for the text by quoting many long New Testament passages—including the entire letter of Paul to Philemon! This Cahill shrewdly summarizes as “instructing the slave master in his Christian duty, while seeming not to do so” (237).

Cahill offers a popular history based in mainstream scholarship. Having written a book on Mark’s gospel, I take issue with some points, but I agree with far more. Cahill does not, for example, dismiss miracles and the resurrection as mere fantasy. He calls for us to seriously consider the evidence that supports such reports.

Rather than focusing on particularly “spiritual” topics, Cahill emphasizes other themes inspired by Jesus—peace, justice, and lifting up the poor and marginalized. While the book is not religious in its intention, the author seems not to be able to help lapsing into some wonderfully devotional passages.

What of the initial question that inspired the book? He only hints at answers. Certainly the crucified image of the righteous sufferer has remained strong, inspiring many to follow his example even at great risk. Also, it is hard to imagine the Bill of Rights and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights emerging without the widespread influence of Jesus. “The pressure to make peace [in various quarters of today’s world] is quite unlike anything the Greeks or Romans or even the Elizabethans could have imagined” (310).

We have far to go in becoming the people Jesus called us to. Yet because of Jesus, we know the way.


photo credit: Pixabay, wynpnt

Bible Myth #23

We all know the story.

Saul persecuted the early Christians until, in a flash of light from the sky, God knocked him off his horse. He heard a voice call to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” And who was speaking? “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” And that’s how Saul turned from tormenting Jesus Followers to being their foremost missionary.

But there’s one detail in this tale that is wrong. A mistake. The Bible never says it. Yet we have retold this error over and over. What’s amiss?

There was no horse. Acts 9 doesn’t mention it. What about the other two times in Acts that Paul tells his story of meeting Jesus? No horse. Maybe it’s in one of Paul’s letters where he gives a bit of his life story? Sorry. No horse. Even reputable writers like Thomas Cahill perpetuate the myth.*

Why do we keep insisting on a horse? No doubt something is at work here similar to the adage about repeating a lie often enough that it becomes the truth. But there may be another reason. Religious artists over recent centuries have depicted Paul with a four-footed friend, Caravaggio chief among them. So the image fixes itself in our minds.

Admittedly, not much hangs on whether Saul rode a mighty steed or even a bedraggled burro. No decisive doctrine is cast down. No historical record is blinded.

What it does tell us is that we must read the text. And read it carefully. Just because we think the Bible says something, doesn’t make it so. Even if we’ve heard it a hundred times, we need to read slowly, ask good questions, pay attention, write down what we see, be quiet, and listen.

If we do, we might even hear the voice of Jesus.

*Thomas Cahill, Desire of the Everlasting Hills (New York: Doubleday, 1999), p. 123.

Women in Mark’s Gospel

Ancient writers are known for sometimes considering women to be minor, unimportant, and perhaps not fully human. In the Gospels, that is far from the case. Women are not presented as lesser or one-dimensional beings. They are presented as people who show the full range of human agency, experience, and potential. Consider the array of characters we find just in the Gospel of Mark.

Sometimes women are simply recipients of grace such as Peter’s sick mother-in-law who was healed by Jesus or Jairus’s daughter whom Jesus raised from the dead (Mark 1:30-31; 5:21-24, 35-43). They are no less deserving of divine attention than men, regardless of their age or position.

In other cases women are honored overtly for taking public initiative to show their faith against the pressures of culture and circumstances. These include the woman who was sick for twelve years, the Gentile woman whose daughter was possessed, the widow who gave sacrificially to the Temple treasury, and the woman who anoints Jesus at Simon’s house with very costly perfumed oil (Mark 5:25-34; 7:24-30; 12:41-44; 14:3-9).

At least one woman is presented as evil. Herodias had long wanted to have John the Baptist killed for speaking against her divorce from Philip and marriage to Herod. When the opportunity arose, she callously used her daughter to have John executed without cause (Mark 6:17-29).

Women are also shown to have a complex mixture of faith and fear. Several bravely stood near the cross when Jesus’ male followers had deserted him. Yet two days later, after seeing the angel at the empty tomb, they fled in terror, afraid to tell anyone what they saw and heard (Mark 15:40-41; 16:1-8).

In short, women are presented much as men are—sometimes passive, sometimes evil, sometimes flawed, sometimes courageous. In the ancient world women were rarely allowed to hold positions of responsibility and were often treated much like servants. In contrast Jesus and the Gospel writers see women as full participants in the drama of humanity and of the kingdom.

The Christmas Story You Never Heard

You mean you never heard the story of the red, seven-headed Christmas Dragon? You know, the one so powerful that its tale swept billions of stars from the sky and flung them to earth in a fury. That’s the dragon that showed up Christmas morning, determined to kill the baby boy destined to rule the nations as soon as it was born.

Right. That dragon!
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Background Check

If we do not make use of historical background to the New Testament, we are in danger of misreading these books and letters with 21st-century eyes. Reading Mark in Context introduces us to important historical and religious writings from the Second Temple Period (roughly from the Jewish return from Babylonian exile in 516 BC to the destruction of the temple by Rome in AD 70). These range from the works of Josephus to the Dead Sea Scrolls to the apocrypha to Rabbinic writings, and more.
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Mark Through Roman Eyes

Commonly in biblical studies, as in other academic disciplines, a scholar arrives at a genuine insight and proceeds to interpret everything through that lens, seeing it as the key to the whole. The problem is that such ancient texts defy easy modern categorization or simple unifying themes. Adam Winn admirably avoids this trap.
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Why Resurrection Matters (Mark 12:18-27)

Then the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. . . . Jesus replied . . . “Now about the dead rising–have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the account of the burning bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!”
(Mark 12:18, 24, 26-27)

Many Christians think that the spiritual is more important than the physical–that prayer, evangelism, worship, giving to Christian causes, and encountering God matter more than caring for our physical selves or for the created world. Doing church work, we may think, is more important than our job as an accountant, store clerk, salesperson, or truck driver. Reading the Bible, we might think, is more important than other reading we can do to learn about the world and people that God created.
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