1 Corinthians: Gifted Chaos

Paul’s next letter is very different in character to Romans. Paul writes to the church in Corinth – and a large part of the letter is dealing with problems in the church, and questions from the Corinthians. More even than any other of Paul’s letters we feel like we are listening to one end of a telephone conversation.

Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthian church is fascinating. Key background is in Acts where Paul’s visit to Corinth is described. Paul spends over a year in Corinth, and is helped by the husband and wife team of Aquila and Priscilla (or sometimes the order is the other way around, Priscilla and Aquila). As is usual he meets with Jewish opposition, but then finds success among the Gentiles.

This would have made for a mixed congregation – Corinth was a seaport, with a reputation for immorality. It was multinational and cosmopolitan, open to new ideas – and in this case open to the gospel. You don’t need to read far into 1 Corinthians to realise how much of a mixture the congregation was, and how many different ideas were around in the congregation of the day.

This was a church split into factions supporting different human leaders, with sexual immorality because some people thought that the body no longer mattered, with people joining in feasts in idol temples, with the Lord’s Supper celebrated in a way that highlighted the splits in wealth, a church with many gifts used in services – but great confusion as people spoke without waiting for others. This was a church where some were even confused about the resurrection – thinking it was a spiritual thing that had already happened, with no-more to come.

Into all that Paul writes 1:1-9. The shock of these verses is that Paul starts with praise. He starts by affirming what has happened in the Corinthians. He starts first of all by affirming that they are sanctified – made holy – in Christ Jesus, and then pours out this effusive prayer of thanks to God for them:

“I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge—even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you—so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ,who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

1 Corinthians 1:4-9

It is a careful mixture of honest praise – the Corinthians really are gifted in every way – and gentle encouragement towards a right approach. The Christian life is one of waiting for the final day, the day when Jesus will be revealed. It isn’t about having everything perfect now. Our best life is definitely still to come.

Fundamentally Paul is encouraging them to live with two realities in view. The first is that they have been sanctified. Some of them may not be living out holy lives, but they have been set apart for holiness. In that sense they are already holy.

The NT uses the vocabulary of holiness mostly in this sense, relating to our being set apart for God. We tend to use the vocabulary of holiness mostly in talking about living holy lives now, and sometimes forget about the first sense. But we can only hope to live lives consecrated to God now because of what God has already done for us in making us holy, in setting us apart for his service.

The second reality is that of Jesus return. Jesus is coming back to renew the world, to transform the cosmos, and the Christian life now is one of waiting for that to happen. Not as we passively wait for a bus to come, but actively, as one waiting for a new child, or for a wedding day, or for a new job which requires preparation.

And so Paul seeks to place the Corinthian issues in context, in between these two poles. I wonder whether we would have the patience to do the same with a church struggling with the same issues as Corinth – or would we write them off as heretics and condemn them?

The first issue is that they are divided over leaders. “I follow Peter”, “I follow Paul”, “I follow Apollos” – and some, perhaps ever so slightly sanctimoniously “I follow Christ”. It has an all too familiar ring. Ironically the leaders cited in this opening chapter all could work together very happily – they just developed followers who liked to argue.

Paul’s remedy is to remind them of the priority of the cross – it was Christ who was crucified for them, not Paul or any other mere human. The message of the cross humbles their desire for wise words that impress human intellect and their desire for miracles that will demonstrate visibly the power of God. And yet the message of the cross is the wisdom of God.

This message of the cross, Paul reminds them, has saved them – and not many of them were particularly impressive – they were among the weak and despised of the world, but such are the people God chooses to work amongst. No-one has any grounds to boast before God.

In the first chapters of 1 Corinthians (1-4) Paul gives the Corinthians a crash course in what true spiritual ministry looks like. It is cross shaped, and Christian ministers are servants of the cross, building on the foundation Christ has laid.

The Christian church is a temple of the Spirit – and so those who aspire to leadership must be careful how they lead. The Corinthians think that they have already arrived, that they have entered the resurrection age in all its fulness – but Paul reminds them, with biting sarcasm in chapter 4, that working for Christ now is hard work, being fools for Christ’s sake looking forward to the judgement that is to come.

The next major issue Paul deals with is the issue of sexual immorality. It seems that some of the church in Corinth did not think that the body was particularly important for the Christian life – what really mattered was the spirit. Some of those thought that anything to do with the body should be shunned, while others thought that one way of showing their freedom in Christ was to do whatever their bodies wanted to do.

Paul’s answer is to remind them of their identity in Christ. Once they were defined by their sin – but now they have been washed, sanctified and justified in the name of Jesus. They are now God’s temples, bought with a price – God is to be honoured in their bodies. What Christians do with their bodies matters. God’s commands will always feel out of step with the world around – they would have done in 1st century Corinth, just as they so often do in 21st century Britain.

Having tackled that Paul moves on to the issue of food offered to idols – which sounds remote to us (at least in the west). However the issue is less important than the principles he sets out. Some of the Corinthians made much of their freedom, and of flaunting their freedom – but Paul’s point is that freedom should be used to build others up. If showing off how free we are causes others to sin we have badly missed the point.

Paul also points out that while food offered to idols may be a matter of indifference, sharing in idol worship at idol temples is not. Behind the mute idol is a demonic deception – and Christians should be careful to flee idolatry. Paul’s warning in 9:24-10:13 is stark. Paul does not assume he will escape the temptation, but disciplines himself, and he uses the example of the Israelites in the desert to warn the Corinthians that anyone who thinks they are strong should be careful lest they fall. The remedy is found in God’s faithfulness and protection – no-one worried about falling needs to fear, only those who have stopped worrying need to worry.

Paul moves on to discuss various issues related to the Corinthian church’s meetings – the leadership role of women, the Lord’s Supper and spiritual gifts. In none of these cases do we have the exact problems that the Corinthians did, but in each of them Paul’s words have important implications for us to consider. Important in that process, perhaps especially in relation to the leadership role of women in the church, is working out what impact the culture of Paul’s day and the relation of Paul’s teaching to that should have for us today – so check out the resources section below for some more detailed places to go to help your study.

Finally Paul turns to what he regards as of central importance – the gospel of the resurrection. It is no accident that 1 Corinthians starts with the cross and finishes with the resurrection. The two are fundamental to a correct understanding of the Christian life, and fundamental to correcting the Corinthian errors.

Jesus’ resurrection is the guarantee of Christians being raised. It is the guarantee that Jesus will come back to renew this world. This world and our bodies now are the seed of something infinitely greater to come. Life now has many disappointments, hardships and heartaches. But the Christian hope holds out something better to come.

There is a day – as we remembered this Easter Sunday – to come when we will not all sleep (die) but we will all be transformed. When the trumpet will sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible. (At this point I want you to have those words in their setting in the Messiah echoing in your ears) On that day death will be swallowed up in victory – the victory given through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Because of that the Corinthians should stand firm, working hard for the Lord in all they do, because they know that work is not in vain. Nothing is wasted. And so they should give generously to the poor, welcoming those who work for the Lord. They should be watchful and standing firm – strong in the faith, but filled with love in all they do.

When you read 1 Corinthians the same advice as in reading Romans applies – look for the new sections and try identify the key thoughts. You will notice that the phrase “about the matters you wrote about” or similar comes quite often – it often introduces a short quotation from the Corinthians which Paul then takes issue with.

It is a good reminder that this is a letter written in response to a particular situation. It is for us, but it was not written directly to us – so it is always important to think carefully about the implications for us.

Resources

Commentaries

New International Commentary series – Gordon Fee. This has to be the go to for preaching or teaching on 1 Corinthians. It is readable, and clear and really helpful.

Bible Speaks Today and NIVAC series will be useful more general reads.

On chapters 1-4 both Don Carson (The cross and Christian Ministry) and John Stott have written very helpful books based on sermons/conference addresses. They have slightly different takes on some aspects of the chapters – but since we shouldn’t be following either ‘Carson’ or ‘Stott’ that’s OK! 🙂

Issues in 1 Corinthians

Both issues around the role of women in church leadership and sexuality are raised by a study of 1 Corinthians.

Covering both is Slaves, Women and Homosexuals by William Webb – an excellent study of why he thinks the church was right to move away from allowing slavery, accept women in leadership but shouldn’t move away from the idea that God’s standard is one man, one woman in lifelong monogamous union.

If you want to think through more on the practical and pastoral issues of holding to a very different standard to the world around in the area of human sexuality I would recommend The Plausibility Problem by Ed Shaw, and ‘The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert‘ as well as ‘Openness Unhindered‘ by Rosaria Butterfield in the States – all of these are really good at challenging churches to live differently. Also in this country the Living Out website has resources for churches.

On the issue of women in leadership there are lots out there. At a very detailed level are:
Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth (Wayne Grudem who argues that women should not be in leadership except in certain very constrained situations – very thorough, although I think flawed in various ways…) and Discovering Biblical Equality: Complimentarity without Hierarchy – by various authors is detailed in arguing for women in teaching and leadership roles.

Briefer but still useful is 2 Views on Women in Ministry – confusingly in the 4 views series by Zondervan – it does actually have four ‘perspectives’, and is very interesting on helping work through the issues.

Lucy Peppiatt (Principle of Westminster Theological Centre in Cheltenham) has an academic level book Women and Worship at Corinth, and a more ‘accessible’ level ‘Unveiling Paul’s women‘ (specifically 1 Cor 11) and ‘Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women‘ (more wide ranging) – which should be very interesting – I’ve heard her interviewed on the topic – she would argue that women should be involved in teaching and leadership at all levels, and has some intriguing arguments on 1 Corinthians 11 in particular.

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Romans: To God be the glory

And on to Romans. But first a couple of notes by way of explanation of the NT. After Acts the letters are organised by author, and then seem to be grouped in terms of size (roughly). Romans and 1 Corinthians are the largest of Paul’s letters, and Romans stands out for its breadth of topics.

Paul had never visited the church in Rome, and hoped to use them as a base for his missionary journey. But he knew some of the key people in the church in Rome and he had heard some things about the church in Rome, and his letter addresses those issues, and provides the theological underpinning for a church made up of Jew and Gentile together.

Paul was a figure then, as he often is now, who divided people. He was an apostle – but one called much later than the others. He seemed to have a laser like focus on the issues that mattered most. He was passionate about people. He was passionate about living well. He saw clearly that Jesus death and resurrection changed everything. Romans sets that out. Sometimes with stunning clarity. Sometimes with material that has kept theologians, pastors and believers in general arguing ever since.

As often with Paul’s letters he sets his stall out at the start. These greetings are not dull preliminaries, they show the heart of his message.

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to faith and obedience for his name’s sake. And you also are among those Gentiles who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.
To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people

(Romans 1:1–7 TNIV)

As so often in Paul this is a one sentence summary of what he is up to. The key phrase is “Through him we received grace and apostleship to call the Gentiles to faith and obedience”. Before Paul reaches that phrase he reminds his readers who the ‘him’ is – Jesus, the Son of God and Son of David, who rose from the dead by the power of the Spirit, and by that resurrection was proclaimed/defined/designated to be Jesus, God’s anointed King, our Lord.

That word Lord is theologically charged in two ways. For the Jewish reader it implies that Jesus is Yahweh, the God of the OT. For all Paul’s readers in Rome though there is another titled Lord – Caesar. To have a Lord who is greater than Caesar is dangerous ground politically. Jesus is supreme above all.

And it is from this Jesus that Paul has received grace and apostleship. Jesus has given Paul grace – undeserved kindness, benefits that Paul had done nothing at all to earn. Above all else Paul stresses this undeserved nature of God’s grace, where the recipient has done nothing to make himself worthy of that grace. His apostleship is a gift. A gift of God’s grace for the benefit of the church.

Paul is called to call Gentiles, non Jews, to ‘faith and obedience’ – more literally ‘the obedience of faith’. This one of those difficult to pin down phrases that Paul uses. It all hinges on what ‘of’ means.

Is he saying that the obedience God requires is faith? Is he saying that faith must lead to obedience (the obedience generated by faith)? I think I lean in the second direction. That obedience generated by faith is for the sake of Jesus’ name – for his glory, to make people see how great Jesus is.

To see how fundamental this is to Paul just turn to the end of the letter:

“Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all the Gentiles might come to faith and obedience— to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen.

(Romans 16:25–27 TNIV)

The same phrase is used here as Paul prays a final prayer for the Roman Christians – once more that the Gentiles might come to the ‘obedience of faith’ – to the glory of God. Fundamentally for Paul everything hinges on God receiving the glory, and on the name of Jesus being exalted.

Just about every chapter of Romans contains enough material for volumes and volumes of arguments over the details of what Paul is saying. But if we remember that larger picture that holds him, we will be able to keep the discussions on Paul and what he means in perspective.

After these introductory verses Paul prays for the Roman Christians, and then begins to explain the heart of his message:

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last,[ just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

Romans 1:16-17 (NIV)

The good news about Jesus is God’s power to bring salvation to all who believe. Then pay attention to the ‘for’ – possibly one of the more important connecting words in Romans. Why is the gospel the power of God – because by it the righteousness of God is revealed. This is another example of one of those phrases in Paul where the function of ‘of’ is critical.

Reading on is always helpful in working out what Paul means. In this case we see that God’s righteousness is not talking about an abstract quality of God. We know God is righteous, but here Paul seems to be saying that this righteousness is something that God gives by faith. Paul quotes Habakkuk – where the contrast is between the arrogant who are puffed up, and God’s righteous person who lives by humble trust in God.

This righteousness then is to do with the way that a righteous God enables people to be righteous before him. Paul’s next section lays the groundwork for understanding what he means by this. After these verses 1:18 and following come as a shock, as Paul introduces the idea of God’s anger at people’s sin and wickedness. Paul spends 3 chapters reinforcing the idea that everybody, everywhere, Jew and Gentile alike, have fallen short of God’s glory. All without exception are sinners. There is no one who in and of themselves is righteous – not even one.

That doesn’t mean that everyone is as bad as they could possibly be – simply that there is no-one who avoids sin – each and everyone of us falls short of even what in our best moments we want for ourselves. Each and everyone of us stands justly condemned before a holy God.

Having established the bad news Paul then lays out the good news. In the gospel this righteousness of God is given to all who believe through faith in Jesus – or possibly, through the faithfulness of Jesus – once again the little word ‘of’ gives plenty of scope for debate. It can be given to all who believe because Jesus is the “propitiation” for our sins – Jesus died in our place, bearing our sin to the cross.

This idea has often been scorned, and has come in for renewed criticism in recent decades in evangelical circles – mostly, I think, due to misunderstandings and bad presentations of it. But without the substitutionary death of Christ in our place, bearing our punishment, pierced for our transgressions, we rob the cross of its power. There is much more to be said about the cross it is true. The cross is not only about Jesus as our substitute. But it is not less than this.

The cross enables God to be just (or righteous) and the one who puts us right with God through faith – justifies us (the words for just/justify/righteous are all from the same word group in Greek – but righteousified doesn’t sound very good in English, so we’ll stick to justify and justified).

Paul then moves on to use Abraham as a worked example of why justification comes through faith rather than through law (Abraham believed God and was counted righteous before he did anything). Then we move into chapters 5-8 where we see that nothing can come between God and those he has justified – not death, not sin, not the law – there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

That phrase ‘in Christ Jesus’ contains another key to Paul’s thought. By faith in Jesus we are united to Jesus, so that all his standing before God becomes ours. In Adam, Paul can write, all die. The human race has a fragile unity in which we all share – we are all sinners, and so we all die. The remedy is to be united to Christ, to share in his life. So Jesus’ death for us is a death in which we share (Romans 6) – and likewise his resurrection is a coming to life that we share.

That death and resurrection is then worked out in the practical details of the believers life as we live out our death to sin and rising to new life by putting sin to death, and giving our bodies in obedience to Christ. We all struggle to do that (Romans 7) but we do it empowered by the Spirit, in the knowledge that we are God’s children (Romans 8). Nothing at all can separate us from his love.

And then having reached the crescendo of Romans 8 we reach Romans 9 which feels like an anticlimax. And yet it is critical. Paul has just said that nothing can separate God’s people from God’s love – yet most Jews do not believe in Jesus. How can this be? And how can Paul can live with this – he, like Moses in Exodus 32, would happily give himself for his people.

Romans 9-11 are Paul working through that anguish. He shows us how not all the chosen families have been part of God’s people – Isaac, not Ishmael, Jacob, not Esau. Yet that does not make God unjust. No one has any claim on Him. God has always been looking to have mercy. He raises up a Pharaoh and hardens him – but always with the aim of rescuing his people and showing mercy.

God is defined by Paul as ‘the showing mercy God’ – and yet Israel stumble. They stumble because they talk back to the potter and refuse to accept the mercy of God. Instead they pursue God’s salvation by works rather than by faith. They have had the chance to hear but refuse to believe (Romans 10). God has not given up – there is still a remnant, as in Elijah’s day. A remnant who receive God’s grace by faith.

Israel as a whole are hardened – ironically becoming like Pharaoh – with the intention of God’s salvation going worldwide. Like Pharaoh they are not innocent before they are hardened – Paul has established they are guilty like the Gentiles – but in the case of the Jews because they try to seek righteousness by the law. God allows them to go their own way, so that people from every nation can come to faith. That in turn will lead to the Jews turning back to God, to faith in Christ.

These aren’t easy chapters to follow, and it is always tempting to impose our own theological grid on what Paul is saying – but ultimately the purpose is that all might come to praise this God – which is exactly what Paul does at the end of chapter 11.

He then follows with a more practical turn, as is common with all his letters. “Therefore, in view of God’s mercies” he begins – in view of all that chapters 1-11 have spelled out, we need to live with minds renewed, and bodies given as living sacrifices in worship to him. Those renewed minds, those bodies given in worship, are the foundation of all of life – whether that is the life of the community, or the life of Christians in the hostile world of Rome.

Finally Paul appeals for help in his plans, and greets the Roman Christians. It is a big letter, with lots of puzzles – but lots of encouragement too when we sit with Paul’s arguments and example for long enough. It is always worth remembering to work out what the questions are for Paul – because quite often we come to Romans with our questions for our theological understanding – but we need to sit with Romans long enough to let it change that understanding.

So why not try and study Romans? The first thing to do is to read it in one go, in one sitting – it won’t actually take too long. Ideally read it out loud – maybe use a paraphrase like the Message for that. Reading scripture aloud carries great power – and reading Romans 8 out loud in its context rams home the point that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus – and gives that point a deeper chance of lodging not only in our minds but in our hearts too.

Then find a more literal version (ESV, NASB) and read it looking for the big divisions of subject. Then read each of those big sections dividing them up into paragraphs, and identifying Paul’s main thought each time. After that find a commentary or two and check your thinking.

Resources

Romans Commentaries

Bible Speaks Today – John Stott – very helpful clarity (as usual)

Dust to Destiny – David Seccombe – Good Book Company – very useful, and brief commentary – so readable as an aid to daily study

New International Commentary on the New Testament – Douglas Moo – clear and very useful, perhaps especially for preachers and teachers.

More academic commentaries by James Dunn (WBC) and N T Wright are both very useful for more in-depth work. Ben Witherington’s is useful especially in terms of 1st Century historical background.

Books about Paul

Paul – a biography – Tom Wright – this is really good, helping to give a flavour of Paul – it has an interesting mixture of solid historical information and informed speculation to ponder. Goes well with “What St Paul really said” by the same author, which is a good place to start in understanding Tom Wright’s take on Paul.

Phoebe – Paula Gooder – very good for thinking about what life would have been like in Paul’s churches – lots to think about and ponder, and sends you back to the Bible to check things out.

At a more academic level an excellent book is Paul and the Gift by John Barclay – and there is a Grove Booklet summary available too.

Acts: The Good News Spreads

Acts follows on from Luke – essentially it is volume two of a two part story. In volume 1 Luke tells us, he told of all that Jesus began to do and teach. It is worth pausing for a minute on the implications of that word ‘began’. It is common in the gospels – Mark talks of his gospel as the beginning of the good news about Jesus. The key implication is that the gospels are only the start of Jesus’ activity. There is more to come.

We don’t read the gospels, and Acts, as describing something that is over. Yes there are specific unique actions and events – the cross, resurrection and pentecost, but these lay the foundations for Jesus’ ongoing work in the life of the world, and in particular in the life of his people.

Acts begins with Jesus and the 11 in Jerusalem, and finishes with Paul under house arrest in Rome, preaching the gospel at the heart of the Roman Empire. Luke is an eyewitness of some of these events – look closely at the ‘we’ passages later in the book where he joins Paul and his companions.

Luke’s account here begins however with Jesus’ ascension. Acts 1:6-11 is fascinating. His disciples ask him if he will restore the kingdom to Israel. This is what they wanted before the cross, but now having accepted the cross and resurrection they expect that now might be when the OT promises to Israel are fulfilled in a more literal way.

Jesus reply does not altogether say that they are wrong. The kingdom of God will appear in all its fulness on earth – at the new creation. The time he will do that is known only to him. But to focus only on Israel is a mistake. The disciples are to be witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth – and it is often observed that those locations form the staging posts in Luke’s account.

Furthermore the disciples will receive power to be witnesses. Right now they are weak and powerless – but a transformation is about to occur – the Holy Spirit will come upon them. Jesus finishes these instructions and is taken ‘up’ to ‘heaven’. This ascension is critical – Jesus goes, as he explains in John’s gospel, so that the Spirit can come. Jesus goes, as Hebrews makes clear, so that he can stand in the Father’s presence interceding for us.

Then, 8 days later at the feast of Pentecost – when the giving of the law at Sinai was remembered, the Spirit comes down in fire, with a roaring wind, and the followers gathered together speak in other tongues (maybe here languages) as the Spirit gave them utterance. People from every nation hear them speaking in their own native language.

Peter uses this occasion to stand up and boldly tell the crowd gathered the good news of Jesus and what he has done. 3000 respond – they repent, are baptised in water, have their sins forgiven and receive the Holy Spirit. The community that gathers is marked out by paying attention to the apostles teaching, to their common life together, to breaking of bread (eating together, and remembering Jesus as they do), and prayers. They share life, and they share possessions. They give to those who need, praise God, and people see. There is a sense of awe, and God’s power is seen in people’s lives.

These things characterise the life of the disciples throughout Acts. Persecution comes, and the disciples are scattered. They preach the word. God raises up more spokespeople for his message – Stephen, the first martyr, Philip, who speaks to Samaritans and an Ethiopian official. More miracles are done.

A zealous opponent of this new movement, a young Pharisee called Saul takes drastic action – but on his way to Damascus the risen Christ appears to him. Saul sees that Jesus is the Lord – Yahweh, the God he seeks to serve, and his life is turned upside down. He is called to take the gospel to the gentiles – and just he zealously tried to eradicate the gospel he now zealously seeks to spread it by all means possible.

Acts traces his journey, and the journeys of his companions, in spreading that gospel to the nations. Saul – or Paul, to give him his more Greek sounding name – causes trouble wherever he goes. Jewish Christians from a similar background to Paul want to make Gentiles Jews if they can be followers of the Messiah.

To Paul that is literally anathema. Paul saw more clearly than any other the vital necessity of not making Gentiles into Jews. The gospel was that Jew and Gentile together could be one people of God because they were put right with God by faith alone in Christ alone.

However, even as he held fast to that and conceded to no one he also wanted to show though that Gentiles owed a huge debt to their Jewish brothers – the gospel was first for the Jew – and organised a collection for the poor Jewish Christians of Jerusalem. As he takes the collection back to Jerusalem he is continually warned that he will face trouble – but he is determined.

Eventually the journey to Jerusalem becomes the journey to Rome, and he ends up at the heart of the Roman Empire. We don’t know what happens after that – but we do know that the gospel continues to go out. In one sense the story continues in every group of Christians who take the good news on to others.

So read through Acts. See what happens as the disciples and the followers preach the gospel and live lives changed by that gospel. Watch as the church decides how to incorporate the Gentiles, and the use they make of the OT in that process as they discover that the inclusion of the Gentiles has been anticipated all along in Israel’s story. Watch and see the power of the Spirit at work.

Allow that vision to drive you to pray – I think that perhaps the best response as we read Acts is to join with the disciples in their prayer in Acts 4:

23 On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them. 24 When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. “Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. 25 You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David:

“‘Why do the nations rage
    and the peoples plot in vain?
26 The kings of the earth rise up
    and the rulers band together
against the Lord
    and against his anointed one.[b][c]

27 Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. 28 They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. 29 Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. 30 Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”

31 After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.


32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

Acts 4:23-35

As David Jackman puts it in his book “Understanding the Church”

When God’s people pray, the Holy Spirit grants that sort of answer. He is the power which strengthens us. He toughens us up, so that we can keep going, enabling us to be more than conquerors through him who loved us. His is the grace that sweetens us and refines us, to make us loving and able to do the will of God, in the way of God. How else can you cope with life when the going gets tough? What else do you need to cope with life than ‘great power’ and ‘much grace’? We have our Bibles and we have our knees; we just have to use them both.

I remember that last line striking me quite forcibly when I first read it. A lot of us who are good at reading our Bibles are very poor at getting down our knees in expectant prayer – if reading Acts does nothing else it should surely drive us to prayer that God would work clearly in our land and our world today.

Resources:

Commentaries:

Acts – Bible Speaks Today – John Stott – a very thorough and useful commentary on the book of Acts – all of John Stott’s BST’s are well worth reading – he packs a lot in.

Acts – NIVAC – Ajith Fernando – very readable – and the enthusiasm of the author comes through clearly

The Word of his Grace – Chris Green – this is less of a full commentary, more of a guide to the book as a whole and how it fits together – very useful.

The Holy Spirit and his work today

To read Acts is to face the question of how similar our experience should be to that of the early believers – perhaps especially in the area of the miraculous, and seeming immediacy of the Spirit’s guidance (it is also worth paying close attention to see the wide variety of ways this works in the book of Acts)

Paul, the Spirit and the People of God by Gordon Fee is a good introduction – focused on Paul’s writings by a Pentecostal New Testament scholar who writes warmly and clearly. If you want a more full treatment of the passages you could progress to his massive “God’s Empowering Presence” which gives all the workings.

Baptism and Fullness – John Stott – a brief book on the particular issue of how to understand Spirit Baptism and being filled with the Holy Spirit – very clear and helpful.

Joy Unspeakable – Martyn Lloyd Jones – a different angle on the same issues as John Stott – a call to seek more of God – and a good guide to discernment.

Are Miraculous Gifts for Today: four views – if you haven’t come across this series it is often very useful for thinking through issues. This one is edited by Wayne Grudem, who manages to be very fair on this issue, and deals well with disagreements on this issue.

The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today – Wayne Grudem – really helpful for thinking about how the gift of prophecy functions.

Showing the Spirit – Don Carson (actually an extended exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14) – really good with fascinating example from his ministry experience.

Surprised by the Power of the Spirit/the Voice of God – Jack Deere – well worth reading through.

More by Simon Ponsonby (St Aldates in Oxford) is excellent – well worth reading https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1434765385/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i0

I’d also recommending reading Pete Greig (of 24/7 prayer fame)- perhaps God on Mute about living a life of expectation that God will do miracles at the same time as facing the reality that he often doesn’t. I think this is probably the hardest area to work through – how to believe in a God who can and does do miracles, but very often doesn’t seem to do the one we want him to.

John: Glorious Grace

The final gospel is John. John is very different to the other gospels, and has sometimes been labelled as therefore less historically trustworthy. This doesn’t really stand up though, the differences with the other gospels are more straightforwardly understood as simply a different selection of stories – after all, as the very end of the gospel points out, Jesus’ life has enough for material for a vast library of books.

John arranges his gospel around 7 key miracles Jesus does, and 7 key metaphors Jesus gives us for who he is and what he does – the famous “I am” sayings of John’s gospel. Those ‘I am’ sayings, along with the related phrase Jesus uses “I am he”, or more briefly still “I am” as in “before Abraham was born, I am”, are a way of linking back to the way Yahweh talks about his identity in the OT. In particular they allude back to parts of Isaiah 40-55, where “I am he” and “I am Yahweh” are common ways of Yahweh identifying himself as supreme over all things. In their turn these are linked back to Moses at the Burning Bush, when Yahweh says to him “I am who I am”.

John is using everyday language to alert his readers to Jesus’ identity. We see that identity in the reaction of the Jewish leaders who pick up stones to stone Jesus when he says “Before Abraham was born: I am”. They know what he is claiming. We see it when he says “I am” when the soldiers come to arrest him – they fall backwards. His words reveal something about him. Each of the images Jesus uses: Light, Bread, Vine etc are steeped in the OT, and it is well worth tracing them back into the OT.

If you read in the original Greek you notice an immediate change in style from Luke’s gospel. John’s sentences are short, and the vocabulary limited. Yet that change in style doesn’t mean any lack of theological depth or significance – indeed almost the opposite. This is a gospel to ponder slowly. To think about the sentences. To meditate on the words.

John goes back to the very beginning, before creation even happened. He tells us that “In the beginning was the Word”. His use of ‘Word’ will resonate with Greek hearers who had the concept of the ‘word’ or ‘reason’ behind the cosmos. But for Jewish hearers there will be resonances from the OT. Think of the phrase used constantly through the prophets: “the word of Yahweh came…”

John wants us to know that this Word of Yahweh is a person in his own right. Indeed the Word was with God, and the Word is God. We could almost say that these two sentences are the birth place of the Trinity: the Word is with God, yet the Word is also God. The Word is both distinct from God, yet identified with God.

The Word, is also life and light. He is the source of life and the source of all light – and both those ideas run all the way through John’s gospel. More than that the Word became flesh, and made his dwelling (literally) ‘tabernacled’ among us. John is deliberately reminding his readers of the tabernacle in the OT, where God promised to live with his people.

Jesus is God in the flesh doing exactly that. John has seen the glory of the Word. The glory of the Son is shown in grace and truth. We should be reminded by those words of Moses seeking to see God’s glory in Exodus 33-34. He gets only a glimpse of God’s back, but he does hear Yahweh proclaiming his name – and two key aspects of God’s name are ‘grace’ (steadfast love) and ‘truth’ (faithfulness).

The glory of God that Moses saw was characterised by grace and truth. The law was given to Israel through Moses – words spoken by God to guide them in living in response to grace and truth. Grace and truth come directly through Jesus. A closer relationship with the Triune God is now possible through the Word made flesh. The law was grace, but Jesus’ grace is a greater grace, a grace ‘on top of grace’ (1:16).

And so John shows us Jesus. He takes through a week of Jesus’ ministry, from recognition by John the Baptist, to calling to disciples and culminates that week with the first miraculous sign – water into wine. Very early on in the history of this blog I posted this on that particular miracle: https://rozandmark.wordpress.com/2012/06/01/on-the-third-day/h

That is followed by a cleansing of the temple – did Jesus do it twice, or is it deliberately moved in John to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to make his point? Then we move into Jesus’ teaching, and into his miracles. We see how he interacts with people – always pushing their understanding, always making us think again about God and what Jesus is about.

Like the other gospels John slows down towards the crucifixion, and in his case devotes around half his gospel to the final week of Jesus life. For John the cross is actually the point of Jesus’ supreme glorification, where Jesus glory is shown in clearest form. A crucified God is a glorious God, because God’s glory consists in self giving, self sacrificing grace and mercy to his creation.

In John’s case a large chunk of that is devoted to the teaching of Jesus’ final night. You can see and hear the puzzlement of the disciples as they ask Jesus questions, and as he gives answers that stretch them even further. Read the words of reassurance, and of life in these conversations. Read imagining that you sit at the table in the upper room, in the charged atmosphere of that final night.

Then Jesus is led out to die. On his lips in the final moment of crucifixion are the words: “It is finished” – or “It is completed”. Jesus has done the work that the Father sent him to do. He has accomplished our salvation. Or he has accomplished part of the rescue. He has paid the price for sin, and laid the foundations for the devils defeat.

But there needs to be something more. Something without which we would still be in our sins (according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 15). That ‘more’ is found in the final two chapters of John’s gospel – and it is John, perhaps more than any other gospel who shows us the risen Christ. The Word remember is life, and has life in himself.

And so early that Easter morning Mary goes to the tomb. It is empty. So she goes to the disciples. Peter and John run to the tomb. John is faster – he’s younger but – in a detail I love because I imagine it being exactly what I would do – he holds back and Peter goes in. There is no body, only grave clothes. John sees and believes – but they don’t understand why from the Scriptures this had to be.

It is Mary who sees Jesus first (and this by the way is one of the reasons the gospels stand out as reliable witnesses – no one in the 1st Century AD would invent a story where women were the first witnesses – their testimony was not even valid in court). She is weeping in the garden, and thinking he is the gardener she turns and hears him speaking her name. “Mary”.

Thinking he is the gardener. She isn’t far wrong. This is the One who created the heavens and the earth. All stars in their places. The One who made this earth, and planted a garden for Adam and Eve to live in. He is the One who lives the life Adam should have lived – to care for this world and all that is in it. He is the One who by his resurrection is turning death backwards, who really is making everything sad come untrue and beginning a new world that first Easter morning.

Then we have the story of Thomas, and the assurance of blessing for those who believe without seeing. We learn that John has written so that we might believe – and by believing have life in his name.

And just when we think it is all over John gives us one final detail. One concrete way to see that his gospel is all about Jesus’ glory revealed in his grace. We see the disciples lost and confused. Jesus is risen but they don’t know what it means. So Peter says “I am going fishing.”

You can imagine the thoughts: Jesus has risen, but he keeps appearing, and then disappearing. What is he doing? What is the plan now? It seems pointless to hang around. Might as well do something useful. And so he goes fishing, and so 7 disciples end up on the lake fishing.

And Jesus appears – as he had right at the start (see Luke 5:1-11, which I’m pretty sure John would remember, and he might even know Luke had written it down). As before they’ve caught nothing, but at Jesus’ word they have too many fish to handle. They come back to the beach, where Jesus is already cooking breakfast (21:9), over a charcoal fire (John 18:18, Peter denied Jesus by a charcoal fire).

Just pause on the detail. He doesn’t need their fish.

Yet he helps them in their fishing.

He’s cooking on the same kind of fire that Peter stood by and denied him.

And he starts questioning Peter “do you love me more than these?” Is it more than the fishing equipment? Is it more than the others? It isn’t quite clear (although the first seems a bit more likely) – but I think as the conversation goes on we see that comparison isn’t the point. Peter’s answer is simply “Yes, you know I love you”.

The question comes three times. No accident there. Three times for three denials. Peter loves him, and Peter is grieved to be asked. Grieved to have denied his Lord. And yet in this conversation is grace. Because Peter is not thrown out.

He is given a job.

Feed my sheep.

He is told that he will one day have the strength to die for Jesus. The words he said in hollow boast a few days before he will carry out.

Then finally he is told that what will happen to John is none of his business. Jesus words are direct “You follow me” – John’s relationship with Jesus and life story is Jesus’ business, not Peter’s.

This final chapter slows right down to show what grace and truth look like in practice. These are not academic concepts to be argued over. They are life changing characteristics of Jesus.

Truth is vital. Peter has to face the reality of his sin.

Grace is real. Peter finds forgiveness, a new start, and affirmation of his deepest longings to really serve Jesus.

So read John, and come to the lake. Sit down for breakfast with the risen Jesus – the Word of God who is himself Light and Life, giver of Grace and Truth.

Let the risen Jesus speak to your failures. For there is forgiveness. Listen as he calls you and gives you a new task in service of him, listen as he calls and equips you. The tasks we have to do our not ones we choose to prove our courage, they are ones given out of Jesus’ grace and truth.

Resources:

I haven’t done resources for a while on these pages. Click here for the missing ones: https://rozandmark.wordpress.com/2019/04/22/resources-for-bible-books/

In my own study I’ve often used Don Carson’s IVP commentary on John

A useful guide to work through is https://www.amazon.co.uk/Read-Mark-Learn-Small-Group/dp/1845503619/ref=sr_1_1?hvadid=80195661201490&hvbmt=be&hvdev=c&hvqmt=e&keywords=read+mark+learn+john&qid=1555941164&s=gateway&sr=8-1 This is really good at helping you see the structure of the gospel and OT links.

I would love to have the time to read some Richard Bauckham on John’s writings – I think they mostly at a more scholarly level, but from all I hear of him he is one NT scholar I would love to read some more of.

Resources for Bible Books

I’ve meant to put resources for understanding each book as I’ve gone along, but somewhere along the line this got dropped. However I wanted to rectify this somewhat.

So here goes:

OT in general “The Old Testament for Everyone” – John Goldingay

NT in general “The New Testament for Everyone” – NT Wright

If you are old enough to remember Barclay’s Daily Bible Study guides these are a similar idea – a short portion of the bible plus a brief commentary, with the idea of being for your daily bible reading. Both authors are very readable.

Bible as a whole

New Bible Commentary – IVP – the best one volume bible commentary for everyday use

Individual Books

Job: How does God treat his friends – Bob Fyall is a great place to start – he also has a longer, more academic book which I’m sure is very good also, although I’ve not actually read it. Out of the Storm by Christopher Ash is also excellent. Both of these are short and accessible.

Proverbs: The Tree of Life by Graeme Goldsworthy is a good introduction, and Gospel & Wisdom is an interesting read to think a bit more about how the theme of wisdom relates to the rest of scripture.

Isaiah: The Bible Speaks Today by Barry Webb is excellent. Alec Motyer has a very good commentary, also published by IVP. The NIV Application Commentary series volume on Isaiah by John Oswalt is very good (he has a bigger academic volume as well)

Jeremiah: the Bible Speaks Today volume by Chris Wright is almost certainly excellent, although I haven’t read it (yet). He has also done the volume on Lamentations.

Ezekiel: the Bible Speaks Today volume by Chris Wright is excellent – I have read this one!

Daniel: Kingdoms in Conflict by Andrew Reid (Good Book Company) is very good. A Tale of Two Cities by Bob Fyall is also good. In the Word Biblical Commentary Series John Goldingay is good – although this is more aimed at the teacher/preacher or academic level.

The Minor Prophets: I find it harder to recommend books on these because I haven’t actually read many commentaries on them. The Bible Speaks Today series usually has helpful volumes – certainly the Amos volume by Alec Motyer is excellent. The NIV application series is usually very good as well.

More details about the Bible Speaks Today Series can be found here: https://ivpbooks.com/bible-speaks-today

An example volume in the NIVAC series can be found here for sale: https://www.eden.co.uk/shop/jonah__nahum__habakkuk__zephaniah_92810.html

I have high hopes for this one on Malachi, as I know the author! https://www.amazon.co.uk/Exploring-Malachi-Rich-Castro

Matthew’s gospel: the Tyndale IVP commentary by Richard France is excellent on Matthew: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Matthew-Tyndale-New-Testament-Commentary/dp/1844742679

Mark’s gospel: The Servant King by Paul Barnett is probably the most helpful and accessible. Dig Deeper in the Gospels: https://www.thegoodbook.co.uk/dig-deeper-into-the-gospels is very useful in terms of helping you dig into the Bible more. Christianity Explored is largely based around Mark’s gospel.

And look at this website about a way to present Mark’s gospel dramatically and think about how your church could get involved in doing a drama: https://themarkdrama.com/

Luke’s gospel: I’m struggling on this one, probably because I’ve done very little teaching from Luke over the years. The Bible Speaks Today is OK, but very brief. The best guide I ever read to Luke that really helped me read it as a book was a bible study guide produced for UCCF when they did the Big Idea gospel distribution based on Luke because it helped me see how the book fitted together as a whole, rather than just being a random collection of stories. I imagine the NIV Application commentary volume would be helpful. I really enjoyed David Gooding on Hebrews, so I assume he is good on Luke as well: https://www.10ofthose.com/uk/products/15630/according-to-luke

One short and accessible but very good book on the parables is this one, which I’m sure should be on UK Amazon as well: https://www.amazon.com/Sting-Tail-Kim-Tan-ebook/dp/B00H9JRPHQ A lot of insights in this come from Kenneth Bailey’s work on Luke’s parables which is well worth reading, although at a more academic level: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0802819478/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i3. If you want to hear someone preaching these parables really, really well then look no further than here for Darrell Johnson on Luke’s parables: https://www.firstbc.org/series/parables-of-jesus

Luke: Careful Power

I was struggling with a title for Luke, when the juxtaposition of careful and power came to mind. It isn’t a common juxtaposition in our world right now but I think it fits Luke.

Luke is careful. He writes carefully, and he tells us so in 1:1-4. It is a change of pace from Mark, but then Luke is a step removed from Jesus’ life. Luke is much more in our shoes. He makes no claim to be an eyewitness. Instead he has listened to those who are eyewitnesses, and those who are word-servants.

It seemed good to him, having listened carefully to what has been said to produce an orderly account. He writes someone he address as ‘Most excellent Theophilus’. We don’t know who Theophilus was, but his name means ‘God-lover’, one who loves God. Perhaps it is a code name for someone in a position of influence – but whether that is so or not, it is also a name that can fit anyone who reads the gospel. Anyone can become a lover of God.

Luke’s account is indeed orderly. He has a lot of material that Matthew and Mark have, as well as a lot more (e.g. Prodigal Son and other parts of Jesus’ teaching) that don’t come in the first two gospels. He writes with care – the Greek is in many ways harder to read (at least at first) than Mark because Luke appears to have been a non-Jew, and a doctor. He was educated, and writes more complex sentences – although it is also clear and makes sense once you have translated it.

He is a careful historian. He places Jesus’ birth in historical context, we hear about characters such as Augustus, such as Herod, and various other Roman governors. Jesus is placed in his historical context. Jesus’ life is better attested than most other characters in ancient history. His death is written of by those outside the faith, and belief in his resurrection is alluded to. Luke reminds us that Jesus was a real flesh and blood human being who lived and walked real streets.

Yet this carefulness does not mean dryness. Luke’s gospel (and its sequel, of course) are bursting with power, in particular, the life changing dynamic power of the Holy Spirit. Just read into chapter 1. The angel announces to Zechariah that John the Baptist will be filled with the Spirit from the womb. Mary will become pregnant with a child by the power of the Holy Spirit.

When Elizabeth, an old woman pregnant by miracle meets Mary, a virgin pregnant by miracle, she is filled with the Holy Spirit and greets Mary. Zechariah is filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesies in song. Jesus begins his 40 days in the wilderness full of the Holy Spirit, and begins his ministry in the power of the Spirit. He reads from Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
    and recovering of sight to the blind,
    to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

Luke 4:18-19

Jesus ministry from first to last is marked out by the Spirit. He is filled with the Spirit to do God’s work of releasing captives, giving sight and freedom to the oppressed. Proclaiming the time of Yahweh’s grace. In particular Luke seems to go out of his way to emphasis that grace going to the outsider: to the gentiles (like Luke) and to women (often considered second class).

The women are the ones who go to the tomb on that first Easter Sunday morning. They tell the disciples. But the disciples do not believe them. Peter runs to the tomb, sees it empty and marvels. Then Luke slows right down to tell us of two disciples – not part of the inner 12 – who are on the way to a village outside Jerusalem that Sunday evening.

They are discussing all that has happened. Jesus meets them. But they do not recognise him. They tell Jesus all about Jesus. They’d hoped he would redeem Israel. They tell him their hopes which now lie dead in a tomb. They tell him that the tomb has been reported as empty, but that Jesus remains unseen.

Jesus rebukes them for their slowness, and ‘beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself’. I’ve often wanted to be listening to that conversation. Jesus himself explaining the OT, and all the places where it points forward to him. All the patterns that he lives out in himself. All the places where the prophets words gain a new meaning as you think of Jesus’ life. All the places in Israel’s story where Jesus lives it out more fully.

The remarkable thing is that as we sit listening to the words of the apostles and those who heard them in the NT we do get at least part of that conversation.

But they still do not recognise him. They only recognise him when they see him breaking the bread. At that point their eyes are opened. As Jesus breaks the bread they realise just who is with them. And just as Jesus has shown who he is, he is gone. Vanished.

They run back to tell the others what has happened. And the others too have seen him – or at least Peter has. He is risen indeed! And as they talk Jesus appears once more. They can see and touch him. He eats fish with them. He says “It is I myself” – literally “I, I am he” – it is tempting to think back to Yahweh appearing to Moses at the Bush, and then to Isaiah’s soaring words where Yahweh speaks them same words “I am he” – Jesus is God made man – crucified yet risen.

Then once more he opens up Scripture to them: Moses (the first 5 books), the Prophets (Joshua-Malachi) and the Psalms (perhaps shorthand for the whole section known as the Writings). All these books point to Jesus and his work. All of them point to the reality that repentance and forgiveness of sins are to be proclaimed to all nations, from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.

They will receive the promised Holy Spirit – they need to wait in the city for power from on high. Luke goes on to show us what those empowered apostles will do in part 2 of his book.

The power that filled Jesus, and empowered Jesus’ ministry will fill his disciples too. The Spirit of God will fill them so that they can be his witnesses. The Spirit of God will fill those who believe in their message down the generations to come.

We stand in the same story. The same Spirit can be at work in us today. The resurrected Christ stands ready to give the Spirit to all who believe. Are we today ready to receive the same Spirit to empower our lives?

Are we ready to give ourselves to the same mission? To stand with Luke and invite the outsider in? Are we ready to take care over how we present the gospel, not because we are so concerned to get it exactly right that we never actually get round to showing it in our lives, but because we want to show clearly and compellingly how all can come?

Luke’s care and accuracy are in service of the gospel so that all can hear the gospel of forgiveness and repentance, and receive the Spirit. All can come. All can see Jesus, God himself made man, as one of us, filled by the Spirit, empowered by the Spirit, giving the Spirit to all who believe.

We do that as we sit at Luke’s feet, and as we join with other believers, to hear Jesus explain all of Scripture pointing to him, to hear Jesus opening God’s word to us, and then to see Jesus breaking the bread for us.

We see Jesus in the open book, and in the broken loaf as we gather with other believers to hear the Word and share the bread and wine until he comes again.


Mark: God crucified

It seems very appropriate that I have reached Mark on Good Friday because, perhaps more than any other gospel, Mark focus on the cross of Jesus.

When we come to Mark having just read Matthew we are reading a book with a very similar structure, but a very different pace and feel. We shouldn’t get too worried by seeming differences and contradictions between the gospels, they are written in different contexts, drawing on different aspects of Jesus’ 3 year ministry and 30 years or so of life. There is room for accounts that sound different in tone and feel, yet tell us reliably about the events of Jesus’ life. Those differences are there for us to pay attention to and learn from.

Mark’s gospel is written at pace. The action moves quickly – ‘immediately’ is a common joining word. Sentences are short. The first half contains Jesus’ actions and teachings that reveal, to those with ears to hear, who Jesus is (Yahweh himself come to rescue his people as their anointed King) – while the 2nd half begins to focus much more on what he has come to do (die on a cross and rise again), and therefore what it means to follow him (take up our crosses and die for him that we might share in his life).

Tradition has it that Mark wrote his gospel as Peter’s memory and teaching about Jesus. That seems to make sense, we get quite a lot of Peter and – in a very humble way – a lot of Peter, and the other disciples not getting what Jesus is talking about. Tradition also has it that the gospel was written in Rome, for mostly Gentile readers at the heart of the empire.

If that tradition is right it gives the first chapter a distinct edge. Mark skips over the birth of Jesus and dives right in

“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”.

The word gospel throws us slightly – but it simply means “good news”. The Roman world at this time proclaimed the “gospel of Caesar”. The Roman world brought order and calm to the world, in exchange for totally loyalty from its subjects. The problem with early Christians was that they had a higher loyalty, a higher Lord. The gospel is of Jesus the anointed King (Christ), the Son of God.

Then comes the key to Mark’s gospel. Mark quote two OT prophets and merges them together (Malachi and Isaiah), with the focus on Isaiah.

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
Prepare the way of the Lord (Yahweh)
And make his paths straight'”

Mark 1:3 (quoting Isaiah 40:3)

Mark is quoting Isaiah, and in Mark’s context the voice is that of John the Baptist. But it is most likely (and I think is usually true when you have an OT quote in the NT) that Mark has the Isaiah context in his head – and any of Mark’s readers who knew the OT, which could have been quite a few – Jewish Christians, and those who had associated with the synagogue as Gentiles – would have thought of the whole passage at the start of Isaiah 40:

A voice cries:[b]
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all flesh shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

A voice says, “Cry!”
    And I said,[c] “What shall I cry?”
All flesh is grass,
    and all its beauty[d] is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades
    when the breath of the Lord blows on it;
    surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
    but the word of our God will stand forever.


Go on up to a high mountain,
    O Zion, herald of good news;[e]
lift up your voice with strength,
    O Jerusalem, herald of good news;[f]
    lift it up, fear not;
say to the cities of Judah,
    “Behold your God!”
10 Behold, the Lord God comes with might,
    and his arm rules for him;
behold, his reward is with him,
    and his recompense before him.
11 He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
    he will gather the lambs in his arms;
he will carry them in his bosom,
    and gently lead those that are with young.

Isaiah 40:3-11

These are the words with which Isaiah tells of Yahweh coming to redeem his people and bring an end to exile. We know from Ezra-Nehemiah and Haggai-Malachi that the end of exile in the Persian era was a massive let down. It is possible that many Jews of Jesus’ day were still themselves as in exile. It seems certainly true that Jesus and the first Christians saw Jesus as the one who brings an end to exile.

Jesus is Yahweh walking on the earth as a man. He drives out demons. He heals the sick. He cleanses the leper. He forgives sins. He calls a people to himself and sends them out to bless those around. He teaches the crowds, he calms the seas, he drives his enemies under the water. He feeds many in a desolate place. He walks on water and calms the seas again. The blind see, the deaf hear and the lame walk. This is our God.

Jesus joins the prophecies about a Messiah, with the prophecies about Yahweh coming and makes clear that Yahweh has come himself to do the job of King over his people. When he is recognised by Peter (at last) we then see the shock that no-one saw coming.

Not only is Jesus Yahweh come to his people as their King, he is Yahweh come to earth as the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 who comes to suffer and die for his people’s sins.

The greatest problem Israel face is not that they are paralysed and under Roman control. It is that they are rebels who have failed to follow God’s ways. It is a problem they share with the rest of the world. And it is this problem that Jesus has come to deal with.

And that is why Mark is always heading for the cross. On on this Good Friday that is where we head too. To Mark 15 and the story it tells. To a hill outside the city. Where a man broken, bruised, flogged to within an inch of his life stumbles as he carries a splintered wooden cross. He refuses anything that would dull the pain or his senses. And Mark simply says:

‘and they crucified him’.

Four words in English that we can skip over. But in the Roman world of Mark’s day people knew what that meant. They knew the physical agony devised by masters of torture. And yet, that is not the focus of Mark’s account. Mark shows us the mocking – the taunts – the ironies that it was precisely by not saving himself that Jesus, that God himself, becomes able to save us.

He shows us the darkness as God’s judgment falls over the land, and in particular on his Son. Remember the OT prophets and the way that the day of Yahweh so often has darkness. Here is that darkness. God himself hangs on a cross, taking on himself the punishment for our sin.

There is mystery here. How can the Son be separate from the Father? And yet that mystery holds the reality that the Son willingly takes on that punishment. We can sometimes use not very good illustrations that make it sound like Jesus is an innocent victim picked out to suffer by an angry God who needs someone to die before he can love us.

Always remember God has always loved us. Jesus’ death does not change his love. The love of the Father and the Son is what drives the cross – it is because God is love that on the cross the Son himself takes the punishment I deserve so that I can go free.

Jesus cries out, actually quoting the start of Psalm 22 as he does “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me”. Read all of Psalm 22 and see how David’s sufferings as an innocent man prefigure Christ’s sufferings for us. The words express Jesus’ feelings at the time, the sense of utter aloneness. The one who had never sinned and had always endured perfect fellowship with the Father now knowing what guilt and alienation and deserved punishment feels like. The anguish of that forces this cry from his lips.

And yet in this cry are the seeds of hope – the Psalm doesn’t end in alienation. It ends in new life. Jesus’ cry points Mark’s hearers to the resurrection hope contained in the crucified God on the cross.

Then Jesus dies. The temple curtain is torn in two. Maybe so we can go in – or just maybe, because God has come out. Out from the Holy Place and into the world on a mission to transform the whole cosmos into his Holy Place. The way to God is no longer through multiple rituals, but by trusting in his death for us. In receiving his Spirit and new life – a life lived for God’s glory in the world to transform the world.

The Roman centurion gets it. He sees who Jesus is, even as the religious leaders fail. And the woman stay watching, waiting and listening. It is these women who come to the tomb early in the morning after Joseph, a council member, takes courage to bury Jesus’ body. The women go the tomb – but there is no one there.

Just a young man (Matthew said angel – remember angel= messenger, and they often look human like) dressed in white. He tells them that Jesus is risen and will see them in Galilee, just as he said. The women are charged to go and tell the disciples – and Peter. Peter, the man who denied Jesus because of his fears has a special mention.

At that the women flee and say nothing to anyone because they are afraid. The gospel ends there. Other endings are later additions, probably because the gospel seems to demand an ending. But maybe that’s just the point. The question as we stand with the women, hearing the angel’s voice, what will we do? Who we will tell? What difference will the crucified yet risen Jesus make in our lives?