Discipleship? A Realignment Process or Product to Develop?

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What comes to your mind when you hear the word “discipleship”?

If you’ve had any exposure to this concept, you may have had either a great, positive experience, or perhaps a negative one. If it’s the later, let me offer one possible reason why that was.

Discipleship was seen as means of creating a product, instead of a person.

Maybe it was a convert to a “tribe” or a leader in a particular “system”. The end, or the product, was another “part” added to something that probably had very little to do with you – who you are and what you were designed for.

That’s the difference between legitimate discipleship. It’s a process of realigning a person back to their original design of living as a human being – a creature in a true, good and beautiful relationship with his (or her) Creator.

In my reading and studies for the sermon on Mark 1:14-20 this week at Christ Presbyterian Church, Mansfield, I stumbled upon this great statement in the ESV Gospel Transformation Study Bible. It’s rare that I find something truly significant in a one-stop study Bible, but this particular Study Bible has surprised me many times. This quote is but one example. It gets at the heart of what the call of discipleship is from Christ – a call to be brought back into alignment with the design for which we were created – to love and worship God, and have every area of life brought back into that alignment.

“In Christ, God calls people to return to “walking with God”—the creational design of human beings in the first place. Jesus’ call to discipleship is God calling human beings back to himself as the foundation of true and dignified human existence….This is the rhythm of grace. God does not respond to our wayward rebellion with disgust, throwing his hands up in the air. He pursues us in love. This is who he is.” – ESV Gospel Transformation Study Bible, note on Mark 1:16-46.

Question: What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of “discipleship”? How does this line of thought add to your understanding of what we see as discipleship in the life and ministry of Jesus?

Links for the ESV Gospel Transformation Study Bible – Kindle and Hardcover editions.

Something Greater is Here (Mark 2:3-17)

Paralytic Man Lowered in the Midst of the Crowds Before Jesus

Jesus continues his public ministry and the crowds keep coming to him.  People are expecting him to do great and good works and they can’t get enough.  That’s what makes this episode about a man being lowered into the middle of a very crowded house so fascinating.  First, imagine you’re crowded into the home of Jesus along with everyone else, and suddenly you notice part of the roof collapsing.

Homes in Jesus’ day in Capernaum would have been constructed largely with some wooden beams and mud-patch work for the roof.  As this band of friends climbed up the roof and began to carve into the mud in order to lower their paralytic friend, they undoubtedly would have caused a commotion down below.  Mud pieces falling from the ceiling, maybe bits of straw or hay scattering around the room.  As their eyes were directed upwards, they notice several sets of eyes in a circle in the newly formed skylight, and then a man being lowered on a mat. You may think, “What never!” or “What boldness!” but the fact is that everybody notices and everyone is thinking something.

What do you think Jesus was thinking?  It was after all his home that just had the roof torn open so that a helpless man could get help.  Jesus tells us what he was thinking: while some were thinking “What nerve!” and others were thinking “What boldness!” Jesus was thinking “What faith!”  These men believed that if they could just get their paralyzed friend in front of Jesus, his life would be different.  He would be healed.  He wouldn’t need to be carried along by his friends anymore.  He could be restored to a healthy, vibrant life.  And they were right.  That is what happens when people meet Jesus.  With Jesus, life gets restored and things get set back to the way they are supposed to be.

So Jesus speaks to the paralytic man and says, ”Be healed?”  No!  He tells the man that his “sins are forgiven.”  What was Jesus doing here?  Jesus is meeting the man’s need in a way that neither the man, nor his friends, nor anyone else in the house expected – he is meeting his need for forgiveness of sin.  Tim Keller is helpful in understanding what is going on when he writes:

Jesus knows something the man doesn’t know—that he has a much bigger problem than his physical condition. Jesus is saying to him, “I understand your problems. I have seen your suffering. I’m going to get to that. But please realize that the main problem in a person’s life is never his suffering; it’s his sin.” If you find Jesus’s response offensive, please at least consider this: If someone says to you, “The main problem in your life is not what’s happened to you, not what people have done to you; your main problem is the way you’ve responded to that”—ironically, that’s empowering. Why? Because you can’t do very much about what’s happened to you or about what other people are doing—but you can do something about yourself. When the Bible talks about sin it is not just referring to the bad things we do. It’s not just lying or lust or whatever the case may be—it is ignoring God in the world he has made; it’s rebelling against him by living without reference to him. It’s saying, “I will decide exactly how I live my life.” And Jesus says that is our main problem. (Tim Keller, King’s Cross, 25-26)

Jesus isn’t denying that the man needs healing in a physical sense, but he is challenging everyone’s notion that Jesus is a really good guy, doing some really good things.  He’s more than that. New Testament scholar N.T. Wright links the authority Jesus claims for himself, with the authority promised to “one like a son of man,” in Daniel 7, where:

There, ‘one like a son of man’ is the representative of God’s true people. He is opposed by the forces of evil; but God vindicates him, rescues him, proves him to be in the right, and gives him authority. In Daniel, this authority enables him to dispense God’s judgment. Here, in a fascinating twist, he has authority to dispense God’s forgiveness. (N.T. Wright, Mark for Everyone, 17).

Jesus by forgiving the man’s sins is claiming to be the one promised by God to battle against the forces of evil that conspire against God and His people.  Jesus is saying that He’s one with the authority of God, and this demands a response.

Well this episode certainly provoked a response among the scribes, or religious professionals.  They got the message and were questioning whether Jesus had the authority to do what he was claiming to do.  If this man’s problem was a sin-problem, then his friends should have taken him through the proper channels.  Forgiveness is something only God can offer, and if that was what this man needed, he needed to be brought to the Temple in Jerusalem, in front of the credentialed priests; not a wandering preacher and healer in his home?

Jesus does the unthinkable.  He doesn’t just claim this authority for himself, but he wields it.  He executes his authority and the result is the man who was once paralyzed, now picks up his mat and walks away.  Something greater than the Temple and someone greater than their priests is now here.

Mark tells us that “they were all amazed and glorified God” and said “We never say anything like this before!” (Mark 2:12).  That’s because no one and nothing like Jesus had ever been seen before. He is the long-awaited “one like a son of man” to oppose evil in all it’s forms, and do for God’s people what they could not do for themselves.

What Mattered Most to Jesus: Miracles or Message? (Mark 2:1-2)

Jesus Preaching to the Crowd

After traveling to the villages nearby (cf. Mark 1:38-39), Jesus returns to Capernaum and is welcomed by many people gathering at this home.  So many people in fact that there was not enough room for them and they spilled out past the doorway.

What do you think the crowds wanted?  What drove them to crowd and clamor around Jesus so much?  Jesus has begun his public ministry and is used to drawing a crowd.  Mostly what drew people were the healings and exorcisms he had performed.

So it’s funny that Jesus “preaches the word” to them.  This is a classic moment of Jesus having the crowd in the palm of his hand.  If he wanted more popularity, more attention, and more people flocking to him, why not simply do more healings, more exorcisms, more spectacular good works and miracles?  Why preach to them?

Jesus has been going around preaching the good news – the gospel – of the kingdom of God, so preaching was important.  And great miracles and good works accompanied it.  These miracles and good works were important, but they weren’t central.  What was central was that Jesus is a new kind of king, setting up his new kingdom and now everyone is being challenged to respond to this king.

The healings, the miracles, the exorcisms and the all-around good works were all bearing out the implications of this kingdom, but they were not in and of themselves the central or primary thing.  Jesus was.

Jesus Brings a Deeper, More Comprehensive Fix (Mark 1:40-45)

Christ cleansing a leper by Jean-Marie Melchior Doze, 1864.

Here we have what seems to be a familiar enough story.  As Jesus was going through all Galilee preaching in the synagogues and healing people, a man approaches Jesus with a particular need.  Up to this point, we might expect Jesus to say a word and heal the man.  After all, Jesus has places to go and people to see.  He just told his disciples that He couldn’t stay put long enough to meet the requests of everyone who had needs (Mark 1:35-39). But Jesus surprises us (you would think we might get more comfortable with this, even this early in the Gospel of Mark).

Jesus touches the man and he is healed.  Actually, he is “made clean.”  What vexed this man was he suffered from leprosy.  Today, we can distinguish between leprosy and other skin abnormalities, but in Jesus day, any skin related issue – deterioration, discoloration, deformity, etc. – would be labeled leprosy. According to the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, “This disease in an especial manner rendered its victims unclean; even contact with a leper defiled whoever touched him, so while the cure of other diseases is called healing, that of leprosy is called cleansing.” According to Leviticus 13-14, anyone who suffered from the affliction was to be isolated and in effect quarantined in order to contain the spread of the disease.  Likewise, if anyone came in contact with someone suffering in this way, they themselves became “unclean” – a term not necessarily denoting that they became leprous, but at least susceptible to it and thus needing to “purify” themselves to become clean.  This man was not in that situation.

Most likely, he would have been living with the other “outcasts” – those who because of their unclean status were forced to live outside of the city walls.  It was common for these people to dwell in caves with others in similar situations.  If they had loved ones or deeply committed friends, they might have a visit occasionally with the visitor bringing some kind of food, often lowering it down into the cavern. This man had no basis for hope of escaping his stations whatsoever; at least not until Jesus shows up.

Imagine the obstacles he had to overcome to come to Jesus.  Wading through crowds of people that Jesus tended to attract, venturing into the city’s perimeter, even daring to cross the six foot perimeter he needed to maintain in order to approach this popular teacher and healer.

This man implores Jesus to heal him and make him clean. And Jesus is “moved with pity.”  The phrase is translated from a single word in the Greek, its splanxna, and it means “the inward parts,’ especially the nobler entrails – the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys,” and eventually would come to denote “seat of the affections.”  Jesus sees this man and is moved in his inmost being.

Remember, Jesus can heal with a word; he has just done so in the verses preceding our passage here.  But here it says that Jesus “touches him,” and he is cleansed.  Why this peculiar detail?  Is it just a demonstrable flourish for Jesus?

To a man who has spent perhaps his entire life being isolated away from others, not able to participate in the community life, always making sure he kept his distance (or rather, feeling the awkwardness and emotional devastation of watching others adamantly avoid him), this man didn’t just need physical healing from the leprosy – he needed a more comprehensive healing.

He needed one that covered his physical (cleansing from leprosy), his emotional (the touch from another person) as well as his social and even spiritual needs.  Jesus goes on and doesn’t tell him to go on about his new life.  Instead, Jesus directs him to present himself to the “priest” and make the acceptable offering for his cleansing to him (Mark 1:44; cf. Leviticus 14:2-32).  Why bother with this at this point?  Jesus had healed him.  More to the point, Jesus is doing something so new and qualitatively different from the priests of his day – why bother sending the man there?

This was the accepted practice to be restored to the community at large.  Jesus was telling him to go through the official, proper channels, not in order to become clean, but in order to be seen as clean.  For Jesus, this is proof enough that the kingdom of God is at hand, and a new thing is being done in their midst.  There’s no need for the man to go out and make a big show of what happened.  Just go do what is necessary to be welcomed back into the life of the community.  But the man can’t help himself.  His deepest longings and wildest hopes have been met by this different kind of teacher, a different kind of healer, than even he had dared possible.

How could he not tell everyone bout it?

Jesus’ Irresistible Influence and Unmistakable Purpose (Mark 1:29-34)

Jesus Heals the Sick

After the display of Jesus’ authority in word and deed, it should not surprise us that large crowds began to follow and clamor for Jesus.  I once heard a pastor say regarding our prayer life that “The two most common motivations for us coming to Jesus are, ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘Please help me.’”  That seems to be the case here.

Before we summarily dismiss the crowds though, we should note that Jesus takes the time to minister to the individual person, as well as the crowds.  It begins with healing Simon’s (soon to be changed to the name Peter) mother-in-law who was ill with a fever (vv. 29-31). The immediacy and thoroughness of the healing is marked by the detail that “she began to serve them” after the fever left her.  This kind of healing was not a temporary relief from pain, or comfort, but a thoroughgoing restoration to wholeness. This same kind of healing takes place later that evening, only this time it is the entire town gathered at “the door” of the home where Jesus was.

The term for “healing” is therapeuo.  According to ancient Jewish sources it deals not just with the immediate physical ailment, but even the psychological and even spiritual well being of the person. (For more along these lines, see Dr. A. Nyland, Mark: The Source New Testament with Extensive Notes on Greek Word Meaning). It’s interesting to note a few things about this word to help shape our understanding of what is going on.  First, the term employed usually referred to a physical response to teaching or instruction.  It was something that followed a proclamation of some kind.  Second, it often marked a permanent change in lifestyle as ongoing attention and activity would be employed on the part of the one healed; it was not just an action on the part of the healer.  Third, it is the Greek word employed to talk of the human-element to healing.  In the New Testament, the more popular word for healing is iaomai.  When this word is used, it’s to draw attention to God as the agent of healing (confirmed also by the usage of the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint); therapeuo was used to denote the healing activity on the human side.  Finally, the opposite of therapeuo is often the word for “neglect”. This helps our understanding of what is happening in this passage.

Jesus is bringing much needed attention to areas of this town’s life that have suffered under neglect – the physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual needs – as a result and manifestation of his kingdom proclamation.  This is addressed to individuals and to crowds, to demoniacs (Mark 1:21-28) and a woman sick with fever (Mark 1:29-31).  This section shows us that Jesus has a comprehensive kind of authority.  He rules over the common concerns of every person, not just their spiritual lives.  He cares about fevers, demons and false teachers.  And the people respond.  Why?

Jesus has an irresistible influence because he has absolute authority over everything.  What we have most longed for our whole lives – truth, beauty, satisfaction, wholeness – is unmistakably present in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Of course we want Him! But he is calling for followers, not just people to receive a moment of attention, or healing. He is a king setting up his kingdom.  Of course we want somebody who meets our needs, but will want them to rule us? The question for us as readers of this is: “Is this somebody that we’re going to follow?”  If he is, where will he lead us?

Jesus – Not Your Typical Teacher (Mark 1:17-28)

Jesus Rebuking the Demon and Freeing the Man

The story doesn’t stop. “Immediately” we are brought into more depth and clarity of what this king’s purpose is.  He goes into the synagogue and begins to teach those who have gathered there.  Only his teaching is different.  There’s a peculiar authority behind Jesus’ words, such that no one has heard anything like Jesus before.  Some of us are drawn to the novel or “viral” ideas; others of us are suspect of such things. But this is something altogether and categorically different. This is not novel, and it is more than familiar.  The original meaning and connotation of “authority” is “of original stuff.”  Jesus is teaching from original, not derived, authority.  This means that just as Jesus has claimed our allegiances in terms of vocation, occupation, life-pursuit and even family devotion, he is now calling forth our allegiances of intellectual faculties, ideals, philosophies and epistemological certainties (or “how we know what we know.”).

Jesus is a demanding king.  But one who is of the “original stuff” has every right to do so.   That’s why the religious leaders would soon conspire against Jesus.  No one could trump them in their teaching and philosophical ideals.  But Jesus comes on the scene and takes away their right to judge him.  Their authority was of a derivative, lame-duck variety; Jesus’ was of the original, authoritative-king kind.

Before we can catch a breath, another “immediately” falls upon us.  This time a demon possessed man walks into the synagogue while Jesus is teaching.  What is interesting is that Jesus did not seek this man out.  Instead, he sought out Jesus.  The man – under the control of the demon – cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have your come to destroy us?”  Nothing up to this point has prepared us for such an indictment.  Is this just a random story, or does it have something to do with why Jesus – the new king – has come?

The next line out of the man’s mouth is instructive.  He seems to know something about Jesus; he calls him “the Holy One of God.”  We haven’t heard Jesus called this before, so we can also assume that maybe this demon has an “inside track” on Jesus’ purpose. He has just emerged from the wilderness having conquered Satan’s attack.  Now we hear about Jesus “destroying” demons.

Some of us may want to dismiss this as “simple-minded”, ancient cultural sensibilities.  The thought of “demon possession” finds no comfortable place in today’s academic or intellectual climate.  But dismissing evil and even an enemy such as Satan or his minions proves too easy.  How else might we explain not just personal evil (done both by us and to us), or psychological evil (the intricate webbing together of our inner-impulses, environmental inputs and less than clear distinctions between our thoughts, feelings and actions), but systemic or structural evil?  Think of the countless individual people, who would otherwise have no malicious intent or hatred toward anyone, not only act complicity but even conspire with systems of evil – such as everyday white citizens in an apartheid/”Jim Crow” culture, or the Rwandan or Balkan genocide of the 1990’s.  These situation can’t be reduced to just a level of individual choices, though no one would take away their individual responsibility to act.  There is more to our dilemma than just making bad decisions.

If we presuppose that a good, benevolent being exists (whether you wish to call this being God or “first cause”, etc), then we should not be shocked or surprised that there is also an enemy, or antagonist, to this being.   When Jesus enters into history, it seems these evil forces begin to sense that their time may be up.  With a simple word, the man is dispossessed of the demon.  There was no special incantation.  There was no intricate reciting of certain words after each other.  It should be noted that these were common tactics when dealing with demoniacs – there is in fact an entire papyri scrolls devoted to such a thing. Just a word of rebuke, and the demon heeds.  This is truly authoritative activity couple with authoritative teaching.

This authoritative king who has come exorcises that which once oppressed this man. Jesus of Nazareth, the “Holy One of God”, threatens all that once kept us under in darkness, bondage, and oppression.  This king who demands our total allegiance (and dare I say submission?) is the one who commands demons to leave, and they do.

All that threatened us in this world – all the evil, oppression, and sin which brings nothing but death, destruction and dysfunction, both done to us and by us – now submits to Jesus Christ.

Jesus had joined in a struggle against the forces of evil and destruction…Jesus came to be the human bridge across which people could climb to safety. And if, in the process, he himself paid with his own life the price of this saving authority, a human bridge with outstretched arms carrying people from death to life, that was simply part of the integrity of his action. The demons had their final shriek at him as he hung on the cross, challenging and mocking for the last time the validity of his authority. On the cross he completed the healing work he began that day in the synagogue. (N.T. WrightMark for Everyone, 12)

What we learn from the episode in the synagogue is that everybody will have a master.  As Bob Dylan prophetically sang:

 You may be a preacher with your spiritual pride

You may be a city councilman taking bribes on the side

You may be workin’ in a barbershop, you may know how to cut hair

You may be somebody’s mistress, may be somebody’s heir

 But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed

You’re gonna have to serve somebody

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody. (“You Gotta Serve Somebody” by Bob Dylan)

The king is on a rescue mission, and he enlists his followers to join him in it.  This is good news!  Who do we want as our master – someone who keeps us in the dark, oppresses us, leads us into war, crime, poverty, injustice and ultimately death?  Or someone who comes and speaks a word of healing to a man who lost all control over his very self?  Someone who comes to do for us what we could not do for ourselves?

The gospel isn’t advice: It’s the good news that you don’t need to earn your way to God; Jesus has already done it for you. And it’s a gift that you receive by sheer grace—through God’s thoroughly unmerited favor. If you seize that gift and keep holding on to it, then Jesus’s call won’t draw you into fanaticism or moderation. You will be passionate to make Jesus your absolute goal and priority, to orbit around him; yet when you meet somebody with a different set of priorities, a different faith, you won’t assume that they’re inferior to you. You’ll actually seek to serve them rather than oppress them. Why? Because the gospel is not about choosing to follow advice, it’s about being called to follow a King. Not just someone with the power and authority to tell you what needs to be done—but someone with the power and authority to do what needs to be done, and then to offer it to you as good news. (Tim Keller, 18.)

How will you respond?

Who does Jesus Think He Is? (Mark 1:16-20)

Jesus Calling the Fishermen to be His Disciples

The next episode we read about is the calling of the disciples (vv. 16-20).  This is fascinating because in Jesus’ day a Rabbi (or Teacher) didn’t’ choose disciples; they chose him.  Already we are being introduced to someone who has a different kind of authority.  Might he be up to something different than the teachers, instructors, Rabbi’s of his day as well?  Time will tell.

The men he chooses to follow him are fisherman at work at that moment.  A simple call from Jesus though, and these men drop everything to follow him.  Before you jump to a conclusion that this was an opportunity they had been waiting for, keep in mind how small family businesses tend to work in more tribal societies.  It is not uncommon for a business to stay in the family for generations, even perhaps centuries.  There is no telling how long these men had been fisherman.  We are more safe in assuming that this was more than a 9-5 job; this was their way of like.  It was what they knew.  It was where they excelled.  It was what had been handed down to them from generation, to generation, to generation.

But there’s more.  Fishermen were actually considered to be fairly wealthy and had some level of political or at least popular authority.  We know from ancient souces that:

[F]ishermen were usually wealthy, and the high price of fish was a common source of material in Greek comedy, and is noted, for example, in IG II2 (1913; repr. 1974) 1103. Fishing guilds wielded much political power, and even where the fishing industry was not large enough to warrant such a guild, fishing co-operatives were formed. (Dr. A. Nyland, Mark: The Source New Testament with Extensive Notes on Greek Word Meaning)

This was more than just a familiar and comfortable way of life; it was also fairly lucrative.  There weren’t government incentives to stimulate the economy through small businesses.  If you or your family had a trade that provided a good or service to the community such as fishing, you had resources at your disposal.

But it doesn’t end there.  We are told that James and John actually left their father.  This seems cold and heartless at first glance.  Who could do such a thing, or call for such a thing?  And that’s the question we should be asking.

The truth is that Jesus is calling them to do such a thing because he is the king and the king demands complete, and total allegiance.  The disciples never left their family or their career or their income out of spite; they did so because the king called for their whole-hearted allegiance to himself.  The call to them was to give up the “old family business” in order to pursue a new one.  One wonders how the Jewish religious leaders of Jesus’ day received this message, or the Roman authorities for that matter.  Instead of being about religious worship sites (like the Temple) or practices (like circumcision, hand-washing, purity codes in the Jewish religious tradition), or even about securing world peace by being the world’s super-power (Pax Romana) or placating any and every god imaginable, including the people en mass (in the pantheon or coliseum tradition of the Roman empire), Jesus is calling others to follow him into a new vocation.  This entails full-bodied, whole-hearted commitment.  The gospel is not about choosing or selecting the right pathway to life; it’s about following the king who claims absolute authority over every area of our life.

What is this king about?  He answers briefly that what these fisherman are to do now is similar, but different; they are to be fishers of men.  This phrase for some may be synonymous with “evangelism” and entail a strict element of “conversion.”  Those elements are there, but before we load them with the negative connotations they have come to take on in our day, we would do well to think about what it means to fish – it means bringing a fish from one realm into another.

Now if this crossing over from one realm to another were a bad thing, then the negative connotation is warranted.  But if its not just a good thing, but the very best thing, then that’s a different story. Fishermen, essentially, take a fish from living in a realm of water, to a realm where they die (land).  Jesus comes and reverses that.  He calls them to become fishers of men who are already in a ream of darkness and chaos – what the typical Jewish connotation was for “sea” or other large bodies of water (cf. (cf. Genesis 1:1-2. See also Jeremiah 16:16, Ezekiel 29:4ff.; Amos 4:2) and bring them into a realm of light and life.  The apostle Paul would say something similar to this in his letter to the Colossians: “he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves.”

Jesus’ aim is to bring people into this kingdom, and he calls for us to follow him and participate in this with him.

What does Jesus’ Kingdom Have to Do with Original Creation? (Mark 1:9-11)

“You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” – Mark 1:11

The Spirit descending like a dove

With those words, we read that the Spirit descends like a dove and rests on Jesus.  Its interesting to note the rarity of likening the Spirit to a dove.  In many works of art, we often see this imagery being employed: as Jesus is baptized, we see a dove in the sky.  Tim Keller makes an interesting observation about this:

In the sacred writings of Judaism there is only one place where the Spirit of God is likened to a dove, and that is in the Targums, the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Scriptures that the Jews of Mark’s time read. In the creation account, the book of Genesis 1:2 says that the Spirit hovered over the face of the waters. The Hebrew verb here means “flutter”: the Spirit fluttered over the face of the waters. To capture this vivid image, the rabbis translated the passage for the Targums like this: “And the earth was without form and empty, and darkness was on the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God fluttered above the face of the waters like a dove, and God spoke: ‘Let there be light.’” There are three parties active in the creation of the world: God, God’s Spirit, and God’s Word, through which he creates. The same three parties are present at Jesus’s baptism: the Father, who is the voice; the Son, who is the Word; and the Spirit fluttering like a dove. (Tim Keller, King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus, 3).

Jesus shows up and the same parties that were present in the creation of the world are present at the baptism of Jesus.  Why?

This is the thing we’ve been waiting for.  Ever since the fall the world has been in need of repair and restoration, and this would only come by God’s redemption.  What man broke in the Garden, God promised to buy back (cf. Genesis 3:15).  Now, it seems, is the time for this event to come into reality. “Just as the original creation of the world was a project of the triune God, Mark says, so the redemption of the world, the rescue and renewal of all things that is beginning now with the arrival of the King, is also a project of the triune God.” (Keller, King’s Cross, 5).

We should be prepared for something as big, wide, beautiful and cosmic as the original creation to occur through the person and work of Jesus.


How to be “Fit” for God’s Kingdom (Mark 1:1-8)

Joachim Patinir's landscape with St. John the Baptist Preaching

Out in the wilderness, along the bank of the Jordan river, we are introduced to a mesmerizing figure.  His name is John the Baptist, and what he is doing could be likened to a cultural wake-up call. God’s people the Israelites find themselves under yet another nations occupation – this time the Romans.  When this had happened before, it was on account of God’s people sinning, or turning away from their God to go after other gods.  One way to describe this would be: they left their ultimate source of love and devotion to go to something/someone else.  They would be lulled away from their fervent devotion to Yahweh by the allure of another hope, and when that happened, God’s people would wait until the time Yahweh would remember them and visit them, and bring them back into their land and ultimately a right relationship with him.

And here we have John the Baptist in effect saying: “Time to stop dreaming and face not just any other day, but perhaps the most significant day of the rest of your life, even the most significant day in the history of the world.” That was John’s message.

What did this mean for those standing on the bank of the Jordan that day?  Both John and Jesus talk of repentance – both in preparation for the coming kingdom and as a response to the arrival of the kingdom.  But what would repentance have looked like?  Some of us today might answer, “It means to stop sinning” or “live as God’s people should live.” But it’s interesting to note that John and Jesus were both speaking to God’s people; what did it mean for them to “stop sinning” or “live as God’s people”?

Jesus’ contemporaries had lived a life that declared that Yahweh was their King, but functionally they lived with other things placed above Him.  They had other things as more important.  Things like their ancestry, their land, their Temple, their laws, their customs and traditions.  Part of this was a long list and series of washings that had to occur to “purify” or “cleanse” them from any contamination they may have come in contact with.  How can something defiled be acceptable to someone Holy, like God?  For those Israelites, this was a simple matter of washing your hands, but for a Gentile, the only way to be allowed to participate in the worship of God (and with it the life of God’s people) was to be baptized – whole person “cleansing” whether by effusion or immersion).  This was how a Gentile could become “clean”.

Now John the Baptist is preaching a ministry of baptism for everybody – Jew and Gentile alike – for the forgiveness of sins.  This is scandalizing.  Your pedigree no longer mattered.  Your moral record no longer mattered.  It’s good that you washed your hands, but that’s not going to cut it anymore.  Something new is happening, and with that new thing, only complete newness is acceptable.

The only way to be “fit” for the kingdom of God is through a radical display of saving grace.  The kind of grace that eclipses the baptism of John the Baptist; one that not only cleanses from sin, but gives the Holy Spirit.  Compared to that, no one is even worthy to untie his sandals.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Read Mark 1:1-13.  How does John seek to prepare the people for Jesus’ coming? (vv. 1-8)?
  2. Would you say that you are “shocked” or “awakened” by the message of the gospel?  If not, how do you feel about the gospel?  If so, why is that?