Sundays on Mark (23): Jesus the outrageous Messiah

Continuing our simple Sunday Reflections on the Gospel of Mark: this week Mark 8:27-38

The ever-present question of Jesus’ identity throughout the gospel of Mark reaches a climax in this exchange in the northern, and strongly Roman, area of Caesarea Philippi.

This time the question is asked by Jesus himself. The answers should puzzle; sure don’t they know he is not John the Baptist? What’s going on with thinking he is Elijah or one of the OT prophets?

The Elijah / OT Prophet motif reveals an inadequate interpretation of Jesus as another in a long line of prophets of God.  This is big news given the hundreds of years of prophetic silence, but even this is an inadequate understanding.

These answers do not include the Messiah despite all that has happened – it is only Peter who grasps that Jesus is the promised annointed one of God. Here is not one more prophet, here is the one to whom all the prophets witnessed.

And not  only this, but to Peter’s consternation, Jesus takes the opportunity for a teaching moment. Rejecting popular expectations and reinterpreting Peter’s confession using the ambiguous Son of Man, he shares his messianic self-understanding in a way that shatters all expectations; a suffering, executed Messiah. All who would follow this Messiah, like him, choose a path of self-denial and death.

Reflection:Surprising paradox is built into the fabric of Christian faith. Just as it appears to be nonsense for God’ s chosen glorious Messiah to finally appear only to die, so it appears nonsense that all who would truly find life must ‘die’ if they are to find life. And in an astonishing way, Jesus simply equates finding life with following him. Such a message was outrageous then and remains outrageous today.

Peter’s Confession of Christ

27Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”

28They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”

29“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Christ.”

30Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.

Jesus Predicts His Death

31He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

33But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”

34Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? 37Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? 38If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

6 months on …

Well, vast numbers of dear readers, this blog is nearly 6 months old. Rather than a ‘Saturday Story of the Week’ I’d like to ask you a couple of questions.

I’m going to take a break in July – we will be away a good bit of it, much of the time in tech and internet free zones. And both I and the family have agreed that it would be good have  holiday from the computer as well.

The last post’ for a while will be on Sunday.

I plan to get back blogging in August – I’ve really enjoyed the last half year scribbling away – learnt loads and been lots of fun and enjoyed the conversations. Hope you have too at least now and again.

I’m thinking of changing the look of the site to make it more readable and user-friendly.

Any other suggestions for improvements in any area all welcome! Fire away!


Scot McKnight and the earliest Christian gospel (8)

Friday and Saturday 11-12 June we had a fantastic 2010 IBI Summer Institute with Scot McKnight. Two full days, 8 sessions, a full house. Scot worked hard and was brilliant.

I’m doing a few posts on what Scot had to say. And I should say that these are just based on my notes.

Much of the content of the lectures will be the material for a new book The Earliest Christian Gospel – so we were treated to a special preview.

This is the last post on what Scot had to say. A key question that was raised was this:

How preach the gospel to this generation?

Given the increasing remoteness of Christianity to this generation, combined (especially in the USA) with a self-esteem movement that tells us that everyone is ‘OK’: this generation finds it hard to imagine that God (if he exists) could be angry at them.

So how connect to a post-Christendom culture? How does the gospel that Scot has been unpacking help?

Richard asked a good question on this the other day.

Scot suggested that we in Ireland need to spend much time listening. Listening to what the twenties and younger are saying and doing, especially in our local communities.

I have my hunches of what we’d hear … what do you think these voices would be saying?

– pursuit of experience? Consumerism?

– desire for relationship?

– anger at the older generation’s greed and bankrupting of the country?

– environmental concern?

– cynicism at all authority figures, power-plays and institutions, especially the church [and there is pretty well not an institution in Ireland that does not have its reputation lying on the floor in tatters]

– desire to make the world a fairer, more just place?

– independent, autonomous, questioning

And Scot told stories of how in his compulsory Jesus class at university, he finds students becoming Christians as he tells the radical, subversive, counter-cultural story of Jesus, the crucified Messiah, who is raised from the dead, is declared Lord of all, and demands that all who would follow him give up everything to do so ….

The gospel of Jesus calls his followers to take up their cross, enter his kingdom in faith and join in his redemptive purposes for the world in the here and now. To work for an end to injustice, poverty and environmental destruction. To see our lives as not just ‘about us’ or even ‘me going to heaven when I die’ – but giving up everything to follow the risen Lord wherever that will lead.

This gospel calls us to help people imagine a world in which all the things we long for – beauty, justice, truth, relationships – are put right. But they are being put right now in the most unlikely way – through the death and resurrection of a Jewish Messiah, who has poured out God’s Spirit.

This gospel calls each one of us to decide – to which story do I belong? My own pursuit of significance, or happiness or experience? Or to join a far greater story – the story of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Lord of all through whom alone is hope found that one day God will be all in all.

Scot McKnight and the earliest Christian gospel (7)

Friday and Saturday 11-12 June we had a fantastic 2010 IBI Summer Institute with Scot McKnight. Two full days, 8 sessions, a full house. Scot worked hard and was brilliant.

I’m doing a few posts on what Scot had to say. And I should say that these are just based on my notes.

Much of the content of the lectures will be the material for a new book The Earliest Christian Gospel – so we were treated to a special preview.

This is the next to last post on what Scot had to say.

He asked what does a ‘salvation culture’ [traditional evangelical gospel ‘plan of salvation’] look like as in contrast to a ‘gospel culture’ [the gospel of Jesus, Peter, Paul etc that Scot has been unpacking]?

And he proposed that David Bebbington’s famous and well accepted ‘quadrilatorial’ describing the four core characteristics of evangelicalism is so popular because it ‘captures’ much of what evangelicalism is. Yet Bebbington’s framework is revealing in that it really describes a ‘salvation culture’ where:

1. Bible: is the ‘norming norm’

2. Cross: seen especially in terms of substitutionary atonement and dealing with sins, personal relationship with God

3. Personal conversion: a focus on being born again

4. Activity: bible study; discipleship; social action; all of life flowing from faith

In contrast, after some group work, these were the sorts of characteristics that participants came up with to describe a ‘gospel culture’:

1. Jesus – the gospel is all about him, fulfilling the hopes of Israel and being Messiah for all. He is the risen Lord of all and this changes everything.

2. The Bible as a saving narrative – the mission of God. Telling and inviting people into God’s redeeming purposes

3. Church – as an integral part of the gospel, standing in continuity with Israel, God’s kingdom and God’s redemptive purposes for the world, witnessing to who Jesus. [And it is well known that traditional evangelicalism has real struggles fitting ecclesiology in as a necessary part of the ‘plan of salvation’].

4. Transformed life, through the Spirit, in communities of disciples, witnessing to who Jesus is and embodying life within the kingdom of God.

To be clear, Scot is NOT setting these two against one another, as if one is ‘wrong’ and one is ‘right’. And neither is he saying that the traditional evangelical gospel has no place for the characteristics of the ‘gospel culture’.

This is a question of emphasis, of a ‘culture’ of thinking and talking about the gospel, and an argument for a ‘reshuffling of the cards’ to see the gospel in more Jesus focused, big-picture narrative terms rather than ‘me and my personal salvation’ sort of terms.

This is very close to soon to be the ex-Bishop,  N T Wright sort of territory and his argument that the good news is that Jesus is Lord.  See here for an example of this sort of discussion between John Piper and N T Wright reviewed by Trevin Wax.

So a question – what difference might all this make – personally?; in talking about the gospel? in how we see church? in mission?

Scot McKnight and the earliest Christian gospel (6): gospelling in Acts

Friday and Saturday 11-12 June we had a fantastic 2010 IBI Summer Institute with Scot McKnight. Two full days, 8 sessions, a full house. Scot worked hard and was brilliant.

I’m doing a few posts on what Scot had to say. And I should say that these are just based on my notes.

Much of the content of the lectures will be the material for a new book The Earliest Christian Gospel – so we were treated to a special preview.

The last post was on ‘Jesus: Who did he think he was?’. Scot then moved on to the 7 examples in Acts of the gospel preaching of Peter and Paul.  For example take Peter:


Peter’s gospelling is of the story of Israel coming to completion in the story of Jesus. That in the death and resurrection of Jesus is forgiveness. See Acts 10:43″All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

This sermon in Acts 10-11 is important, it

– Tells the whole story of Jesus – birth, death, resurrection, exaltation

– Who is made both Lord and Messiah

Peter’s gospel is all about Jesus.  It’s a story that calls for a response  (Acts 2:38)

  • Believe in Jesus – all that God is doing in Jesus
  • Repent (from sins committed and turn to live a new way)
  • Be baptised

Peter makes promises to new believers

  1. Forgiveness of sins
  2. Receive the Holy Spirit
  3. Times of refreshing will come – the ongoing realisation of God’s redemptive work in this world
  4. Peace is a result: spiritual peace maybe, but peace between Jews and Gentiles within the one community of the church.

General themes of gospelling in Acts

1. No clear atonement theology in the book of Acts

Scot drew attention to the lack of any worked out theology of atonement in these evangelising sermons in Acts. Their engine is the story of Israel.

2. The preaching does not start with problems to be solved

There is promise of forgiveness. The prospect of peace and overcoming Jew / Gentile boundaries. The promise of empowering of the Spirit in mission. In other words, the preaching starts with the story of Jesus and moves to fulfillment and blessing. It is also interesting that no preaching in Acts starts with God’s love or God’s grace. Yes love and grace are suffused throughout those sermons, but they don’t start there.

3. Jesus is Lord Caesar is not

While this can be over-played by some today, there is an anti-imperial stance implicit in Paul’s preaching. He proclaims that Jesus is Lord of all. Paul does not attack Rome directly, but he is is not afraid of Rome either. Paul’s real concern [as in Acts 17 in Athens] is to connect his hearers with the story of Jesus and draw them into the implications that he alone is Lord.

And this raises questions for how we do gospelling in Ireland today. Of how our evangelising and preaching can tell the story of Jesus and draw people into and see the significance of that story for their lives …

Scot McKnight and the earliest Christian gospel (5): who did Jesus think he was?

Friday and Saturday 11-12 June we had a fantastic 2010 IBI Summer Institute with Scot McKnight. Two full days, 8 sessions, a full house. Scot worked hard and was brilliant.

I’m doing a few posts on what Scot had to say. And I should say that these are just based on my notes.

Much of the content of the lectures will be the material for a new book The Earliest Christian Gospel – so we were treated to a special preview.

If the last post was on ‘Did Jesus preach the gospel?’, the follow up session was on Christology – the identity of Jesus. Who did he think he was?

This was an inspiring session. There are so many to choose from but Scot focused on a number of examples in the gospels of ‘identity texts’. Texts that are all about the identity of Jesus; whether the crowds, evil spirits, the disciples, John the Baptist or Jesus himself being the one posing the question.

Both John the Baptist and Jesus present themselves as being written into the fabric of Scripture. Scot imagined John and Jesus meeting as they grew up and discussing their extraordinary births and their place within God’s purposes. But John nevertheless does not fully ‘get’ who Jesus is. It is Jesus who tells John who he [John] is and who he [Jesus] is. John is Elijah [Mk 9:1].

Who then does Jesus think he is?

Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s Scriptures. He is Israel’s king forming a restored community around himself, he is the fulfilment of wisdom, of the prophets, of the temple, of a new covenant, Israel’s messiah, he fulfils Torah itself – and we can’t really imagine how fantastically shocking and impudent such a claim could be in 1st Century Judaism.

Jesus’ preaching of the gospel is consistently and dramatically to point to himself, to preach himself, to authenticate his mission in word and miracle. He preaches about the saving significance of his death, as one about to die and who will in doing so create a new covenant and save the people from their sins. I like to say in Christology class that Jesus is profoundly self-centred – which tends to make some people a bit nervous.

If this is how Jesus preaches the gospel [that he is the gospel] – then our gospel preaching is to preach Jesus. To narrate the story of Jesus, to not lose sight of the truth that truth is about a person. And that evangelism can be seen as relating who Jesus is and what he done for you and me.

For some this will be framed in terms of:

– love

– deliverance from sin and guilt

– liberation from spiritual and emotional shackles

– joyous hope in the risen victorious Christ

– Forgiveness

Such evangelism is not designed to create a need or engineer guilt, or appeal to self-interest – but it proclaims the attractive good news of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

There was discussion at the end of this session as to how to tell this good news of Jesus in our way in our day.

And much in this discussion reminded me of an excellent short reflection on Jesus by Robbie Castleman I read in Themelios a while ago – Christianity is all about Jesus! [a shame she does not write what was a regularly brilliant column in Themelios anymore after it shifted to its new management in the more overtly male and angular Gospel Coalition site. It was my favourite theological journal when under RTSF / IFES; hasn’t been the same since it moved to America and became narrower – but I digress!]

Scot McKnight on the earliest Christian gospel (4): did Jesus preach the gospel?

Friday and Saturday 11-12 June we had a fantastic 2010 IBI Summer Institute with Scot McKnight. Two full days, 8 sessions, a full house. Scot worked hard and was brilliant.

I’m doing a few posts on what Scot had to say. And I should say that these are just based on my notes.

Much of the content of the lectures will be the material for a new book The Earliest Christian Gospel – so we were treated to a special preview.

Another ‘stir the pot’ question Scot asked was ‘Did Jesus Preach the Gospel?’

To answer this question everything of course depends on what you mean by ‘the gospel’.

If it means the traditional evangelical ‘plan of salvation’ there is a lot that Jesus says and does that does not ‘fit’ or feel necessary.

Scot argued that the 4 Gospels are ‘gospel’ – they tell the story of Israel in the light of Jesus. And this is the gospel they tell:

1. The gospels preach the death and resurrection of Jesus

The gospels are extended reflections on the significance of Jesus’ death in light of his resurrection. This is their focus.

2. The gospels preach Jesus’ life, death and resurrection ‘according to the scriptures’

The gospels are completely taken up with how Jesus fulfils the story of Israel ‘according to the Scriptures’. He is Israel’s Messiah.

3. The gospels preach ‘Jesus died for our sins’

A big theme in the gospels. See Mt 1:21, Jeshua ‘will save his people from their sins’. Sin is mentioned 41 times in the gospels; sin and forgiveness are central.’This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for the forgiveness of sins’.

4. The gospel is to declare the story of Jesus which completes the story of Israel.

The gospel is all about Jesus and it proclaims him as the central character in the story of Israel. This gospel is not expressed in terms of ‘justification by faith’, but in terms of Jesus as the climax and fulfilment of the story of Israel.

5. The gospel of Jesus is bound up with the kingdom of God

  • Jesus believed, against all odds, that he kingdom of God was actually breaking into history right now.
  • Jesus declares that there is a new society in the Land.
  • Jesus declares a new citizenship
    • The story of Jesus is about a new community marked by justice, holiness, peace and love; a community that reconstitutes Israel, forming the people of God.
  • Jesus declares  that he is the king; the one in whom all this is happening through and in.
    • He said ‘believe in me and you will enter the kingdom of God
    • He is the king, his disciples are citizens of the new Israel. The represent the 12 tribes, he represents the king. He did not appoint 11 disciples and make up the 12th himself. He ‘rules over’ the disciples.
    • His miracles attest to the fact that he is the one – the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear.
    • In Luke 4 it is dramatically explicit: ‘Today’ the hopes of Israel are fulfilled in me’
    • Jesus consistently and explicitly promotes himself as the hope of Israel.

This is the gospel that Jesus preaches. The response called for is to believe in him and enter his kingdom.

In the next post, we’ll follow what Scot said about the identity of this Jesus.

How does this rendering of the gospel sit with you?

Sundays on Mark (22): an eye opening encounter

Continuing our simple Sunday Reflections on the Gospel of Mark: this week Mark 8:22-26

Following the criss-crossing of the lake, Jesus and his disciples come to Bethsaida on the North-East shore, a large town which had been redeveloped by Herod Philip.

As usual his reputation as a healer prompts what must have been family and/or close friends to bring a blind man to Jesus.

The healing is unusual. Jesus takes the man out of the town, away from people. Usually, his healings were done infront of crowds. It also happens in two stages rather than being instantaneous and Jesus has to ask the man what he sees.

Another detail is the physicality of what Jesus does. He takes the man by the hand. He spits on the man’s eyes and puts his hands on him.

In true Markan style such details are simply described without additional comment. Some things stand out:

– Jesus deals with the man with deep care, compassion and consideration. His taking his hand establishes literal contact. The withdrawal gives space to the man to deal with what must have been a profound experience of (re?)entering the seeing world. The physical means of healing engages him in the process, even involving him in the healing itself.

– Jesus’ command to return home and not go back to the town suggests that he had brought the man out of Bethsaida so that few would witness the miracle. Elsewhere such action is to prevent an interruption to his messianic calling and is likely the case here.

– The blind seeing is a promised action of God, just as deaf hearing and the dumb speaking. This is in contrast to the blindness of the disciples in the previous events.  It is no accident that this miracle precedes the confession of Jesus as Messiah …

Prayer: We rejoice that the good news is not just a message, it is a person. We give thanks Lord Jesus that you are the good news – in how you deal graciously with those in need, in how you generously heal, in how you fulfil the promises of God in bring deliverance for your people.

The Healing of a Blind Man at Bethsaida

22They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. 23He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”

24He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.”

25Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. 26Jesus sent him home, saying, “Don’t go into the village.

Did Ronnie Lee Gardiner deserve to die?

Saturday Story of the Week

I’ve hardly looked at the news this week, with lots going on at work, a family birthday, a really wonderul wedding [and I don’t really like weddings as a rule so that’s a big compliment :)] of a wonderful couple on a wonderful blue sky day in the County Armagh countryside …

One story that stood out was the execution in Utah of Ronnie Lee Gardiner by firing squad. I heard his lawyer interviewed on radio. He talked about Gardiner’s deprived and abusive background from a very young age, his involvement in crime and murder in his early 20s, and now the execution 25 years later of a very different man.

The lawyer said what was sad was the death penalty left no room for redemption of an individual.

As a Christian who believes in redemption, it is hard to think of a better argument against capital punishment.