Sundays in Mark (66) The crucifixion of Jesus

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections in the Gospel of Mark.

The entire narrative has been inexorably heading towards this point.

Reading this afresh it is remarkable how much Mark says in the sparest of prose. Simon of Cyrene is introduced, the account of the soldiers’ gambling for Jesus’ last vestiges of dignity and life is told, the drink of gall and Jesus’ refusal is mentioned – and all framed by these three words, ‘they crucified him‘.

Unadorned facts. Short. Brutal. Real. Left to the reader’s imagination – of an all too familiar form of violent death.

I have a confession here. I have never watched Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. I can’t even articulate exactly why but I know I’ve never had any inclination to see it. It just felt so ‘out of step’ with the Gospels. The violence is not overlooked but it is not centre stage.

The real point, and more of Mark’s irony is at play here, is that this powerless, condemned, thirsty, beaten, bloodied, publicly humiliated, mocked, shamed and abandoned Jew dying a cursed man’s death, really is, against every expectation and every prior theological framework,  the long promised King of the Jews, the Messiah of God.

But that’s a crazy foolish thing to say. Makes no sense at all. Does it?

The Crucifixion of Jesus

21 A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross. 22 They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”). 23 Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. 24And they crucified him. Dividing up his clothes, they cast lots to see what each would get.

25 It was nine in the morning when they crucified him. 26 The written notice of the charge against him read: THE KING OF THE JEWS.

John R W Stott 1921-2011

Back when I was at college in London some of us would travel in on a Sunday evening to hear John Stott preach at All Souls Langham Place.

Probably not very good ecclesiology, but in the days before the internet, MP3s, online sermons and DVDs,  we wanted to hear the man in person as he neared ‘retirement’.

For like untold numbers of Christians over several generations, all of us , had been shaped and influenced by his writing – robust, biblical, gracious, evangelistic, engaged, thoughtful, and missiological. John Stott was for generations the default resource; whether for a commentary or preaching or a theological topic.

For me, Issues Facing Christians Today opened up a whole new world of how the Bible connects to the contemporary world, something I’ve been passionate about ever since. So it was special, after hearing him speak in Belfast once, to stand in line and shake his hand and try to express how much his books had helped me grow in my faith.

Many will rightly pay tribute to Stott’s extraordinary contribution to the global church, particularly global evangelicalism – The Langham Partnership, WEA, Lausanne, The London Centre for Contemporary Christianity, his contribution to the Anglican Communion, his preaching and teaching ministry worldwide – the list is extraordinary.

But what I remember most about him is his warmth, humility and joy, both in the times I heard him speak and in his writing – and this was no ‘persona’, it comes through clearly in the biographies that have been written too.

Through God’s grace, he managed to model grace and humility with a passion for truth, profound learning and a vision for effecting change. That’s rare to say the least!

He always wore his achievements lightly and was keen to keep the focus off himself and onto his beloved Lord. He never lost focus that the purpose of the Christian life is to become more like Jesus. (Just read another of his books entitled, The Incomparable Christ to get a flavour of his trinitarian and Christocentric faith).

One of his later books was Evangelical Truth. After a penetrating Stottian unpacking of evangelical essentials, he closed with a plea for humility saying that after 60 years in ministry he continued

“to be profoundly grieved by our evangelical tendency to fragment”.

It sounds obvious, but evangelicals, as  ‘gospel people’, should be deeply concious of the doctrine of grace and therefore display that grace to one another and to others. But I’m sorry to say that when I compare some significant voices within global evangelicalism today with John Stott, there is a strident tone combined with a tribalism and distinct lack of warmth, graciousness and humility.

Why are evangelicals often so bad at living grace as well as preaching it?

But rather finish on a negative note, here is a little flavour of his passion for unity, truth, love and humble service that so marked his own life.  – from his book Baptism and Fullness:

In fact, if love and truth go together, and love and gifts go together, so do love and service, since true love always expresses itself in service. To love is to serve. We are left, then, with these four aspects of Christian life forming a ring or a circle that cannot be broken – love, truth, gifts and service. For love issues in service, service uses the gifts, the highest gift is the teaching of the truth, but truth must be spoken in love. Each involves the others, and wherever you begin all four are brought into operation. Yet the “greatest of these is love” (1 Cor.13.13)

Amen and thank you.


As a family we’ve pretty well lived and breathed Harry Potter over the last 10 years. And there are few greater pleasures than listening to the audio versions read by the utterly brilliant Stephen Fry.

And one of the big events of our recent road trip was to finally get to see HP7b in a wee retro cinema in a village in Wales (where they had an interval selling ice creams after the ads and before the film – must be a Welsh thing).

Scot McKnight over at Jesus Creed has linked to an interesting interview with J K Rowling where she talks about these two Scripture verses Harry finds in the graveyard in Godric’s Hollow [“The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26) and “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matthew 6:19)]

I think those two particular quotations he finds on the tombstones at Godric’s Hollow, they sum up — they almost epitomize the whole series.” (J K Rowling)

And especially in light of her comments, here is I think a compelling and persuasive theological analysis of 4 major themes of The Deathly Hallows, which, the author Brad Littlejohn argues convincingly, are downplayed if not written out of the film itself.

The Four themes are ‘Death of Death’, ‘Life of the Age to Come’, ‘Atonement’ ‘and ‘The Last Judgement’.

This isn’ to say the film isn’t excellent, I think it is one of the best of the series. Alan Rickman especially is given more scope to be superb as the conflicted Severus Snape. I could watch him act all day.

Here’s a clip of what Littlejohn’s saying – on the ‘Death of Death’. See his full article for the other 3 themes. In our family debrief afterwards, we agreed that the failure to explain Harry’s resurrection and defeat of death was one of the major holes in the movie.

What was your verdict on the Harry Potter finale?

The Death of Death

…. In short, in Harry’s death, we witness the death of death in his own death.  Like Christ, “death has no more dominion over him.”  What this means is more than just the destruction of another Horcrux; Harry has not just struck one more blow, but in fact the decisive blow.  But to bring this decisive blow to completion, Harry must be resurrected.  Death must be publicly exhibited as overthrown, its powerlessness before the power of love must be displayed and enacted, Harry must tread the powers of evil underfoot, must reverse the sentence of death that Voldemort has enacted on him by returning it upon Voldemort.  And this resurrection must be no mere “rescuscitation,” it must be the return to life of someone over whom death no longer has hold. All of this, I think, is clear enough in the book, although generally hinted at rather than openly set forth.

In the film?  Nope.  In the film, the conversation between Dumbledore and Harry is abbreviated so as to omit any sustained reflection on the significance of what has happened, and Harry simply asks, more or less, “So, can I go back?”  To which Dumbledore replies, more or less, “Well, if you want to.”  Why should he be able to go back?  On what basis?  Can the story just conveniently break the rules of its own world whenever it wants to?  No, as in Narnia, what we have here is not the normal rules of magic, but a deeper magic at work.  Thus far, the departure in the film is primarily one of omission, not commission, but the ramifications are still significant.

Very different pictures of Jesus

Now for some very different pictures – these I really like. Almost cartoon sketches and very old – 13th Century I think (click on the picture for a closer look).

Murals in this 900 year old former Benedictine Monastery in Alpirsbach in the Black Forest

It also has the most amazing mobile organ (that we heard being played). 

The monks were a dab hand at brewing,  a tradition that has continued to this day in the brewery beside the Monastery. I gotta say they make damn fine beer.

Picturing Jesus

I think this is the one of the weirder representations of Jesus I’ve seen – and there are plenty of very strange ones out there.  I think it’s the eyes. A sort of depressed terminator? What do you think?

And what about the first ever competition on this blog?

A Ritter Sport bar of chocolate to the first person to identify where this Jesus is!


Is picturing Jesus nearly always a bad idea? Is there a particular representation of Jesus that you really like or really hate?


Sundays in Mark (65) Jesus Mocked but things are not all they seem

After a bit of a break, I’m back to some simple Sunday reflections in the Gospel of Mark

We were in the the trial and execution narrative section of the Gospel. Jesus has been condemned to die by a pragmatic Pilate. He is now ‘beyond hope’, the verdict has been passed, and he is given over to the authority and power of those tasked with torturing, killing and degrading enemies of Rome – the local soldiers.

On a random tangent here, I’ve just finished the third (Sovereign) of the C J Sansom’s wonderfully compelling Matthew Shardlake series – a sort of medieval detective but much more. He brilliantly evokes the day to day life, politics and grim realities of King Henry VIII’s England. And there is no more grim reality than the Tower of London. A place of fear, brutality and hopelessness.

I won’t give spoilers away, but there is a chillng torture scene as someone is left in the hands of the expert and coldly ruthless torturers in the Tower.

Reading it, I thought of this text in Mark and how Jesus is given over to the hardbitten professional killers employed to effect the brutal realities of the death sentence ordered by their (comfortably distant) superior.

Jesus is beyond the protection of any law; without hope of a reprieve and left alone to face his professional tormentors – who, Mark makes clear, are clearly enjoying the extra ‘twist’ this prisoner has provided them with all this talk of being the ‘King of the Jews’.

Mark is silent on how Jesus responds to the torture and mockery. There is a strong implication of silent endurance.

Here is the innocent lamb being led to the slaughter. Here is the true King being mocked and offered joking worship. Here is the irony and ‘foolishness’ of God revealed. Here is the upside kingdom of God in all its surprising weakness. Here is the path to the cross.

But, as with Jesus as every stage of his life, things are not all they seem.

And this, it seems to me, is a way of summarising the Christian faith. It is a belief that a deeper reality lies behind what we can see. That beyond the often grim and harsh realities of life there is hope because there is a God who has entered those realities and overcome them in the most counterintuitive way imaginable – death and resurrection.

  The Soldiers Mock Jesus

16 The soldiers led Jesus away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium) and called together the whole company of soldiers. 17 They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him. 18 And they began to call out to him, “Hail, king of the Jews!” 19 Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him. 20 And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.

Here I Don’t Stand Anymore

Some further musings prompted by Luther’s most famous bit of German.

Do you know some people well who, at one time were committed active Christians, but who have now, for whatever reason, either stopped believing all together, or have dropped out of any church involvement?

If you were to ask them why, what do you think they might say?

Luther’s stand of course was not at all related to whether he believed in God or not. Within the Christendom world in which he lived that was virtually a non-question. His ‘here I stand’ was on a particular interpretation of what the Bible said about salvation – how someone is put right with God.

But in our increasingly post-Christendom European context, to say ‘Here I stand, I can do no other’  is, I suggest, to proclaim and live out a public faith in a culture that views  being into church, God and all that sort of stuff as unusual, private, irrelevant, if not outright weird and even dangerous.

BTW, Steve Holmes has a nice post on the day to day realities of living in post-Christendom Britain.

Anyway, this brings me to a very special meeting with three friends I had recently. We were all at London School of Theology (LBC in those days) and (gulp) started our degree course 25 years ago this September.  We hung out a lot together over those 3 years but this meeting was the first time all 4 of us were together since we graduated.

We had great craic in a hugely enjoyable day. Here we are – looking exactly as we were in 1986. I didn’t have hair then either 😉 From the left, Eric Harmer is pastor of Barton Evangelical Church in Canterbury; Darrell Jackson is Director of NOVA Research Institute linked to Redcliffe College and Arthur Magahy, with his wife Nicky who was also at college with us, are Mission Trainers at IMC in Birmingham, the training centre for BMS World Missions.

My interest here isn’t so much in what we are doing now, but a conversation that came up that day. We got round to talking about the challenges of ‘continuing to stand’ over the years through good and bad times, through joys and disappointments.

And we recalled lots of students at college in those years. Many are, to use Paul’s phrase, ‘pressing on’ and continuing to ‘run the race’.

But more than a few, for whatever reasons, are no longer doing so. These weren’t nominal believers but people who were active and committed enough to go off to study theology full-time at an evangelical college.

It seems to me that this would be a significant topic for some field research. I know the general church stats in the UK and Europe are of significant decline, but much of that can be attributed to the decline of Christendom and the fall off of large numbers of nominal members of denominations.

But what of decline and loss within active evangelicalism? What’s your experience and interpretation of this reality? For it is just as much if not more a local church issue as one for theological colleges.

Is it a subject that we don’t like to talk about too much? Pastorally sensitive? Theologically problematic? To be expected given the spiritual battle that the Christian life represents?

And is there an irony here that while evangelicals are mission people who expend great energy, prayer, creativity and money on evangelism and church planting, relatively little is said or done about the significant numbers of former evangelicals quietly walking away from church life and/or faith altogether?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Sundays in Mark (64) Jesus sentenced to death

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections in the Gospel of Mark.

Rejoining Jesus’ ‘trial’ before Pilate, Mark introduces the information that the Romans would release a prisoner at Passover as a traditional but notional act of ‘goodwill’ – the interesting twist being that the subjugated Jews got to choose whom it would be.

Mark also gives information on Pilate’s motivation and personal convictions that the charges against Jesus were politically motivated falsehoods. In typical style he does not go into detail of how he knows this but other gospel accounts tell of Pilate’s vacillation, sending Jesus to Herod Antipas, his wife’s dream about Jesus’ innocence and Pilate’s attempt to wash his hands of the whole affair.

The earliest Christian tradition clearly is that Pilate is more of a passive participant: in the sense of having no active interest in seeing Jesus dead. He is caught on the horns of dilemma:

Release the innocent man and risk alienating even further pretty well the entire Jewish Sanhedrin and aggravating a hostile crowd – a crowd remember who are gathered from the entire Jewish diaspora in Jerusalem for Passover. And simultaneously fail to release one of their political heroes, Barabbas, who had had the courage to do what Jesus had not done – attempt a violent liberation of God’s people in God’s given land?


take the politically expedient route of killing this inconvenient Rabbi?

Political expediency wins.


There are so many things that could be said here. One thing that stands out to me is the stark and deliberate contrast between Barabbas and Jesus. The former represents the route of power and violence, might and force to achieve God’s ends and end Pagan occupation of Israel. This is the sort of thing the Messiah was expected to deliver.

The latter emphatically rejects the ‘will to power’ to achieve God’s ends. This upside-down-Messiah preaches an upside-down kingdom where the meek will inherit the earth and those who suffer for the kingdom are to consider themselves blessed. And this is no ‘soft’ or ‘weak option. It is the hardest path of all. He lives out this upside-down-kingdom all the way to the cross. And his followers today are called to take the same route of suffering, peace, powerlessness and non-violence.

Mark 15:6-15

6 Now it was the custom at the festival to release a prisoner whom the people requested. 7 A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising. 8The crowd came up and asked Pilate to do for them what he usually did.

9 “Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate, 10 knowing it was out of self-interest that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him. 11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead.

12 “What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked them.

13 “Crucify him!” they shouted.

14 “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.

But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”

15 Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.

More musings on a very famous bit of German

Some follow up thoughts on Luther’s famous words:

Now I know there is a viper’s nest of hotly debated theological issues here, but I think it’s safe to say that Luther’s ‘standing’ was inseparable from an unshakable belief in a particular interpretation of the Bible’s narrative concerning Jesus Christ.

The Reformers’ emphasis on ‘Christ alone’, ‘Scripture alone’, ‘Faith alone’ and ‘Grace alone’ unpacked the content of that interpretation – one that of course differed radically with Medieval Catholicism at a number of critical points, especially the authority of the Church and the content of justification by faith.

I don’t go all the way with Luther at a number of places, nor would I necessarily agree that the ‘Solas’ adequately capture all of what the NT gospel concerning Jesus Christ actually is [not much kingdom of God or Holy Spirit to begin with]. But I am happy to embrace them as summarising core elements of biblical faith (and that’s why I’m also happy to be called an evangelical Christian although I don’t necessarily lead with that in polite dinner table conversation!).

So, after over 30 years a Christian, I still find myself believing and ‘standing’ for something like this [and please remember this is a quickly sketched blog post not a painstakingly crafted comprehensive statement of systematic theology – I’m sure what follows can be edited and re-written in many different ways – What bits might you want to add, delete or change?

That God, in Jesus Christ, annointed by the Holy Spirit, has done something truly astonishing; something so amazing that it is almost too good to believe. This gospel has such universal significance, it should cause those who believe it to worship God with all of their hearts, minds and lives.

That the Bible is our one true and inspired source of what God has done and why and we should seek to understand it, interpret it and obey it humbly, open to learn from the learning of other Christians both living and dead, keenly aware of our own limitations and cultural biases.

That God’s actions involved his divine Son becoming fully human and entering history; specifically the history of Israel as her Messiah. That his real humanity is deeply connected to his substitutionary mission as the Second Adam, to undo and redeem what Adam had done.

That this mission to Israel finds its climax in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, where sin, death and the Law are overcome by the victory of God, through the power of the Spirit who raised Christ from the dead.

That this work of salvation is all of God and is a gracious gift of God and can only be accepted in faith and repentance and baptism.

That all – whether male or female, black or white, rich or poor, of whatever nationality or religion – who have faith in and commit their lives to following Jesus, share in this victory, and are given the Spirit to empower them for a life marked by the fruit of the Spirit within the new covenant community of God, the church.

That this present experience of the Spirit of God is tangible evidence of the future age of the kingdom to come in a redeemed new creation after the return of Jesus Chist as glorious judge, to bring justice and the Shalom of God to all things.

That in the perfect justice of God there will be no place in this new creation for all powers and forces and people opposed to the rule of the King and therefore there will be no more sin, injustice, famine, war, exploitation of the weak and vulnerable; no more funerals or tears or depression or doctors; no more pollution and environmental destruction; no more waste, no more cynicism and lies and half-truths; no more confusion and hopelessness and despair.

But God will be all in all.

Comments, as ever, are welcome.

Some conversational questions on a very famous bit of German

Ok that 1989 joke was a bit coarse, but there is a long legacy of rough German humour – which brings us to Martin Luther 😉

We passed through Worms the other day and went to see Brother Martin who is standing around in Luther Platz.

My German is rubbish but here is a rather famous bit below that needs no translation.

Yes there is debate whether Luther actually said these words in his courageous speech before Emperor Charles V, but I like to think he did. And as this little piece points out well, the precise words are not the point.

What inspired so many Christians then and ever since, is Luther’s high view of the authority, truthfulness and reliability of Scripture revealing the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

And this message is so overwhelmingly GOOD and of universal significance that it calls all who believe in Jesus as Lord and Saviour to shape their lives around him.  And that can lead, as it did for Luther, to all sorts of radical consequences.

So some challenging questions came to mind as I stood in front of Brother Martin.

Alister McGrath wrote an excellent book a while ago called A Passion for Truth: the intellectual coherence of evangelicalism.

That phrase, ‘Passion for Truth’ captures Luther, and McGrath rightly identifies it as a defining characteristic of authentic evangelical Christianity.

So, in Luther Platz in Worms, I asked myself ‘How is my passion for [God’s] truth?’

Allow me a bit of personal story here: I committed my life to Jesus back when I was a teenager. The Good News of the Gospel grabbed me as the most astonishing and important thing I’d ever heard.

Later, I responded to a challenge at a Christian conference of what was I going to do with my life? With the encouragement of my home church and others, I went off to theological college and have been in Christian ministry for over 20 years, the last 15 or so having the privilege and responsibility of teaching the Bible and theology to students – a job I love.

I’m deeply involved in local church life, being an elder in this great wee church community.

So, at one level, if I haven’t any ‘passion for God’s truth’ I should give up my job and resign from local church leadership. (I haven’t because I still have that deep down conviction that the Gospel is the best and most important news that can be heard – but I’d like to come back to this is a follow up post).

But this goes for all Christians really, not just those in employed ministry. Does this sound simplistic? – the Gospel story of Jesus Christ’s death, resurrection and living Lordship is either true or it isn’t. Either a Christian ‘stands’ for that story and can do no other, or he/she does not. For if Jesus is the risen Lord around whom all of history revolves then everything changes.

Now all of this is not at all to say that faith is obvious or simple, or that there is no room for doubts, questions, struggles and fears. I have had (and have) plenty. But rather than leading with them, I’d like to open up for conversation the things that can and do ‘dull’ a Christian ‘passion for truth’ and the things that can and do restore and refresh it.

So I’d love to hear what you say on this – esp if you tend to be a reader and not a commentor:

What are some ‘passion killers’ that you’ve experienced in the Christian life?

And what are some  ‘passion kindlers’ – things that have restored your enthusiasm and joy in the Lord?