Lazarus: You Don’t Have to Wait, Because Jesus is Resurrection NOW

Do you notice how often John, in chapter 11 of his Gospel, defines Lazarus by his sickness?

“Sick” or “sickness” appears five times in the first six verses.

v. 1: “ a man named Lazarus was sick
v. 2: “Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick
v. 3: “Lord, the one you love is sick.”
v. 4: “This sickness will not end in death.”
v. 6: “he heard that Lazarus was sick

Add to that: he was from Bethany, a town meaning “house of the the poor” or sick. “Sick” is the main description of Lazarus.

Lazarus: Brother, Beloved

Who else was he? Lazarus was brother to Mary and Martha.

These were sisters John’s audience knew well enough that John could just identify Mary by a single story: “the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.”

It was “this Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick.”

Lazarus was a brother. And Lazarus was a beloved. Verse 3 says, “So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.””

Some say the so-called “disciples Jesus loved” is not John but Lazarus… this verse would be evidence for that view. Lazarus was a brother and beloved friend.

Lazarus: DEAD

As the account progresses, Lazarus becomes defined by his being dead. “He’s that guy who died.”

v. 11: “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep
v. 13: “Jesus had been speaking of his death
v. 14: “Lazarus is dead
v. 16: “Let us… die with him
v. 17: “Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days”
v. 19: “the loss of their brother”
v. 21: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died
v. 37: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
v. 38: “’But, Lord,’” said Martha, the sister of the dead man”

Even in verse 44 after Jesus has said, “Lazarus, come out,” John doesn’t say: And Lazarus came out… he says, “The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with stops of linen, and a cloth around his face.”

John primarily describes Lazarus as either sick or dead.

And he heightens the pathos of the narrative by noting he is a brother and a loved one.

Lazarus: Locus of God’s Glory

But there’s one more thing that John says about Lazarus—he is the site of the revelation of God’s glory. He is the locus of God’s Son being glorified.

The miracle sets the stage for the rest of the book of John.

It’s the 7th of the 7 Signs of Jesus in John. We’ve seen Jesus turn water into wine, perform three healings, feed the multitudes, walk on water, and now he’s about to raise a man from the dead.

This paves the way for Jesus’ own resurrection from the dead, which John will narrate at the end of the Gospel.

Look at verse 4: “When he heard this, Jesus said, ‘This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.’”

Lazarus is the one through whom Jesus reveals himself to be the resurrection and the life. Lazarus’s death is an occasion for Jesus to show everyone more about himself, leading up to his own resurrection.

Remember that—I’ll come back to that in a bit: Lazarus is the one through whom Jesus reveals himself to be the resurrection and the life.

 

The Story of Lazarus

 

So that’s Lazarus, as John tells it: Sick… a brother… a beloved friend… then dead… but ultimately the locus of Jesus’ revelation and God’s glory.

The Setup

Jesus gets news of Lazarus’s sickness, and even though John’s about to describe Lazarus as “the dead man,” Jesus says, “This sickness will NOT end in death.”

But Jesus stays put for two days.

And he hears about it from Mary and Martha. Both sisters, independently of each other, say, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!”

God, if you had intervened—and you could have—this man I love would have been healed. Or maybe he wouldn’t have even gotten sick in the first place.

Theodicy: Jesus Mourns with Us

This chapter actually makes an enduring contribution to Christian theodicy, or the practice of trying to justify how an all-powerful God could stop evil but doesn’t.

John doesn’t address the question directly, but he does show a Jesus who comes alongside his loved ones in adversity, and mourns with them.

John 11:35 is the shortest verse in the Bible, and the best one to start with if you want to up your Scripture memory game. It just says, “Jesus wept.” “Jesus wept.”

It’s not the only time in the New Testament that someone cries, but John uses a word for weeping that is only used here in the New Testament. A richer translation is: “Jesus burst into tears.”

He mourns when death seems to have gotten dominion—Jesus is even angry at the injustice of it all. We Christians don’t need to fear death, but it’s awful to lose a friend, a family member, a loved one.

Jesus mourns—bursts into tears, even—right along with us.

The Jewish co-mourners—the ones who were comforting Mary and Martha—are taken aback and say, “See how he loved him!”

Jesus’s weeping was motivated by love.

So that’s a nice sidebar in this story, I think—it doesn’t solve the problem of evil, not at all. But Jesus’s response does remind us that where there is suffering, where there is death, where the unfair and unthinkable happen… in those places, Jesus weeps with us, because he is a loving, compassionate, and empathetic God.

The Sign

And then the sign comes—verse 43, Jesus says in a loud voice: “Lazarus, come out!”

We don’t even get a response from Lazarus—he walks out like a mummy, all his death clothes still wrapped around him.

And then, you kind of feel bad for the guy…. After Lazarus is resurrected, in chapter 12 the religious leaders would make a decision about him. They decide not only do they want to kill Jesus, they want to kill Lazarus, too! Even after this awesome miracle, he might be dead again soon.

Jesus is like, “Come on! I just… got him out of there.”

 

Jesus is Resurrection NOW

 

The Crux of the Passage

As I’ve read and re-read this passage, as I’ve studied and puzzled over it… I keep coming back to verses 21-27.

They are the crux of the passage.

“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

“Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”

There’s a cosmic interplay in their conversation between present and future, between resurrection later and resurrection now.

Martha says, “I know Lazarus will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

This is common Jewish teaching. The Pharisees believed in a resurrection. The Sadducees didn’t—that’s why they’re so sad, you see. Martha’s response is not unexpected.

Especially since Jesus in John 6 said, about a million times, “I will raise them up at the last day.” Anyone who comes to me, who eats this bread of life (that is me, Jesus), will never die, will live forever, and I will raise them up at the last day.

Martha is tracking with the best of Jesus’ students here.

Resurrection at the last day is not only standard Jewish teaching—it is standard Christian teaching. We affirm that we will experience the joy of resurrection, in body and soul, at some future day we call “the last day.”

At Funerals and during Easter are the two times we’re most aware of the promise of resurrection.

Jesus doesn’t argue with Martha, about raising people up at the last day. There’s nothing for him to correct in her future eschatology. Hope in a future resurrection is kind of the anchor for our faith.

But Jesus pushes a step further and says, “I am—RIGHT NOW—the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”

“I am—not just tomorrow, not just in the last day, but right now, present tense, in this very moment—I am the resurrection and the life.”

Immediately after saying so, Jesus gives a manifestation—a pretty literal one—as to what it means that Jesus is the resurrection right now for those who believe. He raises Lazarus from the dead.

By a supernatural sign Jesus shows that the power of the resurrection is not just for tomorrow or some later date, but for this day.
 

We are Lazarus

 

I suspect John wants us to use Lazarus as a sort of mirror, a character in whom we find ourselves.

Lazarus was sick. We get sick. We have physical ailments.

And if we allegorize a bit, we have mental lapses, emotional breakdowns, and plenty of imperfections. We see lack of health in ourselves.

Also like Lazarus, we were dead.

“As for you,” Ephesians says, “You were dead in your transgressions and sins…. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.” Before coming to know Jesus, we were as good as tomb-dwellers.

Lazarus is also the one Jesus loves. His beloved. John himself, in one of his short church letters, will call his recipients beloved. We are loved by Jesus, just like his friend Lazarus.

We’re like Lazarus in his sickness… like Lazarus in his death… and like Lazarus in resurrection.

That Ephesians passage continues:

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.

Even now we are raised to new life in Christ, remade in him from sickness to health, and from death to life.

Resurrection People

Scripture is rife with passages that suggest resurrection isn’t just for later, but for right now, for those who are people of God.

Paul says in Philippians 3, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.”

Romans 8:4 says:

Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Right now!)

Had we been protesting the lack of resurrection in our lives, we might have shown up to a rally, chanting, “What do we want? Resurrection! When do we want it? Now!”

Later in Romans 8, we hear:

And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.

 

Resurrection Now

 

In Living the Resurrection Eugene Peterson (whose Message translation inspired the title of this post) observes that the ones who witnessed Christ’s resurrection were afterwards “walking the same old roads over the same old ground they had grown up on and talked and worked on, with the same old people they had grown up with.” He says:

Now it was becoming clear to them… that the resurrection also had to do with them and the ongoing circumstances of their lives. … They were beginning to get the sense that Jesus’ resurrection had everything to do with their ordinary lives. They needed practice in this reorientation, and they plunged into ordinariness—the old familiar workplace of sea and the fishing boat.

Because Jesus is the resurrection and the life, right now, we live in the light of the resurrection… right now. We already walk and live and work in a new reality—we don’t have to wait for it.

How do we receive such a gift? If we are to be resurrection people right now, how do we practice living out that identity?

Answering this question will actually be a churchwide focus in Lent.

Lent might feel more like crucifixion than resurrection for you. But we have already been raised to new life, just like Lazarus. And there are methods of engagement we can employ to put ourselves in a position to receive God’s grace, God’s new life.

In Lent our congregation will be trying out a series of weeklong habits—“spiritual disciplines” is the familiar name for them. Each Sunday I’ll preach about one practice Christians throughout the centuries have used to open up to God, to receive Jesus as resurrection and life… and then we’ll practice on our own that week.

And as we re-gather Sunday after Sunday in Lent, we’ll do it at this same communion table. At the table we receive a taste of that new life, and a reminder that the resurrected life is ours to receive and live, every day.

We don’t have to be defined—as Lazarus was—by our sickness, by our imperfections, by our falling short.

We don’t have to be identified—as Lazarus was—as being dead… in our case, dead in our transgressions and stupid sins. We are no longer cut off in darkness from the land of the living.

We are, like Lazarus, identified as God’s dearly loved children. Jesus, the resurrection and the life, calls us to put our full trust and faith in him.

And through his resurrection power, he calls us (right now!) into newness of life.

 


 

The above is adapted from a sermon I preached last Sunday, the last in a series on the Seven Signs of Jesus in John.

Changing Blood Into Wine

Check out these compelling lines from a 6th century Greek Orthodox hymnographer named St. Romanus the Melodist. He writes about Jesus’s first miracle of turning water into wine at Cana in Galilee:

 

    When Christ, as a sign of His power, clearly
        changed the water into wine
    All the crowd rejoiced, for they considered the
        taste marvelous.
    Now we all partake at the banquet in the
        church
    For Christ’s blood is changed into wine
    And we drink it with holy joy,
    Praising the great bridegroom,
    For he is the true bridegroom, the Son of
        Mary,
    The Word before all time who took the form
        of a servant,
    He who has in wisdom created all things.

 

Even Greater Things Than Jesus Did??

B 3Jesus says to his disciples in John, “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He [or she] will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.”

Of course our first reaction is to ask, “Greater than Jesus? How is that even possible?”

One possible meaning: Because I am going to the Father–because I am going to die and rise again–sin and death will be defeated and you will have even more power than you do now.

The Kingdom would be even more fully ushered in at the end of John. Is this what Jesus means?

This, at least, is what D.A. Carson suggests:

In short, the works that the disciples perform after the resurrection are greater than those done by Jesus before his death insofar as the former belong to an age of clarity and power introduced by Jesus’ sacrifice and exaltation. Both Jesus’ words and his deeds were somewhat veiled during the days of his flesh; even his closest followers, as the foregoing verses make clear, grasped only part of what he was saying. But Jesus is about to return to his Father, he is about to be glorified, and in the wake of his glorification his followers will know and make known all that Jesus is and does, and their every deed and word will belong to the new eschatological age that will then have dawned.

I think it could also be helpful to understand Jesus’ statement in light of the signs he has performed.

Jesus says the above in John 14, shortly after the conclusion of the “Book of Signs” portion of John–the first 12 chapters containing his “7 Signs.” John 13-21, then, constitute what scholars call the “Book of Glory.”

A sign, after all, is that which (while good in itself) points away from itself and to a greater, deeper, fuller reality. So if Jesus is referring to “greater things than these signs,” that is not so hard to grasp if we consider that signs always point to something greater anyway. One could read Jesus’ statement as a sort of tautology, where the “greater things” mean that somehow the deeper reality Jesus’ signs point to is more fully unearthed through the ministry of the disciples.

In other words, Jesus says to Philip, these signs are just a foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven, and you and all the disciples after you are going to work and work and work together to keep bringing the Kingdom in.

When puzzling over John, I can think of no better place to turn than to Raymond E. Brown, to whom I give the last word. Note especially the final sentence of this paragraph.

 

Ray Brown on John 14.12

“There is No Rejoicing Without Wine”: Jesus’ First Miracle

One preacher says, “Weddings are accidents waiting to happen. Something almost always goes wrong at a service of holy matrimony.”

That doesn’t match my experience with weddings, but there is something quite wrong at the wedding in Cana, in Galilee (John 2:1-11): they’ve run out of wine.

So maybe there’s no better place for Jesus to show up, his first week of public ministry, than at a well-attended, days-long wedding.

Jesus turns water into wine—“the first of his miraculous signs,” John says.

 

The Seven Signs of Jesus in John

 

Jesus performed more than just seven signs, but John uses seven signs, or miracles, to organize the first part of his Gospel.

1. Jesus changes water into wine (John 2:1-11)
2. Jesus heals the official’s son (John 4:46-54)
3. Jesus heals the man at the pool of Bethesda 
(John 5:1-9)
4. Jesus feeds the 5,000 (John 6:1-13)
5. Jesus walks on water (John 6:16-21)
6. Jesus heals the man born blind (John 9:1-12)
7. Jesus raises Lazarus (John 11:1-44)

(via The New Testament in Antiquity, by Burge, Cohick, and Green)

What is a sign?

A translator’s handbook, intended especially for those who are taking to Bible into new languages for the first time, talks about it this way:

[A] “sign” is a means of revealing a greater reality to which the “sign” itself merely points. The Gospel of John speaks of seven “signs” of Jesus, and these are “signs,” not necessarily because they are miracles, but because they point to a truth beyond themselves, to a truth regarding God’s salvation.

Signs are good, even powerful, in and of themselves, but they point to a “greater reality.”

A sign is deeper than itself.

The signs of Jesus, in particular, are meant to tell us something about Jesus. The “signs” and wonders Jesus performs are witnesses to his glory. They’re each a vignette, a window into Christ’s revealing himself to anyone who would receive him.

 

Sign #1: Water Into Wine

 

Jesus, his mother, and his disciples have all gotten invitations to this wedding. It’s Jesus’ first week of public ministry, as John tells it, and it’s a huge event. It would not be unexpected for just about the whole town of Cana to be there. The local shops and businesses probably all put a “Closed for wedding” sign on their doors. Will be back in seven days. It was likely a week-long event.

But, even if not all weddings are “accidents waiting to happen,” this one was. The guests drank the wine down to the last drop.

It would be pointless (but fun) to speculate as to whether or not this was poor planning on the family’s part, or too much drinking on the guests’ part.

Either way, this family is about to go down in history as “the ones who ran out of wine at their wedding.” You sort of hope for them, at this point, that they don’t have any other kids to marry off, ‘cause no one’s coming.

Verse 3 says, “When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”

One early theologian said, “Perhaps his mother, as mothers do, incited him to perform a miracle, wishing that the greatness of her son would be revealed—and thinking that the lack of wine offered the right occasion for the miracle.”

The (1984) NIV gives us the reply: “Dear woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My time has not yet come.”

There is a sense in which Jesus isn’t ready to fully reveal all his glory. But he whips into action. It’s a good way of honoring his mother.

Because… not only is the reputation of the family at stake, but the festive spirit of the wedding is in jeopardy. The Talmud, a text of Rabbinic Judaism from a couple centuries after this, bluntly says, “There is no rejoicing [without] wine.”

Jesus is on it. He performs the miracle, in kind of a subtle and smooth way. Maybe this is because his “time had not yet come,” as he said to mother Mary.

Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.

Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”

They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”

Just to be clear, we are talking about anywhere between 120 and 180 gallons of wine.

This doesn’t mean that a bunch of wedding guests are going to get toasted. If you think of a whole town of people celebrating for a week, a lot of wine is needed.

Here’s the town today that might have been 1st-century Cana:

 

Maybe Cana
Source: Accordance Bible Lands PhotoGuide

 

Imagine the effect of 180 gallons of wine!

This picture is probably 30 gallons or a little more:

 

Some Wine

 

So if my calculations are correct, here’s a visual on how much wine Jesus made:

 

More Wine

 

The result of this sign, besides a happy wedding, is in John 2:11:

This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed at Cana in Galilee.

He thus revealed his glory,
and his disciples put their faith in him.

Or, in another translation, “There Jesus showed how wonderful he was.”

It was looking back and thinking of moments like this that John could write in his Prologue, in chapter 1: “We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” We have seen how wonderful Jesus is.

 

What Does the Sign Show?

 

N.T. Wright says, “The whole point of the ‘signs’ is that they are moments when heaven and earth intersect with each other.”

From these signs of Jesus, we on earth learn more about ultimate, heavenly realities: who Jesus really is, what sorts of things God is capable of, what kind of intervention is possible in the problems of the world today.

Especially with this first sign, when Jesus is fresh on the scene, we get a portrait of who our Savior is.

 

—Jesus likes to have fun—

“Eat, drink, and be merry” is not just a mindset that the Bible shoots down. Jesus wants us to eat, drink, and be merry—so long as we’re not neglecting important things.

Jesus upset the religious elite of his day by all the feasting he and his disciples did. In Luke some angry leaders say to him,

John’s disciples, like the disciples of the Pharisees, frequently fast and pray, but your disciples eat and drink. Jesus said to them, “You cannot make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days. (Luke 5:33-35)

As long as you’ve got me, Jesus says, party on.

And did you catch this nice touch from John: these jars, where the chemical miracle happened, were ones “used… for ceremonial washing.” There’s nothing wrong with religious ritual, per se—I quite like it myself. But these jars for ritual cleansing—Jesus turned them into party favors. That’s kind of like co-opting the baptismal font for a punch bowl.

This family made good choice in inviting Jesus to the wedding. Maybe he already had a reputation as a fun guy—someone you wanted to celebrate with.

 

—Jesus is generous—

This sign also shows Jesus to be generous. Under his command, the servants “filled [the jars with water] to the brim.” There’s no skimping with Jesus.

Next chapter Jesus will say, “For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without limit.”

God does not withhold his good gifts and his love from us. He wants us coming to him with open hands, even empty cups, so he can fill us with good things.

Also, just a geographical note here: we know the stories of Jesus, so we take it for granted, but Cana was 70 miles north of Jerusalem. This is pretty far outside the city of the religious power brokers.

But being a religious insider or expert, so to speak, has never been a requirement for receiving Christ’s love.

Jesus does not withhold his presence from the ones who have never known power, wealth, or the comfort of living in the mainstream of society. Jesus is generous.

 

—Jesus is accommodating—

Jesus is accommodating. He says his “time has not yet come,” but then he does the miracle. He seems to be flexible on timing. You’ll see in other places in John where Jesus says “his time has not yet come.”

We know the frustration of when God’s timetable or timing in the world does not match ours. But God is not impassable. God is not unaffected by our needs and desperation.

If God has a massive planner on his desk, with dates and times and places, it’s written in pencil. God can change the future. God can even accommodate our requests when he maybe otherwise wasn’t planning to. Jesus is accommodating.

 

How Shall We Respond?

 

Having seen this intersection of the heavenly and earthly, having caught a glimpse of a God who changes reality, a Jesus who is fun, and generous, and accommodating… how shall we respond?

John models a response for us in verse 11: “He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.”

We can eat, drink, be merry, trusting that our God is a God of celebration… assured that he’s generous… and confident that he’s flexible to respond in real time to our needs and intercessions.

Look at Mary’s response in verse 5 to the servants: “Do whatever he tells you.”

I think we can safely assume, 30 years in, that she’s onto the whole divinity thing. She doesn’t know what he’s going to do or how, but she expects something, when she comes to him with a need: “They have no more wine.” Her words to the servants model an admirable submission to the Son of God: “Do whatever he tells you.”

Do the good you know to do. Act in love, in the ways that you see it within your reach to do. “Do whatever he tells you.”

John, by showing Mary and the disciples’ response to Jesus’ first sign, calls us, too, to submission and faith and trust in Christ.

I think another response this passage can call forth from us is just… relief.

Jesus isn’t boring or a killjoy. He liked to celebrate, to enjoy parties and good wine and food with others.

Jesus says of his mission, “I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly.” Jesus wants disciples to live life to the fullest, and one implication of this is that we enjoy the good things on earth.

We read in the Psalms:

How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house,
and you give them drink from the river of your delights.

Jesus wants us to enjoy the abundance of his creation. He is not stingy. He’s not inflexible.

This passage can offer us relief because it reminds us that prayers regarding needs do affect God. We can invite him into broken and unresolved places in our life.

 

An Even Greater Wedding Feast

 

The wedding at Cana, in fact, serves as a foreshadowing of a great heavenly banquet, where Jesus is the groom. And he invites everyone, not just in one whole town, but across many nations. It’s not just a weeklong wedding celebration, but an eternal one, with Jesus as host.

The prophets saw this day and were relieved. Amos rejoiced, “New wine will drip from the mountains and flow from all the hills.” Joel saw a day when “the mountains will drip with sweet wine, and the hills will flow with milk.” (And that milk—it accounts for those who don’t drink wine… so God’s got everyone covered.)

We, like Mary and the disciples, have seen the glory of Jesus. Witnesses to this and many other signs of Jesus, may we put our trust in him. May we hope in him. May we present our needs and lacks to him, asking for his help. May we place our confidence in him. And may we give ourselves over to him, and keep our hands open for the good things he has to give us.

Book Review: Jesus, the Temple and the Coming Son of Man

Mark 13 is one of the most difficult chapters of the Bible to interpret and understand. From the “abomination of desolation” to the claim of Jesus that “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place,” the chapter is full of statements that could refer either to the near (historical) or far (apocalyptic) future.

Robert H. Stein’s goal in writing Jesus, the Temple and the Coming Son of Man: A Commentary on Mark 13 is to finish the sentence, “I, Mark (the author), have written Mark 13:1-37, because…”. Stein, author of the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament volume on Mark, is one of the best commentators one could hope to read on such a challenging and important chapter.

Here is Stein’s outline of Mark 13, in his words (p. 49):

 

  • 13:1-4: Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the temple (and Jerusalem) (chapter 3 of this book)
  • 13:5-23: The coming destruction of the temple (and Jerusalem) and the sign preceding it (ch. 4)
  • 13:24-27: The coming of the Son of Man (ch. 5)
  • 13:28-31: The parable of the fig tree and the coming destruction of the temple (and Jerusalem) (ch. 6)
  • 13:32-37: The parable of the watchman and the exhortation to be alert for the coming of the Son of Man (ch. 7)

 

The majority of the book (chapters 3-7) is taken up with Stein’s exposition of each verse in Mark 13. Chapter 1 defines the goal of the book: “to understand what the author of the Gospel we call Mark meant and sought to convey by the present text of Mark 13” (39). Stein focuses especially on what Mark meant to “teach his readers by the Jesus traditions that he chose to include in this chapter, his arrangement of these traditions and his editorial work in the recording of this material” (45). Chapter 2 is “Key Issues Involved in Interpreting Mark 13.”

Chapter 8 is a really nice add-on, which consists of Stein’s “interpretive translation” of Mark 13. What a great idea! You can read the chapter in one sitting and see right away how Stein interprets it. This could be a really good starting point for the reader, as could the excellent and detailed “Outline” starting on p. 9 (basically an annotated table of contents).

Stein offers at the outset a nice tour of the so-called quests for the historical Jesus, and how that relates to reading Mark. But Stein doesn’t seem to think the authorship (Mark) or genre (historical narrative) of Mark matters much to the purpose of this short commentary. I find his views here less than compelling, but that didn’t keep me from being convinced by the rest of the book.

Two key points the book makes will give a sense of Stein’s approach:

  1. Stein differentiates between three settings we need to keep in mind: “the first involving the teaching of the historical Jesus to his disciples, the second involving the situation of the early church between the death and resurrection of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels, and the third involving the situation in which and for which the Evangelist Mark wrote his Gospel” (47).
  2. Because of the above point, Stein can tease out different settings and time-frames that different portions of Mark 13 refer to. He says, for example, “Mark does not see the coming of the Son of Man [AKJ: the apocalyptic imagery in 13:24-27] as part of Jesus’ answer (13:5-23) to the disciples’ twofold question (13:4) concerning the destruction of the temple” (72).

Throughout the book Stein keeps in view the distinction between the soon-to-come, 1st century future (destruction of the temple) and the distant, unknown day of the coming of the Son of Man. Stein acknowledges that it is “easy to intermix these two horizons [two settings in time] of the text, and the result is confusion and lack of clarity in understanding either setting in time” (100). Much of the chapter, Stein argues (but not all), anticipates the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in A.D. 70.

You don’t need to know Greek to make good use of this text, but Stein does keep (transliterated) Greek in front of him so he can analyze the text at the word and phrase level. He is really good, too, at using a broader biblical context to help explain specific parts of Mark 13.

I read the book cover-to-cover in a few sittings—it was that intriguing! As detailed and in-depth as Stein’s reasoning is, it reads really nicely: his tone is conversational, which makes it easy to try to sort through some tough hermeneutical issues. Stein’s is certainly not the only possible interpretation of Mark 13, but it’s a persuasive one.

 

Thanks to the fine folks at IVP Academic for the review copy. Find the book here at IVP’s site, or here on Amazon.

Scot McKnight’s Sermon on the Mount Commentary, Reviewed

SGBC SMount

 

My mild obsession with the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer can be traced back to a question I asked myself and the congregation with whom I worship in early March: How can Ukraine love its Russian occupiers? And what would Bonhoeffer suggest?

The questions came from my wrestling through Matthew 5:38-48, which I find the be the most difficult passage in the Sermon on the Mount. I concluded, in part,

What seems a fairly straightforward statement, “Love your enemy,” is difficult. What does it mean to love enemies? In what spheres must that take place, and how should it happen, especially in the presence of an inordinately powerful evil? How categorical is Jesus in his forbidding of force? Was he speaking to disciples, or to disciples and states?

You can see how I landed (at least in a sense) at the end of this post.

 

Enter Scot McKnight

 

Scot McKnight’s Sermon on the Mount (The Story of God Bible Commentary, Zondervan, 2013) helped me wrestle through the difficult question of just what it means to “turn the other cheek.” While some interpreters (such as Luther) have sought to distinguish between private (interpersonal) and public (political) applications of this text, McKnight responds: “Utter nonsense.” Instead:

One of the main thrusts of the ethic of Jesus is the radicalization of an ethic so that we live consistently, from the so-called “private” to the “public” spheres. There is for Jesus no distinction between a secular life and spiritual life: we are always to follow him. His ethic is an Ethic from Beyond. But others, in words not so wrongheaded as Luther’s, have continued Luther’s personal vs. public or spiritual vs. secular distinction when it comes to ethics.

Jesus, McKnight persuasively argues, was not distinguishing between how the disciples should live in their private lives (whatever that would have meant) as opposed to in public. “The question every reader of the Sermon must ask,” McKnight goes on, is:

Does that world begin now, or does it begin now in private but not in public, or does it begin now for his followers in both private and to the degree possible in the public realm as well?

 

A New Commentary Series: SGBC

 

The Story of God Bible Commentary is a new series, with McKnight’s volume and Lynn Cohick’s Philippians volume being the first two published. As the name implies, the series is concerned to interpret and apply Scripture with an eye to how each passage relates to the larger biblical story:

We want to explain each passage of the Bible in light of the Bible’s grand Story. The Bible’s grand Story, of course, connects this series to the classic expression regula fidei, the “rule of faith,” which was the Bible’s story coming to fulfillment in Jesus as the Messiah, Lord, and Savior of all.

There are three primary sections in each passage:

1. Listen to the Story. With the assumption that “the most important posture of the Christian before the Bible is to listen,” the SGBC series begins with the full text of the passage under consideration (using the 2011 New International Version). The section also includes an introduction to the passage.

2. Explain the Story. From historical background to cultural context, from theological explanation to individual word studies, here is where SGBC unpacks “a sound and living reading of the text in light of the Story of God in the Bible.”

3. Live the Story. This is the “digging deeper” into “our world” section. The commentary series is not geared for an academic audience, which allows authors to spend more time imagining 21st century applications of a passage to life. This is especially helpful for preachers and anyone wanting to know how to live out a passage they are studying.

 

“Better People” or “Better Liars”?

 

McKnight wastes no time in convicting the reader, much as the Sermon on the Mount itself does. Just before the introduction he quotes Bonhoeffer, who says of the Sermon:

Its validity depends on its being obeyed.

And here’s Dean Smith, via McKnight:

The Sermon on the Mount has a strange way of making us better people or better liars.

(Ouch! But so true.)

McKnight agrees that the incongruence “between Jesus’ vision and our life bothers many of us.” Various interpretive attempts, he suggest, have made Jesus say what he did not really say. By contrast:

There is something vital—and this is a central theme in this commentary—in letting the demand of Jesus, expressed over and over in the Sermon as imperatives or commands, stand in its rhetorical ruggedness.

Jesus intended the Sermon on the Mount as “the claim of Jesus upon our whole being.”

So you can’t just read this commentary in a detached way or use it for dry or “objective” research (as if there were such a thing!). Throughout the commentary McKnight helps the reader hear Jesus’ demanding (yet life-giving) message in resounding terms.

 

McKnight on Jesus and Ethics

 

The commentary’s introduction has a substantive (and surprisingly helpful) section called, “The Sermon and Moral Theory,” where McKnight compares “Jesus’ moral vision” to other moral theories, whether Aristotle’s virtue ethics, Kant’s categorical imperative (deontology), or Bentham and Mill’s utilitarianism.

McKnight presents Jesus’ ethics through the conjoining lenses of:

  • “Ethics from Above”—Jesus speaks as God
  • “Ethics from Beyond”—”kingdom ethics” that seek to bring “God’s future to bear on the present”
  • “Ethics from Below”—based on human “inductive observation”
  • An ethical theory that is “messianic, ecclesial, pneumatic”—in Jesus’ “messianic vocation,” he believes that “an ethic can only be lived out in community (the kingdom manifestation in the church) and through the power of the Spirit now at work.”

The introduction offers no structural outline of the Sermon on the Mount. There is just a paragraph about its structure, saying that the matter is “incapable of any kind of firm resolution.” So the omission of an outline seems deliberate, but at least something preliminary would have helped–even a Table of Contents that shows the pericope divisions/commentary chapters at a glance, which this volume lacks.

 

The Commentary Proper

 

McKnight breaks the Sermon into 23 chapters in his commentary proper (chapter 1 treats both the very first and very last verses of the Sermon on the Mount together). Each chapter prints the full biblical text (it’s nice to have everything in one place), then proceeds with the sections noted above: Listen to the Story, Explain the Story, Live the Story. His experience in teaching and ministry is obvious throughout the book, which is a refreshing balance of deep exegesis, lucid prose, and convicting application.

To look briefly at just one passage, Matthew 7:12 says:

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

McKnight writes:

Of the many ways to describe or articulate the Torah, two are pertinent in our text: one can either multiply laws so as to cover all possible situations, or one can reduce the law to its essence.

The verse, which he sets in biblical and rabbinical context, “summarizes the essence of the Sermon” (emphasis in original). And it has much to say to how we ought to live now:

But the Golden Rule is of direct value in relationships in churches. It takes but a moment’s thought to think it through: How do I want to treat others? How would I want to be treated?

*****

This is a fantastic commentary. It’s smart, well-researched, deep, engaging, challenging, and–perhaps best of all–like the Sermon it addresses, issues a clear call to righteous living according to God’s will.

 

Thanks to Zondervan Academic for the review copy, offered for the purposes of an unbiased review. Find it at Zondervan here or Amazon here.

Because I Said So

We fathers and mothers learn early on, in our roles as parents, that “Because I said so” isn’t usually enough to get a determined child to change course and listen.

It’s the same thing your parents said to you, that you swore you’d never say as a parent. At the same time, you do want your own children to know that you have authority over them, as a parent.

Whether this ends up being an effective parenting move or not, it’s difficult, especially in moments of desperation, to not just point to our own authority as parents. “I’m the dad, you’re the son, you listen.”

Jesus’ Authority–“Because I Said So”?

rublev trinityIt’s fitting that on this Father’s Day, today in the liturgical church calendar is Trinity Sunday.

The so-called Great Commission in Matthew 28 includes an appeal to baptize disciples in the three-fold name of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To be a disciple of Jesus is to enter into communion with a God who is one God, three persons. To be a disciple also means to learn Jesus’ teachings, and then pass them on to others to follow.

19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.

As many times as I’ve heard this passage, growing up in the church, I was especially struck this time around by the single word, “Therefore.” “Therefore” is a word that points ahead to what’s next in the sentence, but it also points back to something. X is true. Therefore, Y and Z.

Therefore, Jesus says, “go and make disciples.” On what basis is Jesus calling his disciples to go make more disciples, to essentially replicate themselves?

18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  19 Therefore go….

It would be easy to read this as the sort of move that fathers and mothers make when we want to try to ensure that we’re going to be obeyed.

“Because I said so….” “Because I am Jesus.…” “Because I have authority, you need to listen to me and make disciples….”

Matthew does tell us, after all, in verse 17

17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.

What’s especially disheartening about this is the fact that the sum total of disciples who are with Jesus for this important commissioning is… 11. Judas has committed suicide at this point, so they’re down a guy… they’re short-handed. And then, how many doubted? 2? 3? 5?

Maybe, since Jesus knew of their doubt, maybe he had to say, “Look–all authority has been given to me. So you need to listen to what’s next.”

Some of you grew up in an era in which our country was experiencing an allergic reaction to authority. Some of you, no matter when you were born, may recoil a bit at the very use of the word “authority,” especially when it shows up in a relational context.

I wonder, too, especially about those doubting disciples–usually for those who are doubting, second-guessing, wondering, calling into question… usually for somebody like that, an appeal to authority goes nowhere fast.

Jesus’ Authority–He Goes Before Us Through the Holy Spirit

I’m not convinced that’s what Jesus is doing here. His disciples were spiritually dim-witted at times, like we can be, but I’m not so sure he’s appealing to his authority just so that they will listen to him.

See–Jesus knows he’s about to give the disciples a tall order. He knows before he commissions the disciples, that even two thousand years later, some Christians will have a hard time with the “d”-word: discipleship. Or the “e”-word: evangelism.

Jesus has doubters in his midst, among the 11. And he’s supposed to start a worldwide missionary movement out of them!

The Mission to the World by JESUS MAFA (1973)
The Mission to the World by JESUS MAFA (1973)

Preacher and writer Tom Long puts it like this:

Telling this little band of confused and disoriented disciples that they were to herd all the peoples of the earth toward Mount Zion in the name of Jesus would be like standing in front of most congregations today—many of them small and all of them of mixed motives and uncertain convictions—and telling them, ‘Go into all the world and cure cancer, clean up the environment, evangelize the unbelieving, and, while you are at it, establish world peace.’

Long goes on:

That is the point, or close to it. The very fact that the task is utterly impossible throws the disciples completely onto the mercy and strength of God. The work of the church cannot be taken up unless it is true that “all authority” does not belong to the church or its resources but comes from God’s wild investment of God in Jesus the Son and the willingness of the Son to be present always to the church in the Spirit.

Jesus’ mention of his authority isn’t a power play–it’s an encouragement, a life-giving reminder, a move that enables his disciples to go.

Jesus’ authority has just been established by his resurrection from the dead. Alfred, Lord Tennyson once wrote, “Authority forgets a dying king.”

But Jesus was no dying king. Or, at least, he was a dying king who didn’t stay dead. He is the Risen King!

If Jesus has power over death, he has power over all of life. And if he has power over all of life, he has power and influence over all who are living. And if he has power and influence over all who are living, there is nowhere his disciples can go that he has not already been.

There is no heart that God cannot soften. There is no human being that is beyond the reach of God’s saving love in Jesus.

Jesus has authority over all people everywhere. As Ephesians would later put it, God the Father “raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.”

Because of Jesus’ authority, his power, his rule… disciples who are commissioned to draw others into the life of faith do not have to be scared to do it.

Jesus empowers his followers, by his authority, to fulfill the Great Commission.

Furthermore, after the Great Commission there is the promise of Christ’s presence:

And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

This is an upgrade. Jesus was not actually “with” the disciples “always” before he said this. He often went off by himself to pray. He didn’t engage everyone who wanted his attention. He wasn’t with the disciples always.

But now, there is this new promise, a promise we saw fulfilled in our Acts passage last week, when the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost.

Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is present with us always, and will be present always with his disciples until the end of time.

All authority is his, and he is always with us. Therefore, we can preach.

Jesus empowers us, by his authority and his presence, to fulfill the Great Commission.

Through the presence of the Holy Spirit, Jesus goes ahead of us. God works on hearts before it even occurs to us to reach out to another. If we want to use the language of “witnessing” to others about our faith, that’s fine, but only if we remember that we are really the second witness.

The Holy Spirit is the first witness, preceding us everywhere, making it possible for us to witness to the goodness of God in our own lives.

We can call to mind again the idea of evangelism and disciple-making as “one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” We ourselves are not the bread, but we know where the bread is found.

And so, undergirded, strengthened, and equipped by Jesus, we can say, “Come, taste and see. Come and see what I have found.”

Don’t Be Great, Just Have a Great Message

Jesus empowers us, by his authority and his presence, to fulfill the Great Commission. He equips us to do what he calls us to.

And we don’t have to be “great” to go out in faith to try to build a kingdom of disciples for Jesus.

It’s reported that Graeme Keith, a lifelong friend of evangelist Billy Graham and treasurer of the Billy Graham Association, was once riding in an elevator with Billy Graham. Another passenger got in and recognized Graham: “You’re Billy Graham, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” said Billy Graham.

“You’re a truly great man,” the guy said.

“No, I’m not a great man,” Graham replied, “I just have a great message.”

Great or not, courageous or not, fully comfortable with what this passage calls us to or not–we have a great message. And Jesus empowers us, by his authority and his presence, to deliver it, near and far. Because he said so–because he ultimately has authority over every living person, because he goes before us, we can go and witness to our God.

It would be daunting to share the good news of God’s love with others if we had no backup, if we were cutting a new trail. But Jesus promises to go ahead of us and walk beside us, always.

The above is adapted from the sermon I preached on Matthew 28:16-20 today. Scripture quotations above are 1984 NIV. The second image in this post is used and covered under the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial ShareAlike 3.0 License.