The Family of God

If you are familiar with the Gospels, you know that Jesus does some rather unexpected things in them, like throwing moneychangers out of the temple in Jerusalem and allowing strange women to anoint him with expensive oil. One of these things, you may have noticed, is actually something that he does not do: get married and have children. Why is this significant?

The very first thing that God says to humans (Adam and Eve) after creating them is to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”(Gen. 1:28). Essentially, God is commanding humanity to procreate, to bring forth new life. This command is then reaffirmed after Noah and his family emerge from the ark after the great flood (Gen. 8:13-19). This task to “be fruitful” is integral to human identity, being given to us even before the revelation of the Law to Moses. It is part of our purpose.

If Jesus perfectly fulfilled God’s will, why does he seem to have not fulfilled this command? Surely he could not have just disregarded it? A hint may be found in Mark where Jesus radically redefines the meaning of family, saying, “Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother”(Mk. 3:35). If true family is not defined by blood ties but mutual obedience to God, maybe Jesus also fulfilled the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” in a new way. How exactly did he do this?

Speaking of his coming crucifixion in the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself”(Jn. 12:32). In his ministry and saving death, Jesus drew in people to fulfill God’s will by faith. Those who are gathered to Jesus make up the family of the children of God (Jn. 1:12-13). There is a powerful concrete moment of how this redefinition of family works while Jesus is on the cross itself: “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home”(Jn. 19:26-27). Jesus’ mother was losing her beloved son before her very eyes, and Christ’s disciple was losing his beloved teacher, but they were given a new bond with each other through the very crucifixion they were witnessing. These two, not related by blood, but among the first to be gathered to Christ, experienced the fruits of the mutual love that comes from being in the family of those who do the will of God.

Jesus certainly fulfilled the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” by gathering the family of the saints, greater than all others since it will receive the inheritance of eternal life. This family, which we know as the church, is spread all over the earth, and continues to grow as Christ reigns in heaven and continues to gather God’s children to himself.

When we encounter our fellow believers then, it benefits us to remember that we do not simply share some common beliefs, but we share in something even more binding than family ties: the blood of Christ himself. The very life of us all is bound up in the mercy of our heavenly Father and the saving death and resurrection of Christ. When we consider our brothers and sisters in the faith in this way, as our siblings in the faith, how much love and forgiveness will we be able to extend to them! We are truly blessed to have God as our Father, who we may enjoy forever with the entire family of God.

A Controversial Healing

Luke 6:6-11: On another Sabbath, [Jesus] entered the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was withered. And the scribes and the Pharisees watched him, to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might find a reason to accuse him. But he knew their thoughts, and he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” And he rose and stood there. And Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” And after looking around at them all he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” And he did so, and his hand was restored. But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.

In this story, we witness Jesus breaking the rules. There is an electrifying tension in the air as Jesus faces off with the Pharisees over a man with a withered hand. It may seem like madness to us that Jesus is criticized and fills people with fury over miraculously healing someone, but Jesus has done a very wrong thing here in the eyes of the Pharisees.

Underlying this face-off is really a dispute about the Sabbath. Deuteronomy 5:12-15 stipulates concerning the weekly Sabbath day that “On it you shall not do any work”(Deut. 5:14). This was well and good, but a question still remained: what exactly constituted “work”? The school of the Pharisees, to make sure that they did not violate the Sabbath, observed a large number of traditional rules that gave specific instances of what work was and was not. In following these guidelines, a person could refrain from “working” and be certain that he/she was not be breaking the Sabbath. This may be one reason why the Pharisees were popular teachers: they made the Law of Moses simple to follow.

In this story, however, we see a dark side of the Pharisees’s teaching. Their rules, designed to better help people follow the Law, were becoming more important than the heart of the Law itself, causing people to lose track of what the real purpose of the rules were in the first place. With this magnified sense of the importance of their own teachings, the Pharisees were watching Jesus’ encounter with the man with the withered hand. If Jesus were to break a rule followed by the Pharisees, it would be as bad as if he had broken the Law of Moses itself.

According to the guidelines, it was considered “work” to perform a healing on the Sabbath. The only exception to this rule was if someone’s life was in danger. Jesus knew this, but he still blatantly healed the man before him. For the Pharisees, Jesus had clearly broken the Sabbath. The man with the withered hand would not have died that day from his disability. Let us not try to decide in this instance whether Jesus actually broke the Sabbath, or only did so in the eyes of the Pharisees. If Jesus really has done “work” to heal this man on the Sabbath, what kind of statement is that making?

By having a withered hand, this man could not fully function in his community. It would have been difficult for him to work and do everyday tasks, enabling to support himself and a family. Jesus restored this man’s hand so that he could experience the fullness of life. In effect, this is Jesus’ way of saying that, while not literally dying, anyone who is not experiencing the fullness of life is not really living at all. Therefore, healing this man was truly a matter of life and death.

Imagine how this message has rung through the ages until it has reached us today. Matters of life and death are not constrained to hospitals, but in any place where people are kept from experiencing the fullness of life. If we are to imitate Christ, we ought to go out to heal those suffering from this lack, and show those in seemingly helpless situations the fullness of life that is only found in Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God. How will you respond when to Jesus’ question: “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?”

The Crucifixion: A Defeat or a Victory?

Mark 15:22-39: “And they brought him to the place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. And they crucified him and divided his garments among them, to decide what each should take. And it was the third hour when they crucified him. And the inscription of the charge against him read, ‘The King of the Jews.’ And with him they crucified two robbers, one on his right and one on his left. And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!’ So also the chief priests with the scribes mocked him to one another, saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.’ Those who were crucified with him also reviled him.

“And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ And some of the bystanders hearing it said, ‘Behold, he is calling Elijah.’ And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.’ And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’

 

Reading the account of Jesus’ death in Mark can be, frankly, a little disappointing and disorienting after his high-impact ministry of teaching and miracles. It would have been a great moment for Mark to show us Jesus trusting in his Father with all his might, encouraging his disciples to have faith in his coming resurrection. But that’s not what we get. In a brutal scene, forsaken by his apostles, Jesus dies lamenting that God had abandoned him. What is this supposed to teach us? Did God really abandon His Son on the cross?

Typical for Mark’s style, there is more depth to this passage than we can see in a cursory reading. Underneath the surface, he is making a bold, hopeful statement: Jesus really is the king of Israel and the Son of God. The question is, how do we see this deeper meaning?

Understanding Mark here requires us to look back at the Old Testament, from which he is drawing. Specifically, he is taking many images from one of the Psalms. Many of the people who were the original readers of this gospel would have been very familiar with the Psalms of their beloved king David, and they would have quickly seen beyond the surface meaning of this passage into its deeper sense.

The key to the entire passage comes in verse 34, when Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Believe it or not, this is more than a desperate cry for help. Jesus is quoting the first line of Psalm 22. When we look at this psalm, and how Mark is using it here, we see that the message is quite different than it first appears to be. (I invite you to read the entire psalm to get a sense of the overall context.)

Let us look at some more important parallels between this crucifixion account and the 22nd psalm. Verse 7 reads, “All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads.” Look now to Mark 15:29a, 31a: “And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads . . . So also the chief priests with the scribes mocked him to one another.”

Next look at verses 16-18 of the psalm: “For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet – I can count all my bones – they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” Then, Mark 15:24: “And they crucified him and divided his garments among them, casting lots for them, to decide what each should take.”

Do you see the similar imagery? Mark is seeing the fulfillment of psalm 22 in the death of Christ. He isn’t the only one to see it, either. The author of the letter to the Hebrews also points this out in Hebrews 2:8b-12: “Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

“For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying (here quoting Psalm 22:22),

‘I will tell you your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.’”

Our next question is: why is Mark using this imagery from the Psalm? Mark uses it to make two bold statements. First, Jesus Christ is indeed the Messiah king that everyone has been waiting for, a king worthy of as much and more honor than king David, the author of the Psalm. Linking Jesus to king David through the Psalm makes the claim that Jesus is the rightful king of Israel. Ironically in the account, the inscription put up on Jesus’ cross, mockingly labeling him as the “King of the Jews,” is entirely true.

Second, far from describing a Jesus in despair, Mark’s description of the crucifixion is a profound message of hope. With the lens of Psalm 22, we can see Mark’s interpretation of this event. In the Psalm, despite David’s dire situation, he trusts in God to save him. Out of his predicament, the psalmist says to God, “Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame”(Psalm 22:3-5). Mark is telling us that despite his being nailed to a cross, Jesus, like David, remembers how God saved his ancestors, and continues to put his faith in Him. Christ’s cry at the end of his life is a cry of anguish, but it is also an expression of his perfect trust in his Father.

The Psalm actually comes to a triumphant note: “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. For kingship belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations”(Psalm 22:27-28).

In expressing the fulfillment of this Psalm in Christ, Mark is boldly declaring that the time is coming when God will be king over all the nations, not just Israel. And, as we have seen, if Jesus is being declared a king here, then he is boldly being declared to be the LORD God Himself.

Even though in this passage Jesus appears helpless and conquered by his enemies, in actuality this is his victory over evil and death, and the declaration of his kingship over the nations. Here is the full extent of what Jesus meant when he said, “’And whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’”(Mark 10:44-45).

Returning again to Hebrew’s, this passage is an example of that author’s message: “At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of god he might taste death for everyone”(Hebrews 8b-9). Even though we do not yet see the world in subjection to Christ, and the world appears grim like in Mark’s account of the crucifixion, just under the surface we see that Christ has died so that we may have eternal life and he is reigning with the Father.

The closing words of Psalm 22 look toward the future, saying of Christ, “Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation; they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it.”

In the end, Mark’s message is simple. Even in the darkest and most distressing situations, Christ is king and Lord, and will deliver us from all evil.

Mark vs. the False Witnesses

How much trust do you put in your Bible and what it teaches? For centuries now, skeptics of Christianity have been producing reasons why the Bible’s teachings should be doubted. These arguments, still being made today, are constantly being reformulated and shuffled into new variations, but they all boil down to the common theme that the scriptures should never be taken at face value. Today (believe it or not), even some Christian scholars and pastors are making similar claims.

Perhaps you have encountered some of these ideas. Here are some examples. Some say that we should not take the claims of the scriptures at face value, but rather approach them with a healthy dose of skepticism, since, after all, they were written in such a different time and place. We in the modern world have a lot of knowledge that the Biblical authors were ignorant of, and therefore our knowledge should temper and even trump their teachings.

There is also the argument that the Bible is so vague that there cannot possibly be one correct interpretation. Everyone is entitled to create an interpretation for themselves.

Some teachers would also have us believe that the various authors of the New Testament irreconcilably contradict each other, showing that the early church disagreed even about basic things like who Jesus was. In this line of thought, it is believed that the different books of the New Testament were forced into one collection by the church later on in history, and then invented a theology to help smooth over the contradictions. While these ideas are each different, they are all opposed to the idea that the Bible teaches a single, clear, authoritative message about true events that informs our lives here and now.

Even if we put great trust in the scriptures, all these assertions from many different angles can tempt us to second guess ourselves, and to cast doubt on the authority of God’s Word. What ought we to make of all these ideas? Who should we listen to?

Well, for starters, we can look to the Biblical authors themselves. The scriptures actually provide for themselves a defense against arguments such as these. Take a look at Mark 14:55-62:

“Now the chief priests and the whole council were seeking testimony against Jesus to put him to death, but they found none. For many bore false witness against him, but their testimony did not agree. And some stood up and bore false witness against him, saying, ‘We heard him say, “I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.”’ Yet even about this their testimony did not agree. And the high priest stood up in the midst and asked Jesus, ‘Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?’ But he remained silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?’ And Jesus said, ‘I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.’”

Here we see Jesus coming under fire in a way similar to that which the reliability of the Bible is today. After his arrest, he was put on trial before the priestly council in Jerusalem. Lots of people came, trying very hard to come up with an accusation that would discredit and destroy Jesus. Many accusations were made, but they were all full of holes.

Mark tells us that these accusers were giving false witness against Jesus. This is a significant judgment, revealing not only that Mark judged these people to have misunderstood Jesus, but also that his own account of Jesus is a true and accurate witness. Mark is implicitly asking us to trust his account and understanding of Jesus as the authentic one. But how do we know that Mark can be trusted, and he is not just as misled as the false witnesses?

One way is by using one of Mark’s own criterion for the reliability of a testimony: that multiple witnesses share the same story and interpretation. Mark actually provides for us a specific example for us to test this: the things that Jesus said about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. If what Mark says about it is true, we could expect that others writing on the topic would share his story and interpretation, so let us explore this.

First, let’s look at how Mark represents the false witnesses, and how they say the event occurred. “And some stood up and bore false witness against [Jesus], saying, ‘We heard him say, “I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands”’”(Mark 14:57-58).

Contrast this with what Mark claims to be the true story of what happened: “And as [Jesus] came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down’”(Mark 13:1-2). Jesus never threatened to destroy the temple, but he did foretell its destruction, so we can see how a false witness could come to tell a corrupted version of what Jesus actually said.

The gospel of Matthew also contains an account of this story: “Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, ‘You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down’”(Matthew 24:1-2). Clearly, this is a corroboration with Mark’s account.

Not only does he agree with Mark, but Matthew cites the same example of how this statement was twisted in a false accusation against Jesus: “Now the chief priest and the whole council were seeking false testimony against Jesus that they might put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward and said, ‘This man said, “I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to rebuild it in three days”’”(Matthew 26:59-61). This is a weighty and striking agreement, especially in contrast to the false witnesses, none of which could agree.

Now, let’s look at what Luke wrote about this: “And while some were speaking of the temple, how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings, [Jesus] said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down’”(Luke 21:5-6). As opposed to the contradictory testimony of Jesus’ false accusers, these three gospels present a unified story about what he said.

And finally, let us ask the question of how exactly Jesus’ statement about the temple got twisted in the way it did. This distortion could easily have come from a misunderstood teaching of Jesus that is recorded in John’s gospel. The context is right after Jesus had driven the merchants out of the temple. “The Jews said to [Jesus], ‘What sign do you show us for doing these things?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ the Jews then said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken”(John 2:18-22).

So, without asking for clarification, Jesus’ questioners simply assumed that they understood him, leading to the false accusations that Mark and Matthew recorded. Taken together, far from being contradictory here, the four gospels not only affirm a true account of Jesus’ teachings, but describe the same particular twisting of those teachings by his enemies. Not only do the gospels present the same picture of Christ, they are united against the same opponent.

While these agreements cannot quite be used as an argument regarding the trustworthiness of the gospels, it certainly adds weight to the truth of their claims. While the gospels may not agree perfectly on every point, they often complement each other, and certainly do not oppose and contradict each other.

What can we say now about the assertion that we should not take the scriptures at face value? Clearly, Mark is inviting us to trust his account as being the actual facts and true interpretation of Jesus’ life and teachings. Who ought we to trust: the Biblical authors asking us to take them at their word, or the scholars and pastors asking us to take the Bible with a grain of salt?

If it hasn’t been clear already, I contend that the the authors of the Bible should be taken at their word, even over and against modern authorities. This account regarding Jesus’ foretelling of the temple’s destruction is just one example of how the Word commends itself to readers as a trustworthy book. In today’s world, there are parallels to this account. The four gospels still agree in their teachings, even while those arguing against the reliability of scripture disagree widely. Where will you place your trust?

The “Wasteful” Woman

Mark 14:3-9: And while [Jesus] was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”

 

To my mind, this story is asking us to consider our values as Christians. It reveals a conflict of priorities which Jesus places in a proper perspective. As we read this story I invite us to ask: What ought we to value highly, and how does that influence the way we live?

As the story begins, we find Jesus resting at Simon’s home, where an anonymous woman anoints him with some very expensive ointment. Unless she is very wealthy, which seems unlikely, considering she is the guest of a leper, her acquisition of this ointment had probably taken years of saving. This is a substance which only had practical use for the very rich and for kings. And she takes it and uses it all on a poor man from Nazareth. It is gone in a moment. Clearly, she thought that this was a good use for it, but the other guests in the house thought otherwise.

They start muttering to each other under their breath. How can this woman be so wasteful? Why would she pour this out on Jesus when it would obviously have been better to trade it for money to give to the poor? How can she live with herself knowing there are starving people on the street? Then they lay all these criticisms on her.

But Jesus has a different opinion. He doesn’t have any problem with the woman’s action; in fact, he commends it. He reasons with the guests that “’You always have the poor with you. . . but you will not always have me.’”

Jesus is implying that spending great wealth simply to give him honor in this moment is more important than helping the poor. Does Jesus really think that he is more important than helping people in need? Has Jesus become vain in his popularity? Is Jesus merely praising the woman because she has fed his pride as a miracle worker?

This might cast a bad light on Jesus, except for one critical truth which transforms how we see the world. Jesus is the Son of God, who was very soon to die for the salvation of the world and reign with power in heaven. This woman is seemingly the only one in the room who recognizes Jesus for who he truly is, and she honors him by giving him a burial ointment fit for a king, acknowledging him as her savior who dies for her, and as the king of heaven and earth. Far from being wasteful, this woman is the only one to give Jesus the honor and thanks that was really due him. For this, Jesus proclaims that she would be remembered for her gesture wherever the gospel is preached.

So, with Christ’s high praise of this gesture, why ought we to remember this story today? I think it can be observed that the conflict between the woman and the other house guests is still going on in the church today, and this story can help us move towards a proper orientation of how we view Christ and serve him.

Have you ever heard anyone express a negative opinion about a church for not focusing on the “right” kinds of ministry, like for being too oriented on spiritual matters? For example, a church may be criticized for not doing enough in its community, like helping the poor or supporting various causes. Many of these churches are instead more focused on sharing the gospel with others, and teach and preach with no greater end than to bring church members into deeper personal fellowship with Christ. Conversely, these churches may accuse their critics of being too focused on life here and now, and of having missed the central message of the gospel.

How does scripture sort out these mutual accusations? As can be seen in the house guests in this story, there clearly is a danger of becoming so focused on doing good works that Christ himself is overlooked even if he is present in the very same room! As much good as it does to care for the needy here and now, proclaiming and living out the message of forgiveness of sins in Christ, reconciliation with the Father, and the life to come is a greater good that ought to not be neglected.

We have seen that the woman’s “wasteful” gesture with the ointment was not wasteful at all to Jesus, but rather a beautiful and honoring confession of him as God’s Son and her king. Even in a life full of good works, it is important to keep Christ Jesus and salvation in him central.

On the other hand, focus on Christ and spiritual health should not be to the neglect of good works. Jesus assumes that when he is no longer present with his disciples, they will help the poor. Indeed, a necessary consequence of faith in Christ is a desire to serve him and our neighbors with good works. Or as James puts it in his epistle, “Faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26b).

Jesus’ point in this story concerns our perspective and priorities, and how they affect the way we live out our lives. Like the anonymous woman, we are to worship God as our king in costly ways that honor Him alone and deepen our faith, but we are also to serve Him by sharing the gospel and doing things to help the needy in their lives here and now. In that way, I hope that the anonymous woman’s deed continues to live on in the memory of the church.