What to look out for in Mark’s Gospel

Mark's Gospel coverIn the run up to Easter this year we produced special copies of Mark’s Gospel with the testimonies of people in our church. The idea was to encourage the congregation to invite their friends to read the Gospel with them. I wrote a section entitled ‘What To Look Out For’ to help orient readers to the Gospel.

Early on in Mark’s Gospel people ask ‘Who is this?’ (4:41) That’s the big question in Mark’s Gospel: Who is Jesus and what has he come to do?

The King who must die

Mark’s Gospel begins: ‘The beginning of the gospel about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.’ Mark makes two claims for Jesus. He says Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God. The Messiah or Christ means ‘the anointed One’. The kings of Israel were anointed with oil. So ‘the anointed One’ is God’s promised King. Messiah or Christ is not a surname, but a job description.

The first half of Mark’s Gospel is full of evidence that Jesus is the Messiah. Look out for descriptions of his authority. This comes to a climax at the end of chapter 8 when his followers finally declare: ‘You are the Messiah’ (8:29).

As soon as this happens, Jesus says he must die. This is not what the Jews expected God’s Messiah would do! They expected him to defeat the Romans and restore the nation of Israel. So the second half of Mark’s Gospel is about how Jesus must die and what it means to follow him. It comes to a climax when a Roman soldier declares Jesus to be the Son of God – the second half of Mark’s opening description of Jesus. But the soldier says this as he watches Jesus die (15:39).

So Mark’s Gospel is in two halves. Part one (chapters 1-8) show that Jesus is the Messiah, God’s promised King. Part two (chapters 9-16) show why Jesus must die.

Secrets and silences

The Jews expected God’s king and God’s kingdom to come in power and glory. In some ways Jesus fits the bill. In chapters 1-2 he appears to have great power. But in other ways he’s a disappointment. In chapters 2-3 he’s opposed and rejected. Is this the kingdom of God or not? Jesus responds in chapter 4 by telling some ‘parables’ – stories that illustrate the truth. He says that one day the kingdom of God will come in power. But first he has come in a secret way. Before God conquers the world, he first offers peace.

A number of times Jesus tells people not to talk about who he is (1:25; 3:12; 8:30; 9:9). At first sight this is a bit odd because Jesus makes preaching his priority (1:38). But Jesus does not want people proclaiming him as King until they realise he is the King who must die. So look out for references to secrets or Jesus telling people not to talk about him yet.

Sight and insight

Mark often uses physical sight or blindness as a picture of spiritual insight or blindness. The kingdom is present in a secret way so not everyone sees it (4:11-12). He says to his followers: ‘Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?’ (8:18) He heals people who are physically blind to show how he gives insight to people who are spiritually blind (8:17-29; 10:35-52). So look out for references to seeing and blindness.

Fear and faith

Mark often presents two alternative responses to Jesus: fear and faith. At one point, for example, Jesus says: ‘Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?’ (Mark 4:40) If you turn to the end of Mark’s Gospel you’ll notice that there an extra section that was probably not part of Mark’s original version. It seems people found Mark’s ending a bit abrupt so they decided to ‘finish’ it off by adding some more. But Mark’s ending perfectly concludes this theme of fear and faith. He finishes: ‘Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.’ (16:8) At the end we and the women are left with a choice between fear and faith.

Who is this?

Above all look at Jesus. As we’ve said, the big question in Mark’s Gospel: Who is Jesus and what has he come to do? As you read each section, we invite you to ask yourself:

  • Who is Jesus?
  • What has Jesus come to do?
  • How do people respond to him?
  • How do I respond to him?

I’ve written two Bible study guides to Mark’s Gospel which are available here in the UK from ThinkIVP and here in the US from Amazon.

Continue reading

Arguing with temptation

The Puritan John Flavel identified six arguments which Satan uses to tempt as long with model responses. Here I’ve abridged and updated what Flavel says. See if you can spot the voice of temptation in your life and identify how you should respond.


  1. The pleasure of sin

Temptation: Look at my smiling face and listen to my charming voice. Here is pleasure to be enjoyed. Who can stay away from such delights?

The believer: The pleasures of sin are real, but so are the pangs of conscience and the flames of hell. The pleasures of sin are real, but pleasing God is much sweeter.


  1. The secrecy of sin

Temptation: This sin will never disgrace you in public because no-one will ever find out.

The believer: Can you find somewhere without the presence of God for me to sin?


  1. The profit of sin

Temptation: If you just stretch your conscience a little, you’ll gain so much. This is your opportunity.

The believer: What do I benefit if I gain the whole world but lose my own soul? I won’t risk my soul for all the good in this world.


  1. The smallness of sin

Temptation: It’s only a little thing, a small matter, a trifle. Who else would worry about such a trivial thing?

The believer: Is the majesty of heaven a small matter too? If I commit this sin, I will offend and wrong a great God. Is there any little hell to torment little sinners? Great wrath awaits those the world thinks are little sinners. The less the sin, the less the reason to commit it! Why should I be unfaithful towards God for such a trifle?


  1. The grace of God

Temptation: God will pass over this as a weakness. He won’t make a big deal of it.

The believer: Where do I find a promise of mercy to presumptuous sinners? How can I abuse such a good God? Shall I take God’s glorious mercy and make it a reason to sin? Shall I wrong him because he’s good?


  1. The example of others

Temptation: Better people than you have sinned in this way. And plenty of people have been restored after committing this sin.

The believer: God didn’t record the examples of good people sinning for me to copy, but to warn me. Am I willing to feel what they felt for sin? I dare not follow their example in case God plunges me into the deeps of horror he cast them.


Adapted from John Flavel, Keeping the Heart, Christian Heritage, 116-121, or ‘A Saint Indeed,’ Works Vol. 5 Banner of Truth, 477-480. Keeping the Heart is available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

Continue reading

Mission Matters commendations

Here are some of the commendations for my book Mission Matters: Love Says Go which is an introduction to world mission.

‘If you want to fire up your church with a vision for global mission, this is your book! … It should carry a spiritual health warning.’ – David Coffey OBE, Global Ambassador for BMS World Mission

‘For years, I have been looking for a short, approachable book which would give a thorough introduction to the biblical, theological and practical aspects of mission, something to help people understand why we do mission and what some of the key issues are. I’ve just found that book and will be recommending it very widely indeed!’ – Eddie Arthur, mission blogger and Director for Strategic Initiatives for Global Connections; Former Executive Director of Wycliffe Bible Translators

‘Many are telling us that the day of global mission is over: the needs ‘at home’ are so overwhelming, and the dangers so great, that God cannot want us ‘to go’ as he did in the past. But God does care, and he still wants us to care with his compassion for a world of need. I am sure this book will provoke many people to respond to the challenge, as they realize that there are still thousands waiting to be introduced to the Saviour who alone saves and cares.’ – Dr Helen Roseveare, missionary, speaker and author

‘Easy to read, clear, practical and challenging, this excellent book explores the great story of the mission of the Trinity in Scripture and gives a thrilling account of how it has been weaved into the story of the Keswick Convention.’ – John Risbridger, Chair Keswick Ministries, Minister and Team Leader Above Bar Church, Southampton


ThinkIVP are offering a special offer for readers of my blog. If you buy it through these links then you can enjoy £3 off the book and £4 off the eBook. It looks like it will also be available in US here from amazon.com, but it can’t be pre-ordered yet.

How do I know I’ve received the Spirit?

I was recently asked, “How do I know I’ve received the Holy Spirit? How long does it take?”

Here’s my reply.

The big question you have to ask yourself is this. Do I believe in Jesus? For Romans 8:9 says everyone who belongs to Christ has the Spirit. Indeed no-one puts their faith in Jesus without the Spirit opening their eyes to his glory. So the first and biggest sign of the Spirit is faith in Christ.
Here’s a second question. Do you pray? For Romans 8:15-16 says everyone who calls on God as Father does so through the Spirit. Without the Spirit, pray feels like talking to the ceiling. It is the Spirit who assures us that God is a Father who is willing and able to hear our prayers. So the second main sign of the Spirit in our lives meaningful prayer to God as our Father.
Sometimes the Spirit does dramatic things in our lives. But these are not the norm. Nor are they the most reliable signs of the Spirit’s work. The key signs are faith in Christ and prayer to the Father.
Who on Earth Is the Holy Spirit? by myself and Christopher de la Hoyde is available in the UK from thinkivp.com and in the US from thegoodbook.com.
Continue reading

Special offer on Mission Matters

My latest book, Mission Matters: Love Says Go, is published today by IVP. It’s a popular-level introduction to world mission and is part of Foundations Series of the Keswick Convention.

ThinkIVP are offering a special offer for readers of my blog. If you buy it through these links then you can enjoy £3 off the book and £4 off the eBook.

It looks like it will also be available in US here from amazon.com, but it can’t be pre-ordered yet.

Here’s the contents:

Part one: The God of mission
1. In the love of the Father
2. In the name of the Son
3. In the power of the Spirit

Part two: The story of mission
4. A promise for the nations
5. The hope of the nations

Part three: The who, what and where of mission
6. Everyone, with the church at its heart
7. Everything, with proclamation at the centre
8. Everywhere, with the unreached as the priority

Part four: The challenges of mission
9. The cultural challenge
10. The personal challenge
11. A big ambition and a big God

Continue reading

Justification and Busyness

Perhaps the biggest reason why people are too busy is that they are trying to prove themselves. Busyness has become a mark of honour in our culture.

Think about how we use the word ‘busy’. Take an expression like ‘I’m a very busy man.’ what does it mean? It doesn’t mean: ‘My life’s out of control.’ It means ‘I’m a very important person – you should show me some respect.’ And technology is the badge we wear our busyness on. We have our mobiles phones and laptops so that people know we are busy, we are important, we are indispensable, people need us, we matter.

It didn’t used to be like this. The Greeks and Romans despised work. Work was for slaves. The cultured classes were the leisured classes. and in the medieval church the really spiritual people were the contemplatives who didn’t work. Work was for lay monks. Or work humbled you – but it only humbled you because it was undignified.

What changed all this was the Reformation. In the Reformation worldview, you glorified God and served other people through your work. And so people blame our over-work culture on the Protestant work ethic. But in Reformation thought you work for the glory of God. And you also rest for the glory of God. You find your identity in knowing and serving God. The problem is the secularisation of the Protestant work ethic. Secularism takes out the God-bit. Now work has become an end in itself. People find identity and fulfilment through work itself. And so no wonder we work so hard – it is our salvation; it is what will give us meaning and identity. No wonder we are busy, busy, busy.

And into this frenzy Jesus says: ‘Come to me … and find rest.’ We have good news for our busy culture. Proving yourself is just another term for justifying yourself. And we have good news of justification by grace.

Gospel ministers are not immune from this. We too are often busy because we want to prove ourselves – to God, to other people, to ourselves. We are busy because we don’t believe in the grace of God. We can preach justification by grace, for example. But all the time we are practicing justification by preaching, seeking identify in the success of our sermons.

At the first ever management course I went on, they told us: ‘If you tell people you are busy what they will hear is “I don’t have time for you.”’ And it’s true in church life. If you tell people you are busy, they won’t come to you with their problems.

So what do you tell people you’re busy? What are you trying to communicate? ‘I’m doing a good job, I’m worth my pay, I’m important, I matter, you should admire me, you should value me.’

I have a friend who used to be a senior management in a well known Christian organisation. He used to see the time sheets that the workers produced. He told me that they varied hugely. Some people were working twice as much as others. But, he said, the over-workers were the most insecure people in the organisation. They were busy because they were trying to prove themselves.

If you are busy trying to prove yourself then you will always be busy. You will never get the job done – because you can’t prove yourself. You will be like a dog chasing its tail.

Jesus cried on the cross: ‘It is finished’. The job is done. The task is complete. There is full atonement. There is nothing left for you to do. Here’s what you need to do about your busyness: nothing; everything has already been done.

This post is adapted form Tim Chester, The Busy Christians Guide to Busyness, IVP which is available from Amazon.com and ThinkIVP.

Continue reading

Review: Paul Rainbow on Johannine Theology

A review of Paul A. Rainbow, Johannine Theology: The Gospel, The Epistles and the Apocalypse, IVP/Apollos, 2014.

Available here from amazon.com and thinkivp.

I’ve been dipping to Johannine Theology, a new book by Paul Rainbow, Professor of New Testament at Sioux Falls Seminary. Its distinctive contribution is its attempt to create synthesis of John’s theology based on John’s Gospel, the Johannine Epistles and the book of Revelation. This, of course, presupposes that the book of Revelation was written by the Apostle John which is rarely accepted in modern New Testament scholarship. But Rainbow makes a strong cases in the introduction (42-51). He is especially good on the linguistic links across the Johannine corpus and the reasons for any variations.

The synthesis is organised “according to the relationship among the divine persons (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) and the world made up of its various constituents.” (28)

The result is an impressive piece of scholarship. The footnotes reflect a thorough interaction with secondary literature, but these rarely intrudes into the main argument.

It does, however, a feel a little like a pick and mix approach. At no point did I really feel the book gave me a handle on the main message or argument of any of the books under consideration. We are not shown how key themes unfold through the argument of individual books or the Johannine corpus as a whole. I realise Rainbow is attempting a synchronic synthesis, but I’m not persuaded this can be done in isolation from a diachronic synthesis. At times it feels like points are made and then proof-texted. We preached last year through 1 John and the structure of the Epistle is so important to its message. I came to Johannine Theology with particular interest in the book of Revelation because of work I’m currently doing on the book and was disappointed that it added to my understanding. Revelation, more than most New Testament books, requires some sense of how it works as a book before you can distil its theology. Yet, for example, the meaning of the millennium is only dealt with in a footnote (320-321). Perhaps as a result of this, the conclusions are weak. It would be hard to claim they include any distinctive correctives to evangelical theology or lead to clear practical implications or grip the imagination.

Although the introductory material makes of the synthesis across the Johannine corpus, the focus is on the Gospel. Moreover interaction with the book of Revelation focuses on the beginning and the end of the book plus one or two other familiar passages. This, at least, was my hunch reading the book. It appears to be borne out in the index. The Gospel has four times as many entries as the book of Revelation and the five chapters of the First Epistle have one and half as many entries as the 22 chapters of Revelation. And there are no entries at all for chapters 15-19 of Revelation. But then there are no entries for Revelation 2-3 or 14 which are often referenced in the text. So something appears to have gone badly wrong with the indexing.

These disappointments aside, Johannine Theology is a great achievement. There is much to mine here. Rainbow is particularly interesting on the inter-Trinitarian relationships. I’ll leave you with the following quotes.

‘We are not to envisage an act of generation in time like a human birth, bringing the Son into being out of nonexistence. Rather, to have life in oneself, to be characterized by aseity, has been “granted” to the Son by the Father (Jn. 5:26).’ (101)

‘To be θεός, to have life in oneself, belongs to God alone. It belongs to both the Father and the Son, but it belongs to the Father intrinsically and to the Son by gift. Aseity is of the Father, and he communicates it to the Son.’ (102)

The three persons have one point of origin, the Father. Deity is the intrinsic property of the Father (Jn. 17:3; 1 Jn. 5:20; Apoc. 15:4), who stands alone as the “begetter” of the Son (Jn 1:14, 18; 1 Jn 5:18) and as the one from whom ultimately the Spirit proceeds.’ (255)

‘The three exist in a harmonious union of love facilitated by the Holy Spirit. Insofar as the Son is differentiated from the Father, their difference is bridged by the Spirit, who is the agent of intersubjectivity. Since Father and Son must cooperate in granting to the Spirit to have life in himself, the very donation of self-existence to the Spirit establish a bond between the first two … In giving the Spirit to the Son without measure, the Father expresses his supreme love for the Son, and in receiving the Spirit, the Son expresses his love for the Father, cementing the relationship (Jn. 3:34-35).’ (256)

Continue reading

Rosner on Paul and the law

Here’s a brief summary of the central argument in Brian Rosner’s very helpful book on the law in Pauline theology.

Brian S. Rosner, Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God, Apollos/InterVarsity, 2013 (available here from amazon.com and thinkivp).

Paul and the law is a complex issue because Paul makes apparently contradictory statements about the law: sometimes involving negative critique or suggesting the law is abolished (e.g. Ephesians 2:15) and sometimes involving positive approval (either implicitly as in Ephesians 6:1-2 or explicitly as in Romans 3:31).

The three main positions are:

The Lutheran View: Christ abolished the law and the law is the counterpoint to the gospel, showing us our need and driving us to Christ.

The Reformed View: We are saved by grace, not by obeying the law, but once saved we obey the moral law to please God.

The New Perspective: Paul opposes the use of the law to exclude Gentiles from the people of God.

Part of the problem is that Paul uses the term ‘law’ in more than one sense. He clearly uses it to mean the legal system or legal material of the Pentateuch. But he also uses it to refer to the Torah, the first five books of the Bible (including the narrative passages).

So, following Donald Hagner, Rosner distinguishes between ‘law as commandments’ and ‘law as Scripture’.

In Galatians 4:21, for example, Paul uses law both negatively and positively: ‘Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says?’ This is best understand as follows: ‘you who want to be under the law-as-commandments, are you not aware of what the law-as-Scripture says?’

Rosner then considers 1 Corinthians 7:19: ‘Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts.’ ‘Keeping God’s commands’ cannot means keeping the law of Moses because Paul has just said the Mosaic law of circumcision is nothing. The tripartite division of the Mosaic law into civil, ceremonial and moral law (the latter of which is said to continue for Christians) is not a solution. First, it is an anachronistic imposition that would not be recognized in the law’s original context of a theocratic state. Second, many laws defy such classification. Third, it does not do justice to Paul’s unqualified statements about the end of the law (in other words, he never says Christ abolishes the law except the moral portions). So ‘keeping God’s commands’ must refer to something else. This is born out in other passages where a repudiation of circumcision is matched by the substitution of an alternative (Galatians 5:6; 6:15). 1 Corinthians 7:19 is not a paradox, but a polemic. Instead of obeying the law of Moses, what matters is keeping the commandments of God which are implicit in the gospel as laid out in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 14:37) and elsewhere.

Paul does three things with the law and each one must be fully heard without prejudicing the others: (1) polemical repudiation; (2) radical replacements; and (3) whole-hearted reappropriation (in two ways). These respectively correspond to treating the law as legal code, theological motif and source for expounding the gospel and for doing ethics. (39)

In 1 Corinthians 7:19 the law as legal code is repudiated (‘circumcision is nothing’) and replaced by the commands of God, that is, apostolic instruction (‘keeping God’s commands’). We see the same pattern in 1 Corinthians 9:21: ‘To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.’ We also see reappropriation as prophecy in 1 Corinthians 8:5-6 and reappropriation as wisdom in 1 Corinthians 5:13 and 9:24.

Evidently, Paul does not think his utter repudiation and radical replacement of the Law of Moses entails its complete redundancy. The question to ask in these cases is not which bits of the law are still useful, but in what sense is the law valuable for Christians. In short, Christians are instructed by the law, but not as Jewish law. Instead, Paul models reading the Law of Moses as prophecy and as wisdom. (40-41)

In his letter Paul undertakes a polemical rereading of the Law of Moses, which involves not only a repudiation and rejection of the law as ‘law-covenant’ and its replacements by other things, but also a reappropriation of the law ‘as prophecy’ and ‘as wisdom’. (44)

In summary Paul’s approach to the law of Moses includes:

  • repudiation
  • replacement
  • reappropriation as prophecy
  • reappropriation as wisdom

Paul and the Law is available here from amazon.com and thinkivp.

Continue reading

Marcus Peter Johnson on adoption

Marcus Peter Johnson has some helpful comments on adoption in his book One with Christ which I recently reviewed.

‘The term translated “adoption” in the New Testament is unique to Paul’s letters. The Greek term is huiothesia, which Paul uses five times (Rom. 8:15; 9:4; Gal. 4:5; Eph. 1:5). It is a compound of huios (“son”) and thesis (“placing”), and could be literally rendered “placed as sons,” although there is some disagreement among biblical scholars about how best to translate it.’ (157)

‘There may indeed be some merit in attempting to understand Paul’s use of huiothesia against the cultural-linguistic backdrop of his day, but there is compelling reason to think that his use of the term was influenced far more my theological considerations than cultural ones. In other words. when Paul speaks of Christians as “placed as son,” he has at the forefront of his mind our being place in the Son, Jesus Christ.’ (157)

‘As such, Paul is not “reaching” for cultural analogies as conceptual bridges to explain what it means that we are adopted by God; rather, he is working with a more basic theological notion: the Father-son relationship that is intrinsic to God’s own being, and which we come to share by incorporation into Christ.’ (157)

The fact that God adopts us and we thereby become children of God is based in the reality of God’s own relationship with his Son. It is not a reality that is derived from God external to himself – a category of blessing that God creates outside of the Father-Son relationship internal to his being – but an existence that is derived from within God’s communal being as Father and son. That is exactly what is so stunning about adoptive sonship – it is sharing in the Son’s own relationship with the Father: “He who loves me will be loved by my Father.” (John 14:21) There is no adoption, no other way to be children of God, no experience of the fatherly love of God except through the Father’s love for his only begotten Son.’ (150)


One with Christ is available here from amazon.com and thinkivp.

Continue reading