Mark 12

Scripture: Mark 12:1-44

Overview:

  • In the Temple, Jesus tells everyone a story about a vineyard.
  • The story goes like this: An owner of the vineyard sets it up to be a successful vineyard, then leaves it in the hands of his tenants to run
  • At harvest times the owner sends his servants to collect the fruit of the vineyard, and the tenants give them nothing and beat them all up
  • The owner finally sends his son to collect, and the tenants kill him
  • Jesus says, the owner is going to be mad. He’s going to throw all the tenants out and let someone else run the vineyard
  • Jesus reminds his audience that the one they’re about to reject (i.e. himself) is the one around whom everything is supposed to be built
  • The chief priests are miffed
  • Later some Pharisees and Herodians come and ask Jesus if they should pay taxes to Caesar
  • Jesus sees that they’re trying to trap him, so he asks for a coin and points out that things stamped with Caesar’s image belong to Caesar, and that things stamped with God’s image belong to God. (#dropthemike)
  • The Sadducees ask Jesus about a ridiculous scenario in which a woman’s husbands keep dying and she keeps having to marry her brothers-in-law to have a child, then ask, “Hey, wise guy, in heaven, whose wife will she be?”
  • Jesus says the Sadducees don’t know diddley. Jesus tells them that A) in the afterlife, marriage ain’t no thang (just like it ain’t for the angels), and B) that they should know there really is an afterlife as proven by the fact that God references their “dead” forefathers by using the present tense–and God is intentional in his verb tenses.
  • Then someone asks Jesus about Moses’ commandments and which one is number one (there are 613 after all).
  • Jesus replies that “God is one, and we should love him with all our being,” then he adds that “We should also love each other.”
  • The guy who asked says, “I see how these commandments are way more important to God than offering sacrifices al the time.”
  • Jesus said, “You’re almost there. You’ll be a citizen of the kingdom of God before you know it. Keep thinking like that.”
  • Jesus then says to the crowd, “Hey, remember that Psalm where David says he’s talking to the Messiah and refers to him as his Lord? Well, how can the Messiah be both be David’s son and his Lord? How can he be from him and over him?” (Hint, hint: he’s both man and God)
  • Then Jesus points out that Israel’s current leaders like being seen as important people a bit too much.
  • Lastly, Jesus points out a poor widow that is giving her all to the Lord as a prime example of the devotion God expects.

Historical Context:

Isaiah 5 

Isaiah prophesied during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, the kings of Judah (Isaiah 1:1). Uzziah’s reign was 52 years in the middle of the 8th century BC, and Isaiah must have begun his ministry a few years before Uzziah’s death, probably in the 740s BC. Isaiah lived until the fourteenth year of Hezekiah’s reign (who died 698 BC), and may have been contemporary for some years with Manasseh. Thus Isaiah may have prophesied for as long as 64 years.12

When Isaiah was young he migh’ve witnessed the invasion of Israel Tiglath-Pileser III, king of Assyria (2 Kings 15:19); and again, twenty years later, when he had already become a prophet, by the invasion of Tiglath-Pileser, his successor. Shortly thereafter, Shalmaneser V, the new king of Assyria, overtook Samaria (722 BC) and Sennacherib, yet another Assyrian king (701 BC), led a powerful army into Judah.12

In the 5th chapter of his book, Isaiah uses a vineyard to illustrate the care which God had shown for his people. He states what God had done for them; calls on them to judge themselves whether God had not done for them all that he could have done; and, since God’s vineyard had brought forth no good fruit, he threatens to break down its hedges, and to destroy it.11

Isaiah reminds them that Israel has deserted God and that he will do the same to them. As a result, Israel will be destroyed by foreign enemies, but after the people, the country and Jerusalem are punished and purified, a holy remnant will live in God’s place in Zion, governed by God’s chosen king (the messiah).3

The various vices and crimes for which Israel was to be punished were:11

  1. Covetousness
  2. Intemperance, revelry, and dissipation
  3. Despising and contemning God, and of practicing iniquity as if God did not see it, or could not punish it
  4. Pervert things, and calling evil good and good evil
  5. Vain self-confidence, pride, and inordinate self-esteem
  6. Receiving bribes

A “hedge” was a fence of thorns, made by making thorn-bushes to grow so thick that nothing can pass through them. God told Israel he would withdraw his protection and leave them exposed to be overrun and trodden down by their enemies, as a vineyard would be by wild beasts if it were not protected.11

Psalms 118 

The Psalm refers to someone being saved from death by God. It is notable that the Hebrew word for son, ben, is almost the same as stone, ‘eben, which might be what generated seeing Jesus as a stone.4

Psalm 118 in summary:13

  • The author calls on all to praise the Lord because what had occurred was a matter of interest to all Israel.
  • The author gives a description of his peril and deliverance. He understood the benefit of trusting in the Lord rather than in man. He had felt, even in the midst of his dangers, that he would live to declare the works of the Lord.
  • The author approaches the temple. He asks that the doors may be opened that he may enter and praise the Lord.
  • The priests and people recognize the author as the Ruler – the cornerstone – the foundation of the nation’s prosperity, and its hope. He had been rejected by those who were professedly laying the foundation of empire, but he had now established his claims to being regarded as the very cornerstone on which the whole edifice must rest.
  • The people recognize this as a marvelous work of God.
  • The people recognize this as a joyful day, as if God had created that day for this very purpose.
  • The people pronounce the author blessed who came in the name of the Lord.
  • The people direct him to bring his offering. His offering is recognized as proper.
  • The author acknowledges God as his God and asks everyone to praise Him.

The original intent of the Psalm seemed to be that Israel, rejected by those who would try to arrange the world according to their own ideas, has, nevertheless, advanced into such a position, that it may be regarded as the most important of all the nations of the world.13

Psalms 110

Psalm 110 in summary:13

  • The Messiah is appointed and acknowledged by the author of the psalm as his “Lord.”
  • The Messiah would be endowed with “power” needful for the accomplishment of the design for which he was appointed.
  • The Messiah’s people would be made “willing” in the day when he should display his power.
  • The Messiah would be a “priest-king,” like the mysterious king of Salem, Melehizedek, to whom even Abraham submitted.
  • The Messiah would conquer and triumph.

The phrase “my Lord” refers to someone who was superior in rank to the author of the psalm; one whom he could address as his superior. The psalm, therefore, cannot refer to David himself, as if Yahweh had said to him, “Sit thou at my right hand.” Nor was there anyone on earth in the time of David to whom it could be applicable; anyone whom he would call his “Lord” or superior. If, therefore, the psalm was written by David, it must have reference to the Messiah – to one whom he owned as his superior – his Lord – his Sovereign. It cannot refer to God as if he were to have this rule over David, since God himself is referred to as “speaking” to him whom David called his Lord: “Jehovah said unto my Lord.”13

The Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-5) 

The Shema (which means “listen”–the first word in Deut. 6:4) was quoted both morning and evening by devout Jews and worn in leather pouches containing four strips of parchment on which were written verses of scripture (phylacteries) on the arm and forehead by the Pharisees. It was also fixed to a small box on their door-posts. This was to remind them that there is one God when they went out and when they came in.6

Reciting the shema was linked to re-affirming one’s relationship with God’s rule – a way of “receiving the kingdom of heaven.”9

The “heart” is mentioned as the seat of the understanding; the “soul” as the center of will and personality; the “might” as all of one’s energies and vital powers.9

Literally,  the verse reads: “Jehovah, our God, is one Jehovah.” Other nations worshipped many gods, but the God of the Jews was one, and one only. Jehovah was undivided. The Jewish people would be seperated from other nations if they kept this in mind.5

Roman Poll Tax

The poll tax paid by the Jews to the Romans was a symbol of their subjection and thoroughly hated by all the people. It was a head tax which Rome placed on all conquered peoples–essentially a census. This empire-wide tax on males fourteen years through sixty-five years and on women twelve to sixty-five, who lived in imperial provinces went directly to the Emperor. The institution of this tax in 6 AD was the reason Luke gave for Joseph leaving Nazareth and going to Bethlehem with the pregnant Mary.10  It is also the reason the Zealots formed. Judas from Galilee rallied the Jews anger against the tax and turned it against Rome in a small revolt.6

The coin used in paying the poll tax had an image of Caesar on one side and was inscribed, “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus.” On the back of the coin was a picture of Tiberius seated on a throne and the inscription “Highest Priest.”10 It appears that the inscription had its origin in the cult of emperor worship.8

Jesus’ opponents sought to put him in a true bind. If Jesus said “Yes,” his influence among the people would have been destroyed; if he said, “No,” they would have brought charges against him for sedition.1

Mite

Mite denotes a small coin made of brass, the smallest in use among the Jews. Its value was about one third of one cent,5 or six minutes of an average daily wage.4

In other translations the coins are called “lepta,” which means “the thin thing.”6

Herodians

The Herodians most likely they took their name from Herod the Great, most likely as a political party.

Moses said that “a stranger” should not be set over the Jews as a king (Deuteronomy 17:15). Herod, who had received the kingdom of Judea by appointment of the Romans, held that the law of Moses referred only to a voluntary choice of a king (Israel’s ideal situation), and did not refer to a state in submission (i.e. Israel’s present situation). The Herodians, therefore, said that it was lawful to pay tribute to a foreign prince. This opinion was, however, extensively unpopular among the Jews; and particularly the Pharisees, who looked upon it as a violation of the Law.5

Sadducees

The Sadducees denied a physical resurrection, as well as any sort of future state of the world, and the separate existence of the soul after death. They also denied the existence of angels and spirits.13

Observations:

  • The man who planted the vineyard stands for God; the vineyard is Israel; the hedge about it is God’s protection of Israel throughout the history of the chosen people; the wine-press, tower, and, in a sense, also the hedge, represent the Law of Moses and the Jewish ceremonies. The owner’s going into another country represents God’s leaving Israel free to work out his will during a long period prior to Christ. The husbandmen represent the Jewish religious establishment.1
  • The tenants of the vineyard may have assumed that the absentee landlord, so long in a foreign country, had already died.1
  • The master going away from the vineyard gave the servants the opportunity to produce, to be fruitful. This represents God’s setting Israel in the promised land and being less “visibly” involved than during the exodus. The leaders had the stewardship of the nation.7
  • They “‘beat'” the master’s servants refers to a severe beating. It literally means “to skin” or “to flay”.10
  • Mark makes it clear that Jesus was using the parable of the vineyard to prophecy that God would destroy Israel and extend salvation to the Gentiles. The vineyard would ultimately belong to the followers of Jesus.1
  • There is also here an implied promise of the resurrection; because Christ identified himself not only with the son killed and cast out of the vineyard, but also with the rejected stone that became the head of the corner.1
  • There also seems to be a direct historical reference to Sennacherib, king of Assyria, some 700 years previous to Jesus telling the parable of the vineyard. Sennacherib conquered Babylon at the time that Hezekiah was king of Judah, and set up several rulers over Babylon, all of whom were overthrown. Finally, he sent his son to rule, but after a short time, he was also killed. Finally, Sennacherib himself went to Babylon and destroyed the city stone by stone, and placed a curse on it that it should not be rebuilt for seventy years.2
  • Jesus made an argument for the certainty of a resurrection to rest upon a single Old Testament verb, and the tense of a verb at that! Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are not “dead” but “living.”1
  • hich law was the greatest law was a question disputed among the critics in the law in Jesus’ day. Some would have the law of circumcision to be the great commandment, others the law of the sabbath, others the law of sacrifices.9
  • The verses Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 both begin with ve’ahavta “and you shall love.”9
  • he widow who gave her last coins did so in the Temple’s Court of Women, in which there were fixed a number of places or coffers, made with a large open mouth, in the shape of a trumpet, for the purpose of receiving the offerings of the people; and the money thus contributed was devoted to the service of the Temple–to incense, sacrifice, etc.5. The Sanhedrin met within earshot of the place; and it was here that they brought the woman taken in adultery to be stoned (John 8).1
  • Jesus knows not merely the amount given, but the amount retained, and makes his evaluation accordingly.1

Discussion:

  • What fruit does God expect his vineyard (now the church and our lives) to produce? Is it producing the right kind of fruit? How can you tell?
  • The Jews took the Shema very seriously. Is this something we should reinstate? How should the church continually remind itself of the two most important things to God?
  • What is God’s? What does he claim?
  • What is the lesson from how the widow gave her offering? Why does God want us to give? How much?

References:

  1. Coffman’s commentary
  2. Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen
  3. Book of Isaiah
  4. Widow’s Mite
  5. Barnes commentary (Mark)
  6. Easy English commentary
  7. Hampton’s commentary
  8. Herrick’s commentary
  9. Shema
  10. Utley’s commentary
  11. Barnes’ commentary (Isaiah)
  12. Isaiah
  13. Barnes’ commentary (Psalms)
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Mark 11

Scripture: Mark 11:1-33

Overview:

  • Jesus and crew arrive in the small towns outside of Jerusalem
  • Jesus tells his disciples, “Go into the village. There’s a colt there that’s never been ridden. Bring it back, and if anyone is like, ‘Wha?’ you tell them, ‘God needs it.'”
  • The disciples go and find the colt just like Jesus had said, and the owner says, “Wha?” and they tell him that God needs it. And all is cool.
  • Jesus then rides on the colt as people put their coats and palm branches down on the road before him.
  • The crowd with Jesus shouts, “God, save us! May good things come to the person who is arriving in God’s name. It’s a good thing that the kingdom of the messiah is coming. God, who is above all others, save us!”
  • Jesus goes into the temple, looks around and heads back to the town he was staying in.
  • The next day, Jesus is hungry and sees a fig tree that looks like it should have figs on it even through it wasn’t fig season.
  • When Jesus realizes there actually aren’t any figs on the tree he says, “No figs for you! Ever!”
  • Once in Jerusalem, Jesus goes into the temple courts where there is a big marketplace full of people exchanging money and selling animals for sacrifice. He immediately starts overturning tables and kicking people out.
  • Jesus reminds the people that the Old Testament had said God’s house is to be a place of prayer, not commerce.
  • The temple officials are miffed but the rest of the people are amazed.
  • Jesus and the disciples head back out of town.
  • In the morning, Peter sees the fig tree that Jesus spoke unkindly to and realizes it is now withered.
  • Jesus says, “If you have faith, even moving mountains will be no big deal. Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe it and it’ll be done. And don’t forget to forgive each other.”
  • When they get back to the temple, the teachers of the law and elders ask Jesus, “Where did you get the authorization to do all the stuff you’re doing?”
  • Jesus replies, “I’ll answer your question if you answer mine: John the Baptist, was he just an ordinary guy who baptized people to achieve his own agenda, or did he baptize people because he was a prophet announcing the arrival of God’s kingdom?”
  • Jesus’ opponents thought, “If we say God was involved with what John did, then he’ll say, ‘Why didn’t you believe him’? But if we say what John did was no biggie, then the public will be mad, because they think John was a prophet.”
  • So they say, “Uh…. um… Pass.”
  • Jesus replies, “I’ll pass on your question, too.”

Historical Context:

Zechariah

Zechariah, one of the twelve minor Hebrew prophets, wrote his visions during second year of the reign of Darius the Great (520-5-18 BC) after the Jews had returned from exile. He was a contemporary with Haggai, another prophet.  The name Zechariah means, “Yahweh has remembered,” and he wrote about how the kingdoms of the world would someday become the kingdom of the Messiah; how the God would ultimately triumph in the latter days.[9]

The end of Zechariah contains a vision in which  (1) the nations gather against Jerusalem; (2) God appears on the Mount of Olives and prepares a processional highway into Jerusalem by the rending  the mountain in two; (3) and then, once inside the holy city, God establishes a new order of creation and begins his universal reign; (4) then God’s enemies are destroyed and the Gentiles who survive recognize God’s universal sovereignty; (5) finally, in Jerusalem, the distinction between the sacred and the profane is overcome.[5]

Jesus’ entry on a donkey from the direction of the Mount of Olives evokes the final vision of Zechariah (14:15) as well as Zechariah 9:9 which states that Israel’s king would come, “righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”[2]

The symbolism of the donkey also refers to the Eastern tradition that it is an animal of peace, versus the horse, which is the animal of war. When a king came riding upon a horse he was bent on war, yet when he rode upon a donkey he was coming in peace. Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem symbolized that he would not be a war-waging king.[2]

Of note, 2 Kings 9:13 records a similar entry into Jerusalem when Jehu became king: “They hurried and took their cloaks and spread them under him on the bare steps. Then they blew the trumpet and shouted, ‘Jehu is king!'” Also, Solomon, when he was inaugurated as king, rode on a mule (1 Kings 1:33).[6]

Hosanna

The word hosanna means, “Save now,” or, “Save, I beseech thee.” It was used frequently in the celebration of the various Jewish festivals during which the people sang the 115th, 116th, 117th, and 118th psalms. In the singing of those psalms the people responded frequently with, “hallelujah” or “hosanna.”[6]

As Jesus entered Jerusalem, the people sang Psalm 118:25-26: “Lord, save us! Lord, grant us success! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

The shouts of the multitudes hailing Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem are reported by all four gospels with various different phrases: Matthew has “Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord: Hosanna in the highest” (Matthew 21:9); Mark has “Blessed is the kingdom that comes, the kingdom of our father David: Hosanna in the highest” (Mark 11:9,10); Luke has “Blessed is the King that comes in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest” Luke 19:38); and John has “Hosanna: Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel” (John 12:13).[1]

“Hosanna in the highest” may have been part of a prayer to God translated as, “Save now, you who dwells in the highest heaven, among the highest angels.”[6]

Palm Branches

The use of palm branches strewn along the road during Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem resembles the celebration of Jewish liberation in 1 Maccabees (13:51) which states: “On the twenty-third day of the second month, in the one hundred and seventy-first year, the Jews entered it [Jerusalem] with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel.”[2]

The palm branch was a common symbol of victory, peace and eternal life in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean world.[3]

In the Assyrian religion, the palm is identified as the Sacred Tree. The crown of the tree representing heaven, and the base of the trunk, earth. In ancient Egypt it represented immortality.[3]

The palm became so closely associated with victory in ancient Roman culture that the Latin word palma could be used as a metonym for “victory,” and was a sign of any kind of victory. A lawyer who won his case in the forum would decorate his front door with palm leaves. The palm branch or tree became a regular attribute of the Goddess Nike (victory), and when Julius Caesar secured his rise to sole power with a victory at Pharsalus, a palm tree was supposed to have sprung up miraculously at the temple of Nike.[3]

A palm branch was also used in Greece as an award to victorious athletes.[3]

Later, the palm leaf was adopted in Christian iconography as representative of the victory of martyrs, or the victory of the spirit over the flesh.[3]

In many lands in the ancient Near East, it was customary to cover the path of someone thought worthy of the highest honor. In 2 Kings 9:13, after Jehu, was anointed king, his companions spread their garments on the ground before him.[3]

Markan Sandwiches

Mark often used two stories together to make one point. This was often done by using a chiastic structure (or parallel structure) in which each part of a story has a contrasting part later in the story and the main point is “sandwiched” in the middle. Below is a simplified version of the story of the fig tree and cleansing of the temple:

A) As Jesus and his disciples leave Bethany, Jesus sees a fig tree in leaf, but realizes it has no fruit.

B) Jesus curses the fig tree.

C) Jesus enters Jerusalem and the temple and drives out the money changers

D) Jesus says, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’?”

D) “But you have made it a den of robbers.

C) The chief priests and teachers of the law are angered, the people are amazed. Jesus leaves the temple and Jerusalem.

B) Peter sees the cursed fig tree and points it out to Jesus.

A) Jesus says to his disciples that with faith, prayer and forgiveness they can say to “this” mountain “Go, throw yourself in the sea.”

Note: The “mountain” referenced may either be (1) the Mount of Olives, evoking the rending of the mountain described in Zechariah 14, or else (2) the temple mount as a sign of the Israel’s now worthless stature in God’s eyes.

Fig Tree

Jesus’ search for fruit on the fig tree has symbolic value based on the use of the fig tree to represent Israel’s faithfulness (or lack thereof) in the Old Testament, including Jeremiah 8:13, 29:14, Joel 1:7, Micah 7:1, Hosea 9:10, and 9:16. For example, Jeremiah 8:13 notes: “When I would gather them, says the Lord, there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered, and what I gave them has passed away from them.”[5]

Commentators have pointed out that Mark makes the point of  saying that it is not the tree that is out of season, but Jesus. The righteous (Israel) should be ready for the messiah whenever he comes.[5]

Jesus did not wither the tree for fruitlessness but for falseness, exhibiting leaves (which appeared after the fruit, normally) yet having no fruit. A tree in full leaf at this time is making a promise it can’t fulfill. This serves as a type for Israel. They profess faith in God without exhibiting any of the fruit that should accompany such faith. The withered tree symbolically foretold the coming judgement on Jerusalem.[1]

This sort of dramatic symbolism has precedence in the Hebrew prophets like when God had Ezekiel lay on his side for 390 days to demonstrate the punishment of Israel (Ez. 4:1-5:17), or when Isaiah went “stripped and barefoot” for 3 years to symbolize Egypt and Assyria’s demise (Is. 20:1-6), or when Hosea married a prostitute to symbolize God’s relationship with Israel (Hos. 1:1-3:5).

Moneychangers in the Temple

There are two potential ways to interpret Jesus’ actions: The first is that he was reacting to the “commercialization” and price gouging  going on in the temple. The other is that the location of the money exchanges had so overrun the Court of the Gentiles that Gentiles could no longer worship there.

The temple was the center of the economic life of Jerusalem, driving employment for many petty producers like bakers, incense makers, and goldsmiths.[5] Festivals were prime money making opportunities due to the large influx of visitors to the city.

Because Judea was subject to the Romans, most of their money was in Roman coinage. Yet Jewish law required that every man should pay a tribute to the service of the sanctuary of half a shekel, (Exodus 30:11-16). It became therefore a matter of convenience to have a place where the Roman coin might be exchanged for the Jewish half-shekel. This exchange, coupled with the fact that most pilgrims wouldn’t want to transport livestock all the way to Jerusalem for the feast, meant the money changers could demand a small sum for the exchange; and so it would be a very profitable employment, and one easily giving rise to much fraud and oppression.[6]

Since the exchange booths and tables were set up in the Outer Court, this prevented the Gentiles from having a place to pray. Commerce had taken precedence over the “outsider” seeking God.

A similar incident can be found in Nehemiah 13, when Nehemiah overturned the furniture of Tobiah the Ammonite who had, with the cooperation of Eliashib the High Priest, leased the storerooms of the temple, depriving the Levites of their rations from the offerings.[4]

As Jesus cleanses the temple he utters: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’  But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’ — which combines Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11. The word “robbers” used here is better translated as “insurrectionists.”[5]

Of note, Mark is the only author to include Isaiah’s additional words, “for all nations” therefore emphasizing the exclusion of the Gentiles as reason for Jesus’ wrath.

Observations:

  • Bethpage means “House of Green Figs” which may be a literary allusion to Jesus’ coming miracle.[5]
  • Bethany was about two miles from Jerusalem. It was the village where Martha, Mary and Lazarus lived.[8]
  • In the Old Testament mountains frequently face each other in paired opposition, for example, Horeb and Carmel in 1 Kings 18 and 1 Kings 19, and Ebal and Gerizim in the Pentateuch. Here, Mark seems to be pitting the Mount of Olives and the Temple Mount against each other.[5]
  • The Jews used the word curse, not as always implying wrath, and anger, but to devote to death, or to any kind of destruction.[6]
  • Josephus, an ancient Jewish historian, accounts for almost three million people making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Like Jesus and his disciples, most of those people probably stayed in surrounding cities rather than in Jerusalem itself.

Discussion:

  • What made Jesus so angry about the fig tree? What enraged him about the temple? What do you think about God being so angry? Do you think he acted fairly? Why/why not?
  • In what ways has the church over indulged in commercialism? What would Jesus overturn or throw out of our sanctuaries?
  • In what ways has the church prevented outsiders from coming in? What space do we need to leave for those not fully part of the faith to worship/find God?
  • In what ways does Jesus’ entry look triumphant according to the Old Testament? In which ways does it look much more lackluster and less magnificent than what the prophets described?
  • What do you think about Jesus saying, “Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours”? Has that been your experience? Is it simply a matter of faith? Is this how prayer is supposed to work?
  • Why do the teachers of the law ask Jesus about his authority? What answer do you think they expected him to give? Why didn’t Jesus simply answer them?

References:

  1. Coffman’s Commentary
  2. Triumphal Entry – Wikipedia
  3. Symbolism of Palm Branches
  4. Cleansing the Temple – Wikipedia
  5. Turton’s Commentary
  6. Barnes’ Commentary
  7. Utley’s Commentary
  8. Free Bible Commentary
  9. Zechariah – Wikipedia

Coffee and Theology Podcast: Episode 3 – Aramaic Sayings in the Gospel of Mark (Part 2)

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Episode three of Coffee and Theology wraps up our discussion on code-switching.

In this exciting half-hour of caffeinated conversation we examine the last few Aramaic words and phrases used in the Gospel of Mark and their significance to Mark’s overall message, then we wrap it up with some personal take-aways and Nicolas Cage jokes. Be sure to listen at the end of the show to our Aramaic pronunciation guide. Its… enlightening.

As always, the coffee is provided by Urban Pioneer, the finest coffee in all of Long Beach.

You can also find us on iTunes. Subscribe today!

Coffee and Theology Podcast: Episode 2 – Aramaic Sayings in the Gospel of Mark (Part 1)

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We’re at it again! Episode two of Coffee and Theology is here, and we’re talking about code-switching.

On a day to day basis Jesus spoke in Aramaic, yet of all the words he spoke less than a handful are recorded by Mark in their original form. Why not translate these words into Greek as he did everywhere else? Why would Mark take the time to preserve these words in their original language?

Well, we looked it up and this is what we found… at least the first half of it.

Also, don’t forget to check out (and purchase) Long Beach’s finest coffee: Urban Pioneer

Mark 7

Scripture: Mark 7:1-37

Overview:

  • Some Pharisees and teachers of the law come down from Jerusalem to check out this Jesus guy
  • They observe that some of Jesus’ disciples aren’t following their rules for ritual hand washing
  • They ask Jesus about it and Jesus responds by telling them that they are hypocrites (yeouch!)
  • Jesus quotes a passage from Isaiah in which God condemns the Jews for giving him lip-service only because they are more interested in following their own rules rather than his
  • Jesus then reminds the Pharisees of a rule they created in which someone can dedicate something (like say a goat) as a gift to the temple, but in doing so are then unable to use that thing to help their parents (like say, sell or slaughter that goat). Jesus then points out how their man-made rule blocks God’s original commandment to “honor your mother and father”
  • Jesus turns to the crowd and tells them that external things don’t defile people, internal things do. What you put into your body isn’t important. It’s what comes out of your heart that matters
  • Jesus and his disciples then head to the vicinity of Tyre, but they can’t keep their presence secret and a Greek woman finds them and asks Jesus to heal her demon-possessed daughter
  • Jesus tells the woman that he came to help the Jews first, that “it’s not right to toss the children’s bread to the dogs”
  • The woman is persistent and says that even the dogs are allowed to eat the crumbs that spill over the edge of the table
  • Jesus grants her request and the woman’s daughter is healed
  • Heading into the region of the Decapolis, Jesus and crew run across a deaf and mute man whose friends want him to be healed
  • Jesus takes the afflicted man aside, touches his ears and tongue and says, “Be opened” and the man is healed
  • Amazement ensues

Historical Context:

Ritual washing

The ritual washing that Mark refers to is most likely the cleansing of the hands (up to the elbows) done by the Pharisees after they had been in the market. In an abundance of caution, the Pharisees attempted to wash away any exposure they may have had to possible sources of ritual impurity in the market to purify themselves before eating.[1]

In some religious sects, ritual bathing, or immersion of the whole person, was constantly practiced (such as the Essenes who  immersed daily and were thus called tovelei shaharit “dawn-bathers” or hemerobaptists “day-immersers”). A group thought to be connected to the Pharisees called the chaverim also immersed themselves fully before communal meals.[1]

William Barclay tells of a rabbi who was imprisoned by the Romans and who “used the water which was given to him for handwashing rather than for drinking, and in the end nearly perished from thirst, because he was determined to observe the rules of handwashing.”[2]

Isaiah 29:13

It is significant that Mark mentions that the Pharisees are from Jerusalem (7:1) because it directly relates to the passage in Isaiah that Jesus quotes, a passage in which God condemns David’s city to destruction for it’s inhabitants’ infidelity.

Jesus quotes this passage to emphasize that the Pharisees’ fear of God is coming from the over-emphasis of God’s wrath instead of God’s love. The Jews had created their own rules and are thinking that God won’t notice that the people are no longer listening to him, but to their man-made rules instead. This passage in Isaiah emphasizes that God’s commands are being treated like human orders, which we must obey out of fear of punishment, instead as instructions given to us out of love so we could live our life ‘to the full’.[1]

Corban

In Judaism, korban is the term for a variety of sacrificial offerings described and commanded in the Torah. Such sacrifices were offered in a variety of settings by the ancient Israelites, and later by the Jewish priesthood, the Kohanim, at the Temple in Jerusalem. A korban was usually an animal sacrifice, such as a sheep or a bull that underwent shechita (Jewish ritual slaughter), and was often cooked and eaten by the offerer, with parts given to the Kohanim and parts burned on the Temple altar. Korbanot could also consist of turtle-doves, grain, incense, fruit, and a variety of other offerings.[1]

Anything dedicated to the Temple under the pretense of korban forthwith belonged to the Temple, but only ideally; actually it might remain in the possession of the person who made the vow. Since a person’s offering may have been accompanied by a solemn oath, the offerer was no longer permitted from ever using the property offered to the Temple for the support of himself or anyone else even if the gift remained in his possession; so a son might be justified in not supporting his old parents simply because he designated his property or a part of it as a gift to the Temple, that is, as korban.[1]

Thus to say that something is korban is to say both that it is a gift to the Temple and that it is forbidden to others.[1]

In Jerome’s commentary, he says “The Lord commanded that poor parents should be supported by their children and that these should pay them back when old those benefits which they had themselves received in their childhood. The scribes and pharisees on the other hand taught the children to answer their parents by saying: It is Corban, that is to say, a gift which I have promised to the altar and engaged to present to the temple: it will relieve you as much there, as if I were to give it you directly to buy food. So it frequently happened that while father and mother were destitute their children were offering sacrifices for the priests and scribes to consume.”

Corban indicates how complexity had replaced simplicity in Judaism. Their elaborate laws had replaced the most basic of God’s commands.

Dogs

The term “dogs” used by Jesus (kynaria) does not refer to wild and unkempt street dogs, but to small dogs taken in as house pets (this, the diminutive form of the word kyōn “dog” originally referred to puppies or little dogs, then later extended to lap dogs). Thus, it is not a derogatory term per se, but is instead intended by Jesus to indicate the privileged position of the Jews (especially His disciples) as the initial recipients of Jesus’ ministry.[1]

In first century Palestine, street dogs were regarded as scavengers and therefore unclean, but in well-to-do households influenced by Greek custom, dogs were sometimes considered as pets. Jesus is thus making an illustration here: the children of the house must be fed before the pets.[1]

The word “bed” used to describe where the young girl was found lying after she was healed (7:30) may also be translated “dining couch” which suggests a higher social level for the woman and her daughter. They may in fact have been owners of pets therefore the inspiration for Jesus’ analogy.[1]

Spit

In both the Greco-Roman and Jewish worlds, saliva was considered to have therapeutic properties. Early Roman historians, Tacitus and Suetonius, record a time when the emperor Vespasian was begged by a blind man to anoint his eyes with spittle. Also, in the Talmud, as a part of the law concerning the preparation of salt water on the Sabbath, the rabbis discuss in passing a prohibition on using saliva to heal eyes.[1]

Sighing was also part of a technique used by ancient healers, trying to exude their life force to give power to the words spoken so they could accomplish their task (the life force being breathed into a diseased or dormant person of object was itself the heart of various ancient magical rituals).[1]

Many magicians in antiquity recited strings of syllables, words, or phrases when performing their healings (ex. abracadabra); some of these formulas were even written and worn as amulets. Jesus, by contrast uses a common Aramaic word, “Ephphatha” which means “be opened.” Jesus is unique amongst healers in his day in that He does not use gibberish incantations when performing miracles, but rather makes a simple command in His own intelligible native speech.[1]

It is likely that Jesus touches the man’s ears and his tongue as a means of  communicating with the deaf, mute man that he was going to be healed. These signals would’ve been culturally acceptable gestures, and possibly necessary means of communication, to indicate to the man that healing was now available.[4]

Observations:

  • Scribes are not a distinct sect from the Pharisees or Sadducees, but rather a type of profession that is common to both sects (though many scribes generally belonged to the Pharisaic sect); not all Pharisees were scribes and not all scribes were Pharisees.[1]
  • The presence of the scribes and Pharisees should be understood as the result of the hierarchy’s monitoring Jesus’ teachings with a view to finding fault. These were, in effect, spies sent out from Jerusalem.[2]
  • Only some of the disciples are accused of not washing themselves ritually. This may mean that the other disciples, and even Jesus himself, obeyed the Jewish food laws. It is interesting that the actions of a few of the disciples evoke opposition over religious obligations, yet Jesus still comes to their defense.[1]
  • The only hand washing required in the Old Testament for purposes of ritual impurity is that of priests before offering sacrifices (Exodus 30:18-21; 40:30-32).[1] The Pharisees, in their zeal to replicate temple holiness outside the temple, had extended this law to apply to all people before all meals.
  • Jesus calls them hypocrites (7:6), a compound Greek word (from two words “under” and “to judge”) used to describe actors playing a part behind a mask.[4] Jesus is accusing them of being like actors–hiding their real character behind a mask.[3]
  • The word translated as “defile” can also mean “communicate” and “share.” The idea is that the things coming out of a person ‘communicates’ or ‘shares’ (i.e. reveals) what he truly is. Thus Jesus’ words have another layer of meaning: one cannot see what goes inside another person’s body so how can it say anything about what that person is truly like?[1]
  • Though Mark comments parenthetically that Jesus had lifted the bans on food with this comment, this lifting of restrictions on diet was slow to be accepted. Up to a decade after Jesus said this Peter affirmed that he had never eaten “anything that is common and unclean” (Acts 10:14).[2]
  • The word translated as “envy” literally means “giving one the evil eye.” The idea of the evil eye is widespread in many cultures. The basic concept is that certain beings have the power of casting an evil spell on others or causing mishap to fall upon them by merely gazing at them, since the eye was believed to be the window on the heart or the soul and the channel through which one’s thoughts, emotions, desires or intentions could be conveyed. This concept is usually chiefly connected to envy or jealousy.[1]
  • “Folly” is from the Greek word “aselgeia,” which refers to the undisciplined soul–one who acknowledges no restraint, dares to perform any act of shame or lawlessness, and who lives in arrogant insolence without regard to considerations of decency or honor.[2]
  • The “vicinity of Tyre” refers to the lands bordering Galilee that were under the jurisdiction of Tyre. First century Jewish historian, Josephus, claims that Tyrians were “notoriously our bitterest enemies.” It is interesting that Jesus enters a territory that is not only primarily Gentile but also potentially hostile to him.[1]  This may speak to how desperatley Jesus sought relief from the crowds.
  • In the conversation with the Greek woman about the children and the bread, Jesus uses the word teknon (biological children) when referring to the “children’s bread,” while the woman uses the word paidion, a more inclusive word implying both ‘children’ and ‘servants’.[1] Note how she is immediately pushing back against the wall she’d come up against.
  • A few interesting notes about the Greek woman’s response to Jesus: (1) By placing herself under the children’s table, she laid claim to a place, lowly as it was, in the household of God. (2) She appealed not to the children, but to the master. The children, as represented by the apostles, had stood adamantly by, not interceding on the woman’s behalf, actually demanding that the Lord get rid of her (3) She identified the table as not belonging to the children but as “their master’s table.” God’s mercies did not derive from the chosen people but from himself.[2]
  • Jesus may have taken the deaf/mute man away from the crowd so that none would’ve considered the Lord’s healing to be accomplished magically.[2] The healing of someone in private would’ve also been contrary to the typical behavior of a miracle worker of the day who would’ve hoped to make money from the crowd for such an event.

Discussion:

  • The Pharisees saw ritual washing as a way of declaring their holiness, and were offended when Jesus didn’t agree with how they publicly identified themselves as holy. In which ways do we publicly define holiness today (ex. no smoking, no drinking, no swearing, etc.)? What “traditions” have we added to our faith to ensure we appear to be holy? What is the difference between internal holiness and external holiness and how can we tell the difference? What does this say about those who don’t follow Jesus but display exceptional morality anyway?
  • Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites, or actors, and says (via Isaiah) that they are even trying to fool God with their false holiness. What masks do we wear today? What pretense do we put on in an attempt to fool God into thinking that we’re holy?
  • The Greek woman is called a dog after asking Jesus for healing for her daughter, but pursues her original request anyway. How persistent are we with God? This is the second such story (see the healing of the bleeding woman in chapter 5) in which Jesus seems to have another priority in mind, but is waylaid by an instant woman and grants her request. What do you think Mark wanted to communicate to his audience with these stories?
  • Jesus’ healing seem to follow no predictable formula. Some people he touches, some he heals from a distance. Some he seems to enact some of the healing/medicinal rituals of his day (e.g. the deaf/mute man), whereas others have no ritualistic precedent. What does this say about Jesus’ actions in relation to those he healed? What does this say about how God acts towards those in need? What does this say about what we should expect from God?

References:

  1. Catholic Answers Forum
  2. Coffman’s Commentary
  3. Free Bible Commentary
  4. Utley’s Commentary

 

Mark 3

Scripture: Mark 3:1-35

Overview:

  • Sabbath showdown! Jesus is in the synagog and points out a man with a shriveled hand and asks the Pharisees if he can do good on the Sabbath or not
  • They don’t have an answer for him
  • Jesus is P.O.’d and heals the man’s hand
  • The Pharisees are P.O.’d and decide to get together with the Herodians to plot a way to kill Jesus
  • Jesus becomes so popular he has to get in a boat to avoid the crowds crowding him
  • Up on the side of a mountain Jesus appoints his Twelve Disciples to preach and drive out demons
  • Later, as Jesus and the disciples are working through lunch, Jesus’ family comes to take him home citing that he’s now gone cray cray
  • Meanwhile, the teachers of the law (down from Jerusalem) accuse Jesus of being possessed by Satan
  • Jesus responds by asking them how a kingdom divided can stand against itself
  • He also tells them that you have to be stronger than a strong man (Satan) to plunder his house
  • Jesus also lets them know that confusing God’s work with Satan’s work is pretty much the worst thing you can do, ever, for all time
  • When Jesus’ family gets there Jesus points out that he’s already among his family–those who are doing God’s will

Historical Context:

Herodians:

The Herodians were a sect of the Jews who favored the kingship of Herod (and by proxy, the Roman occupation). Normally they were enemies of the conservative and nationalistic Pharisees.

12 Disciples

Listing of disciples in the Gospels and Acts. In red are the names listed in a different order, or with a different name.

Mark Matthew Luke Acts
  1. Peter
  2. James
  3. John
  4. Andrew
  5. Philip
  6. Bartholomew
  7. Matthew
  8. Thomas
  9. James, son of Alphaeus
  10. Thaddaeus
  11. Simon the Zealot*
  12. Judas Iscariot
  1. Peter
  2. Andrew
  3. James
  4. John
  5. Philip
  6. Bartholomew
  7. Thomas
  8. Matthew
  9. James, son of Alphaeus
  10. Thaddaeus
  11. Simon the Zealot
  12. Judas Iscariot
  1. Peter
  2. Andrew
  3. James
  4. John
  5. Philip
  6. Bartholomew
  7. Matthew
  8. Thomas
  9. James, son of Alphaeus
  10. Simon the Zealot
  11. Judas, son of James
  12. Judas Iscariot
  1. Peter
  2. Andrew
  3. James
  4. John
  5. Philip
  6. Bartholomew
  7. Matthew
  8. Thomas
  9. James, son of Alphaeus
  10. Simon the Zealot
  11. Judas, son of James
  12. Judas Iscariot

* The Greek text of Mark calls Simon the “Cananean” rather than “Zealot.” Mark, whose Gospel was written to a Roman audience, may not wanted to use the politically divisive word “zealot,” which referred to a Jewish anti-Roman guerrilla movement.

Jesus’ chosen twelve disciples were from several different classes and competing political groups. Normally Simon, a member of a nationalistic group which advocated the violent overthrow of Roman authority, and Levi, a tax collector working for the Roman Empire, would not have been in the same room with each other. (Bible.org)

“Iscariot” has two possible derivations: (1) man of Kerioth in Judah or (2) “dagger man” or assassin, which would mean he also was a zealot, like Simon. (Bible.org)

Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit (The Unforgivable Sin)

When Jesus says that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven, he is responding to the accusation by the teachers of the law that he has the spirit of Satan inside him rather than the spirit of God. It is the sin of reading the pure and holy actions of Jesus Christ as satanic, the sin of viewing black as white and white as black, of making wickedness righteous and righteousness wicked that God will not forgive. (Coffman)

The unpardonable sin is not a rejection by God because of some single act or word, but the continual, ongoing rejection of God in Christ by willful unbelief. (Bible.org)

Observations:

  • The rabbis had a highly developed Oral Tradition (Talmud) which interpreted the Mosaic Law. They made rigid pronouncements on what could legally be done or not be done on the Sabbath. One could stabilize an injured person in an emergency, but could not improve his condition. Once again, Jesus shows them that they cherished their traditions above human needs. (Bible.org)
  • The phrase “his hand was completely restored” (i.e., restored to its original state) implies that the withered hand was an accident, not a birth defect.
  • “One of the remarkable aspects of the story of Jesus healing the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath is that, quite literally, Jesus does nothing. That is to say, he performs no action whatever. He does not touch the man, lay hands upon him, seize him by the hand, or raise him up… Jesus simply issues two verbal orders: the man is to stand up in the sight of the congregation and to stretch forth his hand. On doing that, the man finds his hand healed.” (Meier)
  • The lakeshore stands as a contrast to the synagog. It is spacious, open and free of rules. (France)
  • The crowds “pushing forward to touch him” is literally translated as “falling against him.” (Bible.org)
  • The mountain where Jesus calls his disciples is likely the elevation some five miles west of Galilee, called Mount Hatten, where it is also supposed that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. Luke adds the significant detail that Christ prayed all night before appointing the Twelve (Coffman)
  • Boanerges is a word is made up of two Hebrew words (benē reghesh), signifying sons of thunder; meaning that they, on some accounts. resembled thunder. Some think that this is because they would later ask Jesus to call down fire on a Samaritan town. Some think it was related to their brash nature.  Note how Mark translates the Aramaic name for his Gentile (probably Roman) readers. (Barnes)
  • Jesus family came to get him because they thought he was delirious or deranged. This was reasonable from their point of view because until now Jesus had lived among them as a carpenter; poor, and unknown; and that now, at thirty years of age, he had abandoned his common employment, spent much time in the deserts, denied himself the common comforts of life, and set up a claim to be the Messiah, who was expected by all the people to come with great pomp and splendor. (Barnes)
  • It is notable that Jesus’ brothers did not believe in him, even up to a few months prior to his death. (John 7:5), (Coffman)
  • Note how when the Jewish leaders couldn’t challenge Jesus’ power they attacked the source of His authority.
  • The name Beelzebul was not a common name for Satan in Judaism. It is used only a few times in the Old Testament. Jesus uses it as synonymous with Satan
  • Mark combines the story of Jesus’ family coming to take him home and the accusation of the teachers of the law that he was possessed by Satan. In Luke, these accounts are separated by a few chapters (family in 8:19 and teachers of the law in 11:14), and in Matthew they are sequential (teachers of the law 12:22, family 12:46), not interwoven as Mark tells the story.

Discussion:

  • “The ability to do good imposes an obligation to do it.” (Cotton Mather) Jesus frames his question about healing on the Sabbath in the context of having the ability to help and choosing whether or not to use it. What areas do we have the ability to help and have chosen not to? Why not? What self-imposed rules limit us?
  • Is your church family (“spiritual family”) more important than your blood relatives?
  • What do you think Jesus means by blasphemy of the Holy Spirit? Why do you think this sin in unforgivable?
  • Matthew and Luke record the two stories of (1) Jesus family coming to take him home and (2) the accusation by the teachers of the law that Jesus was working for Satan as two separate events. What point do you think Mark was making by “dovetailing” the two stories together?

References:

Mark 1

Scripture: Mark 1:1-45

Overview:

  • John the Baptist shows up and starts baptizing people (go figure) in the wilderness just as Isaiah, the prophet, prophesied.
  • The people flock to see John the Baptist but he tells them, “I’m just the opening act. I’m nothing compared to the one who comes after me. He’s gonna baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
  • Jesus shows up and gets baptized by John in the Jordan
  • As Jesus is baptized, the Spirit of God lands on him and a voice from heaven declares him to be God’s son.
  • Jesus then heads out into the wilderness and is tempted.
  • After John gets put in jail Jesus starts preaching (in Galilee) that the kingdom of God is near.
  • Jesus sees Simon and Andrew working as fishermen. He tells them to follow him. They do.
  • In Capernaum, on the Sabbath, Jesus is teaching in the synagog when he’s (rudely) interrupted by a man with an evil spirit who hollers out, “What’s up, Holy One of God? What did I ever do to you?”
  • Jesus casts out the evil spirit. The audience is sufficiently amazed.
  • After leaving the synagog, Jesus and his disciples (which now include James and John) head to Simon’s house and heal his mother-in-law
  • The healings make Jesus popular, so all the sick people start flocking to him
  • Jesus gets up early in the morning and goes to a solitary place for a little alone time and prayer
  • The disciples track Jesus down and they travel throughout Galilee preaching and healing
  • A man with leprosy asks Jesus if he’s willing to heal him.
  • Jesus is willing and the man is healed.
  • Post healing, Jesus tells the man to keep his mouth shut and go to the temple to purify himself
  • The man blabs to everyone about his healing, making Jesus even more popular, so popular he has a hard time entering towns from then on.

Historical Context:

John the Baptist

Baptism was not an invention of John, nor was it unique to the Israelites. Ritual washings have been around since ancient times.

In Judaism, “tvilah” is a purification ritual of immersing in water, which is required for conversion to Judaism. If a gentile became a proselyte, besides keeping the Sabbath and avoiding defiled meat, he had to be circumcised, offer a sacrifice, and be immersed (baptized) as a sign of his cleansing from past pollutions and the beginning of his new, purified life as a member of the household of God. (GCI)

It is interesting that John was calling Jews (already God’s people) to be baptized as though they were gentile proselytes.

John identifies himself as a prophet in the same vein as Elijah by his dress–both had a leather belt around his waist and a hairy garment (see 2 Kings 1:8).

John the Baptist is also identified by Mark as a prophet in the role of anointing Jesus as the king (messiah = “the anointed one”).  The story of Jesus’ baptism is reminiscent of Samuel’s selection and anointing of David in 1 Samuel 16:13: “So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him [David] in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David.”

John the Baptist was an influential person in first century Palestine. His relationship with Jesus was important to relay to the early Christians. In the Gospel of John it seems as though Jesus may have been a follower of John (John 3:26), and that at least some of Jesus’ disciples were originally followers of John (John 1:30). In Luke, it is asserted that John the Baptist and Jesus were cousins. And according to the first century Jewish historian, Josephus, John the Baptist: “was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness.” (Wikipedia)

In all the gospel accounts, John the Baptist acknowledges his role as secondary to the one coming after him. Note how John declares his baptism (with water) as mere preparation for theMessiah’s baptism (with the spirit) which will inaugurate the new age of the Spirit. John even declares himself to be lower than a slave when he says he’s unfit to tie the messiah’s sandals.

Prepare the Way

Mark starts with an Old Testament reference declaring that a messenger would come to “prepare the way” for the Lord. “Preparing the way” originally referred to physical the preparation needed for a royal visit (Isa. 57:14; 62:10).  (Bible.org)

Mark seems to be quoting Isaiah 40:3  “A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lordmake straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lordwill be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’” 

However, there are also similarities in his quote with Malachi. 3:1“I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LordAlmighty.”

The implication that the messenger would be Elijah comes from Malachi 4:5: “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”  

Mark may be further referencing Isaiah with the usage of the term “gospel” or “good news” as in Isaiah 40:9: “You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’”

Dove

One might ask that when Jesus saw the Spirit descending, did he later describe something metaphorically, (i.e. as a dove would fly) or literally (i.e. it looked like a dove)?

It has been pointed out by some that Isaiah 42 implies God intends the Messiah to be gentle and humble when the prophet says, “Behold my servant whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not fail or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law.” (Jesus.org) In this sense, it would imply that the dove was metaphorical–gentle, peaceful, gracious.

However, the text may also be literal. Jesus may have seen something fluttering and white that reminded him of a dove.

The dove is associated with certain religious sacrifices, as a messenger of hope for Noah, and is generally considered a symbol of peace and gentleness in all ages. (Coffman)

Son of God

Psalm 2: 7, a coronation psalm,  says, “He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have become your father,” which establishes that to the ancient Hebrews the anointed King was understood as the “Son of God.” This same concept is found in 2 Samuel 7:13-14, where the Lord promises to David (regarding Solomon): “He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son.” (Turton)

The term “son” in the Old Testament could refer to (1) the nation of Israel; (2) the King of Israel; or (3) the coming Davidic Messianic King.

Wilderness

The wilderness had theological significance as a location. It was seen as a place of purity/purification. The Essenes themselves went into the wilderness (Qumran) for this very reason. It was seen as the place in which one could prepare to meet God. The place were God’s way could be prepared devoid the corruption of the cities, so that God could enter the cities triumphantly.

Unclean Spirits

In Mark, “unclean spirit” is used synonymously with “demon.” The term carries with it the idea of estrangement from God. Usually physical or mental disease accompanied the possession by demons. (Robertson)

Exorcisms were not uncommon in the first century. The historian Josephus reports exorcisms were performed in ancient Israel by administering poisonous root extracts and others by making sacrifices. The Dead Sea Scrolls mention that exorcisms were done by the Essene branch of Judaism. (Wikipedia)

Ancient exorcisms often involved a fumigation of incense of smoke, charms being spoken or inscribed on an amulet, or other ritual objects. Also, the exorcist generally called on another spirit greater than the demon to flush the demon out (for example, the spirit of Moses or Abraham).

The people no doubt marveled that Jesus cast out an unclean spirit by simply telling it to come out. It was done by a word. He did it in his own name, and by his own authority. (Barnes)

It has been noted that throughout his ministry Jesus demonstrated a rejection of popular first century notions regarding demons. “He commanded the crumbs to be taken up after the feeding of multitudes, defying the superstition that demons lurked in crumbs; also the popular notion that demons could take advantage of people who borrowed water was flaunted by our Lord’s borrowing water from the woman of Samaria. The Saviour himself represented demons as preferring ‘waterless places’; but he did not hesitate to frequent waterless places, or desert places.” (Coffman)

Messianic Secret

Jesus often tells those he heals, or those who are demon possessed and loudly professing him to be God, to remain silent after their cure. This is often referred to as the Messianic Secret (see previous blog post for more details). Simply put, Mark is most likely emphasizing that Jesus did  this to communicate that his identity as the messiah cannot be solely understood through his miracles.  Jesus can only be fully recognized and proclaimed God when seen through his sacrifice on the cross and subsequent resurrection.

Leprosy

Leprosy meant many types of skin diseases in the first century, not simply what we consider leprosy today. However, regardless of the condition, the Jewish law forbade contact with a leper (Numbers 5:1).

The fact that Jesus touched the leper was evidence that Jesus regarded him as already clean. (Barnes)

Note how when Jesus says, “I am wiling” he is declaring himself more than just a healer, he is declaring himself divine. Only God can work a miracle. Yet Jesus does it by his own will –by an exertion of his own power. (Barnes)

After his healing, Jesus tells the leper to follow the law of Moses and be pronounced clean by the priest. This involved an elaborate ceremony in which one bird was sacrificed and another set free, followed by a period of waiting and then more sacrifices (Lev. 14)

Observations:

  • The opening verse of Mark may be better translated “This is the good news of Messiah Jesus, the Son of God. It began as the prophet Isaiah had written…” (France)
  • The term “gospel” (euangelion) seems to have been in general use as part of a standard phrase arche tou euangeliou (the beginning of the gospel) known from proclamations and inscriptions from the time of Augustus. The phrase “Son of God” (theou hyios) was also used of Roman emperors (Turton)
  • Note how Mark proclaims Jesus as the anointed one and the Son of God, then immediately tells the story of how Jesus was anointed (via baptism and the spirit descending on him) and declared the Son of God (the voice from heaven)
  • The Holy Spirit is only mentioned six times in Mark. Half of them are in the first 13 verses as a key player in launching Jesus’ ministry. Mark seems to be indicating that Jesus is empowered, directed by and thereby capable of dispensing the Spirit.
  • John preached baptism “for the forgiveness of sins.” The term “forgiveness” literally means “put away.” This is one of several biblical terms for forgiveness. It has metaphorical connections to the Old Testament Day of Atonement where one of the two special goats is driven away from the camp of Israel, symbolically bearing the sin away (Lev. 16:21). (Bible.org)
  • To the outside observer at Jesus baptism, an ordinary man from an obscure village came and was baptized, just like anyone else. Mark implies they didn’t see the spirit, hear the voice, witness the temptations or see the angels. (France) Mark telling us that “He [Jesus] saw the spirit descending…” may imply that only Jesus saw and heard this Messianic affirmation. If so, this would fit into the recurrent theme of Mark’s Messianic Secret (Bible.org)
  • The boats the disciples were on were large fishing boats. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were prosperous middle class fishermen (i.e., had hired servants). John apparently had business contracts to regularly sell fish to the priestly families in Jerusalem (i.e., John was known by them as implied by John 18:15-16). (Bible.org)
  • Notice Peter is the first officially called in Mark, while in John 1:35 it was Andrew. (Bible.org)
  • Meier observes that in the Old Testament fishing for humans is a regular metaphor in the context of judgment and destruction (Jer. 16:16. Ezek. 29:4-5; 38:4; Habakkuk 1:14-17, Amos 4:2).
  • In the synagogue, the presiding elder, after reading the Scriptures, invited any who chose to address the people (Barnes)
  • When the unclean spirit calls out, “What do you want with us?”  This seems to mean, “Have we injured you?” or, “We have done nothing to injure you.” (Barnes)
  • “Amazed” literally means “struck to attention.” Jesus’ teaching style and content were radically different from that of the rabbis. They quoted one another as authorities, but He spoke with his own authority.
  • “It cannot be fortuitous that Mark, in portraying the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, describes three healings: of a demoniac, a mother-in-law, and a leper. The first and last make clear that he is depicting Jesus’ outreach to the most reviled of the community; situated between a demoniac and a leper, “the mother-in-law,” we assume, is an ancient joke. But there are serious implications here as well: before the time of Hillel and Jesus, women, like lepers, were relegated to the outer courts of the Temple, and women received social status only through their relationship to males — usually their fathers or husbands; for a woman to be known through her son-in-law is so extreme as to suggest that Mark is making a special point of her social anonymity.” (Marie Sabin)
  • Notice how all diseases are not connected to demon possession (i.e. the leper and Peter’s mother-in-law). The first century Jews could distinguish between illness and demon possession.

Discussion:

  • Why was Jesus baptized?
  • Why do you think Jesus told people he healed to be silent? Would you have kept silent?
  • What do you think about the calling of the disciples? Why do you think they were so willing to leave behind friends, families and careers? What does this tell us about discipleship?

References: