Facing the Future with Hope

Facing the Future with Hope

About a month ago I shared how life wasn’t quite going to plan, but how that can be okay if we’re willing to step back and see God’s big picture. Well it continued to be a busy month, and this is about the first time I’ve had to blog since then.

One of the best parts of the past month though was a conference I helped to organize for the Presbytery of Hamilton (the regional council my church is a part of). We called it: “Evangelism, Replanting and Renewal: Hope for Churches Facing the Iceberg.” Our speaker was the Rev. Graham Singh, who grew up Presbyterian but came back to church through Holy Trinity Brompton (the home church of the Alpha Course) in the Church of England. Graham is now an Anglican church planter who has restarted churches in England and Canada.

It was a great day reflecting on the possibilities for spreading the Good News of Jesus and what is involved in empowering our churches to do this again. There is hope! Holy Trinity Brompton has restarted 50 churches in southern England; Graham is leading St. Jax Church (a replanted Anglican church in the heart of Montreal); and here in Hamilton our Presbytery has successfully replanted Heritage Green Church in Stoney Creek. Yet all of these hopeful stories have two things in common: 1) a deep love for Jesus and their neighbours 2) and a willingness to do church very differently than in the past.

A number of people have asked me for the message I preached at the start of the conference so I’ve included an audio file and a downloadable copy of the manuscript below.

Sermon – Evangelism Conference – April 21, 2018

Counting Surprises & Blessings

Counting Surprises & Blessings

Life is what happens when you’re busy making plans. I had hoped to have the final study notes up here last week or (since it was Holy Week leading up to Easter) in the worst case have them up by yesterday. Then life happened.

I was rear ended on my way to drop off my daughter at daycare a week ago Monday (thankfully no one was hurt, and my daughter didn’t even get upset). My grandfather (whose been facing increasing health challenges) wound up in hospital a few days later. This past Tuesday morning I washed my face and when I went to put my glasses back on they broke in half.

But in between, I was given a little lesson when I took the kids out for lunch as a treat on the Saturday of Easter weekend. Both kids were super happy, because they got this on top of doing their Easter egg hunt that morning. My son declared it ‘the best day ever!’ Then he knocked over his iced tea.

Suddenly it was the worst day ever. I empathized with him first and then tried to put it in perspective. “That’s very disappointing and upsetting. But look,  you already drank half of it and there’s still some left. And think about all the other good things that happened today. Try not to let one bad thing ruin a great day. Focus on the good.” Well he wasn’t having it, at least not for the next 20-30 minutes (he eventually cheered up later).

When I got home and told Elaine about it, it got me thinking about how often I’m like my 5 year old when something goes wrong. Suddenly, all I can focus on is the problem in front of me and it seems a whole lot bigger than all the other good things in life. So this Easter the lesson for me has been for me to count my blessings.

No one was hurt in the fender bender, everyone handled the situation with grace and my car will be fixed. I still have a grandfather in my life at the age of 35, and he’s getting excellent care right now. I had a wonderful Easter with family and my church. During Easter Sunday service my son showed what a wonderful kid he is by keeping a toddler company when he wandered up and sat on the steps of the platform (he even gave the little guy a hug). And my glasses waited until after Easter before deciding to come apart.

And most of all, I am loved by my Creator and Redeemer. I am saved by his Son who died to set us free, and lives to bring life to all the world. And I am blessed and strengthened by the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the grave.

So the final Gospel of Mark notes should be up here in a week. In the mean time, I’m counting my blessings.

The Gospel According to Mark (Part 4 of 5)

The Gospel According to Mark (Part 4 of 5)

This week we’re beginning the third and final Act of the Gospel According to Mark which tells the story of how Jesus became King through his suffering death and resurrection. Because this is the most important part of the Gospel we’ll be breaking Act 3 into two parts. This week we’ll be exploring Jesus’ Royal Entrance and Conflict with Israel’s Leaders (Mark 11:1-13:37) and next week we’ll focus on Jesus’ Suffering, Death and Resurrection (Mark 14:1-16:8).

The approach we’re taking to this study breaks Mark down into 3 Acts. You can find a helpful 10 minute video summary of the whole Gospel and poster summarizing the 3 Acts in Part 1 of our study.

Bible Project - Mark Act 3

Act 3: Jerusalem

The final act of Mark’s Gospel explains how Jesus became the Messianic King and established God’s reign on earth. Everything in the Gospel has been leading up to this moment. Part 1 of this final act begins with Jesus’ royal entry into the holy city of Jerusalem and then moves into a series of conflicts Jesus has with the leaders of Israel as he asserts his authority as King. After Jesus defeats his challengers in a series of debates he warns his disciples of the coming destruction of Jerusalem and God’s Temple, as well as prophesying their role in the extension of God’s Kingdom on earth.

Jesus’ Royal Entry (Mark 11:1-11)

Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey at the start of the annual Passover festival, publicly claiming to be the Messiah for the first time. In doing this he was claiming to fulfill the prophesy of Zechariah 9:9-17 “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The pilgrims to the festival welcome Jesus as king with the words of the great Passover song Psalm 118: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! ” (Mark 11:9)

It’s important to know that in the 1st Century the Passover festival, which celebrates God freeing Israel from slavery in Egypt, had become focused on the hope that God would soon act again to rescue his people. The Israelite kingdom of Judea had been under some form of Roman rule since 63 BC, but things had become steadily more oppressive since it became a Roman province in 6 AD. Judea was overseen by a junior Roman governor whose main role was to keep order and ensure taxes were collected. Day to day governance was placed in the hands of a local ruling Council made up of the Jewish priesthood, elders and scribes under the leadership of the High Priest.

There was a high level of Messianic expectation and nationalist fervor around most of the major Jewish festivals, but especially at Passover. The Roman governors would come to Jerusalem with a full garrison of soldiers from their administrative capital of Caesarea Maritima to keep order. It was a time of great tension which could easily explode in rioting or revolt.

Jesus Judges the Temple as King and Prophet (Mark 11:12-25)

By overturning the tables of the money changers and sellers of sacrificial animals, Jesus asserts his royal authority over the Temple and announces God’s judgement in the words of the Old Testament prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. His reference to Jeremiah’s prophecy is especially significant as Jeremiah was the prophet who announced the destruction of the first Temple in 589 BC, and was nearly killed for daring to announce God’s judgement.

Jesus’ condemnation of the priests is partially for bringing the commerce needed for the Temple into the court of the Gentiles, which was supposed to be a place of prayer for the non-Jewish nations of the world. However, the main issue is that the priests, scribes and elders think that the Temple will shelter them from the consequences of their corruption and injustice in colluding with the Roman occupation: “you have made it a den of robbers.” (Mark 11:17/Jeremiah 7:11) Mark frames Jesus’ actions in the Temple with the story of him cursing of the fig tree. This was a symbol of Israel, and foreshadows God’s coming judgement.

Debates in the Temple (Mark 11:27-12:34)

When Jesus returns to the city the next day Israel’s formal leaders (the priests, elders and scribes) and other leading groups (Pharisees, Herodians and Sadducees) all challenge Jesus in a series of debates. Jesus emerges victorious, defeating his would be accusers, and winning the respect of the one person who asks him an honest question.

  • 11:27-33 The priests, scribes and elders question Jesus’ royal and prophetic claims and Jesus exposes their total disregard for truth.
  • 12:1-12 Jesus prophesies that Israel’s leaders will kill him and then be destroyed by God in the Parable of the Vineyard (another symbol of Israel). Jesus presents the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple as a result of Israel’s leaders rejecting God’s last offer of mercy and forgiveness. It should be noted that this condemnation is for the Jewish leaders, not the Jewish people as a whole.
  • 12:13-17 The Pharisees and Herodians try to trap Jesus with a question about Roman taxes and end up condemning themselves. There needed to be money changers at the Temple because Roman coinage was blasphemous. Yet the Pharisees and Herodians have a Roman denarius in their purses, showing their hypocrisy. This story isn’t about separation of church and state, but giving Caesar back the corrupt coins stamped with his image, and giving God the human lives that he has stamped with his image.
  • 12:18-27 The Sadducees challenge Jesus about the Resurrection and are also defeated. The Sadducees accepted only the authority of the 5 books of Moses (the Torah) and a smaller collection of prophetic writings. They did not believe in newer Jewish beliefs such as the Messiah, the Resurrection of the Dead or the future Day of the Lord. Hence Jesus silences them from a central passage in the Torah.
  • 12:28-34 A righteous scribe asks the only honest question of the day, wanting to see which commandment Jesus believes is the greatest in God’s Law (another name for the Torah). While others had summed up the Law with the words of Leviticus 19:18, Jesus is revolutionary in combining it with the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 (Israel’s central confession of faith). The scribe approves of Jesus’ answer, and no one else dares ask him another question.

Final Teaching in the Temple (Mark 12:35-44)

As he’s done with the disciples, Jesus addresses the crowds with the question of whether the Messiah is merely a human king  in the line of King David, or something much more. He does this by turning to one the Scriptures that was widely believed to prophecy about the Messiah, Psalm 110. Jesus then condemns the scribes, who were the learned teachers of the Torah and other sacred writings of the Jewish people. The scribes and Pharisees are not exactly same. Many of the most influential scribes were Pharisees, but not all. Mark depicts a variety of groups questioning and opposing Jesus where Matthew and Luke put more of the focus on the Pharisees. This is likely because they wrote in the period after the destruction of the Temple when the Pharisees were taking their first steps of becoming the new leaders of the Jewish people and coming into conflict with the Jewish followers of Jesus.

Prophesy of the Temple’s Destruction and the Coming of God’s Kingdom (Mark 13:1-37)

Jesus uses Apocalyptic imagery to prophesy the destruction of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem within one generation. This was fulfilled in the disastrous Jewish Revolt of 66-70AD which was ruthlessly crushed by the Roman Empire. The ‘Abomination of Desolation’ in 13:14 refers to the vision in the chapter 9 of the book of Daniel. In Daniel this expression refers to the Greek King Antiochus Epiphanes placing an idol in the Temple, which ignited the last revolution against foreign rule by the Maccabees. However, this time military revolution will bring about Judea’s destruction. Early traditions show that most Jewish Christians did heed Jesus’ warnings and fled Jerusalem ahead of the Roman siege.

Jesus continues his Apocalyptic prophesy with the coming of the Son of Man in power and the end of history. He closes with warnings to be prepared and to “keep awake.” Jesus actually says relatively little about the end times here, and what he does say is very cryptic. The main point is to not despair over Jerusalem’s destruction, but live in hope for the final victory of God’s Kingdom and Jesus’ return. We might interpret 13:27 as a prophecy of Christian missionaries (the Greek word angelos refers to both divine and human messengers) spreading through the world to gather the elect into God’s Kingdom.

Next Week: Act 3, Part 2 (Mark 14:1-16:8)


The Gospel According to Mark (Part 3 of 5)

The Gospel According to Mark (Part 3 of 5)

This week we’re looking Act 2 of the Gospel According to Mark, which covers Mark 8:27-10:52. The approach we’re taking to this study breaks Mark down into 3 Acts. You can find a helpful 10 minute video summary of the whole Gospel and poster summarizing the 3 Acts in Part 1 of our study.

Bible Project - Mark Act 2

Act 2: On The Way

The second part of Mark’s Gospel moves from announcing Jesus’ as the promised Messiah or King, to showing showing that Jesus is a very different kind of king. Jesus begins his journey to Jerusalem and over three conversations tells his disciples that he will become king by suffering, dying and rising again. This shakes the group the core, and they struggle with what Jesus is saying throughout this section. In fact Act 2 can be seen as a journey from one blind man (in Mark 8:22-26) to another (in 10:46-52). The first story prepares us for the struggle of the disciples to see and understand. The second affirms that in spite of their difficulties and failures in Act 2, by the end of Act 3 they will see, understand and faithfully follow Jesus on the Way.

The Messiah Will Suffer & Sacrifice: Take 1 (Mark 8:27-9:1)

In the region of Caesarea Philippi, which was home to a temple to the Divine Emperor of the Rome, Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is. Simon Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, perhaps hoping that this is the first step toward Jesus toppling that false god and freeing Israel from Roman rule. Instead Jesus tells Peter and the others that he will be rejected by Israel’s leaders, be killed and after 3 days rise again. Peter is stunned and challenges him, before being put in his place for presenting Jesus with a dangerous temptation.

Jesus then tells the disciples and the crowd that anyone who follows him must follow his example by denying themselves and taking up a cross of their own. The mark of Jesus’ followers will be sacrificing their lives for him and his good news, which will end up being their path to true life. Jesus also warns of the danger of denying him, while presenting the hope that some the people following him in Galilee will see God’s Kingdom come with power. This has been a confusing prophecy for many, but refers to Jesus’ Resurrection and the resulting empowerment of his disciples to extend God’s Kingdom throughout the world.

The Mountain and Valley: The Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-29)

Peter, James and John get a sneak preview of the Resurrection when Jesus takes them up a mountain to reveal his true glory. Jesus is transformed and joined on the mountain by the prophets Moses and Elijah, who had also seen God’s glory on a mountain top. As he has before, God speaks from a cloud, only this time he confirms that Jesus is his Son, and that the must “Listen to him!” The three are then sworn to keep this event to themselves until after Jesus is raised, something that continues to confuse them.

When they get down to the bottom of the mountain, they see another scene inspired by the Old Testament. Just as Moses found chaos and unfaithfulness when he came down the mountain, so too does Jesus. The other disciples are arguing with some Pharisees after they were unable to heal a boy with life threatening seizures. Jesus is deeply frustrated, but shows compassion to the boy’s father who cries out, “I believe! Help my unbelief!” The boy is healed and freed from the spirit causing his illness, and the disciples wonder why they couldn’t cast it out when they had been able to heal in Jesus’ name before. Jesus says the answer is to spend more time in prayer. Only then will they have the faith they need to handle more difficult tasks.

The Messiah Will Suffer & Sacrifice: Take 2 (Mark 9:30-50)

Jesus announces his coming suffering a second time, and for a second time has to challenge the disciples on what this means for following him. The disciples make the mistake of arguing about who is first when Jesus has just spoken about putting himself last. He welcomes a child into their midst and tells them the measure of those who are first is in how they welcome and care for those who are least and last in the world.

But John can’t contain himself. Wanting Jesus to affirm that the disciples are first into the Kingdom, he tries to get Jesus to approve their attempt to shut down another exorcist who was using Jesus name. But Jesus is bigger than the company of his followers, and calls on them to welcome anyone who shows love and reverence for Jesus, for “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Bottom line: the company of Jesus’ followers have an essential role in his mission, but they are not the gatekeepers to Jesus.

In fact, if you’re going to be first in Jesus’ Kingdom and his mission you have an incredible responsibility. His disciples must always be an open door to him, never a stumbling block for the little ones who love and trust in him. If you cause others to stumble you’re better off being thrown into the sea. Therefore disciples need to cut everything out of their lives that might make them a barrier to others coming to Jesus. That includes stupid arguments about who is most important.

Living as Jesus’ Followers in the World (Mark 10:1-31)

Mark then provides a few stories that provide concrete examples of what following the crucified King looks like in day to day life. First some Pharisees debate Jesus over the question of divorce. Jesus replies they are asking the wrong question, and taking divorce too lightly. Moses allowed divorce on account of human weakness, but God’s intention from the beginning was for marriage to be a lifelong relationship. Divorce then is a serious thing, not to be undertaken lightly or seen as morally indifferent (in fact remarriage after divorce is technically adultery). This was radical teaching in a time where many men would divorce their wives for trivial reasons and leave them destitute. Instead, followers of Jesus should be marked by faithfulness, even when the road gets hard. Divorce is a concession to human frailty, but comes at a high personal cost and should always be a last resort.

From marriage, Mark takes us to a story about children. The disciples try to stop people from bringing their children to be blessed by Jesus and get a sharp rebuke in return:  “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

Then along comes someone the disciples would love to see join Jesus’ movement: a right-living rich man. But as much as Jesus loves this man, he sees that the man’s wealth will be an obstacle to him taking up his cross and following. Jesus challenges the man to give it all away and the man walks away sadly. The disciples are shocked because it was often assumed that wealth was a sign of God’s favour (and still is). Instead, Jesus teaches that wealth is barrier to following him – it’s hard to deny yourself when you have everything. But in the end no one can get right with God by their own efforts, we’re saved and welcomed by God’s grace alone. And if we give up our possessions and even our loved ones we’ll find we get them back in a new a deeper way, though not without the challenges that come from following Jesus in this world.

The Messiah Will Suffer & Sacrifice: Take 3 (Mark 10:32-45)

As the group nears Jerusalem, Jesus turns on last time and announces what’s to come. Once again the disciples show their blindness. James and John come forward to ask for the number one and two positions when he becomes King. Jesus asks if they can do what’s necessary to be first in his Kingdom and they say, “Absolutely!” Jesus prophecies that they will (indeed both will suffer for Jesus and at least one will die a martyr – Acts 12:1-12), but that the places on the right and left of his throne are already spoken for. Indeed, when we fast forward to chapter 15 we see that Jesus’ throne is the cross, and it will be two bandits beside him in his moment of shocking glory.

Jesus then reminds the rest of the disciples (who are naturally grumpy about the brothers’ arrogance) that to be first in his kingdom you have to be last, and if you want be great you must be a servant and slave of all, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” This is a key saying, because Jesus is pointing to the prophecy he will fulfill by his death and resurrection: the Suffering Servant foretold in Isaiah 52:13-52:13.

Conclusion to Act 2 (10:46-52)

As Jesus leaves Jericho (the last stop before Jerusalem) a blind man named Bartimaeus cries out for help:  “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Even though the crowd tries to silence him, Bartimaeus continues to cry out and Jesus hears and heals him. Jesus tells him that his faith has allowed him to see and be well. Bartimaeus then follows Jesus “on the Way.” This is a significant turn of phrase because early Christians referred to themselves as “The Way.” Like Bartimaeus, Jesus’ disciples will now finally find faith and sight, and they will learn how to faitfully walk in Jesus’ Way. It won’t be an easy journey, but they and we can walk it because the Son of David has shown us his mercy and walked the Way ahead of us – as we’ll see in the closing two sessions of this study.


The Gospel According to Mark (Part 2 of 5)

The Gospel According to Mark (Part 2 of 5)

This week we’re looking Act 1 of the Gospel According to Mark, which covers Mark 1:1-8:26. The approach we’re taking to this study breaks Mark down into 3 Acts. You can find a helpful 10 minute video summary of the whole Gospel and poster summarizing the 3 Acts in Part 1 of our study.

Bible Project - Mark Act 1

Act 1: Galilee

The first part of Mark’s Gospel addresses the question of who Jesus is. Jesus arrives, is anointed by God’s Spirit, announces the arrival of God’s Kingdom, then begins performing signs of power to show that he’s the Anointed King (Messiah) who has come to make God’s Kingdom on earth a reality.

Mark’s Opening (Mark 1)

The Prologue (Mark 1:1-13)

  • The book opens with the title: “The gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” and presents the ancient promise of the prophets that God himself would come to reign as king on earth one day.
  • John the Baptist appears as the messenger announcing God’s arrival, and tells the people to get ready for the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.
  • When Jesus arrives he is baptized by John, is anointed as Messiah by God’s Spirit, and affirmed in his identity as God’s Son. The Spirit then sends Jesus out into the wilderness for a 40 day period of testing where he overcomes the Satan, the representative of evil in the world.

The Start of Jesus’ Ministry (Mark 1:14-45)

  • After John is put in jail, Jesus announces that God’s Kingdom is arriving and calls on people to change their lives and believe this Good News.
  • Jesus then begins to invite people to join his Kingdom movement, starting with the fishermen Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John.
  • In this chapter we see how Jesus’ arrival signals that the rule of evil over the world is beginning to end and God is starting to set things right. The key sign of this is Jesus healing people of illness and driving out the hidden spiritual evil behind the brokenness and suffering of the world.
  • A key theme introduced here that extends throughout all of Act 1 is that Jesus is a secret king. The spirits know who he is, but Jesus silences them. When people are healed he tells them to keep this to themselves. He doesn’t want people to get the wrong idea about what kind of king he is. Only the cross and resurrection will give the complete picture.
  • Jesus starts in the major town of Capernaum on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, but quickly moves out into the whole of Galilee to spread the message of the Kingdom and bring God’s healing to everyone.

Jesus’ Signs, Their Meaning and Peoples’ Response (Mark 2:1-8:26)

Here’s a quick summary of Jesus’ main actions in Act 1 and what they mean.

  • Mark 2:1-17 Jesus heals and forgives people their sins. But… only God can forgive.
  • Mark 2:23-3:6 Jesus asserts his authority over the weekly Sabbath to heal and show mercy… but only God or the King of Israel can do that.
  • Mark 3:13-19 Jesus appoints Twelve of his followers to be Apostles… just like God created Israel as a nation made up of Twelve tribes.
  • Mark 3:20-30 Jesus is rejected as insane by his family or as a servant of evil by a group of religious leaders. But how can that be true if Jesus is driving out evil spirits and actually healing people? If evil is being defeated then maybe Jesus is the one sent by God to rule the world…
  • Mark 4:35-41 Jesus now shows power over nature as he saves his friends from a storm on the sea. Who is this man?
  • Mark 5:21-43 Jesus takes his healings to a new level and even brings a dead girl back to life. Yet somehow faith is needed for Jesus to have full power to do this work.
  • Mark 6:7-16 Jesus sends out the Twelve to do everything he has done. This gets the fearful attention of Herod Antipas, the local ruler who reports to the Romans. He also starts asking, “Who is this Jesus?”
  • Mark 6:31-44 & 8:1-10 Jesus miraculously feeds a group of 5000 people, then does it again with a group of 4000 people. This is eerily similar to how God fed the people of Israel when they were wandering in the wilderness on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land. Yet still the disciples don’t really understand what’s going on.
  • Mark 6:45-52 Jesus walks on water. Not only is this a lot like God parting the Red Sea, but walking on water is another thing that only God can do…
  • Mark 7:1-23 Jesus now turns the tables on the religious leaders demanding to know why their traditions seem more important than following what’s God’s prophets have written down in the Bible. Who is really being faithful to God here?
  • Mark 7:22-37 After Jesus confronts unfaithfulness by many of Israel’s leaders we are given two stories of Gentiles (non-Jews) welcoming Jesus and believing him. Is Jesus opening the door of God’s Kingdom to all nations?

The Parables of the Kingdom

In the middle of all the action (Mark 4:1-34) Jesus tells a number of parables (symbolic stories) to explain what’s really going on. The Parable of the Sower explains why some accept the message while others don’t. And all the parables explain that though Jesus’ ministry is highly unconventional and unexpected it’s like seeds being planted that will grow into the amazing reality of God’s Kingdom. The Kingdom is like a huge plant that grows from a tiny seed and a surprisingly big crop of good food for the whole world.

Conclusion to Act 1 (8:11-26)

Act 1 ends with even more opposition from the religious leaders of God’s people (8:11-13) and continued misunderstanding and confusion from the disciples (8:14-21). Yet all is not lost. The section ends with a meaningful story of Jesus healing a blind man (8:22-26). It takes Jesus two tries to get this man to see. The first time he can see a little with blurred vision, before having his vision fully restored with the second attempt. Act 2 will see Jesus bring the disciples to a partial understanding of who is and what he’s doing, before bringing them to full understanding with his death and resurrection in Act 3.

Next Week: Act 2 (Mark 8:27-10:52)


The Gospel According to Mark – Part 1 of 5

The Gospel According to Mark – Part 1 of 5

Over the remaining 4 weeks of Lent I’ll be leading a survey course on The Gospel According to Mark. This week was the introduction, looking at what the Gospels are and the background of Mark in particular. I’ve adapted the basic outline for the course from The Bible Project, a great online tool for learning about the Bible.

What are the Gospels?

The four Gospels of the Christian New Testament are a bit hard to fit into a standard category. They look a bit like biographies, but only cover a small part of Jesus’ human life. They contain a lot of his teaching, but don’t read like a standard work of religious philosophy. And most of all they have the goal of persuading the reader to accept the truth of their overall message. So what are they?

Well if you look at their full titles they are all called ‘The Gospel According to… Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.’ So they’re all claiming to be distinct witnesses to something called ‘The Gospel.’ In the original Greek this word is εὐαγγέλιον (evangelion) which literally means ‘good news.’ In fact the Gospel of Mark opens like this:  The beginning of  the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. (Mark 1:1 NRSV)

So What is The Good News?

Question: How does this presentation of the Gospel of Jesus as ‘The Good News of the Kingdom’ compare to how you’ve previously thought or been taught about the Gospel?

How would I personally describe the Gospel? After thinking, reading and reflecting on this since I was in seminary, here are two ways that I find helpful:

The Good News of how God has restored his Reign on earth through Jesus the Messiah; and Jesus’ call to be reconciled to God, healed and transformed as we join his Kingdom movement and follow him as King.


The Story of Jesus

(told as the climax of)

The Story of Israel [ie. the Bible]

(which solves the problem at the heart of)

The Story of the World

This second definition is based on one of the ways Scot McKnight describes the Gospel in his book The King Jesus Gospel: Reclaiming the Original Good News. Along with N. T. Wright, McKnight has been the biggest influence on how I’ve come to understand the full extent of what the New Testament means by the Gospel.

I’ve also preached on the basics of the Gospel a couple times this current Church year as we’ve been exploring Mark together in worship. You can find my first message on the Gospel of Mark here: http://standrews.ws/sermons/the-good-news-of-the-kingdom/

The 4 Gospels

Since they are four distinct (but related) witnesses to the same Gospel or Good News, the four New Testament Gospels share a lot in common. Here are four of the most important features:

  1. They frame Jesus’ story within the story of Israel as told in the Old Testament.
  2. They tell stories that make claims about who Jesus is, and what he accomplished.
  3. They present the death and resurrection of Jesus as the climax of the story of Israel and the World as told in the Bible.
  4. They carefully arrange and retell the story and teaching of Jesus to highlight certain aspects of Jesus’ character and work.

The first three Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) share a very similar perspective and for this reason scholars call them the Synoptics. Mark seems to have been the first written (roughly 60-70AD) and also seems to have been adapted as a template by the writers of Matthew and Luke. The Gospel of John takes a noticeably different perspective on Jesus. it’s almost as if Matthew, Mark and Luke were standing on one side of the room, and John on the other. But even so they all tell a very similar story, and announce the same essential Good News.

Mark: The Mystery of the Suffering Servant King

For an amazing summary of the entire Gospel of Mark in just 10 minutes watch the video below. We’ll be using this outline to guide our study of Mark over the next 4 weeks.

Each week I’ll post a summary of our Wednesday night study at the church. Here’s where we’ll be going next:

  • February 28 – Mark 1:1-8:26
  • March 7  – Mark 8:27-10:52
  • March 14 – Mark 11:1-13:37
  • March 21 – Mark 14:1-16:11

Bible Project - Mark Poster




Group Study: Prayer (Part 2 of 6)

Group Study: Prayer (Part 2 of 6)

This week the topic of the video-based discussion on site was “Why Pray?” This corresponds roughly to chapters 4-6 of the book. In it Yancey works through the objections some have to the concept of prayer as well as the struggles that many of people faith have as they struggle with prayer.

While Yancey gives several reasons to pray, for me the most compelling reason is the one that he highlights above the others:

“If I had to answer the question, ‘Why pray?’ in one sentence, it would be, ‘Because Jesus did.’ He bridged the vast gulf between God and human beings. While on earth he became vulnerable, as we are vulnerable; rejected as we are rejected; and tested, as we are tested. In every case his response was prayer.” (Prayer, 1st Edition, p.50)

The study guide for session 2 is attached for you to work through. There is a lot of great material to work through, especially the chance to explore and reflect on how the Gospels show Jesus at prayer.

Yancey Prayer Guide – 2

Group Study: Prayer (Part 1 of 6)

Group Study: Prayer (Part 1 of 6)

For the next six weeks, I’ll be working through the book Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference with a small group here at St. Andrew’s Church Ancaster. This series of blog posts is for anyone from St. Andrew’s who can’t attend the study in person; for those who are part of the onsite group who miss a week; or for anyone who finds their way to this blog and would like to study along with us. I hope that this study would be helpful to you all as you seek to grow in the understanding and practice of prayer.

Members of St. Andrew’s can pick up a copy of the book from the church office. You can also order the book from Amazon (thought there are seem to be limited copies available right now) or direct from the publisher: http://www.zondervan.com/prayer-3

For the duration of the study (October 11 to November 15) you can download a photocopy of the study guide we’re using. Following the completion of the study I will have to remove them from the blog posts, as they contain copyrighted material.

Yancey Prayer Guide – 1

The first session in the study guide corresponds to chapters 1-3 in the book. The onsite group has their discussions guided by short video sessions by Philip Yancey based on the book. Zondervan has posted the first of these video sessions to YouTube, which you can watch below.

Finally, you can engage in discussion or ask questions in the comment section of each blog post.

Exodus: The Question of History (Part 2)

Exodus: The Question of History (Part 2)

Last time we talked a bit about the question: “how historical are the narratives of the Bible.” The short version of that post is that it depends on the narrative (some are more like parables, others refer to actual events), and it depends by what you mean by history.

Ancient people didn’t make the sharp distinction between facts and meaning the way modern try to people do. Every ancient historical document blends what we would call ‘the facts’ with the interpretation and meaning of those facts. Some writers stick closely to the facts, while others use them more freely to bring across their meaning, and the message they want to give to the present.

I finished by saying that I believe that the basic story of the Exodus is historical – that it really happened. I also said that knowing how close the story is to actual events is really hard to tell.

Why I Think the Exodus Happened

First off, let me say that the majority view among archaeologists and modern historians of ancient Egypt and the Near East is that the Exodus did not happen. There are a few reasons for this: nothing like it is mentioned in any contemporary ancient source outside the Bible; there is no clear archaeological evidence of a mass movement of people through the Sinai Peninsula during the period in which the Exodus is usually placed; and there is no archaeological evidence of an Israelite invasion of Canaan  of the kind described in the book of Joshua (in the period following the usual date for the Exodus).

The majority interpretation of this apparent absence of hard evidence is to say that there was no Exodus, that the Israelites were never in Egypt, but rather developed as a new culture and religion from the existing population of the Canaanites and made up the Exodus story at a later date. The trouble with this interpretation is that it is just as hard to believe as the admittedly strange and hard to believe Exodus story. For one thing there is no documentary evidence for it, it is just a hypothesis based on the current archaeology of the period when the majority of scholars believe the Exodus story is set.

A second reason for believing that the Exodus is based in history, is that though the origin stories of most ancient people are often fantastical and symbolic, they are usually grounded in some actual events. It’s rare for one to be completely made up, especially one that doesn’t exactly bring glory on the ancestors of Israel. It’s a story that says the first Israelites were slaves, who did not gain freedom by their own courage or ingenuity, but were rescued entirely by their God. It also shows them as reluctant followers, ungrateful, and ready to abandon this God at a moment’s notice. It’s a pretty odd story to make up if you want to give your nation a great founding legend.

But as a Christian, the most important reason I believe the Exodus happened is that one of the central claims of the Bible is that God is a god who acts in the world. I believe this most firmly because I believe that God was acting in the person of Jesus. I believe that Jesus taught, healed, performed signs, suffered, died and was raised to new life.

The case for believing that the gospels are essentially historical is much stronger than for the Exodus (for one thing they come from a more recent and better documented period), but if we believe that God acted in this world through Jesus, then we should be open to the stories from the Old Testament about God’s earlier work in the world. This is especially true of the Exodus, which is the central saving act of God in the Old Testament, that is referenced not only in the Torah (the five books of Moses), and referred to repeatedly throughout the historical, poetic and prophetic books that follow.

So, how do we make sense of the apparent contradiction to the archaeological record? Well as this post is already long enough, I’ll tackle that next time.


Exodus: The Question of History

Exodus: The Question of History

One of the big questions that comes up in any discussion of the Bible is how ‘literally’ should we take it. Going by what the word ‘literal’ actually means, this should be a question of whether we look for meaning in the literary text in front of us, or whether we should focus on deriving an abstract allegorical or symbolic meaning. However, what most people mean when they ask, ‘how literally’ we should take the Bible is: “should we take this as actual historical events?”

Is the Bible History?

This is a good question, but one that depends a lot on the book of the Bible we’re looking at. The Bible is really a library of books of many different genres. Books of poetry and wisdom, such as Psalms and Proverbs aren’t history (but may refer to historical events and people). Much of the New Testament is made up of letters to early Christian communities and individuals. These can be a resource for working out a history of the early Christian movement, but they weren’t written as history per se.

The question of history is best asked of the books that are primarily narrative, such as the Gospels and the Book of Acts in the New Testament, books like 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, Ruth and Jonah in the Old Testament. And Exodus, of course. But even here we need to decide whether a narrative is meant to describe historical events or is parable, that while full of meaning to be taken seriously, is ultimately a fictional story. You’ll find a lot of debate on what books are meant to be history and which are parables. I personally take books like Ruth and Jonah as being parables, though based on historical people and events. On the other hand I firmly believe the Gospels are written as history. Much, if not, most of the narrative material in the Bible is written as history – but (and this is essential) it is written in the style of ancient history.

The Ancient vs. Modern Approach to History

When we look at books that are intended to be read as history, we need to be aware that ancient people understood history quite differently from modern Western people. Since the European Enlightenment in the 18th Century, history has been understood as being about establishing the facts of what happened in the past. While historical writing might contain interpretation of those facts, and application to the present, there is an attempt to keep ‘the facts’ separate from ‘interpretation.’ In other words to goal is to be objective and scientific, as much as that goal is never fully achievable (even in the hard sciences).

Ancient and Medieval people didn’t make this hard distinction between ‘facts’ and ‘interpretation.’ For them the primary purpose of history was to provide meaning to the present, and teach important moral lessons to people living today. That’s not to say ‘the facts’ weren’t important, but they didn’t try to separate the them from the meaning they took from those factual events (this is similar to the post-modern view that questions the very notion of objectivity and our ability to separate facts from meaning and interpretation).

The result is that the narratives told in ancient histories seamlessly mix what we would call ‘the facts’ with ‘meaning and interpretation.’ The story of history is told in a way that highlights the meaning the author wants to convey to the reader. This means ‘the facts’ get edited and added to in a way that produces a meaningful story. For example: The Greek historian Herodotus tells how the Persian King Xerxes had the waters between Turkey and Greece whipped with chains after his first failed attempt to build a bridge over them to carry his massive invading army. This is likely an allegorical part of the account meant to highlight Xerxes’ hubris in thinking he was a divine being who could control nature (on the other hand many ancient rulers really did have delusions of divine grandeur, so it’s also possible that it could have happened this way).

Bottom Line: We should not expect ancient historical narratives to separate ‘the facts’ from interpretation and meaning the way modern histories try to do.

This does not mean that ancient histories are not factual. What it means is that they are a mixture of what modern people would call factual (what actually happened) and fictional (symbolic details added to give meaning).

In fact, archaeology and comparison of ancient histories written by different people of different nationalities and perspectives have shown many ancient histories are highly factual. It all depends on the author and what what their goals are. Another example: the Roman historian Tacitus has proven to be highly factual in his writing, his contemporary Suetonius on the other hand preferred to be more sensational (and must be read more carefully), yet both are essential to understanding the early period of the Roman Empire.

So, Did the Exodus Really Happen?

Short answer: Yes. Long answer: It’s complicated. I believe the basic outline of the story is based on actual events, but more than that is very hard to tell. For the full answer, check back next week.