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:

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:

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.






Exodus: Setting the Stage

Exodus: Setting the Stage

My fall preaching series will be a (very) quick trip through the Biblical story of the Exodus. The Book of Exodus has 40 chapters, but I’ll only be covering story up to chapter 20, and doing this in just six parts. That means my Sunday morning messages will only be able to touch on the major plot points and themes – it’ll be a major exercise in self-discipline on my part.

To help me keep my focus, and give some additional context to my messages, I’ll be regularly posting on Exodus here over the next two months. To get started, take a look at the excellent two part video summary of Exodus from The Bible Project.  While you’re at it take a look around their YouTube Channel. You’ll find some highly accessible, top-notch Biblical scholarship in every one of their videos.