PREACHING THE GOSPEL
(October 17, 2004 Sermon Notes)
Our creeds and catechism jump from Jesus’ birth to his death, without saying anything about his life. That might give us the impression that his life isn’t important. But Jesus didn’t spend his life waiting for the important stuff to start to happen. He was working throughout his life.
What was that work? We’re going to see it all through Mark’s Gospel. But we start to see it in the summary in Mark 1:14-15.
THE TIMING OF HIS MINISTRY (1:14a)
Jesus starts his ministry in Galilee “after John was put in prison.” Literally, it’s “after John was delivered over.” That’s the same phrase Mark uses later when he says that Jesus was “delivered over” (sometimes translated “betrayed”) to his enemies (3:19; 9:31; 10:33-34; 14:10, 11, 18, 21, 41, 42, 44; 15:1, 10, 15). John’s imprisonment foreshadows Jesus’ imprisonment.
God destroyed Pharaoh and saved Moses. God protected Elijah from Ahab. But God doesn’t save John, who is a new Moses and a new Elijah. Joshua conquered Canaan and Elisha died peacefully in his bed, but Jesus isn’t going to be protected as they were. He’ll conquer, but he’ll die first.
But Jesus doesn’t run away. Herod, the ruler of Galilee, arrested John and Jesus marches into Galilee, into Herod’s territory, to preach. And his work is more glorious than John’s.
John’s death isn’t the end. Something more glorious happens next. And Jesus’ death will lead to something more glorious: His resurrection and the spread of the kingdom. And though we, too, will be “delivered over” (Mark 13:9-12), the kingdom will keep advancing from glory to glory.
THE CONTENT OF HIS MESSAGE (1:14b-15)
Jesus and John both proclaim that God is becoming King as he promised. But unlike John, Jesus announces that “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand.” The time the prophets talked about it here and God’s kingdom is already present. In fact Jesus himself is the kingdom.
The presence of the kingdom demands a response: “Repent and believe the gospel.” This isn’t just ordinary daily repentance; Jesus is calling Israel to the great repentance which must happen before Israel can be restored (Deut. 30:1-3). The king is coming; therefore Israel must repent.
Repentance involves returning to loyalty to the true King. It involves dropping your own agenda and adopting God’s agenda. Jesus calls people not only to repent but to believe “the gospel,” that is, to believe the good news he is preaching. They have to adopt his view of the kingdom. They have to drop their old loyalties and follow him to inherit the kingdom.
And so do we.
It seems to us natural that love should be the commonest theme of serious imaginative literature: but a glance at classical antiquity or at the Dark Ages at once shows us that what we took for “nature” is really a special state of affairs, which will probably have an end, and which certainly had a beginning in eleventh-century Provence. It seems â€” or it seemed to us lately â€” a natural thing that love (under certain conditions) should be regarded as a noble and ennobling passion: it is only if we imagine ourselves trying to explain this doctrine to Aristotle, Virgil, St Paul, or the author of Beowulf, that we become aware how far from natural it is. Even our code of etiquette, with its rule that women always have precedence, is a legacy from courtly love, and is felt to be far from natural in modern Japan or India.
Many of the features of this sentiment, as it was known to the Troubadours, have indeed disappeared; but this must not blind us to the fact that the most momentous and the most revolutionary elements in it have made the background of European literature for eight hundred years. French poets, in the eleventh century, discovered or invented, or were the first to express, that romantic species of passion which English poets were still writing about in the nineteenth. They effected a change which has left no corner of our ethics, our imagination, or our daily life untouched, and they erected impassible barriers between us and the classical past or the Oriental present. Compared with this revolution the Renaissance is a mere ripple on the surface of literature. â€” C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition, pp. 3-4 (paragraph break added for clarity).
In the course of his book, Lewis traces the doctrine of courtly love as it was presented in the Middle Ages. Courtly love, Lewis points out, was always adulterous (Lancelot’s love of Guinevere) or illicit in some way (e.g., Troilus’s pursuit of Criseyde). The medieval poets didn’t celebrate married love. After all, in a marriage there’s no more honouring of the wife (or so one would believe from what writers of the time say): the wife is now subject to the husband and there’s no longer any “romantic adoration” of the wife.
Lewis argues that the change in love poetry happened at the end of the medieval period and is fully effected only in the poetry of Edmund Spenser, whose Fairie Queene celebrates chastity and presents married love as the highest and truest love.
I don’t know if Lewis’s history is entirely accurate and I’ll leave it to the historians of medieval thought to debate. I do note that if Spenser and the late medievals began to praise romantic love between husband and wife, they weren’t creating something new (as Lewis sometimes suggests); rather, they were returning to something as old as the Song of Songs.
Still, the history of love (and of allegorical love poetry) which Lewis traces is very interesting, not least because it shows us (as Lewis insists in the quotation above) that the way we think today isn’t simply “natural,” but flows from a lot of other factors in the past, factors which have shaped us without our knowing it.
Happy Thanksgiving to all my American readers, and especially to my wife and her family and friends. We miss you and wish we could be feasting with you!
Here in Canada, of course, it isn’t Thanksgiving. It’s a normal day. We were originally planning to have a big Thanksgiving dinner anyway, but due to various circumstances we won’t be having one today.
I stayed up late last night to finish Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Nevermind all the controversy among some Christians about the book and nevermind all the complaints that this isn’t “great literature.” It was great fun and I’m looking forward to reading the next one.
And now I’m off to finish my sermon on Mark 2:13-17 and to do some work on the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 1.
Yup: I’ve finished with my series on the Belgic Confession and now I’m starting the Catechism over for the fourth time. It’s mandated by the Church Order of the United Reformed Churches in North America that preachers preach through one of the documents that make up the Three Forms of Unity in one of the two (mandated) services a Sunday.
As I say, this is my fourth time through the Catechism and sometimes I wonder how long-term ministers in this tradition do it. Do they just keep churning out the same sermon over and over and over again? Do they have about four or five sermons on each Lord’s Day of the Catechism and cycle them? How do you keep things fresh?
Anyway, that’s what I’m doing today. Happy Thanksgiving, you Americans! Eat lots and lots of turkey and pumpkin pie to the glory of God and rejoice in His goodness to you!
JESUS IN THE WILDERNESS
(October 10, 2004, Sermon Notes)
All through the opening verses of Mark’s Gospel, our expectations have been growing. Jesus is Yahweh, Israel’s God, coming to rescue His people. He’s the new Joshua, the new Elisha, the new David. At His baptism, God anoints Him as king and acclaims Him as His son.
But in our text, instead of going immediately to Jerusalem to claim His throne, Jesus goes to the wilderness. That’s where the first battle has to be fought. And what happens there is a miniature pattern for the rest of Jesus’ ministry.
THE SPIRIT AND THE SATAN (1:12-13a)
Immediately after His baptism, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. The word for “drives” is the same word used when Mark talks about Jesus “casting out” demons. The Spirit doesn’t just lead Jesus into the wilderness; He throws Him out of the land into the wilderness.
That’s what happened to Israel at the Exodus: Israel was cast out into the wilderness (Ex. 6:1; 11:1; 12:33, 39). In the wilderness, Israel was tested and Israel failed. Israel was an unfaithful son (see Hosea 11).
But now God has declared that Jesus is His Son. Jesus is the new Israel. The Spirit drives Him into the wilderness because He has a calling to carry out there. For forty days (representing Israel’s forty years in the wilderness), Jesus is in the wilderness being tempted by “the satan.”
“The satan” is a description, not a name. It means “the accuser.” The satan wanted to accuse Job and so he tempted him to curse God (Job 1-2). The satan wanted to accuse David and so he tempted him to number Israel and boast in his power (1 Chr. 21:1). And now the satan wants to accuse Jesus, too, and so he tempts him.
But Jesus doesn’t fall. The accuser’s charges don’t stick. Jesus wins the victory and because He did, the accuser’s charges against us don’t stick either. The accuser of the brothers has been cast down (Rev. 12:10).
THE ANIMALS AND THE ANGELS (1:13b-c)
Jesus is a new Israel. He’s also a new David. Samuel anoints David, but David doesn’t take the throne immediately. He’s cast out to be with the Gentiles (1 Sam. 26:19). He’s tempted to take the throne the wrong way. But he resists the temptation and God gives him dominion.
Mark hints that Jesus is like David. Only Mark says that Jesus was “with the wild beasts,” just as David was (1 Sam. 16:34-37). He won the victory over the beasts. And Jesus, too, rules over the wild beasts. They don’t hurt him. And what happens here hints at His future rule of the world.
As well, Mark says that “the angels ministered to Him.” Most likely, they fed Him (see 1:31), as angels fed Israel (Ps. 78:25). Jesus was faithful and God shows His approval. He will nourish us, too, until the full victory.
It’s good to see Jeff Meyers blogging again. His new blog is entitled Cacoethes Scribendi”. Already, he has posted a number of very good items, among them
* “Ordination for Life?” examines the popular idea that a man may continue to be ordained and should continue to be regarded as a pastor even when he has been deposed or has left the ministry.
* “Abba in Gal. 4:6” rejects the idea that “Abba” means “Daddy,” and asks why Gal. 4:6 would include two words for “father” back to back.
* “Pure Unadulterated Theological Speculation” provides some interesting thoughts on the doctrine of the Trinity drawn from Hans Urs von Balthasar.
* “Subscription and Freedom” looks at confessional subscription and the freedom of exegesis and includes some very helpful stuff from John Calvin’s life.
* “My Testimony,” in particular, is must reading, especially for people who were baptized as infants, grew up in the church, and have been told that their early experience was probably not genuine.
Good stuff! Welcome back, Jeff.
THE MESSIAH’S ORDINATION
(September 23, 2004, Sermon Notes)
Mark’s Gospel starts with this line: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” In our text, Mark shows us the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, and he structures what he says to reflect this first verse: He starts with Jesus (1:9), then shows His anointing by the Spirit (1:10: Christ means anointed), and then tells how the voice from heaven declared Jesus to be the Son of God (1:11).
Jesus doesn’t appear the way we might expect. There is no blaze of glory. In fact, he comes, like David, out of nowhere, from the hicktown of Nazareth in the province of Galilee.
He comes to John just like everyone else (see 1:5). Though we aren’t told that He confessed His own sins, Jesus was baptized with John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He joined Israel in repenting of Israel’s corporate sins. He goes through the same thing Israel does because He is the new Joshua who will lead Israel into the Land.
His baptism points forward to another baptism: His death (Mark 10:38). That baptism will lead to the conquest of the world.
John is a new Moses preparing for Jesus, the new Joshua. John is also a new Elijah, preparing for Jesus, the new Elisha, who has a double portion of the Spirit.
Mark tells us that the heavens were torn apart (see Mark 15:38; Isa. 64:1) and the Spirit descended on Jesus. That’s what God promised to Israel (Ezek. 36:27), but it happens for Jesus only. Only Jesus receives the Spirit and only Jesus will baptize with the Spirit (Mark 1:8). The Spirit’s presence certifies Jesus as the Messiah (Isa. 11) and equips Him for work.
The Spirit comes “like a dove,” which indicates that Jesus is the beginning of God’s new creation (think of Noah’s dove in the light of Gen. 1:2 and Deut. 32:11). In Him, we also are new creatures (Gal. 6:15).
SON OF GOD (1:11)
John is also the new Samuel, anointing Jesus, the new David. David’s son would be God’s son (2 Sam. 7:14). The voice from heaven proclaims Jesus to be His Son, quoting Psalm 2. Jesus is the king who will inherit the world and rule all nations. He’s also the “beloved” son (like Isaac: Gen. 22), and the servant with whom God is well-pleased (Isa. 42:1).
At our baptisms and beyond, God says about us what He said here about Jesus. We also are sons of God (Gal. 3:26-4:7), sons whom God loves and in whom He delights. We are kings who follow our King, Jesus, in laying down our lives for others and thereby inheriting the world.
Recently, I’ve been reading C. S. Lewis’s The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition. In an earlier life, I was an English major with a strong interest in medieval and Renaissance literature, and though I don’t get to do as much study in literature as I would like my interest has not evaporated.
I’ve long wanted to read through Lewis’s works, and this one aroused a sense of nostalgia for the days when I was studying Chaucer under Dr. Stephen Reimer and Shakespeare under Dr. James Forrest at the University of Alberta. In it, Lewis discusses the rise of “courtly love” and medieval allegorical poetry before examining The Romance of the Rose and works by Chaucer, Gower, Usk, and Spenser.
In the course of that discussion, Lewis touches on a number of other topics. This side-comment I found particularly interesting:
But perhaps there is no writer who admits us so intimately into the heart of that age as Augustine. Sometimes he does so by accident, as when he comments on the fact â€” to him, apparently, remarkable â€” that Ambrose, when reading to himself, read silently. You could see his eyes moving, but you could hear nothing. In such a passage one has the solemn privilege of being present at the birth of a new world. Behind us is that almost unimaginable period, so relentlessly objective that in it even “reading” (in our sense) did not exist. The book was still a logos, a speech; thinking was still dialegesthai, talking. Before us is our own world, the world of the printed or written page, and of the solitary reader who is accustomed to pass hours in the silent society of mental images evoked by written characters (pp. 64-65; I’ve transliterated the Greek, because I can’t do Greek font on this blog yet).Â
In writing about Mark 1:8, commentators often present the contrast between “water” and “Spirit” as a constrast between picture and reality. John is saying that his baptism is just a bare sign, a symbol of something else. John’s baptism is not efficacious because it is only water, not Spirit. When John says, “I baptize with water but he will baptize with the Spirit,” John means something like this: “What I am doing is only a picture, but what he will do will be reality. My baptism doesn’t effect anything, but his baptism will.”
Often, this verse is then applied not merely to John’s baptism but to water baptism in general. Water baptism, people say, is merely a symbol. What really matters and what is really efficacious is Spirit baptism. The one is a picture of the other; Spirit baptism is the reality which water baptism pictures. “Spirit baptism” is then often identified with the “effectual call” or “regeneration” (i.e., the thing that causes us to respond to God in faith).
As I’ve studied this verse, however, it strikes me that John isn’t saying that his baptism is only a picture. Saying that his baptism is with water and not Spirit is not saying that it is ineffective. Rather, John is making a contrast between his work and Jesus’ work, between the Old Covenant and the New.
We find the same contrast in Hebrews 9, where the writer to the Hebrews compares the Old Covenant baptisms (which is the word he uses, though it’s often translated “washings”) with what we have now in Christ. The Old Covenant baptisms, Hebrews says, were effective for the cleansing of the flesh. That is, they cleansed people who were “flesh,” which was everyone’s condition in the Old Covenant. And they cleansed them sufficiently to enable them to draw near to God and even to enable priests to enter God’s presence to serve him.
But because of Christ’s death and resurrection there is an even greater washing. Now, having our bodies washed with pure water and our consciences cleansed (Heb. 10), we can draw near to God in a way no one in the Old Covenant could and with a boldness no one in the Old Covenant had.
John is saying something similar. His baptism is in line with all the other “baptisms” (Heb. 9) of the Old Covenant. It’s an Old Covenant washing. Still, it is effective for the purifying of the flesh so that God’s people can live with him and serve him.
But John’s baptism cannot and does not accomplish what Jesus would accomplish. John’s baptism does not do what the Spirit does. What we have in Christ, through baptism into him, is greater than what John and the rest of the Old Covenant could do. Jesus’ washing surpasses theirs.
The water-Spirit contrast, then, isn’t a contrast between picture and efficacious reality but between an efficacious Old Covenant reality and an efficacious and much more glorious New Covenant reality.
OUTSIDE THE PROMISED LAND
(September 12, 2004 Sermon Notes)
The gospel begins with John the Baptist. That’s what we find in Acts and in the four Gospels. John is the culmination of the Old Covenant. Jesus doesn’t throw out the Old Covenant and start something new; rather, He fulfills the Old Covenant. The whole Old Covenant looks forward to Him.
John teaches Israel to expect the coming of Yahweh, Israel’s God, as He promised in the prophets. Yahweh is coming to bring a new covenant, to do something the Old Covenant couldn’t. And John is preparing His way. We see that preparation in John’s lifestyle and John’s preaching.
JOHN’S LIFESTYLE (1:6)
In the middle of his account of John’s ministry, Mark tells us about John’s clothing and his dress. These aren’t incidental details.
In Zechariah 13:4, we learn that prophets wore robes of coarse hair (and false prophets tried to make themselves look like true prophets by doing the same thing). John’s hairy garment identifies him as a prophet.
More than that, John’s hairy clothes and leather belt remind us of Elijah (2 Kings 1:8). John is the Elijah promised in Malachi 4:5, who is to prepare Israel for the coming of Yahweh.
John is a new Elijah. But Elijah himself is a new Moses. And so John, too, is a new Moses. He calls Israel to a new Exodus, but in a sense he stays in the wilderness. He wears wilderness clothing and eats wilderness food. As Moses died in the wilderness and didn’t enter the Promised Land, John is looking forward to the new covenant, but he doesn’t enter it.
JOHN’S MESSAGE (1:7-8)
John proclaims that someone stronger is following him. That’s the message of the whole Old Covenant. The Old Covenant couldn’t bring God’s people into their full inheritance, which includes having the Spirit dwell in each of them as He did in the tabernacle and temple.
But Yahweh can. The surprise is that Yahweh is coming to Israel as a man, wearing sandals (1:7). That’s who Jesus is: Israel’s God in person.
In the Old Covenant, God promised to pour His Spirit on Israel (Isa. 443; Joel 2:28; Ezekiel 36:27). John’s baptism with water was effective. It purified Israel so that unclean people could live in God’s presence (see Hebrews 9). But it couldn’t take away sin and cause people to share in the Spirit. Nothing in the Old Covenant could do that.
But Jesus baptizes with the Spirit. That’s what happened at Pentecost (Acts 2), and from Pentecost on, we share in the Spirit through repenting and being baptized with water into the name of Jesus (Acts 2:38). John stayed in the wilderness. Through Jesus, we enter the Promised Land and share in everything God promised, including His Spirit.
I know others have already pointed this out, but Joel Garver‘s recent essay “On Regeneration, Baptism, and the Reformed Tradition” looks like a very helpful survey of Reformed views on … well, regeneration and baptism and the relationship between them.
CROSSING THE JORDAN AGAIN
(September 6, 2004 Sermon Notes)
In Mark’s Gospel, John the Baptist seems to appear out of nowhere. Mark doesn’t give us the background Luke does. Instead, he simply presents John as the fulfillment of the prophecies quoted in 1:2-3. John is the messenger who prepares the Lord’s way.
JOHN’S BAPTISM (Mark 1:4)
It’s important to note that John’s baptism takes place in the wilderness. At the Exodus, Israel left Egypt and went into the wilderness. By calling people out to the wilderness, John is calling them to a new Exodus. But that implies that, through her sin, Israel herself has become a new Egypt from which God’s people need to be delivered.
John’s baptism is in line with other washings we find in the Old Covenant. People who touched corpses or who contracted leprosy had to be washed before they could return to the community and take part in the worship of God. To draw near to God, you had to pass through water.
John’s baptism takes place in the Jordan River. The Jordan was the boundary of the Promised Land. Paul says that the crossing of the Red Sea was a “baptism” (1 Cor. 10). So, too, the crossing of the Jordan was a baptism. Israel passed through the water in order to enter the Promised Land to serve God there.
By calling Israel out to the wilderness, John is enacting a new Exodus. By washing people in the Jordan, John is enacting a new entrance into the Promised Land. His baptism involves repentance, the recognition that Israel’s sin has separated her from God. His baptism is also preparation for a future forgiveness of sins, the great event of restoration which would come about through Jesus Christ.
ISRAEL’S RESPONSE (Mark 1:5)
Mark says that all the people in the land and the people of Jerusalem came out to John to be baptized. From the other Gospels, we learn that there were exceptions.
But Mark wants to stress how widespread the response to John’s preaching was. As John’s baptism foreshadows what Jesus would accomplish, so the response to John’s baptism foreshadows the success of Jesus’ mission: “All the ends of the world shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before You. For the kingdom is the LORD’s, and He rules over the nations” (Ps. 22:27-28).