All posts by admin

Stating the Obvious? Mark 4:11-22

 

 

26th March 2024, Paphos, Cyprus

As a Christian, living in the 21st Century, Christ’s explanation of this familiar parable may appear to be really straightforward. Of course, we read it from the perspective of our times and we bring our own assumptions and understanding of the Kingdom of God. For us, it may feel that in his explanation of this parable, Jesus is stating the obvious.

11 He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables 12 so that,

“‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
    and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’[a]

13 Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable? 14 The farmer sows the word. 15 Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. 16 Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. 17 But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. 18 Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; 19 but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. 20 Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.”

Mark4:11-20 (NIV)

Of course, if we stop and think about it, we know that our relationship to this story is going to be very different from that of those who heard it for the first time 2000 years ago.

Like so many people around us, most of the people who were in the crowd had little interest in listening to Jesus. Whilst he had told his friends that preaching was his true purpose, many people in the crowd had come from far and wide to see Jesus performing healing miracles. They had not really understood who Jesus was. Again – that sounds familiar.

Those who were interested in hearing Jesus speak, and this includes the disciples, had very specific views of what the coming Kingdom would look like. Their views are very different from ours.

‘People were expecting a great moment of renewal. They believed that Israel would be rescued lock, stock and barrel: God’s kingdom would explode on to the world stage in a blaze of glory.’ (i)

Actually, says Jesus, the Kingdom of God will not be like that at all.  In fact, there will be those who, in varying degrees, just won’t get it. Again, Jesus could be describing people in my own culture.

In fact, he says, whilst the opportunity is there, many people will simply miss the point. They will fail to ever enter His Kingdom at all. Others will fail to thrive or be successful in the Kingdom. This, he says, is the secret, or the mystery, of the Kingdom of God. You think you have understood, but his Kingdom is not what you were expecting it to be. There is something radical hidden away in Christ’s words. Something ”politically incorrect’ (ii). For the original crowd, rather than a simple explanation of what the Kingdom of God is like, there is a radical message of what it is not like. It is not like you are expecting! I think that message remains true today.

I’m reflecting on the culture within which God has placed me. We think of ourselves as intelligent and sophisticated. That’s fine, but I suspect that the people in 1st Century Palestine thought that too. Our modern world is full of people who have their own fixed views of what God is like and who Jesus is. Many have a sense of what God’s kingdom is like (many people assume that it doesn’t exist). Whatever you think, I suspect that even today, Jesus is saying to us you may have got this seriously wrong.

As I reflect on this parable, I wonder whether what Jesus was saying to the crowd, and to the disciples, and is saying to you, to me and to everyone around us is this. You can easily be deceived – your understanding of he Kingdom of God may be way off target.

The Kingdom of God is a secret, or a mystery (v11). Christ explains that mystery by using parables. Each parable lifts the veil on that mystery, just a little. Jesus has invited us to follow. He encourages us to go deeper. If we do, he will encourage us by helping us to grasp a little more of that mystery.

We may be coming to this 2000 years after that first crowd – we may be 21st Century Christians – but however much we think we understand, there is much more for us all to learn about His Kingdom. There is so much more we can achieve within it. Another reminder to all of us who think we have it all worked out. We are a work in progress.

“Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” (Mark 4:9, NIV)

Richard Jackson, West Sussex: LifePictureUK

(i) NT Wright, Mark for Everyone, p42
(ii) ibid

Parables: Mark 4:10-12

10 When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. 11 He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables 12 so that,
“‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”

Mark 4:10-12 NIV

24th March, 2024: Paphos, Cyprus

A couple of quick points to make here. Firstly, whilst all of the Gospels refer to the twelve disciples, but there are several points where it becomes clear that there are more people following Jesus. Luke alone makes a specific reference to a much larger group of followers who were with Christ –  the 70 or 72 (i) (Luke 10:1-22). At this point in Mark’s gospel, and at this early stage of his ministry, we can easily miss a reference to a group of followers who had access to Jesus. Mark gives no indication of their identity, gender or number, but clearly there were more people around Jesus than simply the twelve. It was this larger group, from whom the 12 were probably selected. Along with the disciples, this wider group asked Jesus to explain about this and other parables.

The secondary point is this wonderful cameo scene, from which we should all learn,  of those who were closest to him asking for more explanation. Jesus was a rabbi. His role is to teach. Here he is accepting questions from and teaching, not the wider crowd, but his immediate followers.

We do well to remind ourselves that we come to the Gospel from a wholly different perspective from the crowd, and even the disciples, who were following and had the most immediate access to Jesus. Alongside the fact that we might think that we know, as it were, the end of the story, our understanding is influenced by 2000 years of reflection, interpretation and analysis of the life and works of Christ. Reflecting on the well known parable of the sower, it’s a fact that most of us have heard and been influenced by many sermons on, references to and applications of this and other parables. Yet for all that, we can often find ourselves reading Scripture but not necessarily understanding what we have read..

Quoting from Isaiah 6, Jesus makes clear that his intention at this point is to reveal the Kingdom little by little. There are those close to him who receive much more guidance and teaching and to whom much will be revealed. But there are others to whom the kingdom will be revealed through parables. When they  hear these parables, some will understand – but many will not. It is pretty much the same for us.

Lots of people who hear these stories today, come loaded with preconceptions and misinformation about Jesus and the Church. We live in a culture of soundbites, and this creates a readiness to take individual verses out of context and use them to support questionable or even false teaching. We can easily fall into this practice ourselves and need to guard against it. The practice of slow, prayerful reflection on every piece of Scripture is a one way in which we can refer back to Jesus, constantly asking him to direct our thoughts and explain the Scriptures to us.

Richard Jackson, West Sussex: LifePictureUK

(i) The earliest manuscripts variously record 70 or 72. Scholars cannot say with any certainty which is the original.

Parables – The Sower: Mark 4:2-9

 “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.”  Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”

Mark 4: 3-9 (NIV)

16th March, 2024: Paphos, Cyprus

This is probably one of the best known parables used by Jesus. Alongside Mark’s Gospel, it appears in Matthew and Luke in virtually identical form. It’s unusual for various reasons, not least because uniquely, at the request of the disciples, Jesus himself offers an explanation of the parable.  We have already seen Jesus use parables when speaking to the Teachers of the Law (see ‘The unforgivable sin‘ based on Mark 3:22-29). Our record of this parable is rather longer, and it demonstrates some really important aspects of parables.

Spontaneity in the telling:  The parables of Jesus are told in a fresh, spontaneous way. He uses familiar images, drawn from real life, to draw out an important point about the Kingdom of God. Unlike us, every person in that crowd knew exactly how farms worked in 1st Century Palestine. The image of the seed being sown in a particular way was accessible to everybody. People knew what a really good crop would look like (ten fold return) and what a super crop would look like (sixty of a hundred fold). One could almost imagine that there was a farmer sowing seed within sight at the moment Jesus was speaking. We see Jesus using exactly that spontaneous use of images at the temple, when he points out a poor widow putting her small offering into the plate (Luke 21:1-4).

The very essence of the parables is that they were spontaneous, of the moment and unrehearsed. Jesus just looks around seeking a point of contact with the crowd. (i)

I was walking this morning, close to where I am staying in Paphos, and noticed a field of barley which I had passed several times in recent days. Whilst the modern farming methods here in Cyprus are very different from those which were familiar to this crowd, there in front of me was the solid path,  the rough stony ground, the weeds, and beyond, the good soil of the field. The accessibility and spontaneity of these images provide an extraordinary, timeless quality.

Barley field, Paphos, March 2024

That was the essence of Jesus’ teaching. He did not bewilder people by starting with things that were strange and obstruse and involved; he started with the simplest things that even a child could understand.'(ii)

The Apostle Paul makes a similar point, saying that we can learn something about God by simply looking around ourselves.

20 For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. Romans 1:20, NIV

Spontaneity in the hearing: Those of us who have spent rather a long time around Church might reflect on the number of sermons we have heard on the subject of this and other parables. Too often they are treated as allegorical stories, where meaning has to be found for each character, action and every word. I don’t think that’s how we were supposed to approach parables. Jesus spoke with a wonderful directness. His words were either heard and understood immediately by his hearers, or they were not. The crowd took no notes away with them to review later.  When given, Christ’s parables were not intended to be subjected to detailed study and interpretation.

The point is that these images simply don’t need detailed explanation for those who hear them. They provide a simple, accessible and worldly point of reference, which enables the hearer to spontaneously catch a glimpse of something of God’s Kingdom. Today, as when Jesus first spoke the parables, some people catch it. Others don’t.

“Whoever has ears to hear” He says, “let them hear.”

Richard Jackson, West Sussex: LifePictureUK

(i) Wm Barclay, Mark for Everyone, (Kindle Edition, Loc 1981) Mark 4:3-9,
(ii) Wm Barclay, ibid.

 

 

 

The perfect place to preach: Mark 4:1-2

Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered round him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge.

Mark 4:1-2, NIV

15th March, 2024: Paphos, Cyprus

Jesus is still living and working in Capernaum, next to Lake Galilee. The nature of the geography means that the large crowds who were following Jesus would gather on the edge of the town, next to the lake. We know of one previous instance where this happened, and there was the risk of Jesus and the disciples being literally pushed into the lake by the crush of the crowd. On that occasion, ‘[Jesus] told the disciples to have a boat ready for him.’ (Mark 3:9). It is unclear whether that first time, Jesus actually resorted to using the boat. We need to remember that most of the people in the crowd have come to seek or witness dramatic healings, although Christ’s declared intention is to preach (Mark 1:38).

Last Christmas I ran a large event in the town centre in the middle of a busy market,  which involved a stage, a band and a likely crowd of about 300 people. I had recruited a wonderful team of about a dozen stewards. Before the event, I needed to brief the stewards, so we gathered at the back of the stage for me to talk to them. It was a slightly breezy day, and there were lots of distractions. They all wanted to know what I had to say, and I have lots of experience of ‘throwing my voice’, but it was a challenge to make these few people hear me. Our ready access to megaphones, microphones and portable PA systems can make us forget just how difficult it is to make yourself heard by large groups of people.

Whilst the actual location referred to here is open to discussion, there are several places beside the lake where the land rises quite quickly.  This time, Jesus uses the boat (which, incidentally, Luke tells us belonged to Simon – Luke 5:1-3). By selecting the right place, and by placing himself on the water a few yards off shore, Jesus is able to address a large crowd of people standing on that rising ground, his voice amplified by the landscape and reflecting off the water (For a study of how this might work, click here (link to Bible Affirming Truth website)).

The separation from the people allows Jesus to remain the centre of their attention. The boat allows Jesus to maintain distance from those who have come looking for the opportunity to touch him and receive healing, yet it seems that now, they are ready to remain and listen to what he has to say. This, then, is the perfect place to preach.

Richard Jackson, West Sussex: LifePictureUK

The unforgiveable sin: Mark 3:22-29

22 And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.’

23 So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: ‘How can Satan drive out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. 26 And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. 27 In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house. 28 Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.’

New International Version

14th March, 2024: Paphos, Cyprus

Jesus makes reference to the unforgiveable sin in verses 28-29. The longer reading is represented here because without it, we risk losing the context. (for a fuller discussion on verses 22-27, see my previous post, ‘Divided Kingdom’)

The Teachers of the Law, who had travelled all the way from Jerusalem to investigate what Jesus was up to, had no choice but to accept that Christ was performing miracles. They had no doubt thoroughly investigated, if not witnessed first hand, that he had been healing the sick and casting out demons. Their very presence alongside Jesus clearly affirms that his work had become widely known and was attracting lots of attention within the Jewish establishment.

His growing popularity was making the Jewish leadership feel very uncomfortable. It was probably in order to diminish the attraction of his ministry in the eyes of his supporters that the Teachers of the Law declared that Christ’s power came, not from the Holy Spirit, but from Satan. This comment undermines the integrity of Christ, the man, but it also rejects any suggestion that his power is from God. It is this accusation which leads to Christ’s comments about the unforgiveable sin.

The comments are in two parts. The first, in verse 28, contains wonderful news for me, for you, and for the world which we can easily miss.

28 Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, 

Here is the reassurance that every sin can be forgiven. It doesn’t matter how heavy or serious your sin feels. From slanderous talk to the most grievous of sins, it can and will of all who repent. When we come to God we ask for forgiveness for the things we have done wrong, we believe that it by His grace that we are forgiven. In this context, the word grace means that forgiveness is free – there is no cost to you except owning up to your shortcomings before God.

If we are genuine in our repentance, we believe that God takes away our sin.  For a host of reasons, some of us find it difficult to accept that forgiveness. It’s as if having laid down that burden, instead of accepting forgiveness, we pick our guilt up again and carry it with us as we continue on our way. Scripture says that  when we are forgiven we should regard our sins, sometimes called transgressions, as completely gone. In God’s eyes, they no longer exist.

11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
    so great is his love for those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
    so far has he removed our transgressions from us.

Psalm 103:11-12 (NIV)

I want to be clear. This doesn’t give you the licence to go out and commit sin. There have been people throughout Christian history who felt that it was acceptable to do as much sin as possible so that you can experience much more of His grace. The Apostle Paul points out that this is a dangerous fallacy.

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning, so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?

Romans 6:1-2 (NIV)

To keep on deliberately sinning would be perverse, and God isn’t impressed by that (Proverbs 11:20).

Verse 28 says whatever you’ve done, however bad it feels to you, you can find forgiveness in Christ. Then, of course, we come to verse 29.

29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.’

Having said that every sin, however awful it might feel to us, can be forgiven by God, Jesus declares an exception. You will not be forgiven for blaspheming the Holy Spirit. This act is, uniquely, an eternal sin. This sounds alarming – but in context, his meaning is quite clear.

These appointed representatives of the greatest theological teachers in the land of Israel have been sent to undermine Christ’s ministry. They have witnessed supernatural powerr at work in bring They have recognised that there is supernatural power at work in healing  and deliverance, and they are determined that Christ will not be seen as acting in the power of the Holy Spirit. For their own purposes, and in order to undermine the ministry of Jesus, they have witness the work of the Holy Spirit, but attribute it to Satan. They have done more than undermine and blaspheme Jesus – he makes clear that this will be forgiven – but they have gone further and blasphemed the Spirit.

So here we have the best of news. Any sin, says Jesus, can be forgiven -But we also have a dire warning. There is a red line. Do not cross it. There is a warning here, for the teachers of the Law and for us –  do not blaspheme the Holy Spirit. To do so is an unforgivable, eternal sin.

Richard Jackson, West Sussex: LifePictureUK

Divided Kingdom: Mark 3:22-30

22 And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.’

23 So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: ‘How can Satan drive out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. 26 And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. 27 In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house. 28 Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.’

New International Version

Horsham, 28th February 2024

This incident takes place in Capernaum, where Jesus is living. We have already commented that people are travelling from all over the region to see Jesus, (see Mark 3:7-12) but the fact that his activities have caused such widespread attention that senior observers have now been sent from Jerusalem is a new development. These men were almost certainly dispatched at the direction of the Sanhedrin, to look into Christ’s activities. He has come to attention in the highest of places.

Some years ago I found myself in an argument with a colleague who was not used to having his own view of life called into question, especially by someone he regarded as a junior colleague. I felt terribly hurt that my integrity was being called into question and I would describe my response as ‘robust’.  We became angry with each other and, in short, the argument quickly escalated to a point where we had to walk away from each other with the issue unresolved. I am a bit embarrassed when I reflect on that situation, but you may have had similar encounters. When our integrity is questioned, it hurts.

It seems to me that these learned people believe, as Jesus does, in the powers of evil. The name ‘Beezebul’ is another name for Satan, whose existence as an entity was accepted by the Jewish people and leaders. It’s clear that they have witnessed Jesus at work. They have seen him ‘casting out demons’, and they make no attempt to deny that the outcomes are real. Their point of dispute, however, is Christ’s claim that this is the work of the Holy Spirit.  Their response is to discredit the Holy Spirit and give the credit for this  life transforming power not to God, but to Satan.

When his integrity is called into question, Jesus response sounds much more coherent than mine would have been! He responds with not one, but two, mini parables.

It would be absurd, says Jesus, for Satan to be working against his own legion of demons. It would mean working against himself. It would undermine his power. His kingdom would ultimately fall. Divided houses – divided families – are less successful than those who stand united. This is a truth we can understand, and a concept which is often repeated (eg Abraham Lincoln’s famous speech of 1868).

The second parable is quite different and its meaning easily missed. If you want to raid the house of a strong man, you need to be able to incapacitate him first. A strong man will only be defeated by one who is stronger. Again, that’s a simple truth – but there’s a deeper meaning. I wonder whether you recall the words of John the Baptist: ‘‘After me comes the one more powerful than I’ (Mark 1:7). As Christians, we need to remember that even the lowest powers of evil are extraordinarily powerful and destructive. Satan is the master of all evil. Christ is the one who is stronger. Mark wants you to notice that Christ has already defeated the lower demons, and that He is the One who will walk fully into the house of Satan and rise undefeated to take his place at the right hand of God.

In a previous post we faced the problem that the friends and family of Jesus thought he was mad. Now, we see the suggestion that the work of Christ succeeds because he is in league with the powers of evil. Both of these positions are incompatible with the outcomes of Christ’s healing and deliverance ministry.

A more contemporary, but equally destructive approach, would be to say Jesus was just a great man, or even a prophet, but not the Son of God.  Our only source about Christ is the Bible. Scripture does describe a man who was good, but it describes a man who carries the power of the Holy Spirit to perform miracles and wonders. It describes a man who claims at this point the Son of Man, and later the Messiah.

Our conundrum is the same as that of his friends, family and accusers. We may want to see Jesus as mad, or evil, or just a good man – or he is none of these. If we read Scripture and accept all rather than part of it, there is no doubt. Jesus is the Son of God.

For discussion about vv28-29, see ‘The Unforgivable Sin’

Richard Jackson, LifePicture UK

 

 

 

‘He must be mad..’: Mark 3: 20-21and 31-35

20-21   “Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family[b] heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”
31-35  Then his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”  NRSV Updated Edition

27th February 2024, Lichfield

We are looking at a moment when Christ’s mother and other family members come to look for him in Capernaum. It seems that they have tracked him down at a house, probably the place he called home, where he is once more beset by a large crowd. The story is in two parts, a few verses apart, and so we are taking both together here.

A few verses ago, we saw Jesus casting out demons and commanding them not to disclose his true identify as the Son of God. One reason for this is that announcing his name to the crowd as the Messiah will place him in great danger. The claim of Kingship will put him in conflict with not only the religious community, but with the Romans, King Herod and the political classes. One thing which would not be tolerated by the occupying forces is a challenge to their power, and the first sign of unrest would surely be gathering crowds following an unauthorised leader. And here is Jesus – unsupported by the religious or secular leaders, at the centre of a vast crowd of people. A crowd so dense that there is no room to eat and the family who have come to rescue him can’t get through. Crowds of people from all over the region, not looking for the Messiah, but desperate to be with, even to touch the celebrity healer.

We all know that following God comes at a cost. One cost, paid by many people, is that their faith creates issues between them and at least one member of their family. It’s clear from Scripture that Jesus did not lose touch with his family, but even for Christ,  following his chosen path did create challenges and tensions within his family.

I wonder whether you have noticed that from the perspective of the family, Jesus has walked away from the support of his family home and childhood friends, distanced himself from the security and life prospects of the family business, left his own town and allowed himself to become head of a radical movement of rag tag people at least one of whom, Simon the Zealot, was known for his revolutionary tendencies. Already, Jesus is attracting the wrong kind of attention from the religious leaders. To be in a place where he might become target of the Roman rulers would inevitably end swiftly in his imprisonment and death.

His chosen lifestyle looks reckless and dangerous. No wonder then, that his family were concerned about him. No wonder they thought that he had lost his senses and set out to rescue him from himself.  

Christ’s response may seem at best disrespectful of his mother and family, but I don’t believe that is the case.

“What did Jesus do? He answered them, saying, “Who is My mother, or My brothers?” And He looked around in a circle at those who sat about Him, and said, “Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of God is My brother and My sister and mother” (vv. 33–35). These words, which seem slightly rude on the surface, were not a denial or repudiation by Jesus of His mother and brothers. Instead, they are a profound teaching about union with Christ. Jesus declared that those who believe in Him and do God’s will have a relationship with Him that is closer than the blood relationships between parents, children, and siblings. We must never lose sight of the fact that we are bound to Jesus by mighty mystical cords that cannot be broken.

RC Sproul, Mark, An Expositional Commentary, p58

Richard Jackson, West Sussex: LifePictureUK

Why Twelve? Mark 3:14-19 (Part 2)


Jesus went up to the mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons. These are the twelve he appointed: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); James, son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges which means ‘sons of thunder’), Andrew, Philip, Bartholemew, Thomas, Matthew, James, son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.     

                     Mark 3:14-19 (NIV)

Horsham 21st Feb 2024

The choosing of the twelve disciples is undoubtedly one of the most critical points in the story so far. Getting it right would be the key to the success or failure of Christ’s mission.  My last post looked at the life challenges faced by the twelve disciples, but  I’ve found myself  asking the question, ‘why twelve?’. Of course my Sunday School teacher would have said something like this – ‘Well, there were twelve tribes of Israel, so obviously there would be twelve disciples.’ I guess that this much is obvious, but why? I have heard it said from the pulpit that twelve was the normal number of disciples who would be associated with a rabbi at that time. My research suggests otherwise.

Gamaliel, a senior rabbi of the 1st Century who is mentioned in Acts 5, has been said to have claimed 500 disciples (although not necessarily at the same time!) (i), one of whom was a young man called Saul (who became the Apostle Paul) (Acts 22:3). If true, Gamaliel was an exception.  My reading suggests that most rabbi’s would typically have had no more than three or four followers at any given time. So, why twelve?

Let’s think about where this scene takes place. If I want a bit of peace and quiet I tend to go to the local forest, or to the top of the South Downs close to my home. We’ve read that Jesus was in the habit of going to the mountainside to pray (Luke 6:12),  but it’s a mistake to think of this excursion in the same way as my relaxing trip to local quiet places and beauty spots.

This is more of ‘a place where people went to plot revolution. And what Jesus now does is amongst his most revolutionary gestures.’(ii)

This was no spur of the moment decision. This was a really important part of Christ’s plan. After spending the night in prayer, Jesus chooses these twelve men to be his disciples – to send them out with authority to teach and cast out demons (Mark 3:14). So, in this place with a hit of the revolutionary, why twelve? There’s something going on here that we can easily miss.

‘It is fascinating to me that Jesus did not choose ten, eight or twenty. He chose twelve, certainly calling to mind the Old Testament structure of the twelve tribes of Israel.’ (RC Sproul) (iii)

The number twelve isn’t a hugely important number in Judaism, but of course it does crop up repeatedly throughout Scripture with reference to those twelve tribes, basically routed on the families of the sons of Jacob. But in Jesus’ day, the twelve tribes didn’t even really exist.

Every Jew knew that there were twelve tribes of Israel – or at least there had been… Ten of the tribes had been lost seven centuries earlier when the Assyrians invaded and carried them off. But the prophets had spoken of a coming restoration, and a great many Jews were longing for it. (iv)

So, on the mountain where revolutions are plotted, this young Rabbi calls to himself a higher than average number of disciples who will follow and learn from him.

‘[…]  by choosing twelve disciples to become the twelve Apostles, Jesus established a symmetry between the Church of the Old Testament and the Church of the New Testament.’ (v)

Turns out my Sunday School teacher was right – although I’m not sure she appreciated how radical this was. In appointing twelve disciples, Christ was setting out a key part of his manifesto, firmly and visibly placing his mission to the Old covenant, as he set about enabling the New. In choosing twelve disciples,  Jesus was heralding the start of a revolution!

Richard Jackson, West Sussex, UK: LifePictureUK

Footnotes…

(i) Gamaliel is an established historical figure who held a high position as a leader and teacher in the Sanhedrin at the time of Christ. I have seen references in several articles about there being 500 disciples who, over time, learned ‘at the feet’ of Gamliel. I am grateful to teacher and author Lois Tverberg who makes reference to this suggestion on her blog  at The Reality of Disciples and Rabbis – Our Rabbi Jesus  and refers to Chapter 19, “Education and the Study of Torah” in The Jewish People in the First Century, by Shmuel Safrai (Fortress, 1988)  for more information on the style of Rabinical teaching.
(ii) Tom Wright: Mark for Everyone, p32 (Kindle Edition))
(iii)RC Sproul, an Expositional Commentary, Reformation Trust (Kindle Edition) p55
(iv) Tom Wright, ibid
(v) RC Sproul, ibid

Twelve men who changed the world: Mark 3:13-19

Jesus went up to the mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons. These are the twelve he appointed: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); James, son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges which means ‘sons of thunder’), Andrew, Philip, Bartholemew, Thomas, Matthew, James, son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.                           Mark 3:14-19 (NIV)

Horsham, 19th February 2024

Some years ago my wife and I applied for a job with a Christian charity in West Sussex. We knew that the job would be demanding and life changing for us both. Before applying for the role, we prayed together  over the application, and then, a few weeks later, we found ourselves travelling across the country for an interview with some of the trustees. It was a lengthy and challenging interview and we returned home exhausted. Other couples were interviewed. Weeks later we took a call from one of the Trustees with the invitation to take up the role. Without hesitation, we accepted the offer. It was only after the initial rush of excitement that reality began to sink in. Accepting the invitation would mean resigning our current well paid jobs, moving home, leaving our church and friends, relocating to an area where we knew nobody, taking up residence in a mobile home and taking a huge drop in salary. But in our hearts, we were taking the path that we believed Christ had offered us. Life changing.

In the Gospel story, we know that the drama of his healing work has led to loads of people following Jesus. Amongst this mass of people there are some who have been specifically invited to follow.

Simon (later called Peter), Andrew, James, and John, fishermen on the Capernaum shore and Levi (Matthew) have already been mentioned. Remember that the main source for Mark’s Gospel is this very same Simon, later called Peter, it is not surprising that he mentions at this early stage the specific calling of his closest friends. Some time later, as his popularity and profile increase, there comes a time when Jesus is ready to take a decisive step, choosing twelve from amongst the group to be his closest friends.

In the previous verses we saw Jesus trying unsuccessfully to move away from the crowds. Now, somehow, he manages to evade the masses and get to the mountainside. Twelve of his closest associates are invited to join him. I’m wondering how these guys felt when received the invitation to be his disciples. For each of them, this is a big deal. These twelve are to be his disciples (those who have been called to follow as students or apprentices) and also Apostles (those who would undertake his commission to build the Church).

A ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity to follow this charismatic young rabbi. There must have been an incredible and overwhelming rush of excitement, but I wonder whether it might have been tinged with or followed by a moment of pause or reflection when they realised just how life changing it was going to be. Matthew had already walked away from a well paid job. Peter, Andrew, James and John had walked away from the family business. All twelve of them signed up to follow Jesus, leaving home and family members. Life changing.

Jo and I prayerfully went ahead and confronted the challenges of our new role. The blessings of that season of His grace were extraordinary and long lasting. Twelve ordinary young and largely unschooled men accepted their life changing challenge to follow Jesus. Together, they changed the world.

Richard Jackson, West Sussex, UK: LifePictureUK

 

Pursued by the crowd: Mark 3:7-12

Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the lake, and a large crowd from Galilee followed. When they heard about all he was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon. Because of the crowd he told his disciples to have a small boat ready for him, to keep the people from crowding him. 10 For he had healed many, so that those with diseases were pushing forward to touch him. 11 Whenever the impure spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.” 12 But he gave them strict orders not to tell others about him.

Mark 3:7-12 (NIV)

Horsham, 8th February 2024

There’s a lot going on here. There is the hint that Jesus has withdrawn to somewhere quiet with his disciples, but we should remember that he has based himself in Capernaum on the shore of the Lake, so he’s still quite close to home. Whatever his intention,  the celebrity of Jesus means that he will not find much peace and quiet today. A substantial crowd is following his every move. People are flocking from all over the place to be near him. Idumea is at the south of Galilee, perhaps 100 miles away. Tyre is on the Mediterranean coast, a similar distance away. Sidon was around 30 miles north of Tyre, and both were gentile, rather than Jewish cities. You get the picture. In context, all kinds of people have travelled huge distances on foot. Many people in this crowd had travelled a very long way over several days to be there. Many of them did receive healing (v10).

Jesus has made clear that his purpose – his mission – is not to heal, but to preach (Mark1:38). Yet Mark makes clear that these people have not risked everything by travelling through dangerous countryside to hear him speak. This is not a crowd which wants to hear Jesus talk about the Kingdom of God. It is a crowd who have heard about the healing power of Jesus and want to experience or at least witness it.

People who wanted healing were pressing against him, desperate to touch him. People with evil spirits were being thrown to the floor as the spirits found themselves in the presence of Jesus. They scream that this is the Son of God,  but he silences them – not because they are wrong, but because such a declaration would place Jesus in peril of his life. At His command, the demons fall silent See also Mark 1:34).

So, the sick are here. The demon possessed are here. And of course the disciples are here. A growing band of people who have been called by Christ or have simply decided to follow. These are not yet the established group of 12, but a larger, less coordinated group of enthusiastic but untrained people who have decided that this radical young rabbi is worth following.

I was once in a slowly moving crowd so dense that one had no control over oneself. As the road narrowed and the density of the crowd grew stronger, I could lift your feet from the ground and be carried along by the mass of bodies. A dense crowd can be dangerous.  Such a crowd is following Jesus and his disciples, out of the town and towards the Lake. The press of the crowd could so easily push Jesus into the water, so he procures a boat to avoid the crush.

From the safety of the boat, Jesus puts himself at distance from the hordes who want to touch him. From the boat, his voice amplified by reflection n the surface of the water, can reach the crowd gathered on the gently rising ground beside the Lake. From the boat, Jesus has control. He can fulfill his mission. Having met so many people at their point of need and offered healing. The one who is the Son of God can now preach the Kingdom of God.

Richard Jackson, West Sussex, UK: LifePictureUK