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Thursday, 28 July 2011

Why do you call me good?


One of the more surprising sayings of Jesus is one recorded in all three Synoptic Gospels, in which he responded sharply to the apparent compliment of a rich young ruler who addressed him as “Good Teacher.” Mark’s account of the exchange reads thus:
 “As Jesus was starting on his way again, a man ran up, knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to receive eternal life?" "Why do you call me good?" Jesus asked him. "No one is good except God alone.” (Mark 10:17-18)
Robert H. Stein, in his recent commentary on Mark, identifies four possible interpretations of Jesus’ answer:
“Jesus’ response in 10:18, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone’ has troubled exegetes through the centuries.  The emphatic position of ‘me’ (Greek: me) in the sentence heightens the problem – [literally] ‘Why me do you call good?’...What Jesus objects to in the rich man’s address is unclear. (1) Is he objecting to the application of the designation ‘good’ in the sense of being ‘perfect’ to any human being, even himself (i.e., ultimate goodness and perfection belong to God the Father alone)?  In other words, is he seeking to have the man rethink the idea of goodness, since there is no one that is ultimately good/righteous (Romans 3:10) but God?  Is he saying that one should focus one’s attention upon God, without in any way implying that he (Jesus) himself is not good?  (2) Is he probing the sincerity of the man’s address?  (3) Is it possible that Jesus is denying that he is good, because like any other human he too has sinned and fallen short (Romans 3:23)?  (4) Or is Jesus, far from acknowledging that he is not good, pointing out that the logical conclusion of the man’s correct address is to acknowledge his own divine goodness?” (pp. 468-469)
We can follow Stein in readily ruling out interpretations (2) and (3).  Mark 10:21a shows us that Jesus acknowledged the man’s sincerity.  As for acknowledging his own sinfulness, this interpretation conflicts with the rest of the NT, which never attributes sin to Jesus (Stein cites 2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15; 7:26; 1 Peter 1:19; 2:22 in support of this).

This leaves us with (1) and (4).  Of these, Stein prefers (1), stating that “Jesus is contrasting God’s absolute goodness to his own, which was subject to growth” (p. 469).

Before deciding on an interpretation, we can make a number of basic observations on the passage:
a.     The ruler addressed Jesus as “Good Teacher.”  There is no reason from the context to think that either the ruler’s form of address, or Jesus’ reply, had anything to do with Jesus’ human nature.
b.     The language Jesus used, “No one is good save one,” seems to reflect Psalm 14:1-3 (and 53:1-3) where the focus is on moral behaviour as opposed to moral nature – “There is none who does good, not even one.”
c.     Jesus questioned the rich young ruler’s reason for addressing him as good, but he did not say that the man was wrong in doing so!

The assertion that Jesus rejected the title “Good Teacher” is difficult to justify in light of other titles that he claimed for himself or accepted from others. If he objected to “Good Teacher,” how could he refer to himself as “Good Shepherd” (John 10:11), which amounts to the same?  Why did he resist the Pharisees’ urge to rebuke his disciples who proclaimed, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord” (Luke19:38)?  How could he permit his disciples to address him, “O Lord” (Matthew 15:22) and “the Holy One of God” (John 6:69)?  How could he fail to be mortified at being addressed directly by the Most High as “My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17)?

Besides the things that were said by and to Jesus during his ministry, we have remarkable things said about Jesus by his apostles after his resurrection. The disciples were present at the exchange with the rich young ruler (Mark 10:23).  Yet in Acts, the apostles referred to Jesus as “The Holy and Righteous One” (Acts 3:14) and “The Righteous One” (Acts 7:52; 22:14) – always with reference to the days of his flesh!  Stephen spoke of the coming of the Righteous One, implying that Jesus was the Righteous One intrinsically from his arrival on the scene, as opposed to earning this title over time through flawless conduct.  It is difficult to conceive of the apostles referring to the mortal Jesus in such terms if they understood him to have renounced the title ‘Good Teacher.’

So what then was Jesus getting at with his question to the rich young ruler? We will propose a suggested interpretation in the next blog.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

What I have seen with my Father


In a previous blog we looked at John 3:31-32, which says that “He who comes from heaven…bears witness to what he has seen and heard.” We claimed that this implies Christ saw and heard things in heaven prior to his ministry on earth, and that this is best explained by the idea that he personally pre-existed in heaven. In this blog we are going to look at four other ‘experience of heaven’ sayings in John: passages where Christ alluded to previous experience of God’s presence in heaven.

The first is earlier in the same chapter, in John 3:11-13, when Jesus was speaking to Nicodemus:
“11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.”

Jesus is saying, “We [i.e. the Father and I] speak from personal experience about heavenly things, because we have been there.” He goes on to point out that he alone among human beings has been to heaven (we will look at verse 13 in more detail in a future blog).

The second experience of heaven passage is John 5:37. The context is picking up on the same familiar themes: the authority and witness to Jesus’ teachings, and his superiority over John the Baptist. The verse reads, “And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen”.

The other passages spoke about Christ having seen and heard things in heaven, but this passage refers more directly to having seen and heard the Father. As Jesus did so often, he is contrasting his opponents with himself. In stating the obvious fact that his detractors had not seen the Father’s form or heard his voice, Jesus was implying that he himself had done so.

The third passage we will consider is John 8:38, 41-42:
“38 ‘I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father’…‘You are doing the works your father did.’ 41 They said to him, ‘We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father--even God.’ 42 Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me.’”

Here, Jesus claims to speak about what he has seen with his Father. “With his Father” means in his Father’s presence in heaven. This interpretation is supported by the statements Jesus made in v. 42. First, he said, “I came from God and I am here.” To say ‘I am here’ as a result of coming from God implies that the coming from God was a literal relocation of his personal presence. That is, before he was ‘here’ (on earth), he was somewhere else (with God in heaven).

Secondly, he emphasized, “I came not of my own accord, but he sent me.” If Jesus meant he came from God in the sense of being born by divine intervention, then this was a completely unnecessary statement to make. No one comes into existence of their own accord!

The final ‘experience of heaven’ passage we’ll consider is John 17:5, where Jesus prayed, “And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.” Jesus was speaking about his imminent departure from the world to be with God in heaven (v. 11). It is hard to miss the parallel between “…I had with you before the world existed” and John 1:1 (“In the beginning…the Word was with God”). In both cases the key verb is in the imperfect tense, denoting continuous action over a period of time. The words “the glory that I had with you” require nothing less than a personal relationship between the Father and Son in each other’s presence. Jesus “had” glory – he himself possessed it, which he could not have done if he did not yet actually exist!

These passages together provide us with a picture of the pre-existent Christ. They tell us the what (a glorious existence in God’s presence), the where (in heaven), and the when (from before creation until the time he came down to earth).

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Kairos Prison Ministry


This blog is mainly devoted to theology, but today I would like to turn from theory to practice. After all, the end goal of growing in knowledge is to grow in love. Paul wrote that “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2).

This year I have had the opportunity to become involved with Kairos Prison Ministry here in South Africa. This is an international, interdenominational ministry whose mission is to bring Christ’s love and forgiveness to the incarcerated. The programme I participated in was called “Kairos Inside” which is a long weekend spent inside the institution introducing Christianity to the prisoners (who are called ‘residents’ in the programme). One of the coolest features of Kairos is the cookies. Kairos uses home-baked cookies as a tangible expression of God’s unconditional love, and each Kairos weekend requires 1200 dozen cookies (14,400)!

Kairos is a Greek word for time. Unlike kronos (the more general word for time), kairos refers to an appointed or opportune time. For example, 1 Peter 5:6: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time (kairos) he may exalt you.”

God had laid the idea of prison ministry on my heart for some time. From passages like Psalm 102:20 (“to hear the groans of the prisoners, to set free those who were doomed to die”), Psalm 146:7 (“The LORD sets the prisoners free”), Matthew 25:36 (“I was in prison and you came to me”) and Luke 4:18 (“He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives”) it is pretty clear that the idea of ministering to prisoners is very close to the heart of God. So when I heard about Kairos I jumped at the chance to get involved.

In April I participated in a “Kairos Inside” programme at Pietermaritzburg New Prison, D Block (maximum security), which ministered to 42 residents. We had an Inside Team of about 25 Christian men who went into the prison, as well as a Support Team (mainly women) who prepared the food for the weekend and lifted the weekend up in prayer to God, as well as of course the many people who baked cookies.

The programme takes place in a common area of the prison such as a mess hall. We all sit at round tables – each table has six residents and three Kairos volunteers. We listen to Bible talks given by Kairos volunteers and then each table has a discussion. The residents then work together to draw a poster which expresses the message they took from the talk. There is also praise and worship time, fellowship around meals, and many other spiritual growth activities.

The most moving part of the weekend was the last day when residents had a chance to give testimonials on what the weekend meant to them. A common sentiment was that they were overwhelmed that complete strangers would care enough about them to come and spend time with them when even their own families had written them off. One man said that for the first time he was looking forward to getting out of prison so he could show people how he had changed. Another said that prior to the weekend he had been plotting to kill the prosecutor and judge who put him in prison when he got out, but now he had learned that he must forgive others if he wants God to forgive him. Still another man thanked God for putting him in prison, as otherwise he would never have come to know the love of God!

It is always thrilling and rewarding to be involved in the work of God. But being involved in Kairos has also profoundly affected my outlook toward prisoners. Having rubbed elbows and munched cookies with murderers, rapists and armed robbers, I came away with the realization that they are not monsters. They are human beings. To be sure, they have done terrible things and many of them have a lot of darkness and hatred in their hearts. But they are sinners in need of God’s free gift of salvation, just like the rest of us.

There is even a sense in which inmates in a maximum security prison are luckier than the rest of us. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22), but many of us do not realize it. In fact we are all prisoners to sin, and destined for the punishment of death. However, many of us fail to see the walls of this prison around us, and we pretend that we are free. For those physically in prison, the guilt and punishment of sin are painfully obvious, which makes it easier for them to humble themselves and heed Christ’s call to know the truth and be set free (John 8:32). They only need someone to bring Christ to them. “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Romans 10:14)

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Why walk on water?


One of Jesus’ most famous miracles was the time when he walked on water. This incident is recorded in Matthew 14, Mark 6 and John 6. Mark’s account reads as follows:
“45 Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. 46 And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray. 47 And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. 48 And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, 49 but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, 50 for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, "Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid." 51 And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded” (Mark 6:45-51)
This was a pretty cool miracle. But what does it mean? Was Jesus just showing off, or was he trying to teach something? Two rules of thumb when it comes to Jesus are: #1, pretty much everything he did was meant to teach something. #2, the Old Testament is our most important source for understanding the symbolism of his actions.

The Old Testament background that puts this incident in context is Yahweh’s power over the sea. The most famous example of this was the parting of the Red Sea (Exodus 14). Several other passages, some of them referring to this event, refer to Yahweh as making a path or even walking on the sea:
“[God] alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea” (Job 9:8)
“Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep?” (Job 38:16)
“Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters; yet your footprints were unseen.” (Psalm 77:19)
“Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters” (Isaiah 43:16)
“You trampled the sea with your horses, the surging of mighty waters.” (Habakkuk 3:15)
A closer examination of two of the above passages reveals that they have remarkable textual parallels to the Gospel accounts of this miracle.

The first is Job 9:8. The Septuagint (LXX) is an ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament which was the main Bible read by first century believers like Mark. Job 9:8 LXX reads, “Who alone stretched out the sky and walks on the sea as on dry ground” (New English Translation of the Septuagint). In Greek, the phrase translated ‘walks on the sea’ (peripaton...epi thalassei) is nearly identical to the phrase translated ‘walking on the sea’ in Mark 6:48 (peripaton epi tes thalasses). This has led commentators to believe that Mark saw Jesus’ miracle as a realization of Job 9:8 LXX.

The second is Isaiah 43:10-16. We’ve already read v. 16, which referred to God making a way in the sea (an allusion to the parting of the Red Sea). Now let’s consider v. 10-13:
“10 ‘You are my witnesses,’ declares the LORD, ‘and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me. 11 I, I am the LORD, and besides me there is no savior. 12 I declared and saved and proclaimed, when there was no strange god among you; and you are my witnesses,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I am God. 13 Also henceforth I am he; there is none who can deliver from my hand; I work, and who can turn it back?’”
The parallel between this passage and the account of Jesus walking on the water is not obvious in English – we again have to compare the Greek Septuagint of Isaiah to the Greek of Mark. A small but important phrase is used in both places: ego eimi. It is used by God in Isaiah 43:10 (where it is translated ‘I am he’), and by Jesus in Mark 6:50 (where it is translated ‘it is I’).

In Isaiah, the phrase ego eimi functions as an expression of God’s absolute, unique existence (see also Isaiah 41:4; 43:25; 45:18; 46:4; 51:12). God has always existed and always will, and there is no other! In Mark, the phrase ego eimi primarily serves simply to identify Jesus (“It’s me Jesus, not a ghost!”) However, given the extraordinary event and this Old Testament background, scholars have suggested that Jesus was also using the phrase to express something else:
“In the original setting of the story, ‘it is I’ probably served as an identification formula…However, Mark may intend his readers to see a more pregnant meaning in these words. In numerous places in the OT, God identifies himself with the words ‘I am’…This, along with the fact that in the OT, God is portrayed as walking on the waters, would further give to ‘it is I’ a theophanic sense.” (Robert H. Stein, Mark, p. 326)
A theophany is when God appears to men. So the point is, when Jesus walked to his disciples on the water and then said “It is I,” he was not only saying, “It is I, your teacher, Jesus of Nazareth.” He was saying, “It is I, the One who has power to make a path in the sea.” But as learned Jews would know from the Old Testament, it is Yahweh and Yahweh alone who rules the sea and traverses it freely. If we read between the lines, what is Jesus really saying about himself?