Surveying the Text: Mark


This is the shortest of the four gospels, but Mark uses a number of devices to make it fly by even faster. This is a gospel of now. This is a gospel that is quite effective in presenting us with a sense of vivid immediacy. Mark uses the historical present tense consistently, he uses abrupt transitions, and he uses the phrase and immediately (euthys) 42 times. Story grip is easy while reading Mark. And in this sense, the hand that grips is the hand that saves. So one of our tasks here is to bring this story to life.

The Text:

“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).

Some Background on John Mark:

Let’s begin with the place of John Mark in Scripture. All the manuscripts we have of this book contain the name of Mark in the title. So what do we know of this man from the pages of Scripture? He was a relative of Barnabas—“Aristarchus my fellowprisoner saluteth you, and Marcus, sister’s son to Barnabas” (Col. 4:10). We also know that he was son of a certain Mary. “And when he had considered the thing, he came to the house of Mary the mother of John, whose surname was Mark; where many were gathered together praying” (Acts 12:12).

Although he was probably from the Dispersion (because of the Latin name Marcus), the family at least had a residence in Jerusalem. This also indicates some measure of wealth (along with the servant girl Rhoda). He worked with Paul for a time. “And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem, when they had fulfilled their ministry, and took with them John, whose surname was Mark” (Acts 12:25). When they left Antioch, “they had also John to their minister” (Acts 13:5). This was on the first recorded missionary journey of Paul.

Empowered, Enlightened, Enlivened

This meal is not a propitiatory sacrifice. We are not offering Christ to God—rather, God is offering Christ to us. He is able to do this because Christ’s blood was spilled in the crucifixion, and applied to the heavenly altar in the Ascension. The offering of Christ to God was a singular event, and in the words of Hebrews it was “once for all.” It does not need to be repeated, and indeed, in the very nature of the case, it cannot be repeated.

But Christ can be offered to sinners as long as we still have sinners—and we still do. They are being born all the time. We are still needy. We are still broken. We are still in need of being grown up into the perfect man. Christ need never again be offered to the Father. Christ must be offered to the world until the world is remade in Him, and is fit to be offered to the Father. Christ was offered to the Father once for all. Christ is offered to the world repeatedly.

Steeples of Pride

All of this is submitted to God, but, Lord willing, our church sanctuary is going to have a steeple. And a steeple illustrates the perennial problem that believers have in this fallen world. A steeple can be illustrative of the humility of man before God, but it can also be a glaring example of the pride of man. We want the former, but the latter is never far away.

One the one hand, we know how small we are before God. A steeple expresses the finite yearning of creatures for the transcendent, and it points to the only place our salvation can come from—from Heaven above. This is a God-given humility. On the other hand, in the course of building it, we might come to notice that it is taller than those other steeples, and that the design is more fitting. This kind of thing can even reach pathological levels, where we take pride in how much more humbly we yearn for the transcendent than they do.

Pride is an insidious sin, and it is capable of working with any materials. Human pride can glory in having no steeple at all, and we could all worship in a tiny little box calling one another by the names of brother and sister, greeting each other with the phrases like grace and peace, and a holy kiss, sprinkling our conversation with words like yea and verily, with the women vying with each other over who had the plainest bonnet, and only be doing any of it because we thought we were better.

Can a beautiful woman take pride in her makeup? Well, certainly, but pride doesn’t go down the sink as easily as the makeup does. The only thing that deals with the pride of life is the gospel of Jesus Christ, with application of that gospel being made by the Holy Spirit of the Father, who straightens things out where it all begins, which is in the human heart.

So what do we want our steeple to mean? Among other things, we want it to be a summons to the prideful. We want it tall so that the purblind can see it. This is the place where we all come to die. So let the stones cry out.

The Two Guys in the Car

Nancy and I got to see Saving Christmas last night, and I wanted to say just a few things about it right away. I plan on writing more about it in detail after the movie releases in a few weeks, but here are just a few anticipatory thoughts.

First, I recommend you make a point to see it. We saw it with a fairly large group last night, half of which had to have been under ten, and everybody had a grand time. In one sense, this is just what it purports to be — a seasonal flick. Enjoy it on its own terms.Saving Christmas

Second, it is probably not going to be what you expect. This is not about saving Christmas from the secularists, but rather from overly conscientious Christians. This is not about saving Christmas from “them,” but rather from “us.”

Third, before anybody reacts to the “typology,” make sure, especially if you are not familiar with typology, that you grasp the actual point being made — e.g. it is not that the tree of life is the type and the Christmas tree is the antitype. It is that Christmas trees should be understood the way trees are understood throughout the Bible. Don’t treat Christmas trees any differently, in other words.

And last, this movie is the right kind of subversive. I expect a pretty big ruckus, and the two guys in the car are on the right side of it.

Gospel Guardians

I want to follow up on our earlier discussion having to do with how much of the gospel a man can misunderstand or be ignorant of and still be saved by it. Can a faithful Roman Catholic, accepting what Rome erroneously teaches about the gospel and salvation, still be saved? This came up because of my answer to a question about the salvation of Chesterton and Tolkien. My answer to that is of course. Such men can be saved precisely because Rome is in error on this point. This reply causes consternation in some quarters, and I do understand why. This is my attempt to explain this carefully enough to avoid at least the wrong kind of misunderstanding.

The gospel is good news, it is gospel, precisely because it saves. A gospel that does not save is no gospel at all. So what is the content of the saving gospel? Here it is:

Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, was born as a member of the human race, lived a perfect sinless life on behalf of those He came to save, was crucified for their sins in accordance with the Scriptures, was buried, and was raised from the dead by the Father for our justification. He ascended into Heaven, where He intercedes with the Father for the sake of all those for whom He died. From that place He will one day come to judge the living and the dead.

That’s the gospel. The necessary response to this gospel is repentance and faith. In order to be saved a man must repent of his sins, and he must believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. My basic point is that there is no variability in the gospel itself. There is, of necessity, a good deal of variability in human responses to the gospel. Fortunately, the impact of those variations is not really in our department — since God is the one who gives repentance and faith (Acts 5:31; 2 Tim. 2:25; Phil. 1:29: Eph. 2:8-9), it is up to Him to make sure that He gives the right kind.

So the first thing we must do is distinguish the objective gospel from the subjective reception of the gospel. The objective gospel cannot be altered — if it is altered in any way, it is no longer the saving gospel. The subjective response — repentance and faith — must be sincere, and in order to be sincere, it must be God-given. It cannot be sham repentance and it cannot be faux faith. But sincere doesn’t mean perfect.

Here is an illustration. Suppose the existence of a medicine for a fatal disease that is made up of five components. Suppose further that the label on the bottle says to do and/or not do five things while taking it — every three hours, don’t take it with Tylenol, etc. Now if you take any one of those five components away, you don’t have the medicine at all anymore. You can’t mess with anything; the medicine is what it is. But it is not quite the same with taking the medicine. Taking it every 2 hours is an error but not the same kind of error as taking a pill every three years. Taking Tylenol once by accident is a mistake, but not like doubling up on the Tylenol. The medicine is what it is. The regimen approximates. Now some patients die because they try to alter the medication, and others die because they did not follow instructions. Other patients, who also do not follow instructions, are nevertheless helped by the medicine. It may not seem fair, but that’s the way it is.

Now when guardians of the gospel claim that so and so is “altering” the gospel that saves, they frequently do not make the distinctions I am making here. There is a difference between changing the medicine and doing things with the medicine you ought not to do.

I am saying that in order to save anybody, the gospel has to be perfect. You can’t take any part of it away and have it remain gospel. But — and this is the glorious thing — it is not possible to take any part of it away. Jesus did what He did, and that great conquest cannot be undone. He rose from the dead, ascended into Heaven, and is completely out reach of the malevolence of sinners. The gospel is therefore unalterable.

You can claim to have altered it, and you can keep people from following the directions on the label on the bottle, and you can expedite the damnation of many in this way. Challenging God on such things is not a trifle, and can have a soul-destroying impact. Nevertheless, the medicine is still there — Jesus Christ died and rose — and this message can bring life out of death in many strange places. And to claim that the divine seed can germinate in some desert places is not to endorse the desert.

Now return to my statement of the saving gospel above. Who can be saved while failing to affirm what I said there? Well, babies for starters. They fail to affirm all kinds of things. I believe that babies who die in infancy are saved, and I believe that they are saved by the gospel. But their response to the gospel need not be the propositional equivalent to what was said by the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:37). Nevertheless, the gospel remains what it is, and when God saves them He does it by giving paedo-repentance and paedo-faith. You might not like this, but if you deny it — and you believe that little ones dying in infancy can still be saved — then either you must say they are saved without repentance and faith at all, or you must posit a miracle in which the Holy Spirit enables a zygote to say the Apostles’ Creed.

What about some Romanists who do more than fail to affirm? What about those who deny some of what I wrote above? First, let us make sure that we are weighing these things with equal weights and measures. Arminians deny some of it too. Arminianism and Rome share the same central error. Do not consign John Paul II to Hell on grounds that apply equally to Billy Graham.

Remember that denial of one of the five components of the medicine doesn’t make that component go away. This is why there are people who are blessed by the imputation of the righteousness of Jesus Christ who themselves deny that any such imputation ever took place. At the same time, we must never forget the false brothers in Galatia who were damned precisely because they added human effort to the finished work of Christ. Two patients are in the same ward, and both of them don’t follow instructions. One dies and the other lives. Having a problem with that means that we are somehow trying to wrest control of the salvation process from the hands of Almighty God, which we ought not to do.

So in the meantime, if in the interests of maintaining a pure gospel, you require all patients to become pharmacists of precision, the central problem is that you are not maintaining a pure gospel of free grace. Human pride can feed upon doctrines as well as upon works, as John Newton once put it.

More could be said about all this, of course, and probably will be.

Five Yards of Truth

“The rationalism that we inherited from the Enlightenment has trained us all to think that everything that we really ‘know’ is that which can be objectively measured and doled out in credit hours. We have created a great illusory mechanism for making ourselves think that we know how people actually know things. And we identify what they know in terms of what we can measure” (From To You and Your Children, p. 201).

Preaching Wheels Up

“This exaltation of soul, rising at times to rapture, can never be fitly described; but the speaker who does not in some measure know what it means, was not born to be a speaker” (Broadus, Preparation and Delivery, p. 428).