LENT 2021 – Bible Study
Our dear colleague, the Priest in Charge on Tenerife (South) Rev’d John Poole invited us to share his Bible Study with you.
For each Friday until Easter a bible study will be published here which we hope you will enjoy.
It might be good to start by reading the first few chapters of Mark before you begin the study.
A Lenten encounter with Jesus through the Gospel of Mark
Week 3: The Galilee ministry, part 1: Healings and Exorcisms
Our introduction of Jesus in Mark concludes with the call of his first four disciples. This week we accompany Jesus as he begins his ministry. It may be worthwhile reading or re-reading Mark 1: 21 – 45, and chapters 2 and 3, or at least have the text to refer to as you read or listen to the following.
Following the arrest of John the Baptizer, Jesus launched his ministry in Galilee, the territory in the northern part of the Jewish homeland where he grew up. We find him busy on a Sabbath day in Capernaum, a fishing village on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, which became the centre of his Galilee ministry.
Jesus and his four disciples are in the synagogue for Sabbath day worship which would have been normal for them. Jesus is given the opportunity to address the congregation. We are told that his teaching style caused amazement because ‘he taught them with authority, not like the scribes.’ The usual scribal style was probably in the tradition of reflecting on the Jewish Law and relaying the interpretations of previous rabbis or teachers.
Whilst in the synagogue Jesus casts a demon out of a possessed man, then on leaving, goes with his disciples to the home of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, either knowing or finding her to be suffering from a fever. Jesus heals her, and it is of some amusement to read that she got up and began to serve them. They were able to get their Sabbath day lunch!
In the evening as the Sabbath ends, Jesus heals many who were brought to him who were sick or demon-possessed. It seems that the whole town turned up to witness this.
The next scene takes place early the following morning before dawn. Note how Mark is very specific about times and days, something that we will see throughout his story of Jesus. But now he wants us to see how important prayer was in Jesus’ life, and that no activity was possible for him without quality time set apart for contemplation and communion with God. Jesus goes to a place where he can find solitude and the disciples have to go looking for him. Then with them, and their news that everybody is looking for Jesus, they leave Capernaum to visit the neighbouring villages and spend some days travelling around Galilee.
The chapter finishes with a leper, a ritually unclean person of the time, approaching Jesus in faith that he can heal him. Jesus, moved with compassion does as he asks, then orders him to go to the priests who will certify his cleanness and permit his restoration to the community. He further orders him not to say anything about it, but as his good news is clearly too good to keep to himself, he goes off and tells everyone, so that Jesus could not go anywhere in public, and people continue to search for him.
A word about ‘demon possession’ and ‘leprosy’ as the Gospel calls them. Jesus ministered in a world of primitive medical science. Mental illnesses especially were widely understood as possession by evil spirits. In the gospels, the difference between a physical healing and an exorcism (casting out of an evil spirit or demon) is bound to be somewhat blurred. And leprosy as described in the gospels has a wider meaning than the affliction known today as Hansen’s disease. It could include any number of skin diseases. But all of them had the consequence of the sufferer being regarded as unclean and forced to be isolated from the rest of the community.
Jesus’ healing activity flowed out of his intimacy with God and God’s will for human life. They were works of the heart and visible signs of the kingdom of God in the world. As Jesus proclaims the kingdom of God through word and deed, God is presenting Godself in a decisive way. The evidence that the new age is dawning is that blindness, deafness, lameness, uncleanness of any sort, and death itself, are ended. These categories of disease are not always or necessarily names of physical conditions but importantly they are metaphors for spiritual ones. To see the way of Jesus requires sight, the message of the good news needs to be heard, to follow Jesus means to be able to walk his way, the good news of the kingdom God has to be lived, even as it brings life. Whatever physical healings Jesus performs, the story always contains important elements of spiritual transformation, or a moving forward in discipleship. This is a surely a major reason for them being written about. They are telling us how Jesus’ healing works relate to us, the readers.
Chapter 2 of the Gospel begins with Jesus healing a paralysed man. It may be that this man did not have a paralysis in the modern sense, but whatever his condition, he was bed-ridden. It is interesting to note that Jesus heals him by using words of forgiveness from sin. This may reflect the understanding that many of the common peoples’ sicknesses were attributed to their apparent sin, and they were made to be outcasts, excluded from society and synagogue, and they believed themselves to be excluded from the love of God. It could be that this man could not walk because he was heavily burdened by sin and guilt and a conviction that he was forsaken by God. His faith in the authority of Jesus to forgive sins may have been all he needed to get up and walk again!
This scene introduces a series of conflicts between Jesus and the religious authorities. The conflicts include his authority to forgive, which they see as blasphemous, his practise of inclusive meals, the fact that he is seen eating with despised tax collectors, one of whom he even calls to be his disciple, and other sinners whose company they reasoned that no man of God would ever entertain. There is further conflict with them over religious practices such as fasting and Sabbath observance, and perhaps most surprisingly, Jesus is in conflict with his family. Without going into all the possible issues, this scene stresses that for Jesus the kingdom of God is his most important family, a family that is open and accessible to all, and this now has greater priority than his own human family.
To the allegation of the scribes that Jesus’ power to heal is as a result of his own alliance with evil, his response is harsh. Not to discern the work of the Spirit in Jesus, is ‘life-threatening.’ The message is that refusal to recognize the presence and love of God being demonstrated in the work of Jesus is a form of spiritual death.
In these scenes of conflict, Mark announces the major theme of his Gospel. Jesus’ passion for the kingdom of God will lead to a final and fatal conflict with the religious and political authorities who ruled the land. Here, in chapters 2 and 3 of the Gospel, the shadow of the cross is already being cast over the life and mission of Jesus.
Some questions to ponder and pray about (there may be others):
As you read about the healing works of Jesus, what message do they convey about the power of Jesus to heal in your own life or the life of someone you may be praying for?
What are the issues that are raised against Jesus, and how do these issues relate to conflict among religious groups in our own time?
As you reflect on these first three chapters, what is the image of Jesus and his ministry that Mark presents for us? What is the characteristic of Jesus that most challenges you or the Church of today?
Week 2 – The ‘Way;’ the good news; the kingdom of God
At the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, John the Baptizer is introduced as a fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy: ‘Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you who will prepare your way. A voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight.’ (from Malachi 3: 1 and Isaiah 40: 3)
The way of the Lord is a major theme of Mark’s Gospel. ‘The way’ (also translated as path or road) is a metaphor for the meaning of the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The way evokes ancient Israel’s journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land, and later the return of the Jewish exiles to that homeland from Babylonia in the 6th century BC. Both journeys were undertaken through a desert or wilderness and ended with a crossing of the river Jordan. So John’s baptism of people, including Jesus, in that river evokes a sense of something new and final being created: a people who, having repented, are baptized as if passing through the waters of the Jordan in preparation for entry into a new promised land – the reign or kingdom of God.
The gospel as ‘the way of Jesus’ does not primarily focus on belief in who Jesus is, but on a way of life to be followed, that is, his way of life. (‘Belief’ in ancient times meant much more than intellectual assent. It indicated loyalty and commitment to a person or cause). We read in the Acts of the Apostles (9:2) that the earliest name for the new Christian movement was ‘the Way.’ They were followers of the way of Jesus.
Mark reports that Jesus journeyed from Nazareth to where John was baptizing in the Jordan, a little to the north of where the river meets the Dead Sea. It would have been a journey of about 100 miles on foot. It is hardly likely that Jesus walked there to be baptized straightaway. ‘Mark’s account suggests that Jesus’ decision to be baptized indicates an acceptance of John’s call to repentance and an identification with John’s message and vision.’1 It is widely thought in scholarly circles that before his baptism, Jesus spent time in John’s community and even may have been one of his disciples. The evangelists writing as they were long after the event and in the knowledge of Jesus’ true identity obviously found such a possibility difficult to articulate, and even embarrassing. The superiority of Jesus over John right from the start is something they felt necessary to stress, but Mark alone is silent on the matter. With him there is no hint of a ‘rank issue’ between John and Jesus.
What Mark does clearly indicate is that the arrest of John by Herod Antipas, the regional vassal king, was the trigger for Jesus to begin his ministry. ‘The time is fulfilled,’ Jesus proclaims, ‘the kingdom of God has drawn near. Repent and believe in the gospel.’ For Mark (and the other evangelists after him) the gospel is about ‘the kingdom of God.’ So what is this kingdom, and what did it mean for Jesus, for Mark, and for early Christianity?
‘Kingdom’ was, and still is, a political term. The long-suffering people of Jesus’ world knew all about life in the kingdoms of Rome and of Herod. We may wonder why Jesus didn’t use a term like ‘family’ or ‘community’ of God. ‘Kingdom of God’ would therefore surely have meant a society and system that would be loyal to the God of Israel, and what life would be like if God alone were king and the rulers of this world were not.1
This makes sense when we consider the petition in Jesus’ own prayer, as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew: ‘Your kingdom come….on earth as it is in heaven.’ It is asking that God’s rule, God’s system of justice and values, become the norm for the earth just as they are for heaven. This does not deny, of course, that the kingdom of God will reach fulfilment and perfection beyond this life, but first and foremost for humanity, it is about the transformation of this world. It is God’s desire for the earth: a world of justice, love and peace.
At the time of Jesus, after centuries of domination and suffering under foreign rulers and the power of wealthy elites, this is the kind of world that many Jews dreamed of. It is the world envisaged by the great prophets, such as Isaiah and Micah, who both proclaimed God’s will for a just, peaceful and settled future for the people (See Isaiah 2: 4 and Micah 4: 1 – 4).
Jesus proclaimed that this kingdom of God is near or ‘at hand.’ Many people thought that it would be imposed on the world by God, that God would bring an end to the world as we know it. John the Baptist appears to have seen it this way. His call was for people to repent and be baptized before it is too late! But Jesus clearly had something different in mind. He taught his hearers that the kingdom is something that is accessible and can be entered now. He appealed to people to ‘repent,’ which literally means to change your mind and your ways, turn your life around, more than about your sin and need of forgiveness. It is best captured by the image of return to God from the ‘exile’ or separation where you now live. When we can do this, we can enter the kingdom of God. It has no borders except human hearts and minds that can stubbornly imprison us in the way of life we have now.
Jesus then called his hearers to ‘believe’ (to commit to, to love, to live by) the good news of God, and God’s vision of a very different kind of life and world than the one we have now. Mark’s introduction or prelude concludes with Jesus calling his first disciples to ‘follow me,’ to learn and grow to live by his vision of how God wills that life should be for humanity, and for these disciples to be ‘fishers of people,’ who draw others to this good news of God.
At once they follow Jesus, leaving the old life behind. Because what could possibly be better than what he has to offer?
Questions to ponder and pray about (there may be others!):
How has your own understanding of Jesus evolved over time, and what has influenced your thinking?
To repent really means to turn your life around, to go beyond the mind you now have. What does this change of direction mean for our individual lives and our relationship with others, and how are we challenged to move outside our normal comfort zone?
To believe in the good news involves commitment to God and God’s kingdom. What must we do to live out this commitment?
(1.Marcus Borg, ‘Meeting Jesus in Mark,’ p.24; 2.p.29)
Week 1 – Friday after Ash Wednesday
With the inability, once again, of being able to offer the possibility of a Lent course, I would like to share some thoughts from my own Lent study this year. Our recent Archdeaconry Synod had as its theme, the words of the glorified Christ from the book of Revelation: ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock.’ (Rev. 3: 20). He promises that if we open the door he will come in to us, he will share more of himself with us. In offering some insights each week on Jesus through the Gospel of Mark, I will try and open that door to Jesus or hopefully open it just a little wider. You are welcome to join me.
Suggestion: Read the whole Gospel of Mark either in one go or perhaps 2 – 3 chapters a week, which should take you through Lent, and it would be advisable to have a Bible to hand as you read the following.
Introduction to the Gospel | Its historical context | The titles of Jesus
This year the Gospel readings in our Sunday Eucharist are predominantly from Mark. Mark is now universally accepted as the first Gospel to be written and provides a main source for the slightly later Gospels of Matthew and Luke. These three are known as the Synoptic Gospels because their stories of Jesus follow a similar pattern. Before Mark, the only Christian writings in existence that we know about were the letters of Paul to the various Churches, probably all written in the 50s of the first century.
But in or around the year 70, some 40 years after the historical life of Jesus, an early Christian known later as Mark put the story of Jesus into writing for the first time. It was during a time of war, the Jewish revolt against Roman rule, which resulted in Jerusalem being devastated and the Temple destroyed. It was catastrophic. Jewish belief held that God was especially present in the Temple, and that God had promised to protect Jerusalem and the Temple forever.
This is the context in which Mark wrote his Gospel, his good news about Jesus. It was essentially a book of consolation. For it told that God was still with his people. In Jesus, the presence of God was much nearer and greater than in any temple.
Mark’s opening words are: ‘The beginning of the gospel (or good news) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ The sense is that the whole book is but a beginning. It is good news that continues to unfold. It is not just about the past. We are being invited to meet Jesus now and learn what he is about and how we as his followers today can live according to his way and continue to make him known.
While Mark immediately affirms that Jesus is Son of God and Messiah, Jesus does not make this claim about himself in this Gospel. Such claims are made about him ‘in private,’ what is generally known as Mark’s ‘Messianic Secret.’ It is probably more historically factual that Jesus made no claim of divinity or greatness for himself, or even knew about his divine identity in his earthly lifetime. His focus, words and works were totally centred on God and with the coming kingdom of God.
We need to aware that all the Gospel writers (evangelists) wrote post-Easter. Their faith and knowledge of Jesus was shaped by the experience of the Resurrection and their relationship with the risen Christ through the Spirit in the life of the Church. So much of what they wrote about Jesus would therefore have been interpreted in the light of the resurrection, from the perspective of who Jesus became for the first Christians following the Easter event. In varying degrees, Mark and the other evangelists ‘read back’ this understanding into their story of Jesus’ earthly life. Both pre-Easter memory and post-Easter interpretation are involved in the compilation of the Gospels, and we must see that as quite natural.
Let us begin our meeting with Jesus in Mark by considering how he is introduced to us: Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Christ is not, of course, Jesus’ last name but a title from the Greek word christos, that translates the Hebrew word for ‘messiah.’ It means one anointed, particularly by God (e.g. see Psalm 2:2). It was the title of the ancient kings of Judah and Israel, and even of a foreign king, Cyrus of Persia, who in the 6th century BC allowed the Jewish exiles in Babylonia to return to their homeland (Isaiah 45: 1).
By the time of Jesus, Messiah (capital M) meant a specific future leader who would liberate Israel from the oppression of its Roman rulers. Mark declares at the beginning of his Gospel that Jesus is the Messiah, the long expected anointed one of Israel. (However, fairly soon the Christ would come to mean for Christians someone much greater and more universal than the Jewish Messiah, see, for example, John 1, Hebrews 1; we can consider this in more detail later). Mark also identifies Jesus as ‘Son of God.’
The status of Jesus as the Son of God was probably first proclaimed only after his resurrection. St Paul (Romans 1: 1) appears to confirm this, but this does not deny that Jesus was already Son of God in his earthly lifetime, only that it became clear following the first Easter.
However, in Jesus’ time and following, there was another ‘Son of God’ in the world. Augustus, the first Roman emperor who ruled from 31BC to 14AD was hailed in pagan Roman theology as ‘the Son of God,’ the Lord and Saviour of the world who had brought ‘peace on earth.’ Subsequent Roman emperors were also considered divine.
Such titles sound so familiar to us as Christians, and here Mark is naming the conflict that would ultimately lead to the death of Jesus. Perhaps we can now understand just how politically subversive the Gospels were in the time and context in which they were written as they applied the exalted titles of the emperor to the itinerant Jew from Nazareth. In a (comfortable Western?) world where many people believe that religion and politics do not mix or even do not conflict, we have clear Gospel evidence that Christianity, as well as being a reform force within Judaism, also began as a peaceful but thoroughly anti-imperial, anti-establishment movement that hailed the superiority of its leader over the rulers of this world, who would build a kingdom far greater than that of any Roman emperor. Towards the end of the Gospel (15: 39) a Roman centurion, a gentile foreigner, declares that this Jesus was truly Son of God. In that scene beneath the cross, Mark presents us with an image of the Roman Empire testifying against itself!
Questions to ponder: Are you surprised by the historical and political context and message of the Gospel?
What does or might it say about our relationship as Christians with the political status quos of our own day?
To what extent does your faith conflict with the conventions or assumptions of your nation or culture?
Contact: Rev’d John Poole
T: +34 922 74 20 45
M: +34 629 371 664