Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Jesus Tomb Thing

Some idiot film director (James Cameron) is rehashing some 27 year old discredited evidence that Jesus's was found. Well, Jesus wasn't the only guy called Jesus, even in the gospels. And there are so many women called Mary, it's positively hard to keep track of them all. My first reaction was that no-one with half a brain could possibly take it seriously, but was chatting to a friend today and he said he'd met someone who did take it seriously, which just goes to show that Einstein was right:

Only two things are infinite - the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former.

Anyway, here's a link to Ben Witherington's blog, where he discredits the whole thing. Here's a link to Jodi Magness discrediting it. Ben Witherington is a New Testament expert. Jodi Magness is an archaeologist and expert on 1st century Jewish burial customs. James Cameron is the guy who made Terminator.

More Quotes

Are they about science? Are they about theology?

I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.

It is really quite amazing by what margins competent but conservative scientists and engineers can miss the mark, when they start with the preconceived idea that what they are investigating is impossible. When this happens, the most well-informed men become blinded by their prejudices and are unable to see what lies directly ahead of them.
Arthur C. Clarke, 1963

Only a fool of a scientist would dismiss the evidence and reports in front of him and substitute his own beliefs in their place.
Paul Kurtz

The high-minded man must care more for the truth than for what people think.

I found those quotes here, while looking for some fun quotes along those lines for an essay I'm writing.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Blood Diamond

I went to see this film last night with some friends.

It's about the war in the 90s in Sierra Leone - how it's fuelled by diamonds and by people's greed, the child soldiers, the suffering, the destruction, the complicity of the West, people becoming hardened to violence, the mess that is so much of Africa. Leonardo diCaprio and Djimon Hounsou are excellent in the main roles as a cynical Zimbabwean mercenary / diamond smuggler and a fisherman who finds a huge diamond.

There are some excellent sermon illustrations, especially along the lines of the relationship between Hounsou and his son, who is captured by the rebels and trained to be a child soldier... Also lots of memorable lines, often with good visual illustrations. If I'd made it, I'd have made the ending nastier.

Great film, hard-hitting. Not for the especially faint hearted though, but given the subject matter it could have been a lot worse (15 rather than 18).

Monday, February 26, 2007

The Episcopal Church in the USA

I stumbled across this video today of senior figures in the US Episcopal Church saying what their good news is. It is striking that the word "Jesus" is never mentioned. Though respect to the guy who says "Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again."

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Pierced for Our Transgressions...

Pierced for Our Transgressions is the title of a new book by a friend of mine, a guy I know vaguely and a guy I've never heard of.

It is about the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement - the idea that Jesus died to take the punishment that we deserve so that we can be right with God. Some people have attacked the doctrine in recent years, but (to my mind) it's pretty obviously in the Bible, although of course so are other ways of explaining what happened the cross. The book strongly explains and defends the doctrine, and has had lots of excellent reviews. I haven't read it, but it's probably well worth reading and I certainly intend to read it if I ever have to debate with anyone who disagrees with penal substitution.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Interesting Idea about Economics

Here's an interesting point by the BBC economics editor, who explains why it's more beneficial to the public to charge more than cost for some services than to provide them for free...

Basically the idea is that if some things are free and in demand, the disadvantage of having to queue for them will cancel the benefit of the product, whereas charging a fee will produce more benefit for both sides.

Annoying Songs

One of the songs I least like singing in church can be found here. I'm ok with the first two sections, but the third one is very distracting...

Oh, I feel like dancing -
it's foolishness I know;
but, when the world has seen the light,
they will dance with joy,
like we're dancing now.

(from Over the mountains and the sea (I could sing of your love forever) by Martin Smith)


*looks round*

*realises that actually no-one is dancing, even when it's in a fairly charismatic church*

*realises that what people are singing is actually therefore "when the world has seen the light, they will be so overjoyed that they won't be dancing at all*

*doesn't agree with that sentiment*

*decides not to sing*

*tries not to laugh at all the silly people*

*wonders why either they are singing something they so blatantly don't mean or why they aren't at least trying to dance with joy at that point*

Thursday, February 22, 2007


I've been thinking a fair bit recently about how I see what preaching is and how I go about it. This is very much a first attempt to write something down about it.

Preaching as Proclamation

I guess the classic model of preaching is that it's about bringing God's word to the people – basically telling them what God says to them, specifically through the Bible. I think that's an important position to start from, and I think it is absolutely critical to remember that we can only tell authoritatively that God is saying something if it's in the Bible, so therefore in as much as preaching is meant to be speaking from God, it should also be speaking from the Bible.

I think that where this model breaks down is that it fundamentally assumes an ontological distinction between the preacher (who is seen as being able to interpret the Bible almost authoritatively) and the congregation. So it works fine as a model if you've got an Old Testament prophet (well, a true prophet, not a false one), with God speaking to them directly and authoritatively, and to an extent in evangelism where the preacher can be assumed to have a better access to God's truth than the hearers he's aiming at (though he shouldn't take it for granted that they will necessarily agree that he has. If they don't, this model probably breaks down there too).

Bible Reading as Encounter

I guess where I'm coming from in my understanding of preaching is my understanding of what personal reading of the Bible should be about. The Bible is all about Jesus, and it points to Jesus. That's what it's for (e.g. Luke 24:27). So the point of reading the Bible is to meet Jesus in the Bible. When we read the Bible for ourselves, we should be encountering Jesus in it, and that encounter should change us, because the Christian life is about being continually transformed by the renewing of our minds.

Transformational Encounter

If the Jesus I meet fits in perfectly with what I already thought about him and with how I already lived, then I am unlikely to change because there is no need to change. If I am going to change, I need to see how the Jesus I meet in the Bible does not fit with my conception of him, or does not fit with the way I live my life. Bible study then should be profoundly transformative, as we find that Jesus does not fit into the box we have made for him in our lives. And transformation is often uncomfortable.

Preaching as Encounter

What I think the point of preaching is then is to lead people into the Scriptures, where they encounter Jesus. It isn't to explain the passage – it's to help them to meet Jesus in the passage. That might well include explaining the passage, and usually should, but explaining the passage isn't the main point of what we're doing when we preach, and neither is giving people tips on 7 ways to improve your prayer life, though there might well be a place for that as a consequence of meeting Jesus, especially if we meet Jesus as he is teaching us about prayer, for example.

When we lead people to encounter Jesus in the Scriptures, we need to know the way, which I think is the main point of studying the passage in detail beforehand. If we know where Jesus is in the passage and how he changed us as a result of our encounter with him in the passage, we can avoid the dead ends and lead people along the route we have already travelled to Jesus, and show them how our encounter with him has changed us. Preaching then may well involve revisiting Jesus in places where we ourselves have recently experienced discomfort and pain through the encounter.

It may be that the main way in which an encounter with Jesus in Jeremiah 13 (for example) changes me is different from the way that encounter should change many of my listeners. In that case, we need to identify as much as possible with our listeners in our own minds before meeting Jesus in Jeremiah 13, so that we can model the change that Jesus brings about.

My thoughts may change as I hear more good sermons and as I get more experience at preaching. But that's where I'm at at the moment.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007


It's the start of Lent today. Being a good hard-core conservative evangelical, I didn't used to do Lent, but as we've been reminded at college over the last few days, brokenness is good as we remember following Jesus in the way of the cross.

I'm not giving up chocolate - I need it too much (and I got sent a load today). I do aim to wean myself off, but not during termtime - I've tried that before and it's not pretty. I am, however, giving up playing pool and using the time more profitably instead.

The History of Christianity - Lion Handbook

I was having a conversation today with someone who confessed to not knowing much about the history of the Church, but wanting to know more. I found myself very quickly recommending a book I haven't read for ages, but which is really good as a basic introduction. It's 600-odd pages, and is written by people who know what they're talking about, but looks like a modern school textbook and reads in a way that is very accessible to teenagers. On the other hand, it's 600-odd pages and covers 2000 years of history, so it's only a quick overview. But good for an introduction and seeing how everything fits together.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Anglican Communion Mess

Here is the conclusion from the meeting of the Primates (and yes, that's a stupid name - guess it might help keep them humble) of the Anglican Communion.

Basically, it recognises there's a big mess, says that the way forwards is to have a formal covenant for the Anglican communion, which is still being drafted and needs to be voted on by various people. It recognises that TEC/ECUSA currently needs to sort its act out if it wants to be part of it. It also says that the African bishops currently overseeing parishes in the US will need to stop, but recognises that there's a pastoral need there and doesn't really expect them to stop until some of the rest of the mess sorts itself out.

Sermon on Jeremiah 13:1-11

I preached in college chapel this morning on Jeremiah 13:1-11. The other reading was Mark 6:14-29. This is roughly what I said...

It's very easy to take only the comfortable bits of God's word, but I'm convinced God speaks through all of it, which is just as well given today's readings. We're in Jeremiah this morning, and it's profoundly uncomfortable.

Having said that, I love this passage – it's one of those glorious passages of scripture which at first sight seems completely irrelevant, but which has so much to teach us.

It's be far more interesting as well if the TNIV hadn't bowdlerised it so badly. Here's the KJV for verse 1:

“Go and get thee a linen girdle, and put it upon thy loins, and put it not in water.”

In other words, get some priestly underpants, wear them and don't wash them. Then go to a place a few miles away, and hide the used, unwashed pair of pants in a crack in the rocks, where all the water is going to run down over them when it rains. Then “many days later”, go back and get them. If I'd been astonishingly organised, this is where I'd say “here's one I prepared earlier”, but I think we can imagine what a pair of dirty linen pants are going to be like after a few months with rain water and mud running through them. Surprise, surprise, when Jeremiah goes to get them, they're completely useless.

It's a great visual image, isn't it? Verse 9 – God says that he will ruin the pride of the people just like those worn, soiled linen underpants were ruined. Even the people themselves are going to end up like a ruined, soiled, unusable loincloth. In context, God's going to do it by sending Babylon down on them (the place where Jeremiah had to leave the pants - “Perath” - has a name which is pretty much the same as the Euphrates, which is used as a symbol of Babylonian power).

So what on earth has this got to do with us? What I want us to notice is why God did it to them. Why would God ruin his people like that? Verse 11

“For as a belt is bound around the waist, so I bound the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah to me” declares the LORD, to be my people for my renown and praise and honour. But they have not listened.”

God bound Israel and Judah to him to be his single people for his renown and praise and honour. But they didn't listen. They followed their own heart and ran after other gods.

You know what? The best part of 3000 years later, and I think that all too often God's people still aren't listening much.

God has bound us to himself, to be his people, for his renown and praise and honour.

God has bound us to himself. He has taken us, stupid, sinful, pitiful, lost, dead people who deserve his wrath, who aren't any better than that ruined soiled loincloth, and he has bound us intimately to himself, to the perfectly wise and living God who does whatever he wants to do.

And yet we forget that. We start going off and thinking that we're worth something independently of God or that we can somehow get to God by what we do or we look at other people who seem so sorted and we think that we're somehow worthless. But God has taken us and God has attached us to him. It's not to do with our effort. It's not to do with how good we are or aren't.

And you know what? God didn't do it so that we could be our own, empowered people. He did it so that we would be his people. Not our own. His.

He didn't do it for our renown or so that we could boast about what excellent churches we've come from or are going to. He didn't do it so that more people could hear about Alpha or Christianity Explored or Reform or New Wine or Pusey House or Wycliffe Hall. He did it for his renown, so people would hear about him.

He didn't do it for people to praise us, or say how clever we are, how pastorally sensitive, how wise, how passionate, how good looking, how cool, what good preachers we are, how well we lead worship. He didn't do it so that if we have a reunion in 20 years time we could all show off about how much God has done in our churches, what organisations we're leading or what silly title the church has given us. He did it for his praise, not for ours.

He didn't do so that people could talk about us, or about our churches. He didn't do it so that we would think we were any sounder than other people, or that we better enabled encounters with God than other people, or that were more reverent than other people. Those are all judgementalism. He did it for his honour, not for ours.

Our attitude shouldn't be like Herod's, who cared more about what his dinner guests thought of him than about the truth. It shouldn't be like Herodias's, who was so proud that she hated John because he rebuked her. Our attitude should be like the disciples who are sent out into a world where people hate and try to kill those who stand up for Jesus, and who act not for their own glory, but only so that Jesus becomes better known. Our attitude should be like John the Baptist's. Jesus must become greater, we must become less.

And one day, when Jesus is everything and we are nothing except what we are in him, when we see that all things are for his praise and renown and honour, then we will praise him forever.

But at the moment, I know that so often I'm not doing that. Too often I'm trying to hold onto myself and some shred of ownership of my life or of my renown or my praise or my honour. And I know I'm not the only one. If we're honest, so often not we're not living as God's people, for his renown and praise and honour. So often we're not listening. And God says that when his people are like that, he will ruin us and our pride. God will do what it takes to humble us. If that means ruining us so that we end up like that soiled ruined loincloth, then that's what he'll do. When we try to be proud or independent, God humbles us. God disciplines his children, even if that means breaking us and ruining us.

I guess I've felt that a bit over the last week or so. As some of you know, I haven't exactly had a great time of it, and I know I'm not the only one here. And yes, on one level I can try blaming people and whatever, but on another level God has been humbling me and showing me more and more that I can't rely on myself to keep going. Yet again, God has been breaking my pride.

And, if I'm honest, a lot of the time I hate it. I really don't like the idea that God cares far more about my attitude to him than about my service for him. But that's my pride speaking. I want to see God using me more than I want to see myself humbled before him. That's because there's still pride in here – in glorifying God with my gifts, I hope a little bit will rub off on me.

But that's not what God wants. God says in Jeremiah 13 that he will ruin his people – he will make us completely useless, if that's what it takes to get us humble before him. God would far rather that we are humble than that we are useful. I'll say that again. God would far rather that we are humble than that we are useful.

And if necessary, he will make us useless if that's what it takes to make us humble. God would rather we are useless than that we are proud before him. God would rather we are useless than that we are proud.

A word then to those of us who are suffering at the moment. May this suffering draw you closer to God in reliance on him. Be encouraged - God is treating you as his children and working for your good, even when we can't see it and even when it doesn't feel like it. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

So keep on going and keep turning to God, he has bound us to himself to be his people for his renown and praise and honour.

A word to those who aren't suffering at the moment. Are you proud? Are you even proud of not being proud? Then if you are really God's child, he will humble you because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as a child.

God made us for himself, he bound us to himself for to be his people for his renown and praise and honour. Will we listen?

Monday, February 19, 2007

Completely Stupid Inventions

As completely stupid inventions go, this one will take some beating. Some guy has invented a bike that goes sideways to the direction you're facing. Problem is, that means you're not looking where you're going! Oh, and you're trying to balance in the front/back direction, but you don't have a leg you can use to stop you falling backwards off it...

Friday, February 16, 2007

Calvin - yielding to God

“For, until men feel that they owe everything to God, that they are cherished by his paternal care, and that he is the author of all their blessings, so that naught is to be looked for away from him, they will never submit to him in voluntary obedience; nay, unless they place their entire happiness in him, they will never yield up their whole selves to him in truth and sincerity.

Those, therefore, who, in considering this question, propose to inquire what the essence of God is, only delude us with frigid speculations, - it being much more our interest to know what kind of being God is, and what things are agreeable to his nature.”

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.2.1-2

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Ministry and Media?

Does technology change the way we do ministry? Should it?


I honestly don't see the point of ironing. After hanging clothes for a week or so, I can't tell the difference between ironed and non-ironed clothes, especially if they were meant to be difficult to crease in the first place.

cartoon from

Cartoon by Dave Walker. Find more cartoons you can freely re-use on your blog at We Blog Cartoons.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Word of God

Sorry I haven't posted much recently, people visiting, running quizzes, etc.

In a recent post, I commented about how I came to realise that God's supreme revelation isn't the Bible – it's Jesus. One tendency I've noticed among those who stress this is that they tend to say that the phrase “word of God” mostly applies to Jesus rather than the Bible. Simon made a comment on my post, with a link to a piece on his blog arguing strongly that the phrase “word of God” should only be used of Jesus in the New Testament. The usual argument for that uses John 1, where the Word is clearly Jesus. But Simon's comment and his post got me thinking...

As he suggested, I've restricted myself to looking at the use of the Greek phrase ‘ο λογος του θεου as there are several Greek phrases translated “word of God” in the Bible, and λογος is the word used for Jesus in John 1. I want to look at how that phrase is used, and whether it applies to Jesus, the Bible, or something else.

Surprisingly, it's only used once in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which is in 2 Samuel 16:23, where we're told that Ahithophel's advice was like consulting the word of God. That could be talking about either, though they didn't know about Jesus back then.

Paul's Use

Paul uses the phrase seven times in seven different letters.

In Romans 9:6, Paul says that the word of God has not failed. In the context, it looks very much like he's talking about God's promise to Abraham, but I suppose there's a very outside chance it could be Jesus.

In 1 Corinthians 14:36, Colossians 1:25, 1 Timothy 4:5, 2 Timothy 2:9 and Titus 2:5, it could actually be about the Bible or Jesus – either would make sense in the context.

In 1 Thessalonians 2:13, however, it is contrasted with the “word of men” and seems to be a propositional message that Paul preached rather than the person of Jesus.

John's Use

John is generally very careful how he uses words, and was after all the one who identified the λογος with Jesus in the first place. But he only actually uses the expression “word of God” seven times, 5 of which are in Revelation.

John 10:35 and 1 John 2:14 could be about either Jesus or the Bible. In Revelation, the phrase “word of God and testimony of Jesus” is used three times (1:2; 1:9; 20:4) and seems to be speaking about a message. Rev 6:9 is similar, except it's the word of God and the witness of the martyrs.

Revelation 19:13 is, as far as I can tell, the only verse in the whole Bible which explicitly uses the phrase “word of God” to describe Jesus.

Other Letters

Hebrews 4:12 could be either, but 13:7 has “word of God” as the direct object of “spoke”, which suggests it's a message rather than a person. 1 Peter 1:23 and 2 Peter 3:5 could both be speaking about either Jesus or the Bible.

Gospels and Acts

In Mark 7:13, Jesus describes the Pharisees and scribes as “making void the word of God by your tradition”. The passage is well worth a look, because it is clear in context that the Pharisees were using their own regulations to change the teaching of Scripture. So “word of God” here refers to the Old Testament.

Luke uses the phrase “word of God” 15 times, seemingly to refer to Jesus' preached message. Luke 5:1 could either be referring to Jesus' teaching or to Jesus himself. In 8:11, the word is something that is preached. In Luke 8:21, Jesus says “those who hear the word of God and do it” rather than “who hear the word of God and obey it”, implying that the word is the message that's preached rather than the preacher. 11:28 is similar, but with “keep” instead of “obey”.

In Acts 4:31, the people “speak the word of God” (accusative not genitive – it's the message rather than the content). Likewise in 6:2; 13:46 and 18:11.

In Acts 6:7, the word of God “increases”, as it does in 12:24, where it also “multiplies”, both of which strongly suggest it's a verbal message...

In 8:14 and 11:1, it is “received”, which could apply to Jesus or the message. Likewise in 13:5, where it is “proclaimed”, but in 13:7 it is “heard” (accusative, not genitive – it's the message again). In Acts 17:13, the word of God is proclaimed, but it's in the nominative, so could be Jesus or the message.


There are then, lots of passages in the New Testament which require the phrase λογος του θεου to mean a verbal message, and only one, itself heavily apocalyptic, which requires it to be Jesus.

I therefore conclude that using the phrase “word of God”, or for that matter “Word of God” to describe the Bible or part of the Bible is absolutely fine. Yes, Jesus is the Word in a stronger (and less literal) sense, but that doesn't mean we can't follow the guys who wrote the Bible in calling it the “Word of God”.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Alister McGrath - the Dawkins Delusion

Last Tuesday, Alister McGrath (the Rev Professor) did a talk in Oxford called "the Dawkins Delusion", which is also the title of his new book. It seemed to be very well received. I couldn't go because I was being grilled about half a mile away at the same time.

The talk is available for download here, and is copyright St Ebbe’s Church, Oxford (copying talks is prohibited).

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Better to have not lived than not to love

Some of us have not much time to lose [to begin loving]. Remember, once more, that this is a matter of life and death. I cannot help speaking urgently, for myself, for yourselves. "Whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea." That is to say, it is the deliberate verdict of the Lord Jesus that it is better not to have lived than not to love.

Henry Drummond (1851-1897), "The Greatest Thing in the World" [1892]

Hat tip to CQOD

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Hebrews 1, Evangelicals and Bibliolatry

I remember one of the first times I realised that I was in a slightly different place theologically to some of the people around me who were generally regarded as "sound".

In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.
Hebrews 1:1-4, NIV

As far as I can see, this passage makes it obvious that God's perfect revelation of himself is in Jesus ("the Son"). God reveals himself better through Jesus than he does through the apostles and prophets. Jesus is God's perfect self-revelation.

Of course, I think that the Bible is perfect too, but it is necessarily limited because it is a book, and Jesus is a person. Jesus can therefore reveal God better than the Bible does. The Bible is, as books go, perfect, and helps us to know God, but it helps us to know God primarily by pointing us to Jesus. The Bible is about Jesus, all of it, but it is not Jesus. The Bible is not God's perfect self-revelation, but it is God's perfect pointer to his perfect self-revelation.

I think studying the Bible is really really important, because it's the best way to get to know Jesus, along with doing what Jesus tells you to do through the Bible.

Some people think that evangelicalism is about saying that the Bible is God's perfect revelation to the point where Jesus gets pushed out a bit. Some evangelicals think that's what evangelicalism is too. I remember one good friend who, when I asked him about Hebrews 1:1-4, tried arguing that Jesus in some sense was the Bible. (I think that's blasphemous - it's certainly leaning towards bibliolatry - worshipping a book.) Jesus speaks by his Holy Spirit through the Bible, but they are distinct.

Since then, I've got to know a lot more evangelicals, and I've realised that the bibliolatry thing is mostly restricted to some, but by no means all, conservatives. But it's still annoying, and painful for me when I see it.

Here's cartoon about it.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Kingdom of God in Mark

This is paraphrased from part of one of my essays...

What the Kingdom of God in the Bible is usually about is well summarised by Ridderbos:

... the kingdom manifests itself in all sorts of ways in the person and deeds of Christ. It appears palpably and visibly in the casting out of demons (cf. Lk. 11:20) and generally in Jesus miraculous power. In the healing of those who are demon-possessed it becomes evident that Jesus has invaded the house of ‘the strong man’, has bound him fast and so is in a position to plunder his goods (Mt. 12:29). The kingdom of heaven breaks into the domain of the evil one. The power of Satan is broken. Jesus sees him fall like lightning from heaven. He possesses and bestows power to trample on the dominion of the enemy. Nothing can be impossible for those who go forth into the world, invested with Jesus’ power, as witnesses of the kingdom (Lk. 10:18f.). The whole of Jesus’ miraculous activity is the proof of the coming of the kingdom. What many prophets and righteous men desired in vain to see—the breaking in of the great epoch of salvation—the disciples can now see and hear (Mt. 13:16; Lk. 10:23).
H.N. Ridderbos, writing the “Kingdom of God” entry in the “New Bible Dictionary”

The announcement of Jesus' kingdom in 1:15 is immediately followed by Jesus calling disciples, driving out demons, healing the sick and forgiving sins. But it is not primarily how Mark uses the phrase kingdom of God. Indeed, Mark uses the phrase much less often than either Luke or Matthew (if Matthew's Semitic use of “kingdom of the heavens” is included), and in a much more restricted sense.

In general, Mark's uses are clumped – of his 14 uses of the phrase, three in chapter 4 and six in 9:47-10:25. It will be instructing to examine them in turn.

In chapter 4, the three uses are the context of Jesus' parables. After telling the parable of the sower, Jesus says to his disciples this enigmatic and much debated saying.

To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that “they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.”

He then proceeds to tell two more parables, which he says are explicitly about the kingdom – the parables of the patient farmer and of the mustard seed. All three of the parables have in common the idea of growth within the agricultural metaphor. All three have as a starting point something weak or foolish – the sower in v1-20 sowing seed indiscriminately and much being eaten or choked; the second sower in v26-29 as sowing seed on the ground but doing little in the meantime; the smallness of the mustard seed in v30-32. All have impressive final harvests. The weakness of the starting point fits well in the context of Mark with widespread rejection of Jesus by the establishment and even his own family3 in chapters 1-3. Furthermore, it fits with 4:11-12 – there is a small nucleus of good soil (here the disciples) who will eventually bear spectacular fruit, though not in the course of Mark's gospel.

The next time the phrase occurs is just before the transfiguration, when Jesus says

Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.
Mark 9:1, ESV

In Mark, this is at the end of the central transition in the book, from being about who Jesus is to being about the necessity of his suffering and death. Indeed, the transfiguration itself seems somewhat incongruous in Mark – as a glorious interruption into an otherwise largely bleak narrative. It seems wisest to connect Jesus' words to the transfiguration, especially since all three synoptics connect the two. So the transfiguration is an inbreaking of the kingdom – its coming with power to demonstrate there is power in and despite the overwhelming weakness of the kingdom in Mark. It is a hint at the final harvest.

The next two chapter of Mark contain half the references to the kingdom of God in Mark's gospel, and their theme is overwhelming the suffering and death of Jesus and the consequent need for his followers to follow him in the way of the cross, cumulating in Jesus' great saying that

But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Mark 10:43-45, ESV

It is in this context then of the need for suffering, self-sacrificial discipleship in following of the suffering, self-sacrificial Son of Man that we find so many references to the kingdom of God.

9:47 speaks of “entering the kingdom of God”, which is seen as a parallel to “entering life” in v43 & 45, and in opposition to “hell”. The reference to the kingdom is therefore clearly a future eschatological one, stressing the comparative benefits of avoiding sin in the present.

In 10:14-15 , Jesus speaks of the need to receive the kingdom like a little child because it belongs to such as them. The context suggests that the reception of the kingdom is to be done humbly and not holding on to anything else. Again Jesus speaks of “entering it”, which suggests the kingdom is again seen in future eschatological terms.

Much the same could be said of 10:23-25, where the kingdom is referred to three times in the context of it being very difficult for anyone to enter the kingdom, especially the rich. Once again, the notion of sacrificial discipleship suggests itself.

In 12:34, at the end of Jesus' reported conversation with a scribe over the importance of the commands to love God and love neighbour, Jesus says to him “you are not far form the kingdom of God”. The sense is clearly partly commendatory, but also partly as a put-down that the scribe is not in the kingdom of God, which fits perfectly with the progression of relational power dynamics between Jesus and the religious authorities from 11:27 to 12:40. Once again, we get the sense of Jesus saying who is and who isn't in the kingdom – here that understanding and prioritising the law gets this scribe “not far” from the kingdom, but we don't know whether he will enter it or not.

The next occurrence is at the Last Supper, where Jesus says

Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.
Mark 14:25, ESV

At first sight this looks to be another reference to future eschatology, and it is generally understood to be so. However, others have argued that it refers to 15:36, which I shall discuss shortly.

The final reference to the kingdom of God in Mark's gospel is in 15:43, where Joseph of Arimathea is described as “looking for the kingdom of God”, though he seems to be already a follower of Jesus. This again points to a future kingdom, and also hints back to the hidden-ness of the kingdom in 4:11.

These references seem leave the question as to the nature of the kingdom as envisaged by Mark unclear. Is it referring purely to a future event or state, as the second half of the gospel suggests, or is it a growing event which starts with Jesus' ministry and the secrets of which have been revealed to the disciples, as in the first half of the gospel? And what is the transfiguration doing in the middle? Are we then to conclude that Mark did not know what the kingdom was, or indeed that Mark is a composite gospel? We do not need to go so far – I believe that there is another strand in Mark's gospel which will explain the difficulty.

Mark's good news is about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. “Christ” is (trivially) a Messianic title, but the Old Testament understanding of it is to do with kingship – the Messiah is the Davidic king. In the first half of the gospel, the kingdom is hidden, and so is Jesus' identity. But immediately after Peter's confession of Jesus as the Christ at Caesarea Philippi in 8:29, we see that Jesus the Christ is the Son of Man who must suffer and die in 8:31. The kingdom of God having come in power from 9:1 is the proclamation of Jesus as Christ at the transfiguration, but as he is the kind of Christ who must suffer and die, so those who would enter the kingdom must do so too. Just before Jesus enters Jerusalem, he is hailed by Bartimaeus as “Son of David”. As he enters Jerusalem in 11:10 the crowds cry “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David”, then come the confrontations with the religious authorities. In 14:62, Jesus tells the priests that he is the Christ, and even does so using the words “I am” with their clear implication of a claim to divinity as well. The expectation is clearly of Jesus' kingship, and that seems to be tied to the notion of the kingdom of God.

The climax comes in chapter 15. Pilate asks Jesus “You are the king of the Jews?” and Jesus replies in the affirmative. After public acclamation for the King of the Jews in 15:13-14, he is crowned by a guard of honour, using royal language, in 15:16-20. Then he is raised up where everyone can see him, with his title - “The King of the Jews” written above his head. The chief priests and the scribes acknowledge him as king in 15:32, he cries to God from a Psalm of the King in 15:34 and then is given wine to drink in 15:36. All of this is done in mockery and with thick irony, but the significance to Mark is clear in the light of what has come earlier. This is the coronation and enthronement of the King who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.

To Mark, it seems, that is the kingdom of God. That is when Jesus drinks the fruit of the vine again. That is the mystery that was hidden from the world but revealed to the disciples. That is the seed that would start small, foolish and weak but grow to be larger than all the garden plants. That is the means by which the devil is cast out and overthrown. That is the means by which life is brought to those who would humble themselves to receive it and follow in the way of the cross. That is what the rich simply cannot accept.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Songs in Church

There seem to be two main schools of thought as regards songs in church, and two things people are fussy about.

The first is theological soundness. This is something I am very fussy about. I find it very distracting when I realise I don't agree with what I'm meant to be singing. For example, on Sunday I was subjected to this offering:

Gonna shout out loud,
Gonna deafen the crowd,
Gonna send my praise to heaven.
When you’ve got such a lot,
When you’ve got not a lot,
Be happy!
from "I'm gonna jump up and down (Be happy)" by Doug Horley

I couldn't escape the implications that:

  1. singing louder means it's more likely that God will listen to you (which kind of goes against what Jesus says)
  2. it's important to be happy in every situation (rather than joyful even through the tears, which is very different)

The second thing people tend to look for is legitimate emotional expression - the singing should be joyful when it's praising God, sorrowful when lamenting our sin, etc. I find it distracting when they get this wrong too, but nowhere near as distracting as with the soundness.

Sad to say, people in charge of singing seem to come in two categories as well. The type who are very good about soundness and don't care about the tunes or the emotion and the kind who are good with the tunes and emotion but aren't fussy about the lyrics. Both are necessary.

Thursday, February 01, 2007


This cartoon reminds me of a series of conversations I had with friends when the National Lottery started. It just seems such a stupid way to waste money. You were better off giving 50p to the charity of your choice and throwing 10p down the drain every week than you were playing the lottery.

Now, of course, the government have taken the money as an extra form of tax. In a way that's a tax on greed, which kind of makes sense. In another way it's the government shafting those who are vulnerable to such greed, which is bad.

Gambling. Poor value addictive entertainment, comparable to watching Big Brother. Throwing money down the drain (as long as you watch) or giving it away is better entertainment value.

cartoon from

Cartoon by Dave Walker. Find more cartoons you can freely re-use on your blog at We Blog Cartoons.