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Knowing God, is it practical or not?


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It is still a question Christians debate – “Is knowing God really practical? Shouldn’t doing certain things be more central to the Christian life? Merely ‘knowing God’ can make you feel like you aren’t moving, right? Shouldn’t we be focusing on a list of things we must do?”

As we read and study the Bible this urge to tell (as the teacher) people what they must do or to find (as the student) what we should do still knocks at our door. I am grateful for recent input on this question. As we go through the Gospel of Mark what help can we find on this question of the practical side of the Christian life?

The question of “what to do” is a part of a larger conversation of on how Sanctification should look in the Christian life. I’m thinking of books like Five Views on Sanctification or The Hole in our Holiness or Jesus + Nothing = Everything. Those are recent, but this conversation has a long trace of ink going back to Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and so on.

However, for this short jog I’ll keep the question of “what to do” localized in our current study in Mark. Interestingly, the Gospel of Mark does not give much in the way of commands or much in the way of “you must do this to live the Christian life.” The content of the Gospel of Mark is of the sort that draws you in not so much to a pattern of things to do, but to a Person. The author is drawing us into know Jesus.

That is the beauty of the Gospel of Mark. Mark’s Jesus is not verbose. Mark has very little in the way of Discourses (extended teachings) of Jesus. Mark’s focus is on the action, the movement, the shifts in the life of the Messiah. The key events which reflect the Person that is the Messiah are what Mark is laying out before us. This series of events highlight the Person rather than a way of doing religion. The advantage of spending time in the Gospel of Mark is that due to the sparseness of his content we are forced to focus on the Person that is Jesus. It is paced to make you long for Jesus.

Seeing who Jesus is and why his life mattered then and still matters is the truest way to handle the material Mark is giving us. Why? Because that is just about the only thing you can do with it. Mark’s content pulls you in to who Jesus is. Notice Mark’s first sentence: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Messiah, the Son of God.” That is the barrel from which Mark is shooting his charge. Everything coming out of this barrel is etched by an interest in knowing who Jesus is.

This opening statement is not a very good set-up for telling people a list of things that they should do or shouldn’t do. It is, however, a great introduction to good news, good news that Jesus Messiah has arrived. “I’d like to introduce you to him.”

Of course, each gospel writer has a unique approach to the life of Jesus. It is helpful to compare the four Gospels to each other, but we can rob Mark of his unique perspective on Jesus when we end up reading Mark through the lens of Matthew, Luke or John.

Another faux pas is to reshape our idea of Jesus thru the lens of our sub-culture. I have a couple of books on my shelf that talk about this. Even though they are outdated with regard to current trends, they’ve almost become reference books for me as I keep coming back to them. Jesus in America is Richard Fox’s survey of how we have reshaped our ideas of Jesus through the 19th and 20th centuries. He notes that “the overall national infatuation with Jesus has been deepened by an array of sub-cultural traditions of allegiance to him” (p13). Conservative Christians, even self-described Evangelicals or Fundamentalists, are not immune to this slide.

So, back to the question of whether “knowing God” is practical to the Christian life or not. I am sure all Christians would agree that “knowing God” is essential to becoming a Christian, but it might surprise you to find there are various theological views which don’t see the effort of “knowing God” as at the center or at the core of Christian living. Frankly, there are ideas of Jesus that trend in certain groups which have re-shaped him into the appearance of a schoolmarm. Maybe that’s not as deleterious as denying he rose from the grave, but it’s still not Jesus.

What Mark’s Gospel helps us to see is that there isn’t a list of do’s and don’ts at the core of Jesus’ own life. Thus, we shouldn’t be afraid when the same suggestion comes to mind about our own life with him. Knowing Jesus fills the Christian with life. Spending time in Mark’s Gospel is the deceptively simply, yet supernatural way that the Holy Spirit feeds that life. It is what he has provided for us to spend time with Jesus. A twist on a popular phrase comes to mind – ‘Know the Bible. Know Jesus. Know God. No Bible. No Jesus. No God.’

Yes, there are things to do in the Gospel of Mark, but notice that the deeds or commands in Mark ultimately lead you into a relationship. “Where is Jesus? Can you bring me to him that I may believe him, that I may know him?” In fact, that is the hub of the entire New Testament, yea, dare I say, the entire Bible: “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6).

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take time as a class or in conversation with other Christians to talk specifics on the nitty gritty of life. There are the dating questions, the courtship questions, the marriage questions, the career questions, the financial questions, the lust questions, the self-control questions and so forth. Yet, every particular question is in the end going to lead us back to the Good News of who Jesus is.

I am reading again J. I. Packer’s Knowing God. It’s is a good book. I like how his book flows out of his Scripture saturated brain. It doesn’t read like a list of “do this or don’t that” and then you will know God. Packer’s thoughts spill onto the pages as though someone who knows God is talking about God. That is the same impression I get when reading what Mark has to say about my Messiah, your Messiah.

Packer writes in his chapter entitled, ‘Knowing and Being Known’ that “Once you become aware that the main business that you are here for is to know God, most of life’s problems fall into place of their own accord” (p.29). This doesn’t mean that by studying the Gospel of Mark all the perplexities of my life will melt away.

Actually, the perplexity like a strong under current lies deeper. I recall my Father, Peter Olivero, saying many times as we were growing up: “The most difficult part of God’s Will is not finding it, but doing it.” It is my experience that the more I am knowing the Person of Jesus the less perplexing life is. Instead of re-shaping Jesus to our sub-culture, Jesus is more interested in re-shaping our motivations. The more I see the beauty of his Person the more attentive I will be when he calls to obey. When the time comes for him to speak directly into my situation my eyes and ears will already be turned in his direction.

It occurs to me that this soul movement toward Jesus resembles the same cognitive function of playing “Where’s Waldo?” It’s direct. It’s simple. It’s inducive. In recent years, I’ve grown to crave voices that rehearse the Christian grace in simply finding Jesus.

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The Jubilee in the Temple cleansing


Mark's Gospel headerThe Temple and the Ultimate Jubilee

Mark 11:17 “…for all nations”

 

 

After a recent lesson on the Temple cleansing someone said to me, “Sounds like you had more to say about the Jubilee. We don’t hear much about that do we?” Yes and yes.

 

How is it that we miss the Jubilee in the Gospels? (At least, in our circles the Jubilee is not much mentioned).

 

In the beginning of his book, The Resurrection of Jesus, Mike Lacona tells us about his wife’s German grandfather and his diary keeping habit. “My wife’s grandfather Albert Weible kept a daily dairy for years.” On April 8, 1917 his grandfather wrote: “The weather is very nice and warmer. The ground is very much [?]. Pa…didn’t go to church today. I went alone on Pearl [horse]. There were quite a few there in spite of the mud. In the afternoon we all went up to Fred’s” (p.33).

 

What else happened the week of April 8, 1917? The US declared war on Germany on April 6th. There is no mention of this momentous turn of events in the diary.

 

Not only are key events from WWI missing in Mr. Weible’s diary, Lacona goes on to say that “Albert Weible kept diary entries every day. Yet he never mentioned the war.”

 

Never mentioned the war? He gives notice to weather, farm, church, family, births, etc., but no notice to that large, life-altering, cross continental struggle.

 

So also the Jubilee and its accompanying imagery may go unnoticed. The Jubilee is a golden thread spun through the Gospels from gildings gathered in the OT. Here the jubilee shows up again in the Temple “cleansing.”

 

The jubilee of the OT was a time when freedom, debt release, property return, care for the destitute and cycled around every 50 years (or so it was supposed to, but probably not was consistently observed, see Lev 25-26). This jubilee Jesus announces in the Temple is the Ultimate Jubilee, the final, long lasting, world encompassing Jubilee of the Gospel of Messiah (see also Isaiah 61:1-2).

 

You see Jesus ransacked the Temple not merely because of shady business going on within its walls. In its wide courts Jesus’ voice echoed the good news that Yahweh’s time of full release and full forgiveness had arrived; not just for the Jews; for all nations and all peoples. Jesus quotes from Isaiah because Isaiah is a prophet who loves to wade in the river of jubilee theology.

 

John the Baptist was also a prophet of jubilee joy and forgiveness. As if singing the same tune, Jesus began his ministry by reading from a jubilee text in Isaiah (see Luke 4). Then, here in the Temple Jesus refers to jubilee revival again (Is 56:7). The Gospels are telling us that the ultimate day of divine release has arrived in Jesus.

 

“Let no foreigner [that’s you and me] who is bound to Yahweh say,

        ‘Yahweh will surely exclude me from his people.’

 

“For this is what Yahweh declares:

‘…I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered.”          (see Isaiah 56:1-8)

 

 

More about this tomorrow in our Sunday AM Bible study.


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Mark’s Gospel: the Temple “cleansing” and Jesus’ sovereignty


Mark's Gospel header

Jesus, our Gracious Sovereign

In previous comments on the “cleansing” of the Temple I mentioned the mercy of Jesus. His mercy stands in stark contrast across all religions. We know that Yahweh is indeed the One full of mercy not because he says it. He shows it. Jesus shows us perfectly what Yahweh’s mercy looks like.

No other religion is so clear and vivid in what it says as the Gospel. The Gospel tells AND shows this mercy-filled good news.

There is another narrative strand in the “cleansing” of the Temple. It’s the sovereign grace of Jesus. When Jesus ransacked the Temple he was no doubt concerned about dishonest leadership. He was no doubt concerned about showing mercy to outcasts. He was very concerned about shady business in the Temple courts.

Yet, when Jesus ransacked the Temple he was doing more than that.

He was trying to bring his people under the care of his sovereign grace.

He was declaring his divine sovereignty over the Temple system. It’s not enough to say that Jesus was (and is) God. Zeus claimed to be God. Caesar claimed to be God. Apollo claimed to be God. So, Jesus is just one more guy in a long line claiming to be God. So what.

Jesus’ claims are higher and better than that. He comes into the Temple in the full authority of the Sovereign One.

Here are a few things that signal his sovereignty:

 

In Mark 11:11 immediately after the Triumphal Entry of Jesus goes directly to the Temple. It’s like a sovereign coming home to his palace. He is the head of a new administration. How will he be received? Will the Temple receive him as enthusiastically as the common people did? The Temple leadership should have received him with the same enthusiasm and affirmation that the common people did just a few moments before. They did not.

After ransacking the Temple Jesus hangs around all week teaching (see Mark 11:22-13:1) openly in the Temple courts. It’s like he’s taken over. He has “moved in” so to speak. What would you think if a friend of yours showed up at your door and moved in without asking permission or negotiating a rental agreement? He is making the Temple a short-term seat of his governing word.

Later Jesus tells a parable within a parable about a keystone rejected and a vineyard owner’s son murdered. Both of these intertwined parables are a commentary on the Temple leadership of the day usurping Messiah’s divine authority over them.(see Mark 12:1-12)

Then most shocking of all Jesus declares that this Temple must come down. He is not interested in renovating the Temple system, but in its removal and replacement. This is his way of saying that he is the new temple. (see Mark 13:1 and following)

 tip: it helped me to understand the significance of the Temple Cleansing when I started to see it as an event connected to what happens before it and after it. In the BEFORE (the triumphal entry) Jesus is received as King Messiah as he makes his was to the Temple, the climax of this procession, (note: after Jesus ‘cleansed’ the Temple the children were chanting “Hosana, Son of David” – thus the kingly procession continues with the children what was begun with their parents the day before)

AND

in the AFTER (the parable of the vineyard’s son murdered) Jesus assumes all authority over the Temple, its operations, its doctrine and its final destruction. Jesus isn’t claiming only to be God. He is claiming full sovereignty as he moves in and about his Father’s House.

These are sign posts to the sovereignty of Jesus. He is not assistant manager, not vice president, not even prince of the realm with a life time appointment. Jesus is fully and completely sovereign.

The fact of Jesus’ sovereignty is often missed when we conservative Christians talk about the Temple cleansing event. For a long time I saw this Temple “cleansing” event as basically about the dishonest dealings of the Temple leadership or having concern for the poor.

That is true, but there is more. Jesus is “the messenger of the covenant” (see Mal 3:1), an arresting officer, prosecuting attorney and supreme judge all in one. This is Yahweh “suddenly coming to the Temple” to see if covenant stipulations are being obeyed.

They are not.

So with the full authority of the covenant behind him he acts as the covenant’s lord (because he is) and prosecutes covenant sanctions (see Dt. 28) on the corrupt leadership. Jesus has at his disposal full authority to foreclose on the Temple.

And he does.

Jesus is sovereign.

How did I miss this for so long? The Temple leadership saw this. They approached Jesus the next day to confront him on this very point.

 

[with restrained sarcastic tone]

“Where do you think you get the authority (sovereign right) to do

these things (in our temple)?”

[intense stares while waiting for his answer]

 

 * * *

 

This, then, is a brief explanation of Jesus’ sovereignty in ransacking and occupying the Temple. He did more than clean the Temple. This is a kind of take over. It’s not a hostile take over, but it is a bold theological take over.

So now you ask, “How does the grace half of this Gracious Sovereign show up in the Temple ransacking?”

Ah, good question. His grace is in his declaration about the Jubilee while he is “cleansing” the Temple.

More about this Ultimate Jubilee next time.

 

“We stop trying so hard to be

good Christians when

we see how good it is to

be in Christ.”


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Mark’s Gospel: Temple ‘cleansing’ points to Jesus’ mercy


Jesus, the Merciful

{thots from the ‘cleansing’ of the Temple by Jesus} Mark 11:11-22

Mark's Gospel header

{entered the Monday after Easter 2013}

Yesterday, at the end of a very blessed Sunday, I sat down to read my copy of the Quran. I turned to Surah (chapter) number two and read a few verses. I flipped through several other chapters. My eyes settled on this line:

 ‘In the name of Allah the Beneficent, the Merciful.’

 This line is deeply ingrained in Islamic culture. It’s repeated over and over throughout the Quran. This is the opening line to nearly every chapter of the Quran, a reminder to its adherents that Allah is beneficent, that Allah is merciful. In my translation it’s in caps – Beneficient…Merciful – a reminder that Allah is the embodiment of goodness and mercy.

 

Yesterday was not any Sunday, but a high day of worship. It was Easter. Seems like an odd thing to do at the close of a day for Christian worship – to read the central text of another religion.

 But there is beauty in contrast. There’s capacity of thought in seeing the starkness of a thing.

Recent in my thots,  almost alive, is Jesus cleansing the Temple. I could see Jesus rushing through the Temple the week before he was crucified. I see him slinging a whip. I see him upturning tables. I see him welcoming the blind and lame, unclean horde, into the Temple courts (see Matt 21). The vividness this “cleansing” the Temple washed the quranic text into the background.

 How do I know, I mean really know, that Jesus is merciful, that he is beneficent? 

Firstly, I know this temple cleansing, so called, is not really about cleaning the Temple. Jesus did not come into the Temple courts with a bucket and mop…or a shovel and broom as if to clean up after the animals. This event doesn’t look like a house call from Merry Maids (or Messiah Maids).

This is among other things a show of mercy. Yes, there’s bit of grand standing by Jesus, but it’s not surprising. Why not? The offenders had it long time in coming.

We know Jesus is mercy filled because he shows it. From the depths of his sincerity he doesn’t clean the Temple. He ransacks it. He intervenes. He brings its operations to halt even if only for a short while (“he forbid the vessels from passing through”). He displays the interruptive power of mercy. The greed and abuses by the Temple leadership were a stench on this holy place, but who would confront this? One man. Often mercy walks and runs and stoops alone. 

 Secondly, when Jesus ransacked the Temple he came into that space as a Defender. Yes, he was defending his Father’s expectations for covenant faithfulness in the one place on earth where it should not have faltered. And he was defending the weak, the outcast, the Gentile, the widow, the poor who wanted access to God. Jesus, an army of one whose weapon is mercy.

 I found it helpful to compare accounts from one gospel to another. When reading Mark’s account I also went over to Matthew’s.

So cool was it to notice that Matthew adds into his telling of that event that just after Jesus ransacked the Temple “the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them” (Mt 21:14).

“No way Jesus! You can’t do that!! Those…those people have to go through the process just like the rest of us. What in the world are you doing? Haven’t you read our laws?”

I conclude that Jesus was not only upset about the bilking of the money changers. He was upset that those hordes of people considered to be “unclean” were being excluded from worship except for their having to go through an intense – even expensive – process to be made ceremonially clean.

Jesus by his actions effectively says forget all the “red tape” ya’ll. Come on in! Just as you are. I’m going to heal you right here and now so you can immediately dispense with the frivolous gangway of man-made rules.

 Instead of being a place that breathed grace it had become a place tarnished by financial oppression and graft, a place where the outcasts felt very much like outcasts, where Gentiles seekers were threatened with capital punishment if they went past a certain point.

 You see, I know that Jesus is merciful, even if he were to say it over and over (but he didn’t), because he showed mercy. He lived it right in front of our eyes. I know for sure that Yahweh is merciful because I see Yahweh in the flesh being merciful, defending mercy.

 The one whose name means “Yahweh saves” comes defending and initiating his long storied intentions to make access to God free, open, without strings attached and priceless in its simplicity.

 I know Jesus is indeed the embodiment of mercy because he shows it. He charges solo into a Den of Thieves (see Jer 7:11 with Mark 11:17) for the sake of mercy. Then about a week later he hangs on a common cross for the sake of mercy, for the sake of bringing it to the world.

 


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church cross project: special features


File:Blue-green.jpgGeorgia O’Keeffe said “Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.” She was (and is) a famous artist. Her opinion is helpful even if you aren’t an artist.

Did you ever read a book, hear a piece of music or look at a painting and think, “Too much, just too much.”

This project is one in which selection is necessary as the process evolves (although not Darwinian selection). What details to leave out? What details to accentuate?

When I sketched the cross in the beginning I had an idea that 3 nails would be a good detail. As I pondered it and talked about it with others the detail of nails slid into the column of “too much.”

Remnants of rope as they might have been used in a crucifixion was a detail that stayed.*

*Thank you JMG Ranch for providing the rope. 

securing old rope to the cross beam

securing old rope to the cross beam

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However, the idea of nails is not left out altogether. The detail of nail holes randomly struck in the beam gives the suggestion of the cross having been used several times before. It is likely that the Romans would reuse their crosses. I doubt that the authorities thought this man from Nazareth needed a special cross since he would one day become famous. He was condemned as a criminal like thousands of others. No special treatment.

But this criminal was not merely “not guilty.” He was innocent. In the horror his beauty shines. Innocence gazes on us ever so pure, so holy, when around it the darkened sky of evil swirls. The many nail holes remind us that he was “numbered with the transgressors” (see Isaiah 53:12esv).

nail holes from previous uses

nail holes from previous uses

Then there are details that most people will not notice because those details blend with the whole. In this step I add more spots of glaze or color as needed. It helps to look at the assembled piece in different lighting. I set it up in the shop, later outside in the sun light and still later in the church a couple of weeks before the installation.

Fitting the cross together in the shop helps to get a sense of what needs adjusting. Black is not a color most artists use well. When black is needed I prefer to mix a pseudo-black from other colors. However, in a few small places I add a little true black. Some of the crevices needed a little depth from a dab of black.

Another detail  is to “grey out” some of the edges. This gives the sense that those places have been bleached by extended exposure to the sun. But here again, I only do this to the slightest degree since too much would be too much.

fitting in shop and final glazes

fitting in shop and final glazes

Finally a small detail, but a useful one that fills out the visual narrative is the foot hold. I want it to appear tacked on as an after thought. It is possible that these foot holds had to be replaced from time to time. Even though a cross was still usable a foot hold might swing loose with repeated nailings or weight stresses. 

adding the foot hold

adding the foot hold

Interesting though they be these details are not things to be admired. The cross is a disgusting thing. We admire the Cross because of Christ. Like a diamond the cross is the setting in which the jewel sits. The Christ of the Cross is our anthem. We cherish the Stone that the builders discarded. We love him who, as Isaiah wrote, “was wounded for our transgressions.”

 

next: cross project – 7, an empty cross (stay tuned)

You can see the start of this project here.


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church cross project: base coat and surface glazing


Any endeavor goes better with the good aide and companionship of a faithful son. I am blessed to have my son’s help. Caleb put himself into brushing on the base coat. He is using one of my favorite brushes – a Corona sash with Tynex bristles. All through this coating process we are careful to use paints with a low sheen. This will minimize glare or hot spots from directional lighting or even ambient light.

church cross - base coat

After the base coat is dry I add a series of glazes to give the surface a sense of depth and variety in color. A piece of wood of almost any species will have a range of colors across its grain. With exterior exposure and much use a bare piece of wood such as a cross will accumulate mud, dust, bits of debris or dried blood.

Below is a section of the vertical piece where the back of the criminal would have rested. When I put on the “dried blood” glaze my son remarked,

“Wow Dad! That looks so real…and gory too.”

On reflection it seemed like a good idea to tone it down a bit. After it set up I applied a little layer of rottenstone, a compound used in the framing industry to give that “dust in the crevices” look. Much better, more subtle it looked after that.

church cross - blood stain

Another effect adding to the realism was to paint in the evidence of birds having paid a visit. Birds like to perch on elevated spots where they can rest and get an unobstructed view of the world about them. A cross on a hill would be an inviting stop over when flying from here to there. Any place where birds frequent is a surface and edge that will be discolored by what these birds leave behind.

church cross - bird evidence

next: cross project – 6, special features

 


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church cross project: weathering effects


File:Barn Barberêche Mar 2011.jpg

After carving knots and grain into the boards the next step is to achieve a weathered look. This step is very important to getting that rough and rustic appearance we are going for. It’s a key step because even if you have a top-notch finish on it without the real texture on the surface most people would have a feeling that something is missing. 

Before any paint is applied I use a variety of shop techniques to “beat up” the surface. In this process I am trying to give it…

– the appearance as if the lengths of wood have been knocked around many times from being transported back and forth from places of execution or from being put together and taken apart again and again.

– the appearance of having been exposed to all kinds of weather from being left in place. Often those executed would been left to hang there for many days or even weeks.

– the appearance of some edges or sections of the wood having fallen off due to repeated stress or rotting in an over-exposure area.

church cross - weathered effect

Here you see the cross boxing still in the “raw” state. The weathering effects are now mostly complete.

next: cross project – 5, base coat and glazing

To see this project from the beginning go to this page – the cross