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.