Preliminary sermon thoughts on Jeremiah 2:1-13

I’ve been working on preliminary sermon study of Jeremiah 2:1-13 today. Here are my study notes.

Jeremiah 2:1-13 Study Notes


In the book of Jeremiah as we have it (which is not necessarily in either chronological or thematic order) this chapter follows on of course from chapter 1. Chapter 1 tells the story of Jeremiah’s call, his sense of fear (“Ah, Lord Yahweh! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy” – v.6), and God’s assurance of his presence with Jeremiah. Then follow two pictures: the almond tree [shaqed] (calling to mind God’s watching [shoqed] over his people), and the boiling pot tipping from the north, representing the threat of invasion.

Chapters 2:1 – 4:2, which follow, seem to be a tight literary unit. The thought progresses from Israel’s earliest time of devotion to Yahweh as his new bride in the desert (2:1-3), to Israel’s abandoning Yahweh in favour of other gods – ‘cracked cisterns that can hold no water’ (2:4 – 3:5), to the call to repentance and restoration (3:6 – 4:2). Our lectionary passage for this week is 2:4-13, but I am looking at 2:1-13, to give the context. The passage begins, then, by recalling Israel’s ‘honeymoon’ period in the wilderness as Yahweh’s newlywed bride (1-3), and then describes Yahweh’s shock at her unfaithfulness (4-13).


         1The word of Yahweh came to me, saying: 2Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem, Thus says Yahweh:
I remember the devotion[1] of your youth,
      your love as a bride,
how you followed me in the wilderness,
      in a land not sown.
3 Israel was holy to Yahweh,
      the first fruits of his harvest.
All who ate of it were held guilty;
      disaster came upon them,
            says Yahweh. (NRSV)

Yahweh’s message comes to Jeremiah, but it is intended to be ‘proclaimed’ ‘in the hearing of Jerusalem’ – i.e. it will be preached in a central location, probably the Temple, where people are gathered. We’re not told how the message came to Jeremiah – dream? vision? audible voice? – simply that ‘Yahweh’s word came to me’.

The message begins by recalling the time in the wilderness after Yahweh delivered Israel from Egyptian slavery. Israel is described in two metaphors in these verses. First, she is ‘a bride’, a newlywed bride at that. In other words, this is the honeymoon period, and there were no limits to Israel’s devotion to her divine husband.

‘I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown’ (v.2b).

This of course is not an entirely literal recollection of the wilderness story! As we read Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, we can see many instances of the people’s grumbling, lack of trust in God, and dissatisfaction with the leadership of Moses. Large scale worship of other gods, however, is largely absent; with the one exception of the golden calf incident – which could possibly be interpreted more as a mistaken attempt to make an image of Yahweh than as a move to abandon him.

All in all, then, Israel was a joyful and faithful bride, happy with her husband and happy to follow him through some rather unpromising country on the journey to the home he had promised her.

The second image is of the ‘firstfruits’:

‘Israel was holy to Yahweh, the first fruits of his harvest. All who ate of it were held guilty; disaster came upon them, says Yahweh’ (v.3).

The ‘first fruits’ were the earliest part of the harvest which was to be offered each year to Yahweh as his portion of the crop; it was his property, and to refuse to give it to him was robbery. Tremper Longman comments:

‘Israel is the firstfruits of the harvest. According to Pentateuchal legislation (Exod. 23:19, Lev. 23:10-14, Num. 18:12-13, Deut. 26:1-11), the firstfruits belonged to God for use by the priests. They are not to be eaten by non-priests, but rather given to God as a gift. After all, God provides all the harvest. Indeed, there was a special offering of the firstfruits when the Israelites entered the land for the first time (Deut. 26:1-11), so this metaphor as well as the marriage relationship may be reminiscent of God’s early relationship with Israel’.[2]

Israel, says Jeremiah, was God’s ‘first fruits’ of all the nations of the earth. She was ‘holy to Yahweh’; to be ‘holy’ is to be given exclusively for the service of another, to belong to that other without reservation. Not everyone knew this about Israel; some nations tried to attack them on the way to the promised land, but they were not successful against the people God had claimed as his own possession: ‘All who devoured her were held guilty’ (v.3 NIV 2011).

Here then is a picture of Israel’s earliest devotion to Yahweh: faithful to him, committed enough to follow him through the dreadful wilderness to the promised land, claimed by him as his own particular people, and protected by him from others who tried to steal them from him and devour them.

But then comes the change:

         4 Hear the word of Yahweh, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. 5Thus says Yahweh:
What wrong did your ancestors find in me
      that they went far from me,
      and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?


Jeremiah’s ministry took place in the context of the southern kingdom of Judah with its centre at the city of Jerusalem, seat of the Davidic kings and of the Temple of Yahweh. It has been approximately a century since the northern kingdom of Israel, centred on Samaria, was destroyed and its leaders taken into exile by the Assyrians. So it seems strange that this oracle is addressed in terms that recall either the united monarchy of the time of David and Solomon, or the now-extinct northern kingdom: ‘Hear the word of Yahweh, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel’. Tremper Longman comments:

‘It is unlikely that (Jeremiah) addresses the northern kingdoms in exile or even the remnants that are still in the land. This epithet for the people of God at Jeremiah’s time may be because Judah now stands for Israel, that is, they are all that is left. Another possibility is that the oracle refers to Judah in this way because it will now recall an experience from before the divided monarchy – the exodus and the wilderness wanderings’.[3]

‘Was there something I did wrong?’ So many jilted spouses have said this, or at least thought it! ‘Didn’t I love you enough? Was it something you wanted me to do that I didn’t do? Was it something I said? Tell me, and I’ll make it up to you!’

In this passage Yahweh is boldly taking this imagery of the jilted spouse and using it for himself. This is not the impassive god of the philosophers, the one who is immune to any pain caused by others. This God has taken the risk of binding himself in covenant relationship – in marriage – to a nation of human beings. To act like this is to take the risk of being wronged. Yahweh has been wronged, and he is in deep pain because of it.

What is the wrong? They ‘went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves’. Idols of course are in view here. Israel was rescued from the gods of Egypt, but now – irony of ironies – she has abandoned the one who rescued her and returned to the worship of ‘the works of (her) own hands’ (1:16).

Furthermore, it is an inevitable fact of human life that we become like the things we worship. Psalm 115 spells this out:

‘Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases. Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; they make no sound in their throats. Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them’ (Psalm 115:3-8).

In Psalm 115 it is the insensibility of the idols that is in view; they have all the instruments of the senses, but they can’t use them, because they are not alive. To Jeremiah, it’s the worthlessness of the idols that is in view. Idols are worthless because they can’t actually do anything; they have no life, so they can’t help those who worship them. But this worthlessness is now shared with their worshippers as well; they ‘went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves’ (v.5). The Hebrew word is actually the same as the one used it Ecclesiastes 1:2 and variously translated there as ‘vanity’, ‘emptiness’, ‘meaningless’, ‘useless’, ‘pointless’. A more literal translation here might be ‘they pursued emptiness and became empty’, but the NRSV and NIV translations make explicit what is implicit in the text, that the ‘emptiness’ is actually idolatry.

6 They did not say, ‘Where is Yahweh
      who brought us up from the land of Egypt,
who led us in the wilderness,
      in a land of deserts and pits,
in a land of drought and deep darkness,
      in a land that no one passes through,
      where no one lives?’
7 I brought you into a plentiful land
      to eat its fruits and its good things.
But when you entered you defiled my land,
      and made my heritage an abomination.
8 The priests did not say, ‘Where is Yahweh?’
      Those who handle the law did not know me;
the rulers transgressed against me;
      the prophets prophesied by Baal,
      and went after things that do not profit.


The people ought to have responded to God’s invitation to seek him. Does verse 6 presume a situation where the people feel abandoned for one reason or another? If that was the case, they ought to have asked ‘Where is Yahweh, who brought us up from the land of Egypt?’ Jeremiah assumes that Gods absence was a result of the people’s idolatry. Tremper Longman comments:

‘They (Israel) did not even know that God was gone. The form of the question indicates that they should have missed him, considering how gracious he had been to them in the past’.[4]

In the past God had done wonderful things for them, leading them through all the hardships and terrors of the wilderness. He brought them through those desert wanderings ‘into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things. But when you entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination’ (v.7). Of course, before Israel arrived the land had been full of idolatry, and it is the belief of the Old Testament writers that one of the reasons for the conquest of Canaan was God’s judgement against the idolatry and wickedness of the Canaanites. How ironic, then, that God’s own people have themselves now turned to this same idolatry, defiling the land again. The leaders (the Hebrew actually says ‘shepherds’), who ought to have known better, are the worst offenders: the priests and scribes don’t known Yahweh and so cannot teach his law, the rulers sin against him, and the prophets prophesy in the name of the Canaanite god Baal. Longman explains, ‘Baal is named for the first time in the book. Baal is a Hebrew/Canaanite word that simply means ‘lord’ or ‘master’. Baal, along with El, was the focus of worship of the Canaanites who were in the land when the Israelites first entered it’.[5]

9 Therefore once more I accuse you,
                  says Yahweh,
      and I accuse your children’s children.
10 Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look,
      send to Kedar and examine with care;
      see if there has ever been such a thing.
11 Has a nation changed its gods,
      even though they are no gods?
But my people have changed their glory
      for something that does not profit.
12 Be appalled, O heavens, at this,
      be shocked, be utterly desolate,
                        says Yahweh


This whole section is phrased as a lawsuit; Jeremiah is a covenant lawyer, arguing the case in the name of Yahweh, whose people have broken their sacred agreement with him. This language comes clearly in verse 9, where the NIV 2011 says, ‘Therefore I bring charges against you, declares Yahweh’.

The charges make use of two vivid images. In the first, Yahweh invites Israel to look around and see the faithfulness of the other nations to their idols. Go as far as you like! Go across the sea to Cyprus, or east to Kedar (in northern Arabia), and you will not find such a thing. These idols are not really gods at all; they are false and worthless, and yet their people are stubbornly loyal to them! Israel, on the other hand, is the people of the real God who made heaven and earth, the glorious God, the Lord of all. And yet Israel has not been loyal to him; they have ‘changed their glory for something that does not profit’.

Yahweh calls on the heavenly assembly to witness all this folly: ‘be appalled, O heavens, at this’. A similar appeal to the heavens as witness can be found in Isaiah 1:2: ‘Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth; for Yahweh has spoken: I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me’.


13 for my people have committed two evils:
      they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living water,
      and dug out cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns
      that can hold no water.


Here is the second image. The one true God is ‘a fountain of living water’. ‘Living water’, in the Old Testament, means ‘moving water’ – a spring, a stream, a river, that sort of thing. But the idols are like cracked cisterns; you put water in them, but it runs out through the cracks. You’re parched with thirst and you go to drink from them, but there’s nothing there. What a vivid image for the futility of idolatry!


Many Christians can remember a time when they were on a honeymoon with God. Those who have had a crisis conversion – or even a slow, gradual movement – can often look back on their ‘greenhouse days’, when their love for God was passionate and there was no limit to what they would do for him!

I can certainly remember that. I became a committed Christian at the age of thirteen in the context of the charismatic renewal. I can remember the passion of those early days: I read the Bible constantly, prayed, went to home groups for prayer, study, and fellowship, and did my best to talk about my faith to others. There was a lot of naivety, of course, and no doubt a lack of wisdom, too, but all in all those were days of passionate devotion to Christ.

Sooner or later things start to cool down. This is natural, of course; eventually God brings us out of the greenhouse and into the cold world. Maybe God’s presence isn’t so real to us any more, and we find ourselves asking ‘Where is Yahweh who brought us up from the land of Egypt?’ (v.6a).

Or maybe we don’t. Maybe instead we start to compromise. The idols that were of no interest to us in the early days gradually start to look good again. Everyone around us is getting more wealthy, going on expensive vacations, driving expensive cars. Some of our friends are putting huge amounts of energy and passion into business success. Some are channeling their passion into a fierce love for ‘their country, right or wrong’. These idolatries and many others like them are completely acceptable in our society. And we’re tempted. And maybe we give in to the temptation.

Jeremiah calls us to remember. Don’t you remember how God worked in your life? How much you loved him? How vivid the sense of his presence was? How enthusiastic you were about serving him? Was that only good for as long as he kept you in the hothouse? What sort of love is it that only loves when the going is easy?

And Jeremiah also calls us to consider our present experience. How’s it going, this new idolatry? Those false gods, are they delivering for you? Have you got enough money yet? Are you successful enough that you can let go of the need to succeed? How are your perfect spouse and children dealing with your need for them to be perfect?

Perfectly good things are destroyed – cracked – by the need to be gods for us. The biblical call is to turn away from these false gods and come back to the one true God. This is what happened to Paul’s converts in Thessalonica:

‘For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead – Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming’ (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).

The Thessalonians’ conversion experience was a turning from false gods to the one true God revealed to us in Jesus. But of course, idols don’t go away; they continue to tempt us throughout our Christian life. This is why Christians as well as non-Christians need to continue to hear the gospel message. As we experience the failure of our false gods, we need to hear again the voice of Jesus calling us back to the one true God, the fountain of living water, who even leads us in safety through the barren desert on the way to the promised land of the kingdom of God.

[1] The Hebrew is hesed, often translated ‘steadfast love’ or ‘lovingkindness’ in the psalms.

[2] Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series), Grand Rapids, Baker, 2008, 2012, p.27.

[3] Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, p.29.

[4] Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, p.30.

[5] Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, p30.

The Fellowship of Forgiven Debtors (a sermon on Luke 7:36-50)

When I was a teenager I remember hearing my dad say that he’d like to have a sign on the door of his church that said ‘This Church is for Sinners Only’. I think some people were shocked and surprised when they heard him say that; it sounds so strange and counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? You tend to think of the church as a place where we learn not to sin, not as a place for sinners. But to Dad, these words were an important reminder of the gospel of grace, which tells us that we all fall short of God’s will for us – we’re all sinners, in other words, whether we should be or not – but that God reaches out to us in love whatever we’ve done, and invites us to turn to him and be forgiven.

This reminds me of the famous words of John Newton’s well-known hymn:

‘Amazing grace (how sweet the sound),
that saved a wretch like me!’

To John Newton, this was his own story. He had spent the early years of his life as a sailor and a slave trader. He had lived in complete disregard for God’s commandments, not only abandoning his own faith but also trying to undermine the faith of others. But gradually the Gospel message had broken into his life. A two-week long storm at sea became the catalyst for the beginning of his conversion, and eventually in his late thirties he became a Church of England minister and a preacher of the very Gospel he had once tried to discredit. He felt that, like Saint Paul, he had been ‘the chief of sinners’, but God in his grace had forgiven him and made him a preacher of the Gospel to others.

Newton never forgot his early life of sin, and he never lost his sense of God’s continuing mercy toward him, despite his many failings. This gave him a tender attitude toward the sins and failings of others. He often said that when you know how much God has forgiven you, and continues to forgive you every day, you can’t help having the same forgiving attitude toward the people around you.

Our Gospel reading today has this same emphasis. We read that one of the Pharisees, named Simon, invited Jesus for a meal at his house. Dinner parties like this were very public. What we know today as ‘private life’ didn’t exist in those days; doors were left open all the time during the day and people wandered in and out at will. The dining table would have been in a U-shape, with guests not seated on chairs or the floor, but reclining on couches, leaning on their left elbows and using their right hands to reach for food and eat. The couches would have been angled away from the table so that the feet of the guests would be behind them.

There was a strict etiquette about these formal meals. As each guest came in, the host would greet him with a kiss of peace. As the feet of the guests would be dirty and tired from the dusty roads, the host would ensure that water was provided and the servants would wash their feet. Olive oil might also be given to anoint the heads of the guests. These were the unwritten laws of hospitality; these were the ways the hosts would show respect and honour for their guests. Luke does not let us in on the secret yet, but later on in the story he will tell us that none of this had been done for Jesus. Simon had invited Jesus to this meal, but had then given him a public snub by not honouring him as he would an ordinary guest.

The NRSV translates verse 37 ‘And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house…’ One commentator thinks this should be translated as ‘a woman who was known in the city as a sinner’. ‘Sinner’ here would have meant at least that she had lived a promiscuous life, if not that she was actually a prostitute.

We can read between the lines that this woman had already had an encounter with Jesus which had transformed her life. Verses 40-47 explain that a person who has been forgiven a huge number of sins will respond to this forgiveness with great love. Jesus explains the woman’s acts of love by the fact that she has been – past tense – forgiven a great many sins. “Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love” (v.47). It seems reasonable to infer that Jesus has already met this woman and has declared God’s forgiveness to her, perhaps even that very day; she has come to Simon’s party to say thank you to Jesus for all he has done for her.

The woman seems to have been temporarily deflected from her original purpose; we read that she ‘brought an alabaster jar of ointment’ (37) to anoint Jesus’ feet, but she does not immediately use it. She stands behind Jesus – remember that he is reclining on a couch with his feet extended away from the table. She is overcome with emotion and begins to weep, bathing his feet with tears, wiping them with her hair and only then anointing them with the ointment. In those days, this would have been scandalous behaviour. Women in Israel at that time kept their hair covered and only let it down in the presence of their husbands in their own bedrooms. To let down your hair in public and use it to wipe the feet of a man you were not married to was shocking; in the eyes of the people at the feast, this woman would have been acting like a prostitute with one of her clients.

This is certainly the way Simon the Pharisee interprets her actions. He even questions Jesus’ status as a prophet; a true prophet would know what kind of person this woman was! The unspoken inference is that if Jesus knew she was a prostitute he would not allow her to touch him or even be near him. Evil was seen as highly contagious; the only way for good and holy people to preserve themselves from evil was to avoid evil people altogether. The woman had come into Simon’s house like a contagious disease; it was Jesus’ duty as a prophet to rebuke her and send her away, and he was not doing so.

Note that Simon did not voice this opinion to Jesus; Luke tells us that he ‘said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner” (v.39). Prophets know things other people don’t know, and they use that knowledge, in Simon’s view, to declare God’s judgement. However, Jesus is about to demonstrate to Simon that he is indeed a prophet. Simon has not spoken out loud, but Jesus knows what he is thinking! And he uses that knowledge to rebuke Simon, not the woman, and to invite him into a different way of seeing reality. Simon is wrong; Jesus knows ‘what kind of woman this is’. He knows that she’s made in the image of God, she’s a forgiven sinner overcome with gratitude for the grace of God, and in her gratitude she is expressing her love for Jesus, who has made it possible for her to be forgiven.

So Jesus tells the little parable of the two debtors; one owes the creditor five hundred denarii – that is, about eighteen months’ wages for an ordinary labourer – the other fifty. Neither of them can pay, so the creditor cancels the debts of both. Which one will love the creditor more? Simon can’t avoid the conclusion: the one who was forgiven the greater debt will feel the most love for the creditor.

There is more to this little story than meets the eye. Let me ask you this: do you think Simon sees himself as a debtor to God? Probably not! In his view, the woman is a sinner; he is not. And even if he is, he certainly doesn’t see himself as someone who ‘can’t pay’; he’ll work harder, make the right sacrifices and ritual actions, obey the laws, and in time he’ll pay what he owes. Jesus is inviting Simon to see himself as being on a level with this woman; they’re both sinners owing a debt to God, and neither of them can pay the debt. Simon’s debt may be small and the woman’s may be great, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re both bankrupt! As someone once said, if you line up a bunch of swimmers on the coast of California and ask them to swim to Hawaii, it won’t matter in the long run whether some of them are better swimmers than the rest! Some may drown after a mile, some after thirty miles, but none of them are going to reach Hawaii!

But how can this be? How can Simon be a sinner? After all, he’s a Pharisee! He’s been circumcised, he’s kept the Sabbath, he gives tithes of all he earns, he carefully observes the food laws and keeps away from bad company! He is an upright man!

Yes, but Jesus says the heart of the law is the two great commandments: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. And on that very day, in his own house, Simon has offended against the second commandment. He has not loved his neighbour as himself; he’s snubbed his guest by refusing to extend the traditional courtesies to him. He didn’t give Jesus the kiss of peace when he came into the house – which is as if Jesus had come into your home today, extended his hand in greeting to you, and you had stubbornly kept your hand at your side. He hadn’t provided water for the foot washing or oil for the anointing of the guest. In this way Simon has not loved his neighbour as he loved himself; he has not done to others as he would have them do to him. So he too is a sinner, and he too stands in need of God’s grace and forgiveness.

So do I. I may be a churchgoer; I may have been faithful to my marriage partner, I may never have killed anyone or stolen anything or cheated on my taxes. But have I loved the Lord my God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength, with nothing held back? Have I loved my neighbour as myself? Of course not, not perfectly. These commands are the debt I owe to God. I have not kept them perfectly; therefore I too am a sinner.

This is the first way in which Jesus’ story challenges Simon’s worldview; like the woman, he is a debtor who cannot pay what he owes. Like her, he’s entirely dependent on the mercy of God if he’s ever going to receive eternal life.

The second way the story challenges his worldview is in his interpretation of the woman’s actions. No, Simon, this is not a prostitute trying to allure Jesus into an inappropriate sexual liaison. This is a woman in the grip of God’s grace. She had always assumed that her sins barred her from coming into the presence of God. But the grace of God had invaded her life, bringing her the free forgiveness she had never dared to hope for. Of course she wasn’t in command of her rational faculties! She was overwhelmed with gratitude to the God who had forgiven her and to the man who had spoken that word of forgiveness! And of course her actions were open to misinterpretation – just like the apostles on the Day of Pentecost, when they were filled with the Holy Spirit and the bystanders said, “These men are drunk!”

The story ends before Simon has a chance to respond. We don’t know what he said or did. Jesus is challenging him: this woman whom you dismiss as a sinner is in fact your sister in God. Like you, she was made in the image of God. Like you, she had a debt of sin she could not pay. God has forgiven her sins and accepted her. Will you also accept her, despite her reputation? Luke leaves the story incomplete to challenge you and me; we’re invited to supply the ending in our own lives.

Let me close with these two final words of application.

God knows everything about me. There are embarrassing stories about my life which I have been brave enough to tell some of you, but you can be absolutely sure that there are others I would never dare tell you. If they were broadcast on a screen in front of you all, I would hang my head in shame. We all have those stories. I know you have them, and you know I have them. And God knows them all.

How does God respond? He comes among us in Jesus as one of us; Jesus is the walking embodiment of God’s love for all people. But what do we do with him? Through our political and religious leaders, we reject him, scourge him, mock him and kill him on a cross.

What comes next in this story? If this church is not for sinners only, surely the next act is an act of revenge and judgement. But no: the Gospel tells us that God is a God who loves his enemies, and so Jesus’ response is to pray for his murderers: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). On the cross, he models the unconditional love of God for all people. It’s nothing to do with how deserving we are. In fact, there’s absolutely nothing you can do to make God love you more, and there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less. God already loves you more than you can ask or imagine, and nothing can change that.

Do you believe that? The woman in our story believed it. Jesus said to her “Your faith has saved you; go in peace”. He wants you to go in peace this morning too. No matter what that sin is which is troubling you so much, he wants you to bring it to him this morning, leave it at his cross, and dare to believe that it is forgiven. We can do that this morning as we receive the bread and wine of Holy Communion. The broken bread speaks to us of Jesus’ body broken on the cross; the wine poured out speaks to us of his blood shed for us. To come to the Lord’s Table is to come to the cross; we come with faith, we hold out our hands, and we eat and drink the forgiveness that God offers us.

And having received this free forgiveness, he wants us to look at each other with different eyes. Simon looked at this woman and saw a despicable sinner; Jesus looked at her and saw a woman made in God’s image, overwhelmed with gratitude for God’s grace.

What do you see as you look around the church this morning? Christian congregations are like families, and like any family we accumulate resentments. Also, we express our love for God in different ways, and some of those ways look a little strange to others in the congregation! But Jesus is calling us to learn to see each other with his eyes. C.S. Lewis reminds us that, next to the sacrament we will receive in a few minutes, the holiest thing we will look at this week is our neighbour, and we should treat him or her accordingly.

You and I are debtors who couldn’t pay our bills, and we have been freely forgiven. What should be our response? Delirious joy, of course! Who cares what other people think of us? We just want to thank this Jesus who has brought such love into our lives! And then our second response is to have a gentle attitude toward our fellow debtors who have also been forgiven. “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us”. How many times do we pray that prayer without thinking about it? Now’s the time to think about what it means, and to ask God’s help so that we can live by it.

Psalm 8: A preliminary study

I plan to preach on Psalm 8 this coming Sunday. What appears below is not a sermon; it is my study notes as I have been digging into the psalm over the past couple of days. Hopefully it might be helpful for any other preachers who may be thinking of preaching on this psalm.

Text (NRSV, slightly amended according to John Goldingay’s translation[i])

To the leader: according to The Gittith. A Psalm of David.

  1. Yahweh, our lord,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!
    You have set your glory above the heavens.
  2. Out of the mouths of babes and infants
    you have founded a bulwark (‘barricade’ – Goldingay) because of your foes,
    to silence the enemy and the avenger.
  3. When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars that you have established;
  4. what are people that you are mindful of them,
    human beings that you pay attention to them?
  5. Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
    and crowned them with glory and honour.
  6. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
    you have put all things under their feet,
  7. all sheep and oxen,
    and also the beasts of the field,
  8. the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
    whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
  9. Yahweh, our lord,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Donald Coggan introduces his comments on this psalm with these words:

This psalm begins and ends with identical words: ‘Lord our sovereign, how glorious is your name throughout the world!’ It is within this framework of adoration that the rest of the psalm is set. God in his majesty is praised in the vastness of the heavens and even babes and infants (v.2) chip in! The God who elicits the praise of his universe is a God of justice, concerned for his creation, and concerned about those who flout his laws (v.2b).[ii]

This psalm holds in tension two amazing truths. On the one hand, there is the wonder and the glory and majesty of the eternal God, Yahweh, whose glory is even higher than the heavens. On the other hand, there is the care that God takes of human beings, who are so small in comparison, and yet have been given dominion over the works of God’s hands. This creates another tension: what are the limits of that dominion?  When does God stop respecting the free will he has given to humans in order to prevent them doing evil to ‘babes and infants’? Where is the bulwark, the barrier, which he has established ‘because of your foes’?

All ‘God-talk’ runs out into mystery in the end. We little humans are tiny in comparison with God, and so we can’t grasp the full wonder and magnificence of his presence and his glory and his love. Neither can we grasp how he balances his respect for free will with his desire to protect those who are vulnerable. We know that God has given us a high calling, crowned us with glory and honour, and made us to rule over the works of his hands. But we also know that we have fallen from our high position by our own pride and sinfulness, and often dispute Yahweh’s ownership of the things he has set under our feet. We can only praise God for his goodness and also pray that he will restrain us from doing irreparable damage to the world he has created and to precious young lives that he has made.



  1. O Yahweh, our lord,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!
    You have set your glory above the heavens.

The Hebrew of verse 1 has ‘Yahweh Adonai’, which presents a problem for translators who don’t want to use the name ‘Yahweh’, and prefer to use ‘Lord’ instead, because ‘Adonai’ means ‘lord’! The New Jerusalem Bible has no such scruples and simply translates accurately ‘Yahweh our Lord’.

‘How majestic is your name’; the ‘name’ stands for the person, so ‘how majestic is your name’ is a poetic way of saying ‘how majestic you are in all the earth!’ We’re going to read about Yahweh’s glory being set above the heavens, but this doesn’t mean that he is not present ‘in all the earth’ as well. Indeed, he is above heaven as well as earth; his glory is not ‘in’ the heavens, but ‘above’ it.

We humans sometimes take our pictorial language too seriously. In our minds we may have a renaissance painting of God as an old man with a long beard floating in the sky, and maybe reaching down to us so that his finger touches ours. ‘The heavens’ thus become the home of God; God is one being in the heavens, the Son is another being, the angels are others. In this picture, God is contained by the heavens, in the same way that we humans are contained by the earth.

But the reality is far different, and is well described by the writer of 1 Kings in the words of Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the Temple:

“But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built” (1 Kings 8:27).

That author knew a thing or two about God! We talk about inviting God into our hearts; the reality is that it is God who holds us in his heart! ‘In him we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28). God plus a human being doesn’t equal two; God is sometimes called ‘the ground of being’, the one who makes all other beings possible. We cannot possibly adequately imagine him; every picture we create of him, even the picture of Christ, is a partial representation of the reality of God’s greatness and justice and love. 

2. Out of the mouths of babes and infants
     you have founded a bulwark (‘barricade’ – Goldingay) because of your foes,
     to silence the enemy and the avenger.

John Goldingay points out that babes and infants in the Bible are usually on the receiving end of atrocities; they are the ones who are crying out to God for help. So the sense of this verse might be that this mighty God, who is far above anything we can conceive or imagine, is so concerned for us that he even hears the cries of the least significant of people – babes and infants. And he founds a barricade, a bulwark, to protect them from their foes, who are his foes as well, ‘the enemy and the avenger’: ‘Thus far you may come, and no further’, to use a military metaphor.

Of course, this raises questions in our minds, because we know of many instances where it is not true. Prayers for help have sometimes been answered, but often not: children have been abducted as child soldiers, or sold into sex slavery, or simply been bombed or raped or murdered, or treated cruelly in a whole host of ways. Prayers for their protection have apparently not been successful.

The reality of course is that, for a God who has apparently decided to respect the free will of human beings and allowed us to make decisions that have real consequences, it is not a simple thing to both respect that free will and also protect the innocent victims of it. I personally can’t understand how God can possibly do it. That he manages to do it at all is a mystery to me. It’s a little like a Doctor Who episode, where the Doctor goes back in time and is given the opportunity to remove a great evil, like the Daleks, from the time line of history. But he is always slow to do so, because he is afraid that their removal would also remove the good things that have happened as a consequence of their great evil. Changing time to erase all evil would be a very complicated thing, and maybe we humans would not like all the results of it. So where is the ‘bulwark’? Where exactly in the mind of God is ‘Thus far, and no further’? I don’t think we humans can know that.

Not all commentators agree with Goldingay’s interpretation, however. Rolf Jacobson prefers to see this obscure verse as ‘a reference to the foes that God overcomes in the process of creation’. He says,

But v.2bc may also reflect the creation motif, as Nahum Sarna has argued. The enemy and avenger in v.2c are best explained  as a reference to the foes that God overcomes in the process of creation. As is well known, the mythic concept of creation as a conflict was commonly held among Israel’s neighbors. Within the Old Testament, vestiges of this mythic idea are found. In Ps. 74:13-14a, 16-17, for example, the psalmist writes,

You split, by your might, the sea;
You broke the heads of the sea monster on the waters.
You shattered the heads of Leviathan;

Yours is the day, also yours is the night;
You fixed the light and the sun.
You set the boundaries of the earth;
summer and winter, you formed them.

It is particularly enlightening that both Psalms 8 and 74 refer to God’s might (‘ōz; cf. Is. 51:9, Ps. 89:11). The term is part of the vocabulary of the creation conflict myth, lending support to the view that the phrase you have established might because of your foes, to put an end to enemy and avenger is another reference to the act of creation.[iii]



3       When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
            the moon and the stars that you have established;
4       what are people that you are mindful of them,
            human beings that you pay attention to them?

Rolf Jacobson comments:

What sort of ecstatic event or experience has caused the psalmist to cry out in praise? The answer is given in the first full stanza of the psalm. As v.3 indicates, the psalmist has wandered outdoors at night, gazed up at the heavenly wonders, and been moved to praise the Creator…[iv]

We have all felt this at one time or another. We’re walking out in the country at night, and we look up at the sky and see the countless numbers of stars spread out across the heavens. We see the vastness of creation, and as 21st century people we are even more aware of just how vast it is, stretching out for millions of light years, millions of galaxies, far vaster than anything we can ever imagine. We also think about the vastness of time: 14 billion years since our universe came into being through the big bang – about 4.5 billion years since our earth was formed. For the great majority of the history of our planet we humans were not even here; we arrived at 3 seconds to midnight. We are tiny in terms of our size, tiny in terms of the length of our existence as a species, and almost infinitely tiny in terms of our individual span of life.

Donald Coggan says,

In my mind I see a man in the desert, sleepless one night. He gives up trying to sleep and emerges from his tent. He sniffs the night air and fills his lungs. He looks up into the sky and gazes at the heavens, the moon and the stars which his God has set in place. He knows nothing of what scientists many years later will discover about the immensity of an expanding universe – telescopes are things of the far distant future. But even so, something of the vastness and mystery of the night sky dawns on him. Its blackness is dotted with points of light, seen with a clarity denied to those who live in cities. What he sees is enough to frighten him – there is a dreadful silence – no answering voice comes from the stars. How frail and transitory is humankind! How frail is his own little life – ‘what is a frail mortal?’ (v.4) – ‘what am I?’

We might expect that his answer to these questions would be ‘a mere nothing, here today and gone tomorrow, a man in transit, with a life liable to be snuffed out at any moment, a breath…’ The great God up there can hardly be expected to notice him. After all, he has a universe to run. How could (God) be expected to be mindful of him, or, for that matter, any of his fellows?[v]

But I’m reminded of a well-known anecdote about the philosopher Immanuel Kant. He was attending a lecture by a materialistic astronomer on the topic of humanity’s place in the universe. The astronomer concluded his lecture with: “So you see that astronomically speaking, man is utterly insignificant”. Kant replied: “Professor, you forgot the most important thing: man is the astronomer”.

Do coyotes look up at the sky and indulge in philosophical speculation about their place in the great big scheme of things? It seems unlikely. Do birds wonder if their life has any significance after their deaths? Probably not. Of course, we can’t know for sure, but it seems very much to us as if we humans are the only beings on the planet who wrestle with things like this. It’s as if we have in our hearts and souls a longing for the infinite, a longing for eternity, and eternal significance – a longing, in fact, for God.

Commenting on the psalmist’s mention of ‘the moon and stars that you have established’, Jacobson adds:

Many in Israel and among her neighbours worshipped the heavenly bodies as divine bodies. In this pagan conception, the heavenly orbs were endowed with sentience, power, and identity. Here, they are merely objects that testify to their Creator’s glory – indeed, the psalmist belittles them by calling them the works of your fingers.[vi]

“What are people that you are mindful of them, human beings that you pay attention to them?” The author of Genesis has the answer, of course: human beings are made in the image of God and are of tremendous significance to God. And the psalmist goes on to reflect on the creation story and what it means in terms of humanity’s place in the world.


5       Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
           and crowned them with glory and honour.

The familiar translation of the King James Version has ‘For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour’. The NRSV footnote indicates that the Hebrew word for ‘God’ here is ‘elohim’, a plural word, which could be translated ‘God’, ‘gods’, ‘divine beings’, or ‘angels’. The note in the New Oxford Annotated Bible says, ‘God, better, ‘heavenly beings’ (Heb “elohim” [lit. “gods”]. …As the heavenly world is ruled by heavenly beings, so the earthly world, parallel to it, is ruled by earthly beings’.

So we have here an enormous leap in the writer’s imagination. In the previous verse he was stressing the smallness of human beings; compared to the vastness of God’s heavens, they are tiny creatures indeed. But now we see that God assigns them a very different position; they are still lower than the elohim, to be sure, but only ‘a little lower’, and God who has ‘set (his) glory above the heavens’ (v.1b) has also ‘crowned them (humans) with glory and honour’. The glory of God has been shared with his human creations; we are made in God’s image and we reflect God’s glory to the world around us. Small, yes, but far from insignificant!

Jacobson comments:

Far from being insignificant, human beings are but a little lower than heavenly beings. Indeed, the king of creation has made humanity into royalty who are to govern creation responsibly. What is notable about the start of the second stanza is that even though the topic is the worth of human beings, the poet stresses the actions of God. In each of the four lines that comprise verses 5-6, the subject of the verbs is God: You have made, you have crowned, you have made them to rule, and you have set. What gives human beings dignity and value is not anything that humans have done for themselves, but rather something that God has done for them. Our worth comes to us from outside of ourselves (extra nos). That which God confers upon us is the key to our status, not that which comes from inside of us.[vii]

Perhaps a Shakespeare quote is appropriate:

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form, in moving, how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals![viii]


6       You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
            you have put all things under their feet,
7       all sheep and oxen,
            and also the beasts of the field,
8       the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
            whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

Here there is a conscious reflection of the language of the first creation account in Genesis chapter 1:

‘Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth”’ (Genesis 1:26).

The one who naturally has dominion over the works of God’s hands is God himself; he has made everything, and everything owes its continued existence to him. Furthermore, as far as we can tell there is absolutely nothing to be gained, in the strict sense, for God to delegate this dominion to his human creations. God is quite capable of looking after everything that he has made; indeed, he could probably do a much better job of it, even if human beings had not fallen into sin! So we can only speculate that it was for our benefit, not for his, that God chose to delegate this job to us. ‘Yahweh God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it’ (Genesis 2:15 CEB). As we humans developed our skill and ability to take care of God’s good creation, the growth would be ours; we would be growing into maturity as the mature adults God had longed for when he created us. For this reason, it seems, he shared his glory and dominion with us: so that we could grow and become all he dreamed for us to be. Jacobson comments,

Any person who has been around small children may be helped to relate to the message here. Children do not only want to be helped and provided for. Children want to help, to contribute, to be valuable to the household. They want to do things themselves. The powerful message of this psalm is that God does not merely care about human beings, but values them so much that they are given a role in God’s economy.[ix]

‘Whatever passes along the paths of the seas’ (v.8, NRSV) seems a little strange; maybe the meaning is ‘not just the fish, but all the sea creatures that travel through the sea’. It seems unlikely that human commerce on the sea is in view here; that would give the strange meaning that humans have dominion over their own sailors (and why only their sailors?). So I think it’s better to stick to a non-human meaning here: not just fish, but also whales and shellfish and everything that lives and moves in the seas.

Jacobson points out that there is an interesting special movement in the poet’s language here. Through the first six verses of the poem, the poet has included a subtle motif of vertical descent: ‘above the heavens’ (v.1b) > ‘heavens, moon and stars’ (v.3) > ‘but a little lower than heavenly beings’ (v.5a) > ‘crowned them’ (a reference to the head) (v.6a) > ‘hands’ (v.6a) > ‘feet’ (v.6b). Having come down to the earth, the poet now changes direction and moves horizontally outwa4d from human society: ‘Sheep and oxen’ > ‘beasts of the field’ > ‘birds’ > ‘fish’ > ‘whatever passes the paths of the sea’.

The first animals, sheep and oxen, are the domesticated animals that share space in the midst of human society. The trajectory described then proceeds outward until it ends in the sea, which in the ancient near east was conceived as the place of chaos, least hospitable to human society. But that is all the more reason to marvel at the assertion made here in Psalm 8: the fish of the sea and even those mysterious creatures that pass in the depths of the sea are realms of human responsibility! God has placed even these wild and unknown creatures under our care! [x]


9       O Yahweh, our lord,
      how majestic is your name in all the earth!

The psalm ends with a repeat. This is the first hymn of praise in the psalter; Psalm 1 is a reflection on the blessedness of the one who meditates on the Torah, and Psalms 2-7 are complaints, both individual and communal, about human injustice, oppression and sinfulness. But this wonderful psalm turns to God in praise, and addresses God directly, in the second person: ‘You’ (other psalms of praise don’t do this; they speak of God in the second person: “O come, let us sing to Yahweh’ (Psalm 95:1). CEB Study Bible says, ‘Psalm 8 is unique among the songs of praise because it addresses God directly; that is, it is actually a prayer of praise’.

Jacobson comments:

Most of the Psalter’s hymns begin with an imperative call to a congregation to praise God. Psalm 8 begins differently – with an exclamation of praise spoken directly to God. The first word out of the psalmist’s mouth is ‘LORD’ (‘Yahweh’). No other hymn begins in this fashion. To begin a psalm with God’s name is a characteristic way for a prayer for help to begin; this connection is appropriate, for as a prayer for help begins with a passionate cry for help, this psalm begins with a similarly passionate cry of praise. The import of this nuance is that Psalm 8 is not just a poem about God. Psalm 8 is a poem about God and us and about our relationship with God.[xi]

It’s also notable that the previous psalm, 7, ends with the words ‘I will give to Yahweh the thanks due to his righteousness, and sing praise to the name of Yahweh, the Most High’ (7:17). A person praying the psalter all the way through will make this commitment – ‘I will…sing praise to the name of Yahweh, the Most High’ – and then go immediately to ‘O Yahweh our lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!’ (8:1).

I think that this psalm is about the glory of God and the glory of humanity. It is a prayer of praise addressed to God, who has set his glory far above earth and heaven; the entire creation, from the moon and the stars in the heavens to the lowliest babies and infants in the earth, joins in praising and worshipping this glorious God. But this glorious King of creation has invited human beings to reign with him; he has given us dominion over all living things. So far from the glory of God diminishing our own glory, it enhances it: this unimaginably great Creator has called created and called us to be his fellow-workers! We are his children, and like a good parent he involves the children in the work of the house!

So what is the psalm calling us to do? It is calling us to worship God as the creator of all, and it is calling us to be faithful in our work as stewards of God’s good creation. Science helps us in both these callings: it gives us a bigger picture of the immensity of the created world (and therefore, by extension, of the greatness of the Creator), and it also gives us a better understanding of the world and how we can care for it, as God has called us to do.


[i] John Goldingay, Psalms for Everyone Part I, Westminster John Know Press, 2013, p.27.

[ii] Donald Coggan, Psalms 1-72 (The People’s Bible Commentary), Bible Reading Fellowship, 1998, p.38.

[iii] Nancy deClaissé-Walford, Rolf A. Jacobson, and Beth LaNeel Tanner, The Book of Psalms (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), Eerdmans, 2014, p.123-4.

[iv] Jacobson, p.123.

[v] Coggan, p.38.

[vi] Jacobson, p.123.

[vii] Jacobson p.124.

[viii] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2.

[ix] Jacobson p.126.

[x] Jacobson pp.125-126.

[xi] Jacobson, p.122.

Psalm 47: Preliminary Sermon Explorations

I plan to preach on Psalm 47 this coming Sunday. Here it is in the New Revised Standard Version translation (more or less!):

Clap your hands, all you peoples;
shout to God with loud songs of joy.
For Yahweh, the Most High, is awesome,
a great king over all the earth.
He subdued peoples under us,
and nations under our feet.
He chose our heritage for us,
the pride of Jacob whom he loves.

God has gone up with a shout,
Yahweh with the sound of a trumpet.
Sing praises to God, sing praises;
sing praises to our King, sing praises.
For God is the king of all the earth;
sing praises with a psalm.
God is king over the nations;
God sits on his holy throne.
The princes of the peoples gather
as the people of the God of Abraham.

For the shields of the earth belong to God;
he is highly exalted.

And here are some preliminary thoughts I’ve written down as I’ve been studying the psalm today.

‘Clap your hands, all you peoples; shout to God with loud songs of joy’ (v.1). Come on now – we’re Anglicans! That’s way to demonstrative for us! Seriously, that sort of exuberant worship is not something we Anglicans do very often. It’s a temperamental thing, but it’s important for me to remember that the national temperament of the Jewish people who wrote the psalms was apparently way more open to this sort of communal joy than we are. Years ago I read the story of Michelle Guinness, a young English Jew who became a Christian, and eventually married a Church of England minister. She had been raised in a community that sang that psalms in a very lively fashion, and was very disappointed when she discovered Anglican chant. ‘What have you done to our psalms?’ she complained to her husband!

Nancy deClaissé-Walford comments:

‘Christians brought up in more traditional, rather staid worship environments often find the ideas of ‘clapping hands”, “shouting”, and “singing praises” too boisterous for the context of the formal worship of God. But in situations of utter joy and thankfulness, the raucous “joyful noise” to God is not only appropriate, but the only response that fully expresses the heartfelt gratitude of communities of faith’. (Nancy deClaissé-Walford, Psalms in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament.

The words ‘nations’, ‘peoples’, and ‘all the earth’ are repeated seven times in this psalm. These are the pagan nations, the ones who surround Israel and are worshippers of Baal and Ashtaroth and Marduk and Osiris and all the other ancient gods of the Middle East (Greece and Rome weren’t on Israel’s radar screen yet). The psalmist summons these pagan nations to leave behind the worship of their ancestral gods and worship Yahweh, Israel’s God, because he isn’t just one god among many – he’s ‘the great king over all the earth’ (vv. 2, 7) and ‘God has become king over the nations’ (v.8). Note that the psalm does not yet assume that the gods of the nations are unreal – just that they are inferior to the god of Israel, who is actually the king of them all.

Nancy deClaissé-Walford comments:

‘In verses 2-5, the worshippers are told why they should shout. Because (kî) the LORD Most High is…a great king over all the earth (v.2). The appellation Most High is a term often used to describe the God of Israel when people other than the Israelites alone are being addressed. Thus, from the outset, the psalm celebrates the enthronement of the LORD Most High as a great king over all peoples’. (Nancy deClaissé-Walford, Psalms in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament.

The evidence that Yahweh is the great king over all the earth is found in verse 3: ‘He subdues peoples under us, nations under our feet’. I expect that this is referring originally to the Exodus, where Yahweh defeated the gods of Egypt and drowned their armies in the sea. But it may be, if this psalm comes from the time of David, that the writer has some contemporary application in mind as well: God defeated the Philistines through David, and he also defeated the Moabites and Ammonites and made them pay tribute to David.

So this is not an evangelistic triumph we’re celebrating here – as if Jewish missionaries went out and preached to all the pagan nations, and the people abandoned their gods and turned to Yahweh. In the original context it seems to be a military conquest that the writer has in mind. God has been enthroned as king of all the earth because of his triumph over the enemies of Israel, and the people of all the nations must now bring tribute to him.

Verse 5 says, ‘God has gone up with a shout, Yahweh with the sound of a trumpet’. Is this referring to a particular historical event? One candidate might be the story in 2 Samuel 6 of how David brought the Ark up from the house of Abinadab (at first) and (later) the house of Obed-Edom, and brought it into the city of David with joy and dancing. But in fact the enthronement of Yahweh as supreme over all the earth and all gods is common in the psalms, and enthronement psalms are a recognized genre. J. Clinton McCann comments:

‘Mowinckel’s theory of an annual celebration of God’s enthronement at the New Year festival (as part of the Feast of Booths) is questionable; however, it cannot be doubted that the theological heart of the psalter – God reigns! (see Psalms 29, 93, 95-99) – was celebrated liturgically upon some occasion, perhaps in a procession involving the Ark (see 2 Samuel 6, Psalms 24:7-10, 132:8). It is simply impossible to know whether such a liturgical enactment took place as part of a New Year festival, as part of one of the three pilgrimage feasts, or as Gerstenberger has suggested, as a regular part “of early Jewish worship liturgy that jubilantly records the history of Israel’s election by Yahweh (vv.4-5) and glorifies his supreme, as yet unrealized, power over all the earth (vv.3, 8, etc.)”. Given this uncertainty one must conclude that more important than the original setting of Psalm 47 is the actual content of the psalm: God rules the earth!’ (J. Clinton McCann, Psalms in The New Interpreter’s Bible).

He also says,

‘To borrow Mowinckel’s words, v.5 itself is a “preeminent visible centre”. In contrast to Mowinckel, however, we may conclude that what is celebrated – God’s reign – lay at the heart of all Israelite worship, just as the proclamation of God’s reign lies at the theological heart of the psalter’ (J. Clinton McCann, Psalms in The New Interpreter’s Bible).

Verse 9 says,

‘The princes of the peoples gather
as the people of the God of Abraham.
For the shields of the earth belong to God;
He is highly exalted’.

In Genesis 12:3 God says to Abraham: ‘I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’. So the idea from the beginning was not that Abraham’s call was about his family and his people only, but that he would be a blessing to all nations – that his journey of worship and holiness with Yahweh the God of Israel would be a light he could share with the people around him, and that this would be true for his descendants as well.

So verse 9 says ‘The lords of the peoples have gathered, the people of Abraham’s God’ (Goldingay’s translation) – or (NRSV) ‘the princes of the peoples gather as the people of the God of Abraham’. This envisions a time when the God of Abraham will be worshipped outside the ethnic and geographical boundaries of Israel, and pagan peoples will be included in ‘the people of Abraham’s God’.

But in what way can God be King of all the earth when so many people ignore and disobey him? Well, God is not king of all the earth in the sense of a tyrant who forces people to obey him. He is king of all the earth because he has created it out of nothing and it belongs to him; he has never given it away or shared it with anyone. Likewise, ‘It is he that made us, and we are his’ (Psalm 100:3), so he is our king in an objective sense, whether we acknowledge the fact or not. We are all accountable to him, and one day we will have to give account to him for our obedience or disobedience to his will – or, more appropriately, for our response or lack of response to his loving invitation to know, worship and obey him.

Still, Christianity also teaches that ‘God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year’. Human beings have free will and our decisions have real consequences, so God is not the cause of all the events that happen on earth – far from it. But nonetheless, in his mysterious way he is at work, bringing good out of evil and making even the evil acts of human beings a part of the mysterious process by which his will is fulfilled (e.g. the acts of Judas, and of the Jewish leaders and Pilate who crucified Jesus).

John Goldingay comments:

‘In church yesterday we made our usual outrageous confessions, such as the declaration that Jesus is Lord. They are outrageous because the day’s news seems to belie them. Dozens of people have died in an attack on a mosque in Pakistan. Car bombs have exploded outside a British cultural relations centre in Kabul. In the United States, many people with cancer cannot get the drugs they need, partly because the drug companies don’t make enough profit out of making them. Radiation has been discovered in rice near Tokyo. Scores of people have been killed in anti-government demonstrations in Syria. Jesus is Lord?

‘When Israel declared that Yahweh is God, that its God is king of all the earth, it made its equivalently outrageous confession, and when it challenged all the peoples of the earth to join that declaration, its confession was the more outrageous. How could it make such a confession?…

‘…Psalm 47 looks back to the events that made Israel Israel – that is, it refers to Yahweh’s original subduing of the country’s inhabitants and his gift to Israel of its mountain country, which Yahweh loves. Israel settled in this mountain country on God’s coat tails as God made his ascent there like a warrior with a shout and with the sound of a horn signalling the moment for advance. So Israel’s outrageous statement is that Yahweh is “the great king over all the earth”. The title is one the king of Assyria claimed (it comes in the story of Isaiah 36-37 about the Assyrian attempt to take Jerusalem…). It would be a plausible claim. But Psalm 47 says with great chutzpah, “You know who is the real king of all the earth? I will tell you”’ (John Goldingay, Psalms for Everyone: Part 1).

So this psalm calls on people all over the earth to acknowledge the Yahweh, Israel’s God, is not just one God among many, but the ‘great king over all the earth’, the one supreme God. And in the same way, for us New Testament believers, we are called to see our Lord Jesus Christ as not just one lord among many, but as God’s anointed king, the one to whom ‘all authority in heaven and on earth’ has been given by God (Matthew 28:18).

Jesus sent his disciples out into all the world to preach the Gospel, make disciples, baptize them, and teach them to follow him. All of those people already had allegiances to other gods, or to the god of Israel. I don’t think this means that everything about their ancestral religions was bad – God was present everywhere, and he had not left himself without light in any corner of the earth. But in Jesus, God himself has come among us, and so he is the clearest and most accurate picture we have of what God is like and of what his will is. Also, his life and death and resurrection have provided the means of deliverance from sin and death. This Gospel need to be proclaimed to all the world, and everyone should be invited to follow Jesus.

Verse 9 of our psalm envisions the kings of all the nations around Israel coming to worship Yahweh. The New Testament has a similar vision when it talks about people from every tribe and language and people and nation coming to serve God.

‘You (the Lamb) are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals,
for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God
saints from every tribe and language and people and nation;
you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God,
and they will reign on earth’ (Revelation 5:9-10).

There is no hint here of conquest, unless it is God’s conquest of the powers of evil, the devil and his hosts. Just as Yahweh defeated the gods of Egypt and ransomed his people from slavery, so Jesus has ransomed a holy people for God through his death, a people from every nation and language and tribe. They are a kingdom with Jesus as their King; they are priests worshipping God and interceding for the whole world. This is the true fulfilment of Psalm 47:9, but it is an entirely different kind of fulfilment than the one the psalmist envisioned: not conquest, but men and women and children from all over the world freely accepting Jesus’ offer of salvation and through him becoming God’s holy people.

John Goldingay connects the Old and New Testament interpretations of this verse:

‘The description of the nation’s leaders, their lords or shields, gathering to acknowledge Abraham’s God is an act of imagination, but it is a vision whose fulfilment is guaranteed by what this God has done already. At the beginning of Israel’s story people such as the Gibeonites were compelled to make this acknowledgement of Israel’s God; they are a first stage in a process which will eventually come to completion. Once again the psalm shows how Israel knew that Yahweh’s involvement with Israel was not focussed merely on Israel for its own sake. Precisely because Yahweh is the king of all the earth, Israel’s faith involves an interest in the whole world. The lords of the peoples gather as the people of Abraham’s God or with the people of Abraham’s God (the terse sentence doesn’t make clear which is the right translation, but it makes little difference). The point is not merely that they should be ‘saved’ but that they should recognize God as God. Analogously, what God has done with and through Jesus is the guarantee that the world will recognize that Jesus is Lord’ (John Goldingay, Psalms for Everyone: Part 1).

I think the Ascension Day application of this psalm is very powerful. Just as God is enthroned as king of all the earth in this psalm, and the nations are gathered as his people, so Jesus, God’s anointed king, has now been enthroned as Lord of all, ‘king of kings and lord of lords’. He has not ‘subdued peoples’; he has subdued the powers of evil and conquered them by his faithful death and his glorious resurrection. And so, on Ascension Day, God lifted him on high and gave him the place of authority, ‘seated at the right hand of God’, from where he was able to pour out the Holy Spirit on his people and send them out into all the world to proclaim that the world has a new King: not Caesar or the corrupt gods of Rome that he represents, but the Lord of love who washed his disciples’ feet, and who gave himself for them and us on the Cross.

So it is appropriate for us to sing and shout and praise the Lord!

J. Clinton McCann says,

‘It was a persistent temptation for the people of Israel, and it has been and is a persistent temptation for the church to make our God too small. We are quick to recall that God “chose our heritage for us” and loves us (v.4), but we are quick to forget that God loves the world and that all the world’s rulers and people “belong to God” (v.9). The Christian practice of speaking about Jesus as a personal Saviour may be symptomatic of our forgetfulness, for often we seem to mean that we own God rather than that God owns us. To worship the God of Abraham and the God revealed in Jesus Christ is to worship a universal sovereign, and it means claiming every other person in the world as a sister or brother…

‘…In accordance with Psalm 47 and in accordance with the proclamation of Jesus (see Mark 1:14-15), we say that God rules over all and thus that the world is the sphere of God’s sovereignty. Our profession is eschatological, because it does not appear that God rules, and the world is full of opposition to God’s sovereignty…But our profession is no less real. In liturgy, we say and act out the reality that our lives and our world have been shaped by God’s loving rule. At the same time, our speaking and acting contribute to the further shaping of ourselves and of our world in conformity to God’s claim. For us, the “real world” exists insofar as God’s sovereignty is acknowledged in word and in deed…

‘Psalm 47 is traditionally used by the church on Ascension Day. The church thereby claims that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus represent the essential claim of Psalm 47: that God rules over the world and lovingly claims all the world’s peoples’ (J. Clinton McCann, Psalms in The New Interpreter’s Bible).



A Word of Encouragement

Thursday is the day I prepare my Sunday sermon, but it begins at 7 a.m. with our weekly Men’s Bible Study group at the Bogani Café. I was driving one of the men home this morning after the study, and as I dropped him off he said, “I’m praying for your sermon preparation today”.

What an encouraging moment! I know that he values the preaching ministry, and he is joining me in prayer that God will help me with the preparation process today. Thank you God for a word of encouragement this morning.

1 Samuel 15:34 – 16:13: Preliminary sermon thoughts

This is not a sermon, it’s my preliminary exegetical work. Hopefully others might find it helpful.


34 Then Samuel left for Ramah, but Saul went up to his home in Gibeah of Saul. 35 Until the day Samuel died, he did not go to see Saul again, though Samuel mourned for him. And the Lord regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel.

16:1  The Lord said to Samuel, ‘How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.’

But Samuel said, ‘How can I go? If Saul hears about it, he will kill me.’

The Lord said, ‘Take a heifer with you and say, “I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.” Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what to do. You are to anoint for me the one I indicate.’

Samuel did what the Lord said. When he arrived at Bethlehem, the elders of the town trembled when they met him. They asked, ‘Do you come in peace?’

Samuel replied, ‘Yes, in peace; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Consecrate yourselves and come to the sacrifice with me.’ Then he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, ‘Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.’

But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’

Then Jesse called Abinadab and made him pass in front of Samuel. But Samuel said, ‘The Lord has not chosen this one either.’ Jesse then made Shammah pass by, but Samuel said, ‘Nor has the Lord chosen this one.’ 10 Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, ‘The Lord has not chosen these.’ 11 So he asked Jesse, ‘Are these all the sons you have?’

‘There is still the youngest,’ Jesse answered. ‘He is tending the sheep.’

Samuel said, ‘Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.’

12 So he sent for him and had him brought in. He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features.

Then the Lord said, ‘Rise and anoint him; this is the one.’

13 So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David. Samuel then went to Ramah.

In the chapter immediately preceding this one, Saul is commanded by God to wipe out the Amalekites because, hundreds of years before, they had opposed Israel when they arrived in Palestine from Egypt in the time of Moses. The command as it stands is very objectionable to us as Christians: ‘Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys’ (15:3 NIV). The Hebrew word translated ‘totally destroy’ in the NIV refers to the irrevocable giving over of things or persons to Yahweh, often by – well, totally destroying them! So it is not only an execution, but also a kind of human sacrifice, and both of these things run clean counter to what Jesus has taught us about the nature of God. Since I take Jesus as the key to understanding and interpreting the Old Testament, I will therefore be cautious in how seriously I take the idea that this was a divine command.

However, in the narrative we have to take it as it is and move on to the main point – the disobedience of Saul, God’s anointed king. He did not obey the command; he defeated the Amalekites, but he spared their king and also ‘the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs – everything that was good. These they were unwilling to destroy completely, but everything that was despised and weak they totally destroyed’ (15:9).

If I’m ever going to understand this strange passage, I need to understand that in the terms of the Israelite culture of the day, this was the same as keeping your best and strongest lambs and calves for yourself, and only sacrificing to God the ones that were so weak and sickly that they were going to die anyway. Later on Saul will protest that sacrifice was always his eventual intention: ‘The soldiers took sheep and cattle from the plunder, the best of what was devoted to God, in order to sacrifice them to Yahweh your God at Gilgal’ (15:21) – the principle shrine of Israel at the time, the place where the tabernacle stood, the forebear of the Temple Solomon would later build in Jerusalem. If this is true, it seems that Saul had decided it was not right just to slaughter everything on the battlefield without proper ceremony; the good stuff should go to God’s shrine, where it could be offered with all the proper rituals and observances.

But it seems clear to me that the prophet Samuel, who had challenged Saul about his obedience to God, did not believe this explanation. His response is one of those Old Testament classics:

“Does Yahweh delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
as much as obeying Yahweh?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
And to heed is better than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is like the sin of divination,
And arrogance like the evil of idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of Yahweh,
He has rejected you as king” (15:22-23).

So Samuel pronounces judgement on Saul in the name of Yahweh.

‘As Samuel turned to leave, Saul caught hold of the hem of his robe, and it tore. Samuel said to him, “Yahweh has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to one of your neighbours – to one better than you”’ (15:27-28).

And so, after Samuel brings out Agag king of the Amalekites and kills him as Saul had refused to do, he leaves Saul and never sees him again.

And this leads us directly to today’s passage.

What does it say?
The last verse of chapter 15 tells us that Samuel went to his home in Ramah, but mourned for Saul until the day he died. And his mourning was joined to Yahweh’s mourning, because Yahweh ‘regretted’ that he had made Saul king over Israel. This is an example of something we see in the Old Testament – God taking a course of action and then changing his mind and regretting it. This seems to contradict not only the Greek idea of a god who never changes, but also some other texts in the scriptures that speak of God never changing. No doubt we’re on the edge of a great mystery here, but we won’t resolve it today!

In chapter sixteen God quickly moves on to the new plan. Saul is still king of Israel and his kingdom is outwardly strong; David will be anointed king by God in this chapter, but he will not take up his throne over the whole nation for another twenty chapters, until 2 Samuel chapter 5, and most of those chapters will be taken up with the struggle between the kingdom of Saul and the new movement led by David, the unwilling rebel, who to the end refuses to actually take up arms against Saul, who he regards as ‘Yahweh’s anointed’.

So in chapter 16 Yahweh tells Samuel to stop mourning for Saul and go to Bethlehem to visit the home of Jesse, because he (Yahweh) has chosen one of Jesse’s sons as king. Samuel is understandably afraid; how can he go to anoint a new king when the old king is still strong on his throne? If Saul hears of it he will kill Samuel immediately. So God suggests a plan; tell Jesse and the other citizens of Bethlehem that you are coming to offer a community sacrifice. Invite Jesse and his family, and then do the anointing as a sort of afterthought.

So this is what Samuel does. He goes to Bethlehem – a town on the edge of Saul’s northern kingdom, and beyond the reach of Samuel’s normal circuit as judge as well – and the elders of the town are more than a little afraid of him; they ‘trembled when they met him. They asked, “Do you come in peace?”’ (16:4 NIV). Their fear is understandable; by now it will be known in the land that Saul and Samuel have had a falling out; Saul is the king, but Samuel is the one who made him king. Which one should the people of Bethlehem be friendly to? In a time of civil war, these visits from officials are always fraught with peril! But Samuel assures them that he has come in peace, to offer a sacrifice; everyone, including Jesse and his sons, is to consecrate themselves with the appropriate rituals and come to the sacrifice.

The author describes what happens next in some detail. Jesse and seven of his sons come to the sacrifice. When they arrive, Jesse sees Eliab (the oldest?) and thinks, “Surely Yahweh’s anointed stands here before Yahweh” (16:6); apparently Eliab was a particularly impressive looking man! But then once again comes one of those Old Testament classics:

‘But Yahweh said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. Yahweh does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but Yahweh looks at the heart”’ (16:7 NIV).

This issue of the loyalty of the heart has been central from the beginning of the Israelite monarchy. Saul was the first king, and we’re told that after Samuel anointed him as king,

‘As Saul turned to leave Samuel, God changed Saul’s heart’ (1 Samuel 10:9).

Not long afterwards, when Samuel is stepping back from the role he has played all his life as the last great judge of Israel, to make room for the king whom God and the people have chosen, he warns them about this issue of the heart:

‘“Do not be afraid”, Samuel replied. “You have done all this evil; yet do not turn away from Yahweh, but serve Yahweh with all your heart…But be sure to fear Yahweh and serve him faithfully with all your heart; consider what great things he has done for you. Yet if you persist in doing evil, both you and your king will perish”’ (1 Samuel 12:20, 24-25).

Saul’s heart was initially changed, to be sure, but by the time we get to chapter fifteen it’s clear what his heart was actually full of:

‘Early in the morning Samuel got up and went to meet Saul, but he was told, “Saul has gone to Carmel. There he has set up a monument in his own honour and has turned and gone on down to Gilgal’ (15:12).

Saul is surely not the first political leader who starts out with a true heart but eventually is overtaken by self-importance and entitlement!

So what God is looking for among these sons of Jesse is a person who will serve God faithfully with all his heart, and lead God’s people to do the same. One by one Jesse’s sons parade before Samuel – Abinadab, Shammah, and four others, but Yahweh has not chosen any of them. When the parade is done, Samuel turns to Jesse and says, “Yahweh hasn’t chosen any of these. Is there another one?” So Jesse tells him about the youngest, David, who is currently out looking after the family flock of sheep. So they send for David, and the author (who no doubt was a member of the royal court of the descendants of David!), despite his earlier warnings about not looking at the outward appearance, can’t restrain himself from saying, ‘He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features’ (v.12, NIV) – or, as the NRSV says in a surprisingly different translation, ‘Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome’. But now there is no doubt and no hesitation:

‘Then Yahweh said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one”. So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the spirit of Yahweh came powerfully upon David’ (16:13a).

Here we have the second essential: the presence of the spirit of God. This has come on Saul too (10:10), but by his later actions he has rejected the presence of Yahweh’s spirit, and later on in chapter 16 we are told explicitly,

‘Now the Spirit of Yahweh had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from Yahweh tormented him’ (v.14).

At this stage in the theology of Israel both good and evil spirits come from God; it is not until later that we have a developed theology of the devil as the source of evil. But this is a marginal concern in the text; the important thing is that a king, no less than a prophet, needs to be a ‘messiah’, an anointed one. He cannot do his work on the basis merely of human wisdom, skill and power; he needs the powerful Spirit of Yahweh to make up for his inevitable human shortcomings. And this is what David receives when Samuel anoints him with oil. It will be many years before the kingship granted to David at this time is recognized by all Israel, but from this moment, the hand of God is on him in a special way.

What does it mean?
In New Testament terms, this is the story of the anointing of a ‘messiah’, the ‘Christ’ in Greek. The Hebrew word ‘messiah’ means ‘the anointed one’, and in New Testament times it had come to mean ‘the king like David, who God would send to rescue his people from the Romans, just as he had rescued Israel from the Philistines and made her a great nation by the hand of David’. And of course Luke has Jesus being born in Bethlehem, in accordance with the prophecy in Micah – Bethlehem, the town where the first David, the first ‘messiah’, had been born. So all of these things have New Testament echoes.

First, however, we have to grapple with the failure of Samuel. Despite our revulsion at the circumstances – the purported command of God to slaughter thousands of innocent Amalekite men, women, and children, for the simple reason that they were the descendents of those who, hundreds of years before, had obstructed Israel’s journey to the promised land – we need to recognize that the principle of communal guilt was universally accepted in Old Testament times, and that this guilt could be transmitted down through the generations – just as debt can be today, which, if you think about it, makes as little sense as the transmission of guilt! So Amalek is guilty, God chooses Saul to carry out his sentence, God specifies the terms – the whole nation is to be a total sacrifice to Yahweh – but Saul has better ideas, and so he refuses to obey God’s specific instructions.

This is the story as it’s told, and we have to take it as it is and see what the author does with it. What he does is to establish a timeless principle: to obey is better than sacrifice, but disobedience and rebellion are as bad as witchcraft and idolatry. In other words, there isn’t a blind bit of good in going to Gilgal and organizing a splendid and impressive liturgy (or, for that matter, in modern terms, a splendid and impressive service with a praise and worship band with a sound system worth hundreds of thousands of dollars) if your heart is not right with God – or, to say the same thing in another way, if your will is not determined to do God’s will. To worship rightly is to offer yourself to God; you can’t do this and live in disobedience.

This is important, because it is taken up in the story in chapter 16 as well. Saul wanted to offer Yahweh something splendid at Gilgal (so he said); Samuel was looking for someone splendid to anoint as Saul’s successor as king of Israel, and at first he thought he had found that person in Eliab. But splendour and outward appearance is of absolutely no importance to God: “People look at the outward appearance, but Yahweh looks at the heart” (16:7). Even after this incident, outward appearances were strongly in Saul’s favour: he was the king of Israel, he commanded the army, and all power was in his hands. But inside, there was ‘something rotten in the state of Denmark’, because the heart’s devotion was gone, and also the heart’s assurance that he was Yahweh’s anointed king. The sense of security was gone, and Saul lived the rest of his life in fear and suspicion of possible competitors.

‘Yahweh looks on the heart’. We need to remember that, in Bible terms, ‘the heart’ does not mean what we think it means today: the emotions, the feelings. When the biblical writers wanted to speak about the feelings, they used the illustration of the intestines (and, to be crude, we still talk about being ‘scared shitless’!). But the heart was a symbol for the centre of the personality, the will, the choices, the decisions a person made about the direction of their life. If your heart was set on God, that meant that you understood that ‘to obey is better than sacrifice’, and you committed yourself to a ‘whole-hearted’ obedience to the will of God.

Did David always have this? We know that he did not. The rest of his story includes many failures, including, most famously, his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband Uriah so that he could take her for himself and hide his sin from the people. Psalm 86 is presented to us as ‘a prayer of David’, and contains this petition:

‘Teach me your way, Yahweh, that I may rely on your faithfulness;
Give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name’.

So David (whether or not he actually wrote Psalm 86) is not presented to us in the OT as a man whose heart was always fixed on God; he struggled and sinned and fell just as we do. At times, like us, his heart was divided. But – and here is the crucial thing – he is always presented to us as repenting, returning to Yahweh, and resuming his desire to live in obedience to God.

So, here are the essentials:

First, God does not look on the outward appearance. A tall, strong, good-looking body was not important when God was choosing a new king. All of Saul’s impressiveness (we’re told earlier in 1 Samuel that he was a whole head taller than anyone else in Israel at the time) did not impress God. And today the same is true. An impressive appearance, a huge list of academic qualifications, obvious and impressive giftedness – these are not what God is looking for. Nor is he impressed with a splendid liturgy, a glorious building, or a huge reputation in the neighbourhood. When God is looking for people to serve him and to do his will, this is not important.

This is underlined over and over again in the Old Testament by an interesting narrative theme. In the cultures of the day, it was assumed that the older son would have the birthright and inherit the property, but over and over, in the Old Testament, that did not happen. Esau was Isaac’s older son, but Jacob was the one who became the ancestor of Israel. Reuben was Jacob’s oldest son, but he was disobedient and slept with his father’s concubine, and instead the pride of place went to the tribes of Judah and Joseph. And in Joseph’s family, Manasseh was the older son, but Ephraim became the greater, so that Israel did not say ‘Manasseh and Ephraim’, but ‘Ephraim and Manasseh’.

The same theme is found in the New Testament. The Twelve are not chosen from the ranks of the powerful, the well educated, or the wealthy. Paul spells out this theme in 1 Corinthians where he says,

‘Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him’ (1 Corinthians 1:26-29 NIV).

Once again, people are impressed with the outward appearance, but God is not; God looks on the heart. Which leads to the second point:

What God looks for is a faithful and obedient heart. In the Old Testament we’re told ‘Trust in Yahweh with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight’ (Proverbs 3:5-6). So the heart is associated here with trust. A faithful heart is a heart that trusts that God’s ways are good ways, and that shows that trust by following the instructions that God gives.

Which leads us to obedience. As we’ve seen, the word ‘heart’ in the Bible does not refer to the feelings but to the will, the choices we make. Disobedience is what brought Saul down; his heart was not right with God, and so he made wrong choices. The opposite of that is obedience.

David, as we’ve seen, did not always walk in obedience, but he prayed for it and desired it, and when he fell into sin, he repented and returned to the Lord. His faith was not mere outward appearance or mere words; it was genuine love for God expressed in godly living.

Jesus has the same emphasis in the New Testament. In last week’s gospel reading he tells us: “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35), and in the Sermon on the Mount he gives us this warning:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21-23).

Prophecy and exorcism and working miracles look pretty impressive, but they are not conclusive evidence of a heart right with God. “Only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” exhibits that evidence. As Jesus says in John 14:15, “If you love me, keep my commandments”. The test of a faithful life in the Bible is never the depth of its feelings or the impressiveness of its outward appearance, but the faithfulness of its actions.

How is this obedience to be maintained? We know that it’s beyond our capability as fallen and fallible human beings to give perfect obedience to God; ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23); ‘If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us’ (1 John 1:8). And so comes the absolute necessity of the infilling of the Holy Spirit of God. “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you”, says Jesus to his disciples (Acts 1:8). For us, as for David, it’s vital that the Spirit of Yahweh ‘comes powerfully’ on us, and not just once, either; we are to go on and on being filled with the Holy Spirit (see Ephesians 5:18-21).

What does it mean to us?
No doubt there are many Christians who don’t feel they’re qualified to serve the Lord. They’re going by outward appearances. They don’t have obvious leadership abilities; they don’t have an impressive appearance; they can’t speak well. They don’t have solid academic qualifications. In fact, they are exactly the kind of people Paul speaks about in the passage I just quoted:

‘God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him’ (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).

In another passage in the gospels, Jesus says,

“I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do” (Luke 10:21).

In Luke’s account, these words come as Jesus has sent out seventy-two apprentice missionaries to take the gospel message to the towns and villages he intends to visit. After their missionary trip they return to him full of joy; even the demons submit to them in his name, they say. Jesus sees this as evidence that God has chosen them; his disciples are the ‘little children’, and the Pharisees and scribes, who are well educated and knowledgeable in the Law, are the ‘wise and the learned’. But what the disciples have, that the scribes and Pharisees do not, is faith in Jesus, and obedience to him.

Of course, we ought not to despise good theological education and giftedness, but these things are not the essentials. God is looking for something more than that. God does not need ‘the outward appearance’, but he does need ‘the heart’. And this is what we cannot get by without as we seek to follow Jesus.

A heart that chooses to trust in God and obey him is a non-negotiable essential if we want to serve the Lord. No amount of training and education and professional skill can make up for the lack of this. The obedience and faith do not need to be perfect – we have seen that in David – but we do need to watch over ourselves and guard our hearts’ devotion to Jesus. Saul, the tallest man in Israel, was an impressive figure, but God was not impressed. David, the youngest of Jesse’s sons, was the humble shepherd boy, and God called him to be the shepherd of his people Israel. Saul’s heart was divided, but David prayed that God would give him an undivided heart. Today we need to echo David’s prayer, and then take courage; we may see ourselves, like David, as the least impressive person in the neighbourhood, but it’s possible that God may take a different view!

And the other essential, as we’ve seen, is the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit can take a fearful, unsteady person, like Simon Peter who was brave enough to follow Jesus into the high priest’s courtyard but not brave enough to identify with him there – “I do not know the man” – and work such a miracle in his heart that he will stand up and preach a powerful sermon on the day of Pentecost, and three thousand people are converted. We Christians are called to live lives that are totally inexplicable apart from the power of God and the work of the Holy Spirit. We do not need an impressive appearance; we need faithful hearts, full of the Holy Spirit of God and walking in step with the Spirit. With that, God can get to work.


Initial sermon thoughts on 1 John 3:11-24

This is not a sermon; it’s simply the beginning of the sermon preparation process. Hopefully these thoughts might trigger some of your own, if you are preaching on this passage this coming Sunday – or help you to get ready, if you will be listening to someone else.

Text (NRSV)

11For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. 12We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. 13Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you. 14We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. 15All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. 16We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

18Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.

23And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

So it seems as if these first century Christians have begun to encounter some real hatred from the world around them (well, may be they haven’t just ‘begun to’ – maybe it’s been going on for a long time). Possibly they are asking questions about why this should be the case, and John addresses this issue in verse 13: ‘Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you’. This seems to follow on from verse 12, where he points out that Cain murdered his brother ‘because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous’. His point seems to be that a similar thing is going on for his readers: they are living righteous lives, the people around them are irritated by this (does the light show up their own darkness, perhaps?) and so the result is hatred, not admiration.

This is perhaps a useful correction to the romantic idea that if we just live good lives this will be enough to spread our faith, because people won’t be able to help admiring us for our good deeds. Sometimes this is true, but at other times it’s not. “Why are you being so honest with your expense account: you’re making the rest of us look bad!” Christians who insist on caring for the poor when so many other people think they’re freeloaders, and Christians who insist on loving their enemies rather than reviling them, often attract irritation and anger, not admiration. Of course, in this letter John is following on from the words of Jesus as he recorded them:

“If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘Servants are not greater than their master’. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also” (John 15:18-20).

The rest of the passage continues in much the same vein. So for Jesus it is not a surprise that he and his followers face persecution; he knows that the announcement that the Kingdom of God is at hand is not good news to those who profit from the kingdom of evil. We are participating in a counter-cultural movement, and we must expect that not everyone in the prevailing culture will be jumping for joy.

These first century Christians were encountering some hatred from the non-Christian world around them; John, however, is interested in what they are encountering from each other. Loving one another is part of the message they heard from the beginning (11); it is how they know they have passed from death to life (14); it is exemplified in Jesus laying down his life for us, and we are to follow his example (16) and by using the world’s goods to help sisters or brothers in need (17). It’s not just speech, but action (18). It’s one of the two main things God asks of us: believing in Jesus and loving one another (23). So John is saying to his readers, “You get enough hatred from the world around you; make sure you don’t get hatred from one another. Make sure you love one another”. So the heart of John’s message is the call for Christians to love each other sacrificially and practically, because this is the commandment that God has given us through Jesus.

The Cain and Abel story is interesting, because it is a story of hatred from one brother to another. Abel should reasonably have expected that his brother would love him (that’s what brothers are supposed to do), but instead he got hatred and murder. John seems to be saying ‘Don’t be surprised if the world hates you, but do be surprised – be very surprised – if hatred shows up in the Christian community. This is not the way Jesus has taught us to live’. Of course, we know that we are all works in progress, and we won’t be instantly transformed into examples of perfect love. This is why John has to remind people of the centrality of love, and that hatred is equivalent to murder (see Matthew 5:21-22).

So what are my ‘Cain-like’ attitudes? Do I feel shown-up or threatened when others succeed where I am failing? If my church’s growth has stalled and others seem to be doing well, do I see this as a threat rather than rejoicing in it? I think I can honestly say that I don’t feel angry at others’ good deeds, but I know there are times when I speak and think hatefully toward fellow-Christians. So verses 14-15 are sobering words for me:

14We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. 15All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them.

So John identifies love as the centre of the life of the Christian community, but he’s also careful about how he defines it. I don’t think he would agree with John Lennon that ‘All you need is love’ (he makes this clear in verse 23: ‘And this is his (i.e. God’s) commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he (i.e. Jesus) has commanded us’. Our love for each other flows from our belief in Jesus). And ‘love’ for John doesn’t mean a feeling, or an attitude that ‘anything goes’.

Christian love is rooted in the example of Jesus. We remember in John 13 how Jesus told his disciples to love one another ‘as I have loved you’. This command was sandwiched between two actions: his washing of his disciples feet in practical service, and his offering his life for the sins of the world – a sacrificial act, not in the sense of ‘making sacrifices’ but of being a sacrifice. Interestingly, John makes these same two points here. How do we identify true love?

‘We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another’ (v.16).

What would laying down our lives for one another mean in a situation where Christians were being persecuted (genuinely persecuted) for their faith? Undoubtedly John is not using figurative language here; if I can save the life of my brother or sister by offering my own life. He expects that Christian discipleship requires me to do it. In the context of this week’s news about more beheadings of Christians by ISIS, this gospel imperative seems all the more relevant.

However, it isn’t likely to be something I’m called on to do every day. In my daily experience, the second part of John’s definition of love is likely to be more telling:

17How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? 18Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

‘Word or speech’ is what preachers deal in, and in an age of mass communication through social media the world is full of word and speech. I use Facebook and blogging, and day by day interact with people all over the world by means of word and speech. John is reminding me here that there’s more to Christianity than that. Love means that if we see a brother or sister in need and we have enough to live on, we should give to the one who doesn’t. That’s it. It’s as simple as that. And if we refuse to do that, John asks ‘How does God’s love abide in you?’ Of course, we should have got the message from Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, or his commands to give to those who ask from us. As Billy Bragg paraphrases Jesus:

‘So just lift up your eyes, don’t pass by on the other side
Don’t be bound by what you think others may do.
Just a little bit of faith – that’s all it really takes,
Do unto others as you would have them do to you’.
(‘Do Unto Others’ on the album ‘Tooth and Nail’).

So Christian love is sacrificial (willing to pay the ultimate price) and also practical (giving to help those in need if we are able to do so). What it is not is emotional. At no point in this passage is John remotely interested in the feeling of love; it’s actions that are significant to him.

So love is the centre of the Christian life, follows on from believing in Jesus, was vital in a world where Christians faced so much non-love from those on the outside (a situation that is very real to some of our brothers and sisters around the world today), and is essentially sacrificial and practical – not just words, but actions. But John also points out that love gives us assurance of our new life in Christ. ‘We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another’ (v.14). ‘Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything’ (vv.18-20). In John 13 Jesus had said that the world would be able to tell that we are followers of Jesus because we love one another; now in this letter John tells us that we will be able to make the same judgement ourselves.

This seems a little weird; why are we judging ourselves, one way or the other? But we do, of course. We second-guess ourselves, we evaluate our progress, we look for important things to work on. What John is saying is ‘If you’re looking for an important thing to work on, this is the most important one of all. As C.S. Lewis says somewhere, ‘Nothing gives us a more spuriously good conscience than keeping rules, even if there has been a total lack of love and charity’. Rule keeping (whether we’re talking about conventions, liturgical directions, or whatever) doesn’t cut it; transformation from people who hate and murder to people who love and help one another is what counts.

Finally, John also connects love and answered prayer. He says,

‘Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him’ (vv.18-22).

I take this to mean, not that love gives us a magic token that automatically guarantees that we get anything we want from God (this is definitely not true to Christian experience – many very loving people have not received everything they ask for, including Jesus – “Let this cup pass from me”), but rather, that if love is the centre of my life then I am more likely to ask for things that are in line with God’s will. If I am living my life in rebellion against God, hating my sister or brother as Cain did, why would I think that my prayers would be pleasing to God? Prayers that God would break the teeth of the wicked may be honest, but we’ve got to hope that god doesn’t give us literal answers to them (as Gandhi pointed out, ‘Eye for an eye’ makes the whole world blind). But prayers that come from a life shaped by love – that’s a different story altogether.

Where does this passage hit home for me? The money quote, as far as I’m concerned, is verses 16-18:

‘We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action’.

I am very good at ‘passing by on the other side’. I’ve got plans for how I’m going to use my money, and they are too often shaped by my own selfish agenda. I don’t especially live by Paul’s wise words in 1 Timothy 6:6-10:

‘Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains’.

I have plans for my money; I want to be rich, so that I can afford to own expensive musical instruments and computer equipment, lots of CDs and books and good clothes, and go on nice holidays and so on. I do not live a contented life, and the culture around me does not encourage me to live a contented life (in fact, it would definitely have a negative effect on our country’s economic growth if its citizens lived a contented life! But then again, we wouldn’t need such high incomes if we wanted less!). And because of all this discontent, when I see brothers and sisters in need, I think I can’t afford to help them.

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to money; it applies to time too. Just as with money so with time, I have my own plans and I know what I want to do. And then along comes someone who’s asking for some of my precious time (and it is precious – every moment of my life brings me closer to my death, and the time I give away to others is time I will never get back – we must never ignore this reality). The call of the gospel to me is to see that every moment of my life belongs to the God who made me, not to me, and that it is his will for me to use it in loving others, not in selfishness and self-centredness. This is possibly an even bigger growing edge for me than my use of money. Lots to think about and pray about here; at the moment ‘my heart is condemning me’ (v.20), but I don’t think I’m quite ready to move on to ‘but God is greater than our hearts’ yet; first, there are changes that need to be made.

Preliminary sermon thoughts on Mark 9.2-9

This is not a sermon; this is simply my study notes as I have been engaging with the Biblical text today. Hopefully they might be useful to other preachers as we meditate on scripture in preparation for next Sunday.

Text (NRSV)

2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’. 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Mark begins with a time reference: ‘six days later’. This is six days after Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, after Jesus’ first prediction of his suffering and death, and after his call to his followers to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him.

Is there more to it than that? The last thing Jesus says in the previous section is “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that kingdom of God has come with power” (9:1). Is Mark’s ‘six days later’ meant to connect this promise with the Transfiguration – that the ‘some standing here’ are Peter, James, and John, and this moment of Transfiguration was the time when they saw the Kingdom of God come with power? Some interpreters think so, but I’m not so sure. Verse 1 should not be read in isolation from what comes immediately before it: “Those who are ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels”. Whatever ‘coming in the glory of his Father with the holy angels’ means (and I don’t think that’s at all cut and dried; because in the light of Daniel 7:13-14 it could just as easily refer to the Ascension as to the ‘Second Coming’), I think it’s the most likely referral for the Kingdom of God coming with power.

Pheme Perkins points out the links between this passage and the previous one:

The Christological emphases of the previous episode are repeated in the transfiguration story. Jesus’ status as Messiah is confirmed by the divine testimony that he is God’s beloved Son (8:29, 9:7, 14:61); the predicted glory of the coming Son of Man (8:38) is anticipated by the shining white garments of Jesus (9:3). Finally, the disciples were instructed to tell no one that Jesus was the Messiah (8:30), and now those who witness the transfiguration are to tell no one until the Son of Man has risen (9:9).

No doubt the entire conversation with Jesus in 8:31 – 9:1 is still uppermost in the minds of the disciples, like a dark truth on the edge of their consciousness that they are trying to ignore but that just won’t go away. Peter has already tried to talk Jesus out of it once, and has gotten himself royally chewed up as a result (‘Get behind me, Satan!’). Perhaps he and the other disciples are thinking, “Why does he believe he has to do ‘undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed’? The mission is going well; crowds are growing, and before long we’ll be in a good position to claim the throne”. But of course this is all speculation; we can’t really know exactly what was on their minds, beyond what the text actually says.

The Old Testament overtones are clear here. Going up a high mountain is a very Old Testament way of meeting God. Moses met God on Mount Sinai and received the Law there; Elijah also made the desert journey to Mount Sinai to meet God. Now Jesus takes three disciples up a high mountain, and there Moses and Elijah appear to them. Moses is the great lawgiver of Israel, and Elijah is the first and greatest of the prophets; it is as if Jesus is meeting, not only with two of the greatest heroes of his people, but also with the embodiment of ‘the Law and the Prophets’, the phrase used so often to describe the Scriptures. ‘The presence of Moses and Elijah reminds us that the death and resurrection of Jesus are the goal of the story of God’s salvation in the Law and the Prophets’ (Pheme Perkins).

Jesus’ clothes become dazzling white just as Moses’ face was transformed when he met the Lord on Mount Sinai. ‘The dazzling white clothing signals heavenly rather than earthly beings (Daniel 7:9, 12:3)’ (Pheme Perkins). A cloud comes down on the mountain, just as it did when Yahweh descended to Mount Sinai to give the Law, and when Solomon dedicated the Temple; the cloud is one of the symbols of the presence of Yahweh.

Peter, James and John often appear as a kind of inner circle of Jesus: they witnessed the healing of Jairus’ daughter (5:37), and they will also witness the agony in Gethsemane (14:33). However, they aren’t exactly shining examples of insight or faithfulness.

Peter has already been castigated for rejecting the necessity of suffering (8:33). James and John will soon show themselves as preoccupied with greatness rather than service (10:35-37). All three will fail to watch with Jesus during the agony in the garden (14:33-41). These failures become all the more striking because the divine voices has instructed them to listen to the Son (9:7), an allusion to Deuteronomy 18:15 (‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him’). Jesus is the promised Mosaic prophet. (Pheme Perkins)

Mark gives us no details of when this event took place, although it has traditionally been assumed that it was at night. Were Peter and James and John woken from their sleep by the dazzling light of the Transfiguration and by the appearance of Moses and Elijah? I note that the text says nothing about Moses and Elijah being similarly ‘transfigured’. At any rate, Peter just says the first thing that comes into his head: ‘Rabbi, it’s good for us to be here! Let’s make three tents – one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’. Mark explains that Peter didn’t know what to say, because they were all terrified – which we can well understand, as these two revered figures from the past stand with Jesus in the dazzling light.

Tom Wright comments:

It’s easy enough (and they themselves must have known this) to dismiss such an experience as a hallucination, albeit a very odd one. Jewish scriptures and traditions tell of various events like this, when the veil of ordinariness that normally prevents us from seeing the ‘inside’ of a situation is drawn back, and a fuller reality is disclosed. Most of us don’t have experiences like this (nor did most early Christians, as far as we can tell); but unless we allow sceptics to bully us we should be free to affirm that this sort of thing has indeed happened to some people (usually completely unexpectedly), and that such people usually regard it as hugely important and life-changing.

The three watchers and others were of course terrified. Peter…blurts out the first thing that comes into his head, trying vaguely not only to prolong the moment but to hook it into one of the Jewish festivals. That wasn’t the point, but the sheer oddity of his bumbling suggestion is itself strong evidence of the story’s basic truth. Nobody inventing a tale like this would make up such a comic moment, lowering the tone of the occasion in such a fashion.

What went through the minds of the apostles? Up until now, what have they been assuming about their Master? That he is a prophet? That he is a wise spiritual teacher? Perhaps this is where they started. But Peter’s understanding of him has developed further, to the point that he has now confessed his faith that his Master is the Messiah, the king who is going to set Israel free.

But the Messiah, in Israelite belief at the time, was not a divine figure – he was a human king, a descendant of David. And I doubt if people conceived that the Messiah would be greater than his ancestor David (like many traditional societies, people in those days seemed to have the idea that the figures from the past were always greater!).

But now, as the cloud descended, the three disciples heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved – listen to him’ – a clear allusion to the voice at Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:11) and also, as Pheme Perkins points out, to the command to ‘listen’ the the prophet like Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15. If this command to ‘listen’ to God’s beloved Son is in response to Peter’s proposal to build three tents – in other words, to treat Jesus and Moses and Elijah as three equals – then it is a firm rejection of it. Moses and Elijah are honoured and revered figures from Israel’s history, but God never said of either of them, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved’. Jesus is unique, and the disciples must not succumb to the temptation of seeing him as just another religious figure, on the same level as all the others.

‘Listen to him’. Listen to him in general, or listen to something specific he has said? Possibly the latter – the prediction of his suffering and death that he has made six days before. Don’t listen to your rational arguments about why this is not a good idea, Peter – listen to what my Son has to say, because he’s speaking the truth. It is necessary for him to suffer and die. He knows what he’s talking about.

But also, listen to him as the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets. Jesus is the point in the story that they’ve been leading to. He fulfils the prophecies and interprets the Law as God’s anointed Son. He is greater than the ones who came before him – listen to him.

The final verse just gives us a fragment of the next paragraph, the discussion about Elijah and whether he should come first. Here in verse 9 I note that the disciples would have been very confused about Jesus’ reference to the resurrection because their Jewish belief saw the resurrection as something that would happen at the end of time to all the righteous, not in the middle of time to one young Jew. If they had to hold their tongues until the end, that would be a long wait! But no doubt they understood ‘after the fact’, which is why the story made it into the gospels at all!

‘As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead’. Lamar Williamson comments on the command to silence:

The command to silence (v.9) is the last and climactic case in which a Christological confession, whether by demons (3:11), by Peter (8:29), or by God himself (9:7) is to be kept secret. Only here is a time limit set: “Until the Son of Man (shall) have risen from the dead”. This detail offers a fundamental clue for understanding the entire series of commands to silence, or the so-called ‘Messianic secret’ theme. There is no way to rightly understand who Jesus is until one has seen him suffer, die, and rise again (emphasis mine).

Reflecting on the significance of this passage, Pheme Perkins has a telling comment:

Christians frequently think of the divinity of Jesus in terms of heavenly glory or the triumph of the Parousia without recognising the real presence of God on the cross. We tend to think that Jesus is most clearly Son of God in glory, not in suffering. This passage challenges us to revise our understanding of how God’s presence comes to the world.

In this way we are like the disciples who assumed that a true Messiah would give evidence of his identity by military victory over the enemies of Israel, and who struggled with Jesus’ sense of call to sacrifice on the cross (‘And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him’ – 8:32). Apparently we are often still tempted to forget the centrality of the cross in Jesus’ mission – probably because we would prefer to avoid its centrality in the call of disciples too – “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (8:34) – remembering that the call of the cross is not about suffering in general, but rather relates specifically to the call to follow Jesus faithfully and being willing to pay the price of suffering for that faithfulness.

Lamar Williamson sets the text in context of the other ‘Son of God’ confessions in Mark:

The first is the voice of God to Jesus himself at the baptism (1:9-11), in which Jesus’ identity as Son of God is established. In the second, the transfiguration, that identity is confirmed to an inner circle of three disciples, offering a parallel to Peter’s confession of Jesus as Christ, a counterpoint to the first passion prediction, and a foretaste of the Parousia announced in the verses immediately preceding. The last in the series is the crucifixion, a sort of reverse transfiguration, in which the sight of Jesus dying in utter abandonment to the will of God wrings from the lips of a Roman army officer the confession, “Truly this man was the Son of God”.

The first of these is full of radiant promise, the last a witness to steadfastness in despair, and the middle one – the present text – combined glory (vv.2-8) and suffering (vv.9-13, especially verse 12) to present the paradox of divine power and weakness, lowliness and majesty, in the person of Jesus Christ. Israel’s Messiah and Son of God is the suffering and dying Son of man. For those who have eyes to see, his very suffering in steadfast obedience to the will of God is a mark of God’s own glory; but that glory can only be understood by resurrection faith, and it will become evident to all only at the Parousia of the Son of man. In the transfiguration, then, Jesus is revealed as Son of God, the one in whom is manifested simultaneously the splendour and lowliness of God.

Tom Wright adds:

It isn’t a revelation of Jesus’ divinity; if it were, that would make Moses and Elijah divine too, which Mark certainly doesn’t want us to think… Rather, as the similar experiences of mystics in various cultures and ages would suggest, this is a sign of Jesus being entirely caught up with, bathed in, the love, power and kingdom of God, so that it transforms his whole being with light, in the way that music transforms words that are sung. This is the sign that Jesus is not just indulging in fantasies about God’s kingdom, but that he is speaking and doing the truth. It’s the sign that he is indeed the true prophet, the true Messiah.

That, too, is what the heavenly voice is saying. Jesus is God’s special, beloved son. Elijah and Moses were vital in preparing the way; Jesus is finishing the job. Mark is happy for later Christian readers to hear, in the phrase ‘son of God’, fuller meanings than the disciples would have heard. For them, the primary meaning, as with the voice at the baptism, is that Jesus is Messiah. That’s enough to be going on with.


Pheme Perkins: ‘Mark’ in ‘The New Interpreter’s Bible’ (1995).

Lamar Williamson: ‘Mark’ in the ‘Interpretation’ commentary series (1983)

Tom Wright: ‘Mark for Everyone’ (2001)

Preliminary sermon thoughts on Mark 1:21-28

This is not a sermon; this is simply my study notes as I have been engaging with the Biblical text today. Hopefully they might be useful to other preachers as we meditate on scripture in preparation for next Sunday.

Text (NRSV)

21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ 26And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.



21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught.

Setting up the context here, Mark has begun his gospel by announcing that he is proclaiming to us ‘the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’ (v.1). ‘Good news’ to Jewish people recalls the prophecies of Isaiah 40-55 about God coming to rescue his people from exile, and to Romans it would be reminiscent of birth announcements of sons and heirs to the emperor. So Mark is telling a story of how God’s Son is coming to rescue God’s people from the power of evil and bring them home from their spiritual exile.

Mark then sets up the story of John the Baptist with a composite quote from Isaiah and Malachi (vv.2-3), and a brief account of his ministry (vv.4-8), culminating in the story of the baptism of Jesus (vv.9-11). His account of the temptation in the wilderness (vv.12-13) is brief and doesn’t go into the detail about the three temptations that we find in Matthew and Luke. Finally, in last week’s gospel we have the story of Jesus coming into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom, and calling people to repent and believe. He then calls fishermen to become his disciples – to ‘follow’ him – and promises to make them into the kind of people who can fish for people, and Andrew and Simon, James and John respond to this invitation.

Jesus now leads his disciples on their first ‘fishing expedition’ (or at least the first one that Mark has recorded) to the Galilean fishing village of Capernaum, and on the Sabbath day he goes to the synagogue. Jesus is a loyal worshipper of the God of Israel, not someone starting a new religion. Luke underlines that going to synagogue on the Sabbath was Jesus’ habit: ‘he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom’ (Luke 4:16). Jesus’ teaching may be ‘new…with authority’ (v.27), but he does not intend it to be a rebellion against his ancestral faith.

So he observes the Sabbath and he goes to worship with God’s people in the synagogue. The synagogue would have been ruled by a council of elders, whose job it would be to ensure that each week there would be someone to expound the scriptures and teach the people. We see an example of how this might work in the book of Acts during Paul and Barnabas’ visit to Antioch in Pisidia:

‘And on the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. After the reading of the law and the prophets, the officials of the synagogue sent them a message, saying, “Brothers, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, give it”’ (Acts 13:14-15).

Presumably something similar has happened here in the Capernaum synagogue; perhaps Jesus has been called on to read the appointed scripture passages of the day (as is definitely the case in Nazareth in Luke 4), and then after the reading is finished he begins to teach from the text he has read.


22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

‘ “Authority” can mean either the right or the power to do something, or both. Although Jesus’ teaching was undoubtedly powerful, his right to speak is underscored by the contrast between his teaching and that of the scribes. They taught with erudition, but Jesus taught with authority. Jesus interprets the Scripture as one who has the right to say what it means. Furthermore, his teaching has no need of external support, whether from Scripture or elsewhere; his word is self-authenticating, not like that of the scribes’. (Lamar Williamson)

‘Scribes quoted other rabbinic authorities and weighed traditional arguments but did not err on the side of originality. But Jesus is different, bold, dynamic, demanding, and exhilarating’ (R.T. France).

It was apparently the custom for rabbis and teachers to back up their teachings by citing numerous references (as I have just done [!], and as indeed is still the case in orthodox Judaism with discussions of the Talmud – ‘Rabbi so-and-so says such-and-such about this text; rabbi so-and-so disagrees’ and so on). Mark doesn’t describe exactly what he means when he says that Jesus taught them as one having authority, but we can perhaps safely assume that it means Jesus didn’t follow this custom. If he follows the pattern of the Sermon on the Mount, he is perhaps more likely to say, ‘You have heard that it was said… but I say to you…’ To some people this would be offensive; they would ask, ‘Who does he think he is?’ There’s no indication that Jesus went to any rabbinical schools, so there would have been some professional resentment on the part of the religious establishment as well.

‘Who does he think he is?’ is of course exactly the question that Mark wants us to ask; indeed, this seems to be the major question of the first half of his gospel, leading up to 8:27-30 when he asks his disciples who they think ‘the son of man’ is, and Peter responds ‘You are the Messiah’. If Jesus is not speaking and acting with the authority of God, he is an imposter and a charlatan; what mere human being, acting on his own authority, has the right to say ‘You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…’? In episode after episode Mark is going to show Jesus speaking and acting in ways that would have been considered outrageously provocative for a mere mortal, and each time the question is underlined in our minds: who is this?

23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ 26And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.

All of Jesus’ contemporaries would have accepted without question the existence of the devil and of lesser evil (‘unclean’) spirits. Indeed, the whole New Testament assumes this belief – that behind the evil in the world there is a powerful malevolent force, which is in rebellion against God and is determined to dominate human beings and use them for its evil purposes. Modern people (not so much post-modern people, I’m guessing) have rebelled against this idea, seeing it as a holdover from a pre-scientific, superstitious age. Modern interpreters are more likely to see the man as suffering from some sort of mental illness, and Jesus as somehow being able to reach into his tortured psyche and bring healing.

This is not my view; I think that if Jesus and his apostles accepted the existence and power of the unclean spirits, then I have no reason to disbelieve. Furthermore, I’ve seen enough in my own pastoral experience to know that, as Hamlet puts it, ‘There is more to this world, Horatio, than is dreamt in your philosophy’. Interestingly enough, at least one modern psychiatrist agrees. Dr. Scott Peck, in his book The People of the Lie, fully accepts the traditional belief in evil forces and even in exorcism, and defends this belief from the point of view of a clinical psychiatrist.

However, even if we follow the path of modern interpretation, what happens here is truly amazing. Most psychiatrists, dealing with mental illnesses such as MPD or schizophrenia, have to spend long hours in counselling sessions over periods of months and years, often with the help of the appropriate drugs, to even begin to heal these troubled souls. Jesus simply speaks a word of power, the man goes into convulsions, and then is at peace. Significantly, Mark does not use the learned term for a seizure in verse 26. Hippocrates or Aristotle might have used the Greek word epilepsia (whose literal meaning is simply ‘a seizure’), but Mark attributes the man’s convulsion to the work of the unclean spirit, and so uses a different word, sparaxan, which is variously translated as ‘convulsed’ (RSV/NRSV, and NEB/REB/NJB similar), ‘shook the man violently’ (NIV 2011), ‘shook the man hard’ (TEV), and ‘thrown into convulsions’ (Strong’s).

‘In this story we notice how the spirit immediately recognizes Jesus as someone special, “The Holy One of God”, and assumes that his arrival spells disaster for the powers of evil (notice the ‘us’), and how Jesus needs no elaborate ritual or magical formulae (as other exorcists usually did), but dismisses the spirit with an almost contemptuous “Shut up and get out!” No wonder people were astonished, and Jesus’ fame began to spread’. (R.T. France)

Understandably, the people are amazed and wonder who this can possibly be. The unclean spirit, however, is not in doubt: “I know who you are – the Holy One of God”.

‘ “Holy One of God” is what the unclean spirit, speaking through the man, calls Jesus. The term can be understood in a weak sense as describing God’s representative (see Psalm 106:16, 2 Kings 4:9 and ‘God’s Holy Messenger at Mark 1:24 TEV) or in a strong sense as affirming Jesus’ unique relationship to God (see John 6:69, Acts 3:14, 4:27,30, Revelation 3:7). This is one of many examples of two-level communication in Mark. Without defining his nature of precise relationship to God, the demons recognize Jesus and tremble (James 2:19). Readers, however, are expected to remember the title of the Gospel and to understand that this Holy One of God is Christ, the Son of God (1:1)’. (Lamar Williamson)

The question of the unclean spirit, ‘Have you come to destroy us?’ (v.24), is a telling one. The healings and exorcisms of Jesus are not just arbitrary acts, nor are they simply acts of compassion done for the sick and suffering. If Jesus had been motivated solely by compassion, then surely he would have healed every sick and suffering person in Galilee. Jesus is proclaiming the kingdom of God by his words and his actions. When God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done on earth as in heaven, there will be no more sickness, no more suffering, no more people troubled by forces of evil and unclean spirits. The kingdom has come in Jesus, but it has not yet arrived in all its fullness. His healings and exorcisms are signs of the kingdom, assurances that when it arrives in all its fullness the power of evil will indeed be destroyed forever.


27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

Modern readers of this passage tend to fixate on the question of the existence of evil spirits and the so-called ‘magical’ elements of the text. Ancient readers would not have done so – to them, there was no doubt that these spirits existed. To them, the emphasis would have been on the authority of Jesus, and Mark emphasizes this by using the word exousia twice in the text. Jesus’ teaching is authoritative, and so is his encounter with the forces of evil. Indeed, in both cases it is the authority of his word – the word of teaching, and the word of command he speaks against the unclean spirit. I’m reminded of the Genesis story where God simply speaks a word and all things come into being, and of Isaiah 55 where God says,

10 For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

God’s word makes things happen, and Mark wants to show us that Jesus’ word has the same effect. I’m also reminded of the prologue to John’s Gospel where Jesus is seen as the Word of God incarnate.

R.T. France has a telling comment: 

‘For most Christians in the Western world today the idea of possession by a personal force of evil, and of the expulsion of a demon, leaving the “host” changed and restored to normality, sounds at best exotic and at worst decidedly suspect. They would much rather not know about it. But there are times even in glossy western society when the reality of spiritual evil cannot be ignored, and in some other parts of the world witchcraft, voodoo, and the occult are part of daily experience. In Jesus’ world, and for Mark, the demonic dimension was as real as the divine, and a Messiah who left the forces of evil unchallenged would be of little interest. There is no sphere of life that falls outside his extraordinary authority; there is no predicament into which people may fall from which he cannot rescue them’.

People are tired of religious chatter, but in Jesus they see something different – words of power and authority. The message spreads, and people want to hear and see more from this amazing man. 

Sometimes preachers jump immediately from this text to the modern church and say ‘We should be like Jesus – we should speak with authority and we should be able to cast out the forces of evil with a word as he did’. There usually follows an invitation to the modern church to feel guilty and inadequate, and the preacher’s idea about how we can recover the authority of true apostolic ministry.

However, this is somewhat arrogant and betrays a misunderstanding of our proper relationship to Jesus. He is the one who can speak and act on his own authority as Son of God; we are not! We are in a similar position to the scribes; we are ‘dependant on a prior authority and responsible to a scriptural tradition’ (Williamson), and we deceive our hearers (not to mention ourselves!) if we try to pretend this is not the case. 

It’s true, of course, that later in the gospel Jesus gives his apostles the same authority to cast out unclean spirits (i.e. it’s not in them inherently; it comes from him). But that’s not the point at this stage in the gospel story. The point at this stage is precisely that Jesus is doing in this passage what no other man could do. Whether or not he has the right (and of course this would be a matter of opinion for his hearers) he is speaking directly with the authority of God rather than appealing to human authorities to back up his views. But just as people are asking themselves who he thinks he is, he shows by his confrontation and victory over evil that this is not just impotent talk – he has real power, power of the sort his hearers have never seen before. 

Mark is painting us a picture of the strong Son of God, God’s anointed king, who is boldly walking into a world full of lies and evil, speaking the truth and setting people free. He can do things no one else can do, because he isn’t just like anyone else. The unclean spirit speaks the truth: this is the Holy One of God, God’s anointed servant, the Son of God himself. This isn’t just another religious philosopher giving us timeless religious wisdom on the same level as the others who came before and after him. What is happening in Jesus is unique, and the further Mark gets on with his story, the more we’re going to realise that we are called on to give some sort of response to this man. Who do we think he is? And what are we going to do about it?


R.T. France: ‘Mark’ (‘Doubleday Bible Commentary’/’The People’s Bible Commentary’ [1998])

Pheme Perkins, ‘Mark’ (‘New Interpreter’s Bible’ [1995])
Lamar Williamson, ‘Mark’ (‘Interpretation’ series, [1983]).
Tom Wright: ‘Mark for Everyone’ (2001)

Preliminary sermon reflections on Mark 1.14-20

Note that this is not a sermon; this is just my preliminary thought son the gospel passage for this coming Sunday. I still have to check the commentaries and then actually prepare a sermon.

What does it say? (NRSV)

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’

16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

What does it mean?
This passage comes in the middle of the first chapter of Mark, and the first phrase links it to what has come before, as almost everything up until now has been related to the story of John the Baptist.

Mark began with explaining to the readers what he was up to: ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’. He then described the ministry of John, setting it up first with quotes from Malachi and Isaiah (vv.2-3), and then talking about his baptizing ministry and a sample of his proclamation (vv.4-8). The story continues with Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan (vv.9-11) and then his temptations in the wilderness which followed immediately afterwards (vv.12-13).

The chronological gap between verses 13 and 14 is uncertain, but it almost sounds as if the arrest of John was the signal for Jesus to begin his own unique ministry.

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’

The natural sense of the verses is that after Jesus’ baptism and his forty days in the wilderness, he remained in the south, in the area of Judea, until he heard that John had been arrested. He then travelled north to Galilee and began his preaching ministry.

Mark gives us a summary of his preaching. First, it is ‘the good news of God’. Jewish people hearing Mark’s words would think of Isaiah:

Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings;
Lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
Lift it up, do not fear;
Say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” (Isaiah 40:9)

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your Gods reigns”.
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
together they sing for joy,
for in plain sight they see the return of Yahweh to Zion.
Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem.
Yahweh has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations;
And all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God. (Isaiah 52:7-10)

These passages are set in the context of Yahweh rescuing his people from Babylonian exile and bringing them home to their own land again. The good news concerns salvation, which in the Old Testament is almost always a military concept: Yahweh saves his people from their enemies. So Jewish people hearing Mark’s announcement of ‘good news’ would immediately think of God acting in a dramatic way to rescue his people from evil and restore them to ‘shalom’.

Romans, on the other hand, were used to hearing this word ‘good news’ used in the context of royal birth announcements. ‘Good news! A son has been born to the divine Augustus’! This was an announcement that ushered in a new future for the empire (and, of course, not everyone would hear it as good news!!!!).

So, putting these two senses together, we could say that Mark is proclaiming to us the good news that in Jesus God has acted to bring about a new future for the world, in which he has rescued his people from the kingdom of evil and sin and restored us to ‘shalom’, through the life and ministry of his Son.

Mark summarizes Jesus’ proclamation in a very Jewish fashion: ‘The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has come near’ (v.15). This refers back to the Old Testament understanding of the day of the Lord, and promises such as Isaiah 2:1-5, 11:1-9 and the many other Old Testament references to God intervening to save his people, bring the reign of evil to an end, and establish peace and justice for his people (in most passages) and for other peoples also (in some passages). ‘The Kingdom of God’ of course is not a territorial kingdom; ‘basilea’ actually refers to the ‘reign’ or ‘rule’ of God; God is about to establish his saving rule all over the world. Jesus explains later on in his ministry how he understands the kingdom when he teaches us to pray ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’. The second half of the phrase explains the first: when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, then God’s kingdom has come.

Has the kingdom come, or is it still coming? The RSV has ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand’. The NRSV changes that slightly to ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near’. NIV 2011 is similar: ‘The time has come…the kingdom of God has come near’. The REB is more dramatic and immediate: ‘The time has arrived; the kingdom of God is upon you’. The New Jerusalem Bible has ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is close at hand’. The two halves of the sentence seem to be in tension with each other: the time has come, but it has not quite come yet. The kingdom of God is near, but not quite here – although the REB/NEB tradition could be understood to mean that it has arrived (‘is upon you’). The general consensus, however, seems to be that the arrival of the kingdom is very, very near.

The response people are called to is ‘repent and believe in the good news’. ‘The good news’ is of course the good news of the kingdom which Jesus has just proclaimed. ‘Repent’ in Greek comes from ‘metanoia’ which means ‘to think again’ or ‘to change your mind’ – in other words, to see the world differently, with the change of life that this involves. To see the world in the light of the Kingdom of God will lead to a different worldview and a different way of life. No doubt Jesus’ hearers would have heard echoes of John the Baptist’s preaching here; John came ‘proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’, says Mark (1:4), and Matthew expands this into a form which is very close to the words of Jesus: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’ (Matthew 3:2).

Having summarized Jesus’ proclamation, Mark then goes on to tell the story of the call of the first disciples:

16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

The way Mark tells this story gives the impression that this is the first time Jesus has met these people. Luke and John both have different chronologies; Luke has the synagogue story (Mark 1:21-39) before the call of Peter (see Luke 4:31 – 5:11), and of course the call of Peter is set in the context of the miraculous catch of fish. John, of course, has a completely different story, with Andrew and Philip (?) being pointed to Jesus by John the Baptist, and Andrew then bringing Simon Peter his brother to Jesus. It is not always easy to see how these stories can be reconciled, but perhaps we can say, first, that we should not set much store by the chronologies of any of the gospels, as the writers have more important priorities than telling the stories in chronological order, and second, in the light of the other gospels it is reasonable to suppose that there has been previous contact between Jesus and the four disciples mentioned in Mark’s account here.

All the gospels agree that the first disciples of Jesus were commercial fishermen. They made their living by going out at night onto the Lake (or ‘Sea’) of Galilee (or Tiberias), fishing with casting nets. In the morning they would come to shore, clean their nets, and then rest in preparation for the next night’s work. The detail about Simon and Andrew casting the net into the sea during the daytime would be unusual, I think, as this usually happened at night.

Jesus’ call to them is illustrated by their livelihood: ‘Come after me, and I will make you to become fishermen of men’ (literal translation); KJV ‘Follow me and I will make you fishers of men’ (RSV ‘I will make you become fishers of men’) is very close to the Greek; NIV 2011 ‘Come, follow me, and I will send you out to fish for people’ has missed the idea that Jesus will transform them into those who will fish for people – in other words, he won’t only send them out to do it, he will also make them into the kind of people who can do it. So discipleship and evangelism are intimately connected with each other (although euangellion ‘announcing good news’ is not used here, the idea is obviously present, as the whole passage is set in the context of Jesus’ proclamation of the good news).

So the early disciples are called to ‘Come after me’ or ‘follow me’, which to them is a very literal thing: ‘And immediately they left their nets and followed him’. Jesus was not calling them to carry on with their old way of life but just become a little more religious; he was calling them to leave the old life behind and commit themselves to travelling with him. In this context he would teach them the new life of the kingdom, but also, as an integral part of this, he would teach them to bring others into the kingdom as well. The two parts of this call are intimately connected with each other, and evangelism is obviously not an optional extra.

What does it mean for us?
The call to become followers of Jesus always takes place in the context of a gospel proclamation: in other words, good news comes before good advice. The good news of the kingdom of God is about the power of God and the love of God working together in the world to change things, and to do for humanity what we could not do for ourselves. Nowadays we talk about working to spread the kingdom of God, but the gospels never use this sort of language. To the gospel writers, the kingdom of God is something that God does; we can choose to align ourselves with it, or to reject it, but we cannot make it happen. It is a gift of God: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).

Jesus’ words in the Lord’s Prayer are a helpful reminder to us of what the Kingdom is about: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’. That is what God is about: restoring the world to his just and loving intention for it. Jesus believed that God was doing this primarily through his own ministry; his life, death and resurrection are the means by which God has established his Kingdom. A primary feature of that kingdom, according to the gospels, is its upside down nature – the first are last and the last first, the poor are exalted and the rich are sent empty away, sinners are welcomed and forgiven and the self-righteous disqualify themselves. Grace, in other words, is at the centre of the kingdom of God, because the gospel tells us of a God who loves his enemies, and Jesus lives this out.

We’re called to ‘repent’ – to think again, to see the world in the light of God’s loving rule. The last word is not the word spoken by presidents and tyrants and CEOs, but the word of God coming to us in Jesus, telling us that love (for God and others) is the central issue of our lives. So our prayer as disciples is that Jesus would teach us to see life as God sees it, and to live life according to God’s will. And because he is the Son of God, Jesus will be our supreme interpreter of what the will of God looks like.

Finally, this new life in God’s kingdom will always issue in mission, and this mission is not just loving actions (although this is important) but also what an earlier generation would have called ‘soul-winning’. The drawback of this sort of language is that the ‘soul’ was understood as some interior, non-material part of us, but if ‘soul’ is understood at the OT understands it, as the whole person (‘then Yahweh God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living nephesh [soul]’ – Genesis 2:7), then this is entirely right. Discipleship is not an exercise in self-absorption; it includes participation in God’s mission to make new disciples for the Kingdom. All disciples of Jesus are called to participate in this mission.

That’s it for now; time to hit the commentaries for more insights.