Is God Still Working in the World?
Explore the Bible Series
December 27, 2009
Background Passage: Mark 3:7-6:6a
Lesson Passage: Mark 4:14-36
Our lesson writer, Dr. Geno Robinson, raises a critically important question, ďIs God still working in the world?Ē† I just finished re-reading a fascinating book, There Is a God, by former atheist Anthony Flew.† For more than fifty years Flew was the best known atheist in the world, after the death of Bertrand Russell; however, in 2004, Flew changed his mind.† He did not embrace Christianity, but he now believes in an Infinite Mind that created the universe.
Flew still has reservations about ďrevealed religionĒ, but he asked two Christians, Roy Abraham Varghese and N.T. Wright, to provide helpful appendices to There Is a God, addendums that espouse Godís imminent involvement with creation.† At this point, Flew holds to a view best described as Deism, a belief in a powerful, creative God who, nonetheless, remains distant and, in a sense, aloof from his creation.† While I applaud the insight and courage of Flew, his current view falls short of the claims of historic Christianity.† God, according to the Bible, interacts with and sustains the universe, and no event affirms this claim more clearly than the Incarnation.† In Christ, God entered history.
The Christian world-view is not without its problems.† I cite several questions that believers must face honestly.
1. The presence of unspeakable evil in the world: How do Christians cope with the historical reality of the NAZI Holocaust or the genocidal events in Rwanda and Darfur?† If God remains active in his world, how can he allow the suffering of terminally ill children or the martyrdom of sainted people?† This is not, in my judgment, a trivial question easily dismissed by pious platitudes.
2. The problem of prayer: Surely most of us have experienced the troubling consequences of ďunansweredĒ prayer.† Some years ago I developed a deep friendship with a pastor friend who deeply longed for revival.† For almost thirty years he faithfully pastored a church here in Texas, and he earnestly prayed for a great move of the Holy Spirit.† I have never known a more holy man of prayer and devotion to the Scriptures.† In his sixties, the church terminated this beloved friend, and some of his deacons filed charges with the IRS against this godly man.† He spent the rest of his life fighting these false charges, and eventually he was, of course, exonerated.† However, the charges broke his heart, and he died, shortly after his termination, a heartbroken man.† Needless to say, my friend never saw the revival he so deeply sought.† How could God not grant this manís request for revival?
3. The problem of the power of the gospel: I have, to this point, lived my entire life in a pastorís family, and, as a result, I have a keen interest in the religious trends of this country.† Moreover, I am a working historian, and I have some specialization in American Religious History (I teach a Junior/Senior level course, on this topic, at the University of Texas at Dallas, each summer).† My studies have convinced me that the gospel has been marginalized in many churches in the United States.† Indeed, my observation of many broadcast ďpreachersĒ persuades me that the proclamation of the good news plays a very minor role in the daily ministry of these thriving congregations.† Furthermore, many faithful gospel preachers labor in relative anonymity and in difficult circumstances.† Any honest observer has to wonder why God seems to ďblessĒ where the gospel is preached the least, and faithful ministers of the gospel seem to see so little fruit for their labors. Again, this is not an inconsequential issue.
I donít have easy answers to these questions, and, truthfully, these issues trouble me; however, when doubts arise, I must re-examine the claims of the Bible.† This lesson clearly affirms the imminence and compassion of the Lord, and I know of no better way to counter the dark clouds of doubt than to seek the light of Scripture.†
I. Jesusí Interactions with the Crowds (3:7-12): The Gospel of Mark highlights the Lordís intimate involvement with people, especially the poor, oppressed, and broken. These crowds may not have sought Jesus for the right motives, but he compassionately ministered to them nevertheless.
A. The attraction of great crowds (vv. 7-8): The Lordís fame spread quickly over the region, and people came from Galilee, Judea, Idumea (region to the southwest of the Dead Sea), and Phoenicia (coastal region dominated by two large, ancient cities, Tyre and Sidon). Apparently these people sought Jesus because of reports about his healing prowess (they heard what he was doing).
B. Accommodation to the crowds (vv. 9-10): The hordes pressed Jesus, and he asked his disciples to have a boat ready so he could relieve the stress from the crowd.† Jesus used a boat, in this manner, on other occasions.
C. Jesusí ministry to the crowds (vv. 11-12): Like before, Jesus healed the sick and cast out demons, evil spirits that the Lord silenced before the crowds.
II. The Appointing of the Twelve (3:13-19 and Luke 6:12-16): Mark was not interested in identifying the location of the mountain; rather, he centered attention on the extension of Jesusí ministry through the Twelve.† Here again, we observe the Lordís interaction with humankind and the expansion of the Lordís work through human instrumentality.† Surprisingly, the Gospel of Mark gives very little information about most of these men; indeed, most of them remain shadowy figures throughout the text.
A. Simon Peter: A fisherman from Capernaum, Peter became a leader among the apostles. He owned a home in Capernaum, and enjoyed a fishing partnership with three other disciples, including his brother Andrew.† The New Testament ascribes a prominent role to Peter in the formation of the Early Church.† Two books of the New Testament are attributed to Peterís authorship, and he engaged in extensive missionary work.† Church tradition holds that Peter died in Rome during the persecution of Caesar Nero (c. 65 A.D.).
B. James: This man was part of Jesusí inner circle of disciples.† With Peter, he ran a fishing operation on the Sea of Galilee.† Jesus nicknamed James and John ďsons of thunderĒ, perhaps as a reflection of their thunderous personalities.† Herod Agrippa executed James; thus, he became the first Christian martyr (c. 44 A.D., see Acts 12:2).
C. John: The brother of James and business partner of Peter and Andrew, John played an important role in the life of the primitive church.† He was present at the crucifixion of Jesus, and the Lord entrusted Mary to Johnís care (See John 19:26-27). The Early Church attributed five New Testament books to Johannine authorship: The Gospel of John, the three Epistles of John, and the Revelation. Church tradition claims that John lived to a very old age, in Ephesus, where he spent much of his life opposing an early form of Gnosticism.
D. Andrew: The brother of Peter, Andrew also had an important place in Jesusí earthly ministry.† His name is mentioned only once in the Book of Acts, and we know little about his life after Pentecost.
E. Philip: He grew up in Bethsaida, in Galilee, and he brought his friend Nathaniel to Jesus.
F. Bartholomew: Some think this is the Nathaniel from John 1:43-51.† It appears that Bartholomew is a nickname meaning ďSon of Talmei.Ē
G. Matthew: Also named Levi, this disciple was a tax-collector, and he may have been the brother of James the son of Alpheus, and one of the women at the cross may have been the mother of James and Matthew.† Church tradition claims that Matthew evangelized in Egypt where he suffered martyrdom.
H. Thomas: The New Testament identifies Thomas as a twin, but we know nothing of his family background.† Sadly, we know Thomas best for his expression of doubt in the aftermath of Jesusí resurrection (See John 20:25).
I. James the son of Alpheus: This manís name appears only in the list of disciples, and we know very little about his life.
J. Thaddeus: This disciple apparently also went by the name Judas Lebbaeus.
K. Simon the Canaanean: Simon probably belonged to a radical nationalistic group that violently opposed the occupation of the Romans.
L. Judas Iscariot: Judas came from the village of Kerioth, and he served as treasurer of the apostolic band. †The Bible indicates that he was a thief and the betrayer of Jesus.
III. Conflict Over Exorcism (3:20-35 and Matthew 12:22-37): This paragraph, again, emphasizes Godís interaction with the world.† Much of Jesusí ministry focused on direct conflict with the forces of the unseen, evil realm.
A. The accusation of Jesusí relatives (vv. 20-21): Only Mark records this story of the unfortunate allegation made by Jesus kinsmen.† Jesus returned to Nazareth, and, while there, he encountered his concerned family.† They, no doubt, heard the reports about Jesusí activities, and they concluded that he had some psychiatric affliction.†
B. The accusation of the scribes (vv. 22-30): In the midst of the familyís appeal to Jesus, scribes, sent from Jerusalem, accused Jesus of demon possession. Furthermore, the scribes claimed that Jesus used satanic power to cast out demons.† The Lord, of course, pointed out the absurdity of their indictment; then, he made an accusation of his own.† These men stood dangerously close to committing a sin for which there is no forgiveness, the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.† The passage makes clear the nature of this sin.† It centers on attributing the works of Jesus to the power of Satan.† No one can commit this sin inadvertently.† It is a willful, deliberate attribution of Godís work to the powers of evil (v. 30 makes this very clear).†
C. Jesus intimate relationship to his followers (vv. 31-35): In contrast to Jesusí unbelieving family and the accusations of the scribes, the Lord, in these verses, highlighted the compassionate and tender relationship he enjoyed with his disciples. This bond, Jesus said, was deeper than family ties.
IV. Jesusí Use of Parables (4:1-34, Matthew 13:1-32, and Luke 8:5-18):† These simple stories reflect the Lordís intimate knowledge of the mundane activities of human life, activities that would little concern a distant, aloof deity.
A. The Parable of the Sower (vv. 1-20): Jesus told the story; then, he explained the purpose of parables and the meaning of this particular tale. This parable focuses not so much on the sower as the soils. The farmer sows seed, and the grain falls on one of four kinds of soil.
1. The pathway: In Jesusí day there were very few decent roads.† Of course, foot traffic hardened ground and pathways emerged.† The pedestrian traffic made it impossible for plants to grow.† Hearts may become hard and impenetrable to the gospel, and the seed of the word has no opportunity to grow and bear fruit.
2. The shallow soil: Strata of rock rest just below the surface of some soil.† It gives the appearance of fruitfulness, but the ground doesnít have the depth to support a crop.† The soil produces an initial germination of the seed, but, in time, the plants cannot take root.† This soil represents those who initially respond favorably to the gospel, but their profession of faith has no stamina.
3. The tainted soil:† Some soil is infested with weeds, and the good crops cannot grow because the weeds choke the fruitful plants.† This soil represents the distracted soul, the person who allows the concerns of the world to strangle attentiveness to eternal issues.
4. The good soil: Some soil is deep and fertile.† It receives the seed and brings forth a bountiful harvest. Jesus concluded this parable with an assurance that gospel sowers, while experiencing times of disappointment, could expect a bountiful harvest for their labors. In the midst of this parable, Jesus explained the purpose of these stories (See vv. 10-13).† He intended the parables to illuminate the gospel for those who believe and conceal the truth from those, like the accusing scribes, who refused to embrace the good news.†
B. The Parable of the Lamp (vv. 21-25): Ancient peasants used primitive oil lamps to illumine their homes.† The light from the lampís flame became, for Jesus, a parable for the gospel.† No one would buy a lamp and then hide it under a basket or bed.† Jesus came to bring light to a dark world.† The light does not come all at once; rather, it comes progressively to those who seek it.† The Lord grants additional light to those who live in the light they have already received.
C. The Parable of the Growing Seed (vv. 26-29): This parable highlights the Lordís sovereignty over the success of the gospel.† The farmer plants the seed, but he cannot produce a crop.† Only God can give life to the seed and harvest to the farmer.
D. The Parable of the Mustard Seed (vv. 30-34): This story is Christological; that is, it reflects the glory of the Lord Jesus.† Like a tiny mustard seed, Jesus came into the world, seemingly small and unimportant.† However, in time, the ďseedĒ grew to maturity, a large and impressive plant where many birds could take refuge.† The reference to the birds may indicate the universal nature of the gospel.
V. Jesusí Involvement with Suffering People (4:35-6:6, Matthew 8:18-9:26, and Luke 8:22-56)
A. Ministry to the fearful (4:35-41): After a busy day of teaching and healing, Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee with his disciples.† A violent storm enveloped the boat, and the Twelve feared they would perish in the tempest. Jesus, in contrast, slept on a cushion while the disciples struggled against the wind and waves.† Eventually, driven by desperation, the disciples awakened Jesus and rebuked him for sleeping in the midst of the storm.† The Lord stilled the storm with a single rebuke of the sea, and questioned the disciples about their unbelief.† This passage underscores Godís power over the elements.
B. Ministry to the oppressed (5:1-20): Jesus and the disciples entered the Tans-Jordan region called Decapolis, and they immediately encountered a violent demoniac.† Citizens of the area tried to restrain the poor man, but their efforts failed.† The demoniac, bereft of his own personality, lived in a cemetery and injured himself with sharp stones.† He approached Jesus and sought help, but the demons resisted leaving the man.† After a brief conversation with the evil spirits, Jesus cast the demons out of the man and allowed them to enter a herd of pigs.† The demons immediately killed the pigs by drowning.† The herdsmen went to a nearby city and reported the events they had observed.† The citizens of the city came to the city of the exorcism and saw the former demoniac sitting and in his right mind.† They marveled at Jesusí power, but, motivated by fear and unbelief, they asked Jesus to leave their region. These Gentiles apparently valued pigs more than men.† The former demoniac wanted to go with Jesus, but the Lord encouraged him to stay home and bear witness to the power of the gospel.
C. The healing of the woman with an issue of blood and or the daughter of Jairus (5:21-43, Matthew 9:18-26, Luke 8:40-56): After returning to Galilee, Jesus encountered a desperate man.† Jairus, the ruler of a local synagogue, had a critically ill daughter, and he asked Jesus to heal the little girl.† The Lord agreed, but as the procession made its way to the home of Jairus, a crowd hindered their journey.† In the throng, a woman approached Jesus, a woman with a debilitating gynecological problem.† She had bled for twelve years without effective help from the many physicians she consulted.† Her menstruation rendered her ceremonially unclean; thus, she could not have relations with her husband (if she was married), socialize with friends, or worship in the synagogue or Temple.† She touched the Lordís garment, and her act of faith brought healing.† Jesus sensed that power had gone from him, and he turned to affirm the womanís faith.† As Jesus spoke to the woman, a messenger delivered the news that Jairusí daughter had died, but the Lord comforted the grieving father, and the Lord, going in to the little girl, raised her from the dead.
D. The rejection of the Nazarenes (6:1-6): Jesus returned to Nazareth, his hometown, and he spoke to the worshippers at the synagogue.† These Sabbath observers marveled at the authority of his words, but their amazement did not produce saving faith.† They, of course, knew Jesusí vacation and his family, and they could not understand how a man of such humble circumstances could speak so profoundly and perform such remarkable miracles. Their unbelief stunned Jesus, and he only did a few miracles among them, from that point.