Writing in the 90’s, Garland’s word choice is oddly poignant for today. Commenting on chapter one of Mark He notes the particular way Jesus healed a leper. He touched him then heal him. Jesus was willing to touch the leper as a show of his compassion before he displayed his power. Such compassion should encouraging the church to embody the same courageous virtue in our world. Garland writes:

“Humans are psychosomatic beings, and healing involves mind, body, emotions, and spirit. These first miracles reveal that Jesus embodies God’s mercy and purpose to take away the diseases, infirmities, and sins of the people. The leper pleads: “If you are willing, you can make me clean” (1:40). Reaching out to touch one who was branded untouchable by religion and society dispels any doubts about Jesus’ willingness. The leper does not have to convince him that he is even worth the effort. This man with his disease does not horrify Jesus. His “power to cleanse is thus demonstrably greater than the power of the leprosy to contaminate.” But touching, hands-on contact, makes us vulnerable. In Jesus’ day, the concern was impurity; in our day, the concern is contagion.(p.87)

The miracles in this section also reveal that Jesus is not someone who is aloof, inaccessible, or detached. Our culture does not touch, and many people live in isolation from others. We seal ourselves off from one another with our privacy fences and retreat to the inner sanctum of the family room. The church is sometimes in danger of doing the same by retreating to its members-only, fully equipped Family Life Center, which becomes a safe cocoon from contact with the harsh realities of a disease-ridden, sin-sick world. We want others quarantined from us so that they will not infect us. But those who bear the name of Christ need to minister in the name of their Lord to those who are the untouchables in our society.”(p.88)

 Ask yourself what act of compassion is God calling you too?


All quotes from David E. Garland, Mark. NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996. Page number after the quote.


In preparation to write the Mark study I found a commentary that quickly became my favorite. It is part of the NIV Application Commentary series published by Zondervan. The Mark commentary was written by New Testament scholar David E. Garland. It was published back in 1996 but the work still remains widely relevant. The scholarly level of the work is on point but it is Garland’s savage and witty writing style that I love. His ability to turn a phrase and be thought provoking at the same time, is wonderful. It is as if a ninja and a pirate had a child and that child when too seminary. There was so much material I left out I thought I would give you a taste of his pen. Below are a few choice quotes from the opening chapters of Mark on Discipleship. Below Garland writes on the call of disciples from chapter one highlighting the radical nature of discipleship in Mark.

“Unlike John the Baptizer, Jesus does not wait for people to come to him at some chosen site. He takes the initiative by seeking out followers with the command, “You! Come, follow me!” He does not put up a sign-up sheet (like church softball) asking for volunteers (“Messiah: Interested in a few good men and women”) or post office hours when he will be available to discuss the kingdom of God with those who might be curious. The disciples also do not join him as a pupil might select a rabbi to learn the law and absorb his religious wisdom. Jesus selects his disciples, not vice versa (1:16–20; 2:14; 3:13–14, “those he wanted”). One can conclude from this that becoming a disciple of Jesus is more of a gift than an achievement.” (p.83-84)

“The call and the instant response of these fishermen reveal something of what discipleship to Jesus entails and should shatter our comfortable world of middle-class discipleship. Disciples are not those who simply fill pews at worship, fill out pledge cards, attend an occasional Bible study, and offer to help out in the work of the church now and then. They are not merely eavesdroppers and onlookers. When one is hooked by Jesus, one’s whole life and purpose in life are transformed.”(p.84)

“Discipleship in Mark is not part-time volunteer work on one’s own terms and convenience. One must be prepared to leave everything to follow him. Simon and Andrew turn from their nets; James and John turn from their father and their boat…They had to leave the securities, even their livelihoods, no matter how meager or substantial they were, for something new and unpredictable. The call to discipleship comes as an unreasonable, scandalous demand. It seems too risky, and for those who respond, too reckless. These first disciples are not given time even to transfer whatever equity they have or to put it in trust. Few would make the radical commitment these first disciples made, and most would hope that Jesus might offer a less rigorous category of auxiliary discipleship, which would promise the same rewards while allowing one to continue the pursuit of money and success. “(p.84)

Discipleship in Mark is not about mastering theoretical ideas; it is about mission, a common mission with Jesus (6:7, 30). The disciples in Mark learn on the way with Jesus what discipleship entails. It is on the way that they encounter the power of his miracles and that they learn about suffering (8:27; 9:33–34; 10:32). They are going to be fishers of people, who will be sent out on mission (6:7–13). Just as they cannot drop a sign into the lake announcing “Fish wanted! Please enter net!” and expect much success, so it is with humans. They may not retreat to the safety of the harbor but must go on a voyage into the deep and turbulent waters and cast their nets widely.”(p.86)

“In 1:35–37, the disciples appear more interested in action than prayer. Here Jesus is shown praying before going into action. Busy ministers probably can easily identify with Jesus here. The demands of ministry and church members frequently interrupt study and prayer, and they are tempted to spring into action before preparing their hearts and minds before God. The worst thing that can happen is for them to be temporarily successful because they can delude themselves into thinking that prayer and study are dispensable extras in ministry. The same can be said for the busy parent desperately trying to keep up with hectic family schedules..” (p.86)

From, David E. Garland, Mark. NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.



We are back looking at some of the more provocative thoughts from David Garland's commentary on the Gospel of Mark. Garland in discussing Jesus’ authority contrasts Jesus' response to his authoritative teaching and the obsession with spiritual authority in church leadership notes a common disconnect. First, Garland points out that in Mark Jesus avoided publicity but never people.

“Jesus’ concern to avoid publicity should give us pause. Unlike modern politicians and pop stars, whose survival depends on their remaining in the public eye, Jesus does not hustle to increase his name recognition. In our day, the miracles might make the headlines for a few weeks, but then interest would probably flag as people hanker after something new and more sensational. Jesus’ mission is not to provide sound bites and fresh sensations for the eleven o’clock news each night. He is not after personal glory that will deflect credit from God (see 2:12; 5:19; 10:18). He wants to avoid the adoration of a crowd that is without understanding and personal commitment….”(p.83)

In the opening scene of chapter one we see a theme emerges that remains for the whole of the book. Right out of the gate Jesus displays his miraculous power. The crowd marvels at his authoritative teaching. The theme of Jesus’ authority is a key theme for Mark. Garland notes a few examples from Mark's opening chapters (taken from page 87)

  • Jesus have authority as a teacher (1:21–22);
  • Jesus also has authority
    • over the Sabbath (2:27–28),
    • over forgiveness of sins (2:5–12),
    • over unclean spirits (3:19–27),
    • over nature (4:35–41; 6:45–52),
    • over the law (7:1–13, 14–20),
    • over the temple (11:12–33; 12:1–12),
    • over the mystery of the kingdom of God, which he gives to others (4:10–11).

Through the rest of chapter one, Jesus continues to show his authority in powerful ways. Her heals Peter’s mother-in-law, a leper, and a paralyzed man. These events show not just his authority but also his compassion and willingness to be Near to the hurting and broken. It make clear that Jesus is not an inaccessible authority. Jesus is clearly a compassionate accessible healer. Garland makes observation on modern leadership.

“Many today in Christian leadership crave for the same thing to be said of them as was said about Jesus—he or she speaks with authority. They aspire to winning a pliant crowd of devoted followers who bow to their every word. Recent history reminds us how religious leaders can stake a claim to authority and hoodwink the credulous, distraught, and disenfranchised. It is easy for all but a handful to recognize the crackpots who tragically brainwash their followers with their authoritarian ranting and raving, arm them to the teeth, and engage in sexual promiscuity. But what about those who would speak authoritatively within more traditional churches and denominations? They announce: “This is my unanimous decision. I know this is the will of God. Is there any discussion?”(p.87)

Garland then turns to makes application to this common predicament by way of a few questions to evaluate leaders. Questions I find to rather useful and insightful. Garland states: (I've adapted the quote into a list)

To evaluate religious leaders today, we must judge them by the standard of Jesus.

  • Do they share his aversion to publicity and acclaim?
  • Do they want to receive credit for all that happens?
  • Are they primarily interested in a power grab, in building empires for themselves, and in serving their own needs?
  • Do they truly speak in the name of the Lord from sincere motives?
  • Are they accessible to those in need, not just the wealthy and influential but those from the margins of society? (p.87)

One concluding note on using these questions. They may be more helpful as a self diagnostic for leaders to conduct on themselves. Caution should be used in assessing others from a distance. It is always dangerous to make snap judgments about people especially leaders when it comes to their motives. We live in a culture that feeds on such judgements. Whole ministry platforms have been built on such judgments. Such questions help us when we are in a place that hearts can be discerned humbly and situations seen holistically. Otherwise we’re just being jerks, with a hand full of questions and often a name to make for ourselves. Essentially doing the exact same thing as the ones we point and scoff at are doing.

Note:  All quotes from David E. Garland, Mark. NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996. Page number after the quote.


Jesus’ Approach to Discipleship

The theme of discipleship is all over Mark. Mark teaches his readers about discipleship in three ways. 1.) recounting Jesus’s teaching on the subject, 2.) narrating different accounts in which Jesus invites various individuals to follow him. 3.) retelling the example of Christ. Jesus’ style of life reveals the content of discipleship. What discipleship demands, Jesus himself lived out. Jesus’ followers are to reflect his character, especially in self-denying, cross-bearing discipleship (8:34–38). Jesus knew the cost and yet denied himself in order to fulfill God's will (14:36, 39). Our Lord modeled in every way what we are to be and do. He serves in humility without regard to self, and even in suffering so too must his disciples (10:42–45; 8:34). In Mark, discipleship looks like an apprentice relationship with Jesus. Two observations of Jesus' discipleship method in Mark.

(1.) An apprentice is called to be with a master so that they may hear, see and follow the way of the master. An apprentice spends his days helping the master in the skill the apprentice wants to learn. Mark draws a straight line between the ministry of Jesus and that of his disciples, expressing a causal relationship between the two. In short, they are to be with Jesus. As Jesus is with the Father, so his disciples are to be with him (3:13). Discipleship is associated with, if not defined by, simply being with Jesus (3:13, 3:34; 4:10). It is life on life discipleship within the community Jesus was forming around himself. The disciples were to be hearing him (4:1–20), and following him “on the way” (1:16–20; 10:52). The simple but all-important act of hearing and following Jesus in apprenticeship precedes the disciples' complete understanding of him. Thus, being with Him was more important than disciples' complete understanding of him.

(2.) An apprentice learns a skill by learning to be like the master of the skill. In doing what the master does with the masters helpful insight often after a failure, the apprentice gains the experience necessary to skillfully do the job before him. An apprentice does the stuff before they fully know what they are doing. The disciples are shown to possess a lack of understanding, yet this does not compromise their discipleship. In spite of it, Jesus empowers the disciples to undertake his own ministry of proclamation and power over the forces of evil (3:14; 6:7–13). Jesus is willing to let them do the stuff so that they may learn from their mistakes as well as from their successes. This creates an atmosphere of trial and error learning that promotes skillful learning of a task rather than just proficiency in a task. Jesus was making Christians (christ-like people), not just informing them on a subject matter. Jesus‘ willingness to send them out on mission even while they lacked understanding and even though they showed hardness of heart (8:14–26) gives evidence of the apprentice model.

What Jesus has to teach can only be taught in an apprentice relationship, which necessitates the disciples' being with him, learning to do the stuff, more than their full understanding of him. Jesus knew the understanding would come. He would even oversee the implementation of that understanding himself for 40 days after the resurrection. The closing words to Albert Schweitzer’s monumental work The Quest of the Historical Jesus is indicative of Mark's view of discipleship.

“He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake- side, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfill in our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.” (1)


(1) Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (trans. W. Montgomery; New York: Macmillan, 1950), 403.


To get at the Cost of Discipleship in Mark we will look at a few texts in Mark. First Mark 1:16-20 and we will key in on verse 17 and Second Mark 8:34-38.

Mark 1:16-20 has much to teach us about discipleship. Jesus gives a command, and a promise that inform what is meant by discipleship in Mark. A key verse on this issue is, Mark 1:17 “And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.”

Discipleship is a Divine Call on our Lives.
Jesus gives a command to follow. “Follow me” is not a suggestion but a command. The calling of these first disciples shows that one must not only repent and believe the gospel (1:15) but also follow Jesus. The calling is an act of grace that also exerts an enormous demand. The command to follow for these disciples explodes their everyday world, for the call is ultimately, as Bonhoeffer accurately noted, “a call to come and die”.

Discipleship is ultimately Christ’s work in us. “I will make you”
In his call he gives a promises, “I will make you”. Jesus is the one who will mold them act according to his purposes. They will not make themselves. Also, we are not inactive for, effort is not opposed to grace. Grace is opposed to merit. We see this also in the fact that before Jesus issues any ethical instructions, Jesus proclaims the necessity of repentance, faith, and following him (1:14–20). Mark uses the order intentionally, he wants to make it clear that any ethical progress, any character development, any good thing in us, is the result of and not the requirement for, a relationship with Jesus. Radical obedience is an outworking of one’s relationship with God. Our ethical obedience is grounded in the nearness of the kingdom of God. He makes us. It is not up to us to make ourselves and thus win his acceptance and approval. He already gives his acceptance and from such a relationship we seek to gratefully do what's right.

In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes it clear: While God's grace is always bestowed freely, it is never bestowed cheaply. Bonhoeffer writes,

"Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our church ...Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian 'conception' of God ... Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner ... Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession ... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate." (Pp. 45-47)

Bonhoeffer would have us know, grace is free, but it's anything but cheap. It comes at the price of God's only begotten son, and it leads us to surrender our lives to God in gratitude and faithful obedience. Bonhoeffer calls this, "costly grace." He writes,

"Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field, for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price for which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him." (P. 47)

God's grace is a free gift, but it costs our rebel's heart, its autonomous freedom. Nowhere is this stated more clearly than in chapter 8 of Mark. Mark makes this cost most clearly at the end of chapter 8.

Three observations from Mark 8:34-38

1. A disciple of Jesus will personally relive what Jesus did.

2. This will mean the disciple is to live a life of self-renunciation. In classical theology, What is asked of a Christian in Mark 8:34, the command to come and die, is often referred to as self-renunciation.

3. The whole of 8:34-38 makes a chiasm with the disciple giving up control over the safety and security of their life in order to follow Christ. The text expresses self-renunciation in all its aspects and shades of meaning.

A. You must die to self 8:34-37

B. You must die to the self-centered life. 8:34

C. You must die to the safe life. 8:35

B. You must die to the self-serving life. 8:36-37

A. You must declare the Son. 8:38

What Christianity calls self-renunciation involves precisely a double-danger. The purely human conception of self-renunciation is this: give up your selfish desires, longings, and plans – and then you will become appreciated and honored and loved as a righteous person. The Christian conception of self-renunciation, however, is to give up your selfish desires and longings, give up your arbitrary plans and purposes – and then submit to being treated as a criminal, scorned and ridiculed for this very reason. Christian self-renunciation knows in advance that this will happen and chooses it freely. It does not let the Christian get by at half-price.  - Søren Kierkegaard

Do we want to end the era of cheep grace in the church?
Do we want a dead church or a church dying to live?

J. Heinrich Arnold summarizes the choice before the church today.

It is important for us to decide whether we want only a nice church with Jesus as its king or the way of the cross. - J. Heinrich Arnold











Mark teaches his readers about discipleship in two ways. First way is by recounting Jesus's general teaching on the subject. Including Mark’s choice of examples that illustrate discipleship for his readers. He retells different accounts in which Jesus invites various individuals to follow him and their response. The second way is by narrating how Jesus disciples people. We look at the overall approach Jesus takes in disciplining others, highlighting how Jesus interacted with his disciples in Mark. These interactions reveal Jesus’ method of discipleship.

In this blog we will look at the first of the two ways. Mark teaches about discipleship. But first a few general point on discipleship in Mark.

A. General Character of discipleship in Mark

    1. Just as God earlier had called Israel to reflect his character, so too must Jesus’ followers reflect his character, especially in self-denying, cross-bearing discipleship (8:34–38).
    2. Impurity is not a like a biological contagion. It follows that purity is not a social badge of honor. Holiness is a matter of the heart (7:15–23) and is expressed particularly in love of God—and thus love of Jesus—and in how we treat others (9:35–10:16; cf. 12:30–31).
    3. Jesus’ followers must be prepared to face the same kind of rejection he experienced.

B. The general Logic of obligation in Mark

    1. If Jesus is A Ransom for Sinners, then we have been bought with a price.
    2. If the Gospel of Mark is about who Jesus is, it is also about who we are and his claim on our lives. His claim is total. Here is how Jesus put it in 8:34: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

I. Jesus’ teaching on discipleship in Mark

A special connection exists between the cross and discipleship in Mark. It can been seen in the way Mark connects Jesus’ passion predictions to discipleship. In light of this, special attention should be to the times Jesus teaching on discipleship arise from Jesus’ predictions of his passion. The passages are Mark 8:34–9:1; 9:35–10:31; 10:42–45.

The clearest example Jesus teaching in this a issue is found in 8:34–38. Here the general invitation to follow Jesus is extended to “anyone” (note the reference to the crowd in 8:34a) and involves three requirements: 1.) denying oneself, 2.) taking up one's cross, and 3.) following Jesus.

1.) The first involves not just denying oneself of things, such as giving up something for a season, but denying oneself as the determiner of one's goals and purposes in life. It is to deny mastery over one's life and ambitions and place oneself under the lordship of Jesus. That this involves denying various things is evident from the examples of Jesus and of those who chose or chose not to follow him but these “things” are simply the consequences of denying oneself. Denying oneself refers to an initial act of commitment (an aorist imperative). It is a negative command involving an inner decision, and it functions much like the command to repent (1:4, 15; 6:12). At it’s core, Self denial implies renouncing self-rule, no longer making oneself the center of one’s life and actions. This requires an essential reorientation of life in which God is at the center.

2.) “to take up one's cross,” is a figurative expression. Mark understands this as giving a specific example of what “denying oneself” might entail. Mark’s Gospel is not generically portraying hardship in life. Rather, it portrays a condemned man carrying His cross to the execution site, as Jesus did. To “take up one's cross” recalls Jesus denying himself (14:36–39) and committing himself to fulfill God's will even to death (8:35; 13:12–13). For Jesus's hearers, Mark's readers, and present-day readers, the figurative nature of this expression was/is self-evident. The command does not require actual martyrdom for all who choose to follow Jesus. Luke makes this clear by adding “daily” to this command (9:23). The expression refers rather to a total commitment to follow Jesus that accepts even the possibility of martyrdom.

3.) In contrast to other two requirements, the command “to follow Jesus” is a present imperative and refers to a continuing action. This expression is a popular one in Mark to describe being a Christian, or “follower” of Jesus (1:18; 2:14–15; 9:38; 10:21, 28, 52; 15:41). It emphasizes outward, continual actions and refers to the living out of Jesus's teachings and example. We live out a particular style of life as we follow Jesus in community with others following Jesus.

This cross centered style of life involves

    • loving God with one's entire being and loving one's neighbor as one loves oneself (12:29–31),
    • becoming a servant/slave of others (9:35; 10:43–44),
    • keeping the commandments (10:19)
    • following Jesus above even one's love and commitment to family (9:29; cf. Matt. 10:37–38/Luke 14:26–27 and note that loving Jesus more than one's family is followed immediately by a reference to taking up one's cross),
    • having faith (Mark 1:15; 2:5; 4:40; 5:36; 9:42; 11:22),
    • praying (11:24; 14:38),
    • confessing Jesus and not denying or being ashamed of him (8:38),
    • removing any stumbling block from one's life, even if it's a life long struggle (9:43–47).

II. Examples

1.) Mark also reveals what discipleship consists of through various examples. These examples show us how this style of life is expressed in the ambiguity and uncertainty of real life. Marks gives both positive and negative examples making for a well rounded picture.

A.) The greatest example is Jesus. What discipleship demands, Jesus himself lived out. From the beginning he was aware of his forthcoming passion and denied himself in order to fulfill God's will (14:36, 39). He modeled a life of prayer (1:35; 6:46; 14:32–39) and served as the supreme example of what it means to be a servant of all (10:43–44) by giving his life as a ransom for many (10:45).

B.) The disciples also modeled what discipleship involves by denying themselves, by their leaving their “nets” or livelihood (1:18) and family (1:20;10:28–30). Despite their many failures in Mark they continued to follow and it is in the simple determination to continue to follow through it all that they demonstrate what it means to follow Jesus. They follow not perfectly or triumphantly but step by step by the grace of God. For this group, faith developed slowly, even laboriously, by repeatedly hearing, receiving, and finally bearing fruit (4:10–20). The disciples only see ‘in part’ but still they press in for a second touch. And, like the blind man at Bethsaida, they too begin to see clearly, but only out of the sustained interaction and repeated “touch” of Jesus (8:14–26).

C.) Negative examples

      1. The story of the rich man provides an important example of what it means to deny oneself. Here Jesus points out that entering the kingdom of God involves denying oneself and that, for the rich man, this requires that he sell whatever he has, give it to the poor, and follow Jesus (10:21). Unwilling to do this, he provides a negative example of what not denying oneself involves (10:22) and its consequences (10:22–25; cf. 8:36–37).
      2. The disciples also are shown as negative examples. They lack of understanding is a mark of chapters 1-8. The disciples shown to be self-seeking as they seek personal greatness, advantage over others, and places of honor (9:32-34; 10:35-45). They know little to nothing but want power and position. At Jesus’ lowest point the three closest to Jesus sleep while he prays (14:32-42). the disciples avoid persecution as all abandon Jesus (14:50-52).
      3. Peter is a negative example. Peter lacks sound self-awareness. He is unaware of his own shortcomings as well as the dangers of his impulsive tendency (14:29-31). Peter lack of introspection fully blossoms in him doing what he claimed he could never do. He denies Jesus three times (14:66-72).

Eduard Schweizer explains that the disciples' failure never affected Jesus gracious response:

“So man's continued inability to understand is contrasted with Jesus' promise to go before them and accomplish what human hearts cannot do; despite every failure he would call the disciples again to discipleship and would encounter them in a way that would enable them to see him.”(1)

The point Schweizer gets at is as simple as it is profound. Even in all the disciples failures Jesus never failed them. Such a truth should bring our hearts to worship.


(1) Eduard Schweizer, The Good News according to Mark (trans. Donald H. Madvig; Atlanta: John Knox, 1970), 373






When I was young in the faith. I had the pleasure of being mentored by an evangelist, named Algernon Tenyson. Yes, He was my black old brother and I was his young tag-along (affectionately known as white chocolate). He taught me the simplicity of the Gospel and how to give the word with love and oil on it. This was reinforced by a little-C-Charismatic Methodist pastor who instructed me to go off by myself somewhere, in a room, in the woods, in an empty church and preach to myself, not so much to practice my oratory skills but to learn how to submit to, bend with and let God’s anointing guide me. I can say from experience the Spirit is faithful in such situations. Such “preaching” is more than passionately presenting truth, though that might be present. It is more than a clearly organized argument, and intellectually stimulating points though both should be present. It is more than an experience of the holy, though many wittiness to it. Of what I speak, rises above such externals for it is God's work in man’s words, unseen and untamable.

I have started an old book by "James S. Stewart" on preaching called the 'Heralds of God' (1946). The first chapter reminded me of the advice given me by both Algernon and My Methodist preacher friend:

Your task is not to send people away from church saying, 'That was a lovely sermon' or 'What an eloquent appeal!' The one question is 'Did they, or did they not, meet God today?' There will always be some who have no desire for that, some who rather than being confronted with the living Christ would actually prefer what G.K. Chesterton described as 'one solid and polished cataract of platitudes flowing for ever and ever.' But when Peter finished his first great sermon in Jerusalem, reported in the Book of Acts, I do not read that 'when they heard him they were intrigued by his eloquence' or 'politely interested in his literary allusions' or 'critical of his logic and his accent' or 'bored and impassive and contemptuous'; what I do read is 'when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart'[1]

We might ask, how would we know if we met God in preaching? Stewart points to the response at Pentecost. We might also look to Jesus in John 10 who tells us his sheep recognize his voice. If we meet God, hear his voice, we know if it's happened. And when it does it'll be something more than just hearing words spoken from a pulpit, though it may not be less.

Stewart tells of Robert Wodrow's testimony of such preaching: 'that man showed me the majesty of God... the loveliness of Christ... and showed me my whole heart' (p72-73). May God grant every pastor such a testimony in preaching. I wish to call pulpit and pew to recognize and delight in this mysterious dimension of preaching.

What happens beyond the hearing in the pew and the speaking in the pulpit? What happens when preaching happens? In the excellent lecture, "Preaching as Mystical Event", Robert Rayburn gives what i think is a definitive answer to that question. He explains the reformation understanding that through faithful preaching we most often and most powerfully hear the authoritative voice of God. Rayburn argues that today's preaching has forgotten this dimension. Rayburn is conservative and reformed so I am not encouraging some weird leave your bible at home, preaching. What Rayburn means by mystical is not ethereal fluff but the authority of God experienced in human word.

Jesus is describable in this way, as one who spoke with authority (Luke 4:32). In John 7 Jesus is preaching and soldiers coming to arrest him were arrested by his word and captive to his authority. Jesus' words had a deep magic to them. A mystical power that could stop a solder in his tracks. When confronted with their change of heart the soldiers replied, "No one ever spoke like this man!" Like the soldier's, it is an event in which we meet encourager a mysterious authority. By "Mystical" i mean to implies a kind of power or dare i say it magic. What C.S. Lewis called the "deep magic". If you have ever heard it you know it. Preaching that was clearly Gospel but laden with a "deep magic" beyond the words, an unseen, transcendent whisper, barely tangible yet deeply palpable.

Rayburn begins with:

"And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers."
(1 Thess 2:13 ESV)

Rayburn sites that the hearing of preaching is a mystical event. In that it transcends what one hears in a lecture or seminary exposition of a text even though style and content may be similar. In 1 Thess we read Paul's description of the Thessalonians approach to his ministry. They received his preaching like it was from God.

Paul did not say they rejected his word as the word of man. what does Paul mean by "accepted it not as the word of men"? Accepting a message as the word of man is not meant in a strictly negative way. You can except something as the word of man and still honor and respect it. It is accepting the authority of a good argument as man's invention. Accepting a message as the word of man means it does not carry with it the authority of Heaven that pierces the heart. Thus, a Gospel message can be accepted as biblical but not received without authority.

Accepting a message as the word of man is our fallen tenancy for we appoint and anoint ourselves as Judge and King. Let me clarify with an example: Do you have a BBQ every Sunday lunch? Many Christians do. Not BBQ pork, but BBQ preacher. As many race home for Sunday lunch they roast the Pastor's message for they act as if it was only a lecture about God. They pick it apart and only digest those things that appeal to them. Yes, it is a pull pork BBQ. Unlike the Thessalonians, they do not encounter God only good ideas for it was not received as the authoritative Word of God.

Along with countless historical and ecclesiastical references Rayburn also cites the book of Romans:

"How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?"
(Romans 10:14 ESV)

And notes, as with the ESV footnote, that the "of" isn't there. Which is to say, in preaching we don't just hear of God, but we hear God. Paul says if you want to hear God then you need a preacher to explain the Scripture and proclaim the gospel. Preaching in this manor is the word of God. This is not some Barthian theology of the Word. This is classic reformed theology. Here is how the second helvetic confession puts it:

"THE PREACHING OF THE WORD OF GOD IS THE WORD OF GOD. Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful.”

Some might say, such authority finds its locus in the true proclamation of the Gospel. The authority of the word is the power of the right interpretation preached. Truth plus proclamation equals powerful preaching. There is truth in that but when I speak of "preaching as a mystical event" I speak of the ministry of Word and Spirit in preaching to reveal Christ. It’s not a case of pulling Christ down through correct exegesis.  If we think like this we’re basically falling for an "ex opere operato"[2] of the pulpit. That is, the we (preachers) must not imagine that our correct priestly exercises ensure a divine encounter. The pulpit must never give in to the thought that we earn the ministry of the Spirit in preaching by our exegetical and homiletic craftsmanship. The pulpit must resist this – we must begin from above.  Illumination is grace.  It is Christ by the Spirit who chooses to condescend in proclamation (not we who bring Him down).  But in this divine condescension it is Christ Himself who encounters us.

Further, it is the sovereign and unrestricted Spirit, who is truly God and as God is free to do and help as he wills. The Spirit will bring the authority if we have the faith. God, the Spirit is illuminating and speaking Christ  to a believer through the preaching. A message of light and heart, the result of what my granddad called the unction, the anointing of the holy spirit in operation. In Power Through Prayer by E. M. Bounds writes on this operation:

“This divine unction is the one distinguishing feature that separates true gospel preaching from all other methods of presenting truth. It backs and interpenetrates the revealed truth with all the force of God. It illumines the Word and broadens and enrichens the intellect and empowers it to grasp and apprehend the Word. It qualifies the preacher’s heart, and brings it to that condition of tenderness, of purity, of force and light that are necessary to secure the highest results. This unction gives to the preacher liberty and enlargement of thought and soul—a freedom, fullness, and directness of utterance that can be secured by no other process.”

Some say, He is the Spirit of Truth and will not bless any falsehood, which is true if you speak of lies such as, "Christ is not God" or "The blood is not enough". For the Spirit to deal with humanity he must deal with less than perfection. The pulpit should seek faithful proclamation, clear and simple, yet if we err or misspeak, or in any other ways fail we are not left without hope or help. Man in his ignorance will dilute the pure truth of God but God in his grace has saved many though the diluted words of under-qualified unprepared preachers.  Sometime ignorant preaching can be empowered. I once knew a guy who had the gospel down but beyond that he had a loose grasp on the text yet you always felt like God had spoke to you after he preached. In our weakness, our ignorance, our humanness, it is the Spirit who protects the hearers and ministers. There is grace permeating the event of preaching. (exceptions and qualifiers do apply) [3]

There are to sides to this mystical aspect: the pew and the pulpit.

1.) A Heart of Faith in Preaching
As my dad taught me, The pulpit need to be prayed up, studied up, and filled up. So you can spend the the next thirty to forty-five mins, being broken and spilled out. we are called to rightly divide the word of truth, consistently pray for guidance and help. When it is time to preach, we should faithfully preach and preach with faith. It is the later that most stumble over. As I wrote above it’s not a case of pulling Christ down through correct exegesis.  If we think like this we’re basically falling into a works based assessment of the pulpit. That is, the pulpit must not imagine that our correct priestly exercises ensure a divine encounter. The pulpit must never believe we earn the ministry of the Spirit in preaching by our exegetical and homiletic craftsmanship. Thus, bad preaching can be used by God.

Preaching with faith means not putting any confidence in our ability nor trusting ones own skill and intellectual power to make the word effective. We should not believe we can by our action stop or mediate a divine encounter. The Holy Spirit's work is not conditioned on the grounds of our ability or limited by our inability. We are called as heralds of God to trust God to work. Trust that the preaching of the word of God is the Word of God because God loves people. Luther agrees:

“Tis a right excellent thing, that every honest pastor’s and preacher’s mouth is Christ’s mouth, and his word and forgiveness is Christ’s word and forgiveness… For the office is not the pastor’s or preacher’s but God’s; and the Word which he preacheth is likewise not the pastor’s and preacher’s but God’s.”[4]

Calvin also understand the authority of Word and Spirit:

“When a man has climbed up into the pulpit… it is [so] that God may speak to us by the mouth of a man.”[5]

God can speak in our preaching, if we only have faith He is willing and able. Many preachers trust homiletic skill or in there exegetical skill that they rightly interpreted the text. While both are good things and a part of any faithful preachers preparation it is not where we place our trust.

It all comes down to faith. So why is prayer so connected with powerful preaching? I use to think if I spent 10 hours praying for my sermon i would be blessed with a powerful anointing come Sunday. The connection between prayer and preaching is simply that prayer strengths your confidence in God and your dependence on the Spirit. Prayer strengths our trust and that is the important thing.

Something powerful happens when a man preaches with faith, desiring to Glorify God and believing God will use him because of who God is. When a man preaches with full confidence in God, it is as if he lights himself on fire. Often he decreases into ash and all that's left is the beautiful light of faith. A man awed by the glory of God and burned by it's heat can speak a whisper of Gospel truth and find the pews ablaze with holy tongues of fire. 

2.) The Right Hearing of Preaching
First, the pew must, "Take heed what you hear," (Mark 4:24). We must hear nothing with approval except what we know to be the word of God. We must, therefore, be well acquainted with the Scriptures ourselves, and test the things which we hear. we should remain open yet resisting a critical spirit and watch out for the hopelessness of a cynical attitude, as the men of Berea did (Acts 17:11).

Second, the pew should "Take heed how you hear," (Luke 18:18). That which we know to be grounded upon the Scriptures we must receive, "not as the word of men, but, as it is in truth, the word of God," (1 Thess. 2:13). We must with reverence hear it; we must in our hearts believe, if we intend to obey it.

Third, The pew needs to come with the expectation that they will hear from God. No more lectures only sermons. Every heart in every pew needs to wait and want the authority of heaven, the word of God  to be reveal God, the living God. No matter how a sermon is packaged, submitted heart and the Spirit's work makes bread from even the weakest straw. If the people's hearts cry "Preacher, We would here God!" Then even the words of the most cantankerous self-willed preacher may shine with the dew of heaven.

Now, do you want to hear from God? How many time have you felt like, the preacher was speaking right to you. After a sermon you felt like you had the strength to obey, the energy to endure, the clarity to trust and a heart renewed to worship, then you have touched on it. The hem of Jesus' garment has brushed your heart, power left him, and the word was spoken to you. As you pass the church doors into the wide open world your mind is calmed and centered on the simple fact that you met God.

The pew, needs to learn to open to hear God in the sermon. God is the authority. God's word changes us, transforms us in deep penetrating ways that are mysterious and transcendent, as the psalmist explained it is like deep calling to deep. God's word is proclaimed and we experience it mystically, spiritually, authoritatively. Now this is just one aspect of a sermon so let's have some balance but if such a thing has not happened to you in a while you may need to ask are you open. Could you be conditioned by so many lectures, anesthetized by power point that you come to church to hear about God and not from him.

Do you desire to hear from God? Certainly study the Bible, wait on the Spirit's conviction, listen to others, but we're playing games if we do all of that and don't take a really high view of preaching. Do I come to the church gathering expecting that kind of encounter with God? When it's my turn to preach do I prepare and pray and preach with the expectation that God will speak, that the preaching of the word of God will be the word of God to his people?







End Notes

[1] James S. Stewart 'Heralds of God' (1946) p.31

[2] Ex Opere Operato is a Latin phases meaning "by the doing it is done" or "from the work worked".  It is used in the Roman Catholic system of theology it deals with the sacraments which are said to convey grace by the fact of being performed correctly by an authorized priest. (http://carm.org/dictionary-ex-opere-operato)

[3]  I don't speak of the one who proclaims another Christ excluding the stiff necked heretic unwilling and undaunted.

[4] Quoted from CD I/1, p107

[5] Sermon XXII on 1 Tim 3:2 “apt to teach”, quoted in THL Parker, Calvin’s Preaching, Westminster/ John Knox, 1992, p24


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