A Narrative Outline of Mark

To adequately grasp the message of the Gospels, one must give careful attention to the flow of the narrative. However we understand the genre of the Gospels, they are narratives. Moreover, analyzing the movement of the narrative shows how the unity of the book as a coherent story. To that end, here is my attempt at a narrative outline of Mark’s Gospel:

 

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Most would agree that Mark wrote his Gospel with the dual purpose of introducing Jesus as Israel’s Messiah and encouraging discipleship to Jesus. With that in mind, I have divided the material into two main sections with an introduction, transition, and conclusion. The two major sections focus on answer the questions “who is Jesus?” and “what does it mean to follow him?”

The introduction anchors the story in the story of Israel. Thus Mark presents the story of Jesus as the continuation, and indeed, climax of the OT story. John the Baptist prepares the way for the return of Yahweh to Israel, thereby presenting Jesus as the embodied return of Yahweh.

Part 1 gives particular attention to the question of Jesus’s identity. Mark’s strategy is to tell the story vividly and leave the reader to ponder the issue. The story of Part 1 begins Jesus’s announcement of the kingdom’s arrival and then demonstrates Jesus as the kingdom-bringer through his authority over demons, sickness, nature, etc. Moreover, in his teaching, he is the prophet par excellence, perfectly bringing God’s Word.

Part 1 also draws attention to the meaning of discipleship as Jesus calls his followers to find a new identity in relationship with him. That is, as Part 1 defines Jesus’s identity through the narrative, Mark also invites readers to discover a new identity.

The short transitional passage in Mark 8:27-30 explicitly answers the question: Jesus is the Messiah. Of course, the multiplicity of messianic understandings in the first century demands that we read the entire Gospel in order to understand just what kind of Messiah Jesus is. And that’s just what we find in Part 2.

Part 2 defines the messianic mission of Jesus, beginning with a strong emphasis on his death and resurrection. The rest of Part 2 fills out the details of the mission with Jesus defeating the true enemy, beginning the restoration of God’s people, claiming authority over the temple and even replacing it, all leading up to the climatic moment of his death.

Thus Part 2 defines the messianic mission, focusing on the death and resurrection of Jesus as the means of restoring God’s people and bringing God’s blessing to the nations. In terms of discipleship, the call of Part 2 is for those who have found their identity in the Messiah to join his mission.

Finally, the abrupt ending of Mark fits beautifully with the movement of the narrative (I hold the majority position that the original ending is at verse 8). The question of mission is answered, through somewhat cryptically. Jesus brings restoration through resurrection. Mark is open-ended — the mission is to continue through Jesus’s followers. They are to live resurrection lives and bring the good news of Jesus to the world.

While Mark could be outlined in other ways, I think this narrative outline allows us to keep the focus on the both the message and the medium. The story invites us to participate in it: find our new identity in Christ and join him in his mission.

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Jesus the Storyteller

In recent years, scholars have applied the tools of literary criticism to the study of the New Testament. One important literary tool utilized is narrative criticism, the study of biblical narratives as narratives. That is, narrative criticism studies the various aspects of stories in the text: characters, plot, setting, etc. Within New Testament studies, the primary focus has been on the Gospels, though narrative features in Paul’s discourse are also recognized (more on this in another post).

In the Gospels, a primary feature of Jesus’s ministry was that of a teacher. One of his favorite teaching tools was the parable. Though this is true, many Christians misunderstand the parables or neglect them altogether. While there have been many scholarly and popular studies on the parables, few, have considered the narrative character of the parables. That is, the parables are not just pity statements, but they are stories. How might a narrative analysis of the parables aid our understanding? This is the focus of Stephen Wright’s recent study Jesus the Storyteller.

Wright begins the book with an assessment of the history of parable research. The parables have been used and abused in many ways. Some consider the parables within the Gospels to reflect vastly different beliefs and intentions than those of Jesus himself (Reimarus). Some see the parables as universal moral truths, the product of Jesus the moral teacher (Jülicher). Sometimes the historicity of the parables has been doubted (Wrede) while at other times heavy emphasis is placed on their apocalyptic outlook (Schweitzer). Along the way, the narrative character is often neglected.

Wright believes that to rightly understand the parables, a “two-level hearing” is required. First, they must be understood within the wider narratives of the Gospels. That is, it is essential to grasp the literary function of the parables within the stories of the Gospels. For Wright, this should not arouse doubt as to the historicity of the parables as stories told by Jesus. The authors of the Gospels no doubt shaped the parables to fit within their stories. This does not, however, imply that the Gospel writers changed the meaning of the parables such that they are unreliable records of Jesus’s own words. Rather, “the Evangelists preserve them [the parables] as ‘actions’ which play a crucial role in advancing their narratives” (44).

Chapters 4, 5, and 6 provide an analysis of the parables within Mark, Matthew, and Luke respectively. In my opinion, these short chapters provide an very helpful entryway into understanding the function of the parables within the Synoptics. Wright argues that the parables were strategically placed within each Gospel for particular purposes. In other words, these chapters aid students of the parables to avoid missing the Gospel forest for the parable trees. This is a helpful corrective as some parable studies have isolated individual parables and sought to understand them apart from their literary contexts.

Wright’s major contribution to parable studies, however, is found in the last 100 pages of the book in which he applies the tools of narrative criticism to the study of the parables. This constitutes the second-level hearing. Whatever the parables were, and many definitions have been offered, they are at least stories. Wright believes we should study them as such. Thus, the parables have characters, settings, plots, and points of view. Identifying these features helps us to “hear” the parables as they might originally have been heard.

For example, Wright examines the parable of the Sower (Matt 13:3-9; Mark 4:3-9; Luke 8:5-8) on pages 90-97. Instead of providing a verse-by-verse commentary, Wright walks through a narrative analysis of the parable. The benefits to such analysis lies in the clarity that it brings to the elements of the story Jesus told. Thus, understanding the setting of the original telling as recorded in the Gospels and of the story itself aids us in understanding the meaning of the story. Thus, Wright considers the importance of the land in Israel’s history and the symbolic power of seed imagery and harvest, all within the context of first century Jewish peasant society. Similar analysis of the characters, point of view, and plot are offered. All of this leads the reader to hear the power of the story: “it invites thought and encourages hope” (97).

One might quibble with some of Wright’s interpretations of individual parables. Indeed, I’m not fully convinced of a few his conclusions. Moreover, there are times in which I felt the historical analysis pushed a little too hard on the parable to the detriment of hearing the additional allegorical meanings. However, these minor points do not detract from the usefulness of this volume. Wright aids us in properly hearing the Master Storyteller.

Don’t Plant Marcionite Churches

New_Exodus_lowfIn his article “Can the Gospels Teach Us How to Read the Old Testament?”, Richard Hays charges that “many ‘main­stream’ Protestant churches are in fact naively Marcionite in their theology and practice: in their worship services they have no OT reading, or if the OT is read, it is rarely preached upon.” Of course, Hays is talking about churches in the West, especially in America. However, there is a related danger for missionaries: unwittingly planting Marcionite churches.

What does “Marcionite” mean?

Marcion was a second-century bishop who sought to erase all Jewishness from Christianity. Believing that God of the OT was a false God with no relation to Jesus, he rejected the entire OT and edited the New Testament writings to exclude those parts he deemed too Jewish. For example, he rejected the canonicity of Matthew and heavily edited Luke. For Marcion, the Apostles had misunderstood Jesus as the Jewish Messiah and this misunderstanding needed to be corrected.

The Church Fathers excommunicated Marcion and rejected his teachings as heresy. However, his influence was never totally eradicated, even to the present day.

How Do Missionaries Plant Marcionite Churches?

While no one plans to plant a church modeled after the teachings of a second-century heretic, it unfortunately still happens. I have observed some of these tendencies among my own students: there is a general lack of understanding of the OT and a conscious avoidance of preaching from it. Though churches believe the OT to be God’s inspired Word, it plays virtually no role in the life of the average church.

This happens for at least three reasons:

1. The biblical grand narrative is neglected.

The grand narrative of the Bible should play an important role in all stages of ministry, including evangelism, discipleship, and leadership training. Unfortunately, some gospel presentations move directly from Adam’s sin to the cross, skipping the vast majority of the biblical story (Israel’s story). When this happens, new believers can be conditioned from the beginning to think the OT is of little value.

2. Church planters and new believers lack training in biblical interpretation.

I am convinced that the most important skill to be taught to both a church planter and a new believer is biblical interpretation. Believers need to be able to read and interpret the Bible for themselves within their new community of faith. Unfortunately, training in interpretation is often missing from discipleship programs. I have seen many curricula that emphasize teaching new believers to share the gospel and rapidly plant new churches. Others teach the basics of “how to be a Christian” — how to pray, how to have a quiet time, etc. These are all good skills to have, but if biblical interpretation is missing, we stunt growth in new believers and churches. This often leads to focusing on one’s favorite passage to the neglect of others. And, the neglected parts are usually the OT.

3. New believers are not trained in biblical theology.

Related to the above point, discipleship programs and curricula often lack basic training in biblical theology. Instead, they include isolated lessons on individual topics. While these lessons may include solid biblical teaching, they lack the necessary biblical-theological foundation that leads to worldview transformation. New believers need a new worldview, a new narrative within which to live. When this happens, the OT is inevitably neglected in favor of discipleship lessons from the NT.

How Can We Avoid This?

As a New Testament scholar, I find this disturbing. Much of my work has focused on the use of the OT in the New and I try to bring this to the classroom. One of my primary goals is to help students understand the relationship between the Testaments, especially the way in which the NT must be understood in light of the Old. I find that many students ignore OT quotations and fail to recognize OT allusions in the NT. This is largely due to their lack of knowledge of the OT. The result: a functionally Marcionite church (and a very shallow understanding of the NT).

How do we avoid starting a MPM (Marcionite Planting Movement)?

1. Make biblical theology the foundation and heart of mission strategy.

The biblical story should drive all ministry, beginning with evangelism. The goal is not simply to “get people saved,” but to make disciples of King Jesus. Making disciples means helping people lay aside the false narratives that have shaped their lives for the one true narrative of the world. And, a significant part of this narrative is the OT story. The grand narrative needs a more prominent place in missions.

2. Teach biblical interpretation.

Christians need to be able to read and understand the Bible. We need to teach and model biblical interpretation as we disciple others. This means teaching them interpretation skills and then putting them into practice as we continue mentoring. Thus, instead of telling someone what they should believe, we walk with them through Scripture, allowing them to see the process and come to biblical conclusions. This process is undoubtedly more time-consuming, but it leads to long-lasting fruit.

Related to this, there is a need in theological education to emphasize the teaching of the biblical languages. Learning Hebrew and Greek leads to greater depth in exegetical study of the Scriptures, which should lead to growth among leaders and their churches.

3. Teach the Old Testament as Christian Scripture

Finally, the OT is Christian Scripture and must be taught as such. It is not merely the background for the NT. Nor is it primarily as collection of moral teachings. Rather, it is the story of God’s faithfulness to his covenant promises. This story provides a biblical worldview for those who follow Jesus as King. It must be learned, taught, obeyed, and indwelled in community.

Kingdom and Covenant, Part 8

Here’s the final installment of the biblical story…

The King Creates a New People

Jesus told his followers that his leaving earth to return to the Father was for their benefit. While this may seem confusing at first, it comes with a great promise. Jesus told his followers that when he left, the Holy Spirit would come. The presence of the Spirit is the presenfamily of godce of Jesus with his people. After Jesus’ ascension, the Holy Spirit came on Pentecost. This fulfilled the Old Testament promises and assured Jesus’ followers that he was with them and would give them the power to fulfill the mission.

The New Testament calls the church the people of God. It is not that God has forgotten about Israel. Rather, there is a new Israel that includes both Jews and Gentiles who believe in Jesus. The mark of the new covenant people is the Holy Spirit. All who believe in Jesus receive the Holy Spirit to dwell within them. The Holy Spirit unites the people of God to Jesus.

The Spirit puts the law of God into the hearts of God’s people and gives God’s people the ability to obey God. The New Testament, especially Paul’s writings, consistently refer to believers as those who are ‘in Christ.’ Those united to Christ are the new people of God. Thus, salvation in the New Testament is both individual and corporate. It is individual in that each member of the new covenant must repent of their sin and believe in Jesus. Each individual member is united to Christ. However, salvation is also corporate because God calls his people into a new community, a new family.

The King’s People Have a Mission

The New Testament gives further instructions about how to live as God’s people. The people of God are to be marked by holiness and mission. They are to be holy, set apart for God. They are not to live like those outside the covenant who continue in rebellion against God. In Christ, the image of God is being renewed in God’s people and they are to reflect this restoration in the way they live. Part of this holiness is to love one another. Unbelievers are to see the love God’s people share and see that this reflects the love of God for his people.humanity world

In addition to holiness, God’s people are to be marked by mission. Jesus commanded his followers to take the good news to the ends of the earth. They are to proclaim the glorious gospel to all peoples. Just as God commanded Adam to fill the earth with the image of God and commanded Israel to be a kingdom of priests, the church is to spread the good news and thus fill the earth with the glory of the gospel. The church in obedience to the great commission is begins to bring about the completion of God’s original intentions for humanity.

New Creation

Finally, the story of the Bible ends with new creation. Actually, this is not so much an ending as a new beginning, for the new creation is eternal. The New Testament teaches that one day Jesus will return to earth to complete the restoration of all things. This restoration is will be a new heaven and a new earth – a restored, new creation.

The new heaven and new earth resemble the garden of Eden in many ways, yet new creation will be better than the first creation. The new creation will be eternally without sin. In the new creation, the resurrected people of God will dwell with him forever. There will be no possibility of sin and corruption.

king-of-kingsThe return of Jesus will trigger a number of events. First, the people of God will be raised from the dead. While the Bible teaches that we are truly saved when we believe in Jesus, salvation is completed only when Jesus returns and raises our bodies from the dead. These will be new, glorified bodies fit for the new creation.

Second, the return of Jesus will also be a time of judgment. Jesus will judge all the enemies of God, beginning with Satan. When Jesus comes back, he will completely defeat Satan and send him to eternity in hell. All those who refuse to believe in Jesus will also be judged with their master, Satan.

Third, Jesus will complete the new creation, giving his people a new place in which to dwell together forever. This is the best promise of all. Jesus announces that at that time, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’

Thus, the restoration will be complete. The new creation will be far greater than anything we can possibly imagine. Everything that God intended and promised will be completed and he will be glorified by his people forever.

Jesus will give us face, create a new family, and give us the incredible blessings of God.

Kingdom and Covenant, Part 6

I have been unpacking the biblical story that I summarized in one sentence here. Today I continue with Part 6: The Covenant with David and the Exile…

The Covenant with David: The King Promises to Send the True King

A. David

king-davidDavid was a good and wise king, a ‘man after my own heart.’ God made a covenant with David that was intended to continue the previous covenant promises. God promised that someone from David’s family would reign as king forever. This covenant has many similarities to the covenant God made with Abraham and shows that the promised seed of Abraham would also come from the family of David. This seed of David would be the one to restore God’s blessing, God’s family, and give face to God’s people.While David was a great king, his reign also has the stain of sin. His sin would lead to problems in Israel that eventually led to the division of the kingdom after the reign of David’s son Solomon.

Therefore, after Solomon died, the one kingdom of Israel became the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah, each with their own kings. These kings were judged by God according to their faithfulness. Most of the kings were unfaithful. Yet, God remained faithful and continued to give his word to his people through his prophets.

B. Exile

Destruction_of_JerusalemBecause Israel and Judah were unfaithful to the covenant God made with them and
because they failed to fulfill their mission, God judged them through exile. Foreigners again invaded Israel, this time destroying the temple and taking the people away from their land. The land represented more than simply a place to live. It was the promised land, the land of safety and rest. In the exile, it was a land of destruction and punishment.

Despite all of this, God still remained faithful. He continued to send prophets to the people to proclaim his word. The prophet word normally contained two aspects: judgment and hope. The prophets made it very clear that the exile was a result of sin. God had not only allowed it to happen, but had order it as judgment against his people. Just like Adam and Eve, Israel was driven from their special place in shame because of their sin.

Kingdom and Covenant, Parts 3 and 4

As noted in the last two posts, I am unpacking the biblical story that I previously summarized in one sentence here. Parts 1 and 2 can be found here (part 1) and here (part 2). Today we continue with parts 3 and 4…

3. The Covenant with Noah: The King Renews His Purposes

After the shameful rebellion of Adam and Eve, sin and evil filled the world. God decided that a new beginning was in order. He destroyed the earth and everything in it with a flood. Yet, in his grace, he spared one family – the family of Noah.

Benjamin_West_-_Noah_Sacrificing_after_the_Deluge-450-webAfter the flood, God made a covenant – an agreement between a king and his people involving promises of blessings, as well as conditions – with Noah, his family, and the entire world. In this covenant, God blessed Noah and his family with the same blessings given to Adam and Eve at creation. People were again to be God’s special people. They were to fill the earth with more people made in God’s image. Though people rebelled, God remained faithful to his purposes for his created world.

4. The Covenant with Abraham: The King Makes a Promise

Though the covenant with Noah was a like a new beginning, it was not completely new. People continued in sinful rebellion against God. If the world was going to be restored, God would have to do something big.

God promised to do so when he called Abraham to leave his home, his family, and everything that was familiar to him to go to a new place that God show him. God also made big promises to Abraham.

These promises have clear connections to the blessings of creation. God promised to give Abraham a great family (nation), to give him face (great name), to bless him, and through him to bless all the people of the world. This is even more incredible when we consider the fact that when God called him, Abraham had no family of his own and was already an old man.

abrahamstarsThese promises were made sure through God’s covenant with Abraham. God promised to
restore his original purposes of creation through the family of Abraham. God promised that Abraham’s family would outnumber the stars of the sky. God would also give the land of Canaan to Abraham’s family. The promised seed coming to restore God’s people and God’s world would also come through the family of Abraham. Best of all, God promised to be the God of Abraham and his family.

The covenant promises were passed from Abraham to his son Isaac and to his grandson Jacob. Near the end of his life, Jacob moved his entire family to Egypt. In Egypt, Jacob’s family was given good land and began to increase in number.

 

Kingdom and Covenant, Part 2

As I mentioned last week, I am unpacking the biblical story that I summarized in one sentence here. Here’s Part 2 of the story:

Fall: The King’s People Rebel (Genesis 3)shame2

The glorious beginning is obviously not our experience today. Rather than enjoying life as
God’s children in the beautiful garden, Adam and Eve chose to rebel against their Father the King. An enemy of God crept into the garden and tempted them to disobey God’s word. Adam and Eve chose to listen to the voice of the creature rather than honoring their Father.

Instead of enjoying the honor given to them by God, Adam and Eve sought their own honor apart from God. The result was just the opposite – rather than obtaining their own honor, they brought shame upon themselves. Immediately they hid themselves in fear andshame. They began having problems with one another. Most significantly, their relationship with God was broken.

gen 3.15God responded to all of this in judgment and grace. God threw them out of the beautiful garden and they were forced to work hard for food. They would eventually die. Nevertheless, God was gracious to them. First, he promised that someone would come from the human family that would make all things right again. He would defeat God’s enemy forever and restore God’s people. This is the hope of all people. Second, God made clothes for them. Adam and Eve attempted to make their own clothing out of leaves, but these were worthless. God made new clothes out of animal skin. These clothes symbolize the covering of their sin and the restoration of honor. Just as a king places a special robe on his child, so God clothes his children with special robes, symbolizing that their position of honor has been partially restored. The full restoration awaits the coming one.

Kingdom and Covenant, Part 1

Some time ago, I posted my summary of the biblical story in one sentence. Over the next several posts, I will unpack the story with a little more depth. I am trying to keep the story at a manageable length so that it can be useful while unpacking some of the primary biblical themes. Here’s part 1:

Creation: The King Creates His Kingdom (Genesis 1-2)

CreationThe biblical story begins with the Creator-King creating his kingdom. The climax of the
story is the God’s creation of his people – Adam and Eve – who were made in the image of God. God especially blessed his people and provided everything for them – a beautiful garden filled with food; safety; and best of all, close personal relationship with him. God’s people lived in harmonious relationship with him. He was their father and they were his children. People were also in harmonious relationship with each other and with the world.

So, the King’s children lived in the King’s garden and everything was very good. People were also given a command and a mission. The mission was to fill the earth with more people made in the image of God and thereby flood the earth with little reflections of God’s glory. They were to rule God’s world under the authority of God. The command was to obey the word of God, which was given to them for their protection and joy.

eden paintingThus, people were given the highest honor by being created as the family of God. The first man and woman had no shame before God or each other. In fact, they were naked in the garden, yet felt no shame.

Israel’s Story and the Gospel

Is the story of Israel integral to the gospel?important part

This is an important question, particularly as it relates to the biblical gospel and to evangelism. Fortunately, biblical theology gives us a very clear answer to the question. In short, YES!

Israel’s story is essential to the biblical gospel. Nevertheless, this answer is perhaps less than self-evident to many people if judged by the place (or absence) of Israel’s story in most tracts and gospel presentations.

For example, the C2C Story is a popular evangelism tool used by many cross-cultural workers. While the approach makes use of a storying method, there are serious problems with the story, especially concerning the role of Israel in the biblical storyline. C2C makes no mention of the nation of Israel and implies that the 10 commandments and the OT sacrifices were given to humanity in general rather than Israel in particular. The story has room for the fall of evil angels, but omits the exodus.

More could be said about other omissions in C2C (no mention of Abraham, the covenants, or David; only a passing reference to the resurrection, etc.), but this post is focusing only on Israel’s story. And C2C is but one example among many in which Israel is either neglected or ignored.

This brings us back to the main question – is Israel’s story important to the gospel? There are no less than fours reasons why the answer must be in the affirmative.

1. The story of Israel is important in the Bible.

book with no middleFirst, the story of Israel is central to the biblical message. Proportionately speaking, Israel’s story makes up the bulk of the Christian canon. If we hold to a high view of Scripture, we must affirm that God inspired the biblical authors to pen a vast amount of material concerning the story of Israel.

If God saw this story as important, we must also hold it as important. Ignoring Israel’s story is like cutting out the main part of a book’s plot. We dare not do so with God’s book.

2. Jesus’s story is incomprehensible without Israel’s story.

Second, and related to the first point, the story of Jesus cannot be rightly understood apart from the story of Israel. Jesus’s story is Israel’s story. Failure to rightly appreciate the role of Israel’s story within the biblical narrative results in a deficient view of Jesus and his significance.

3. The story of Israel makes the gospel real.

By real, I mean that Israel’s story puts the gospel story in real life. The gospel message is not an abstract set of propositions, but a story, the story of the world’s true King, Israel’s Messiah, who sets the world right again. The story of Israel is the story of God’s people and his mission of restoration in and through his people. Israel’s story demonstrates God’s work in the real world, in history, with real people.

4. Israel’s story shows the corporate nature of the gospel.

Finally, Israel’s story helps us to avoid the individualistic bent of many gospel presentations. Much gospelizing involves telling people God is angry with them and that they are going to hell if they don’t believe in Jesus. Believing results in assurance that they will go to heaven when they die. The result of this is often viewing salvation as a ticket to heaven with nothing further needed.slide-10-people-of-the-church

Indeed, if the gospel is just “me and my personal relationship with Jesus”, there is little, if any, need for the church. The story of Israel helps correct this misunderstanding by showing God’s actions to rescue and restore his people. Just as the rescue from Egypt was the rescue of a nation, so redemption in Christ is the restoration of King Jesus’s people.

More could be said, but these brief points clearly show that Israel’s story is ignored to the detriment of biblical gospelizing. In future posts, we will look at some specific examples of Israel’s story in the NT gospel.