Archive for December, 2009

Reading in John Calvin’s sermons on 2 Samuel today, I came across this wonderful statement. This comes from a sermon preached on July 3, 1562, “The True Worship of God,” an exposition of 2 Sam. 6:1-7. Calvin is discussing the implications of the affirmation that Yaweh, the God of Israel, “dwells between the cherubim.”

“Nevertheless, in order that we might know that God does not want to frustrate us, and that the signs which he gives us are not frivolous and empty baggage, like toys for little children, it says that God truly dwells between the cherubim. This does not mean that his essence is enclosed in the ark, but that he wishes to display his virtue there for the salvation of his people. Similarly, today in the waters of baptism, it is the same as if the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ poured down from heaven to water our souls and cleanse them from their uncleanness. When we have the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper, it is the same as if Jesus Christ were coming down from heaven and making himself our food, so that we could be filled with him. We must not, therefore, take these signs as visible things and figures that are to feed our spiritual senses, but are to realize that God joins his virtue and truth to them, so that the thing and the effect are joined to the figure. We must not put asunder what God has joined together” (Sermons on 2 Samuel: John Calvin, trans. by Douglas Kelley [Banner of Truth, 1992], 236).


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Mary’s Unbelief

Mark 3:20-35 is one of Mark’s typical sandwiches, in which a story starts, gets interrupted by a second story which relates to it in some way, and then finally comes to its conclusion. Here, we are told that, having heard about Jesus’ behavior, some of “His own people” come to seize him, saying, “He is out of his mind” (3:20-21). Then we have the second story, Jesus’ confrontation with the scribes from Jerusalem who claim that he casts out demons by the ruler of the demons (3:22-30). Finally, we return to the first story, when Jesus’ brothers and mother come and send for Jesus and when Jesus identifies those who are doing God’s will by sitting around him as his brother and sister and mother (3:31-35).

That structure is obvious even in an English translation. But a look at the Greek reveals an interesting play on words. At the beginning, when Jesus’ “own people” say that he is “out of his mind” (3:21), the word used literally (or, rather, etymologically) means “standing outside.” (Perhaps that’s roughly equivalent to our English expression “beside himself.”) But at the end of the story, Jesus’ “own people” turn out to be his brothers and mother, who come and, “standing outside,” call him (3:31; cf. 3:32, which stresses again that they are “outside”).

So Jesus’ “own people” think Jesus is the one “standing outside” (in the sense of “crazy”). But Jesus’ family members turn out to be the ones literally “standing outside,” while Jesus identifies those who are sitting inside as his true family, those who, in obedience to God’s will, are “sitting around him” (3:32, 34). To be his true family — his true mother and brothers — his natural mother and brothers must come inside instead of calling him out.

Jesus does indeed belong with his family. But at this point, in spite of their natural relationship with Jesus, Mary and his brothers are not that family. They are seeking to take him away from the ones who sit around him in obedience to God, away from the ones he identifies as his mother and brothers and sisters, in order to take him into their protective custody, as if Jesus would be safe with them instead of they themselves being safe with him. And therefore, though they did later trust in Jesus, they are acting at this moment in unbelief. For Mary to become Jesus’ “mother and brother and sister” now, she must join those who are with Jesus; she must come inside. Otherwise, she will be left outside his family.

Furthermore, in a sandwich story, the middle story also relates to the story that frames it. And so here it is not just the frame story that involves standing (and sitting). In 3:24-25, Jesus says that a divided kingdom or a divided household cannot “stand.” And in 3:26, he speaks of “the satan” as “standing up” against himself.

The reference to the divided household that doesn’t “stand” might resonate with the frame story: Jesus’ natural household won’t stand if his mother and brothers are divided against Jesus. While Mary and Jesus’ brothers are not saying, with the scribes from Jerusalem, that Jesus is in league with the ruler of the demons, they are still opposed to him, still acting in unbelief, and therefore still in danger. Their natural family relationship to Jesus will not keep them safe. Mary is not saved through giving birth to Jesus, and she is not blessed apart from her faith. If Mary and Jesus’ brothers continue to “stand outside” instead of “sitting around him,” then their household won’t stay standing.

The repetition of the word “stand,” and especially of words having to do with “standing outside,” sets up this question: Who is really “standing outside”? If Jesus’ family thinks Jesus is “standing outside” in the sense of being insane, then their household won’t “stand.” And if you think Jesus is “standing outside” in that sense, then you end up “standing outside” yourself, here literally but, as Jesus’ words make clear, also in a deeper sense.

The family is sitting inside, sitting around Jesus and with Jesus. While not everyone has to be crowded into the room where Jesus is sitting, everyone must be with him and not against him. That’s God’s will. Only Jesus’ family is safe, only the mother and brothers and sisters who stick with him. You’d have to be insane to be “standing outside.”

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A great deal of confusion about the relative value of “virginity” and marriage can be avoided if one pays careful attention to the text of Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 7. The two most important observations are: 1) that Paul’s specific recommendations are made because of the “impending crisis” (v. 26), and 2) that Paul wants both the unmarried and the married to be free from the anxieties that attend their particular estates.

First, the “impending distress” is the result of the huge change that was taking place between A.D. 30 and 70. The “appointed time has grown very short” (v. 29, ESV). The old “world/age” was under judgment and was “passing away” (v. 31). And although people still had to live in that old world (v. 30, 31), they needed to be careful about the “fleshy tribulations” that were coming (v. 28). Charles Hodge writes:

The awful desolation that was soon to fall upon Jerusalem and on the whole Jewish race, and which could not but involve more or less the Christians also, and the inevitable struggles and persecutions, which according to our Lord’s predictions, his followers were to encounter, were surely enough to create a deep impression on the apostles mind, and to make him solicitous to prepare his brethren for the coming storm.

In the light of this, then, secondly, Paul wants everyone to be free from anxiety. Everyone. This portion of the passage has been greatly misunderstood. Paul wants them to be free from anxiety—the anxieties that attend marriage and the anxieties that are peculiar to the single state. Paul says that the unmarried man or woman is unnecessarily anxious about “how he may please the Lord” (vss. 32, 33). That’s not a good thing. He’s not presenting some ideal celibate state where someone might direct all of his attention toward religious matters and not worry about the problems associated with marriage. He is warning single people that they should not be anxious about pleasing the Lord. Paul wants them all to be free from anxieties.

With that little introduction here’s my “interpretive translation” of 1 Corinthians 7:25-40.

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