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handling worry and anxiety

Many Christians struggle with worry and anxiety.  I do, because I struggle from time to time with a depressive illness, the main symptom of which for me tends to be anxiety (triggered often by some apparent moral dilemma).  So dealing with anxiety is something I know a little about.  How do we overcome it?   Now people with a potentially depressive illness (depressive or anxiety symptoms that last more than a few weeks or month) should go and see their doctor.  It may be that they have clinical depression and need medication.  Medication can help dramatically.  However, whether struggling with the anxiety of clinical depression or simply the more ordinary anxiety life’s experience may throw at us, we need to learn how to handle anxious thoughts and how to overcome them.

Sometimes it feels that it is impossible to overcome them.

Often we say something like: ‘I do trust the Lord to deal with my problem but I can’t stop worrying about it.’  I understand this because I have similar struggles.  I guess many of us do.  It is why we have instruction from the Lord about worry in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6) and other exhortations such as ‘be anxious about nothing but in every situation let your requests be known to God…'(Phil 4:4-7)

Now most of us are probably good at going to the Lord and telling him about the problem.  We ‘take our burden to the Lord’ as the old negro spiritual says.  The problem is we don’t ‘leave it there’.  We tell him about it, perhaps at length, but as soon as we finish praying we begin to think of it all over again.  We continue to fret and obsess over it as we did before.  We are still worrying.  Still anxious.

There are two issues here I think it may be helpful to say something about;  strengthening our trust and rejecting worry.  Finally, I will say a little about a third matter, reaching decisions.

strengthening trust

We may tell the Lord about a matter, we may even say we are trusting the Lord, yet lack any real confidence he can or will help.  Our faith may be too weak.  The way to strengthen it is to fill our mind with all that we know to be true about God.  Focus our thoughts on him and his activity.  That is why when exhorting against worry Jesus reminds us that we are in the hands of a Heavenly Father who cares and knows what we need.  He tends and cares for every aspect of his creation and we matter more to him than any of the rest.  We are so important that he numbers the hairs of our head, that is how dedicated he is to us.  We can trust a powerful Father who cares like this (Matthew 6).

And there are so many other ways the Bible teaches of God’s trustworthiness.  Fill your mind with them.  Sing hymns in your heart (or even aloud ) that stress God’s care and compassion for his people.  Remind your heart repeatedly that he is able to do ‘exceedingly abundantly’ above all we ask or think.  His power is without limit.  A little faith mantra I often say to myself is ‘the Lord is my trust’.  Sometimes when I lack energy it is, ‘the Lord is my strength’ or if I lack sense about what to do in a situation, ‘the Lord will give me wisdom’.

When my sins loom large, I remind myself that God’s great concern was not to judge me, but justify me. The activity of the Godhead is focused on forgiveness and removing accusation.  If God justifies who is he that accuses.  The accuser, whoever he is, Satan or self or whoever,has no rights, no authority.  God has the authority and he declares us righteous (Roms 8).  When, as believers, we recognise sin we confess it and he forgives.  We then put it away from our minds for good; that is what God does with it.  I have found when plagued by guilt that the great word to fill your mind with and luxuriate in is ‘grace’.   Block out accusation with the word grace.  The only sure antidote to guilt is grace.  Keep ‘grace’ as a big word in your mind.

Anxiety often seems to be tied into a heavy spirit.  Perhaps that is why Paul, as he exhorts us to be anxious about nothing, does so in a context of urging us to rejoice in the Lord (Phil 4:4-7).  Sometimes there is little in our life situation about which to rejoice.  We can always, however, rejoice in the Lord.  Fill your mind with thoughts of his goodness and glory.  Recall bible truths and words about which you can rejoice.  Sing songs in your heart and head that are full of gospel joy.   Sometimes, if my mind is tired and needs rest but my spirit is low I just sing a simple children’s chorus, ‘Joy , joy my heart is full of joy’.  When the heart is sad… rejoice in the Lord and says Paul, again I say rejoice.  He is our joy.  Delight your heart in him.  Whatever the need assert that he is able to meet it.  He will supply ALL your needs according to the riches of his limitless resources.  Is anything too hard for the Lord?

At this point we may wish to speak to ourselves and say, ‘The LORD is able, I will be anxious about nothing, absolutely nothing, absolutely, absolutely nothing‘.  I have put ‘Lord’ in block capitals for in my mind I am really stressing the word ‘Lord’ he who loves me is all-wise and all-powerful .  This is an assertion of faith and in anxiety situations if we say it repeatedly to ourselves fear will gradually subside as faith fills and furnishes the mind.

rejecting worry 

We have told the Lord the issue and strengthened our faith by looking at him and seeing who he is.  Now comes the next stage; putting the issue that plagues us out of our mind.  Now some issues do require thinking through and then action.  We’ll come to that.  It’s not that kind of thinking that constitutes worry and anxiety.  It is fretting.  Letting things go round and round in your head and never putting them away.  We must here in faith take steps to ‘lead every thought captive’.  If the issue keeps trying to impose itself we use mind-blockers (the helmet of salvation… the shield of faith… God’s battle armour).

For example, supposing the fear of dying has gripped our mind.  When it wishes to raise itself in our mind and we see it coming we may say to ourselves something like, ‘The Lord will give dying grace when that time comes I refuse to think any more about it‘.  We then deliberately focus our minds on another task.  If other tasks still leave room for our minds to wander and worry we block our mind with faith thoughts.  Allow your mind to think over the great truths of the faith.  Think about some people you can pray about.  Look at things around you and thank him for them.  In fact learning to look at what is going on around you and concentrating on it can be a great means of displacing anxious thoughts.  Or perhaps just saying in your head, ‘the Lord is good’ or ‘I trust the Lord’.  If your mind is tired you may not be able to think beyond that.  Sometimes (when lying down to sleep perhaps) you may think no more than one or two words.  The Lord!  Jesus! Grace!   He is able!   Just some positive faith thought that closes out the anxious thought.

If possible think no thought at all.  Try to hold up a mind-hand and blank all thought. Let the mind rest.  Sure from time to time the unwelcome thoughts will slip through.  Just put up the shield again or apply some of the faith assertions we have thought about or some of your own you find work for you.  Thought-blocking like this is faith in action.  I’m not saying there is no struggle but victory is possible.

Again, see in the Psalms how the various writers handled their thoughts (and emotions) and trained them. The point is: you talk to self and do not let self dictate to you.

making decisions

Sometimes anxiety arises over decisions that have to be made.  If a decision has to be made set apart a time to think about it.  In the middle of the day if possible.  As a general rule, don’t make decisions when the mind is tired or weak.  In big decisions the advice of others may well be useful: Scripture sees wisdom in a number of councillors.  The big thing I would say is once a decision is made act on it and do not go back and revisit it again and again.  It is this that creates anxiety.  Many of the things that promote anxiety are about small matters the consequences of which probably don’t matter a great deal.  Keep a sense of proportion.  Ask the Lord for wisdom and having thought through the matter and reached a decision abide by it.  Refuse the impulse to revisit.  When inclined to do so apply the methods of blocking discussed above.

This post makes no pretence to be exhaustive.  It is just what I hope are a few helpful pointers in the battle with anxiety.  It is a battle the Lord will enable us to win as we put on his armour.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:4-7a | ESV


elijah and john the baptist 

It’s interesting to note the parallels Scripture draws between Elijah and John the Baptist.  Malachi had prophesied that the Coming of God to his people would be preceded by Elijah.  He would come to prepare the people for the advent of God, the arrival of the Day of the Lord (Mal 4:5,6;  cf. 3:1).

Elijah was a noted prophet who preached boldly to Israel in days of serious spiritual apostasy in Israel. He rebuked kings (1 Kings 21:17-29) and called for a national turning of hearts to the Lord (1 Kings 18:21).  His confrontation with Jezebel, King Ahab’s idolatrous and murderous wife, almost led to his death (1 Kings 19:10).

We can see clearly why John the Baptist is an Elijah figure (Mk 9:12,13).  He calls the sinful nation to repentance (1:4,5; Lk 3:7-11) and warns that judgement is pending (Lk 3:9).  The Lord is about to come and sift the people, for some it will mean salvation and for others judgement (Lk 3:15-18).  He boldly confronts Israel’s King and rebukes him leading to his imprisonment (Mk 6:17-20; Lk 3:19,20) and finally death orchestrated by Herodias, Herod’s vindictive and murderous illicit wife (Mk 6:21-29).

The parallels between Elijah and John are clear: both are bold prophets in days of spiritual apostasy; both are connected to Israel’s end-time hopes; both call the nation back to God; and both face hostile kings and their ruthless wives.  Indeed, it seems that Elijah’s experiences with Ahab’s and Elijah act as a prophecy of what would happen to John, though where Elijah lived John died (Mk 9:13).

The disciples, knowing that the scribes (rightly) insist that Elijah’s coming must precede the coming of the Day of the Lord, a day of both salvation and judgement, are puzzled that Elijah had not come.  Jesus points out that John is effectively if not actually Elijah; he has come in Elijah’s Spirit and power (Matt 11:14; Lk 1:17. cf. Jn 1:21).

Of course, the Day of the Lord, the Day of God’s Coming or Advent, seems to refer to one event in the OT.  It is only in the NT that we discover it has two phases.  He has Come and is yet to Come.  Is Elijah yet to come before the Second Coming?  There are many questions surrounding these things that I certainly know little about.  Even those who know much more have a limited grasp.  And of course only some things are revealed.

But what is revealed is for our feeding in faith.  God brings his people into his plans and purposes that we may have fellowship with him and be enriched in faith.  Hopefully this little biblical cameo further confirms our wonder at God’s ways.  God knows, we need modern day Elijahs.  We need John the Baptists.  People fearless and bold in the power of the Spirit, called by him to call for repentance and faith in the light of the Lord’s Coming.  Perhaps one such figure will prove to be the final powerful Elijah-voice and usher in the Day of the Lord.


preparing for advent

Let me say up front, I am not really a supporter of special Christian festivals and liturgical calendars.  A mild celebration as a heritage of our now almost defunct Christian culture is one thing but don’t like to see the rising enthusiasm for ‘special days, festivals etc’ among evangelicals.  This seems to me a misdirection (Roms 12; Cols 2).

I write this post not to promote Christmas as a festival but to hopefully promote right and serious thinking about ‘advent’ and its enormous implications for humanity.

Advent is of course the arrival of Christ.  It is the arrival of God.  It is a version of the Latin word meaning ‘coming’.  Its importance can scarcely be exaggerated.  What can be more important than the coming of God.  What can match this?  For all four gospel writers the arrival of Jesus is no less an event than the arrival of God

Mark having announced the good news of the arrival of ‘Messiah, the Son of God’ in Jesus (Mk 1:1) immediately ties it to the arrival of God to his people.  He writes,

1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2 As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,  “Behold, I send my messenger before your face,who will prepare your way,3 the voice of one crying in the wilderness:‘Prepare the way of the Lord,make his paths straight,’”

Mark 1:1-3 ESV

His quotation is, using what would appear to be a literary convention of the time, a conflation of at least two OT texts.  The quotation is attributed to Isaiah possibly because his text is Mark’s primary thrust – the call to prepare for the coming of God.   Isaiah prophesied a time when ‘the Lord’ (God) would personally come to deliver his people.   It was an advent that Israel long anticipated.  Now, 600 years later, Mark announces this prophecy is fulfilled in Jesus.  Mark, like the other gospel writers, makes the audacious claim that Messiah does not merely represent God, he actually is God.  The title ‘son of God’ that he gives to Jesus clearly means so much more than it did for Israel or previous Davidic kings; their sonship was official, formal,and conferred but his is fundamental, essential, inherent.  What the quotation from Isaiah at the beginning of the gospel declares the rest of the gospel demonstrates; nothing less than a divine identity makes sense of Jesus.  Little wonder carols celebrating his birth announce:

Veiled in flesh the godhead see, hail incarnate deity’

In Jesus God has come!

What preparation should be made for the coming of God?  Isaiah calls for the nation to prepare.  He uses the imagery of the arrival of an important dignitary.  Then, as now, if an important person, a royal figure or suchlike was about to visit a city the city would prepare for his arrival.  They would do all they could to ensure that his arrival is as fitting as possible.  In ancient times, this would mean, among other things, ensuring that the road on which he would arrive was free of obstacles and hinderances (a straight path).  They would be keen that all was fitting for the arriving dignitary.  All possible effort to make his coming easy, welcoming and properly deferential would take place.

In fact, dignitaries normally sent ahead an envoy or messenger, a herald, to ensure that all appropriate preparations were made.  The same still happens today.  Visiting presidential or royal figures will be preceded by representatives who will ensure proper preparations are made for their visit (the Lieutenancy Office in Great Britian organises Royal Visits).  Everything must be ready.  The importance of the person arriving demands it.

So how were Israel, how are we, to prepare for the arrival of God?  How, can the herald’s injunction  be met.

‘In the wilderness prepare

the way for the Lord;

make straight in the desert

a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be raised up,

every mountain and hill made low; 

the rough ground shall become level,

the rugged places a plain.

And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,

and all people will see it together.’

Isa 40:3-5

How were Israel, how are we, to prepare for his advent, his coming; for an occasion and that eclipses all other occasions and a person who immeasurably transcends all others?

Mark tells us.  The first half of the quotation (1:2) is from Malachi.  Malachi reveals God would send his messenger ahead to prepare for his coming (Mal 3:2).  Mark tells us that this messenger is John the Baptist.  He is Isaiah’s ‘voice crying in the wilderness’. He came preaching ‘a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins’ (Mk 1:4).  If God is coming then the people need to be spiritually ready.  For a sinful nation (humanity) this means confessing sin, turning from it and receiving God’s forgiveness.  Only such hearts are ready for God’s coming.  Only such hearts receive Christ.

Mark tells us that a large section of the Judean countryside came to be baptised.  The nation was preparing for the mighty one who was coming (1:7).  Of course, many did not repent as his gospel record will reveal.  The two text quotation is telling.  The emphasis in Isaiah is that God is coming in salvation to his people to deliver them.  For all who receive Christ it is as a deliverer he comes.  Those who repent and seek forgiveness of sins will find it in him.  Indeed, he has come ‘to give his life a ransom for many’ (10:45) and bring them into the kingdom of God baptising them in God’s own Holy Spirit  – the promised blessing of ‘the last days’ and new covenant (1:8).  In Jesus, Immanuel, God had indeed come to be with his people.  He had come to deliver from the chaos and destruction of sin and to ultimately create a new order, a new creation where evil will be no more.  And how desperately this old world needs this.  How desperately we need it.

But if Isaiah’s advental focus was God coming to bless and deliver Malachi had a different focus.  He warns of judgement if the people are unprepared.

1 ‘I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,’ says the Lord Almighty.2 But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, 4 and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years.5 ‘So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud labourers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,’ says the Lord Almighty.

It will be a day when…

18 You will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not.

Malachi 3:1-5, 18 | NIV

For those unprepared the advent would be a time of judgment.  It was for unrepentant unbelieving Israel.  When Jesus, the Lord, came to his temple he found it to be ‘a den of robbers’ and prophesied its destruction and that of the nation (Mk 11:12-25; 13).  Within a generation, in AD 70, the catastrophic judgement took place.

Advent divides.  It sifts and distinguishes.  It asks if we are prepared to receive Christ, prepared for the Coming of God.  It was the question at the First Advent and it will be the same at the Second Advent, when Jesus returns.

It is the question any celebration of the First Advent must ask.  Have we, will we, turn from our sin (for we are all sinners) and embrace God’s forgiveness and salvation in Christ?  Or will we, for whatever reason, ignore the call to repent and believe, continue as we are, and face terrible judgement.

The issues of Advent are huge?  Are we prepared for the coming of God?


mark 8 and 9… an overview (2)

Mark writes his gospel to demonstrate that Jesus is ‘Messiah, Son of God’ (1:1,2).  Such an insight, however clearly evidenced, is not readily believed.  There are too many human ulterior motives and prejudices for the obvious to be received.  Only eyes spiritually opened will see (Mk 4).  The twelve disciples (among others) have their eyes slowly opened.  Firstly, they begin to see that Jesus is the promised Christ (ch 1-8) then they begin to learn the more unpalatable truth that Messiah must suffer and die before entering his glory.  This latter truth that Jesus reveals they are slow to grasp not least because it turns upside down all their preconceptions of the expected kingdom and paints a picture of kingdom living in the here-and-now that is unattractive – rejection, suffering, even death.  From Ch 9-15 the eyes of their heart are gradually opened to see that kingdom suffering precedes kingdom glory.

Jesus revelation of coming suffering is undoubtedly traumatic.  Thus in grace his revelatory credentials are further established.  Such is the disciples natural aversion to suffering they are promised that some will not see death until they see the kingdom come in power; to prepare them for a kingdom of suffering some will first be given a preview of the kingdom of glory.  Their faith to accept a suffering Messiah (king) is to be strengthened by seeing a glorified Messiah. And so Mark 9 begins with three key disciples climbing with Jesus what we now refer to as ‘the mount of transfiguration’ where they will receive a foresight of his final kingdom glory (9:1).

At this point, I want to pause and note some subtleties that we may easily miss.  The gospels are replete with OT allusions.  We miss these because we are much less familiar with the OT than we ought to be.  Mark (and the other gospel writers) regularly show how events regarding Jesus have a significant OT echo that clothes these events with profound significance.  The transfiguration and its aftermath is an example of this.  The believing Jewish mind steeped in the OT would see a parallel between this mountain experience and that of Moses in Exodus 24, 25, and 34 at Sinai.  Moses climbs the mountain  (along with some privileged others Ex 24:1) where he sees God’s glory and receives the revelation of the law; an event rightly of great significance in Jewish faith.  It is a revelatory experience that establishes Moses among other things as the mouthpiece of God.  He is a prophet of prophets.  As indeed is Elijah, the other figure Jesus meets.  Together they represent OT revelation (the law and the prophets).

When Jesus claims the mountain with his disciples (the new Israel) he is consciously re-enacting Sinai.  It is however the difference that is most significant.  For the glory seen is not, as with Moses, the glory of God, but the glory (or glorification) of Christ; the OT Yahweh is the NT Christ (Ps 104:2; Dan 7:9)  little wonder the disciples are beside themselves with fear (Mk 12:6).  The divine glory revealed has this effect.   When Peter wishes to give equal weight to all three- Moses, Elijah, and Jesus – God the Father, jealous for Christ’s glory and authority, immediately insists that it is Christ who is his ‘son’ and it is to him they must listen; Jesus’ revelatory authority could not be more clearly authenticated.  His words of prophecy (his teaching on all things but especially, in context, of unwelcome kingdom suffering before glory) are confirmed.  He is the prophet like Moses of whom Moses spoke (Deut 18:15-18; Mk 6:4).  But he is so much more; he is the ‘beloved son’ and his revelatory authority flows from this unique relationship (cf 2 Peter 1:16-21; Jn 1). That Moses, Elijah and Jesus spoke of his coming death (according to Luke 9:33) further confirms to the disciples Jesus’ teaching on his coming death – the OT ‘law and prophets’ concur.  In fact, they see it not as a cause for despair but celebration; it is an ‘exodus’.  In death Jesus is the ultimate Moses freeing his people from spiritual bondage (cf 1 Cor 10:1-2) who would establish for his people a new covenant based on his death (1Cor 11:25) and a new law – this is my son, hear him (Mk 9:7 cf Mk 2:2).  Mark, however, restricts himself to the issues of preeminence and revelatory authority.  All three Synoptics mention the transfiguration.  Only John’s gospel omits it.  Perhaps because the whole gospel radiates transfiguration ( Jn 1:14-18).

Presumably, Peter’s blurted suggestion of three tents  (like those in the feast of tabernacles) flowed from a desire to stay on the mountain but this too (along with the implied parity of three tents) was misguided.  It was not the time for sustained glory but for conflict and spiritual warfare.  They must descend the mountain.

When Moses descended Sinai the glory of God still evident on his face caused fear to rise in the people and they kept their distance (Ex 34 :29,30).  This is hardly surprising since the glory of God at Sinai is the glory of a mountain of fire that thundered and smoked – a sight so awesome that even Moses trembled with fear; it was the glory of the God of a covenant of law (Hebs 12:18-21).  When Christ descends the mountain we read:


As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him (Mk 9:15).


His is the attractive welcoming glory of grace.  It is the glory of Mount Zion and of one who will mediate a new covenant (Hebs 12:22-24).

When Moses descended the mountain (the first time) all was in disarray.  Demonic apostasy had a vice-like grip on the people.  Even those who should have had the spiritual authority to crush it (Aaron and Miriam) were powerless before it.  The law had been broken comprehensively while the stones on which it was written were still soft from the finger of God.  Moses’ only possible response (as one who speaks for the God of Sinai) is anger and promised judgement; Sinai can only promise death to sinful people (Ex 32:17-35). When Jesus descends the mountain demonic activity is also destructively evident and those who should have been able to overthrow it (the disciples) are powerless before it.  Jesus feels the frustration of this unbelief (9:19; cf. Deut 32:18-21) but as one who inaugurates a new covenant of powerful grace, he does not threaten destruction but casts out the destructive demon (9:25).  His voice, like that of Moses, carries authority but it is authority that forgives and rescues if heeded (cf. Hebs 12:24-26).

Why could the disciples not exorcise the demon (they had done so in the past).  Jesus tells them such an ability comes only through prayer.  He does not mean simply a prayer raised to God prior to performing an exorcism.  He means something much more profound.  He means a heart through prayerfulness attuned to the mind and will of God and in fellowship with it.  The disciples, in refusing to accept a suffering Messiah, are weakened spiritually.  They are not being obedient to revealed truth and the result is spiritual powerlessness.  As demonic opposition increases their unbelief renders them helpless before it (and so, when the chips are down, they all forsake and flee Mk 14:26-31).

Mark is announcing in Jesus, the Messiah who will inaugurate God’s long promised kingdom.  This will be a new beginning with a new exodus (14: 7-25), with a new people (Mk 3:3-21,31-34; 12:1-11), a new covenant with a new Passover (14:7-25) a new command, all proclaimed in a new voice – a voice of grace but no less authoratitive for it is the voice of the Son of God that must be heard, believed, obeyed (Mk 9:7,23,24; 16:14-19; Hebs 2:1-4; 12:25).  Where his word is refused then judgement follows.  The fulfilment of Jesus’ great prophetic announcement of the destruction of the temple and people is confirmation of his prophetic voice but what a terrible confirmation for the nation who reject him (Mk 6:4; 8:11; 11:12; 12:1-12; 13).  Meanwhile the stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone of a new temple where all nations worship (Mk 11:17; 12:7-11; Eph 2:20,21; 1 Pet 2 :4-7).

It’s easy for us to be critical of the disciples.  However, they were living before Calvary, the empty tomb, the Mount of Olives, and Pentecost.  We live in the good of all of these.  Yet how slow of heart we are to believe.  Whenever we refuse the impact of the cross upon our lives, whenever we are inclined to avoid identifying with a sin-bearing crucified Christ, whenever we refuse to believe that which doesn’t suit us, whenever we vie for position and power in the church and resist being servant of all we deny the revelation of a crucified Messiah just like the disciples did (Mk 8:31-38; 10:31-45).

As advent approaches remember the newborn King went to a cross and took all his followers there too.


mark 8 and 9… an overview (1)

Recently I had occasion to look a little at Mark’s gospel.  This post and the following have arisen from so doing.

mark 8

For me, a constant marvel and one more evidence of inspiration is the subtlety of the gospel record.  The gospels, of course, can be read by a newcomer and their main message is clear to all.  Mark, for example, from the outset makes plain he writes to give ‘the good news about Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God’ (Mk 1:1).

Isaiah, whom Mark regularly cites, envisaged a day when Israel’s exile (a judgement) would be over , the people would return to the land, and God himself would return to, Zion.  In one sense, the nation had returned to the land, however the people were still sinful (Isa 59:9-15; 63:15-64:12) and so as yet God, in Messiah, had not returned to Zion.  Malachi, however, prophesied that God would send his messenger to purify the heart of at least some of the people before he, in person, returned to Israel (Mal 3:5; 4:5).  For Mark this messenger is John the Baptist (1:4-8) who precedes Jesus Christ (Messiah and Son of God in a sense not previously fully grasped for he is truly divine, the Lord coming to Zion).  He (Jesus) the people must welcome and accept – believe – if they are to enter the kingdom; if they do not then God’s visit in salvation will result instead in judgement when the Lord comes ‘suddenly to his temple’ (Mal 3:1; Mk 13).

Mark proceeds in the eight chapters that follow to demonstrate that Jesus is Messiah, the Son of God’ in whom, and through whom, the long anticipated Kingdom of God arrived.  He, Mark will reveal, is literally the Lord coming to his people (Isa 40:1-5).  Jesus speaks and acts with messianic authority for he is ‘Son of God’ in a way not previously grasped.  He performs miracles that only Messiah, Son of God, inaugurating God’s kingdom could conceivably do (Isa 61:1,2).  The sick are healed, the blind see, the lame walk, demons are cast out, and the dead raised; all God’s promised messianic blessings are present in Jesus (Lk 4:18,19).  Further he controls nature as God did (Mk 4, 6; Ex 16).  He feeds the people miraculously in the desert as God did.  He forgives sins – the prerogative of God alone (Mk 2).  Messiah is clearly Son of God in an extraordinary sense; he does things that only God is known to do – his sonship is not merely functional (as with Israel’s previous Davidic Kings) but essential or actual; he really is divine (cf. Mk 12:35-37).

He not only acts with extraordinary authority (11:28; 2:10; 3:15) he speaks with authority too, an authority that those who hear recognise; penetrating insight, palpable spiritual wisdom, and divine anointing clothe his teaching (Isa 61:1,2; Mk 1:22,27).  Thus all the messianic credentials were placarded for eyes open to seeing and minds willing to understand (Mk 8:27).   Only wilful blindness, hardened hearts and deceiving influences explain a refusal to see (Mk 4, 7:6,7).  Such unbelief forfeits any right to the kingdom for it was designed for those ‘with ears ready to hear’ (Mk 4:9), those with childlike unpretentious trust (10:15).  It is to them the secrets of the kingdom are given (4:11); the others ‘outside’ are confirmed in their unbelief (4:25).  Interestingly, paradoxically, and unthinkably for Israel, often those who believe will be Gentiles  (Mk 7:24-31; 15:39 cf. Lk 7:1-10) while many Jews will reject and be rejected (12:9).

Although all who wish may hear him and witness his miracles yet he avoids any hint of sensationalism. His intention in what he says and does is not to attract nationalists looking for a leader inspiring enough to ferment an uprising and overthrow the occupying Romans, nor those who enjoy a spectacle, nor the merely curious, nor any with other superficial agendas.  His intention is simply to draw to himself those with (opened) eyes and ears to see that he is the fulfilment of OT promise and to deepen faith in him.  Thus it is, that at the end of chapter 8 when the question of who he really is arises, his concern is not primarly who others may think he is as who his disciples believe him to be (Mk 8:27).  Peter answers for the others when he says ‘You are the Messiah (8:27).  God had revealed to them through living with Jesus, hearing his teaching, and observing his miracles that Jesus was the long expected Messiah, the Son of God, for if he was Messiah he must be the Son of God. Both titles are inextricably linked; to be God’s anointed King was to be God’s son (cf. Matt 16).

Yet, although Peter (and the others) recognised him to be Messiah, they did not fully grasp what being Messiah really involved and implied.  They saw truly but only dimly.  Here one of Mark’s delightful narratival subtleties surfaces.  The discussion as to Jesus’ identity is immediately preceded by the rather curious miracle of the healing of a blind man (8:22-25).  The healing of a blind man is not unusual for Jesus what is unusual is that he was not healed immediately but in stages.  Normally such hearings were instantaneous and complete.  Given that such a miracle may seem to diminish Jesus’ power (and so messianic credentials) why does Mark include it?

He includes it because it illustrates (designedly so) the ‘seeing’ of the disciples.  They now see partially. They recognise that Jesus is indeed Messiah and in him the promised kingdom has arrived.  To this extent their eyes have been opened.  However, their understanding of Messiah and the kingdom is still very hazy (like men as trees walking).  They have not yet grasped that Messiah must suffer and die (Isa 53) and that all who share in his kingdom must die too.  To grasp this will require further divine surgery.  It is this that Jesus begins to perform at the end of Mark 8 (8:31-38).  He announces his death (8:31-33) and theirs (8:34-38). However, his announcement is met with dismay and incomprehension.  Peter resists all thoughts of Jesus dying and a few verses into ch 9 the others are discussing who will be greatest in the kingdom (no notion of self-denial here).  The true nature of Messiah and of the kingdom has not yet penetrated despite Jesus’ words.  In the following half of Mark’s gospel these new realities will be increasingly pressed upon them.  Three times Jesus tells them he is about to suffer and die and on each occasion their response reveals they do not (will not) grasp what he says (Mk 8:31-33 ; 9:30-37; 10:32-45) It is not until post-resurrection days including Pentecost that the second stage of divine eye surgery is fully realised.  Only then their vision is as it ought to be and their hearts concerns aligned with God’s.  Then they understand why Messiah must suffer and die before entering his glory (1 Pet 1:11; 4:12,13; 5:1).   Then they see the true nature of the kingdom Christ had come to establish, one that, initially is suffering not glory and weakness not power.

From ch 9 these new realities are graciously but firmly pressed upon them but in wisdom and grace God prepares three key disciples (Peter, James and John) for this unexpected (and unwelcome) initial kingdom suffering by giving them a preview of ultimate kingdom glory.  But this is a subsequent post.


songs of the son… christ in the psalms

Unlike some church traditions , the one with which I am most familiar did not use the Psalmody, nor were there liturgical readings and as a consequence the Psalms were less familiar, certainly less memorised.  What was stressed, however, was that they revealed Christ.  This Christological hermeneutic (that they spoke of Christ) was clearly correct. Christ himself laid its foundation when he said the OT Scriptures  spoke of him and upon resurrection taught his disciples to find in these Scriptures, including the Psalms,  ‘the things concerning himself’ (Lk 24:44).  Later the apostles regularly cite the OT, and not least the Psalms, as a witness to the humiliation and exaltation of Christ.  The theology of Hebrews in particular rests largely on a cluster of psalms.

It is important to recognise that a Christological reading of the OT is not a fanciful or merely imaginative reading of the OT by the apostles in the light of Christ.  They do not subscribe to the post-modern interpretative notion that what matters is not the writer’s intention but the reader’s interpretation.  These may, we are told, bear little resemblance.  The NT writers are not the vanguard of such a hermeneutic; they did not see what was not there.  They read the OT Christologically  because it was Christotelic, that is, it looked forward intentionally to the future and the arrival of the Messianic Age and Messiah, the Christ.  It was always promise awaiting fulfilment, expectation anticipating realisation.  It had a goal and that goal was Christ.  Christ and the apostles simply read the OT according to its own Christotelic intention.

This is as true of the Psalms as of any other of the OT; they too look forward. It is clear as we read them that however much they describe people and events of their  time such is the poetic excess and exuberance that the immediate context cannot satisfy the poetic vision and something more ultimate is envisaged. What seems like mere lyrical excess is much more; it is the Holy Spirit engaging the poet’s heart and mind to envisage people and events yet future.  In a word, the Psalms are prophetic.

Let me illustrate. One category of psalm, is the royal psalm.  Many psalms are written by David, Israel’s archetypal king.  Future Judaic kings were evaluated by their similarity or otherwise to David. Thus, Davidic psalms are royal psalms (though only some are so designated by scholars), expressing the perspective and aspirations of Israel’s king.  Other psalms are written as eulogies to the Davidic king.  Whether written by or for the Davidic king there is in these psalms hyperbolic elements of description and anticipation that go way beyond anything David or his successors experienced.   There is an idealising, an exaltation, that makes the psalm transcend its initial reference.  From these psalms a Davidic King and Kingdom such as Israel had never known emerges, a Warrior King who will conquer all his enemies and nurture his people.  He will have a worldwide and everlasting Kingdom over which he will reign with wisdom and justice as a priest-king by the power of a life that like his kingdom never ends.  He give his people God’s promised eternal rest (Ps 2, 18, 20, 21, 45, 72, 89, 101, 110, 132, 144. Cf. Hebs 1-5).  

He is all that is great about David and immeasurably more; the king of which they speak does not so much aspire to be like David rather David acclaims him as Lord (Ps 110). His cause (Ps 2) will be championed by God for like the nation he is God’s son (the king is a kind of embodiment of the people). Indeed, and here some psalms are most daring, he will himself be God (Ps 45, 110; Cf. Lk 20:40-44; Hebs 1).  He is both David’s son and David’s God, his offspring and his origin, the ultimate David (Ezekiel 34:23).  In Messiah, divine sonship is taken to another level.  He will not be merely a titular son, or adopted son (as were the Davidic Kings) but an actual son, the ‘one and only’ (Jn 1:14).   Such a coomposite exalted poetic vision clearly exceeds normal royal reigns; it is plainly messianic.  It is hardly surprising that Peter affirms in Acts 2 that David was a prophet (Acts 2:30,31).  Indeed David’s life as first rejected then recognised king, his suffering and consequent glory, his heart for God and literary gifts shaped him by divine providence to be the prophet who would reveal in his songs not only the shape of the messianic kingship but the inner life of Messiah, his thoughts and emotions, his agonies and ecstasies, and his odyssey of tested faith which was the messianic mission.

Which brings us to a second Christological theme that pervades the Psalms, that of the righteous or innocent sufferer.  The Davidic king is a divine son who suffers, and suffers unjustly. Psalm 22 comes immediately to mind.  It is a psalm of David, a lament (there are more than fifty psalms of lament).  For the faithful in Israel, Yahweh, the covenant keeping God, promised life, which had at its core the enjoyed presence of God.  Yet here is a faithful son – one whose faith is foundational to his life for he has trusted from his mother’s womb –  who faces death not life.  The God he expects to be near is far off; it is his enemies who are near, and ironically, it is his fidelity that they use, with animal-like ferocity and cruelty, to mock and oppress him. He endures extreme physical and psychological distress.  Pain, shame, isolation, and desolation overwhelm.  Death is so certain and imminent that he describes himself as lying in ‘the dust of death’ while his enemies divvy up his clothing; he will not be wearing them again. Yet the lament ends with a cry for deliverance (22:19-21).  The faithful son is distressed, dismayed, disoriented, and desolate but he does not doubt; he will trust with his last breath.  His cry of dereliction does not issue from a loss of faith but a loss of fellowship, of contact.

We are not told in the psalm whether the afflicted one dies or not.  In so far as it describes an actual experience of David clearly he did not die (or there would be no Psalm 22).  But like so many psalms the experience described  is so rarified it goes beyond that of the writer.  David, for example, did not trust from his mother’s breasts.  Here is a faith experience that transcends that of the writer.  It is prophetic.  It is fulfilled in Messiah.  Only he does justice to the poetic vision.  As one writer comments, 

The only adequate and natural interpretation of the psalm is that which sees in it a lyrical prediction of the Sufferings of Messiah and the Glory that was to follow. No Sufferer but One could, without presumption, have expected his griefs to result in the conversion of nations to God.’

The psalm is repeatedly cited in the NT in the narration of the crucifixion (Matt 27:35,37,46).  Jesus cites it (twice) on the cross as do his enemies who surround him though they do so unwittingly.  Both confirm its anticipatory aim.

James H. Brooks wrote, 

‘ the Psalms… describe so largely in prophecy the inner life of the Lord Jesus Christ, who was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin; and unless that fact is kept constantly in view, the Psalms cannot be read intelligently.

For Christ, of course, unlike David, deliverance from death is found beyond death and out of death (Hebs 2:14, 5:7) that he may be not only a model of persistent faith but the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him (Hebs 5:9).  In resurrection he is surrounded no longer by enemies but by his own, those whom he calls ‘his brothers’.  They are his ‘brothers’ not because he became one with them in incarnation (else all men would be his brothers) but because they become one with him through his death and resurrection.  It is in resurrection he acknowledges the believing seed of Abraham as his brothers (Ps 22:22; Hebs 5:9; John 20:17).  

There have been many righteous sufferers throughout history before and since the cross.  Many of God’s sons have their sonship tested through unwarranted inexplicable suffering.  Many have their faith stretched into the jaws of death.  Jesus identifies with them all.  He stands in organic union with all his brothers who suffer for their faith in the God. This psalm and others express not only the response of their authors to undeserved affliction and that of oppressed saints in future generations for whom they provide a resource for prayer but supremely they express the response of the messianic king who becomes in all ways like his brothers, sin apart (Hebs 2).  Messiah became one of us.  He was tested like us.  He was traumatised as we are.  He trusted as we are called to do.  Our cry became his cry.  Our distress his.  And because his faith inevitably outstrips ours so too does the opposition such faith excites and the suffering that follows.  If we want an insight into the physical and mental anguish that Christ experienced then we must reflect on the Psalms.  There we find how he learned what it was to cry to God ‘out of the depths’ (Psalm 130) sometimes day and night without relief (Ps 22).  And when we feel we are just there we are assured he has been there before us and knows how to sustain us in faith (Hebs 4:14-16).

Of course, there is a further dimension to Christ’s sufferings; he  suffered vicariously for sins.  Here too  it seems the Psalms give insight.  Many psalms describe occasions when God judges the writer for personal sin, yet some of these are applied in the NT to Christ.  Clearly they can be so understood only when we realise that unlike the writer he suffered not for his own sin but for that of others.  But here we begin to explore yet another way in which the psalms are prophecy of the Christ.  And this, along with Messiah as both the ideal ‘blessed’ man of Psalm 1 and the favoured ‘son of man’ of Psalm 8 (Hebs 2)  must await another time.  


god’s final word

Michael Card puts it well.

You and me, we use so very many clumsy words
The noise of what we often say, is not worth being heard
When the Father’s wisdom wanted to communicate His love
He spoke it in one final perfect word

He spoke the incarnation and then so was born the Son
His final word was Jesus, He needed no other one
Spoke flesh and blood, so He could bleed and make a way divine
And so was born the baby, who would die to make it mine

And so the Father’s fondest thought, took on flesh and bone
He spoke the living luminous word, at once His will was done
And so the transformation, that in man had been unheard
Took place in God the Father as he spoke that final word

And so the light became alive and manna became man
Eternity stepped into time, so we could understand

the cavekeeper

The Cave promotes the Christian Gospel by interacting with Christian faith and practice from a conservative evangelical perspective.


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