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Glory, full of Grace and Truth

April 12, 2010

This essay represents the intersection of several thoughts for me. I’ll be discussing these thoughts by explaining what I think is happening (generally) in Mark 8:31-10:45 (a theme that may continue to the end of Mark 10). There are other texts, though, some of which I’ll mention, all of which come together to make me think these things about Mark 8-10 and, indeed, Jesus Himself. And then there are two direct impetuses for this essay: my Bible study leader asked me to write this down after hearing me lay it out, and I need to address my uneasy relationship with Calvinism at some point. I’ll still probably do something about my general unease with Reformed theology (part of which, no doubt, is that many of my Reformed contacts seem not to be very good at explaining much of anything clearly), but this essay constitutes a major component of that unease. To state this clearly, I am about to address the issue of God’s glory (and honor, which are aspects of the same thing), a key component of Reformed thought.

The Prodigal Son

Let’s start, though, with a few of those other texts. The story of the prodigal son is a familiar one (Luke 15:11-32). Less familiar, though, is what the story says about honor. The story begins with the younger son telling the family patriarch something more or less like this: “I wish you were dead, because then I’d get your stuff.” He could be stoned for this, a very, very serious violation of “Honor your father and your mother”. Instead, his father sells half of his own possessions and gives them to this horrible child. It’s incredibly dishonoring. We live in a culture where we like to speak about the love parents have for children, and we’re not always very good at insisting the parents control their children and raise them into respectable members of society and not self-entitled brats, but even we would probably draw the line at this. For a Middle Eastern society, then or now, this is simply weak-willed craziness. This father is not fit to lead a clan. But it gets worse. This useless son spends all the money and comes back. At least he comes back to be a hired hand, suggesting he’s learned some humility. But the father does not do the honorable thing. He does not say, “Son, I’ve given you a great deal more leeway than you deserved, find your own way like you wanted to when you wished me dead.” He doesn’t say, “You are my flesh and blood, I will not have you starve, be up before dawn, there are dead animals to bury and latrines to dig.” Instead, he runs to meet this son of his, clearly showing that lack of discipline that dishonored him to begin with, and then throws a party. When his other son acts up because of this (are we at all surprised that this man can’t keep either child under control?) he again refuses to stand his ground, and walks out of the party to negotiate as if he and his son were equals.

Of course this patriarch, who spoils his rotten children and will not insist on his honor before his gratuitous love, is God within this parable. God, apparently, would rather shame Himself than let you go.

Jesus Washes the Disciples Feet

Another familiar passage, the washing of the feet in John 13:1-20, says much the same thing. “You call me Teacher and Lord,” Jesus says, “And rightly so.” Jesus is not giving up his status. Instead, he is redefining what that status means. If he washed his disciples feet then what does authority look like? Perhaps, to look for a minute at the section of text I’ve claimed I’m focusing on in this essay, it means that while the leaders of the Gentiles lord it over them God’s system of values exalts the one who serves most.

Mark 8:31-10:45

Mark 8:31 is the first time Jesus tells his disciples that he will die and then rise. It’s notable because it’s also when Jesus famously tells Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” In keeping with my theme I am going to suggest that what happened here is quite obvious, and that reading between the lines is exactly what Mark expects you to do. Jesus tells his disciples that he will die and then rise. “Die” is mostly what they hear. Rising is very strange and out of place, and the eventual triumph of God is well and good, but the Messiah should not die and then be justified. The Messiah should conquer. It’s an objection Muslims echo. “It would not be fitting for God to let such a great prophet die like that.” The Messiah cannot be subjected to death by others. That would shame him, and God. Peter points this out. Stop with the crazy talk, Jesus, you’re a winner all the way. Jesus, understanding that God’s system of values is not Peter’s, hears the tempting voice of Satan in that statement. Find another way, one that isn’t God’s.

What’s important here is that God’s glory isn’t the defensive sort of honor that Middle Eastern culture and some of our own culture (the gang culture of popular rap music, for instance) espouses. God is not glorified because He gets to divinely proclaim, “You should have seen the other guy.” Instead, God’s glory is that, intrinsic to His nature, He is totally good. God is glorious because He does the right thing, all the time, all the way. And Jesus is saying just this: the Messiah is about to do the most glorious thing ever, which is to do the right thing, the good thing, even when it costs more than you can ever comprehend. The Messiah will not win by beating the Romans up, he will win because everyone will see that God alone is good, and that the Romans and the Jewish aristocrats are nothing but thugs.

This point is so important that the very next event is the Transfiguration. There’s a lot to say about this, but I’d like to simply focus on one thing. You might be worried that the Messiah is not, in fact, all that. After all, he did just say he was going to be killed by his enemies. The Transfiguration says the Messiah is all that, and more. But he’s going to die anyway. You need to hold those two ideas together. You need to continue to hold on to these two ideas when Jesus expels a demon that his disciples could not, and then tells his disciples again that he’s going to die. This time no one yells. They just remain silent, confused, and perhaps remembering what happened to Peter last time.

But they clearly don’t get it. They start arguing over who the greatest amongst them is. Jesus calls them to him, and says it again. Greatness isn’t what you think it is. The world is upside-down and inside out. Greatness looks like service. In fact, greatness looks like being good. That’s the glory of the Son of Man, his radical, extreme, no-holds-barred goodness. And so, naturally, we transition right into ethical instruction. God will see your good deeds. Avoid temptation. Moses gave you divorce because your hearts were hard. And, of course, receive all this like a little child. Throw away what you know works, for God’s ways are different, and you’ve learned all wrong.

The rich young man is where this came into focus for me. It’s a very odd exchange in a number of ways. The man asks Jesus a very natural question that we would probably all like to at least double-check with the Son of God: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus has a lot of possible responses, but the one he gives is simply weird. He questions why he is being called good, for God alone is good, and then tells the young man to follow the Law. We often (correctly, in my estimation) understand Jesus’ first question as a slightly odd way to say “I’m God” but the second command (especially for those of us raised to be anti-legalist) is probably close to nonsensical. In the wider scheme, though, it makes sense. Why call Jesus good? Because he clearly is. God alone is good, but Jesus is good because Jesus is God. The glory of God, the glory of the Messiah, is in this incredible goodness, goodness that flows from the very nature of the God Who can be nothing else. “Why do you call me good? Have you, in fact, caught on?”

The next exchange makes more sense. Jesus diagnoses the man’s problem (which relies on the response to that strange injunction to follow the Law), gives him instructions, and the man leaves, finding the instructions too difficult. Again, ethical instruction makes sense here when we are speaking of goodness. But Jesus doesn’t leave it at that. It is, he declares next, impossible to get into the Kingdom of God on one’s own merits. But all things are possible with God. Peter responds this time. “We have,” he says, “Left everything and followed you.” Whatever that man did that you didn’t like we got right. Of course! Jesus tells him. And the world is upside-down, and when it is set right you will not be last, but first. Because the world is so confused it thinks the last is the first, and everyone has been fighting to get to the end of the line.

And again Jesus tells the disciples that he will die. He’s very clear about it. Nobody responds. Mark doesn’t mention any confusion. But they aren’t getting it. James and John want some guarantees of glory. “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus tells them. Glory isn’t what you think it is, power, position, the ability to oppress and control. Glory is something else. Can you drink this cup? Can you be baptized with this baptism? I think not. But that will be the glorification of the Son of Man.

It’s not clear if John and James really listened that time. But years later, long after James’ martyrdom, John sits down in Ephesus to write a gospel, a thing of beauty, full of half-hidden meanings, and tied together by signs. And at the end of the signs, the greatest sign of glory, is the Messiah who dies a shameful death out of incredible love. We have seen his glory. And it wasn’t like ours.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Jay permalink
    April 13, 2010 9:13 pm

    Eric, I know that you and your fellow theological types probably know what Reformed theology is, but I don’t. I’m sure the (very good) study of Mark you posted here has something to do with that subject, since you mentioned it in the beginning of your essay, but I’m not putting the pieces together…

    • Eric permalink
      April 13, 2010 9:59 pm

      Reformed theology is, for the layman, Calvinism. Since most of the ideas of Calvinism center around the idea of God’s sovereignty and glory this essay ends up speaking tangentially to that debate.

  2. April 14, 2010 8:04 am

    Fantastic post, Mr Eric. How we all need to be reminded that the Gospel is quite a different way of looking at the world!


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