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Articles posts of '2017' 'February'

“I Am the Resurrection and the Life”: A Meditation on John 11:25–26

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet he shall live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” –John 11:25–26

Sometimes it is the case that when a loved one passes away, the family calls together the entire family. It is common, if he is not already there, to call the pastor. What I do when I get there, whether the loved one is dying or is already dead, is to open up the Bible and read. I might read a number of different passages, but two I always read. One is Psalm 23, which reminds us of Jesus’ statement, “I am the Good Shepherd.” Psalm 23 speaks of the shepherd’s care for his sheep throughout their lives. Another passage I turn to is John 11. After I read this passage, if there are young grandchildren around, I explain to them what it means that Jesus is the resurrection and the life.

We are up to our fifth of seven meditations on the “I am” statements of Christ. This time we look to that great I AM who said, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

What It Means

This passage begins with some of the most comforting words spoken by our Savior. “Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’” However, these words are comforting because of the context in which they are spoken. Jesus had three very close friends who were siblings. Lazarus was the brother and Mary and Martha were the sisters. They were a wealthy family who lived in Bethany, near Jerusalem. Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus that Lazarus was sick. In verse 3 the statement is, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” Jesus had a deep love for this family.

When Jesus received news of this serious illness, Jesus knew what was to take place. The glory of God will be revealed in the events of that week. Jesus decides to go to Bethany, even though the disciples warned him not to go, because the Jews tried to kill Jesus near there. Jesus was resolved to go because he was going to wake up Lazarus, who had fallen asleep. This phrase is used many times hereafter in the New Testament to refer to believers who die. The reason to use this phrase is because of what Jesus is going to reveal in this text.

When Jesus neared Bethany, he found out that Lazarus had been in the tomb dead for four days. When he got near, Martha went out to meet him (for context, read John 11:20–26). In response, Martha confessed her faith in Christ. Then Jesus sent for Mary, and when she arrived, she was weeping along with the other mourners. She fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Then something happened. In verse 33 it says Jesus was moved in spirit and troubled. The result is that he wept. We have a Savior who can sympathize with us in our weaknesses. It is a very emotional scene. Jesus comes to the tomb, and at first Martha objected because it would stink . . . the body would have already begun to decompose. Nevertheless, the stone is removed; Jesus prays to God and then tells Lazarus to come out. The one who would in a short time go the cross and the grave and also would be resurrected, performs here the greatest of miracles in his ministry up until this point. He raises Lazarus from the dead. In this context he says, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

Essentially there are two I am statements in our text: I am the resurrection, and I am the life. Christ proclaims this and then explains what they mean (read the rest of verse 25). When the subject of the resurrection first was brought up by Jesus, Martha thought that Jesus was speaking of the resurrection at the last day. Though this is true, he is speaking primarily about the spiritual resurrection today. What Lazarus is about to become is the ultimate visual aid of the great teacher. We might die in order to live.

Humans are, by nature, dead. This is what Scripture clearly teaches. Remember Genesis 8. Before and after the flood, man’s heart was only evil continually. In speaking of the new life in Christ, Ephesians 2 says that while we were dead in trespasses and sins, Christ made us alive. By nature we are dead. The first resurrection, the resurrection of which Jesus speaks, takes place when we believe. “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.” Jesus here is changing Martha’s outlook on the situation.

In response to the question of why is Christ the resurrection, John Calvin says, “Because by His Spirit he regenerates the children of Adam, who had been alienated from God by sin, so that they begin to live a new life.” In order to be resurrected, you must be dead, and contrary to what most Arminian churches teach, we are not born sick, we are born dead. For Christ to say, “I am the resurrection” was in light of Lazarus’s death, not Lazarus’s sickness.

Our Savior continues and explains what it means that he is the life. “And whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” When a Christian is spiritually brought to life, he will never die again. Oh, to be sure, his body might die, but it also will be raised again. His soul will live forevermore in fellowship with God. This second phrase confirms the first. What is the best evidence you have been resurrected? You are alive.

When we die now in this life, our body goes to the ground and our soul goes to heaven. It is conscious, fully sanctified, and in the presence of God. This time is called the intermediate state. We are awaiting the final state, where body will be resurrected and united to soul and will be transformed like Christ’s glorious body to inhabit the new earth. This is what Martha first had in mind in verse 24. But Jesus isn’t talking about the final resurrection. He is saying that he himself is the resurrection and the life. To partake of what Christ is doing happens by faith. “Do you believe this?”

As we think about this, we might wonder why Jesus took so long to go to Bethany. After all, Mary and Martha, women he loved, and the other mourners had four days of utter grief and sorrow. Why did he delay so long? This is what Jesus was getting at in verse 4 and verse 15.

There would be no doubting that Lazarus was dead. Jesus was going to do something no one else could do. Why would he do it? To glorify God by testifying to the fact that he is the Christ, the Messiah, the Great I AM. This now is the third time Jesus spoke an I am statement in the presence of a miracle. He was the bread of life after he fed the five thousand. He was the light of the world after he healed the man born blind. Now he is the resurrection and the life as he raises Lazarus from the dead. The implications of the others was if you believe, you won’t be hungry, you won’t be in the dark, but now, you will not die.

Why It Is True

For us to read John 11 two thousand years after the cross, we can understand it more fully. Jesus speaks with authority given by the Father, for what he has accomplished and what he will accomplish. He speaks as one who has died, he raises Lazarus as one who was raised, and speaks of one who has eternal life while yet living on earth. This is how sure the redemption secured in Jesus was. With that said, we still must ask how it is that Jesus is the resurrection and the life.

For Jesus to be the resurrection, he must defeat death. This is precisely what he did. When Jesus breathed his last upon the cross, in the eyes of Satan, it must have been the great victory. But it wasn’t a victory for Satan, because three days later something happened: the resurrection on Easter morning. This is why we worship on Sunday . . . it is resurrection day. When Christ was raised, he was raised victoriously over Satan. “Sin’s bonds severed, we’re delivered; Christ has bruised the serpent’s head; death no longer is the stronger; Hell itself is captive led. Christ has risen from death’s prison; O’er the tomb He light has shed” (Psalter Hymnal #361, verse 3).  empty grave is guarantee of our resurrection, both in this life and in the life to come. Our catechism says that we are already now resurrected to a new life. This is because Christ defeated that ancient enemy: death!

Romans 5 says that we are raised up with Christ. First Peter 1:23 says that “we have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable.” Christ is the firstfruits of our glorious resurrection. What this means is that since Christ was raised, through union with him, we are guaranteed to be raised.

This is what Colossians 3:1–4 is getting at. Colossians 3:3 says, “For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Focus your mind for a moment on the idea of our life being hidden with Christ. It is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us. I explained to my catechism students this week that we are dying. The outward body is slowly dying away, but the inward man is being renewed. We are like a cut flower. A cut flower flourishes for a week or two and then it is thrown into the garbage. This is kind of depressing and sad, if it was not for the fact that Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Our natural life is being eclipsed by the spiritual life.

Why It Matters

The glorious truth and comforting fact that Jesus is the great I Am, who makes a claim to divinity when he says, “I am,” is also the resurrection and the life. If we don’t see how this connects to our lives, there is a danger to leave it out there as just a nice teaching. It isn’t just a nice teaching. It is a life-changing teaching. Let me give you four reasons why.

First, this matters because you will die. Today it might seem that you are full of life. Maybe you have your whole life ahead of you. Or maybe you are at midlife. But maybe you are not. Maybe your life is at its end and you don’t realize it yet. Death can be scary, and it is no respecter of persons. If the Lord delays his return, we will die. What will happen to you when you die? This all depends how you answer Jesus’ question to Martha. Do you believe this? Not just do you believe that this is true, but do you believe this is true for you? Is your life now hidden with Christ; is he your life?

Second, our loved ones will die. The older we get, the more this is the case. My great-grandma told me one time when she was in her mid-nineties that just about everyone she knew when she was a little girl is now dead. Those close to us, whom we love, will also die, and it will hurt. Certainly, there are many reading this who are hurting and grieving, sometimes in silence. It is okay to grieve, but remember, we can grieve as those who have hope, because Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.” That cemetery you may visit from time to time is not a final resting place. It is merely a waiting room, waiting for the Lord’s return. The soul, the mind, the essence of our loved ones, if they died as believers, are with the Lord. They are asleep in Jesus. Death has been defeated. That sting of death has been removed. Calvin says, “What is still more, death itself is a sort of emancipation from the bondage of death.”

As Mary and Martha weep, we see Jesus also weep. Martha wanted Lazarus to be alive. Jesus speaks about a better life, a spiritual life, one in which, if you live it, you will never die. And yet, the pain of death is still real. This is what happens when we love people. The only consolation as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death is that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Weeping is for a night, but joy comes in the morning.

To an unbeliever, this is nonsense. Death is the grim reaper. It is final. The idea of robbing death of its power is preposterous. It is by faith alone that these truths can be grasped. This is why Jesus asked Martha, “Do you believe this?” Because faith makes all the difference.

Third, this is important because of Christ’s statement and the comfort it affords when death looks us in the face. We do not have to fear death or life. We can be those who live assured. Don’t mix this up with cocksureness, arrogance, or fatalism (whatever will be will be). It has simply been called Calvinism in the past, but we can merely refer to this form of life as a trust in God in light of his providence. When you sing a song like “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” you can do so almost with a clenched fist. “And though this world with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear for God has willed, his truth to triumph through us. The prince of darkness, we tremble not for him, his rage we can endure, for lo his doom is sure, one little word shall fell him.” To overemphasize the triumphant life is not helpful. You have to fight in this life, because your enemies never stop attacking us. Live with fortitude, strength, courage in the Lord.

And last, the fact that Jesus called himself the resurrection and the life points us both to this life and the life to come. Let us not seek to escape this life and run off and hide in a corner with our Bibles until Jesus returns. Let us also remember there is something more than this. We are called here. After we die, we will be called out of this life, but we are not dead yet. As we live, serve the Lord. When you come before God in prayer at night, let it be found that you have been busy in the work of the Lord. Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, awaiting the appearing of the Lord in glory. We will be resurrected when Christ returns, but also, already now, we are raised up to a new life.

In the midst of death, sorrow, and weeping, Jesus said, ”I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Let us confess, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God.”

 

Rev. Steve Swets
is the pastor of Rehoboth United Reformed Church in Hamilton, ON. 

3 Reminders as You Enter the New Year

Don’t Worry About the Year 2017

Don’t worry about what you will eat, drink, and wear this year. Your Father in heaven knows your needs. Instead of worrying, “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” and all your needs will be given to you according to his will (Matt. 6:33, New King James Version).

After all, why worry about the unknown future of 2017 when you can pray? “O what peace we often forfeit / O what needless pain we bear / All because we do not carry / Everything to God in prayer.” Yes, what will take place this year is not known to us, but for us believers in Christ, we know that God is causing all things to work together for his glory and for our good (Rom. 8:28–29). And the word good in this passage ultimately refers to our conformity to the image of Christ. The bitter events of 2017 will only make us better believers. Let us therefore welcome the New Year without fear.

Don’t Boast About the Year 2017

Don’t brag about what you will do in 2017; you don’t know what will happen this year (Prov. 27:1). “You do not know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14, New International Version).

Don’t act as if you can control the future. You are not in control of everything. Don’t think that you can do and get whatever you want this year. You are not all-powerful. Don’t be overconfident about your future plans. You are not all-knowing. You don’t even know if you are still alive tomorrow. Thus learn to qualify your plans by saying, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that” (James 4:15, New International Version). Nevertheless, no matter what happens, God’s will is always best for us because he is all-wise and all-good.

Don’t Waste the Year 2017

You waste this year when you use it only for your own pleasure. Remember the rich fool who said to his soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’” But God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will things be which you have provided?” (Luke 12:19–20, New King James Version).

What a wasted life this rich fool had! He used his time, energy, and resources only for himself. With God’s help, let’s spend all the days of 2017 for God’s praise. Let’s also seize all God-given opportunities this year to “do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith” (Gal. 6:10, New American Standard Bible). Remember, “Only one life, so soon it will pass / Only what’s done for Christ will last.” A life spent in the service of Christ is the most meaningful life that anyone can live in this world.

Have a blessed New Year!

 

Rev. Brian G. Najapfour
is the pastor of Dutton United Reformed Church, Caledonia, MI, and author of The Very Heart
of Prayer: Reclaiming John Bunyan’s Spirituality
(2012) and Jonathan Edwards: His Doctrine of and Devotion to Prayer (2013).
He and his wife, Sarah, have three children, Anna, James, and Abigail. He blogs at biblicalspiritualitypress.org.

 

What Is Covenant Theology, and Why Should I Care?

Covenant. As anyone who has read the Bible knows, that word seems to be one of God’s favorites. Yet it is more than just a word that appears frequently (more than three hundred times); it is one of the most important themes of sacred Scripture. The book of Genesis is primarily about God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants. The book of Exodus is in large part about God’s covenant at Mount Sinai with the nation Israel. Throughout the rest of the Old Testament—in its historical, poetical, and prophetical books—we find continual references to these two covenants: the Abrahamic and the Mosaic. We then come to the New Testament and read of Jesus instituting a new covenant, the same covenant of which the prophet Jeremiah foretold (Jer. 31:31–34). The apostle Paul and the writer to the Hebrews elaborate on the vital differences between the old (Mosaic) and new covenants (Gal. 3–4; 2 Cor. 3; Heb. 7–10). On top of this, the Bible also reveals how God made important covenants with Noah and David. What do all of these covenants mean? Does it really make any difference how well we understand them?

Answering those questions is the task of covenant theology. Covenant theology is a way of reading and interpreting the Bible through the lens of God’s covenants. It is not an interpretive grid that we impose upon Scripture, nor is it a system invented by Calvinists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Rather, it is the Bible’s own method of interpreting itself. This is why covenant theology has enjoyed such a prominent place in the Reformed tradition. With its emphasis upon the authority of Scripture, the Protestant Reformation saw covenant theology as God’s prescribed method for interpreting his revelation, for covenant is the way in which God has chosen to relate to human beings. It is impossible, therefore, to interpret Scripture faithfully without understanding the meaning of these covenants. As J. I. Packer put it, “The Word of God is not properly understood till it is viewed within a covenantal frame.”1

This article is the first in a series that will concisely explore covenant theology. In each forthcoming issue of The Outlook, we will briefly examine one of the covenants revealed in Scripture, working our way chronologically from the covenant of redemption to the new covenant. If you find these short essays to whet your appetite for further study, consider reading Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored, a book I wrote with co-author Zach Keele and published by Reformed Fellowship. That resource expands on the material found in these articles.

What Is a Covenant?

Before we begin our survey of the covenants, we must answer the question: What is a covenant? Covenant is not a word we use in everyday conversation. Yet, in Reformed circles we tend to toss it around quite a bit. We thank God for his covenant mercies. We talk about our children as heirs of the covenant. We even use it to give our local congregations names like Covenant Reformed Church. But what does the word covenant mean? We can define it like this: a covenant is an oath-bound relationship that implies sanctions. Some covenants are mutual agreements, while others are imposed unilaterally from one party to another. Some have equal parties, some unequal. The nature of the relationship between the parties can vary, depending on the covenant. Some covenants create an intimate relationship, while others an impersonal one. All covenants, in some fashion, involve oaths and promises and imply (if not explicitly state) consequences if the oath taker fails to keep his promise. In this sense, the relationship in the covenant has a certain legality.

If this sounds rather technical and complex, it may be helpful to reflect on the kind of covenants with which we are familiar in daily life. For example, consider the marriage relationship. Marriage is a covenant. A man and a woman formally commit themselves to each other by taking vows, pledging their love and undying loyalty to the other partner in the covenant. A marriage ceremony is essentially a covenant-making ceremony. The guests are there not merely to share in the joy of the couple but also to hear the vows and witness the making of a covenant. The oaths and promises that the bride and groom make result in the creation of a new relationship: the officiant pronounces them husband and wife. However, in order for the relationship to work, fidelity is required from those who took vows. If either party in the covenant is unfaithful to the oath he or she made to the other, there will be negative consequences: anything from a strained relationship to a messy divorce with costly lawsuits. This is what it means for a covenant relationship to have legality; sanctions are involved where there is unfaithfulness in the covenant.

We must be careful not to put legality in opposition to intimate relationships. For example, some might consider the relationship between parents and their children to have nothing to do with legality and to be only about love and nurture. But this is not the case. The love and intimacy of the parent-child relationship does not make it void of legality. In fact, it may increase its legal character. As Hebrews says, the father who does not discipline his children does not love them (12:7–8). Children are obligated to their parents at birth and vice versa. If children refuse to obey their parents, there are consequences. Likewise, there are consequences if parents neglect their children. Although the vast majority of these consequences are not dealt with in a court of law, they are nevertheless real and usually very painful: loss of privileges, loss of trust, anger, bitterness, and so on. There is no tension between the fact that a relationship can be both intimate and legal, that is, involving consequences. This is important to remember when we consider the biblical covenants.

Some covenant relationships, however, are less intimate. Think about the relationship between a bank and a borrower in a mortgage. Obviously this relationship is less personal and intimate than the covenant of marriage, yet it is still a covenant of sorts. This is a formalized agreement between two parties that states duties and consequences. The bank agrees to loan the borrower a great sum of money in order to buy a home. The borrower makes a promissory commitment to repay all the money plus interest over a long period. By signing his name to the mortgage documents, the borrower is giving his word that he will fulfill the conditions of the covenant. If he fails to keep his word, sanctions will follow. The house will go into foreclosure. His signature amounts to a self-maledictory oath whereby in essence the borrower says, “If I fail to keep my word, may the curses of this covenant come upon me!”

In one sense, the basic elements of covenant are present every time someone promises to do something for someone else. There are implied positive and negative consequences. If I promise my neighbor that I will collect his mail and put his trashcans on the curb while he is away on vacation, I have given him my word as an oath. If I keep my word, the positive consequence is that I will have gained more of my neighbor’s trust and appreciation. But if I forget, the negative consequence will be my embarrassment and shame. My promise, even in something small, implies sanctions. Our words can bind us to duties and to other people. Grasping this basic fact helps us to understand the nature of the biblical covenants, for a covenant in its fuller sense is a solemn formalization of commitments and promises.

Covenants in the Ancient World

In the ancient Near East, the use of covenants was essentially the same as in our modern world. They were commitments that created relationships with sanctions. Of course, the ceremonies and rituals associated with covenants in the ancient world were much different (and more gruesome) than ours. Instead of taking a self-maledictory oath by signing a contract, an ancient was typically required to participate in a ceremony that involved blood. Because the sanction for not keeping one’s covenant oath was the curse of death, the people making a covenant would kill animals as a symbol of their own death, serving as a warning to the oath taker. This imagery comes across vividly in the Hebrew idiom for making a covenant, which is literally “to cut a covenant.” The cutting referred to the ceremony of killing animals and cutting them in half. The person promising to fulfill the conditions of the covenant would then swear by a god that he would keep his word. Often, this included a dramatic ritual, such as passing between the severed animal or having its blood sprinkled before him. Added to this was a shared meal between the parties who made the covenant. They would eat the animals cut in the covenant ceremony. The meal was reflective of their committed relationship and a reminder of the oath made in the treaty. These rituals varied, however, according to the kind of covenant they accompanied.

The secular use of covenants in the ancient Near East provides us with important cultural background that is helpful for us to understand the religious covenants of the Bible. When God made covenants with his people in redemptive history, he did so in ways they could understand. As he brought Adam, Noah, Abraham, the Israelites, and David into particular covenants, he accommodated his language to fit their historical and cultural context. If God made a covenant with us today, we could expect him to use forms of treaties and legal agreements that are common to our society today. This does not mean that the biblical covenants are exhausted in their secular counterparts, but it does mean that our understanding of God’s covenants is greatly aided by our knowledge of the common ancient covenants.

Furthermore, the Lord’s accommodation to use covenant forms from the ancient world does not mean these are the original pattern for his covenants with his people. Reformed theologians have rightly observed that the original design for God’s covenants is the perfect communion found in the Trinity. As Louis Berkhof (1873–1957) pointed out, “The covenant idea developed in history before God made any formal use of the concept in the revelation of redemption.”

Covenants among men had been made long before God established his covenant with Noah and with Abraham, and this prepared men to understand the significance of a covenant in a world divided by sin, and helped them to understand the divine revelation when it presented man’s relation to God as a covenant relation. This does not mean, however, that the covenant idea originated with man and was then borrowed by God as an appropriate form for the description of the mutual relationship between God and man. Quite the opposite is true; the archetype of all covenant life is found in the trinitarian being of God, and what is seen among men is but a faint copy of this. God so ordered the life of man that the covenant idea should develop there as one of the pillars of social life, and after it had so developed, he formally introduced it as an expression of the existing relation between himself and man.2

We should not be surprised that God adopted covenant treaties for his own purposes, for covenant making among humans reflects the triune God in whose image they are made. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit live in unceasing devotion and commitment to each other. As creatures made in the image of the triune God, we then reflect this life by keeping our promises and committing ourselves to others in ordinary covenant relationships. God used this function of his creatures for his own redemptive purposes to communicate his promises to us. We should be eager, therefore, to grasp the significance of ancient covenants in order to appreciate God’s covenant relationship with us.

The Joy of Studying God’s Covenants

Studying God’s covenants should never be a dry academic exercise. Nor should it be for the purpose of debating and arguing with our brothers in Christ. Studying God’s covenants has one primary goal: to know God and understand our relationship with him more fully. In this way, covenant theology has immense pastoral and practical value for Christians. It revolutionizes our approach to Scripture, providing us with helpful categories to understand the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. It shows us that the Bible is one book with one story, told on the stage of real human history. It highlights the plot line and central point of Scripture, setting every story in the context of the larger story about Christ.

More importantly, covenant theology provides us with the deepest comfort as we learn that God accepts us not on the basis of our covenant faithfulness but on the basis of Christ’s. It sweetens our fellowship with the Father as we come to know of his oath and promises to us, promises that are yes and amen through the Mediator of the new covenant. It changes our view of the local church as we discover that we are part of God’s covenant community and worship him in a covenant-renewal ceremony every Lord’s Day. It transforms the way we see our children, namely, as the baptized members of God’s covenant of grace. It helps us understand that covenant is not a means to an end but it is the end itself—the communion between God and his people.

In the next issue, we will turn our attention to the covenant of redemption. Until then, my prayer is that you will find the study of God’s covenants to enrich your communion with the triune God and strengthen your assurance in his unfailing promises to us in Christ!

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1. J. I. Packer, “Introduction: On Covenant Theology,” in Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man (Kingsburg, CA: den Dulk Christian Foundation, 1990), 5–8.

2. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1938; repr. 1996), 263. 

 

Rev. Michael G. Brown
is pastor of Christ United Reformed Church in Santee, CA. He is the editor and contributing author of Called to Serve: Essays for Elders and Deacons. and co-author of Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored.

 

Interview with Rev. William Boekestein

William Boekestein’s latest book is Bible Studies on Mark (Reformed Fellowship, 2016), a twenty-one-lesson guide to Mark’s Gospel with study questions for each chapter. Here’s an opportunity to better get to know him and his book.

Back-cover bios tend to provide only brief and professional information. Help us get to know you better by telling us about your pathway to ministry.

When I graduated from high school I was certain that my days in a classroom were over; I was going to be a carpenter like my father. And I was for a few years, both in Michigan and in California. While working as a home builder for my cousin in California, mostly out of curiosity I responded to an advertisement from a missionary in India who was looking for a helper and companion. I went to India not as a missionary but as a twenty-year-old with almost no sense of direction. After three months of seeing God’s Word work powerfully in the lives of hurting people, I had a new and growing desire to teach the Bible. Upon returning to the States I enrolled at Kuyper College (with my future wife, Amy). Seven years later I graduated from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. After serving Covenant Reformed Church in Carbondale, Pennsylvania, for seven years, I have been pastoring Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan, since May of 2015.

Do you have a ministry team?

I do. It was formed in 2003 and has been growing ever since! Amy and I married after graduating from college together. The Lord gave us two children (Asher and Eva) by the time I graduated from seminary. Mina joined us just after moving to Carbondale, and Hazel came along the year before we arrived in Michigan. No one could say that family life is always easy. But these teammates have brought me tremendous joy along the journey!

Clearly you enjoy writing, having written nine books in less than nine years of ministry. Do you have other hobbies or interests?

I do love to write. Someone has said that thoughts disentangle themselves as they pass from the mind, through the lips, and over the fingertips. I find that nothing clarifies my thoughts and sharpens my thinking like writing (and rewriting!) ideas. The discipline of squeezing out unnecessary words to make an article fit its allowed word count can pay dividends in other areas of communication. For a writer, finding the right word for a sentence is like, for a shopaholic, finding the perfect item of clothing. Maybe as a former carpenter, writing satisfies a desire to turn the raw materials of words into a sort of finished (though imperfect) product.

Beyond writing I love to hunt. The mid-century ranch home we bought in Kalamazoo is surrounded by great hunting land. My wife can almost see me in my deer hunting tree stand from our kitchen window! As our kids have grown, it has been a joy to see them begin to show interest in the sport as well.

We also love to bike as a family. We live very close to an excellent bike path (that conveniently passes an ice-cream shop!). In the last year we’ve begun riding tandem bikes, which is a great way to put on some distance with kids who, on their own, would not be able to make it so far.

Why did you decide to write a study on the book of Mark?

This book grew out of my conviction that clear, lively, and practical expository preaching can well lend itself to written Bible study material. Preaching should be the explanation and application of Scripture with an acute awareness of God’s redemptive work in Christ. Preaching through this Gospel is an excellent way to meet Jesus, the fulcrum of the biblical drama. The same can be true when we study the book on our own or in a small group.

What major themes do you find in this Gospel that the reader should remember?

Mark, along with the other Gospels, vividly demonstrates a central reality of the Scripture—in Christ, God is the primary actor. The Gospels show Christ fighting the forces of darkness, showing compassion on the needy, and fulfilling God’s royal law on behalf of God’s children. Christ lived and died and lives again to establish a kingdom of righteousness into which believers are graciously drawn by his Spirit. The Gospels can help us fix our eyes on Jesus as the author and finisher of our faith. When we do, we can begin to live out another important theme of the gospel: God’s children are to follow Jesus in cross bearing and holy living.

Your study guide explains a Bible book that was written almost two thousand years ago to a very different culture. Does your book intend to bridge the gap between Mark’s world and ours?

The book is meant to bridge that gap in the same sense that preaching does. A preacher of the Bible should always plant one foot in the world of Scripture and the other in the world of his audience. This book “preaches” by helping the reader better understand parts of the story that aren’t immediately clear to modern readers.

But the Bible teacher’s task of bringing our two worlds together is aided by the character of Scripture itself. Every book of the Bible has a time and culture stamp, you might say. But the books are also timeless. At Pentecost people from a host of nations with their own languages and cultures were able to understand the basic message of the Bible, the gospel. So, today, aided by the Holy Spirit, this message still resonates with God’s chosen people. Though we live two millennia after the book was written, we still hunger, thirst, and hurt. It doesn’t take much translation for us to see relief in Jesus’ compassionate giving.

How, in your opinion, can this book best be used?

Scripture studies are almost always aided by well-written guides. Without a guide, we either struggle to know what to think or say about a text or we get in the habit of merely sharing our own thoughts that might have little to do with the intent of the biblical author. One of the dangers, though, of using a study guide is that the Bible can become eclipsed. It is easy to subconsciously begin to treat the Bible as the raw materials and the study guide as the finished product, favoring the latter. To avoid misusing supplemental materials it is important for students of the Scripture to carefully interrogate the Bible text they are studying. Ask hard questions of the text. Search for the theme of the verses you are studying. Be an investigator. Note observations and applications. Use the questions in your study guide to stimulate thought before turning to the answers in the book. In this way the book becomes a sounding board for your ideas and conclusions rather than a source book. The Bereans took such an approach. They “received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11, New International Version).

Dr. Jason Van Vliet praised your book by saying you pack “more food for the soul into a short paragraph than many others do in an entire page.”

These are kind words! If Jason is right, then the book takes its cue from the Gospel itself. John Mark’s writing—the Spirit’s writing—is anything but dry and wordy. Mark tells the story of Jesus in a rapid-fire, can’t-sit-still kind of way. The movement in the story is often tied together by one of Mark’s favorite adverbs, “immediately.” Mark assures us that rich theological writing doesn’t have to be dry and long-winded.

Compiled by the Editor


Current Issue: November/December 2018
Volume 68 Issue 6

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This lecture was given at the annual meeting of Reformed Fellowship held November 7, 2008, at Trinity United Reformed Church, 7350 Kalamazoo Ave SE, Caledonia MI.

 

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