Category Archives: The Victory According to Mark

Revisiting Mark 2: the pattern and the callings

So, if you saw my last post on Mark, Revisiting Mark: the pattern, you saw a case for a pattern to the healings in Mark’s Gospel’s. But the full meaning of this pattern won’t be clear without considering the callings.

The Victory According to Mark: An Exposition of the Second Gospel

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Jesus’ first calling is by the sea. He calls four fishermen to abandon their work and follow him. Since, fishermen working by the sea doesn’t seem that odd, one might not think much about the detail. But then comes the calling of Levi:

He went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them. And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.
(Mark 2:13-14 ESV)

In this case the fact that their by the sea seems to be a detail that has  no real significance. But it serves to link this calling with the previous calling.

And it fits in the pattern I set down in my last post:

Exorcism, Cure, Cleansing, Cure-Feet –> Cure-Hand

Notice how the healings work with the callings:

Call 4 by name : Heal 4 people –> Call 1 by name : heal 1 person

I will demonstrate (to your satisfaction, I hope) that each line of miracles has a calling attached to the first healings and then to the complementary miracle. Jesus calls four and heals four ending with a paralyzed man walking (feet) and then he calls one and heals one withered hand. This is the pattern for all.

But the next calling also covers all the rest of the healings in the Gospel:

Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the sea, and a great crowd followed, from Galilee and Judea and Jerusalem and Idumea and from beyond the Jordan and from around Tyre and Sidon. When the great crowd heard all that he was doing, they came to him. And he told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, lest they crush him, for he had healed many, so that all who had diseases pressed around him to touch him. And whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.” And he strictly ordered them not to make him known.

And he went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons. He appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.
(Mark 3:1-19 ESV)

Only seven more are called, but Levi is given a new name. So we have eight new names called and, for the rest of the Gospel, we have eight more healings.

That makes thirteen healings. If that number makes you uncomfortable, then consider Jesus called first in his baptism by John. Then his own resurrection makes the fourteenth healing.

Revisiting Mark: the pattern

Here’s the deal with Mark’s miracle stories: While he has some summary statements, his narrations are always about one and only one person being healed. No story of ten lepers. No stories of two blind men (in fact, he drops them out of Matthew’s account).

So consider Mark’s last five healing miracles. Exorcism (7.24-30), Cure (7.31-37), Cure (8.22-26), Exorcism (ch 9.14-28), Cure (10.46-52).

But if we look at these details a bit closer something seems less than random: Exorcism of an unclean spirit (7.24-30), Cure of a deaf mute (7.31-37), Cure of a blind man (8.22-26), Exorcism of an unclean spirit that causes deafness and muteness (ch 9.14-28), Cure of a blind man (10.46-52).


  • Exorcism, Deaf Mute –> Blind
  • Exorcism of Deaf Mute –> Blind

So is this a coincidence. Did Mark just happen to write in a way where the elements repeated and consolidated?

Now lets look at this with the rest of the miracles, starting in Mark chapter 1:

  • Exorcism, Cure, Cleansing, Cure-Feet –> Cure-Hand
  • Exorcism, Cure-Cleansing –> ???
  • Exorcism, Deaf Mute –> Blind
  • Exorcism of Deaf Mute –> Blind

Let me explain a bit. Take the first line:

Exorcism, Cure, Cleansing, Cure-Feet –> Cure-Hand

The first cure is the raising of Simon’s mother-in-law. The next is the healing of the paralytic so he can walk. Then we have the restoration of the withered hand.

Feet then hands. This matches the end of the last two lines, the last five healings: ears and mouth, then eyes.

Jesus is restoring a complete person:

Their idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.
They have ears, but do not hear;
noses, but do not smell.
They have hands, but do not feel;
feet, but do not walk;
and they do not make a sound in their throat.
Those who make them become like them;
so do all who trust in them.
(Psalm 115:4-8 ESV)

So why the move from body to head?

That brings us to the two healings, the cure-cleansing, in the second line:

Exorcism, Cure-Cleansing –> ???

Mark seems to have an aversion to any odd number beside 1. He gives us the story of the raising of Jairus’ daughter and puts, in the middle of it, the story of the cleansing of the woman with the issue of blood. These two women are quite obviously correlated. Both are called “daughter.” One is twelve years old and one has been unclean for twelve years. They would be an obvious match even if we didn’t know from Leviticus that the spreading dominion of death is the story behind the problem of uncleanness in Israel.

(A further comment. The stories follow each in cut time, 1-2-1-2… The exorcisms are always of “unclean spirits” thus making them the counter parts to the cleansings of the “leper” (a skin affliction that was not the modern disease of that name and probably wasn’t even contagious). and the cleansing of the woman with the the issue of blood.)

But the bottom line is: once you tell about a resurrection, what possible story can serve to “complete” the picture? Mark can tell us about a restored hand after a man is made to walk, or restored eyes after a man is made to hear and speak. But resurrection is an act that can’t be followed.

Thus, the move from body to head. This allows him to keep building to the final exorcism/cleansing/curing–the resurrection of Jesus.

For Further Reading

Quoting myself: if Jesus needed to pray how much more do we?

The contrast between Jesus and Peter could not be starker. Peter is confident that he will stand in the coming trial and he sleeps. Jesus, the very Son of God Himself, is torn up with temptation and prays prostrate on the ground…If Jesus needed to pray, how much more did Peter, James, and John? How much more do we? (Mark Horne, The Victory According to Mark, p 177)

via Jesus the Firstborn « NEW HOPE CHURCH.

Glad to see someone finds my commentary helpful!

In his book The Victory According to Jesus Mark, Mark Horne argues that Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the temple actually foreshadows his own arrest, sufferings, and death (Victory, pp 166-18). Sadly, for many readers, (myself included) Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the temple tends to overshadow the story of the persecution, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus.

Here is how Peter Leithart fleshes out Horne’s observation:

– Jesus predicts that the Jews will deliver the apostles to the courts (13:9); but first Jesus is delivered to the courts.

– Jesus predicts that the apostles will be “flogged in the synagogues”(13:9); but first Jesus is flogged (15:15).

– Jesus warns the disciples that they will stand before governors and kings to testify (13:9); but first Jesus stands before Pilate the governor (cf. Matthew 27:2, 11, 14-15, 21, 27) and before King Herod (cf. Luke 23:7ff.).

– Jesus tells the apostles to leave their cloaks behind them when they flee from the city (13:16); in Gethsemane, a young man flees without his cloak (14:51-52).

– Jesus predicts tribulation (13:19), and then suffers tribulation, sorrow, and pain.

-After the days of tribulation, “the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light” (13:24). At the cross, “when the sixth hour had come, darkness fell over the whole land until the ninth hour” (15:33).

-In the coming generation, “the powers that are in the heavens will be shaken” (13:25); at the death of Jesus, the temple veil, which symbolized the veil of the firmament dividing heaven and earth, was torn in two, rent like the heavens at Jesus’ baptism.

-When the temple falls, all will perceive that the Son of Man has received dominion from His Father (13:26). As Jesus dies, as the temple of His body is destroyed, a Gentile centurion confesses that Jesus was the Son of God (15:39).

-Even the Jews who mock Jesus on the cross recognize a connection with His temple predictions: “Ha! You who are going to destroy the temple and rebuilt it in three days, save Yourself, and come down from the cross!” (15:29).

The point here is that Jesus is the true and better apostle who experiences everything that his followers will experience. He is the true and better Israel who experiences the curses of the covenant in place of his people. He is the true and better temple that will be destroyed and raised again in three days.

The apocalyptic vision is not a square peg in a round hole. It is a cross-shaped story within the cross-shaped story. The good news here is that in the midst of all the turmoil, trials, and tribulations, all God’s elect/chosen ones are protected and preserved by God’s mercy. And as the gospel is preached throughout the world and all God’s elect/chosen ones are gathered from the four corners of the world.

via Jesus the Revelator « NEW HOPE CHURCH

005 The Victory According to Mark

THE CALL (1:15)

The Victory According to Mark: An Exposition of the Second Gospel

John’s Vocation (1:5-8)

When King Ahaziah heard a description of a man his messengers had met, he exclaimed, “It is Elijah the Tishbite.”  That description of Elijah reminds us now of John the Baptist:  “He was a hairy man with a leather girdle bound about his loins” (First Kings 1:8)  It is not until chapter 9 that Mark reveals explicitly that John corresponds to Elijah in the prophecy of Malachi 4, but here Mark’s description of John’s camel hair clothing with a leather belt around his waist reminds us of the prophet.

But why Elijah?  Why not say that John the Baptist corresponded to some other prophet like Isaiah or Jeremiah?  What made Elijah especially appropriate as a way of describing John the Baptist’s identity?  Let’s start with some seemingly random observations, from Mark’s gospel and elsewhere, about John the Baptist.  Notice that John confronts a king (Mark 6:17) and stays in the region of the Jordan (Matt 3:5; Luke 3:3) in the wilderness (Mark 1:4) across from the Promised Land (John 1:28; 10:40).

Now a few of these details do remind us of Elijah.  He too confronted an evil king (1 Kin 17:1; 21:17-19) and spent a lot of time outside of Israel proper (1 Kin 17:3, 9). But he also did more. He called down plagues on the Land (1 Kin 17:1), called down fire on his sacrifice (1 Kin 18:38), was fed by angels in the wilderness (1 Kin 19:4-7), and met God at Mt. Sinai (1 Kin 19:8-14).  Elijah stands out among Old Testament prophets as a new Moses. No one else was met by God at Mt. Sinai.  It is a unique marker in the Bible. Incidentally, both Moses and Elijah end their careers by ascending—Moses up a mountain to die and Elijah in a fiery chariot. In both cases, this happened across the Jordan from Jericho (Deut 34:1; 2 Kin 2:4-8).

There is more to say about John as Elijah, but for now it will suffice to recognize that linking John to Elijah also links him to Moses, the foremost of the prophets.

Yet Moses and all the prophets are about to be surpassed.  John is speaking for the whole Mosaic administration when he confesses, “After me One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to stoop down and untie the thong of His sandals.”  John’s prophecy echoes Malachi’s prophecy.  Malachi said that a messenger would prepare the way for the Lord; John says that he is preparing the way for Jesus.  It is rather hard to escape the idea that Mark is affirming the deity of Jesus by parralelling Malachi’s prophecy with John’s.

John says the one who is coming will baptize with the Holy Spirit, whereas he merely baptizes with water.  It has become something of an American fundamentalist shibboleth to use this verse and it’s parallels to claim that the real baptism mentioned in places like Romans 6:3 or Colossians 2:12 is a dry “baptism” done by the Spirit, not with water.  Whatever the merits of this idea, it is almost certainly not what John the Baptist was saying, according to Mark and the other gospel-writers.  Rather, this refers to the miracle of Pentecost when the Spirit signed and sealed the identity of Jesus’ disciples as His new people (Acts 2).  After Pentecost and a three other Pentecost-like events (Acts 8:14ff; 10:44ff; 19:1ff), water baptism is once again the normal means of entering the Church and gaining access to all the blessings Christ has given the Church (Acts 2:38-41; 22:16).

004 The Victory According to Mark

The Call (Mark 1:1-15)

The New Moses and the New Joshua (1:4 & 5)

Having recited the prophecy of the messenger or angel of the Lord who will prepare the way for Jesus, Mark now presents the messenger.

The Victory According to Mark: An Exposition of the Second GospelThe Jordan was the boundary that marked the transition of the Israelites from the wilderness to the Promised Land.  Indeed, when the Israelites miraculously crossed the Jordan on dry ground, they also circumcised all their males since they had not practiced circumcision for the forty years in the wilderness (Joshua 3-5).  This was not the only transition point in Israel’s exodus that involved passage through a body of water.  Earlier, the crossing of the brook Zered marked the point at which the older generation of Israelite warriors died in the wilderness so that the new generation could make a second attempt at entering the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 2:13-15).  The text specifically says that the men died because “the hand of the Lord was against them.”  The first such crossing, of course, did not involve the death of unfaithful Israelites, but rather of the Egyptian army.  The crossing of the Red Sea marked the leaving of Egypt forever, just as crossing the Jordan marked the leaving of the wilderness.


What is the reason for John’s baptizing in the Jordan River?  The Greek word “baptism” was used to refer to ceremonial cleansings and washings.  Mark himself, for example, uses the word to refer to washing dishes (7:4) just as the author of Hebrews uses it to refer to the ceremonial sprinklings of the Mosaic law (Hebrews 9:10).  However, if only cleansing was involved in John’s baptism, then John’s geographic location makes no sense.  If all that mattered to John’s “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” was the application of water, then there would have been no reason for him to stay in the wilderness in the region of the Jordan.  He would have reached many more people by simply going to Jerusalem and preaching there.  But for some reason, he felt compelled to baptize in the Jordan an make people go out to him in order to be baptized.  We need to ask ourselves “Why the Jordan?”

The Apostle Paul later refers to the crossing of the Red Sea as a “baptism” (First Corinthians 10:1 & 2).  Perhaps thinking about why Paul associated crossing a body of water on dry ground with baptism will help us understand why John began baptizing at the Jordan River.  If we do that, there is no reason to only consider the Red Sea as if it was the only analogy Paul could have used.  If the miraculous crossing at the Red Sea was a baptism, why not also the miraculous crossing at the Jordan River?  After all, the Israelites were actually circumcised when they crossed the Jordan River, which Paul elsewhere associates with baptism (Colossians 2:11-13).  And then we have the water crossing between those two points, the brook Zered which marked the transition between the condemned generation and the new generation promised the Land.

The common factor in these three instances is that the water marks a boundary between the old and the new, the cursed-for-sin and the blessed-with-forgiveness.  It is interesting that this corresponds to the layout of the Tabernacle and Temple:  One could not enter God’s presence without first going by a laver of cleansing (Exodus 30:17ff) or a “bronze ocean” (First Kings 7:23ff).  The Israelites passed through the Red Sea and then met with God on Mount Sinai.  Once the Tabernacle was built, God’s presence dwelt in it, which the priests could only approach through the laver of cleansing.  It isn’t too hard to see here a common theme: passing through water means moving closer to where God is, and typically involves repentance and abandonment of or deliverance from the old in order to receive the new. In all likelihood, the primal foundation for the significance of passing through water comes from the “waters above” which God placed under His throne in the heavens (Genesis 1:6-8; c.f. Rev. 4:6).  Passing through the waters represents going to God’s throne from the earth.

As the place where God would dwell enthroned among His people, the Promised Land resembled the Heavens where God ruled among the angels.  Thus Joshua and the Israelites entered the Land by miraculously passing through water and leaving the flesh of the old creation behind in circumcision, just as before Moses and the Israelites had passed through water on their way to God’s presence at Sinai, leaving the Egyptians and the plagues of Egypt behind (Exodus 15:26).  Following this tradition, those many Judeans, who left their homes and traveled the long road to John the Baptist in order to be baptized at the Jordan River, were re-entering the Promised Land.  They were confessing for themselves and their children that, even though they were geographically located in Israel, covenantally they were still in the wilderness.  Something had gone horribly wrong and they once again needed God’s presence to come and lead them out of exile to a place of rest.  Like Isaiah surprised by the presence of the Lord in His Temple, who confessed both that he was a man of unclean lips and a part of a people of unclean lips (Isaiah 6:5), those coming to John for baptism were confessing both that theirs was a sinful, adulterous, and unbelieving generation (Mark 8:38; 9:19), and that they personally had participated in it’s sin, adultery, and unbelief.  They were admitting that they were still under bondage in Egypt, though Moses had led them out of it so many centuries ago.


It is very important to realize that, though individual concerns were real in John’s ministry, his public proclamation of “the forgiveness of sins” had immense public consequences.  It is quite easy for a person today to assume that his sins are his personal property which are no one’s business but his own and God’s.  However, the Bible also acknowledges corporate sin both in the sense of institutionalized evil and in the sense of the punishment of society rather than only individual wrongdoers.  Mark himself has reminded us of this by using Isaiah 40 verse 3 as a prophecy of the ministry of John the Baptist.  For in the context of that quote, Isaiah promises blessings for Jerusalem as a city, saying

Comfort, O comfort My people,” says your God.
“Speak kindly to Jerusalem;
And call out to her, that her warfare has ended,
That her iniquity has been removed,

When we read that John was baptizing for “the forgiveness of sins,” we will be misunderstanding the text if don’t immediately think of national liberation as well as personal pardon.  The Israelites journeying to the Jordan would have heard that idea in John’s proclamation, as would John himself.  Mark makes the connection clear by using prophecies of Israel’s salvation from Egypt and exile to explain John’s vocation.  Israel was under God’s judgment and John was telling them how it could be removed.  Israel needed to be renewed and to repent.

Of course, everyone new that not everyone would repent.  What was hoped was that God would come to Israel and renew her by removing the wicked from her.  Mark’s citation of Malachi 3:1 underscores this because Malachi goes on to say

“Then I will draw near to you for judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who swear falsely, and against those who oppress the wage earner in his wages, the widow and the orphan, and those who turn aside the alien, and do not fear Me,” says the Lord of hosts.

By making the pilgrimage to the Jordan, those who believed John’s message showed that they wanted to be visibly separated from those under judgment when the Lord came.  They wanted to be members of the future purified Israel.  Undergoing John’s baptism helped them anticipate that they were not only God’s covenant people, but that they would remain in that covenant after God cast others out.  In order to be assured that they would be included in the future forgiven Israel whose iniquity would be removed, they needed to repent and ask for personal forgiveness now.

What Mark implies by invoking Isaiah 40 in the context of John’s ministry, Luke later made explicit by recording some of John’s interaction with those who came to him.

He therefore began saying to the multitudes who were going out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Therefore bring forth fruits in keeping with repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ for I say to you that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.  And also the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”  And the multitudes were questioning him, saying, “Then what shall we do?”  And he would answer and say to them, “Let the man who has two tunics share with him who has none; and let him who has food do likewise.”  And some tax-gatherers also came to be baptized, and they said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?”  And he said to them, “Collect no more than what you have been ordered to.”  And some soldiers were questioning him, saying, “And what about us, what shall we do?”  And he said to them, “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages” (3:7-14).

Notice here that John is quoted as warning of “the wrath to come.”  Mark’s use of Malachi 3 gives us the same understanding of John’s ministry.  When God comes to His Temple, who can withstand the day of his coming?  Notice also that issue is whether or not one is a member of the true Israel.  It is not enough to be a descendant of Abraham because every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down.  Thus, different groups of people ask John what they must do to be identifiable as the true Israel, the true children of Abraham.

By the way, just because John proclaims repentance, doesn’t mean he was excluding faith or preaching “legalism.”  The issue is not whether one can be good enough to earn salvation.  Rather, the issue for John and his hearers (and for us in our own situation) is whether or not we can rightfully identify ourselves as the people whom God will mercifully vindicate when He comes to judge the world.  If we may behave in a way that God allows us to anticipate that we, to quote the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “shall be openly acknowledged and acquitted in the day of judgment” (question 38), then our activity is not an attempt to earn anything from God or to save ourselves by our own efforts.  Rather it is a demonstration that we trust God and thus can hope in him.  As Paul told the Galatians, “we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness.”  Such a hope has nothing to do with our own merit; the only thing our merits can bring is fear.  But that doesn’t mean that such a hope may be held by all apart from any conditions.  We are required to believe or trust God as he has revealed Himself.  Thus, the author of Hebrews writes about Moses

By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter; choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God, than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin; considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking to the reward (11:24-26).

This is the kind of faith being demonstrated by those who respond to John’s proclamation.  They believe what he says is true, that God is about to visit His people.  They then act on their belief, knowing that God is going to both judge and save.  May we do the same because we too trust God and believe His message.

003 The Victory According to Mark

THE CALL (1:1-15)

The Prophecies (1:2 & 3)

When Paul preached to the Pisidian Antiochians, he summed up his message by announcing the gospel and then quoting prophecies of the gospel.

And we preach to you the good news [gospel] of the promise made to the fathers, that God has fulfilled this promise to our children in that He raised up Jesus, as it is also written in the second Psalm, “You are My Son; today I have begotten you (Acts 13:32 & 33).

The Victory According to Mark: An Exposition of the Second GospelLikewise, the beginning of Paul’s letter to the Romans follows that same form, first mentioning the gospel and then the prophecies:  “Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures.”  The author of Hebrews, also, first announces the identity of Jesus as God’s Son and promised one (vv. 1-4) and then begins quoting Scriptural prophecies (vv. 5ff.).

By announcing a gospel and then backing it up with Hebrew prophecies, Mark seems to be following the Apostolic presentation quite closely.

The beginning of the joyful proclamation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

Behold, I send My proclaimer before Your face,
Who will prepare Your way;
The voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Make ready the way of the Lord,
Make His paths straight.”

[I diverged from the NASB by translating “angel” or “messenger” (the same word) as “proclaimer.”  I also translated “gospel” as “joyful proclamation.”  I am trying to show the close relationship between verses 1 and 2 anchored in the similarity between evangelion (“good news” or “gospel”) and angellon (“angel” or “messenger”).]

This may seem like a rather straightforward prophecy, but it is actually not.  What Mark has done is quote a verse from Isaiah with an introductory verse from Malachi.  The angel or messenger sent to prepare the way comes from Malachi 3:1.  The voice in the wilderness is found in Isaiah 40:3.

But things are even more complicated.  Mark does not quote Malachi 3:1 verbatim, but subtly alters it.  Consider them together:

Malachi 3:1 Behold, I am going to send My angel, and he will clear the way before My face.

Mark 1:2 Behold, I send My angel before Your face, who will prepare Your way

Now some of the differences could simply be the result of translating from Hebrew to Greek.  However, the Malachi prophecy has God saying that his angel will prepare the way for himself.  Mark has God sending an angel to prepare the way for someone else.  Why is Mark changing the passage?

I would suggest [following Austin Farrar, A Study in Saint Mark (New York, Oxford U Press, 1952), 55] that Mark is intentionally combining a passage from Exodus with the passage from Malachi in order to introduce the prophecy from Isaiah.

Exodus 23:20 Behold, I am going to send an angel before you to guard you along the way, and to bring you into the place which I have prepared.

Malachi 3:1 Behold, I am going to send My angel, and he will clear the way before My face.

Mark 1:2 Behold, I send My angel before Your face, who will prepare Your way.

What do these two Old Testament passages mean, taken together as an interpretation of Isaiah’s prophecy?  The passage from Exodus is God’s promise to Moses to lead the Israelites by his angel through the wilderness away from Egypt to the Promised Land.  The prophesy of Malachi is God’s promise to once again to visit His people in a visible way for salvation and judgment.

God did not give a prophecy to Malachi which only happened to accidentally sound like his words to Moses.  God’s Word is not prone to accidents.  There are similarities between what the people desired at the time of Malachi, and what they were hoping for in the wilderness.  The people of Israel in the wilderness were not simply moving to a better place; they were moving to a place where God promised to dwell with them.

Behold, I am going to send an angel before you to guard you along the way, and to bring you into the place which I have prepared.  Be on your guard before him and obey his voice; do not be rebellious toward him, for he will not pardon your transgression, since My name is in him.  But if you will truly obey his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries.  For My angel will go before you and bring you in to the land of the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hivites and the Jebusites; and I will completely destroy them (Exodus 23:20-23).

Notice that God’s presence, mediated by His angel bearing His name, is the key to their victory and acquisition of a new land.  That angel was the Lord Himself who had led them out of Egypt as a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21), the same angel who, in a flaring cloud, protected the Israelites from the Egyptian army (Exodus 14:19), and the same angel who descended on that dark cloud upon Mount Sinai(Exodus 19:16).  Indeed, Moses sums up their entire journey through the wilderness by saying, “when we cried out to the Lord, He heard our voice and sent an angel and brought us out from Egypt” (Numbers 20:16).  That angel, of course, is the Lord Jesus himself, the one whom Mark’s gospel is written about.

It is important to remember that the Angel of the Lord dwelt within the Tabernacle Moses built.  God’s presence with His people was the whole point of the structure.  As he told Moses, “Let them construct a sanctuary for Me, that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8).  After the Tabernacle was built, the cloud on Mount Sinai moved into it (Exodus 40:34-38).  When God threatened to only lead them out of the wilderness at a distance, Moses was not happy.

Then the Lord spoke to Moses, . . . “Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; for I will not go up in your midst, because you are an obstinate people, lest I destroy you on the way.” . . .  Then Moses said to the Lord, “See, You say to me, ‘Bring up this people!’ But You Yourself have not let me know whom You will send with me.  Moreover, You have said, ‘I have known you by name, and you have also found favor in My sight.’  Now therefore, I pray You, if I have found favor in Your sight, let me know Your ways, that I may know You, so that I may find favor in Your sight. Consider too, that this nation is Your people.”  And He said, “My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest.”  Then he said to Him, “If Your presence does not go with us, do not lead us up from here.  For how then can it be known that I have found favor in Your sight, I and Your people? Is it not by Your going with us, so that we, I and Your people, may be distinguished from all the other people who are upon the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:1a, 3, 12-16)

The reason Moses was not happy was that acquisition of the Land, as important as that was, was not of much value to him if God was not with them.  Essential to the program of entering the Promised Land, was doing so with God’s visible presence in their midst.  Without God’s presence in the Tabernacle in the middle of the twelve tribes of Israel, the trip was simply not worth making.

This helps us understand why God gave Malachi a prophecy which reminded the hearers and readers of Exodus 23:20.  In Malachi’s day the Israelites were back in the Land after the return from exile.  They had rebuilt the Temple—even though it was relatively dinky (Ezra 3:12 & 13).  There priests were serving God in His house.

And yet something was wrong.  The Land was in jeopardy due to Israel’s new sins (Malachi 4:6b).  The Temple was not being treated as it should have been treated (Malachi 3:10).  The priests were corrupt (Malachi 2:1-9).  Despite dwelling in a special land, where God’s servants served Him in His dwelling palace, there was a real sense in which God was absent rather than present.  Geographically, the situation for Malachi was completely unlike the situation for Moses.  He was in the Promised Land whereas Moses was in the wilderness.  Yet covenantally, the nation of Israel was just as much in the wilderness as the generation of Moses had been.  They needed God’s presence.  Only when He visibly visited his Temple, would they truly possess the blessings that God had promised them.  As long as God was outside of the Land, in a sense, then so were they, no matter where they were geographically located.

When God promised Moses he would send an angel before them, He was promising to be present with them and lead them out of the wilderness into a place of communion with himself.  In a sense, Malachi is prophesying the same thing.  God will end the time of wilderness wandering by entering the Land, coming to His Temple, saving those who trust in Him, and destroying those who do not.  For Malachi, as is the case for the gospel writers, Jerusalem and the Land now count as Egypt and the wilderness.  God must re-enter the land for it to truly be the Promised Land.  Even though Malachi’s people are already settled geographically, the still need to be saved by God’s presence and put in the real Land.  God’s coming to His Temple is, in a real sense, their exodus out of Egypt and entry into the Land.  By coming into the Land Himself, God is bringing His people into the Promised Land.

All of this is necessary, if Mark’s readers are going to understand his invocation of Isaiah 40, verse 3.

The voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Make ready the way of the Lord,
Make His paths straight.”

Mark has already alluded to this passage by speaking of his document as a “gospel.”  By quoting this passage Mark is not simply extracting an ad hoc prooftext but offering a comprehensive explanation for who Jesus is and why John the Baptist preceded him.  He is also giving his readers a hint of what is going to happen in the rest of his story.  The only way to grasp this is to have this portion of Scripture firmly in mind.  Let us read it together:

Comfort, O comfort My people,” says your God.
“Speak kindly to Jerusalem;
And call out to her, that her warfare has ended,
That her iniquity has been removed,
That she has received of the Lord’s  hand
Double for all her sins.”

A voice is calling, “Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness;
Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.
Let every valley be lifted up,
And every mountain and hill be made low;
And let the rough ground become a plain,
And the rugged terrain a broad valley;
Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
And all flesh will see it together;

For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
A voice says, “Call out.”
Then he answered, “What shall I call out?”
All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
When the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
But the word of our God stands forever.

Get yourself up on a high mountain,
O Zion, bearer of the gospel.
Lift up your voice mightily,
O Jerusalem, bearer of the gospel;
Lift it up, do not fear.
Say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!” (emphasis added)

The odds are that, if you are a Christian reader, you have been taught—correctly—that his is a prophecy of Jesus Christ and his ministry.  But we need to do some study to understand how it works as a prophecy.  Isaiah’s original readers would have—again correctly—read this passage in the context of Isaiah’s own life and it’s place in the his book.  The last thing mentioned just before this prophecy is Isaiah’s confrontation with Hezekiah:

Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the Lord of hosts, ‘Behold, the days are coming when all that is in your house, and all that your fathers have laid up in store to this day shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left,’ says the Lord. And some of your sons who shall issue from you, whom you shall beget, shall be taken away; and they shall become officials in the palace of the king of Babylon.’”  Then Hezekiah said to Isaiah, “The word of the Lord which you have spoken is good.” For he thought, “For there will be peace and truth in my days.”

It is in the shadow of this prediction of the Babylonian exile that we are given a glorious prophecy that there will be “a highway for our God.”  This is a promise of a return from exile to the Promise Land.  Not only is this made clear by the immediate context of Isaiah 39, bur from the wider context as well.  Early on in Isaiah, the Lord laments that “My people go into exile for their lack of knowledge” (Isaiah 5:13). Later, Isaiah will explicitly promise the return for the exiles (49:21; 51:14).

Thus the “highway for our God” is the highway by which He promises to lead the captives away from Babylon back to the Promised Land. In fact, God through Isaiah explicitly compares the journey from Babylon to the exodus from Egypt.

Awake, awake,
Clothe yourself in your strength, O Zion;
Clothe yourself in your beautiful garments,
O Jerusalem, the holy city.
For the uncircumcised and the unclean
Will no more come into you.
Shake yourself from the dust, rise up,
O captive Jerusalem;
Loose yourself from the chains around your neck,
O captive daughter of Zion.

For thus says the Lord, “You were sold for nothing and you will be redeemed without money.”  For thus says the Lord God, “My people went down at the first into Egypt to reside there, then the Assyrian oppressed them without cause.  Now therefore, what do I have here,” declares the Lord, “seeing that My people have been taken away without cause?” Again the Lord declares, “Those who rule over them howl, and My name is continually blasphemed all day long.  “Therefore My people shall know My name; therefore in that day I am the one who is speaking, ‘Here I am.’”

How lovely on the mountains
Are the feet of him who brings the gospel,
Who announces peace
And brings the gospel of happiness,
Who announces deliverance,
And says to Zion, “Your God is King!”(52:1-7)

The exile among the nations is comparable to slavery in Egypt.  God’s deliverance then, will be a new exodus.  As Isaiah also writes:

Go forth from Babylon! Flee from the Chaldeans!
Declare with the sound of joyful shouting, proclaim this,
Send it out to the end of the earth;
Say, “The Lord has redeemed His servant Jacob.”
And they did not thirst when He led them through the deserts.
He made the water flow out of the rock for them;
He split the rock, and the water gushed forth (48:20 & 21).

The end of exile and return to Israel is explicitly compared to God’s deliverance of the Hebrews for Egypt and His care for them in the wilderness.  The return from exile is a new exodus.

It is that prophecy of a return from exile which Mark is saying ultimately points to the calling and work of Jesus.  He begins his writing by saying that his victory announcement is what was written by Isaiah the prophet, when Isaiah prophesied the restoration of Israel after their deportation from Babylon.

But what could a return from exile have to do with Jesus’ campaign in Palestine?  After all, the Hebrews were living in the Promised Land at the time of Jesus.  They had a Temple where they could hold their sacred feasts.  They had a priesthood.  What could a prophesy about the return from exile have to do with Jesus and the Israelites of his day?

In combining Exodus 23:20 with Malachi 3:1 to introduce the quote from Isaiah, Mark has explained the import of the return from exile.  Yes the Israelites are in the Promised Land, just as the were in Malachi’s day.  Nevertheless, they are covenantally in the wilderness and in exile—somehow back in Egypt and Babylon.  In a very real sense they need to be brought back to the Promised Land.  Mark has not yet told us why Israel is in such a bad situation, and he probably expects that his initial readers already have some idea.  We will have to figure it out as we go along.  Nevertheless, it is clear that Israel is in grave danger and needs to be rescued by God.  They need God to come to them so that He is once again present with them.  Only then will they truly possess God’s promise.

What does all this mean?

In the first place, we have a hint here of great humility on God’s part.  Instead of God’s people needing to be taken out of the Land and then come back to it out of the wilderness, God himself seems to be the one undergoing the exile and exodus and returning to the Promised Land.  It is not the people who must undergo a literal geographical exile.  God is in some sense taking it upon himself.  And Jesus will quite literally take all the weight of oppression by foreign powers upon himself.

In the second place, we see here a great advancement of the human race.  In Exodus 23:20 it is the angel of the Lord—God Himself—who prepares the way for his people to inherit the promises.  Yet in Malachi 3:1 the angel is no longer God, but a man as a messenger (again: remember that “angel” and “messenger” are the same word in both the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures).  As we will see, like the Angel of the Lord in the wilderness, John the Baptist remains at Israel’s eastern frontier in the desert preparing the people to inherit the Land.

More than that, we also see here as clear a statement as we could hope for that Jesus is God Himself.  Malachi 3:1 is unambiguous: the messenger will prepare the way for the arrival of Yahweh, “the Lord” as he is usually called in our English Bibles.  Yet Mark, like the other three gospel writers, claims that the messenger is John the Baptist.  And Mark is quite clear that it is Jesus for whom John has prepared the way.  Jesus is the presence of God coming to His people.

But who can endure the day of his coming?

Indeed, the prophecy from Isaiah which Mark quotes goes on to promise that every valley will be raised and every mountain will be made low.  Mark is warning us of what we will read.  We can safely guess that the mountains are not going to be too thrilled about being flattened, even if the valleys do rejoice in being raised.

002 The Victory According to Mark

THE CALL (1:1-15)

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. — Mark 1:1

The Meaning Of Christ

In our culture today I suspect many people probably think that that “Christ” was simply Jesus’ last name.  That is quite wrong, of course.  Christ comes from the Greek word for “anointed.”  It is the equivalent of the Hebrew term for “Messiah”—God’s promised king.

The Victory According to Mark: An Exposition of the Second GospelAgain, this is a royal title.  While other officials in Israel’s society were anointed with oil in order to call them into office, the anointing of kings gained special prominence.  Samuel anointed Saul with oil to set him apart for the kingship of Israel (First Samuel 10:1).  David was then anointed by Samuel when God decided to take the kingdom from Saul and give it to him.  It is important to note that this anointing was not precisely the same thing as a coronation ceremony, since neither Saul nor David were able to assume the throne immediately after they were anointed.  Nevertheless, was considered the starting point in the calling of the king and the basis of their rule.  Thus, Psalm 89: 20 stresses, “I have found David My servant; with My holy oil I have anointed him.”  And in Psalm 2 verse 2, David or a Davidic king is referred to as the Lord’s “anointed.”  When Samuel tells Saul “the Lord anointed you king over Israel” he is saying that God has made him king of Israel.  Anointing is the essential element in giving Saul his identity as one called to be king.

Thus, if you want to explain what the term “Jesus Christ” means, perhaps a good paraphrase would be “King Jesus.”  That would certainly be a good way to begin such an explanation.  The word “Christ” is a term for his royal status as a descendant of David.

Son of God

The term “son of God,” fits well within this royal language.  God had promised David,

When your days are complete and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your descendant after you, who will come forth from you, and I will establish his kingdom.  He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.  I will be a father to him and he will be a son to Me; when he commits iniquity, I will correct him with the rod of men and the strokes of the sons of men, but My lovingkindness shall not depart from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you.  And your house and your kingdom shall endure before Me forever; your throne shall be established forever (Second Samuel 7.12-16).

From that time on, and perhaps even before, being God’s “son” was a royal title.  All Israel was called God’s son (Exodus 4.22; Hosea 11.1).  It was appropriate that the king, as the representative of his people, should also bear that same title for himself.  Thus, while Psalm 2 ultimately points to Jesus and his resurrection (Acts 13.33), it also describe David and his dynasty to the initial readers and hearers:  “Surely I will tell of the decree of the LORD:  You are my son; today I have begotten you.”  Likewise we read in Psalm 89.20-27:

I have found David My servant;
With My holy oil I have anointed him,
With whom My hand will be established;
My arm also will strengthen him.
The enemy will not deceive him,
Nor the son of wickedness afflict him.
But I shall crush his adversaries before him,
And strike those who hate him.
And My faithfulness and My lovingkindness will be with him,
And in My name his horn will be exalted.
I shall also set his hand on the sea,
And his right hand on the rivers.
He will cry to Me, “You are my Father,
My God, and the rock of my salvation.’
I also shall make him first-born,
The highest of the kings of the earth (emphasis added).

To be the Son of God is to be Israel’s king.  Thus in John’s Gospel we see the two titles put side by side:  “Nathanael answered Him, ‘Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel’” (John 1.49).  Mark’s gospel gives us the same idea.  There are some manuscripts which are missing the reference to “son of God” but whatever the original reading of Mark, the idea is still quite present:  This is the story of the victory of Jesus the king of Israel.

The Beginning

Since we have analyzed every other word in Mark’s short introduction, perhaps we should consider if there is anything to be said about the first one:  “the beginning.”  Given the overtones of royalty which we have already dealt with, it may be profitable if there is a royal Davidic connection with Mark’s use of this term.

Jeff Meyers, in his 1997 lectures on Mark’s gospel suggests that there is such a connection.  Bearing in mind that Mark is about to quote a prophecy of making “ready the way of the Lord” and “making his paths straight,” we may have here an suggestion of Solomonic wisdom:  “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7a).

What follows in Proverbs is a sustained exhortation to avoid evil company.  “My son, do not walk in the way with them.  Keep your feet from their path” (1:15).  Rather, the “son” should

walk in the way of good men,
And keep to the paths of the righteous.
For the upright will live in the land,
And the blameless will remain in it;
But the wicked will be cut off from the land,
And the treacherous will be uprooted from it (2:20-22).

Later Solomon sums up the need for a choice of the right way:

The beginning of wisdom is: Acquire wisdom;
And with all your acquiring, get understanding.
Prize her, and she will exalt you;
She will honor you if you embrace her.
She will place on your head a garland of grace;
She will present you with a crown of beauty.
Hear, my son, and accept my sayings,
And the years of your life will be many.
I have directed you in the way of wisdom;
I have led you in upright paths.
When you walk, your steps will not be impeded;
And if you run, you will not stumble.
Take hold of instruction; do not let go.
Guard her, for she is your life.
Do not enter the path of the wicked,
And do not proceed in the way of evil men (4:7-14; emphasis added).

As we follow the way of the Lord through Mark, we will find the basic choice of which way to go to be presented rather strikingly, especially in irony and parable and in other ways which remind us of royal wisdom.

001 The Victory According to Mark

THE CALL (1:1-15)

He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.

—Albert Schweitzer

The Victory According to Mark: An Exposition of the Second Gospel
Mark’s beginning is characteristically succinct.  “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  The danger here is that we are so accustomed to speaking of and reading about a “gospel,” or even “the gospel” and also “the Son of God,” that we don’t bother to think about what these terms meant in their original context.


Let’s take the term “gospel” first:  What does it mean?  We kick the word around a lot in Evangelical circles.  It is derived from the old English word godspell, and is used to translate the Greek term, evangelion.  The best transliteration of the term is “good news” or “good message.”  However, we might have a better understanding if we consider some prominent ways in which the word was used at the time of Jesus.

The pagan context

Consider this inscription from 9 BC

The providence which has ordered the whole of our life, showing concern and zeal, has ordained the most perfect consummation for human life by giving to it Augustus, by filling him with virtue for doing the work of a benefactor among men, and by sending in him, as it were, a deliverer for us and those who come after us, to make war to cease, to create order everywhere . . .. ; the birthday of the god [Augustus] was the beginning for the world of the glad tidings that have come to men through him.

[Quoted in N. T. Wright’s What Saint Paul Really Said (Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans, 1997), 43.  A slightly different reading of the same inscription is found in John Dominic Crossan’s Jesus:  A Revolutionary Biography (New York:  HarperCollins, 191994), 1.]

Here we have the announcement of the birthday of Augustus Caesar dubbed as a gospel—“glad tidings” or good news.  As Biblical and historical scholar, N. T. Wright, sums up the evidence:  “In the Greek world, as is well know among scholars, evangelion is a regular technical term, referring to the announcement of a great victory, or to the birth, or accession, of an emperor.” [ibid]

The point here is that a “gospel” refers to a public announcement of victory.

The Jewish Background

Wright also points out two passages from Isaiah which bear on the original meaning of the word “gospel.”  The first is Isaiah 40:9 (I include verse ten for context).

Get yourself up on a high mountain,
O Zion, bearer of good news.
Lift up your voice mightily,
O Jerusalem, bearer of good news;
Lift it up, do not fear.
Say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
Behold, the Lord God  will come with might,
With His arm ruling for Him.
Behold, His reward is with Him,
And His recompense before Him (emphasis added).

In the common Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, the word for “good news” is evangelion.  The same is true of Isaiah 52:7.

How lovely on the mountains
Are the feet of him who brings good news,
Who announces peace
And brings good news of happiness,
Who announces deliverance,
And says to Zion, “Your God is King!” (emphasis added).

These texts are about a return from exile for God’s people when their land will be returned to them and God will again dwell in their midst on Zion in Jerusalem in the Temple.  It is important to remember that the Temple was God’s palace.  In fact, the same Hebrew word is used throughout the narrative of First Kings and First Chronicles to describe the construction of both God’s “Temple” and King Solomon’s “palace.”  Both structures are given the same name because they are both royal houses wherein a king is enthroned.  At the time of the exile, God abandoned his palace and allowed Nebuchadnezzar to destroy it.  Instead or ruling from there, he came on his throne and dwelt with the exiles in Babylon, as revealed in Ezekiel 1.

Thus, prophesying the return from exile when God’s presence will again be in Jerusalem is an announcement of his enthronement.  It fits in quite well with the pagan use of the term in the first century.  Both Jew and Gentile alike use the term to refer to the victory or ascension of a king—perhaps the triumphant beginning of his rule.  For the Jews this meant the one true God who had chosen a people and chosen to dwell enthroned among them at the Temple in Jerusalem.  For the pagans it meant some other god had begun to rule as king—often these false gods were might men like Caesar who claimed to be divine.

The Christian Proclamation

What is the upshot of all this?  Quite simply, while the gospel does result in changed lives and forgiven individuals, the gospel message is not simply a method for changing one’s life or receiving forgiveness.  In other words, the gospel is not a description of how one goes about getting “a personal relationship” with God.  When a new King has conquered and, as a result, ascends to his throne to rule, the news causes his enemies to tremble in fear.  It causes those who want to benefit from his rule to bow their knees in submission to his authority.  That is the kind of news the Gospel is.  That is what Mark is writing about—the conquest and triumph of a new king.


NEXT INSTALLMENT: The Meaning of the word, “Christ”

Outlaws in the Temple

OK, Peter Leithart and Doug Wilson (I don’t have access to Nick Perrin so I can’t say more about the source) are claiming that “thieves” or “robbers” in the more conventional sense is the proper translation of lestes in the Gospel accounts. I still think Wright’s interpretation of them as outlaws or insurrectionists is preferable. Full disclosure: I took his perspective in my commentary on Mark’s Gospel.

First some context.

N. T. Wright says repeatedly that the priest/Sadducees were in league with Rome and were economically oppressive to people of Israel. They were opposed by the Pharisees, however, who were much more anti-Rome and tended to be real zealots. So, for Wright, there was never a question of denying that the priests, in Doug’s words, “had a cozy set-up, and were not fired by a revolutionary fervor.”

So there is no denial, in Wright, that such economic exploitation is in view in the Gospels in which the priesthood supports and is supported by Rome.

Now, lets deal with some of the zealot/Pharisee issues first. This was very much an issue for Jesus. As he was going to the cross, Luke tells us:

And there followed him a great multitude of the people and of women who were mourning and lamenting for him. But turning to them Jesus said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”

So what happened a generation later? The Romans crucified so many men that there was, according to Josephus, not room for any more outside the walls of Jerusalem. Why did the Romans do this? Because the youths of Jerusalem grew up to be true rebels against Rome. Why was Jesus being crucified? Because he was accused of rebelling against Rome. Jesus was the green wood and he was crucified; how much more would that be the case for the dry rot that he saw developing in Jerusalem.

Now all this seems quite emphasized by the immediate context in Luke 23. The story of Jesus’ prophecy to the daughters of Jerusalem is sandwiched between too stories about political insurrectionists. Just before this event we are told of who the people chose when they condemned Jesus as a rebel to Pilate:

Pilate then called together the chief priests and the rulers and the people, and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was misleading the people. And after examining him before you, behold, I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither did Herod, for he sent him back to us. Look, nothing deserving death has been done by him. I will therefore punish and release him.” But they all cried out together, “Away with this man, and release to us Barabbas”— a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city and for murder. Pilate addressed them once more, desiring to release Jesus, but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no guilt deserving death. I will therefore punish and release him.” But they were urgent, demanding with loud cries that he should be crucified. And their voices prevailed. So Pilate decided that their demand should be granted. He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, for whom they asked, but he delivered Jesus over to their will.

So the chief priests, for all their cozying with Rome, had no problem joining with the Pharisees and the crowds in demanding that a terrorist be released. And so Jesus is crucified between two other terrorists in the paragraph after the story of his warning to the daughters of Jerusalem:

Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left…  The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”

In Matthew and Mark the ESV’s “criminals” are “robbers, the disputed lestes term.  According to John’s Gospel (beside secular sources like Josephus) the word encompassed terrorists: “Now Barabbas was a robber.” No contemporary reader would doubt this because they knew what sort of criminals would get the attention from Rome rather from other authorities. No doubt Barabbas was supposed to be the one hung between them. Jesus took his place because he was falsely accused of what Barabbas was guilty of doing. (Notice that one “criminal” thinks that, if Jesus were really the King of the Jews, then he would rescue a patriot like himself.)

So this is a huge deal in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and the priests are right in the middle of it. Even though they depend on Rome and use Rome to exploit the people, their only hold on the people is the Temple. They have control of the nation’s symbol of national hope. They can control the populace to some extent or else they would be no use to Rome.

By the way, the Sadducee hating Pharisee “patriots” could be just as oppressive and exploitative as the Sadducees. They allowed children to disown their parents in the name of “corban” and were accused of devouring widows homes. So the patriotic ferver that led to “robbery” as inssurectionist acts of murder was also the same fuel for “robbery” as economic exploitation of the poor.

And likewise, the “patriots” would appeal to Caesar when it seemed in their interest to do so. Presumably they all heard the chief priest there get Barabbas freed and Jesus condemned by says “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19). So claiming loyalty to Caesar is not exclusive of siding with a “freedom fighter.” And the fact that the Priests were dependents on Rome doesn’t end the question about the Temple’s role in the political ideology of national independence.

So, like those condemned by Jeremiah, both Saducees and Pharisees were economic exploiters. They could be in that sense, “robbers.” But I don’t see how the context of Jesus final confrontation not only with a corrupt ruling regime (both establishment beltway Saducees and talk radio pharisees), but also with the people’s own sinful self-idolatry in which the Temple represented their own pride.

Jeremiah’s warning was that the Temple did not promise continued political independence:

Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever. Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the Lord. Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it because of the evil of my people Israel. And now, because you have done all these things, declares the Lord, and when I spoke to you persistently you did not listen, and when I called you, you did not answer, therefore I will do to the house that is called by my name, and in which you trust, and to the place that I gave to you and to your fathers, as I did to Shiloh. And I will cast you out of my sight, as I cast out all your kinsmen, all the offspring of Ephraim.

So the Temple would be destroyed. By whom? By Nebuchadnezzar and the Chaldeans. It was no guarantee of continued national sovereignty. And now Jesus is saying that the Temple is no guarantee of restored political independence. On the contrary, when the children of the daughters of Jerusalem grow up to become robbers like Barabbas, the tree will be dry and ready for burning.

This kind of xenophobic, rebellious, patriotic religion, led them do deny the Temple as “a house of prayer for all nations.” They put up a wall to keep Gentiles out, and later rioted against the apostle Paul on the false rumor that he had led four Ephesians Gentiles through it to the Temple court.

So, I don’t see how “robber” in its conventional meaning can be preferred. Peter’s recitation of Perrin’s case certainly doesn’t convince me. The evidence for Jesus concern about economic exploitation is real enough, but it applied to a variety of ideologies and relationships to the Temple. The appeal of the Temple to the general populace was due to its 1. real Biblical significance (i.e. Simeon, Anna, Joseph, Mary, etc) and 2. its prop for a religion of revolution and arrogance against others. This arrogance did lead to levels of economic exploitation and xenophobia. But it also led to support for terrorists, a theme that gets emphasized during Jesus’ final confrontation to Jerusalem.

Finally, I continue to fail understand why it is so controversial to claim that apostate Judaism was “a religion of grace”? It is plainly in the text of the Gospels as far as I can tell.

The idea of the grace of God can be used as a rationale for all sorts of apostasy and idolatry, both in the world of first-century Palestine and in societies somewhat closer to home.