Monday, 27 October 2008

The hand that draws the bow that fires the arrow that flies

As I've studied Mark's gospel over the past 2 months (I think ch.1.1-10 is at the top of the frequency league table, with 8 times studied / spoken on / prepared / taught), I've been very struck by just how much it relies on the Scriptures (or 'Old Testament'). I've known that all the Scriptures are about Christ, so you would expect (if you believe Jesus' word) that Mark relies on the Scriptures. But to quite what extent I'd never seen before.

The OT Scriptures frequently work to create tension like a bow being draw back and back still further, as the string gets increasingly taut. It is not always that X in the OT Scriptures is Y at the coming of Christ. Sometimes that is the case - Christ is the Emmanuel, the tabernacle, the dwelling of God with man while he also is the life-blood sacrifice of atonement which means God may dwell with man without us being eternally consumed by the fire of his holiness. But often it is not simply X is Y, but in the OT a tension is built up, a bow carved out of the wood of God's revealed truth, which as time goes on in the OT, is pulled further and further back. An arrow is formed on the string: a hint, a promise as to how it may be resolved. But it is still tense, taut, ready to fly. And when the time is fulfilled, the string sings as the arrow is released and flies with all the energy God has built up over 2000 years of covenant revelation history - flies true and straight, and where we saw only tension and a shadowy arrow, now we see it land [THUCK] in the target - the target revealed as Christ. And so it is in the very first 2 verses Mark records (after his 'title').
As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,
“Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way,

the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”
Now Mark hasn't just found a couple of phrases in the Scriptures which could fit the words he's about to introduce, like a bad word study. Not having chapter and verse numbers, he quotes these verses yes because they fit with what he's about to introduce, but also because the weight of the surrounding passages fits with what he's about to introduce.

He quotes Malachi first:
“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? [And the prophecy ends with:] Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”
The messenger who will prepare the way, Elijah-like: and, Mark writes, voilà John, wearing the right gear, calling for repentence! Who do we expect to come following the messenger? "Me." YHWH. And "The Lord whom you seek - the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight." Who is this but the Messiah? But who is 'Me,' speaking, but YHWH Himself? And this reinforced with the effect he is to produce - who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

Then Mark quotes Isaiah (40), as promised:

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the Lord's hand
double for all her sins.

A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

A voice says, “Cry!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is
like the flower of the field.

The grass withers, the flower fades when the
breath of the Lord blows on it;

surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word of our God will stand forever.

Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news;

lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news;
lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!”
Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him;
behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.

Again, we have the messenger Mark has spotted promised (X is Y): a voice crying in the wilderness prepare a highway... and again - who is coming? For whom is John preparing a way? "For our God"! God is coming. Say to the cities of Judah, "Behold your God!" And yet Isaiah declares it as good news - the 'gospel'.

Yet how great is the tension between those two prophecies Mark has so swiftly glued together! Malachi announces,
God's messenger is coming - and then God is coming - bad news: repent!
Isaiah announces,
God's messenger is coming - and then God is coming - good news: believe!

How can this be? A hint is given in Isaiah - the people's sin has been dealt with. But that was then, and the sin of the time: it doesn't explain how now God may come among his people and it is good news. Yet that is just what Mark has claimed too, in his headline: so as he expounds on these 2 prophecies in the rest of the chapter (and the book), we want to know - the bow has been drawn back, Mark - you claim the arrow has flown to its target, you claim the target is this man Jesus: we want you to show us, Mark, so we see the quiver of the arrow in the target, so we hear its [THUNK] as it hits home.

And so he starts in - God's messenger comes: John. He warns the people to repent. We expect God to come on scene. Jesus comes. Eh? How does that fit?! We expected YHWH, not a Man! And the voice speaks from heaven: "This is my beloved Son." And the Spirit descends on him like a dove. The Man Jesus is declared to be God, and he announces good news to believe. The arrow has flown from the string drawn taut by Malachi and Isaiah, and it flies to the Man Jesus, declared to be the Son of God.

When it comes to OT fulfilment in Jesus, so often we just squint at the arrow - a verse - and think, "Ok, so you've plucked out a verse which has a few matching words," and we fail to notice the weight of the passage, the book, the whole OT behind this arrow as a strong bow drawn back, strong and taut, projecting this arrow swift and true to Jesus. And it is when we take the time to familiarise ourselves with the OT bow, that we most clearly see that it is designed, drawn and fired by God, and the answer, indeed, is always Jesus. Beautiful!


Chris said...

why do you say "bad news: repent", but "good news: believe"

isn't it the good news calling them to repent (ie stop believing in and pursuing all your other agendas for or against the kingdom of God) and believe this good news - that the kingdom of God is at hand! In Jesus Christ!

I dont see (1) repent and (2) believe as such separate things. The good news is the call to repent, because it's in light of the gospel of God's sovereignty.

étrangère said...

I made the distinction only because Malachi and Isaiah have it as a slightly different tenor. In Jesus, they are definitely drawn together: he preaches "Repent and believe the good news!" And you're right, they're really not separate - repentence presupposes belief in a warning and future hope; belief produces action fitting to the message.

But Mark seems to draw out these 2 strands distinctly before drawing them together in Jesus. It is striking to see what they proclaim - John proclaims a baptism of repentence - stopping with for the forgiveness of sins, and Jesus seems to have more (in the way Mark would have us see it, anyway), proclaiming the good news of God, in which they are not only to repent but to believe. I'm not seeking to establish a distinction by this:
in this context it's in the line of the passage - John giving way to Jesus. Of the joined prophecies, John, as it were, expounds Malachi more: the Lord is coming, get ready! Of course you have to believe that message if it's going to make you repent. But his main application is repentence. Jesus, Mark would have us know, brings in understanding from Isaiah - God is coming, and you have to get ready, but that's good news: repent and believe! (If anything, Isaiah is believe and proclaim - but John and Jesus have seen that call primarily to them at this stage.)

Anonymous said...

should have come to you before speaking at BUECU...!