A Life With the Holy Spirit

A life with the Holy Spirit is wonderful, exciting, challenging, and meaningful. One of my core beliefs is that there’s much more to reality and the possibilities of our existence than we can possibly imagine. Just a tremendous “more”. Greater in scope, finer in detail, richer in complexity and beauty. And this is something I can see most fully through the illumination of the Holy Spirit. It’s like something I never could have imagined possible before experiencing it. A taste of the overwhelming joy that comes from the power of the Holy Spirit goes a long way to shift a person’s perspective on what kind of life is possible. It changes everything.

We see a lot in the news about each generation becoming more secular over time. The rise of the “Nones” (N-O-N-E-S), those who belong to or believe in no religion. There are many ways to respond to that. Maybe this is a good thing and will ultimately lead to a more peaceful and tolerant world. Or maybe it’s a troubling sign that the foundations of our culture and civilization are eroding. Lots has been written in support of both of those and I’ve believed both of them at one time or another. And still haven’t fully rejected either of them. There’s lots of interesting stuff to talk about there. But what’s interested me most recently and motivated my missionary impulse is more the religious life itself and what it means not to have a rich religious life. In other words, what is it that people are missing out on?

I think what’s got me thinking about things in this way is just my own experience, especially recently, in living a life with the Holy Spirit, knowing what that’s like and how wonderful it is. Wonderful, exciting, challenging, and meaningful. One of my core beliefs is that there’s much more to reality and the possibilities of our existence than we can possibly imagine. Just a tremendous “more”. Greater in scope, finer in detail, richer in complexity and beauty. And this is something I can see most fully through the illumination of the Holy Spirit. It’s like something I never could have imagined possible before experiencing it. A taste of the overwhelming joy that comes from the power of the Holy Spirit goes a long way to shift a person’s perspective on what kind of life is possible. It changes everything.

So that’s what interests me most. I think it’s great that the world is becoming wealthier and healthier, more peaceful and tolerant, and that people have more opportunities. I want that to continue. For sure. But there’s even more. Possibilities to life that go even more directly to the core of who we are and what we can be. It’s challenging. It’s all-demanding and all-transforming. But astoundingly, it’s worth it.

Jesus gave a dramatic illustration of this in a parable:

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it.” (Matthew 13:45-46)

This is how I feel about life with the Holy Spirit. It’s worth giving up anything that stands in the way of it and it’s worth doing anything to have it. Imagine what it must have been like for the disciples to hear this from Jesus. Peter spoke for all of them when he said: “See, we have left all and followed You.” (Matthew 19:27) Admirable and astounding devotion. But why would they have done that?

There’s probably some mystery to that. Dietrich Bonhoeffer proposed in his theology that the response of obedience evades justifying reasons and is attributable only to the “absolute, direct, and unaccountable authority of Jesus” (The Cost of Discipleship). That might be. Certainly there was a call and there always is. Paul said there has to be:

“How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14)

The disciples heard the call and they obeyed.

“As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, ‘Follow Me.’ So he arose and followed Him.” (Mark 2:14)

“And Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, saw two brothers, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. Then He said to them, ‘Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ They immediately left their nets and followed Him. Going on from there, He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets. He called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed Him.” (Matthew 4:18-22)

They just got up and left everything they had and immediately followed Christ.

Even if the Holy Spirit is not something you’ve personally experienced, these examples should at least give an idea of the absolute power of its driving force. Imagine the kind of purpose this grants to a person’s life. Sometimes we’re just looking for a reason to get up in the morning, go out the door, and go to work. The Spirit got these people to get up, leave everything, and not look back for a moment, to follow Christ. That’s a maximal sense of purpose right there. You think about one of Jesus’s wonderful paradoxes: “he who loses his life for My sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:39) Paul talked about walking “in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). The disciples had a completely new kind of life. They lost their old life but they found a new kind of life that was tremendously more alive.

Paul was someone who knew something about newness of life. His own life had taken a radical change in direction with his experience on the road to Damascus. From that moment on nothing was the same. Saul of Tarsus became Paul, servant of Christ Jesus. Like the other disciples he left everything and dedicated the rest of his life to Christ. Paul was a zealous missionary but we also see repeatedly in his letters his awareness that it is ultimately the Spirit that converts and transforms people. He told the Corinthians: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.” (1 Corinthians 3:6). Though he was very adept in rhetoric and knowledgeable of Torah everything ultimately came down to the work of the Spirit.

This is important. The Gospel of Christ is not just a system of ideas, though it is certainly intellectually rich and stimulating. But it’s much more than that. And it defies standard categories. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said:

“To try and force the Word on the world by hook or by crook is to make the living Word of God into a mere idea, and the world would be perfectly justified in refusing to listen to an idea for which it had no use.” (The Cost of Discipleship)

Paul plays up the unreasonableness of the Gospel, calling it “foolishness” to the “natural man” (1 Corinthians 2:14). I think that’s a bit of a deft rhetorical overstatement. The Gospel is coherent, consistent, and rational. But many systems of thought are coherent, consistent, and rational, at least on their own terms. What makes the Gospel different? Now I do think the rich Christian intellectual tradition can go a long way to make it appealing to the intellectually curious. It opens up a space. I say that out of my own experience. But there’s more. And it’s that more that separates it from the rest so that it’s not just one more system of thought among others. And that is something that is communicated by the Spirit.

There’s something of the gospel that is incommunicable and even unimaginable by any other means. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, paraphrasing Isaiah:

“Eye has not seen, nor ear heard,

Nor have entered into the heart of man

The things which God has prepared for those who love Him.”

(1 Corinthians 2:9)

This reminds a little of Shakespeare’s Hamlet saying to Horatio: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Paul says that there is more out there than most of us have ever considered. How can you come to know and experience something you don’t even know is there? Paul says:

“But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God.” (1 Corinthians 2:10-12)

“The deep things of God”. This is where the vault of the heavens, the upper ceiling capping off the limits of our imagination and what is possible can get blown open and expanded. Paul wanted the Church to be able “to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height—to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:18-19)

We see in Paul’s letters that he says many times that he’s praying for the Church so that the Spirit will be at work among them. He said to the Colossians:

“For this reason we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all might, according to His glorious power, for all patience and longsuffering with joy; giving thanks to the Father who has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in the light.” (Colossians 1:9-12)

This stands out to me because it conforms very much to my own experience with the Spirit. In particular, the effect of being “strengthened with all might, according to His glorious power, for all patience and longsuffering with joy”. One of the things I’ve noticed that follows my experiences of being filled up with spiritual light is a change in my natural inclinations. To be more patient. My sphere of concern is redirected further outward, away from my own interests. This just happens. And it’s wonderful. These “fruits of the Spirit”. Paul listed various fruits of the Spirit in his letter to the Galatians:

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:22-25)

Doesn’t that sound wonderful? To have that kind of conversion of character? This is what it’s like to “walk in the Spirit”. And it’s not self-produced. It requires sacrifice and effort but the fruits come from the Holy Spirit.

Paul wrote to the Ephesians:

“Therefore I also, after I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, do not cease to give thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers: that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints.” (Ephesians 1:15-18)

Here’s another instance of the pattern in which a missionary prays for the church to be given the Spirit to illuminate and transform them. Paul says that, with the Spirit, the eyes of the understanding may be enlightened. This is the only way to be so enlightened because “no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 2:11)

I imagine Paul’s desire for the Spirit to act on the church came from a place of deep love, which is itself a gift of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 13). This isn’t the kind of thing a person can just keep to oneself. It’s a sentiment I very much relate to and also feel deeply. The desire to see others experience the same power is persistent.

There are, of course, various sociological and political reasons that I can think of to want to see people in my community, local and global, have a strong religious base. Many benefits from that. Along with certain risks and potential harms that misdirected religiosity can have. But beyond all those important secondary effects is the primary work of the Spirit itself in a person’s soul. Like the pearl of great price, a life with the Holy Spirit is something I would do anything and give up anything to have. It strikes to the heart of the human soul and satisfies its deepest need for meaning and purpose.

The Image of the Invisible God

In scripture Christ is called “the image of the invisible God”. As such Christ is supremely important to our access to and understanding of God. As God made his goodness pass over Moses and declared his graciousness and compassion, Christ shows us the Father in his words and in his works. Three important philosopher-theologians: Origen of Alexandria, Augustine of Hippo, and Thomas Aquinas developed theories to explain the process of coming to see and know God in a form of “intellectual vision”.

One of the challenges of religious belief in modern times is that many of the things we are supposed to believe in and refer to in our religious practices are not things that we see or sense with our physical senses. God, for example. We might ask, as many have asked, “Why doesn’t God just show himself to everyone?” Wouldn’t that clear up a lot? Why does God have to be so seemingly “hidden” and why is faith, whatever its purported virtue, even necessary? Some of the explanations for this may sometimes seem kind of forced and unsatisfactory. I think this is something that has to be addressed. And I actually think it’s quite an interesting subject. Not just in terms of apologetics, justifying belief in God or any number of other things we don’t sense with the physical senses. But also interesting just as a way of thinking about the nature of reality and the kinds of things that make it up and undergird it. It gets into some very interesting theological and philosophical issues.

In studying this question my main sources for insight have been the scriptures and a set of important Christian philosopher-theologians. Three in particular:

1. Origen of Alexandria (184 – 253)
2. Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430)
3. Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274)

What’s interesting to me in looking at these three is their continuity and consistency. We might be tempted to think sometimes that people who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago must have been less intelligent, educated, or sophisticated than we are in modern times. A few minutes of reading Aristotle can very quickly dispel that notion. And the same goes for these three. In most points I find that their ideas about God, and most things, are the most well-reasoned of any you could find from anyone, ancient or modern. Very few people today, believers or not, have thought about God as rigorously or deeply as they did. And when we look at God as found in scripture and explained systematically by these philosopher-theologians it makes more sense why the world is the way it is and why we stand in relation to God in the way that we do.

Let’s look first at some scriptures. There are many scriptures that talk about seeing or not seeing God. Some examples:

John 1:18 – “No one has seen God at any time.”

Matthew 5:8 – “Blessed are the pure in heart, For they shall see God.”

Exodus 33:11 – “So the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.”

Exodus 33:20 – “You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live.”

Isaiah 6:1,5 – “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple… So I said: Woe is me, for I am undone! …For my eyes have seen the King, The Lord of hosts.”

Many passages about seeing God but apparently not all consistent. What to make of that? It could be that the passages are simply inconsistent. A consequence of the texts being authored and compiled by different authors and redactors. It’s certainly the case that it was compiled by different authors and redactors. So that’s one possible explanation. But I think there are more theologically interesting explanations. Apparent contradictions often have a lot of potential to provoke interesting philosophical insight. Whether or not that moves us closer to or further from truth is another question. It can do either. But I think in what follows it moves us closer to truth as well as philosophical insight.

The first of our philosopher-theologians, Origen of Alexandria, in his book On the First Principles (Περὶ Ἀρχῶν), makes an important distinction between things that are (1) not seen and (2) invisible:

“For the same thing is not to be understood by the expressions, ‘those things which are not seen,’ and ‘those things which are invisible.’ For those things which are invisible are not only not seen, but do not even possess the property of visibility, being what the Greeks call asomata, i.e., incorporeal; whereas those of which Paul says, ‘They are not seen,’ possess indeed the property of being seen, but, as he explains, are not yet beheld by those to whom they are promised.”

I think this is a very useful distinction that helps address some of the bafflement over why God would purposely conceal things from us. With this distinction we can see that in at least some cases it may not be that God is purposely concealing things that we would otherwise be capable of seeing, but rather that some things are just not visible by nature. Origen says of John 1:18.

“Moreover, John, in his Gospel, when asserting that ‘no one hath seen God at any time,’ manifestly declares to all who are capable of understanding, that there is no nature to which God is visible: not as if, He were a being who was visible by nature, and merely escaped or baffled the view of a frailer creature, but because by the nature of His being it is impossible for Him to be seen.”

This pertains specifically to physical sight and the physical senses. No one sees God with physical sight. But the same verse says that “The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.” The only begotten Son declares God to us. So we do have access to God but it is through other means than physical sight and senses.

Now, there are cases where deliberate concealment serves some instrumental purpose. Jesus apparently spoke almost entirely in parables, to the point that when he did speak directly it was very unusual. For example, in John 16:29 his apostles say: “See, now You are speaking plainly, and using no figure of speech!” But that was more the exception. Jesus deliberately made his teachings a challenge for his disciples. “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” (Matthew 13:11-13) There are many potential reasons for this form of teaching. One is just the benefit of Socratic “midwifery”. Students sometimes learn things better when they have to work harder for them. So there is that. But I don’t think deliberate concealment is applicable everywhere. There are things unseen. But there are also things that are intrinsically invisible.

So there’s that distinction; between the merely unseen and the intrinsically invisible. But what kinds of things are intrinsically invisible? Would this commit one to belief in supernatural things? In a certain sense I’d say, “yes”, which might be off-putting if you lean more secular or have more secular commitments. But I’d also say that most people tacitly assume or take for granted certain intrinsically invisible things anyway; things that are beyond just those things that subsist in the natural world. Even if we don’t realize it.

One example is abstractions. We make use of abstractions all the time. Some examples are: quantity, quality, relation, causality, possibility. We use these kinds of abstractions to make raw sense data intelligible. For example, we project causation onto events. When one billiard ball moves toward another, comes into contact with the second, and then the second billiard ball starts moving, we say that the first billiard ball caused the second billiard ball to move (by collision and transfer of momentum). That makes sense but we don’t actually see that causation. We see events and those events are only intelligible to us in terms of causation. But we don’t physically see the causation itself. We only “see” it in the intellect. The sciences are essentially projects of characterizing non-physical structures, laws of nature, to explain the data of empirical observations and experiments. We don’t want just isolated data points. We want to be able to describe relations and make predictions.

This way of thinking about the world is by no means obvious. Augustine of Hippo described in his autobiography, Confessions, how he had a very hard time understanding non-material entities. He “could not imagine any substance, but such as is wont to be seen with [the] eyes.” This made it difficult for him to think about God.

“But what else to conceive of Thee I knew not… I was constrained to conceive of Thee… as being in space, whether infused into the world, or diffused infinitely without it. Because whatsoever I conceived, deprived of this space, seemed to me nothing, yea altogether nothing, not even a void, as if a body were taken out of its place, and the place should remain empty of any body at all, of earth and water, air and heaven, yet would it remain a void place, as it were a spacious nothing.”

This is a very natural way to see the world. And I think it’s the way most people think of the world today and even the way we are educated to think. The modern outlook is very materialist or physicalist. Materialism and physicalism are defensible positions. But they’re not the only defensible positions. And I don’t think they hold up very well to extensive philosophical scrutiny. And it’s that kind of philosophical scrutiny that ultimately led Augustine to think past his materialism. He encountered this in the work of the Platonists:

“Thou [God] procuredst for me… certain books of the Platonists.”

“But having read then those books of the Platonists, and thence been taught to search for incorporeal truth, I saw Thy invisible things, understood by those things which are made.”

This is the essence of the process of the natural sciences that we go through even if without thinking about it. We come to understand incorporeal truths “by those things which are made”. We infer causation from the observation of events. We develop theories about laws of nature from empirical data. In Platonist thought this is movement along Plato’s “divided line”, an analogy he introduced in the Republic, moving from visible things to intelligible things.

In Plato’s thought this process of intellectual ascent has a single ending point, which he calls “the Form of the Good” [ἡ τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ ἰδέα (he tou agathou idea)]. Plotinus (205 – 270) called this ultimate principle “the One” [το ἕν (to hen)]. Augustine of course, being Christian, just called this God. The intellectual ascent ultimately leads to the Christian beatific vision, The immediate knowledge of God which the angelic spirits and the souls of the just enjoy in Heaven.

Both Origen and Augustine have theories of a certain form of vision that is distinct from physical vision. For Augustine this is his notion of “intellectual vision”. Origen describes it as a kind of seeing as knowing. In On the First Principles Origen says:

“It is one thing to see, and another to know: to see and to be seen is a property of bodies; to know and to be known, an attribute of intellectual being… [the Son] did not say that no one has seen the Father, save the Son, nor any one the Son, save the Father; but His words are: ‘No one knoweth [ἐπιγινώσκω (epiginosko)] the Son, save the Father; nor any one the Father, save the Son.’ (Matthew 11:27) By which it is clearly shown, that whatever among bodily natures is called seeing and being seen, is termed, between the Father and the Son, a knowing and being known, by means of the power of knowledge, not by the frailness of the sense of sight. Because, then, neither seeing nor being seen can be properly applied to an incorporeal and invisible nature, neither is the Father, in the Gospel, said to be seen by the Son, nor the Son by the Father, but the one is said to be known by the other.”

Augustine develops a similar idea, what he calls “intellectual vision”. In his book On the Literal Meaning of Genesis (De Genesi ad litteram) Augustine distinguished between three sorts of vision.

1. Corporeal Vision
2. Imaginative Vision
3. Intellectual Vision

Quoting from Augustine:

“These are the three kinds of visions… The first, therefore, let us call Corporeal, due to the fact that it is perceived by the body and revealed by the body’s senses. The second, let us call Imaginative; whatever is not truly of the body, and yet however is to some extent, it is said imagination correctly already: and in any case it is not material, it may be however similar to the body, is in the image of the absent body, nor is the gaze distinguished from itself for that purpose. The third is called Intellectual, from intellect, due to the fact that it is mental, of the mind.” (On the Literal Meaning of Genesis 12.7.16)

Augustine demonstrates the use of these three kinds of vision by giving an example of three levels at which a person can understand the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39) He says:

“Here in the reading of this one command, ‘love thy neighbor as yourself’ (Matthew. 22, 39), occur three types of vision: one is of his eyes, which appears in the writing itself; another is of the human imagination in which one’s neighbor is thought of in his absence; and third of these, which is love as such, as seen by the intellect.”

This is a very simple example from which Augustine demonstrates multiple layers of understanding. And this is similar to the levels of ascent in Plato’s divided line with likenesses of visible things, visible things, and the ideas abstracted from them, visible to the intellect. In reading a text there is the physical visual sensation in which we see the ink imprinted on a page. But while reading that we also think about what things the ink refers to, which is a more sophisticated level of understanding. And finally we can gather general principles from the particular thoughts generated by the text. In the case of this example: from ink, to the thought of one’s neighbor, one eventually thinks about the general principle of love itself. And love as such has no visible image. It is understood thoroughly by the intellect, no doubt accompanied by corresponding sentiments. Augustine says of the things seen in intellectual vision that they “have no images resembling them. The objects of intellectual vision are perceived proprie (“in their own nature”), not imaginaliter (“through a representation”).

Virtues like love are important objects of intellectual vision. And intellectual vision of the virtues is closely tied to the intellectual vision of God. Augustine says:

“This spiritual nature, therefore, in which not the bodies, but similarities to bodies are expressed, having visions of an inferior variety, as that of the mind, even the light of intelligence… they do not have any similar material forms; even as the mind itself and all good dispositions of spirit to which they are opposed in their vices, which are correctly condemned and are even condemned in men. To what end is the intellect to be understood, except truly in some other way? And thus love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, self-control, and so forth, of such by which he is drawn near to God (Galatians 5:22-23) and God himself, from whom all things, through whom all things, in whom all things (Romans 11:36).” (On the Literal Meaning of Genesis 12.24.50)

The idea here being that the mind being able, through intellectual vision, to understand important moral abstractions like the virtues is also able, in a similar way, to eventually understand God, from whom these moral virtues emanate. There’s an interesting example of this kind of vision in Exodus.

In Exodus 33 it says that, “The Lord spoke to Moses face to face.” Not only that but, “as a man speaks to his friend.” They were in close proximity, both in space (of some kind) and in their regard for one another. It is repeated, several times in this chapter, that Moses had found “favor”, חֵן (chen), in the eyes of the Lord. And this favor is repeatedly mentioned as the reason that the Lord grants Moses’s entreaties.

Whatever had happened in verses 11 Moses requests even more. In verse 18 he says: “Please, show me Your glory.” Your כָּבוֹד (kabod). God’s response is interesting. He says: “I will make all My goodness [טוּב (tub)] pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before you. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” (verse 19) Moses asks to see God’s glory (kabod) and God responds that he will see his goodness (tub). God also declares his capacity to be gracious [חָנַן (chanan)] and to be merciful [רָחַם (racham)].

We see more of this in the next chapter, Exodus 34, in which God proclaims the name of YHWH, saying: “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful [רַחוּם (rachum)] and gracious [חַנּוּן (chanun)], longsuffering, and abounding in goodness [חֵסֵד (chesed)] and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-7) Traditionally this act of self-revelation is known as the Thirteen Attributes. This prayer, the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, is recited in times of crisis to beseech God to show mercy. It contains thirteen Names and descriptions of God, all of them referring to God’s compassion in various situations. In this remarkable theophany, self-revelation of God, to Moses what we have recorded is a revelation of attributes.

Isn’t that interesting? In what way would Moses, or any other person, perceive these kinds of attributes? Mercy, graciousness, longsuffering, goodness, truth, forgiveness, justice? I think Augustine’s theories make sense here. We could think about them at the three levels of vision: corporeal, imaginative, and intellectual. There are the words for these attributes, taking physical form as ink on a page, pixels on a screen, or sound waves in the air. Then we can imagine, or maybe remember, particular examples of these attributes in individuals, maybe people we know, or people in the scriptures, like especially Jesus Christ. And then we can perceive in the intellect the attributes as such: mercy, graciousness, longsuffering, goodness, truth, forgiveness, justice. And when we do this we are closer to perceiving God himself.

Full perception of God would seem to be beyond our possibility in mortality. The third of our philosopher-theologians, Thomas Aquinas, talks about this in his Summa Theologiae. This comes up in Question 12, Article 11: “Whether anyone in this life can see the essence of God”. Aquinas concludes:

“God cannot be seen in His essence by a mere human being, except he be separated from this mortal life. The reason is because, as was said above, the mode of knowledge follows the mode of the nature of the knower. But our soul, as long as we live in this life, has its being in corporeal matter; hence naturally it knows only what has a form in matter, or what can be known by such a form. Now it is evident that the Divine essence cannot be known through the nature of material things… This can be seen in the fact that the more our soul is abstracted from corporeal things, the more it is capable of receiving abstract intelligible things. Hence in dreams and alienations of the bodily senses divine revelations and foresight of future events are perceived the more clearly.”

This is consistent with the statement by God in Exodus that:

“You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live.”

What followed after this is (maybe) an intriguing illustration of the partial but necessarily incomplete vision of God that a human may have in mortality. God says:

“Here is a place by Me, and you shall stand on the rock. So it shall be, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass by. Then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen.”’ (Exodus 33:20-23)

God says that Moses will see his back [אָחוֹר (achor)] but not his face [פָנִים (panim)].

What’s going on here? It would seem that Moses’s experience of seeing God must be limited. We might ask, as we asked at the beginning of this episode, is this limitation due to God deliberately withholding the complete vision? Or is it just an intrinsic limitation of the nature of the thing being revealed? To use Origen’s distinction, is the face, panim, of God merely “unseen” or is it actually “invisible”, not capable of being seen physically?

Rabbi Sforno (1470 – 1550) commented on this verse saying (in God’s words): “Your inability to see what you would like to see is not due to My depriving you, personally, of such an experience, but is rooted in man’s inability to see such things unless you had died first, as an eye of flesh and blood cannot see such things. You would be fatally blinded before understanding anything you would see.”

Both Aquinas and Sforno hold that no human can see the essence of God on this side of death. Sforno says “an eye of flesh and blood cannot see such things”. And Aquinas says that “Divine essence cannot be known through the nature of material things.” Knowledge of the divine essence can be approximated, as Aquinas says, “the more our soul is abstracted from corporeal things”. But full knowledge and intellectual vision of God can only be received after physical death, which is why, like Moses, no mortal person can see God and live.

The issue of God and images is prominent throughout the Torah. Making images to worship, even images of the Lord God interestingly enough, are strictly forbidden. The golden calf may have been an attempt to make an image of the Lord God himself. But that didn’t make it any less egregious. The Israelites are given the commandment:

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image [פֶסֶל (pesel)]—any likeness [תִּמוּנָה (temunah)] of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them.” (Exodus 20:4-5)

We find an expansion on this commandment in Deuteronomy:

“Take careful heed to yourselves, for you saw no form [תִּמוּנָה (temunah)] when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of any figure: the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth or the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground or the likeness of any fish that is in the water beneath the earth. And take heed, lest you lift your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun, the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, you feel driven to worship them and serve them, which the Lord your God has given to all the peoples under the whole heaven as a heritage.” (Deuteronomy 4:15-19)

The text here is primarily concerned with the ethical issue of how the Israelites are to conduct themselves, what they should and should not do. But there’s an interesting hint here to a metaphysical matter as well that underlies the ethical. “For you saw no form [תִּמוּנָה (temunah)] when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire.” It’s not just the case that the Israelites shouldn’t make carved images of the Lord; based off of some image that was present but forbidden for them to copy. There wasn’t even an image there. It wouldn’t even be possible in principle for them to make an image of the Lord because there was no temunah.

This is interesting to compare with a couple verses in the first chapter of the Bible:

“Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image [צֶלֶם (tzelem)], according to Our likeness [דְּמוּת (demuth)]; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in His own image [צֶלֶם (tzelem)]; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” (Genesis 1:26-27)

Human beings are made in the image of God. Notably by God. The Hebrew words used here are not the same, but I think the concept is similar enough. In what way are humans created in the “image of God”, in the [צֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים (tzelem elohim)]? One interesting thing about this tzelem is that it has both male and female manifestations. A lot of possibilities here but one thing I’ll observe is that attributes like humanness, maleness, femaleness, along with virtuous attributes like mercy, graciousness, longsuffering, goodness, truth, forgiveness, justice are abstract concepts that in the philosophies of Augustine and Aquinas are understood most fully by the intellect, rather than through physical form or the image of physical form.

Aquinas developed his theory of knowing and seeing God extensively in his Question 12 of the Summa, Prima Pars: “How God is Known By Us”. First, Aquinas affirmed that it is indeed possible for a created intellect to see the essence of God:

“Since everything is knowable according as it is actual, God, Who is pure act without any admixture of potentiality, is in Himself supremely knowable. But what is supremely knowable in itself, may not be knowable to a particular intellect, on account of the excess of the intelligible object above the intellect.”

Aquinas says that God is not only knowable but “supremely knowable”. God is “pure act”. Here he’s making use of the Aristotelian concepts of potentiality and actuality. Aristotle understood God to be supremely and recursively intellectual, as “a thinking of thinking” [νοήσεως νόησις (noeseos noesis)]:

Quoting from the his Metaphysics:

“Hence it is actuality rather than potentiality that is held to be the divine possession of rational thought, and its active contemplation is that which is most pleasant and best. If, then, the happiness which God always enjoys is as great as that which we enjoy sometimes, it is marvellous; and if it is greater, this is still more marvellous. Nevertheless it is so. Moreover, life belongs to God. For the actuality of thought [νοῦ ἐνέργεια (nou energeia)] is life, and God is that actuality; and the essential actuality of God is life most good and eternal. We hold, then, that God is a living being, eternal, most good; and therefore life and a continuous eternal existence belong to God; for that is what God is.” (Metaphysics 12.1072b)

“The actuality of thought is life, and God is that actuality.” But what is the subject of that thought? Aristotle says: “Mind thinks itself, if it is that which is best; and its thinking is a thinking of thinking (noeseos noesis)”. (Metaphysics 12.1074b)

This being the case, God is supremely intelligible by the intellect. Whatever limitations human beings have to seeing the essence of God in their intellect is due to limitations in the capacities of their intellects, rather than in the intrinsic intelligibility of God. Aquinas says:

“But what is supremely knowable in itself, may not be knowable to a particular intellect, on account of the excess of the intelligible object above the intellect; as, for example, the sun, which is supremely visible, cannot be seen by the bat by reason of its excess of light.”

Not only bats for that matter. Even we humans cannot see the sun directly. But that’s not because it’s not invisible, but rather because it’s too visible. It produces more light than we can handle. That’s a physical analogy. In the case of God the analogy is to intellectual visibility, or intelligibility. If we can’t see God with our intellectual vision it’s not because God is intrinsically unintelligible but rather because God is too intelligible, of greater intelligibility than we are able to understand. Nevertheless, Aquinas does think it is possible for created intellect to see God’s essence. It just needs the aid of divine grace.

In Question 12, Article 4 Aquinas responds to the question of “Whether any created intellect by its natural powers can see the divine essence”. Aquinas concludes that:

“It is impossible for any created intellect to see the essence of God by its own natural power… To know self-subsistent being is natural to the divine intellect alone; and this is beyond the natural power of any created intellect; for no creature is its own existence, forasmuch as its existence is participated. Therefore the created intellect cannot see the essence of God, unless God by His grace unites Himself to the created intellect, as an object made intelligible to it.”

Aquinas is appealing to the fundamental ontological difference between created things and their creator. He says, “To know self-subsistent being is natural to the divine intellect alone.” God is the only self-subsistent being, whose existence is not derived from any other thing. For created beings it’s not natural to know this kind of self-subsistent being. But this kind of knowledge can be given by grace.

So Aquinas is quite optimistic about the possibility of a created intellect seeing the essence of God, with the aid of divine grace. What is the nature of that seeing? Is it with physical sight? Here Aquinas is consistent with both Origen and Augustine. Consistent with Origen’s concept of God’s physical invisibility.

In Question 12, Article 3 Aquinas addresses the question of “Whether the essence of God can be seen with the bodily eye?” He says:

“It is impossible for God to be seen by the sense of sight, or by any other sense, or faculty of the sensitive power. For every such kind of power is the act of a corporeal organ.”

Aquinas makes the case that the kind of sight in which the created intellect may see the essence of God is a sight of some other kind, other than physical sight. He uses the example of Ephesians 1:17-18.

“Likewise the words, ‘Now my eye seeth Thee,’ are to be understood of the mind’s eye, as the Apostle says: ‘May He give unto you the spirit of wisdom… in the knowledge of Him, that the eyes of your heart’ may be ‘enlightened’”.

Wisdom [σοφία (sophia]) and knowledge [ἐπίγνωσις (epignosis)] may enlighten the “eyes of the heart” [τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς τῆς καρδίας (tous ophthalmous tes kardias)]. In talking about “eyes of the heart” we’re clearly speaking of something other than physical vision. It’s seeing in another way.

Speaking further of this “intellectual vision” Aquinas says:

“The sense of sight, as being altogether material, cannot be raised up to immateriality. But our intellect, or the angelic intellect, inasmuch as it is elevated above matter in its own nature, can be raised up above its own nature to a higher level by grace.”

“We have a more perfect knowledge of God by grace than by natural reason. Which is proved thus. The knowledge which we have by natural reason contains two things: images derived from the sensible objects; and the natural intelligible light, enabling us to abstract from them intelligible conceptions.”

Bringing this is all to conclusion I’d like to look at examples from scripture in which we are able to see God through His self-revelation in Christ. Paul says that Christ is “the image of the invisible God [εἰκὼν τοῦ Θεοῦ τοῦ ἀοράτου (eikon tou theou tou aoratou)]” (Colossians 1:15). That seems almost like an oxymoron. How can there be an image of something that’s invisible? I think that here again, as in many instances before, we have to think about the possible different meanings of the words so that they can make sense. Two important terms here are image [εἰκών (eikon)] and invisible [ἀόρατος (aoratos)]. Starting with the invisible, we could say that there are aspects of Christ that are physically visible and others that are physically invisible. Christ’s body is certainly visible. But since Christ is God he also has divine attributes that are invisible, just like those of the father. The senses in which Christ is an image are quite rich. Certainly he is a physical image in his body. Paul says that in Christ “dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” [σωματικῶς (somatikos)] (Colossians 1:9). Jesus himself also says:

“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6)


“He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works. Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father in Me, or else believe Me for the sake of the works themselves.” (John 14:9-11)

This can certainly pertain to Christ’s body. But Jesus also points to his words [ῥήματα, (rhemata)] and to his works [ἔργα (erga)]. Not only Christ’s body, which most of his do not physically see, but also his entire way of life, his words and his works, as recorded in the scriptures, show us the Father. And those certainly are available to us.

In Matthew Jesus says:

“Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:29)

In inviting us to learn from Him Christ points to His attributes, that he is “gentle and lowly in heart”. Recall how God revealed Himself to Moses when Moses had asked to show him his glory. God made his goodness pass before him and proclaimed his graciousness, compassion, longsuffering, truth, forgiveness, and justice.

Augustine proposed that we could move up through levels of vision from the corporeal to the imaginative to the intellectual. If there’s something to that I’d propose that the most fruitful way to do this is through Jesus Christ. In my Christo-centric theology Christ is always the Way [ἡ ὁδὸς (he hodos)].

So let’s return to the question at the start of this episode. Why doesn’t God just show himself to everyone? Wouldn’t that clear up a lot? Why does God have to be seemingly “hidden” and why is faith, whatever its purported virtue, even necessary?

We see that the understanding of traditional Christianity, both in the scriptures and in the history of theology, is that seeing God is necessarily a different kind of seeing than that of physical sight. This is a consequence of God’s intrinsically invisible nature. As Origen said, it’s not that God could be seen physically and simply decides to hide Himself from us. Rather seeing God is a process of intellectual vision, with what Paul calls the “eyes of the heart” [τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς τῆς καρδίας (tous ophthalmous tes kardias)]. So how is this done? At the end of the day it comes down to basic Christian practice. Reading of scripture, prayer, Christian fellowship in the Church, and all the sacraments. All this theoretical background isn’t necessary to engage in the process. But if the question over why God doesn’t reveal Himself to everyone physically has bothered you it could be helpful. I find it helpful and think others may find it helpful, even though it’s quite demanding. We have the scriptures and we can read about Jesus Christ, his life, words, and teachings. As we read these words and think about them and put them into practice they will expand our understanding, so that we can grasp the fullness of these attributes in our intellect. This is the Way to the Father, always through Christ, eventually to be able to see, with the eyes of the heart, the very essence of God.

“Repent, and Believe in the Gospel” – Mark 1

The Gospel of Mark starts off at a frenetic pace, matching the boundless and exuberant energy of John and Jesus as they announce the gospel message: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” Jesus called disciples to “Follow” and they did, immediately. This is a gospel, good news, whose power and import we can still sense today.

With this episode I’d like to do another close reading of a New Testament chapter like I did with the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7. I had a tough time choosing what chapter to do next because there are so many I would like to do. But I finally chose the first chapter of Mark because of a line that’s been repeating in my mind. And that line is, “Repent and believe the Gospel”. This is from verse 15. Why has this been repeating in my mind? That’s something I’ve had to think about. And here’s one reflection I’ve had on it: 2000 years ago something happened, something really important, and it makes demands of us, life-changing demands that will not leave a person the same, but rather completely transforms you into a new creature. That event was the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. I think about the Gospel writer and what he intended to do with this account. It was important to him to spread this message. It had been spread for decades by word of mouth but writing it down preserved it and increased its reach. It was important to know what had happened, who Jesus was, and what he had done. And I believe it’s important. I can appreciate the need and urgency of the Gospel writer to talk about it and give witness to it.

One of the things I love about the Gospel of Mark is his sense of urgency. The pace of the Gospel is exhilarating. I characterize Mark with one Greek word and that is εὐθὺς (euthus), immediately! Everything is εὐθὺς. There’s no relaxing, no taking a moment to catch your breath in Mark. Jesus is constantly on the move and we are on the move with him. This word is used 11 times in chapter 1. I don’t know what the reasons were behind this but the effect it has on me is animating, a feeling of being driven. This is something that the Spirit does. It even does it to Jesus in this chapter: Καὶ εὐθὺς τὸ Πνεῦμα αὐτὸν ἐκβάλλει; And immediately the Spirit drives him out. I feel driven along in the story of Jesus and driven to think about it constantly and to talk about it. I can’t really explain the mechanisms behind that and it makes sense not to be able to. In the Gospel of John Jesus tells Nicodemus that being born of the Spirit is like the wind blowing where it wants to, you hear the sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes (John 3:8). It’s not really explicable but the experience is palpable.

Mark chapter 1 really grabs me and speaks to me in this way. So it’s a text I want to read and talk about.

Mark 1

Verse 1

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

I read this as the opening of a great announcement. Something is coming. Someone is coming and we need to get ready. It’s not only an announcement but a good announcement. The gospel, the εὐαγγέλιον  (euangelion), is good news and it is good news about the person Jesus Christ, Χριστός (Christos), the Anointed, the One who is anointed king and Lord. It was practice in Israel to anoint, מָשַׁח (mashach), a king and as such the king was the Anointed, in Hebrew מָשִׁיחַ (meshiach), or Messiah, Χριστός (Christos) in Greek. The king was also a son of God, a title given here to Jesus. But in the case of Jesus we can understand it to have a deeper, more literal meaning, that Jesus is actually divine.

Verses 2 – 3

As it is written in the Prophets:
“Behold, I send My messenger before Your face,
Who will prepare Your way before You.”
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
Make His paths straight.’”

The beginning of the chapter is immediately interrupted by quotations from scripture. But these interruptions also move the story forward. They bolster the importance of what is coming. This has been anticipated for centuries. The quotes are from Malachi, Exodus, and Isaiah. Specifically these are quotes from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the scriptures.

Malachi 3:1

“Behold, I send My messenger (ἄγγελος, angelos), And he will prepare the way before Me.”

Exodus 23:20

“Behold, I send an Angel (ἄγγελος, angelos) before you to keep you in the way.”

Isaiah 40:3

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; Make straight in the desert

A highway for our God.’”

In the Septuagint translations of Malachi and Exodus the word used is ἄγγελος (angelos). This is also the word Mark uses in quotation. It means messenger and the cognate “angel” is essentially a divine messenger. Also related to the word gospel, εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion). In Hebrew, מֲלְאָךְ (malach), also has this same double meaning, as either an earthly messenger or a divine messenger. An important message is coming.

And actually, I’d like to quote that Isaiah passage in a fuller context because it’s quite beautiful and, I think, appropriate to the kind of important message that the Gospel brings.

Isaiah 40:1-3

“’Comfort, yes, comfort My people!’ Says your God. ‘Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her, That her warfare is ended, That her iniquity is pardoned; For she has received from the Lord’s hand Double for all her sins.’ The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; Make straight in the desert A highway for our God.”

This is a passage of the LORD turning back in kindness toward the people of Israel. The book of Isaiah has two sections of noticeably different tone. Noticeable at least after it’s pointed out. Some people think the second section was even written by a different person. And that may be the case. But regardless the arc of the book is toward reconciliation. A great summary of this whole theme is in Isaiah 54:7-10.

“’For a mere moment I have forsaken you, But with great mercies I will gather you. With a little wrath I hid My face from you for a moment; But with everlasting kindness I will have mercy on you,’ Says the Lord, your Redeemer. ‘For this is like the waters of Noah to Me; For as I have sworn That the waters of Noah would no longer cover the earth, So have I sworn That I would not be angry with you, nor rebuke you. For the mountains shall depart And the hills be removed, But My kindness shall not depart from you, Nor shall My covenant of peace be removed,’ Says the Lord, who has mercy on you.”

This is an important transition and I don’t think it’s a stretch to see a similar transition on the horizon here at the beginning of Mark.

Verses 4 – 5

John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. Then all the land of Judea, and those from Jerusalem, went out to him and were all baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.

Here we meet the voice of one crying in the wilderness. The messenger, the ἄγγελος of the εὐαγγελίου. This is John the Baptist. And what is his message? A baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. Four major parts I see to this, one problem with three responses.

The problem is sin. This is a problem throughout scripture. Sin is what caused the LORD to hide his face in an outburst of wrath with Israel (Isaiah 54:8). And there are three responses to this problem in John’s message: baptism, repentance, and remission of sins.

This reminds me a little of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths. The First Noble Truth is that dukkha (suffering, pain, what cannot be satisfied) is an innate characteristic of existence in the realm of samsara. The Second Noble Truth is that nirodha (cessation, ending) of this dukkha can be attained. In Buddhism this cessation of suffering is attained through renouncement of taṇhā (“craving, desire or attachment”).

There’s a similar pattern in what John preached. In John’s message the fundamental problem is sin. But the εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion), the good news is that it is possible to overcome sin. A remission of sins is possible. And this comes about through a dramatic transformation that we see in baptism and repentance, or βάπτισμα μετανοίας (baptisma metanoias), baptism of repentance. Scriptures speak of baptism as a new birth, being born again as a new creature. For example, Jesus said, “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3) Paul said:

“Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life (ἐν καινότητι ζωῆς, en kainoteti zoes). For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin.” (Romans 6:3-6)

I quote this passage from the Epistle to the Romans quite frequently and it’s because I think it’s a core principle and one of the most important passages in the Bible. I think it’s instructive of the degree of transformation that occurs in the process of being born again. I also think one of the most important words in the New Testament is καινός (kainos), new. Christ makes all things new. Whatever is stale and bereft of energy that is what Christ is able to enliven and make new. Paul said to the Corinthians: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation (καινὴ κτίσις, kaine ktisis); old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

Verses 6

Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

John’s clothing and diet were quite severe. And it seems from what we read that John and his followers were quite a bit more strenuous and ascetic in their practices than Jesus and his followers. For one thing John and his followers seemed to have fasted more, to the point that it was a noticeable difference. “And they come and say unto him, Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples fast not?” (Mark 2:18) Jesus also, somewhat humorously and sardonically, comments on the different ways people criticized him and John: “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He has a devil. The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. But wisdom is justified of her children.” (Matthew 11:18-19)

I find these differences between John and Jesus quite interesting and it’s notable that both are esteemed. There is more than one way to live and act in the service of the Kingdom of God. Paul said as much to the Corinthians:

“Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which works all in all.” (1 Corinthians 12:4-6)

John’s strenuous practices are not necessary to emulate. But it is one way live.

Verses 7 – 8

And he preached, saying, “There comes One after me who is mightier than I, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to stoop down and loose. I indeed baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

This is fascinating to me because I already find the baptism with water and the transformation of one’s nature that comes with it to be extremely powerful and inspiring. But there is more. John says this is just the beginning. Jesus comes and will bring a second baptism with the Holy Spirit. Jesus made a point of this before his crucifixion that he was going to send the Paraclete, παράκλητος (parakletos), the comforter, helper, or advocate. This is the Holy Spirit.

John’s words are even more evocative in the Gospel of Matthew where he says:

“I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:11)

I find this evocative because I think many of us can relate to the experience of the Holy Spirit in this way. It feels like a fire lit from within that energizes and enlivens. I think of the words of the people who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus: “Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?” (Luke 24:32)

The most dramatic account of the Holy Spirit is on the Day of Pentecost after Jesus’ resurrection:

“And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them dividing tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” (Acts 2:3-4)

It’s notable I think how the Spirit is emphatically active and driving events and speech. The Spirit was giving them utterance, it enabled them and empowered them to speak.

Verses 9 – 11

It came to pass in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And immediately, coming up from the water, He saw the heavens parting and the Spirit descending upon Him like a dove. Then a voice came from heaven, “You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

Here we actually meet Jesus for the first time and things move very quickly. The author doesn’t dwell or rest for a moment. Everything happens immediately, εὐθὺς (euthus). Baptism is a moment of transition for everyone and it is for Jesus as well. Everything gets moving after this and Jesus’s ministry hits the ground running. The Holy Spirit descends on him and God the Father announces his divine sonship and favored status.

Verses 12 – 13

Immediately the Spirit drove Him into the wilderness. And He was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan, and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to Him.

So things move very quickly here. Jesus is baptized and he’s off, driven into the wilderness by the Spirit. Note again the Spirit’s very active role in things. Jesus is not John. He’s not an ascetic in the same way. But it’s interesting that he does pass through a strenuous period. We don’t hear much about this in Mark. Matthew gives more detail about the kinds of temptations Jesus faced.

Of note here is the fact that Jesus was subjected to temptation. This is not incidental, but rather central to Christ’s saving mission. We read in the Book of Hebrews:

“For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16)

One of the supernal Christian doctrines is that Christ was both fully God and fully human. Both are crucial. Christ experienced all the weakness and trials we experience as humans.

Verses 14

Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God

We must note the detail that John was put in prison. Here we see briefly something that Jesus will also face. Both John and Jesus were controversial and destabilizing preachers. And it’s important to remember that. David Bentley Hart has called Christianity “irrepressibly fissile” and I like that description. This shouldn’t be surprising because Jesus told his disciples that the gospel would invite contestation.

“Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:20)

The gospel goes against the grain of much that is taken for granted in the world. It’s hardly conformist, so resistance shouldn’t be surprising. Nevertheless we should be careful not to justify antisocial behaviors and misanthropic attitudes for their own sake, as if these are essential to gospel faithfulness. Sort of the “You offend everyone so you must be doing something right” attitude. That’s just immature. Christian discipleship is not marked by misanthropy but by love. “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)

It’s precisely this kind of Christian love that makes demands of us in a way that we resist. For example, John taught:

“He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.”
“Collect no more than what is appointed for you.”
“Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages.”
(Luke 3:11-14)

Those aren’t things we always want to hear. John also spoke out against sexual excess, particularly of the local ruler Herod. And this also goes against the grain of culture, both Greco-Roman culture and our modern culture. These aren’t things people really want to hear.

Verse 15

And saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

Here is the main passage that has inspired my interest in this chapter, the summary of Jesus’s preaching.

Now let’s look at Mark’s summary of Jesus’s preaching: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

The kingdom of God, ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ Θεοῦ (he basilea tou theou), is an important theme in the gospel accounts and was clearly central to Jesus’s preaching. It was the subject of many of his most famous parables. For example, in Matthew 13 most of his parables begin with the phrase “the kingdom of heaven is like”:

“The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field”
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed”
“The kingdom of heaven is like leaven”
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field”
“The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls”
“The kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet that was cast into the sea and gathered some of every kind”

The kingdom of God is not like the kingdoms of the world, for many reasons (Mark 10:42-43). And the preaching of this coming kingdom makes demands on us. Jesus preached two things in these verses that people must do: (1) repent and (2) believe in the gospel. What is the gospel? Verse 14 says that Jesus came “preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God”. The subject of the gospel is this kingdom of God. We are supposed to repent and to believe in this announcement of the kingdom of God.

“Repent”, Jesus says, in greek, μετανοεῖτε (metanoiete). Etymology is not always indicative of meaning or use, something to be careful of in Biblical interpretation, but in this case it actually is. Μετάνοια (metanoia) means after-thought or beyond-thought and is commonly understood as “a transformative change of heart” and “a fundamental change in thinking and living”. Like I brought up previously with the idea of being reborn and becoming a new creature in Christ through baptism, transformation is fundamental to the gospel message. Things don’t just stay as they are. They must become new.

Verses 16 – 19

And as He walked by the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. Then Jesus said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” They immediately left their nets and followed Him. When He had gone a little farther from there, He saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who also were in the boat mending their nets. And immediately He called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and went after Him.

It’s possible that Mark’s characteristically brisk account abbreviates events here. Or, as I’m inclined to think, the immediacy may serve a narrative purpose. They immediately left their nets and followed him. Immediately, εὐθὺς (euthus), Mark’s favorite word.

We see here something of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the “cost of discipleship”. And we also see in this one of the apparent paradoxes of Christ’s gospel. Jesus said that his “burden is light” (Matthew 11:30) but it would also seem that the corresponding action of taking on his yoke is total. The demand is total but the reward is also total; all for all. We see this in a gospel account, in Luke, of would-be disciples who were not so totally committed in their discipleship:

“Now it happened as they journeyed on the road, that someone said to Him, ‘Lord, I will follow You wherever You go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.’ Then He said to another, ‘Follow Me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and preach the kingdom of God.’ And another also said, ‘Lord, I will follow You, but let me first go and bid them farewell who are at my house.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.’” (Luke 9:57-62)

This is undeniably astounding. God’s grace, the gift of salvation is glorious and infinite. But still, from the perspective of our immediate circumstances the cost required is jarring. Yet Simon, Andrew, James, and John meet that demand. They immediately leave their nets and follow.

Verses 21 – 22

Then they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath He entered the synagogue and taught. And they were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

Jesus taught as one having authority, ἐξουσία (exousia). And, being God, he certainly did have authority. I don’t think it’s a fault on the scribes’s part that they didn’t teach in this way. That wouldn’t have been proper. They could only refer to the authority of the scriptures. Jesus certainly quoted scripture as well but he also went beyond the things that scripture said. And this would be quite striking to hear. Imagine:

“‘You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.’” (Matthew 5:21-22)

“‘You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’” (Matthew 5:27-28)

Jesus would quote scripture and then add to it. As he said, he wasn’t destroying the law but fulfilling it (Matthew 5:17). Still, that’s not something that can be done without authority. And Jesus didn’t have to say, “This is according to so and so or to such and such a verse”. He just taught in virtue of his own authority. And it was noticeable, astonishing to those listening to him.

Verses 23 – 26

Now there was a man in their synagogue with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, saying, “Let us alone! What have we to do with You, Jesus of Nazareth? Did You come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God!” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be quiet, and come out of him!” And when the unclean spirit had convulsed him and cried out with a loud voice, he came out of him. 

A lot of things going on in these verses. For one thing, the unclean spirit knows who Jesus is. He is called “the Holy One of God”, ὁ Ἅγιος τοῦ Θεοῦ (ho Hagios tou Theou). This is a testimony of a sort, albeit from an unholy source. It’s interesting that Jesus not only commands the spirit to come out of the man but also tells it to be quiet. One theme in the gospel of Mark is that Jesus is often telling people not to reveal who he is. He even does this when Peter makes his confession:

“‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered and said to Him, ‘You are the Christ.’ Then He strictly warned them that they should tell no one about Him.” (Mark 8:29-30) In Biblical criticism this is sometimes called the “Messianic secret”.

Also of note here is that Jesus is an authoritative and successful exorcist. And this was something that caught people’s attention, as we’ll see in the next couple verses.

Verses 27-28

Then they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? What new doctrine is this? For with authority He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey Him.” And immediately His fame spread throughout all the region around Galilee.

Jesus’s exorcisms and his miracles in general were definitely evidence of his identity and authority. Much as he was able to teach with his own authority, the fact that he was bold enough to (1) command the unclean spirits and (2) that the unclean spirits actually obeyed him got people’s attention. It marked him out as someone different doing something new. So that they would ask, “What is this? What new doctrine is this?” What new teaching, διδαχὴ καινή (didache kaine)?

The word “new”, καινός (kainos), is one that I try to pay attention to whenever it shows up.

In Jeremiah: “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah”. “New covenant” being διαθήκην καινήν (diatheken kainen) in the Septuagint Greek. (Jeremiah 31:31)

“And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; or else the new wine bursts the wineskins, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined. But new wine must be put into new wineskins.” ἀσκοὺς καινούς (askous kainous). (Mark 2:22)

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation (καινὴ κτίσις, kaine ktisis); old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

Christ’s gospel isn’t just novelty for the sake of novelty.

One example of newness in the New Testament that is ambiguous, whether it’s good or bad, is in the account of the Athenians.

“And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, ‘May we know what this new doctrine [ἡ καινὴ (he kaine)] is of which you speak?’ …For all the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing.” τι καινότερον (ti kainoteron). (Acts 17:19,21)

It’s not obvious here but seems to be implied that this perpetual search for novelty among the Athenians was not an unqualified positive attribute. Still, Paul does play into it, in a way that cleverly combines the old and the new. The new teaching that he proclaims is of the God they have been worshipping from ancient times, without understanding.

“I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD [ΑΓΝΩΣΤΩ ΘΕΩ (AGNOSTO THEO)]. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you: God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’” (Acts 17:23-28)

Paul indeed gives them a new teaching. But he grounds this in ancient practice and ancient truth. The Unknown God is the God who has always been there in the background, sustaining all things. This is consistent with Jesus’s new teachings, which do not destroy old teaching but fulfill. The new covenant fulfills and furthers the old covenant. As a point of speculation, this might be a way of taking advantage of the freshness of new teachings while staying grounded in the old. This aspect of newness does seem to be one of the Gospel’s central attributes. And this seems thematically consistent with the gospel as a whole. In Christ, the stale and deteriorating are not the order of things. Things do not end in death. Resurrection brings renewed life and energy to all things.

Verses 29 – 39

Now as soon as they had come out of the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. But Simon’s wife’s mother lay sick with a fever, and they told Him about her at once. So He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and immediately the fever left her. And she served them. At evening, when the sun had set, they brought to Him all who were sick and those who were demon-possessed. And the whole city was gathered together at the door. Then He healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and He did not allow the demons to speak, because they knew Him. Now in the morning, having risen a long while before daylight, He went out and departed to a solitary place; and there He prayed. And Simon and those who were with Him searched for Him. When they found Him, they said to Him, “Everyone is looking for You.” But He said to them, “Let us go into the next towns, that I may preach there also, because for this purpose I have come forth.” And He was preaching in their synagogues throughout all Galilee, and casting out demons.

Jesus healed, cast out demons, and preached the good news of the coming kingdom of God. His ministry was intrinsically itinerant, moving from one town to the next. “Because for this purpose I have come forth”. I quoted earlier where Jesus said “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” (Luke 9:58) In addition to being a comment on the cost of discipleship it also highlights the itinerant nature of his ministry.

We see here again the Messianic secret: “and [he] cast out many demons; and He did not allow the demons to speak, because they knew Him”. It’s also worth noting the importance of the immediate, physical aspect of Jesus’s service. I think it’s certainly true that the universal blessings of Christ’s atonement, our redemption from sin and death, are most important. Still, Jesus was exceptionally compassionate toward those in his immediate presence. And I think this also teaches us something about the nature of God.

Verses 40 – 45

Now a leper came to Him, imploring Him, kneeling down to Him and saying to Him, “If You are willing, You can make me clean.” Then Jesus, moved with compassion, stretched out His hand and touched him, and said to him, “I am willing; be cleansed.” As soon as He had spoken, immediately the leprosy left him, and he was cleansed. And He strictly warned him and sent him away at once, and said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go your way, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing those things which Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” However, he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the matter, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter the city, but was outside in deserted places; and they came to Him from every direction.

I think this is a wonderful account in which we are able to see something of the nature of God in Jesus. The leper says, “If You are willing.” Is Jesus willing to heal? Jesus says Θέλω (Thelo), I will it, I want it. Of course Jesus wants the man to be healed. Furthermore, Jesus is “moved with compassion”, σπλαγχνισθεὶς (splagchnistheis). σπλαγχνίζομαι (splagchnizomai) is one of my favorite greek words, both for the way it sounds and for what it means. It means to have compassion. The roots of this verb, σπλάγχνα (splagchna), are literally the internal organs, and figuratively the visceral seat of emotions. σπλαγχνίζομαι (splagchnizomai) is a kind of full-bodied experience of compassion and I strongly associate it with Jesus in the New Testament writings. Jesus wants to heal and wants to do it because of his overwhelming love for people.

Jesus said that the attributes we see in him are indicative of the attributes of God.

“He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9)

Also in the gospel of John:

“No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.” (John 1:18)

We can look to Jesus to understand the character of God. And what we see is love that surpasses all expectations. God is like the father of the Prodigal Son. All that the prodigal son imagines and hopes to expect is: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.” But the Father rejoices and invites everyone to rejoice at his homecoming.

“Follow Me”

In conclusion I’d like to revisit a couple passages in this chapter. A couple weeks ago I was reading in the Gospel of John where Jesus talks about the mission of the Holy Spirit. He said: “But the Parclete, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.” (John 14:26) This is one significant way I’ve encountered the Holy Spirit: by being made to remember the words of Jesus. And one of these things impressed on my mind is this call: “Repent and believe the Gospel”.

It’s remarkable to me how Simon and Andrew, James and John just drop everything from their previous life and follow Jesus at his sudden command: “Follow me”. I wonder what they felt. Were they excited? Afraid? Likely both and more?

The Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor often portrayed Gospel ideas through violence. That’s certainly strange and admittedly idiosyncratic. And even though that kind of literary illustration is an exaggeration and a distortion I think there’s wisdom in it. In a way the Gospel is simultaneously destructive and constructive. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.” (John 12:24) We are meant to both die with Christ and rise again with Christ. Even if O’Connor’s use of violence to portray this is literary exaggeration it correctly conveys the idea that Christian conversion comes with an impact and great power.

Now that may or may not sound appealing. Certainly the call of the Spirit has not always been completely welcome. Jeremiah resisted it:

“O Lord, You induced me, and I was persuaded;
You are stronger than I, and have prevailed.
I am in derision daily;
Everyone mocks me.
For when I spoke, I cried out;
I shouted, ‘Violence and plunder!’
Because the word of the Lord was made to me
A reproach and a derision daily.
Then I said, ‘I will not make mention of Him,
Nor speak anymore in His name.’
But His word was in my heart like a burning fire
Shut up in my bones;
I was weary of holding it back,
And I could not.”
(Jeremiah 20:7-9)

So that’s both awesome and frightening. But not all so moved resist in this way.

Paul called himself a slave to Christ, δοῦλος Χριστοῦ (doulos Christou) (Romans 1:1). That may not sound so appealing. Especially as a modern, freedom-loving American it certainly makes me do a double-take. But Paul delighted in this. Paradoxically, he considered this slavery to Christ a kind of liberation and taught that there was liberty ἐλευθερίᾳ (eleutheria) in Christ.

“Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free” (Galatians 5:1)

And what are we freed from? We are freed from sin by submitting to new mastery under Christ.

“Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free [ἐλευθερωθέντες (eleutherothentes)] from sin, you became slaves [ἐδουλώθητε (edoulothete)] of righteousness. I speak in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:15-23)

We can be slaves of sin or slaves of Christ. But the wages of each diverge sharply. The wages of sin is death. But submission to Christ, even though it is all-demanding, is also fully liberating. His yoke is easy and his burden is light. And the gift of God is eternal life.

When I hear, “Repent and believe the Gospel,” I hear it as Paul, Simon and Andrew, James and John. It’s all-demanding, awesome, frightening, and glorious. It is the ultimate “good news”, εὐαγγέλιον  (euangelion), that must be announced.