Formations 06.16.2019: Choose Your Next Words Carefully

Saints Peter and Paul in Prison, Saint Paul Church, Sharpsburg, Ohio. Nheyob [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Mark 13:9-13

I am an adjunct university professor, which means I assign research papers. I am also an editor, which means I often regret assigning research papers.

In order both to help my students and to maintain my own positive frame of mind, I offer to read early drafts of papers and give suggestions for improvement. On one occasion, the student’s main flaw was a fascination with flowery, erudite language that distracted from the message. My suggestion came across a bit more harshly than I intended, but it was accurate nonetheless: “Throw away your thesaurus and write plain, simple sentences.”

I also think of a former ministerial colleague who delighted in highbrow vocabulary—but never quite seemed to use it correctly. He’d either mispronounce his fifty-cent words or use them in the wrong context.

And yet, Moses argued that he was slow of speech, and Paul was determined not to wow the Corinthians with “lofty words of wisdom” but with the straightforward message of “Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:1-2). And in Mark 13, Jesus warns his disciples not to worry about what they’ll say when earthly authorities haul them up on charges.

Some preachers have taken these biblical examples to mean that it’s somehow wrong to prepare one’s sermons. Just pray yourself hot and let yourself go! I think this attitude misses the point completely. The preparation isn’t the problem—and it’s clear from the sermons recorded for us in Scripture that many of them are the product of rhetorical effort, or at least much thoughtful reflection.

The problem isn’t putting thought into what we say about Jesus. The problem, as I see it, is in thinking the results are up to us. That’s when we outsmart ourselves by trying to sound eloquent or educated—or just to get in a memorable zinger.

During the week before his crucifixion, Jesus tells his disciples to be on guard against coming persecution. You will, he says, be brought before councils and synagogues and governors and kings. You will have to say something in your own defense. But don’t worry about that, “for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit” (v. 11).

The Holy Spirit will speak through you. It’s a promise all preachers can cling to. But it’s not just a promise for preachers. There’s something there for us all. When the world mocks your faith, when following Jesus wins you more enemies than friends, or when someone demands “an accounting for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:15), it’s good to remember that we are not alone. The Holy Spirit will be with us, giving us courage and strength.

And when a spoken response is called for, we’ll have just the right words.

Discussion

• Do you think Jesus disparaged the importance of preparation, or is there some other significance to his command?
• Why does faithfulness to Jesus so often result in conflict?
• What role do families play in this conflict?
• Persecution by civil or religious authorities is not likely for North American believers today. How might we take these words of Jesus to heart and allow them to shape our discipleship?

Reference Shelf

As a Testimony to Them

Testimony is evidence from witnesses and, in the Bible, refers primarily to the acts and laws of God. In the OT, in addition to this legal meaning (Num 35:30; Ruth 4:7), the term “testimony is regularly found in passages concerning the Ark and the Tabernacle…. More common is the use of “testimony” to refer to the laws of God or, more particularly, to the Decalogue, especially the tablets that were contained within the Ark….

Testimony in the NT generally refers less to literary and legal manifestations of God’s activities and more to the works of God unfolding in human actions. Jesus himself is called God’s testimony (John 3:11, 32; 2 Tim 1:8; Rev 1:2). Also, the apostles’ preaching of the word is referred to as testimony of God’s salvific intentions (Matt 10:18; Luke 21:13; Acts 22:18).

Ray Sutherland, “Testimony,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 888–89.

Preaching, Arrest, and Martyrdom

Mark has subtly developed the pattern of preaching, arrest, martyrdom. John the Baptist preached and was “handed over” (1:4-8, 14-15; 6:14-29). Jesus will soon be “handed over” (1:14-15; 8:31; 9:31; 10:32-34). Now it becomes clear that the disciples too will be “handed over” for their preaching (1:16- 20; 6:7-13; 8:34-35; 10:29-30, 38-39). They will share Jesus’ fate. In the time of persecution, the disciples should steel themselves to be ready to carry out their mission of bearing witness to the gospel. Mark 13, therefore, also serves as an introduction to the Passion Narrative that follows, where some of the same terms and themes recur: “hand you over” (paradidomi: 14:10, 11, 18, 21, 41, 42, 44; 15:1, 10, 15), “councils” (synedria: 14:55; 15:1).

The early believers would be persecuted by both Jewish (councils and synagogues) and Gentile authorities (governors and kings). The book of Acts records just such experiences of persecution, and Paul reports, “Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning” (2 Cor 11:24-25; cf. Acts 5:40; 16:19-23, 37). In order to inflict a lashing, three (or twenty-three) judges were required according to later Jewish law (m. Sanhedrin 1.2). The reference to “councils” (synedria) in v. 9 refers generally to local courts or councils…. In this verse, to “stand before” is an idiom meaning to be brought to trial or to be called to answer charges before an official (see Acts 24:20; 25:10). John the Baptist was imprisoned by Herod Antipas (6:14-29). Jesus was interrogated by the Jewish authorities (14:53-65) before being tried by Pilate, the Roman prefect or governor (15:1-15). The book of Acts records that Paul was tried before the Sanhedrin (Acts 22:30-23:10), before governors (Felix and Festus— Acts 24:10-27; 25:1-12; and 26:24-32), and before King Agrippa (Acts 25:23–26:32) before appealing his case to Caesar.

Like Paul, the disciples would be brought to trial precisely because they were preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. Mark 13:9-13 is closely connected to 8:34–9:1. Mark 8:35 promises salvation to those who lose their lives “for my sake and for the sake of the gospel” (heneken emou kai tou euangeliou), and the same phrase recurs in 10:29.

R. Alan Culpepper, Mark, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2008), 453–54.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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