At some point just before I begin every Sunday sermon, I say this to the congregation: “The bible is not a book; it’s a library: many books written by multiple authors over a long span of time and in many different styles of writing.”
That realization is vital for interpreting biblical texts well. But more than that – it is essential to keep in mind as you prepare and deliver sermons. Let me show you what I mean.
Mark 4:35 – 5:41 is a perfectly designed and built section where faith and art meet. Remember: chapters and verses were not original to Mark or any other book.
The first story of Jesus in the boat with the storm sets up the question of questions: “Who is this man?” in 4:41. Well, who is he? That question hangs in the air, unanswered by the disciples who ask it. But more than that, it propels Mark’s Gospel from the first sentence on, as the readers know something the characters do not: that Jesus is the Son of God, the Savior of the world. Mark is in many respects a suspense narrative designed to get the disciples to know at the end as much as the reader does at the beginning.
But back to today. Think of how Paul would answer that question, who is this man? He would give an essay, an incredible one, and he would pile on the adjectives.
Think of Colossians 1:15-20:
15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
Brilliant. Epic. Sweeping. The ultimate answer to those who naively claim that Jesus is merely “prophet,” “teacher,” or “good man.”
But Mark isn’t writing an essay. He is writing a narrative. So he doesn’t answer the question with words. He answers it with stories.
Who is Jesus?
Oh, the one with authority over the weather (4:35-41).
Oh, the one with authority over the demons (5:1-18), as the story of the Gerasene demoniac memorably tells. And — just as with the disciples in the boat — the villagers are more afraid of the man when he is delivered than they were of him when he was possessed (5:15). Something deep inside many of us prefers a chaos with which we are familiar to a calm that arrives unexpectedly.
Oh, the one with authority over illness (5:24-35). Mark conveys the heartache, desperation, and ultimate gratitude of the woman who had been “subject to bleeding for twelve years.” In his description, he invites readers both male and female to enter in and acknowledge: “I’ve been there.”
Oh, the one with authority over death (Jairus’ daughter; 5:21-43). Note how the assembled crowd moves from mocking laughter (5:40) to open-mouthed astonishment in 5:42. Mark doesn’t have to tell us that there is no greater authority one can possess than the authority over death itself; he lets the story speak for itself.
Paul writes. Mark paints.
They’re saying exactly the same thing in complete different ways. If you think the bible is a book, that’s a hard concept to comprehend.
When you realize that it is a library, it makes perfect sense.
And when you as a preacher understand that some in your congregation and the community surrounds it are wired in a way that essays move them and logic persuades them, then you’ll preach Paul. With all the “Paul-ness” you can muster!
Yet when you also realize that others in your community are moved more by art than by science, more by story than by proof, you’ll preach Mark. With all the Mark-ness you can evoke.
Because if Paul writes and Mark paints … and if you want to be a “biblical preacher” … you’ll want to do both.
Who is this man?
The one who animates the artist and inspires the essayist. Glory to God.