Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Jesus: A Parable-Centered Ministry

A few weeks ago Rick Philips wrote a post asking whether a gospel-centered ministry is sufficient for the church's ministry. To answer that question he focused on the ministry of Jesus as presented in the book of Mark. Philips writes:
This raises the question to me as to whether Jesus himself can be said to have a "gospel-centeredTM ministry?"
To satisfy my curiosity, I turned to the Gospel of Mark, which is currently being read during the morning worship services of the church I serve. I do realize that the Gospels are not given as a statistical sample of Jesus' ministry day-to-day. Still, we should be able to get a fair sense of our Lord's own priorities if we categorize the types of messages recorded in his Gospels...
But how was Jesus gospel-centered? The answer is that he revealed himself as the divine Messiah and enlightened man about God, he showed the power and grace to live a new kind of life, he exposed darkness and unbelief as false and ungodly, and he offered forgiveness to broken sinners.
I think Rick Philips makes some fair points regarding the ministry of the church. But I also think he is making a questionable assumption about the connection between the priorities of Jesus's ministry and that of the church by offering an approach which may not be as helpful as it seems on its face. Do the gospels present Jesus as a ministry-template for the church? Is the focus and mix of the church's preaching and teaching to be shaped by reflecting how and what Jesus did in his spoken ministry? One obvious caveat to that last question: in one crucial sense what Jesus did and taught is not only central to the church's ministry it is the church's ministry. Yet to look at the mix of what Jesus taught isn't necessarily the pointer for pastors. One obvious difference is that Jesus did many miracles. He raised the dead, healed the sick, made the blind to see and the lame to walk. Do we? No. But more to the point of this post is the nature of Jesus's spoken ministry. In his spoken ministry did Jesus reveal himself as the divine Messiah? He certainly came as the divine Messiah. And the gospel writers certainly present him as such. But it seems that Jesus himself wasn't as intent on making himself known as Philips' conclusion states. By and large when addressing the crowds that followed him, the gospels present Jesus speaking in what were confusing parables and less than clear teachings. In fact, a center-piece of his public ministry was speaking in mysteries or parables, cloaking the true nature of his identity and mission:
And He healed many who were ill with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and He was not permitting the demons to speak, because they knew who He was. Mark 1:34
for He had healed many, with the result that all those who had afflictions pressed around Him in order to touch Him. Whenever the unclean spirits saw Him, they would fall down before Him and shout, “You are the Son of God!” And He earnestly warned them not to tell who He was. Mark 3:10-12
As soon as He was alone, His followers, along with the twelve, began asking Him about the parables. And He was saying to them, “To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but those who are outside get everything in parables, so that while seeing, they may see and not perceive, and while hearing, they may hear and not understand, otherwise they might return and be forgiven.” Mark 4:10-12 
All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables, and He did not speak to them without a parable. Matt. 13:34
It was primarily to the apostles that Jesus revealed himself. And even at that, his words were often cryptic and misunderstood by them. This approach is in stark contrast with the purpose and ministry of the church in the New Testament as well as today. The apostle Paul writes in Colossians that his purpose was to proclaim and reveal Jesus Christ to all men:
Of this church I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, so that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God, that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ. For this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me. Col. 1:25-29
In contrast, one can argue that Jesus's priority was to not reveal himself (thus his parables and other cloaked teachings) but rather, as the One purposely unrecognized by Israel (Isaiah 53:2b-3), to offer himself as a sacrificial Lamb for the sins of his people. Whereas the church's mission is to fully reveal Christ as Lord and Savior, God who came in the flesh and who has accomplished salvation by his death on the cross. In examining Jesus's spoken ministry it's helpful to keep in view that Jesus had not yet died on the cross. In a sense, his was a moment between the two covenants. The New Covenant in his blood had not yet been inaugurated. And inaugurating that covenant was the end or goal of his ministry. Redemption had not yet been accomplished. The very definitive fullness of the gospel would only at Pentecost be first proclaimed - Christ crucified and risen and ascended. What Jesus taught and how he taught in the gospels worked together to both proclaim the kingdom of heaven at hand and yet in such a way for himself to remain hidden. He not only spoke in parables, Jesus was a walking, living Parable to those around him. He was headed somewhere. 
When the days were approaching for His ascension, He was determined [lit. set his face] to go to Jerusalem. Luke 9:51
This was even more clearly seen when the disciples were approached by 'certain Greeks' who had heard about Jesus and wanted to see him. The word was getting out about Jesus, even beyond the borders of Israel! It was as if that moment of unwanted wider fame was an alarm going off. What Isaiah 53:10 prophesied was about to be fulfilled.
Now there were certain Greeks among those who were going up to worship at the feast; these then came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida of Galilee, and began to ask him, saying, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip *came and* told Andrew; Andrew and Philip *came and* told Jesus. And Jesus *answered them, saying, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. John 12:20-23
But why would Jesus, the Son of God come in the flesh, speak in parables and hide his identity? One reason it seems is that the Jews who were looking for the Messiah wanted fervently the restoration of Israel's past glory. That could only be accomplished by reestablishing the throne on David in the earthly Jerusalem. And that road to recognition and glory was not the path to the cross. The gospel of John tells us, as Jesus's identity became more widely known he took measures so that he would not be diverted from Calvary and the one thing necessary to complete his mission. He had no interest in being fully revealed and getting sidetracked from his purpose.
Therefore when the people saw the sign which He had performed, they said, “This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world.” So Jesus, perceiving that they were intending to come and take Him by force to make Him king, withdrew again to the mountain by Himself alone. John 6:14-15
His was an unique ministry both in purpose and execution. His was not the Christian church's ministry of proclaiming Christ crucified. His was the ministry of the Sin-bearer come to die. And because of that I would suggest that we should be cautious when trying to find patterns in Jesus's life and ministry to be used as templates or examples for the life and ministry of the church.


  1. Thanks. For sure, Jesus preached a lot more about election than most "Reformed" preachers do today. I guess those preachers excuse themselves on the ground that Jesus knew who was elect and they don't. But these preachers don't need to know who's elect in order to preach the doctrine a lot more (and more clearly) than they do, But they would have to think of election as good news for sinners.

    Notice how confident the divines were to speak of the decree as the fountain of all these benefits. This may make many fear hyper-Calvininsm today, but these divines understood the pastoral benefits of correctly emphasizing that all of the fruits that follow in the life of the believer flow from the fountain of election. Election was always intended to encourage and uplift God’s children that the Lord will finish the project he started in them. Election was before any of the fruits we experience, including sanctification, both in order and in time.

    Jesus used the decree in this way in his earthly ministry to encourage his sheep, he said to his disciples, “rejoice that your names are written in heaven (Luk. 10:20).” This name writing was done before one work was every performed on their part.

    Pierre DuMoulin, the French Huguenot, said regarding this verse,

    Christ speaks to men that were living and who had not yet persevered in the faith to the end. Yet not withstanding, their names were already written in heaven, their salvation was determined by the certain purpose of God. Their election therefore, was before their perseverance in the faith, contrary to which is the opinion of Arminius, who will have perseverance in faith to go before election, and will have us to be elected for foreseen faith.

  2. This is a very practical issue, Jack. Do we address the gospel mainly to those already in the new covenant (and their children, families) or should we address the gospel mainly to those now outside the church? And is there a different gospel for those outside the churches than the gospel for those in church?

    That may sound like nothing but a rhetorical question (we all know that there is only one gospel), but for me it's a very practical problem which I have not entirely resolved in my own mind. Are the imperatives different for folks with different indicatives? Surely, we don't command non-Christians to financially support churches, in the way we do admonish Christians to do so.

    I certainly agree with you that the ministry of Jesus was unique, and therefore when we attempt to imitate Him (as we should) we are called to imitate Jesus in everything. We are commanded to not resist evil with evil, for example, but we are not commanded to be single. And even when we do suffer for His sake, our suffering is not to satisfy God's justice for God's forgiveness of sins. We suffer. We forgive. But we do not make any part of the atonement.

    Jesus only went to Israel. Should we only focus on ministry in the church? Jesus taught both law and gospel. Should we teach as much law as Jesus did? Jesus taught the law of Moses. Should we be teaching the law of Moses?

    Not everything in the Bible should get equal attention, because not everything in the Bible is gospel. We need to give attention to both law and gospel, but we don't need a balance of the two. We don't need equal time for both. We need to give attention to both the new birth and to justification. But that does not mean that one does have priority.

    Thank you, Jack, for continuing to raise these questions.

    Rick p—-“May God send us many more snipers to defend us with courage and skill until Jesus finally comes and relieves of us the terrible burden of war. – See more at:

    Rick p—“it is a service to society for godly pastors to act on the state’s behalf in establishing godly marriages. Instead of pulling out of society, Christians should seek to be involved for the good of all,”

    From Jonathan Malesic’s Secret Faith in the Public Square (Brazos Press, 2009)

    “Can Christians be witnesses to the hard truths of the gospel in a land where being Christian is a form of political or social capital? What is the theological cost of the church becoming a constituency, a network, a market? What about when Christian identity has become a brand? How can Christian identity be saved from American public life, which so easily distorts and converts it into something meant to benefit individuals in that public life? This book is a theological answer to questions like these. The answer begins by my showing that secrecy about the most distinctive aspects of Christian identity—including prayer and liturgy and explicitly Christian justifications for public actions—is a real though underemphasized theme in Christian theological, liturgical, and spiritual tradition. (p. 15) I am concerned in this book with secrecy about membership in the public of the church. My proposal is an answer to the question of what individual Christians should do when non-Christian publics, especially the overarching and competitive public spheres of government, work, and the market pose danger to the integrity of the Christian public. I maintain that when Christian identity is thought to be useful largely to confer status on someone in one of these spheres, then the true purpose of being a member of the public known as the church has been lost. Being Christian is meant to serve ends beyond public and private and anything in between. (p. 23)

  3. Mark 4: 11 And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, 12 so that

    “in order that they see but not perceive,
    and indeed hear but not understand,
    lest they should turn and be forgiven.” Isaiah 6:9

    John Calvin---But you will say, In a matter so difficult and deep as this, nothing is better than to think moderately. Who denies it? But we must, at the same time, examine what kind and degree of moderation it is, lest we should be drawn into the principle of the Papists, who, to keep their disciples obedient to them, make them like mute and brute beasts. But shall it be called Christian simplicity to consider as hurtful the knowledge of those things which God sets before us? But (say our opponents), this subject is one of which we may remain ignorant without loss or harm.

    As if our heavenly Teacher were not the best judge of what it is expedient for us to know, and to what extent we ought to know it! Wherefore, that we may not struggle amid the waves, nor be borne about in the air, unfixed and uncertain, nor, by getting our foot too deep, be drowned in the gulph below; let us so give ourselves to God, to be ruled by Him and taught by Him, that, contented with His Word alone, we may never desire to know more than we find therein. No! not even if the power so to do were given to us! This teachableness, in which every godly man will ever hold all the powers of his mind under the authority of the Word of God, is the true and only rule of wisdom.