There’s a reason students call seminary, “cemetery.” When I think of my Bible college experience, I remember the thick, dry textbooks. The information usually felt distant: arguments about authorship, textual criticism, definitions of the Greek and Hebrew. Although I learned a lot about the Bible (it was a priceless experience, believe me), I often finished my reading assignments wondering what any of it had to do with my personal life. This is why academic Bible study can feel like a graveyard; the Bible can quickly become only an ancient text to study, instead of the life-transforming book that it is.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF COMMENTARY
Not all commentaries neglect this important aspect. Recently, I was reading through Mark and thought it would be nice to have some extra input in my Bible study. I remembered that this week we have the NIV Application Commentary on sale, and I’ve never opened it before. So, I tried it out!
Every section of Scripture is explained in three ways: Original Meaning, Bridging Contexts, and Contemporary Significance. I’ll give you an example from my own study:
This passage is outlined in four sections: The Second Prediction of Jesus Suffering and Resurrection (9;30-37), The Unfamiliar Exorcist (9:38-40), Warning About Causing Others to Stumble (9:42-48), and Salt (9:49-50). For the sake of trying to keep this blog short, we’ll look at the Unfamiliar Exorcist.
John proudly announces to Jesus that they saw someone casting out demons in his name and they obstructed him. Their reason for intervening? “Because he was not one of us.” The complaint drips with irony. The disciples only recently bungled an exorcism, yet they do not hesitate to obstruct someone who is successful but who is not a member of their team. Jesus catches them by surprise when he does not commend them for their vigilance but instead reproves them: “Do not stop him” (9:39).
This response recalls Moses’ reply to Joshua. Joshua implored Israel’s leader to do something about unauthorized prophets, “Moses, my lord, stop them!” Moses answered, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” (Num. 11:26-29). Are the disciples jealous for Jesus or for themselves? Do they want to corner the exorcism market, which would make them indispensable and revered, whereas Jesus wishes that all were exorcists casting out Satan in his name?
In the ancient world, exorcists used whatever name of deities they thought would work. Jesus’ explanation for condoning the exorcist’s success in Mark’s account is practical, not theological. He argues that they cannot use his name to do mighty works and speak ill of him later. Anyone who recognizes the power of Jesus’ name will not accuse him of working by Beelzebub, as the teachers of the law from Jerusalem had done (3:22).
There’s more information on this passage, but we’ll stop here for now. When reading this, I was thankful for the cross-reference to Moses. I don’t think I would have put that together on my own! And this also helped me to understand why the disciples said what they did about the exorcist. But how does this relate to who God is?
Here’s how the NIV Application Commentary builds context to this passage (again, this is trimmed!):
A deep sense of lowliness understands that God can use anyone and applauds others who are successful for God, even though they may not be on our team. Jesus’ reaction implies that disciples who go along with him must get along with others. He not only opens admission to the reign of God to all and accepts any who come in his name, he sanctions anyone using the power of his name. The barrier between insider and outsider in this episode becomes nebulous. Augustine said: “Many whom God has, the Church does not have; and many whom the Church has, God does not have.”
Now, here comes the punch to the heart. How are we, today, making the same mistakes as the disciples? In what ways are we, too, separating and putting ourselves over our brothers and sisters in Christ?
Jesus has consistently avoided self-acclamation, but his disciples are all too ready to exalt themselves over others. If Jesus directed the same question to contemporary followers that he asked his first disciples, “What were you arguing about on the road?” the answer will be no less embarrassing. Christians still jockey for prominence. The unbridled will to power still surfaces in local churches and in denominational politics, destroying fellowship and eviscerating Christian love.
Little has changed. Seminary students who begin their studies with high ideals frequently grow disillusioned by the political gamesmanship that infests churches and denominations. Some ministers become so disillusioned by such machinations that they leave the ministry; others quickly learn to play the game; still others correctly recognize that Jesus does not reject ambition, but they sublimate it by aspiring to become the greatest servant in the church rather than the greatest overlord.
The information I pulled from the NIV Application Commentary is only covering two verses of Scripture and I had to trim it down! This is truly an in-depth resource that will also help you apply the Bible to your personal life. If you’re wanting to improve your Bible study, or struggling to make Scripture applicable in your teaching, this is definitely a commentary set worth looking into.
Currently, the NIV Application Commentary is on sale, and you can learn more about it here.