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Rightly Understanding God’s Word: Context of Genre: Narrative, by Craig S. Keener

If we stop at the ancient meaning, we will miss the story’s original impact.

The narrative implies first of all something about commitment: Joseph was righteous even though he planned to divorce Mary, because he thought she had been unfaithful, and unfaithfulness is a very serious offense. The text also teaches us about compassion: even though Joseph believed (wrongly) that Mary had been unfaithful to him, he planned to divorce her privately to minimize her shame, thereby forgoing any monetary repayment for her misdeed and any revenge. Here Joseph’s “righteousness” (1:19) includes compassion on others. The passage further emphasizes consecration: Joseph was willing to bear shame to obey God. Mary’s pregnancy would bring her shame, perhaps for the rest of her life. If Joseph married her, people would assume either that he got her pregnant or, less likely, that he was a moral weakling who refused to punish her properly; in either case, Joseph was embracing Mary’s long-term shame in obedience to God’s will. Finally, we learn about control. In their culture, everyone assumed that a man and woman alone together could not control themselves sexually. But in their obedience to God, Joseph and Mary remained celibate even once they were married until Jesus was born, to fulfill the Scripture which promised not only a virgin conception but a virgin birth (1:23, 25). There are other morals in this paragraph, too (for instance, about the importance of Scripture in 1:22-23), but these are the clearest from Joseph’s own life.

Mark 2:1-12 NKJV
And again He entered Capernaum after some days, and it was heard that He was in the house. Immediately many gathered together, so that there was no longer room to receive them, not even near the door. And He preached the word to them. Then they came to Him, bringing a paralytic who was carried by four men. And when they could not near Him because of the crowd, they uncovered the roof where He was. So when they had broken through, they let down the bed on which the paralytic was lying. When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven you.” And some of the scribes were sitting there and reasoning in their hearts, “Why does this Man speak blasphemies like this? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” But immediately, when Jesus perceived in His spirit that they reasoned thus within themselves, He said to them, “Why do you reason about these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say ‘Arise, take up your bed and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins”—He said to the paralytic, “I say to you, arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.” Immediately he arose, took up the bed, and went out in the presence of them all, so that all were amazed and glorified God, saying “We never saw anything like this!”

Now is a good opportunity to practice on one’s own. One could take a passage like Mark 2:1-12 and list the sorts of morals one might draw from it. For example, one critical lesson is that the four men who brought their friend recognized that Jesus was the only answer to their need and refused to let anything deter them from getting to Jesus (2:4). Mark calls this determination on their part “faith” (2:5). Sometimes faith is refusing to let anything or anyone keep us from seeking Jesus for ourselves or (as in this case) for the need of a friend. Another important lesson is that Jesus responds to their faith first of all by forgiveness (2:5), because that is Christ’s first priority. We may also note in passing that Jesus’ true teaching generates opposition from religious professionals (2:6-7). Not everyone in religious leadership is always open to God! But while forgiveness is Christ’s priority, he also is ready to grant the miracle these men sought and to demonstrate his power with signs (2:8-12). He was not a western rationalist who doubted the reality of supernatural phenomena!

One could subdivide some of these lessons and perhaps find other lessons. But one should always be careful, as noted above, to draw the right lessons in light of the larger context. As noted before, Jesus’ popularity in the text (2:1-2) does not imply that such ministry always produces popularity, for many people ultimately asked for Jesus to be crucified (15:11-14). Nor should we read into the text something that is not clear in it; for example, we should not read into Jesus’ response to “their faith” in 2:5 that the Lord will forgive others’ sins because of our faith; the text nowhere indicates clearly that the man lacked faith himself. (One supposes that if he had no faith, he would have been protesting against his friends letting him down through the roof!)

Some passages do not yield as many specific applications as this passage. The story of the lepers’ discovery of the abandoned Aramean tents (2 Kgs 7:3-10) functions as part of larger story about God’s provision for Israel, judgment on those who doubted his prophet, and how God could replace his judgment on the nation with extraordinary mercy according to his prophetic message. At the same time, this smaller unit probably does provide some insights that also fit into the larger pattern of Scripture as a whole. God chooses not the mighty (cf. 7:2) but lepers excluded from the city (7:3) to make the discovery—desperate people who had nothing more to lose (7:4). The Bible indicates that these are often the kind of people God chooses.

Sometimes we learn from a story by looking at positive and negative characters in the story and contrasting them.

Sometimes when I lead Bible studies I take a passage like Mark 2:1-12 a few verses at a time and ask people to think about the lessons in the text; this way they begin thinking how to study the Bible on their own. If their answers are too far afield, I call them back to the text; we grow more accurate as we get more practice, but we should be patient in teaching students how to read the Bible for themselves. When I taught a Sunday School class for boys ages 10-13, I would simply have them read passages of Scripture, then I would give background and we would discuss the Scripture, allowing them to discover lessons in the text. Because they knew the issues they were facing in their lives, they also could think of ways to apply those lessons to their lives far more relevant than I could have come up with on my own! After a few weeks, I told a 13-year-old that he would lead our Bible study the next week (I would simply supply cultural background). He led the discussion just as well as I would have! So did a ten-year old the next week. My point is that once we teach people how to study the Bible this way, as long as we are there to help them while they are learning, they can in turn be equipped to help others. God forbid that we should keep our learning to ourselves!

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Category: Biblical Studies, Spring 2005

About the Author: Craig S. Keener, Ph.D. (Duke University), is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is author of many books, including Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011), the bestselling IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today, and commentaries on Acts, Matthew, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Revelation. In addition to having written more than seventy academic articles, several booklets and more than 150 popular-level articles, Craig is is the New Testament editor (and author of most New Testament notes) for the The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. He is married to Dr. Médine Moussounga Keener, who is from the Republic of Congo, and together they have worked for ethnic reconciliation in North America and Africa. Craig and Médine wrote Impossible Love: The True Story of an African Civil War, Miracles and Hope against All Odds (Chosen, 2016) to share their story. Twitter: @keener_craig

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