When Jesus Gets Angry (or, How Jesus Knows You)

Find Mark 1:41 in your Bible. How does that line read in your version? How did Jesus feel about this leper who asked for healing?

Some versions say Jesus was filled with compassion for the leper who came to him for healing. My version (NIV) and a few other versions say Jesus was indignant. By my experience, there is a pretty wide gap between indignant and compassionate, so which is it?

There is a temptation to let that difference shake our confidence in the Bible or at least in our English translations of it. In fact, a famous atheist uses this very word in this very verse — alternately translated as compassion or indignant — as part of his argument against scriptural integrity.

I had not noticed this odd word before last week, when folks at Mosaic were exploring this passage together using the SOAP method of inductive study. When someone else in the room noticed the difference between their translation and mine, we went scrambling. It turns out we’d stumbled on a big debate in Bible translation circles. Someone has written a whole book on this one word — 609 pages worth of debate between compassion and indignation.

Bruce Metzger says that of the 20,000 lines of the New Testament, only 40 lines have debatable translations. That means there is agreement among scholars around about 99.6% of what we read in the Bible. Nonetheless, there are going to be a few hard words, some things we have to wrestle with, some words or phrases that don’t translate easily into English. This word in Mark 1:41 is one of them.

So … is it compassion or indignation? A couple of versions even use the word “pity” or “anger.” But pity is not compassion. I want someone to feel compassion … but pity, not so much. Likewise, anger and indignation are not the same thing. Indignation and pity are look-down-your-nose words while anger and compassion are feelings that can actually drive us toward people, not away from them.

According to my friend, Dr. Ben Witherington, the Greek word refers to the kind of feeling that comes from your bowels. The closest expression to the Greek is “the bowels of compassion.” The feeling evoked is something fierce or passionate — not just feeling compassion but the kind of concern that moves a person to compassion. Not just aggravated at a disease or a man who has lost his drive to go hard after his healing, but angry at all that has sapped the hope out of him.

And I’m thinking about Jesus as a healer and shepherd and it slays me to think that maybe God has inspired the use of a word here that means both things at once. Because a person can be both angry and compassionate at the same time. In fact, a person can be fiercely compassionate, moved to go after someone stuck in pit while angry at all the things that got them there.

As a pastor, I feel this bowel-level burden for people. How often does my broken heart for someone push me to hang onto them long past good sense? How often do I get so angry with the demon someone is wrestling with that I’m moved to a simmering rage over the stubborn addiction, the serial relationships, the dysfunction? How desperately I feel the heavy weight of habits and wounds that leave people stuck,  compassionate toward the person but indignant toward what got them there.

Of course, Jesus got angry! Not all anger is without compassion, and not all compassion is … well … without passion. Not just feeling compassion but moved by it to go after the healing.

To find this kind of complex, nuanced word in the Bible only makes this book more trustworthy, not less. I am stunned by the depth of it, the beauty of it, the brilliance of God himself. To hear in God’s Word his identification with the everyday work of a pastor like me is just stunning. In this word, Jesus sees not just the leper, but me.

Maybe this word in Mark 1 isn’t your word, but today I am ever more compelled to urge you toward a regular and devotional reading of the Bible. I am convinced that if you will go digging — if you will find your own practice of inductive, devotional Bible reading — God will meet you and show you treasures and even show you yourself and his heart for you. He’ll show you that you are known at the deepest levels, in the places you may be most lonely.

Jesus knows you. And once you know that, you won’t be able to not share it with a lost and hurting world.

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How to Read the Bible

The year I quit drinking, I got involved a Bible study. Not long into the experience, I was doing the daily assignment at my kitchen table and had an encounter with the Holy Spirit. One moment, I was reading a book and the next moment, the words seemed 3-D. The message was alive and I was being changed by it. That night, Jesus became the answer to my biggest questions, and the Bible became my Book.

St. Jerome has said, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” I can attest to that. It was the scripture that led me into the presence of Jesus, and it was scripture that inspired me to take up faith enough to believe. Over these years of exploring it, studying it, preaching and teaching from it and being shaped by it, I have discovered a few key truths that have helped define and sharpen my relationship with God’s Word.

Remember that the Bible was created under the inspiration of the most creative being in the universe. Everything God creates has life in it, and everything he creates is truth (“In him, there is no darkness at all.”).  This means the Bible has a remarkable power to be present as truth in any situation.And because it is Living Word, it is the one book in the universe that has the ability to have a conversation with us.  It can speak a fresh word into my life wherever I am and it can be relevant, over and over again. That’s the power of Living Word and that power deserves my respect.

Consider every line of the Bible in light of the whole. Our worst mistake is treating lines and verses of scripture the way we treat fortune cookies. We like to grab onto catchy phrases and lines and apply them to our immediate circumstances without any thought for context (then post that catchy line on Facebook with a kitten in the background).

As Ben Witherington says, “A text without a context is a pretext for whatever you want it to mean.” Understanding the overarching themes of the Bible and the settings in which portions were written is essential for right interpretation and application.  Taking the time to know this doesn’t lessen the power of the Bible for us; it deepens it.

The Bible is all true, but it isn’t whatever I want truth to be today so I can feel better about things.  An encounter the Living Word requires a more mature reading.

We can never say, honestly, that we’ve read the Bible. It would be like saying that because I have been to the beach, I’ve swum in the ocean. Or because I’ve googled a few things, I’ve done the Internet.  Maybe I’ve done a tiny bit of it, but I haven’t mastered the ocean or come to the end of the Internet. And in fact, can’t.

More and more, I’m convinced none of us has ever really read the Bible. We’ve read layers of it; we’ve absorbed bits of it. But the Bible as a whole is far deeper than one lifetime can absorb — far richer, far wiser, far more powerful than you or I could possibly imagine.

And yet, most of us have actually, literally never read the Bible. We say we believe it, but many of us treat it like the terms and conditions we agree to before we can access a website.  We click “yes” and we trust we’ve not signed on for anything preposterous, but we don’t know because we didn’t actually read anything.  For access to a website, that might be a risk worth taking but for a worldview and salvation, wouldn’t reading be worth the effort?

The richness of this Living Word, the wisdom of it, the glory of it, deserves not just my respect but my attention. And that’s why — like every year for the last twenty-five — I keep signing up for group life. I study the Bible with a few other folks who are hungry because in the presence of the Word of God, I am humbled. And as in every other year for the last twenty-five, I will come face to face once more with how little I know of this life and the world, and how desperate I am for truth.

The Bible is a grace and I thank God for it.

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