Mark 6: Gospel Work

Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest a while (31).

Chapter 6 in the book of Mark is a primer on gospel work, which is largely characterized as overcoming the force that possesses fallen humankind. With its 56 verses, the chapter is one of the longest in the book. (The only one longer is chapter 14, which covers the time preceding Jesus’s execution.) I’ve divided this chapter into five segments and titled them as follows: (1) how the work begins, (2) how it progresses, (3) opposition and advancement, (4) overcoming nature, and (5) restoration to wholeness. Though the chapter is comprised of many different scenes and stories, as a whole, it exhibits one overriding theme: there are ways to handle worldly opposition so that the gospel continues to prosper and, in the end, prevail.  

How the work begins: verses 1-61

Chapter 6 begins by placing the story in Jesus’s “own country” (1). More specifically, the scene occurs in a synagogue on the sabbath (2), that is to say, at the spiritual center of the culture. Jesus’s beginning his ministry at this time and place tells us that gospel work begins when one person – with all his historio-cultural, geographical, and personal specificity – embodies and expresses the Spirit of God. Like the origin on the number line, the starting point for gospel work is the individual – located in time and space – who receives and knows the power of God, and is given to speak His wisdom (2): in short, gospel work begins with a prophet.

These first few verses introduce both the beginnings of and the resistance to gospel work, the forces -pro and con – that will appear repeatedly throughout the chapter. In these opening lines, the ministering prophet is met at once with opposition from the congregation, which having heard and recognized his heavenly wisdom (2), nevertheless strive to bind him to earth with ties of trade and kin: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses,” etc. The group is offended (3) by the prophet’s wisdom, perhaps conscious that God has raised up one from among their number, and it hasn’t been them! Envy of the prophet is the first opposition expressed in this chapter, as it is likewise presented early in Scripture. The spirit of Cain is characterized by outward religious observance and profession and an accompanying persecution of those who manifest inward, authentic faith. The first lesson in gospel work is to recognize that neither earthly ties nor ill-treatment can stop the work’s progress. Opposition will arise from those who profess but do not possess the faith, but the work must continue, even though its pace be slackened:

And he could there do no mighty work, save that he laid his hands upon a few sick folk, and healed them. And he marvelled because of their unbelief. And he went round about the villages, teaching (5-6). 

How the work progresses: verses 7-13  

In verses 7-13, the gospel reach is extended through empowering and delegating others in the work. In this passage, Jesus instructs and enables the 12 disciples to go two by two, to have power over unclean spirits, and to bring certain provisions but not others (7-9). In the next two verses (10 and 11), Jesus continues his instruction, but now it is he himself – not the narrator – who speaks, indicating these spoken commands have more significance than the previously narrated ones. Jesus says:

In what place soever ye enter into an house, there abide till ye depart from the place. And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear you, when ye depart thence, shake off the dust under your feet for a testimony against them. Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment, than for that city (10-11).

The earlier instruction addressed logistics: how the disciples were to travel, supply and clothe themselves, and do their work. The instruction Jesus himself gives in verses 10 and 11 guides the disciples in handling the less tangible problems they will encounter. To abide solely in one house while visiting a community (10) heads off wayward tendencies among the townsfolk, such as competition between hosts, speculation on reasons for the travelers’ shifting between households, or discrediting the motives for their travel and visit. For the disciple pairs to remain in one household in each place visited helps both the surrounding community and the disciples themselves to remain focused on what they are there to say and do, rather than become hindered by distractions.  

The second piece of advice Jesus gives (to “shake off the dust under [their] feet” [11]) serves to protect the disciples’ inward state when they come across rejection. In this instance, Jesus’s language is fierce as he teaches the disciples how to respond to those who are unworthy of the gospel message; the disciples’ dismissive dust-shaking will testify in heaven, and divine retribution will come upon all who reject the gospel message (11).

This second passage (verses 7-13) follows a back-and-forth pattern: positioning a prediction of resistance between two segments in which the work is advanced: the first, preparing the disciples for the mission (7-10) and the second, telling of their success (12, 13).

Advancement and opposition: verses 14-44

Mark 6 is about advancement of and opposition to the work of the gospel, the activity of bringing the power of God to earth, as it is in heaven. The first 13 verses of the chapter have briefly eyed this progress and resistance. Beginning with verse 14 and continuing through verse 44, however, is the chapter’s central exposition, which features an illustration of each of these two opposing forces, each presented in its most pronounced, essential form. The evil opposition mounted against the gospel is represented in verses 14-29: the story of a prophet’s execution. By contrast, the second story illustrates the gospel as providing sustenance to a multitude of people: the feeding of the 5,000. The two stories are equal in length, each comprising 15 verses.

The story of John the Baptist’s execution begins in an odd, nonchronological way: we come upon king Herod guiltily obsessing over his part in the prophet’s death. Apparently deranged, he repeatedly claims that Jesus is, in fact, John “risen from the dead” (14, 16). Before we readers are launched into the telling of the horrendous events of this crime, we see its perpetrator distraught with guilt. Killing the prophet is the ultimate act of opposition to gospel work, yet at the outset of the tale of the prophet’s death, we see one of its perpetrators not elatedly triumphant but debilitated and overthrown by his own sin and crime.

Herod is a man of divided mind: he is in awe of John’s righteousness, his holiness; gladly hears John speak (20); and was sorry to execute him (26). These worthy sentiments are countered, nevertheless, by Herod’s unbridled pride and lust (22, 26). HIs inner division weakens him, and he is easy prey for his manipulative and vengeful wife (19), who holds a grudge against the prophet (19) and plots his death (24). Unlike Herod, his wife Herodias entertains neither inward reflection nor guilt prior to or following the death. The dancing daughter, the third accomplice, likewise shows no evidence of inward life; she plays her part and is done. Each of the three has had a role to play in the prophet’s demise, and the lesson gospel workers are to learn from this passage is that conspiracy features in the most severe type of gospel resistance (a fact that will be verified later on a grander scale when religious leaders collude with their people and with empire to kill Jesus).The charger, or large platter, that carries the head of the prophet is an emblem of the moral crime of the three, and in verses 27 and 28, the charger is passed among them, touching all three: 

And immediately the king sent an executioner, and commanded his head to be brought: and he went and beheaded him in the prison. And brought his head in a charger, and gave it to the damsel: and the damsel gave it to her mother (27-28). 

The charger is significant in another way, for it is a platter for carrying food, and, in fact, John’s beheading has occurred during a feast. We are being told that the death of the prophet is food for the demonic, gospel-resenting spirit. It is no accident that the story which follows – the feeding of the 5,000 – also centers on food. In each story, the type of “food” is appropriate to the nature of the spirit it sustains. In the first story, death feeds the demonic spirit. In the second, “food” is blessed by one who looks up to heaven, and leaves all who eat filled with sustenance (41-42): filled and sustained by the Living Word. 

Before getting into the main portion of the second story – feeding the multitude – we’re first given a brief introductory passage, which parallels the earlier introduction to the story of the prophet’s death, which featured the king’s anxious, demoralized state. The brief introduction to the second story shows the disciples returning from their mission, gathering to Jesus, and telling him “what they had done, and what they had taught” (30). Unlike the earlier dark introduction with its deranged king guiltily ruminating over what he had done, the introduction to the second story shows the disciples’ eager and joyful recounting of what they had done in their travel.  Jesus then encourages them to rest in solitude, before they get on with the work of responding to “many coming and going” (31), who want to hear the gospel message. The second introduction brims with jubilant, purposeful, caring, light-filled comradery, which is in high contrast to the king’s guilty, solitary rumination.

The contrast between these two stories is striking, and the narrator accentuates that contrast by using the same format (introduction before the story proper), as well as the same motif (feeding), in both. This technique serves to underscore the many differences between the two stories: in setting; tone; plot; and, most of all, in the spirit of the characters who inhabit each. The settings are different: “a desert place” contrasted with the king’s palace. The class of people who spontaneously and eagerly seek and run afoot to gather to hear Jesus contrasts with the elite society invited (summoned?) to the king’s celebration of himself on his birthday. The worldly king is subject to his wife’s manipulation, the girl’s wishes, and his guests’ favorable opinion, while Jesus, the heavenly king, is subject to no one. After hearing the disciples’ command, “Send them away” (36), Jesus ignores it and counters with a command of his own, “Give ye them to eat” (37). Herod is unable to lead even his own household, while Jesus compassionately takes on the role of shepherd to an assembled crowd of strangers. While the prophet’s head is brought from a dark prison to a dark banquet hall; the feeding of the five thousand occurs in the open air with heaven above and the food blessed. The death of the prophet John is a great loss that figuratively feeds but a few condemned souls; while the prophet’s speaking the living Word – though he  has but little (five loaves and two fishes) – is able to feed and fill a great many. To drive home the point of abundance, we’re told the disciples “took up twelve baskets full of the fragments, and of the fishes” (41- 44).

Overcoming Nature, 45-52, and Restoration to Wholeness, 53-56

Chapter 6 has a symmetrical structure: two short segments of approximately half a dozen verses each begin the chapter; they are followed by one lengthy central portion, illustrating first resistance to and then advancement of the gospel work; and finally, two additional short passages complete the chapter, balancing the narrative structure by mirroring the two short segments at the beginning. On either side of the central main portion of the chapter are two short passages.

In the first of these two ending passages (45-52), Jesus is shown to be in command: putting disciples into a ship and sending away the people (45). Though he directs and sustains others, he himself must turn to God for direction and restoration, and so “he departed into a mountain to pray” (46). Readers are then immediately taken to a night scene where disciples row upon the sea and are troubled by heavy wind. In this vignette, we see the same necessity for reliance upon the Lord (48) that Jesus exhibited in the scene immediately before: in his going to a mountain to pray.

The disciples’ struggle with nature speaks of the need for assistance: they are out of control and afraid. Their situation symbolically represents human nature in its fearful reaction to being overpowered and out of control.  Jesus overcomes human nature, symbolically represented by his overcoming our natural incapacity to walk upon water (49). He hears the disciples cry (49), identifies himself (50), and comes into their ship (51). We can take from this miraculous account the correlating lesson that human nature is stilled and at peace (healed) when Jesus appears and comes into the vessel of our soul.2 As Jesus in prayer relies upon God, so the disciples can rely upon Jesus who restores their “good cheer” (50).

The final verses of this chapter (53-56) rebut the limitation placed upon the work in verse 5, where we were told that Jesus, in “his own country,” was unrecognized by the townsfolk and could “do no mighty work save that he laid his hands upon a few sick folk, and heal[ed] them.” In these final verses of chapter 6, Jesus is recognized for who he is (54), and, as a result, many sick are brought to him (55). Unlike in the corollary verse early in the chapter in which Jesus could heal only a few (5), at the end of the chapter, he heals those from “villages, or cities, or country” (56); we are being told that Jesus is the universal healer.

As Jesus, the prophet “without honor” (4), began his ministry (as told in this chapter), his work was stymied by people’s unbelief and ill-treatment. In chapter 6, we learn that these forces of resistance do not have the last word. Whether the prophetic spirit is raised up in John; in Jesus; in you or me; or in those who come after, we are empowered to persevere in time, undergo persecution, remain diligent, and rely upon the Lord. In doing so, the gospel work goes forward, and the human soul – fractured and fallen – is miraculously healed and made whole, having touched Christ Within (56).  

1 The King James Version is used throughout the essay.

2 And he went up unto them into the ship; and the wind ceased; and they were sore amazed in themselves beyond measure, and wondered. For they considered not the miracle of the loaves: for their heart was hardened (51-52). (Underlining is mine.)

Had the disciples had the tendered heart to understand “the miracle of the loaves,” they also would have understood the wind’s cessation upon Jesus’s entering their ship. Each rendition of a miracle correlates outward events with inward, spiritual reality. A heart made tender by Jesus’s having entered the soul understands that correlation; whereas hardened hearts do not (52). Once again, we are reminded of early Friends’ insistence on the need to read the Scriptures in the same spirit in which they were written.

Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, c. 500, Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy


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A Want of God: Mark 5:21-43

We are a people whom God hath converted to himself . . . and joined to his own Spirit. We, many of us, sought truly and only after God from our childhood . . . and knew not how to turn to that of God in us. . . . By this means we came to great distress and misery beyond all men. Not but that all men were in as great a want of God, his life, power, and presence as we; but the sense thereof was not so quickened in others as in us.1 – Isaac Penington

Through the metaphor of suffering and healing, chapter 5 of the Book of Mark illustrates the realization of conversion to God. Throughout this chapter in both the first and the second halves, a few individuals stand out as possessing – to use Penington’s words – a quickened sense of their want of God; it is they who are to be healed/converted. Similarly in both halves of the chapter, the crowd acts as a foil to these individuated persons. It is the herd or throng, those acquiescing to the dominant social consciousness, who openly resist or covertly deny healing through Jesus Christ, the power of God.

In the first half of chapter 5, we visited one whose mind, soul, and heart vividly manifested his “want of God”: the Gadarene demoniac.2 By way of contrast, we were also exposed to a group of people who requested Jesus “depart out of their coasts”(17), indicating their refusal to undergo the difficult, solitary trial of entertaining the truth of their inward state, as had the demoniac. In their refusal, they opted for an alternate, less courageous way of being: reliance upon the sanction and acceptance of the tribe or herd. In this story, the one saved and the many lost function as prototypes: the demoniac demonstrating courageous willingness to undergo transformation/healing, and the herd representing cowardly refusal and enabling conformity.    

In the second half of the chapter (verses 21 through 43), Jesus has once again “passed over . . . unto the other side,” and we are again on that side of the sea where society congregates and crowds form: immediately, we are told that “much people gathered unto him”(21). This is the place where shortly before, Jesus had taught parables to those who see but do not perceive, to those who hear but don’t understand (4:12). On this side of the sea, where society comes out in force (24), people are lacking in the inward depth that follows from conscientious self-scrutiny, and instead turn to shallow, social enmeshment.

Jesus’s healing work is performed solely within individuals (23-24, 30). Though the crowd on this side of the sea does not bluntly request he leave – as did their Gadarene counterparts (17) – they, nevertheless, deny him. Their collective stance exempts each from acknowledging the deceit that lies within the heart, and consequently there is no sense of personal need for truth: no “want of God.” The refusal of truth in their inward parts disqualifies them all from receiving Jesus’s response or healing.

Rather his attention is given to two individuals, the synagogue ruler (22-24) and the woman with “an issue of blood”(25), each of whom expresses his or her own deeply felt need. It is they who stand out from the crowd and receive Jesus’s assistance. As with the demoniac in the first half of the chapter, it is once again individuals who receive Jesus’s regard and healing.

Throughout the chapter, those who act collectively are given short shrift. For example, though the crowd presses upon him, he senses and responds only to the touch of the distressed woman who acts in faith (30, 34). To accompany him to the ruler’s house (37), he selects only a few disciples, and they are individuated by name: Peter, James, and John. At the house, he sends away the grandstanding weepers and wailers who, lacking sincerity, quickly resort to scornful laughter (38, 40); he again selects only the truly distraught ones, the parents, to enter the healing chamber. Finally, after the healing of the girl, Jesus firmly commands those present to not speak of it to others: “And he charged them straitly that no man should know it” (43). He would stem the contagion of idolatrous faith that quickly spreads through hearsay and, in turn, becomes the dominant social consciousness. Instead, he insists upon authentic faith that arises from the transformative healing itself.

There are two sorts or degrees of Faith: – the first is, that by which the mind gives its assent to the truth of a thing on the testimony of another; the second is of a more exalted nature, being of Divine origin, and is a gift of the Holy Spirit. – A Guide to True Peace3

Greater and Lesser

In the first half of chapter 5, we saw the most extreme, vivid example of an individual’s restoration to Life. In the second half of the chapter, the stark, unembellished battle for the soul is no longer on view, rather we see examples of the suffering that beleaguers every person in the world: the threat of losing what is most dear. In this second half, a prominent man fears the death of his daughter, and a woman fears for her health. Though each is threatened with exceedingly great loss, neither the man nor the woman undergoes the direct attack on the soul that we witnessed earlier in the Gadarene. The loss of a child or of one’s health are two of the most severe losses one can undergo in the world, yet they do not automatically lead to loss of the soul: a lesson also presented in the book of Job.

The division of the chapter midway between the two locations suggests the two passages are in balance: the telling of the demoniac’s story is given space equal to the two healing stories in the chapter’s second half. Balance or equation between the two halves of the chapter implies the first threat was as severe as the latter two combined. The worst loss in the world – even of child or health – is not as injurious to one’s being as is the loss of one’s soul, that is to say, the loss of one’s connection to God: a lesson also presented in the story of Abraham and Isaac.

In the Gadarene story, the archetypal threat to being (a soul overrun by demons) was illustrated. In the stories of Jairus, the synagogue ruler, (22) and the woman with “an issue of blood”(25), we are shown lesser threats. Yet suffering the loss of what is greatly valued can and often does lead to despair, bitter resentment, cynicism, or narcissism: all signaling unbelief and alienation from God.4 Thus the synagogue ruler hearing his daughter has died (35) is bolstered immediately by the Living One’s guidance: “Be not afraid, only believe” (36). Believing that God can and will see us through our deepest losses maintains an open conduit to that infinite Source of strength and well-being: Christ, the power of God.

Essentials and Incidentals

In the second half of chapter 5, we have witnessed two individuals’ need for God. The writer gives us numerous details about each of them, which we can analyze to find what qualities they have in common and what qualities are particular to each. The common qualities inform us of what is needed to be ready to receive Christ’s healing in our lives, while the differences signal that each healing occurs within a unique individual in all his particularity. Given our natural propensity to confuse the incidental with the essential,5 the writer distinguishes between the two by making the essential qualities appear in both characters and the incidental, only in one.

Both the ruler and the woman are in need and are confident Jesus can help6 (23, 28); both believe that touch (connection to or unity with Jesus) will provide the healing they seek (23, 28); both honor Jesus by falling down before him: i.e., subjecting themselves (22, 33); and the healing each of them receives is linked to the number 12 (25, 42), indicating wholeness or completion.7

The individuality of the synagogue’s ruler and the woman with “an issue of blood” is indicated by their dissimilarities: the ruler is a man of high status, and we’re given his name (22), while the woman is among the crowd and anonymous (31); the ruler asks directly for Jesus’s help (23), while the woman secretly touches Jesus’s clothes (27); Jesus intentionally heals the ruler’s daughter (41), while his healing of the woman is accomplished without his knowledge or intent (30). The dissimilarities inform us of qualities that are incidental to spiritual healing, namely social status, gender, age, and Jesus’s consent (30).8


Chapter 5 of Mark is a lesson in the personal dynamics of salvation. Suffering comes to everyone in this world; it is a given. Our response to that fact of life determines whether or not we are prepared to receive God’s merciful resolution. The individual who inwardly reflects upon the truth of his condition and conscientiously endures that truth will become open to receiving God’s grace. The many who turn away from the truth to outward, social distraction will come to find that their lives have been no more than a confounded, man-made flight, downed in darkness: without wisdom, without virtue, and without fulfillment. The stakes are high in this life, and we are responsible for meeting the high expectation inherent in our humanity. In Scripture, we have been given guidelines and information on the way forward, particularly in this chapter where options are so clearly delineated. Our progenitors in faith, the early Friends, lived fully into the responsibility that confronts us all.

Pull down that dead, dark, corrupt image, and mere shadow and shell of Christianity, wherewith Antichrist hath deceived the nations, for which end he hath called us to be a first-fruits of those that serve him, and worship him no more in the oldness of the letter, but in the newness of the spirit.9—Robert Barclay

Oh, the mystery of life! Oh, the hidden path thereof, which none can learn but those whom the Father teacheth! But many think to learn in that, which ever was, and ever will be, shut out. If Christ would lay his doctrine before them, and make it good to their understanding, they would receive it. No, no; they must bow to Christ, to his name, to his power, to his will, to his way of manifesting his truth; he will not bow to theirs.10 – Isaac Penington

1 Isaac Penington, The Works of Isaac Penington (Glenside, Pa.: Quaker Heritage Press, 1995), 1:92-93.

2 See my essay “The First Workings of the Lord: Mark 5:1-20” at Abiding Quaker, December 2022.

 3 Miguel Molinos, Jeanne-Marie Guyon, and Francois Fenelon, A Guide to True Peace, facsimile of 1815 edition compiled by William Backhouse and James Janson (Sebastopol, Calif.: Jim Wilson, 2019), 17.

4 [Satan challenges God:] ”Thou hast blessed the work of his [Job’s] hands, and his substance is increased in the land. But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face” (Job 1:10-11).

5 A blatant example of confusing the incidental with the essential is recorded in Fox’s Journal where people claim the incidental of gender is an essential determinate in whether or not one possesses a soul: “After this, I met with a sort of people that held women have no souls, adding in a light manner, no more than a goose. But I reproved them and told them that was not right, for Mary said, “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.’” The Journal of George Fox, ed. John L. Nickalls (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, 1985), 8-9.

6 To apply these essentials to ourselves, it would be appropriate to substitute the word “truth” in place of the word “Jesus,” as we have no knowledge of who Jesus is until he appears within, whereas prior to his appearing, we can attempt to discern truth from falsehood. Initially – in the first birth – it is solely to truth that we owe our allegiance. It is the allegiance itself that deepens and readies the soul to receive Jesus Christ.

7 “The number [12] pointed in the first instance to unity and completeness, which had been sanctioned by Divine election, and it retained this significance when applied to spiritual Israel.” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Grand Rapids, Mich. 1939), IV:2162.

8 Jesus’s sensing that “virtue had gone out of him” and not knowing who had “touched [his] clothes”(30) suggests both his “being in the form of God . . . and [his being] made in the likeness of men”(Phil. 2:6-7) That is to say, he has the virtue (power) of God, yet is not all-knowing (Mk. 13:32). It is his Spirit that is the operative force in the healing, not his flesh, which “profiteth nothing”(Jn. 6:63). The healing is attributed to the woman’s faith, “Thy faith hath made thee whole”(34). [Italics mine.] In this way, the distinction is subtly made that Jesus is to be worshipped as the conveyer (mediator) of the power of God, and not in a fleshly way: as an idol who magically heals physical ailments. Faith is the life and power of God received.

9 Robert Barclay, Apology for the True Christian Divinity (Glenside, Pa.: Quaker Heritage Press, 2002), 480.

10 Penington, Works, 4:23.

Mosaic of Woman with Hemorrhage from Basilica of Sant’ Apollinaire Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy

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Fox Answers Charges at Lancaster, 1652: CFHA Recorded Discussion 12/9/22

For more than a year now, I’ve been attending the Canadian Friends Historical Association’s (CFHA) biweekly Zoom meetings to read and discuss the Journal of George Fox. Called “Friendly Fridays,” the hour-and-a-half to two-hour sessions are one means by which CFHA carries forward its mission “to preserve and communicate the history and faith of the Religious Society of Friends in Canada.” (More may be learned of their activities by visiting their website:

Generally, around a half-dozen or so Friends from Canada, a few from the United States, and one or two from Europe attend. Recently, a YouTube channel was created, which features recordings of our discussions. Near the end of this introduction, I’ll provide information and a link for accessing one of our  recent discussions, which was held on 12/9/22. The topic slated for discussion that afternoon was Fox’s answers to charges of blasphemy, given at Sessions at Lancaster in 1652. Fox answered the eight charges leveled at him by justice Colonel William West by using Scripture passages to defend his position. Although there were eight charges, our group reviewed only three of them at that meeting: #s 1, 3, and 7, which I’ll copy below.

In the edition of the Journal that we use, the Nickalls 1985 edition, the exchange between the justice and Fox can be found on pages 134 and 135. Editor Nickalls follows each charge with Fox’s answer and a list of verses from Scripture that Fox used to support his words. Preparing for the Friendly Friday session, I checked these Scripture references and found many of them to be faulty (Fox had made no reference to the specified verses Nickalls had listed, but Fox had referred to other verses), and so I located the correct verses and listed them in a document I had prepared and then sent out to a number of other group participants. Below are three (#s 1, 3, and 7) of the eight charges put to George Fox at Lancaster Sessions in 1652, and Fox’s answers with references to Scriptures underlined.1


#1. The charge against Fox: That he did affirm that he had the divinity essentially in him.

Fox’s answer: For the word essentially, it is an expression of their own, but that the saints are the temples of God and God doth dwell in them (1 Cor. 3:16) that I witness and the Scripture doth witness, and if God doth dwell in them the divinity dwelleth in them and the Scriptures saith the saints shall be made partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4) this I witness.

The verses that Fox refers to in his answer are transcribed below:

1 Cor. 3:16 Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?

2 Pet. 1:4 Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.

#3. Fox was charged: He did dissuade men from reading the Scriptures telling them it was carnal.

Fox’s answer: For dissuading men from reading the Scriptures, it is false, for they were given to be read as they are and not to be made a trade upon. But the letter is carnal and killeth, but that which gave it forth is spiritual and eternal and giveth life (2 Cor. 3:6).  This I witness.

The verses that Fox refers to in his answer are transcribed below:

2 Cor. 3:6: Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit; for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.

#7. Fox was charged with having said: That he was judge of the world.

Fox’s answer: The saints shall judge the world (1 Cor. 6:2), the Scripture doth witness, whereof I am one, and I witness the Scripture fulfilled.

The verse that Fox refers to in his answer is transcribed below:

1 Cor. 6:2,3 Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world? And if the world shall be judged by you, are ye unworthy to judge the smallest matters? Know ye not that we shall judge angels? How much more things that pertain to this life?


Although our discussion was ostensibly to focus upon the trial at Lancaster, it often moved into more general topics regarding the faith of early Friends. For example, early on in the recording (from 8:00–17:00), there’s a discussion on the way Friends read the Bible. A discussion on charge #7 (beginning around 17:30), which is concerned with judgment, began by delving into different inward conditions that either disable or empower a person to judge righteously. That, in turn, led to a discussion of Friends doctrine of perfection (27:40). From 34:00 to 1:03 in the recording (or thereabouts), differing ideas are aired on early Friends claim that the inward Cross—i.e., dying to the Self—is a necessary precondition to receiving Life in Christ. A contribution on gifts occurs near the end, and the telling of an incident involving dying to the self completes the session.

To locate this recording, follow this link:, scroll once to the right, and click on the item titled “3 Blasphemy Refuting Scriptures Fox Uses to Defend vs. charges of Blasphemy by the Lancaster Priests.” Preliminary material on the geographical area around Lancaster and linguistic tools for Bible study consumes the first eight minutes of the recording. A discussion on Friends way of reading the Bible begins at 8:00.

1 George Fox, The Journal of George Fox, ed. John L. Nickalls (Philadelphia: Religious Society of Friends, 1985), 134-5.

Crucifixion of Jesus by Giotto 1303-5

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Time as Opportunity

A newspaper cartoon that intrigued me as a child appeared every year on the first of January. Just under the headline on the front page of the Des Moines Register was the depiction of the old year and the new. The old was a hunched, bald, and bearded old man, carrying a sickle and wearing a banner with the number of the year that had just passed, and the new year was a spunky baby wearing a diaper and a different banner that named the year that had just begun. Every year there was a new drawing that had these same hallmarks, and every year, from around the age of nine through twelve, I was fascinated by them, and recall studying their every detail.1

I also recall thinking that the baby too soon became old: In one year, he, too, would move from lively sweetness to decrepitude, and another new baby would take his place, and so on and on. This once-a-year cartoon heralded both the linear and cyclical quality of time: its linear movement from point to point (from year’s beginning to end) as well as its cycling round from beginning to yet another beginning, year after year.

It seems to me that the cyclical structure of nature (by which we measure time) is the format through which God signals his gift of loving opportunity after loving opportunity to be turned to him, intimating his offer is constant, perpetual, and unending.  And we, once having

tasted of the truth, of the true wisdom, of the true power, of the true life, of the true righteousness, of the true redemption . . . we come to know that that which the world hath set up in the stead of it, is not the thing itself. . . . [A] real change [is] brought forth in us out of that spirit wherein the world lives and worships, into another Spirit, into which nothing which is of the world can enter. . . . Whatever comes from us, is to come from the new principle of life in us, and to answer that in others; but we must not please the old nature at all in ourselves, nor in any else.2  

Once having found “the thing itself,” we can earnestly declare: Out with the old, worldly self, and in with “the new principle of life!” Our path is no longer determined by nature and its cycles, but becomes linear – purposeful – as we move ourselves into position to receive, know, and live by the inward light of “Christ [who] is all, and in all.”3 His paths made straight, we are teleologically attentive, Omega-bound creatures.

Here the Apostle lists qualities, which – this first day of 2023 – we may resolve to emulate. Moreover, they are qualities to be received, as the day star arises in our hearts4:

Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another. If any man have a quarrel against any; even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye. And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body; and be ye thankful.5

1 It’s likely these cartoons were the work of Frank Miller, who worked for the Des Moines Register from 1953 to 1983. In 1963, Miller received the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning. 

2  Isaac Penington, The Works of Isaac Penington (Glenside, Pa.: Quaker Heritage Press, 1995), 1:93.

3 Col. 3:11 The King James Version is used throughout the essay.

4 2 Pet. 1:19

5 Col. 3:12-15

Day Star risen over waning Moon

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The First Workings of the Lord: Mark 5:1-20

But my troubles continued, and I was often under great temptations; and I fasted much, and walked abroad in solitary places many days, and often took my Bible and went and sat in hollow trees and lonesome places till night came on; and frequently in the night walked mournfully about by myself, for I was a man of sorrows in the times of the first workings of the Lord in me. . . .  And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, Oh then, I heard a voice which said, “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.” — George Fox

In the Mark 5 story of the Gadarene demoniac, we are given an intimate look at the soul that has accepted the first workings of the Lord and is thus prepared to hear the voice of Christ. This story is from “the other side”2 (1), the inward side of life, where one is alone and apart from the give and take, the gratuities and obligations that make up social life. No one wielding social imperatives can bind this solitary man of the tombs, for he has “plucked asunder” all their chains and broken to pieces all their fetters. He will not be tamed (4); nor yield; nor conform to their ways, manners, and customs. Though the man harbors the unclean spirit of the unredeemed and suffers the deathlike despondency of its influence, he tenaciously holds and will not deny the hard truth of his inward condition: he is alienated from God, a truth conveyed in his poignant words: “What have I to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of the most high God?” (7) It is his willing capacity to see himself as he is that is the “first workings” of the Lord, and which mark the man as prepared to receive Christ Jesus.

This honest soul is beleaguered by a contrary force that has claimed preeminence. The man’s divided self is evident when he addresses Jesus (italics mine): “I adjure thee by God, that thou torment me not” (7). The man calls upon the power of God to limit Christ, the power of God: so muddled is he that the poor man contradicts himself! Firm in his allegiance to truth, yet in the grip of demons, the man is torn and, in his misery, tears himself (5). Legion – his name/self – is victim to forces that appear numerous and controlling; he is fragmented and broken into many parts, yet heroically holds himself present to and aware of the misery of his alienated state.

Because the man has not shirked or hidden the truth of his condition from himself, he is able to likewise see the Truth when it appears outwardly, “afar off.” Truth as it is in Jesus, he recognizes and runs to worship (6). The man’s openness to receiving Truth and Life – when he appears – is proportionate to his having consciously endured their prior absence. Though suffering, the man remained faithful to the truth.

In Scripture stories, polarities – such as good and evil, right and wrong, and life and death – are often contrasted, one from the other, through the use of particular motifs. In this story of the demon-possessed man, the motif used to distinguish these opposites is number: Is a word singular or plural? That is to say, “one” signifies what is good: integrated and alive; and “many” signifies what is evil: disintegrated as in death.3

The protagonist is a solitary man who lives apart from the many in society, and Jesus interacts with him one-to-one. In his first address to the man, Jesus asks his name, using the singular pronoun “thy”: “What is thy name?” The man answers: “My name is Legion: for we are many” (9). The man’s answer begins with the singular pronoun (“my,” not “our”) but immediately shifts to a plural pronoun, verb, and adjective: “we are many.” This short interchange shows the dispersal into the many of what should be a single, integrated whole: the man’s self. The interplay between singular and plural continues through the next sentence (italics mine): “And he [the man] besought him [Jesus] much that he would not send them [the demons] away out of the country” (10). Again, the singular pronoun (he) is quickly lost to the plural (them) when the demons’ will prevails. The poor man cannot speak one coherent sentence without the demons interfering and taking control.

The motif of contrasting the one with the many continues when the devils request entry into the herd of swine. “Herd” signifies the many in which each member has forfeited his own autonomous discernment in order to fit into and be accepted by the many. The herd is comprised of those who have connected to others as the means to fend off innate, universal loneliness. This existential loneliness, however, can be truly overcome only when the self comes into unity with the spirit of Christ. To elevate group acceptance over one’s fidelity to truth is to snap the cord of one’s humanity, which is characterized by an alert and open devotion to truth. Those of the herd dismiss the very thing needed for salvation: a soul given to watching for Truth, and instead watch for opportunities and threats to their standing and connections within the social sphere. Thus they come to worship the fetters and chains, which, by rights, should be plucked asunder. Unlike the single, distraught man, the herd puts up no resistance to the devils’ corruption, and, as a result, they quickly descend to their death4 (13), which is to say: spiritual death awaits those who forfeit truth for social connection.     

We are told that people from “the city, and in the country” (which is to say, the many)

went out to see what it was that was done. And they come to Jesus, and see him that was possessed with the devil, and had the legion, sitting, and clothed, and in his right mind [his own integrated self]: and they were afraid. And they [that fed the swine] that saw it told them how it befell to him that was possessed with the devil, and also concerning the swine. And they began to pray him to depart out of their coasts (14-17).

Why should the many be afraid when they see the one has come to himself and is “in his right mind?” The many have chosen a different path: they have foregone the protagonist’s solitary trial and have opted instead for the easy, downhill slide of the herd. Seeing the once-possessed man now restored to himself, they are brought face-to-face, each with his own sin: the failure of him- or herself as a human being to be no more than a herd animal, osmotically embodying the communal ethos. Within the group’s simulacrum of reality, there is a semblance of a connected life, but it can never reach to the unbounded life and soaring freedom that the blessed, perfected soul enjoys when in unity with the light of Christ: where we know our true self and the life that the Creator would work within us.   

And they began to pray him to depart out of their coasts (17).

[H]e that had been possessed with the devil prayed him that he might be with him (18).

Here is yet another comparison between the one and the many. The many “pray him [Jesus] to depart out of their coasts,” and the one – no longer possessed with the devil – “prayed him [Jesus] that he might be with him.” The same dynamic continues through every time and place: those who rely upon the connection with the many would have the Truth depart and trouble them no longer; and those who pray in the privacy of their hearts to be with the Truth are they who, having known the worst the adversary can mount against them, have, nevertheless, endured unto the end (13:13), and known the victory.

Jesus’s third and final statement in this story brings together the one and the many but in a new, wholesome configuration. This time the one is not overrun by the hostile, demonic many but instead is to be a single witness, testifying to the many who wish him well. “Go home to thy friends, [says Jesus] and tell them how great things the Lord hath done for thee, and hath had compassion on thee” (19).

And the light is in the world where all are sinners, but none have the life but who receive it, and are led out of the world by it; to such sheep Christ is keeper, who follow him out of uncleanness . .  . but the swine he keeps not, the shepherd they will not follow, there the devil must enter and hath power, and into the sea must they run headlong.5 — James Nayler

1 The Journal of George Fox, ed. John L. Nickalls (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, 1985), 9-10, 11.  

2 The King James Version has been used throughout this essay.

3 Note that Jesus’s first statement in this story (“Come out of the man, thou unclean spirit” [8]) uses the singular pronoun to address the devil: “thou,” not “you.” Though the devil will later confuse and debilitate the man by presenting himself as many demons, not one demon, Jesus is able to correctly identify from the start that he is one, signifying the demons’ will and character are put in service to one, single end, which is to defy the God of Truth. Though the demons are many and diverse, their purpose is single.

4 The herd ran “violently down a steep place” (13) to their death. By having the herd run downhill rather than arduously struggle uphill, the writer conveys the herd’s preference for the ease of following the demons’ directive, which will be always to descend to a lower or worse condition. By contrast, we read of the protagonist that “always, night and day, he was in the mountains” (5), suggesting a determination in him at all times (“night and day”) to ascend to a higher place, in spite of the demons’ unrelenting assault.  

5 Works of James Nayler (Farmington, Maine: Quaker Heritage Press, 2004), 2:210. Gratitude goes to Esther Greenleaf Murer and John Edminster for their work on the Quaker Bible Index, which is where I located a portion of this reference.

Mosaic of the Gadarene Demoniac from the Basilica of Sant’Apollinaire Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy

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The Other Side: Some Observations on Mark 4:33-41

And with many such parables spake he the word unto them, as they were able to hear it. But without a parable spake he not unto them: and when they were alone, he expounded all things to his disciples. And the same day, when the even was come, he saith unto them, Let us pass over unto the other side (Mk. 4:33-35 [KJV]).

The opening verses of this passage point to Jesus’s awareness of differing powers of apprehension, and his adapting his teaching method to accommodate each. To the multitude, Jesus has spoken the Word in parables “as they were able to hear it” (33). To the disciples, “he expounded all things” (34), indicating Jesus thought his disciples could better see the correlation between figurative language and spiritual conditions. In the final verse, verse 35, Jesus directs his followers to new territory in which the literal mind of the multitude and the disciples’ intellectual grasp of analogy are both transcended. This verse foreshadows a coming into a new kind of understanding that is neither literal nor intellectual but is gained through inward experience and accompanies being itself. Jesus beckons: “Let us pass over unto the other side” (35).

The story begins in a matter-of-fact way: the multitude is “sent away”; there are “other little ships” (36) in the crossing; “a great storm” (37) comes up; and Jesus sleeps comfortably before he’s awakened by the disciples, who fear for their lives (38). There’s nothing in this opening description to alert us that these particulars are anything but facts that describe outward events of time and place. Nothing here seems extraordinary.   

It is not until Jesus rises and rebukes the wind and the sea, saying “Peace, be still” (39), that we realize we have moved beyond the mundane and into other territory. The account is no longer a literal description – though the multitude may claim it so; it has shifted into a space where nature neither rules nor sets the bounds of the possible; in this space – on this “other side” — Man prevails over nature.  

This passage began as a recounting of events taking place in time and space, but having moved past these confines of nature, the passage reveals itself to be a parable, and thus it has an inward, spiritual significance. As a parable, it correlates objective reality with inward states; Jesus Christ performs an outward act (he overcomes the threat of nature – here a storm at sea) that correlates to Man’s overcoming his inward nature: that of a suffering, storm-tossed creature, fearfully aware of his own mortality. As a parable, Man mastering outward nature, as Christ does here, signifies humankind’s overcoming and transcending the nature of our being.

Just as the multitude was given parables to bring them to an awareness of their spiritual condition, we are here given to understand that through hearing the commanding Word, Christ within, we may overcome fear and anxiety, our inward “storm,” and live in peace.

And he said unto them, Why are ye so fearful? How is it that ye have no faith? (40)

See how Jesus challenges his disciples to pass into a way of being in which fear has no foothold and faith strides secure. We must leave behind the sure but stodgy ground of the multitude, and embark in darkness upon the watery, formless void, for there is where the Spirit moves and speaks, and it is there that we may receive the light of faith.

The disciples have yet to learn that they, too, in faith may “pass over unto the other side” (35) and become a different “manner of man” (41). Were it not already verified by personal experience, we could turn to the early Friends to affirm the validity of this teaching.

To all the elect, chosen and faithful . . . who have not feared the waves of the sea, nor the winds; who fear not the storms nor the weather; whose anchor holds, which is the hope, the mystery, which anchors the soul, which is immortal, to the immortal God. –George Fox (Ep. 169)1

1 The Works of George Fox (Philadelphia: Marcus T. C. Gould, 1831), 7:157. Gratitude goes to Esther Greenleaf Murer and John Edminster for their work on the Quaker Bible Index, which is where I located this reference. 

Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, ca. 1596 Jan Breughel the Elder


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On Parables: Some Observations on Mark 4:1-34

If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding! How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat! – Pink Floyd

Anyone who has listened to Another Brick in the Wall (part 2)1 will not forget the words the distraught teacher screams at the child. The teacher intends to maintain order (as well as control) by enforcing the rule: eat your meat, and you can have your pudding. What makes the scene funny—as well as tragic—is the man’s blindness to the absurdity of his full-throated enforcement of this petty rule. His behavior is absurd because he destroys the very thing his role as teacher requires him to preserve: good order in the classroom and healthy, flourishing children. The man has lost sight of the true purpose and meaning of his role and responsibility.

It takes a short leap of imagination to project the dynamic of this classroom fiasco onto the larger screen of society: the school becomes the society, and its rules are replaced by society’s laws, manners, and mores. “Eat your meat” becomes: Comply, and do the things that make these laws, manners, and mores second nature to you, and that will allow you to fit in and progress within the society (have your pudding). The problem that ensues, however, is the growing blindness to life’s larger, true purpose, which becomes obscured by the determination to gobble endlessly life’s petty puddings. Like the teacher, the child may develop into an adult who unquestionably shuts out the light that lies beyond the bricked-in cave that he and his society have unwittingly, absurdly chosen to inhabit. How do we reach those who see no further than their society’s ways (be it those of culture, tribe, or faith community), and have neither ability nor desire to think, feel, or see into the true realm of light and life?

Enter the parable.

11bAll these things are done in parables: 12That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.

No more direct than this explanation is the method by which the parable does its work. Using guerilla tactics, the parable avoids the road of well-traveled and defended ideas, and travels alongside on a path forged by its own narrative. In metaphorical disguise, it draws close to what its hearers have refused to see and have kept hidden. Slipping past the guard of inward blindness, it presents a spiritual truth to be recognized and acknowledged: so that “they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them” (This verse [12] cleverly alludes to the resistance of the heart that is “fat,” the ears that are “heavy,” and the eyes that are “shut” [Isa. 6:9-10] to the person’s own best interest: i.e., that their sins be forgiven them. Such “heavy” resistance can be overcome through the parabolic ploy.)

Jesus uses the parable to teach of the mystery of the kingdom of God unto them that are without (11). Through metaphor, the parable functions to evoke a recognition of its hearers’ inward, spiritual condition. In verses 13-20, Jesus rehearses the particulars of the parable of the sower, which he’s given to the multitude, and shows his disciples each particular’s corresponding, inward condition. Point by point, he correlates the type of soil onto which the sower’s seed is cast to the kind of soul to whom the Word of God is preached.

The long parable of the sower and the equally long explanation of its meaning has been a lesson for his disciples on the objective and strategy of parables. This beginning 20-verse segment is then followed by a series of short, one- or two-verse parables or metaphors that quickly follow one upon another. It’s as if Jesus has patiently explained how parables work, and is now presenting example after example of their use in teaching of the kingdom “unto them that are without” (11).

The remaining verses in this passage (21-34) are cast into five segments. Four of the five begin with similar introductory phrases. “And he said unto them” is the phrase that begins both verses 21 and 24; “And he said” is the phrase that starts both verses 26 and 30. Each time one of these introductory phrases appears, the reader is cued a new parable or metaphor is beginning.

The first segment (21-23) begins:  

21And he said unto them, Is a candle brought to be put under a bushel, or under a bed? And not to be set on a candlestick? 22For there is nothing hid, which shall not be manifested; neither was anything kept secret, but that it should come abroad. 23If any man have ears to hear, let him hear.

Both the sower parable that came before, and this candle metaphor call a person to take stock of himself: What is the condition of your soul (soil), the sower parable asks. Am I bringing forth light into the world, or am I hiding what I’ve been given, prompts the metaphor of the candle. In verse 22, however, Jesus opens the possibility that not only goodness and light are within; his reference to hiding, secrecy, and exposure (22) implies that darkness, not light, can prevail within. In this first segment, Jesus has moved from encouraging his hearers to warning them: whether it be good or evil, what resides within will become outwardly manifest.  

Capping this three-verse segment is the phrase “If any man have ears to hear, let him hear” (23). The statement introduces a new metaphor: “to hear,” meaning “to give one’s attention to.” He chides his audience to not excuse themselves from attending to his words.

The second segment (24-25) begins:

24And he said unto them, Take heed what ye hear: with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you: and unto you that hear shall more be given. 25For he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath.

Jesus continues to warn of looming, inevitable justice: what one hears, i.e., what one attends to, will determine not only one’s behavior but the content of one’s inner being. The true substance of being—the Truth as it is in Christ—is worthy of attention, and attending to that Truth guarantees its beneficial increase. Conversely, attending to that which is without substance—lies from the father of lies—will leave one empty and bereft of existential meaning, even the meaning that one has self-generated. Whatever spirit one harbors will grow or spread within consciousness, eventually to subsume one’s entire being: one’s will, emotion, mind, and body.

The third segment (26-29) begins:

26And he said, So is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed into the ground; 27And should sleep, and rise night and day, and the seed should spring and grow up, he knoweth not how. 28For the earth bringeth forth fruit of herself; first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear. 29But when the fruit is brought forth, immediately he putteth in the sickle, because the harvest is come.

With this new parable, Jesus focuses once again on the benevolent “kingdom of God.” As in the previous segment, he stresses the incremental growth of life within, and here offers an illustration: through stages, the seed grows into “the full corn.” Man “knoweth not how” this growth comes to be: thus Jesus draws attention to the One who is beyond comprehension, who reigns and enables our growth, and we are both the harvest and its beneficiaries: His creation and His image. 

The fourth segment (30-32) begins:    

30And he said, whereunto shall we liken the kingdom of God? Or with what comparison shall we compare it? 31It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, is less than all the seeds that be in the earth: 32But when it is sown, it groweth up, and becometh greater than all herbs, and shooteth out great branches; so that the fowls of the air may lodge under the shadow of it.

Building upon the previous segments’ teaching of incremental growth, this new parable tempers the idea by warning not to ignore small promptings: it “is less than all the seeds that be in the earth.” The spirit of Truth doesn’t assist one in acquiring the goods – both material and immaterial – that society worships, and is therefore usually overlooked or bypassed. Yet if tended to, the seed of Truth grows into a tree “shoot[ing] out great branches” in which the restless flight of being can “lodge.”

In the last segment (33-34) of this passage on parables, the narrator himself speaks:

33And with many such parables spake he the word unto them, as they were able to hear it. 34But without a parable spake he not unto them; and when they were alone, he expounded all things to his disciples.

The narrator has provided readers with a summary of Jesus’s teaching method: with the crowd, he uses figurative language: parable and metaphor; with his disciples, he explains the spiritual meaning of his stories and images. A storyteller or artist of any kind must inwardly sense the nature of the substance he would make visible or sensible to others, and he must faithfully assess whether his expression is true to that inward sense: if he is, in fact, meting that measure (24). Jesus’s parables bear an exactitude to the Spirit that testifies to the clarity and strength of the inward vision bestowed upon him. This passage in chapter 4 of Mark is rich and alive with wisdom from above. To enter into its language and thought is to be replenished with the power and beauty of the mind of Christ.

1 Pink Floyd, The Wall: Another Brick in the Wall (parts 1, 2, and 3), Columbia P2T36183, 1979, cassette.

2 The King James Version of the Bible has been used throughout this essay.

One Hundred Guilder Print by Rembrandt, 1649
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On Unity: Some Observations on Mark 3:20-35

To all Friends who are in the unity, which is in the light; walk in the light. It is one light that doth convince you all; and one Christ, that doth call all to repentance, up to himself the one head, which is Christ.1 – George Fox

The passage in Mark 3:20-35 is so complex with its various examples of unity and disunity that it is hard to know where to begin! Implied throughout the text, however, is a single, fixed theme: unity with the holy Spirit provides strength, while separation from that Spirit ensures weakness and failure.

The topic of unity is set forth at the beginning of the passage in verse 20 where we read: “the multitude cometh together again.” Though the multitude is “together” (in unity), they are without Christ, and thus seek him. Without Christ, they are weak, even though they are gathered together. We are told “they could not so much as eat bread,” which is to say, they cannot sustain themselves.

In the verse that follows (21), Jesus’s friends enter the scene. Friends are those with whom we feel some unity. These friends, however, are not in unity with Jesus, and even go so far as to assert that Jesus himself is divided; they say of him, “He is beside himself” (21). Finally, adding to the muddle, a third group enters: the scribes, who claim Jesus is in unity with “the prince of devils” (22).

As each of the three groups – the multitude, the friends, and the scribes — enter the scene, the situation worsens into confusion, error, and malice. The crowd is unable to order itself to meet its basic needs; Jesus’s friends undermine him; and the scribes demonize him. The situation is one of disorder, ignorance, and hostility.

One feels a sense of relief when Jesus begins to speak. We know that he will bring clarity and truth to the chaos spread out before us; his words bring order and peace. For through the Logos, God created the heaven and the earth, and through the Logos the world can be restored to its godly estate in gospel order. Robert Barclay in his Apology refers to “common principles of natural truths [that] do move and incline the mind to a natural assent.”2 Even in his unredeemed state, Man is capable of reason and assent to natural truths.

And so, Jesus begins with reason. The scribes have charged him with casting out devils by means of unity with the prince of devils (22). Jesus repels the charge with logic (specifically, the first principle of identity: A = A): he rhetorically asks the scribes, how can he be in unity with Satan when he counteracts Satan by healing the demonically possessed? “How can Satan cast out Satan?” (23) Jesus disarms his opponents by compelling them to see the contradiction or disunity in their thought. He carries the idea further with illustration: “a kingdom . . . divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand” (24 and 25). In order to be sustained and continue, any being, any entity, any thing – be it a spirit, a thought, a house, or a kingdom – must be in unity with itself: its identity whole, and not fragmented by counterforce. Even “if Satan rise up against himself, and be divided, he cannot stand, but hath an end” (26). Jesus therewith dismisses the scribes’ accusation by means of logic, a method amenable to their predilection.

Continuing with the theme of unity versus division, Jesus deepens the dialogue in the next verses to show the need for unity with the Lord, not opposition to him. In the brief parable that follows, the Lord is the owner, the strong man, of the house:

27No man can enter into a strong man’s house, and spoil his goods, except he will first bind the strong man, and then he will spoil his house. 28Verily I say unto you, All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and blasphemies wherewith soever they shall blaspheme: 29But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation.

In these few verses, Jesus has set out the following ideas:  

  1. The Lord is the true, strong, and rightful owner and inhabitant of the house of Man.
  2. Man must recognize his unity with this Spirit in order to remain strong, free, and whole. Conversely, he must not join with the false, invading spirit that would bind the strong man (blaspheme the Lord) and spoil his house.
  3. It is blasphemy to slander another by calling the true Spirit that empowers him false, but if done in ignorance, the blasphemy is forgivable.
  4. To knowingly slander the true Spirit in another – to call it false – destroys the slanderer permanently. Denying the Spirit of Truth within oneself is likewise unforgiveable and puts one “in danger of eternal damnation” (29).

We read in the next verse Jesus’s reason for presenting this lesson: “Because they [had] said, He hath an unclean spirit” (30). He has been slandered by his friends (“He is beside himself.” [21]) and by his enemies (“by the prince of devils casteth he out devils” [22]). His unity with the Spirit of Truth/Logos has empowered him to refute the scribes’ charge and caution against his friends’ ignorant error. Finally, in the last few verses of this chapter (31 – 35), he provides the order necessary for a society (the multitude) to be sustained.

In the early part of this passage, we were told two things about this group “the multitude”: that they had come “together” and “they could not so much as eat bread” (20), which is to say that although people were gathered together (unified), the unity among themselves was insufficient to sustain them. This verse is telling us that without Christ, a social group – though unified among its members – cannot truly be alive: cannot participate in the Life. To be sustained, members of a group must be in unity with the Lord, not simply in unity among themselves.

31 There came then his brethren and his mother, and standing without, sent unto him, calling him. 32And the multitude sat about him, and they said unto him, Behold thy mother and thy brethren without seek for thee. 33And he answered them, saying, Who is my mother, or my brethren. 34And he looked round about on them which sat about him, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren! 35For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother.

By refusing the call of his family to come away from his work and accompany them, Jesus refutes the authority claims of all social groups. For if the family’s demand is set aside (the family being the principal social group), then must every social group’s demands be likewise considered secondary. Jesus upends the social group’s dominant hold upon people (or screen for them) by setting aside the one social group (the family) where natural ties and obligations are the strongest. He reorients kinship (unity) away from natural, social groupings and establishes it anew; kinship is now founded upon knowledge of and obedience to God: “For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother” (35). Jesus thereby directs people away from the natural tendency to find strength in numbers (social groups) and instead refers them to the power that can order and sustain them each under his own vine and fig tree (Mic. 4:4): that is to say, in the power of God.

In an earlier essay, “Beyond Idealism,” I wrote of some Christians’ preference for presenting Jesus as the facilitator of a smooth, easy flow of omnipresent love from on high to all sinners below. This notion dulls the conscience of the many and extends the influence of the few who perpetrate the claim, for the people love to have it so. Jesus, however, says nothing of the kind, not in this passage, nor in general, nor is he presented as such by early Friends. Jesus doesn’t lull Man into somnolence but awakens him to greater clarity and insight. He calls everyone to a higher way of being that requires the substance of Truth. His example will not let the conscientious person who loves truth continue in the well-worn, unexamined tracks of the millennia, plod out for us wearily to follow. On the contrary, his inward presence enables us to join with him, in spirit and in truth. Therein is the one, true, and miraculous unity.

1  The Works of George Fox (Philadelphia: Marcus T. C. Gould, 1831), 7:58.

2 Apology for the True Christian Divinity (Glenside, PA: Quaker Heritage Press, 2002), 22.

Road to Calvary, Baptistery of S. Giovanni Battista, Florence Italy Lorenzo Ghiberti, 1424

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Beyond Idealism: Some Observations on Mark 3:1-6

Much that passes as idealism is . . . disguised love of power. — Bertrand Russell

Last First Day, I joined a group of Friends for Bible study an hour before worship at annual sessions of Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative). The text before us was Mark 3:1-6 in which Jesus heals a man with a withered hand and evokes the ire of the Pharisees:

1And he entered again into the synagogue; and there was a man there which had a withered hand. 2And they watched him, whether he would heal him on the sabbath day; that they might accuse him. 3And he saith unto the man which had the withered hand, Stand forth. 4And he saith unto them, Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil? To save life, or to kill? But they held their peace. 5And when he had looked round about on them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts, he saith unto the man, Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched it out: and his hand was restored whole as the other. 6And the Pharisees went forth, and straightway took counsel with the Herodians against him, how they might destroy him (KJV).

The first two verses of this passage introduce the short narrative’s two strands of interest: (1) a man is to be healed, and (2) there’s opposition between Jesus and the Pharisees. In verse 3, Jesus prioritizes the first of these two—that is, the healing—by first giving his attention to the man with the withered hand and telling him to “Stand forth.” Though given initial priority, the healing is primarily a catalyst to precipitate the main plot line of this story: the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees.

After having spoken to the man, Jesus turns to the Pharisees and rhetorically asks: “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil: To save life, or to kill?” (v. 4) With this question, Jesus identifies opposing principles: do good and save life, or do evil and kill. Having defined the two conflicting positions, Jesus then demonstrates through the healing which of the two he upholds; that is to say, he is on the side of doing good and saving life. Seeing the demonstration, the Pharisees are left to conclude on which of the two sides their opposition to Jesus puts them, and they must realize that they occupy the side of doing evil and killing. The verse that follows confirms this fact: “And the Pharisees went forth and straightway took counsel with the Herodians against him, how they might destroy him” (v. 6).

The person of today may read this story and quickly judge the Pharisees to be inexcusably wrong in their insistence on the Law with its hard-and-fast Sabbath rules: that this error was something from long ago that we have progressed well beyond. I propose, however, that the present-day elevation of ideals to the position of primary guiding force of individual or corporate life is but a reenactment of the Pharisees mistake: both Law and ideals are secondary ethical standards that usurp the central place of Christ, both within a person and within the religious group. Where Christ should be central, ideals are instead rallied around. As was shown in this brief story at the beginning of Mark 3, such usurpation will inevitably entail hostility toward the true standard of righteousness: Christ, the Lord our righteousness (Jer. 33:16).    

Although the Law of Moses is no longer weaponized to ensure conformity in and manageability of religious communities, different ideals—peace, love, and community—occupy the pedestal in both Liberal and Christian groups. Psychological techniques have replaced physical violence as the means to compel conformity and self-censorship.

In some Christian groups, Jesus is presented as vapidly sweet, and never as he appears in Revelation where he is “called Faithful and True,” from whose mouth issues “a sharp sword with which to smite the nations” (19:12,15 NEB). All the while in passages such as the one at the beginning of Mark 3, we see Jesus exercising that sword as he puts in place the culprits who hide their love of power behind the guise of ideals. Jesus looks at them with anger and sorrow at their obstinate stupidity (v.5).

“Stretch forth thine hand” (v. 5).

It is the man with the withered hand whom Jesus heals. The hand is the means by which Man can make or do; it is the means by which a person can express outwardly what is within: that is, it is the means by which one creates. Symbolically, Christ’s restoration of the hand tells of the person’s new-found gift to bring forth what is within that it may become visible to the world.


Apocalypse, Bolognese School 1350
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Redefining the Vocabulary of Faith

The following is a series of excerpts taken from an email exchange that occurred during the last week of Sixth month between Daniel Rowan and me. Daniel is a young Brit who recently has found Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative) after having passed through the time of affliction of which Scripture speaks (Mk. 13:19) and which was frequently documented in early Friends journals as a time preceding their having come into the knowledge of the Lord.

In this exchange, we begin by discussing the meaning of the term “repentance” and then move on to a more general discussion of how terms of faith are redefined after one has moved through what Penington identifies as the three-fold state of man: the state of nature, of the law, and of grace. Two of Penington’s tracts are referred to in this exchange: (1) “Some of the Mysteries of God’s Kingdom Glanced At,”1 and (2) “There Is a Three-fold State of Man, Wherein the Grace of God Visits Him.”2  

On Sixth month, the 22nd, Daniel wrote: From what I have read and heard, the early Friends understood that there was but a single true way to God, and that was through true repentance: to be convicted by God through Christ and to be reformed inwardly and then to be reformed outwardly by God through Christ. Repentance is not sufficient but it is necessary. It is necessary to deny one’s self, take up one’s cross and follow Christ above all else. One therefore has to be prepared to accept that single route to God otherwise there is no route to God. One must be in a state of sufficient desperation to accept and desire the death of those aspects of the ego that are an affront to God; to accept that we are in a fallen state; to accept the sword of Christ to severe our preoccupations with worldly things and worldly ways, and put our priorities and loyalties in order with Him being number 1; to accept the fire of Christ to burn from us our sinful thoughts and ways. Anything that is in service of the ego will not work, and I wonder if a hunger and thirst to be loved and for God’s love is in service of the ego. On the other hand, I wonder if a hunger and thirst to want to love God and thy neighbour, recognising one’s inability to do that without His help, could be sufficient, although that may be referring to much the same thing as hunger and thirst for righteousness. But I may be wrong. I came to God on my hands and knees in existential desperation for righteousness, and I don’t have any other experience to draw on.

On 6/23, Patricia wrote: What I sense in [this] paragraph is a focus upon the first-birth state and the need to get beyond it, along with a mixed understanding of what “repentance” is. What I mean by “mixed” is the implication in some sentences but not others that the agent to effect repentance is the person himself: Your statement “Repentance is not sufficient but it is necessary” suggests to me that though insufficient for salvation, the person chooses to repent; and an example of the second describes the fraught state pursuant to accepting Christ’s gift of repentance [where you write]:

One must be in a state of sufficient desperation to accept and desire the death of those aspects of the ego that are an affront to God. 

The Quaker understanding of repentance is Christ is the agent, not the person. “Christ’s turning of the heart from the dead nature, and from the dead works, towards the living principle, and the living works thereof,” is Penington’s description of the term “repentance” (337). 

For a long time after coming to the Quaker faith, I thought that repentance was to be sorry for wrong-doing and to “deny oneself.” It’s the common meaning of the word: the idea most of us were first given. There’s a problem, however, of having the concept of a thing reside in one’s mind when one doesn’t have the experience of the thing itself. (I don’t think that this is your situation, given the things I’ve read and heard from you.) Once one has the experience, the new-found knowledge resulting from that experience can assist in redefining the vocabulary of faith to more accurately reflect the Truth.    

Now why is it important to name the agent of repentance to be Christ rather than the self? First, it’s true; and second, because the mistaken idea that one can choose to repent allows for a false assumption that one can put oneself right with God. One does not and cannot become righteous until after the second birth has been given: one can’t turn to God; one can only receive Christ when repentance is given. Again, Penington writes: 

Quest. Cannot a man turn from sin, and turn to God when he will? 

Ans. No; man is a captive, his understanding captive, his will captive; all his affections and nature in captivity; and nothing can turn him towards God, but that which is stronger than that power which captivateth him (337). 

Practically, if a person who hasn’t known Christ considers himself to be his own agent of repentance (and furthermore entertains popular concepts about faith), he will likely decry his sin, “turn to God,” and think he’s done his bit to obtain salvation. And he can remain captivated, decrying his sin forever—and perhaps secretly congratulate himself for his pious act of “repentance”—all the while not realizing that his confidence in his concepts and his “repentance” express a pride that is keeping him more insidiously captivated than any particular behaviors he and his social group deem sinful. 

Once true repentance is given by Christ, one has a new understanding of Christ, how he comes to be known; of faith, hope, and love; of obedience; of peace, or rest; of joy; of liberty; of prayer; of regeneration, justification, sanctification, reconciliation, and redemption. All these topics are covered in an excellent tract by Penington that I’ve already referred to a couple of times in this email: “Some of the Mysteries of God’s Kingdom Glanced At.” The body of the tract is comprised of Penington’s redefining the vocabulary of faith to reflect Quaker understanding, recognizing the ever-present discrepancy between concepts (what he calls “description . . . received into the understanding”) and “revelation or unveiling . . . in the heart”(333).

It may seem as though I’ve dwelt too much in this email on the issue of concepts and revelation affording different meanings to words. But striving for clarity of speech, clarity of meaning, exercises and strengthens discernment, and discernment is our given, natural power for developing sensitivity to truth. Along with the desire for truth, its exercise is the means by which the Father draws us to the Son (Jn. 6:44).  Our seeing our inevitable failure to find truth/righteousness—and suffering the humility that follows—are necessary to bring our consciousness to what you’ve rightly identified as “a state of sufficient desperation” where we are ready “to accept and desire the death of those aspects of the ego that are an affront to God,” or what is experientially known as personal effort that has led to nowhere. And in that state of despairing resignation, one is prepared to receive the true repentance that God in his mercy gives. 

Penington begins this tract with these words: “None but Christ, none but Christ, saith my soul, from the sense of my continual need of him, and from the deep love of my heart to him” (333). Knowing Christ, we feel Penington’s words reverberate within us: just as his thought focuses on the savior, and not on sin, so must ours. We may discover on occasion that in our souls “the enemy is not there wholly cast out,” yet, as Penington continues, “if the bent of the heart be against the sin committed, God chargeth it upon the enemy and not upon the soul” (338), and Penington supports his statement with a reference to Romans 7:20. Acknowledgment of one’s transgression is necessary, but dwelling upon it is not productive—especially if one knows Christ. Dwelling upon and pleading for sin was the primary difference between the 17th-century Puritans and the Quakers. One’s focus should be where the Quakers placed it: upon one’s need and love for Christ, accompanied by the confidence born of experience that when he shall appear we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is (1 Jn. 3:2). 

On 6/25, Daniel wrote: One could say “a person can do the will of God or can chose not to,” which implies one can chose to do the will of God. But that makes no sense. If one’s will has been surrendered to that of God, one has surrendered one’s choice, or capacity to choose, to God. And so it would be better to say: a person can do the will of God or can chose. That is, the word “choice” needs to be redefined as = not doing the will of God = sin, or choice = sin. God has given us the physiological and psychological “machinery” to do his will on earth. But in our fallen, wretched ego-laden state, some of that psychological machinery has become corrupted such that it serves ourselves and can be exercised for our own sake: choice, free will etc. God wants us to return to our right state and will, at some point(s) in our lives, “knock at our doors” and offer us His Spirit and Power to return us to that right state. At that time of visitation, we can either surrender choice, and be guided onto the path to return, or we can continue to choose, and remain in that fallen state. This makes much more sense of my experiences since December 2021 of being convicted by the Lord and there feeling that I did not have and did not make a choice. Since that point, Christ has been redefining me. Hallelujah!

Am I getting it?


On 6/27, Patricia wrote: Yes, Daniel, I think you’ve understood that there is no free will until Christ appears within and sets us free from sin. We need his heavenly light and power revealed within to become free from that which confines consciousness to its natural, darkened state.

Isaac Penington writes of the “three-fold state of man” (258) in which he outlines different conditions of the soul. Each condition is supplied with a form of God’s grace that is appropriate to it. In the first, the state of nature, man is given leadings towards the good and away from the evil: divine leadings to choose good over evil, but in this state, Christ isn’t known and is yet a promise, and the person himself identifies the particulars of what “good” entails. In the second state, says Penington, the soul is exercised in obedience to the law and continues in the “pure fear . . .  the place of wisdom’s teaching,” and in this state, the person anticipates coming into knowledge of Christ. Finally, in the state of grace or faith, a person knows and enjoys the power to do the will of God; “the light of life entering into, and possessing the vessel.”These states are not permanent–one doesn’t possess them; our soul’s condition depends upon which spirit, in fact, possesses us! 

These differing inward conditions of the soul yield different perspectives on what religion is and what the words of faith mean. The first state of nature where Man himself decides what is good and chooses to enact it is, I think, what modern Friends mistake for God’s leadings. Do you see the distinction between this and the gospel state? That is, in the first (the state of nature), people may choose “good,” but they themselves define what “good” is rather than being given knowledge that arises when “the light of life enter[s] into, and possess[es] the vessel.” In the first state of nature, repentance would be seen as arising from a person’s will to repent, because he knows repentance is “good.” Erroneously identifying the state of nature with the state of grace, the modern Quaker is averse to coming into the second state, that of the law, proudly thinking he’s beyond needing an external standard of righteousness, and not acknowledging early Friends’ stand that “the law, the light, the life, the wisdom, the power, are one and the same.” The law checks the state of nature but is met and superseded by the state of grace or faith. 

For those who have come into a state of faith, the third state, it’s necessary to communicate the new and living way that we’ve been given. To do this, we often have to redefine religious vocabulary to reflect our newfound understanding. We need to do this for two reasons: (1) it alerts others to the fact that there is something beyond the state or condition of nature or law that they presently inhabit, implying the need for them to come into it themselves, and (2) our clear communication of our new understanding supports and strengthens others who also have come into the new understanding. So for these reasons, it’s helpful for us to work together to honestly and clearly communicate the one thing needful: Christ—whether through ministering the gospel, or by intellectually parsing ideas to accurately reflect the reality we’ve known.


On 6/29, Daniel wrote: If I understand correctly, those three states of man relate to the three states of mankind, or three states of relationship with God, in the bible: the natural state parallels our “fallen” state, the law state parallels our state within the old covenant, and the Gospel state parallels our state within new covenant through Christ.

Also, if I understand correctly, you are using a definition of “free” that would arise from the faith state, i.e., free from our own will, and a slave to God’s will. This contrasts with the definition that would arise from the natural state, which really means free from God’s will and a slave to “our own” will (our pride, ego etc.), to other egos in the world, and to evil one.

An analogy of God’s power to work on us to gravity came to me the other morning. God is always pulling on us towards Him. When we are further away from Him, we feel that pull more weakly, but it is still there. And as we are pulled closer towards Him, so we are pulled harder (to those who have some, more will be given). While it is not through our power that we fall towards Him, we can resist and pull, and be pulled, away. But He is always trying to pull us back. When we let go, we initially feel that we are in free fall, confused, unable to breathe. But if we continue to let go, we realise that He has us in His power and will bring us swiftly into His arms. As with all analogies, best not take them too far, so I’ll leave that one there.


1 Works of Isaac Penington,” Some of the Mysteries of God’s Kingdom Glanced At” (Glenside, PA: Quaker Heritage Press, 1995, 2:336-8).

2 Works, “There Is a Three-fold State of Man,” 2:258-9.

Rembrandt Christ with Arms Folded, 1657-61, Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, New York
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