The Paradox of Jesus’ Presence & Absence

The Christian church is the people of God that live into the full range of reality as it is. It is broken and at the same time beautiful. And while we’ve been caught up into God’s saving reality, its fullness isn’t here yet.

In Mark 2:19-20, Jesus alludes to this paradox for his disciples.

Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.

Jesus’ followers don’t long for God’s salvation like others do, because it has already come. Jesus is with them (and us), so we celebrate!

But he’s not here like he should be and as he will be. Our current experience, then, includes lament and longing for God’s salvation to come.

Joel Marcus captures this paradox:

Thus both elements, absence/death and presence/life, are given their due weight within Markan Christology: Jesus has been physically absent since his death, but that absence is, paradoxically, the means by which his presence is achieved. For it is through the eschatological events of his death and exaltation to God’s right hand that he has gained the power to be dynamically present with his church everywhere (Mark 1-8, p. 238).

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23 responses to “The Paradox of Jesus’ Presence & Absence

  • Tim Cole

    Hi Herr Professor:

    Thanks for posting. Haven;t been able to interact with you lately as preparation to meet with Dissertation supervisors (in England) is demanding many hours and energy. The work you cited appears to be the fruit of some good labor.

    Which critical commentary does the best job on interpreting Mark’s Gospel through the lens of Genesis 1-3? I’m working on Mark’s Gospel for the first time in 30 years of Pastoral Ministry and would benefit from others. Thanks for your consideration and keep up the good work there in the classroom and in the coffee shops.

  • Andrew

    The Christian church is the people of God that live into the full range of reality as it is. It is broken and at the same time beautiful. And while we’ve been caught up into God’s saving reality, its fullness isn’t here yet.

    This is a great example of belief being advanced which appear to have no foundation in the bible.

    Searching out the bible, this is what it says:
    To Abraham, God said “I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I shall bless those blessing you, and curse those cursing you, and blessed in you shall be all the families of the earth.” [Gen 12:2].

    God reinforced this promise when he said “I will make my covenant between you and I, and will multiply you greatly.’ Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, ‘Behold, my covenant is with you, and you will be the father of a ˻multitude of nations˼. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a ˻multitude of nations˼. I shall make you exceedingly fruitful, and I shall make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I shall establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an EVERLASTING covenant, to be GOD to you and to your offspring after you.” [Gen 17:2-7].

    The claim above has the church possessing was the bible says was endowed to Abraham and his descendants; bequest to Isaac [Gen 21:12]; then to Jacob [Gen 27:30]; finally to Joseph [Gen 48:15-16]. Paul recognized this [Rom 9:4] and so did the language of ‘bride’/’bridegroom’ [Jer 2:2-3][Isa 54:5].

    So at what point did Israel cease being God’s bride? When did it jump from Abraham’s sons onto the church? If Abraham’s sons were specifically identified as being the ones exhibiting faith [Gal l3:7] at what point were church members identified this way?

    Perhaps you could clarify, was God’s promise to Abraham, merely figurative, referring to spiritual rather than actual descendants? If so, doesn’t this make Abraham’s belief particularly naive though God said Abraham’s actual descendants would never cease to be a people from before him [Jer 31:35-37]? If God’s promise to Abraham was figurative, and Abraham understood it as such, why did Sarah need to conceive?

    Wasn’t the promise ‘You will be my people, and I shall be your God’ [Jer 30:22] spoken to Jacob (from 30:10), so when did God vary this and change from Israel to the church? Given what the bible appears to say, it makes more sense to write “Israel are the people of God that live into the full range of reality as it is.” Though I suppose we would have to explain why God’s word appears to have failed.

    • timgombis

      I cannot figure out what you are inferring from what I wrote or how you inferred it. At other times you’ve assumed I’m saying something that I’m not. Are you doing that again here?

      • Andrew

        Yes, it’s possible. I rarely understand well what others say. So lamentably, I am forever asking people what they mean or begging forgiveness Some are offended by this (defect on my part), and I am sorry.

        It seems from your post you were saying “The Christian church is the people of God that live into the full range of reality” whereas I see the the people of God as being the sons and daughters of Abraham to whom the promises were made, those that do not exclude themselves through lack of faith (Abraham’s son Isaac, born of the flesh excluded himself because of lack of faith, whereas Isaac, the son of the promise, born of the Spirit, lived by the Spirit).

        So it beg’s the question: “Well, which is it, who are the people of God? The church, or Israel.

        Some Psalm says (alliteration) God has not dealt thus with any other nation (people); [Psa 147:20] so if we’re going to give Israel’s inheritance [Num 18:20] to the people of the church there must be some reason I’m missing, since the bible makes it clear it cannot be both.

        I constantly feel like ecclesiology is made-up theology without any actual biblical foundation, so I ask people about it, and they get really upset with me.

        The bible says Israel’s inheritance is the Lord [Num 18:20]. I take this to mean that of all the people in the world, the ones most worshipping YHWH, the ones exhibiting faith, will be Israelites, or more specifically the House of Joseph (as sons of Abraham born of the promise)

        Similarly, God’s inheritance is Israel [Psa 78:71] “.. from following the nursing ewes he brought him to shepherd Jacob his people, Israel his inheritance.

        So it constantly seems to me that when people claim the ‘church‘ as God’s people they are making a claim that contradicts the bible (which is another reason apart from the obvious linguistic reason I don’t believe we find ‘church’ in biblical Greek, given that when ancient Greek democratic discussions are translated into English ekklesia isn’t translated ‘church’.

        It seems to me, the patristics, in their zeal to marginalize and replace Israel with respect to their messiah, have invented this thing ‘church’. If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and claims the duck’s inheritance, it must be a duck? (But I cannot get someone to show me the error of this thinking from a biblical perspective.)

        I am undoubtedly wrong, but if the church is going to claim to be God’s portion, and his people, (borrowing promises made to Israel) there must either be evidence, or the church is ‘entering the sheepfold, climbing in by some other way’ making it a thief [John 10:1]’.

      • timgombis

        I’m not offended, Andrew. But I will also continue to use words like “church” and terms like “people of God.” I’ve mentioned before that I do not intend by these terms a theology that displaces or replaces Israel. Since this is a blog, however, I try to be brief, writing in such a way as not to define each and every term. This may require some measure of charity from you as a reader — that is, requiring that you give me the benefit of the doubt and not read into each of my statements the worst possible meaning.

        We may end up disagreeing on some of these issues, and on the issue you’re most concerned about. But you’ve already registered that, and we’ve already dialogued about it. I don’t think either of us are going to change our minds. As I said, I’m not offended, but you must forgive me if I do not wish to revisit the very same issue endlessly each time I post to this blog. I hope this doesn’t offend you.

      • Andrew

        Sorry – lack of care typing: Ishmael was born of the flesh .. not Isaac.

  • gjohnston2244

    I am not following Andrew either. Well that’s not completely accurate. I think I’m following him, but like you, I’m not sure how we got there from what you wrote.

    Does Marcus actually reach those conclusions from that Mark 2 text? I don’t question the theology, but I don’t see it in Mark’s text.

    • Andrew

      The question is whether or not we understand Mark. I read mark and I don’t see Mark inventing some new entity called ‘church’. I see Mark addressing the sheep expecting their master.

      If we read the old testament (and I do) this would be the House of Israel, soon to be reunited with the House of Judah, forged into a new covenant with the promised king of the House of David.

    • timgombis

      I really like Moloney’s commentary on Mark, and am taking a similar line on Mark to his. I think Mark is writing to (and for) a church that knows the gospel story well and is a long-established community. His Gospel more or less subverts a ‘typical’ telling of the Jesus story in order to shake up their complacency. So, the “already-not yet” character of salvation is in view, even though it’s not explicitly referred to in the text. In my reading of Mark, there’s more going on “in front of the text” than is demonstrated in the text, and that’s by Mark’s design.

      • Andrew

        Mark is likely too pithy. It would be great if the boys and girls at the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts were to find a 1st century Markan manuscript with 33% more. (It would be great if they could also find a copy of Hebrews with credible claims of authorship in tact and original letters of Paul – but now I’m just dreaming).

        With respect to the “already-not yet” character of salvation – Christianity’s adoption of Greek democratic ideas, and Greek philosophical influence in its ‘take’ on the new covenant means that hermeneutics of salvation (or indeed doctrine – meaning Soteriology) leans towards the individual.

        However in Israelite thought salvation was something more corporate. Mark, like the others Gospel writers, references well known allusions in Israelite literature ([Mark 2:25]->[1 Sam 21:6] etc).

        The whole bridegroom/bride story is prophetic. Israel exulting with the bridegroom is reminiscent of [Isa 61:10]. So the story goes, Israel’s husband (God) [Isa 54:5] marry.

        The bride (Israel) commits adultery (by pursuing other gods [Eze 16:32]) and God sends her away [Hos 2:2] as an adulteress. But a married woman (meaning Israel) is bound her husband by law while he lives, but if the husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress (says Paul in [Rom 7:2-3]).

        By God’s death Israel was made a bride again, and no longer an adulteress. Therefore the new covenant spoken of in [Heb 8:8] shows Israel was free to remarry (her former husband) God under the new covenant because her husband died (returning from death) and her ‘salvation’ was a result of His death. That is why the husband, Israel’s Redeemer [Isa 54:5] is called the Holy One of Israel [Isa 41:14; 43:14; 49:7].

        In this sense, by dealing with Sin, Christ has laid down the grounds for ‘salvation’ but the new marriage supper itself which reclaims the wife for her husband is still ‘not-yet’.

        In other words, the prodigal son hasn’t yet returned. It therefore makes sense why Jesus sent his disciples to find her [Matt 10:6].

      • gjohnston2244

        ” I think Mark is writing to (and for) a church that knows the gospel story well and is a long-established community.”

        A bit too much redaction and reconstruciton for me to find this a persuasive starting point for exegesis of a gospel. Seems to me an epistle would be more appropriate to address this complacency.

        ——————————————
        ” …even though it’s not explicitly referred to in the text. In my reading of Mark, there’s more going on “in front of the text” than is demonstrated in the text, and that’s by Mark’s design.”

        Sounds pretty complicated. So everything in Mark depends on the reconstruction of the “Markan Communnity” to discover what’s going on behind, in front of, around and about the text? Have you read Bauckham on this? It’s one of his primary contributions to gospel study.

      • timgombis

        No, not that the Markan community needs to be reconstructed — I’m not interested in that at all. In reading over Mark over the last few years, it seems to me that Mark is not written for those who aren’t informed at all about the gospel story. It’s written in quite different fashion from the others (just as each is unique). It begins well and then ends in failure, and all the human characters misunderstand Jesus, especially his disciples. I think it’s written for a community (perhaps the Jerusalem church) that is not carrying out Jesus’ mission as they are supposed to, and the Gospel challenges them to be a different “ending” to the gospel story. At any rate, each Gospel has different theological aims and intentions. I just think that’s Mark’s contribution — it’s not written so much to inform, but to confront. Jesus is a confrontational prophet in Mark, much like John the Baptist.

  • Andrew

    The argument Mark wrote for the Jerusalem community is likely, and insightful. That Mark is confrontational supports the idea also. If this idea is true, it increases the opportunity to date the original Markan manuscript since the Jerusalem community came under intense persecution at some point from which it didn’t recover (but the faith grew wonderfully in Asia minor as a side-benefit).

    Makes you wonder if Mark’s author wasn’t reacting to Paul’s habit of documenting his doctrine in writing …

    • timgombis

      Andrew & Greg,

      I can’t prove this about Mark’s audience and am not going to try to. But in the commentary I’m writing, I’m seeking to “read” the Gospel within some context. It appears to me that Mark is shaking up his audience, an audience that already knows the gospel well, that is well-established as a Christian community and which perhaps is complacent. Mark is confrontational, even violent, and Jesus plays the role of “the troubler of Israel,” seeking to awaken it and shake it loose from its prejudices so that it genuinely fulfills its commission to be a light to the nations.

      Writing as I am to a largely N. American audience, I think there’s tremendous payoff in capturing this prophetic voice of Mark’s Gospel for a complacent and idolatrous church.

      • Andrew T.

        I know there are things you and I disagree upon but humour me for a second:

        Ask yourself if the original Gospel community saw themselves as a ‘church community’ or ‘messiah believing Israelites’. Is there a difference between these perspectives and does the self-identity of the Gospel writers/audience inform our hermeneutic? Should it?

        I believe nuance counts for everything that is wrong with exegesis. So the questions I pose above account for nuance. If you consider N.T. Wright’s debate with Piper about Christ’s righteousness, N.T. Wright’s position could represent the perspective of a messianic Israelite, whereas Piper’s position not at all. So which of those two position represents either the Gospel writers or their audience? For that reason, I think Wright is right (pardon the pun).

        Given the claim Christ did not come to create a church, portraying Christ as the troubler of Israel makes a whole lot of sense. How you’re representing Mark makes sense if we agree that context and nuance of 1st century Israelite thinking should be our dominant filter, rather than later Greek or Roman thinking.

        I agree with you on how you see Mark – the perspective you intend to capture needs to be heard by the N. American audience, who, for the most part, lives in it’s own world with respect to biblical Christianity (I’d say even represents the worst of it sometimes ..)

      • timgombis

        Humor you “for a second!?” Andrew, you write far more on this blog than anyone, including me! (I’m writing this with a smile on my face and intend it light-heartedly).

        I’ve already indicated that I recognize the erroneous understanding of “church” against which you regularly inveigh. I don’t think I fall prey to it, but I’ll still continue to use the term.

  • gjohnston2244

    Andrew, I sympathize and borderline agree with what you are saying here. Ekklesia is Paul’s word and is a good one, but the word “church” has come to mean something different from Paul’s vision of the reformed people of God. Ekklesia in Paul’s mind is very probably a devopment from sunagoge, the assembled people of God. But I also sympathize and borderline agree with Tim: Church is the word the translators have served up for Paul’s ekklesia. When one does Bible exposition, one has to pick one’s battles. I’m not sure this lexical battle is worth the effort.

  • Andrew T.

    Tim, I apologize for my zeal. Even if I write more than you, and even if this is your blog, there is still a profound difference:

    Anyone can comment because anyone can offer an opinion, and everyone has one. However, those who blog regularly seed discussions with insight, discipline, and fresh perspective. They are the thinkers advancing thougth, not with quantity, but quality. They are the ones dictating what the conversations are about, so the influence makers.

    We, commentators are merely fleas on the backs of camels; the thought lives of thinkers.

  • Andrew T.

    gjohnston2244, what you say may be true. It may not be worth it; and perhaps I lack insight to see it, but I believe it is for the simple reason – if false notions serve as foundations for false doctrine the false notions should be questioned.

    So many Christians simply read their English bibles unquestioningly through the false lens of later doctrine, it obscures the authors words, and therefor His meaning. If we’re not willing to detangle these simple threads, neither exegesis, nor hermeneutics have purpose.

    • gjohnston2244

      I”m one to challenge “false notions” if I think I see one that is significant. I don’t disagree with you there. But there was nothing in Tim’s initial post that indicated any false notions were underlying what he wrote. Your post was irrelevant to what he was affirming. The word “church” is a Bible word. It is the English translation of a word Paul used. There’s nothing at all intrinsically wrong with that word. Just because many people don’t understand its original usage and have false notions about it doesn’t mean Tim shares the same illusions.

      • Andrew

        I wouldn’t accusing Tim of seeding false notions, though I might challenge him to show a basis for ecclesiology that sometimes supposes.

        He is in great company though. Most modern theologians do the same but I believe most modern theologians have been lead down the garden path somewhat.

        ‘Church’ is not a biblical word, it is an English word we believe to be biblical, and we impart meaning to, and one with baggage. The biblic word was ἐκκλησία (ekklēsia) which also happens to be a word found in the philosophy of Greek democracy.

        Even so, the Israelites who wrote the bible used it according to a linguistic norm, which modern theologians appear to ignore. Instead bible translators (since at least the KJV) have created their own linguistic norm, and this has caused the development of artificial theology, theology not intended by the bible’s author.

        Seeing the linguistic norm of ἐκκλησία (ekklēsia) is trivial. We simply need to see it was used in the LXX and with what meaning?

        [LXX: 1 Kings 17:47] “καὶ γνώσεται πᾶσα ἡ ἐκκλησία αὕτη ὅτι οὐκ ἐν ῥομφαίᾳ καὶ δόρατι σῴζει κύριος ὅτι τοῦ κυρίου ὁ πόλεμος καὶ παραδώσει κύριος ὑμᾶς εἰς χεῖρας ἡμῶν” – Here the ekklesia is the congregation of Israel, something actually historical, not some mythical construct called ‘church’. So too [LXX: Ps 34:18] “ἐξομολογήσομαί σοι κύριε ἐν ἐκκλησίᾳ πολλῇ ἐν λαῷ βαρεῖ αἰνέσω σε”. I could probably find 50 others spots OT writers used the word in the LXX (, and in no instance was there theology introduced foreign to old covenant thinking or out of sync with typical linguistic Greek norms.

        Does it matter? It matters if the ekklesia is Israel (specifically the House of Israel), rather than some foreign, new, spiritual invention of later theologians that cannot be precisely identified in history. The ekklesia should be identifiable in history if we place any stock in prophecy. It flavours how we read the entire NT and see the character of God.

      • gjohnston2244

        Andrew, I’m tired of this discussion. I have not only conceded most of what you’ve written in your last post, I’ve actually pointed it out in one of my previous comments. And now you’re arguing it all over again. To what end?

        As for “church” being a “biblical word,” I can open any English Bible and show you that it is a biblical word in the sense I intended. All you have to do is read my posts and use the context to see what my intended meaning was. And if you had done that, you wouldn’t have needed to make your case for the use of ekklesia in the LXX, since I have already conceded what Paul probably meant by it.

        So carry on, brother, but without me.

  • Andrew

    No worries. Sorry for making your weary. Thanks for your clarification.

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