Parsing the Text


Two women, giving all they had, sandwich the cost of discipleship.

Alistair Begg


An oldy but a goody, the story of Goldilocks and the three bears. In the story, as you remember, Goldilocks tries out the chairs, the porridge and the beds and always finds the first too hard/hot, the second too soft/cold, but the third thing is always just right. Bible study can be likened to that story in one sense, but differentiated in another.

I was recently listening to a sermon given by Alistair Begg a preacher originally from Scotland who has been a pastor in Cleveland for a long time now. His sermon was on the events recorded in Mark 14 regarding the woman who broke an expensive vial of perfume over Jesus’ feet. But something he said within the sermon strikes me as an exciting principle of Bible study that I had not previously considered.

The woman in the 14th chapter of Mark gives sacrificially. She broke open a bottle of perfume that cost about a year’s wages. Begg related that it could have been her future, her retirement savings, her dowry. She broke it and gave it all to Jesus.

In the 12th chapter, Jesus was at the synagogue watching people come in. As people entered, they would give an offering that rang inside the brass offering vessels. A woman came and quietly gave her two small coins and Jesus commented that she gave more than all the rest; she gave all she had.

The stories of these two women are on opposite sides of the 13th chapter of Mark in which Jesus tells the disciples about the end times and the cost of discipleship. When I think about what discipleship costs, I usually think about the bad. The ridicule, the torture, death. But, Jesus promised His disciples that if they heeded the signs which preceded the end times and watched, they would be gathered together from the four winds by His angels. Discipleship costs some pain, but the glory to come…that should be my focus.

Remember Goldilocks? Unlike her study of the objects in the bear’s cabin, we can find value in every passage in God’s word whether the passage be long, medium-sized, or short. Alistair Begg tells us to take the long view and see that there is a message in the contiguous passage from Mark 12:41 – 14:9. There are also separate medium-sized and short messages within those verses.

To further illustrate, let’s look at another passage.

As Matthew chapter 18 begins, the disciples are asking Jesus who will be the greatest. Often, I read sections of scripture and ponder them to see what meaning God has for me there. I read through this and thought about it, then I kept on reading. Over the next several chapters the same theme kept presenting itself.

  • 18:1-20 answers the question about greatness in the kingdom of heaven.
  • 18:21-35 speaks of forgiveness.
  • The Pharisees ask him about divorce, in which the husband can put aside the “weaker vessel” according to Mosaic law. This is in 19:1-12.
  • In 19:13-15 the little children are brought to Him and he tells them that they must be like these to enter heaven.
  • 19:16-25 is the story of the rich young ruler who has kept all the commandments from his youth, but cannot debase himself financially to follow Christ. From 19:27-20:16 Jesus answers Peter’s astonishment. This section concludes with Jesus teaching the disciples about who can and who cannot follow, and then who can and cannot enter heaven.
  • In 20:17, 18 Jesus tells the disciples that He will debase Himself before the Jewish rulers and Gentiles (Pilate and the Roman soldiers) unto death.
  • Verses 19-28 speak about the request James and John’s mother lays before Jesus. Wrapping up a long passage about humility and who is blessed of God.

From Matthew 18:1 through 20:28, the Bible follows Christ over a several days’ journey to Jerusalem. Why did He stay with the same theme? This is the progression:

  • A childlike innocence was important,
  • forgiveness (from the one who holds the debt – the authority – to the debtor) is essential,
  • a man should not use the authority God gave him in the home to benefit himself,
  • little children again,
  • the confusion of the rich,
  • the first will be last,
  • the Greatest will give Himself for the least,
  • the servanthood of believers.

What reason does Jesus have for continuing this thread? It’s all found in the middle of these verses. If you go back through, you will see one verse that is seemingly unconnected to the others…Matthew 19:26 the one I didn’t mention above.

For a while this verse confused me; it seemed out of place. It was with the joy of discovery that I found God leading me to a Bible study revelation, but why would Jesus stop in the middle of this connected passage and say something that didn’t seem to fit? Then I remembered another essential Bible study truth – actually two.

  1. Total reliance on the Holy Spirit (He will interpret the scripture for us).
  2. The Bible is its own best commentary.

Getting back to the original topic for a moment…Alistair Begg taught me that we need to look at long passages, sometimes covering several chapters or entire books (Esther and Ruth), to understand the whole message. Within these longer passages are medium sized ones that cover a few verses, a few paragraphs up to a chapter. Finally, there are the small passages, maybe only a fraction of a verse, that contain an individual teaching. While studying the Bible, we need to look for the long, medium and short meanings within passages.

By the way, why do I assume that Matthew 19:26 is the focus of the longer passage from 18:1 – 20:28? The verse says,

“But Jesus looked at them and said unto them, “With men this is not possible, but with God all things are possible.”

He is telling us that Adam’s nature will not allow us to debase ourselves as He requires, but “with God all things are possible.” He can take even the most selfish and high-minded among us and bring us to our knees in worship before Him. He, the King of Heaven, did it. It is possible for us too no matter what pride we carry.


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