The Rhetorical Jesus: A Fresh Look at Mk. 4.24-25: Studies in Mark, Pt. 4

A while back I was watching a debate that took place between Christian scholar William Lane Craig and some other fellow who was an atheist. Craig did an excellent job in the debate. In my opinion, though, the most forceful part of his argument came when he cited a statement that his opponent had previously published in a journal article. The atheist opponent was dumbstruck; he was shocked that Craig had done this. To make matters worse for him, after Craig had showed how illogical the statement was, the atheist recanted and began to plead that he had no recollection of writing any such statement and that if he did, well, he no longer believed it.

In my opinion, some of the most interesting passages in the New Testament are those where some figure fires off a quote from their opponent in order to show them how illogical their thinking is. For instance, Paul does this in his Aeropagus speech in Acts 17. In verse 28 the apostle says, “…for in [God] we live and move and have our being, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘we are his offspring.’”

In 1 Corinthians, Paul does this same type of thing. Here, though, he is not quoting some eulogized, Greek philosopher, instead he is quoting the Corinthian believers. In particular, he is quoting a local saying of theirs, a kind of slogan they say amongst themselves. Paul’s aim is to show them the problem with such thinking though. For example, in 6.12 Paul repeats one of their slogans: “Everything is permissible for me.” He does this twice and both times, he appends his own tagline to the end of the statement. He does this in 6.13 as well, where the slogan is: “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, but God will destroy them both.” Paul attempts to replace this statement with a type of rhythmic parallel: “The body is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord and the Lord for the body.” Quite frankly, moments like these show the depth and breadth of Paul’s ingenuity.

Of course, Jesus does this type of thing too. In His infamous Sermon on the Mount, He is recorded as repeatedly saying, “You have heard it said…” and then He goes on to cite those He disagrees with. From a rhetorical standpoint, these types of moves allow the speaker to discredit their opponents and give credence to themselves and their own arguments, all at once.

Well, I’ve mentioned Acts, 1 Corinthians and Matthew, so, what does all of this have to do with Mark’s account?

In Mark’s account, I would suggest that we find something similar—Jesus quoting His opponents, not in a Sermon on the Mount (there isn’t one in Mark’s narrative) but rather in a Sermon on the Boat (4.3-34). In particular, Jesus is quoting His opponents in the elusive and often confusing 24th and 25th verses. There, Jesus is recorded as saying (and I am adding my own punctuation here: “Consider carefully what you hear: ‘With the measure you measure it will be measured unto you—and even more.’ ‘Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.’”

So, how do I know that Jesus is citing His enemies here? Well, for starters, I don’t know for sure but the evidence does seem to favor this reading. J. Jeremias and C. Myers have picked up on this but I don’t agree with how Jeremias breaks things down and I think Myers reads this text a bit too literally. I would suggest, apart from them, that Mark is making a blatant literary move, kind of giving his audience some signals. For example, Mark goes to great lengths to make sure that his readers understand that Jesus has two different ways of telling His hearers to listen; one is a good type of listening (or listening for something good) and the other is a bad type of listening (or listening for something bad).

Thus, when Jesus Himself is about to say or has already said something “good” and wants the audience to listen and adopt it, Mark records Him as saying, “Those who have ears, let them hear” (e.g. 4.9, 4.23). However, when Jesus wants to warn His audiences about listening to bad things or people, He uses the (Greek) term blepete. In 8.15, 12.38, 23.5, 23.9, 23.23 and 23.33, every time Jesus uses this word, it is to warn the hearers that the religious or political leaders are espousing something false (see also the Isaiah quotation in Mk. 4.12 where this word is used a number of times). If this is the case, then, one would be hard-pressed to suggest that 4.24-25 is the one place where that doesn’t happen! Thus, it seems that 4.24-25 contain local quotes or slogans that Jesus is going against. In fact, I think that understanding the verses this way is the best way to make sense of them.

What Jesus is doing, then, is quoting a saying of the local religious and political leaders who have been out to get Him from the get-go (see especially 3.6ff). Their kingdom is founded on the principle of taking advantage of people. Thus, they say amongst themselves, “The greater the measure you give to the kingdom, the better off you will be. And if you don’t give to the kingdom, well, we’ll the kingdom will just take whatever you’ve got.” Jesus wants to counter such thinking. You may recall that in the previous few verses (4.15-16), He had said, “Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown.”

Jesus, then, is essentially saying to the audience is: “You hear the kingdom of Caesar making threats and you also hear the kingdom of Caesar making enticing offers, but either way, you shouldn’t give into Caesar. Instead listen to Me; if you have ears, this is news you’re going to love hearing because it is Good News! I am the new King in town (1.1-14). And do you want to know what My kingdom is like? Well, consider this parable…and this one…and this one…Mine is a kingdom based on equality and holiness—it is the kingdom of God and you can be a part of it.”

So, Jesus offers us here, a couple of really good things: 1) a lesson in rhetorical argument, and 2) an understanding and opportunity to be part of His kingdom! Indeed, there is no better news than that!


  1. "J. Jeremias and C. Myers have picked up on this but I don’t agree with how Jeremias breaks things down and I think Myers reads this text a bit too literally."

    Would that be Ched Myers? I'm a huge fan.

    By the way, I've meant to ask, what does pisteuomen mean?

  2. Nice translation/paraphrase there at the end, by the way...

  3. Dan,

    Yes, C. Myers = Ched Myers. I like Myers too, and while I am all about using the social sciences as interpretive aids, I do think Myers gets too "one track minded" sometimes and therefore, misses many of the other things that are going on in the text.

    Pisteuomen is a Greek term that, when broken down is as follows:

    * Pisteu (from pistis) = believe
    * The o/men on the end is what makes the word a plural = we
    * Thus: "We believe"

    I titled it "we believe" over pisteuo (I believe) to emphasize the collectiveness of Christianity - as opposed to the highly individualistic brand we see of it so often today.

    Thanks for your comments on the paraphrase!

  4. Interesting thoughts - I think you are on to something - however if Mk 4:24-25 are false then what would be its opposite? The way the text is laid out one could hardly tell Jesus is invalidating this claim - and it isn't really followed up with a counter claim, unless the following parables (4:26-33) are such?

    So then the question becomes, what is Jesus saying?

  5. Brian,

    Good insight. Here are my thoughts:

    1. It is hard, from a plain English or even Greek reading of these 2 verses to pick up on the rhetorical aspect of them. However, when one examines all the uses of these phrases (e.g. those who have ears and "blepete" - watch/listen carefully) all throughout Mark, that all becomes much more clear.

    2. The following parables are definitely the counter claims (even the preceding ones are too).

    3. Jesus is saying that, unlike Caesar's kingdom, His is one based on equality. He uses the following parables to say, "You know of Caesar's kingdom, now, consider my Kingdom, it is like this (parable) and this (parable) and this (parable), etc.

    Make sense? Good questions, Brian.