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Precious, inevitable scandal: theology of the cross in Mark.

Of the four canonical narratives we call "gospels," only Mark identifies itself as "good news," or, more accurately, "the beginning of the good news." Ironically, the story of Jesus that Mark tells proceeds more like a rapid descent into tragedy. Especially to those who read or hear the gospels for the first time, Mark's account must seem a message of bad news rather than good when measured against the other three. True, the hero dies in all four, but in the other three he reappears long enough to enjoy a few moments of vindication and to offer both assurance and direction to his tentatively faithful followers. As Mark's tale closes, the women at the empty tomb find their beloved Jesus as absent from them as God had seemed from Jesus himself on that terrible afternoon two days earlier. "You will see him, just as he told you," the young messenger at the tomb declares (16:7), sounding suspiciously like the voice that promises to the battered faithful such things as "Those who love me, I will deliver.... I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them. With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation" (Ps 91:14-16).

In the shadow of the cross, how does anybody believe either promise? With what shreds of hope should the frightened women at the tomb proceed to Galilee?

Another absence seems to haunt the earliest and briefest of the canonical gospels. Matthew's narrative might qualify as proclamation of good news because it finds a way to show how Jesus' death worked forgiveness. Indeed, two Jesus figures play roles in Matthew's passion narrative: the one who gets released, never to be heard from again, and the other whose blood is spilled and ends up on the people who spoke against him (Matt 27:15-26). In this enactment of the ancient ritual of atonement prescribed in Leviticus 16, Jesus' death accomplishes the forgiveness of sins. Moreover, the cataclysmic events that accompany Jesus' death in Matthew (27:51-54) serve as signs that this particular crucifixion has triggered the sequence of God's salvific, end-time actions promised in prophecies such as Zechariah 14:3-5.

All roads lead to the cross in John's Gospel, too, from the moment John the Baptist identifies Jesus as "the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (1:29). In this depiction, however, Jesus maintains tight control over everything and everyone involved in his dying. He gives orders to Judas (13:27) and to Pilate (18:37), both of whom comply. He questions those who would put him on trial (18:19-23, 33-38). In the end he cries out in victory and chooses the moment of his dying (19:30). Like Matthew, John weaves obvious soteriological themes into his account. By altering slightly the chronology of events common to the synoptic gospels, John introduces paschal imagery to the passion narrative and presents Jesus as the ultimate Passover lamb. (1) The fourth gospel's Jesus is no victim, however, and his death is not by any stretch a tragedy. "No one takes my life from me," Jesus declares (John 10:18). "I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again." And so he does in John's telling. These themes, plus others in John's complex narrative, make of Jesus' death not only a saving event but a deliberate sacrifice that Jesus himself carefully orchestrated.

Scholars generally agree that Luke's Gospel does not develop a soteriological image or theory of atonement concerning the consequences of Jesus' death. Nevertheless, Jesus proceeds very purposefully in Luke's narrative, refusing to be dissuaded from setting his face toward Jerusalem and all that inevitably awaits him there (9:51-62). As the day of crucifixion plays out in Luke, it becomes an occasion for Jesus to teach "daily cross-bearing" to a disciple who walks in his footsteps (cf. 9:23 and 23:26-43). Jesus then dies calmly praying a portion of Psalm 31, which already in biblical times was counted among the evening songs. With that simple bedtime prayer Jesus rests himself in God's hands. Following his resurrection in Luke, Jesus goes back on the road (24:13-35) that had served as his place of vocation, until it comes time after several weeks to complete the journey that began back in Luke 9:51. At the ascension scene in Acts 1:6-11, we learn from the two men in white robes that the whole story has been one long "taking up." (2) Moreover, the men promise that the disciples will witness a repeat of the same scenario. In other words, the long journey to Jerusalem, and finally to the cross, is not what it may have seemed to the faithful who initially went home from Golgotha beating their breasts. Rather, Jesus' cross-bearing road serves as the means by which God "takes up" those who follow on that way.

When compared to these treatments of Jesus' death, how can Mark's grim narrative qualify as good news? What, if anything, could we say that Jesus' death accomplished or changed if all we had for clues came from Mark?

Hints and fragmentary images that prompt interpreters' suggestions about this gospel's theological understanding of Jesus' death appear throughout Mark. None of them, however, seems so fully developed as some of the themes and metaphors employed in the other gospels. The most obvious statement in Mark that asserts a particular meaning to Jesus' death appears in 10:45, when, in response to the other disciples' anger over James' and John's seeking positions of power when Jesus takes over, Jesus contrasts his understanding of ruling and serving to that of conventional wisdom about such things and concludes, "For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII])." While many scholars find the seed of a soteriological image in this statement, (3) it remains isolated and undeveloped in Mark, as nothing else in the larger narrative seems to link directly to this saying.

Many see another hint of atonement theology in the cup word of Mark's Last Supper scene, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many" (14:24). Like the saying in 10:45, this brief line alludes to a death that has consequence for "many," but the remainder of Mark's narrative does not develop covenant metaphors nor attempt a way to associate the Passover meal or cup with covenant theology. (4)

Many have been content to let Mark's Gospel serve merely as something of a guide for living in hostile or politically perilous circumstances. In such treatments, Jesus becomes the model of one who dies faithfully and with integrity. He calls others to the way of cross bearing (8:34) and later heeds the advice he gives to those who would follow. "When you get hauled before synagogues, councils, and kings, and when you're abused and reviled, don't defend yourself or make speeches," Jesus told his followers. "Say only what the Spirit gives you in such moments. And those who endure to the end will be saved" (13:9-13, paraphrased).

For those who find this the heart of Mark's "good news" for followers in dangerous times, salvation born of such endurance seems to be a kind of peace or wholeness that comes from having a sound model for responding to temptations, fears, and uncertainties, and ultimately resting assured at or near the end of life that the model worked. The cross-bearing life proves the complete and whole life. (5)

Crucifixion was nothing if it wasn't political, for it was Rome's way to destroy those whom the empire despised in the most shameful way possible. Accordingly, many see an essentially political soteriology implicit in Mark's understanding of the cross, and some in turn find a primarily political message in the narrative as a whole. While not nearly so elaborate as John's depiction of Jesus ascending to his cross-high throne and dying a death by exaltation, Mark's Gospel also lends itself to seeing the cross as the ironic throne by which Jesus rises to royal power despite rejection, demonic harassment, and even abandonment by God. (6) Such a king stands in stark contrast to the world's ordinary rulers, and his reign ultimately reveals the bankruptcy and failure of prevailing myths about how to gain, keep, and exercise power in the world. (7)


Much scholarly discussion of Mark has concluded, one way or another, that Christology, not soteriology, proves to be its major concern. Hence, the manner of revealing Jesus as the Son of God, as well as the significance of that revelation, becomes the assumed burden of Mark. Indeed, the narrative begins with a dramatic moment of revelation. At his baptism (1:9-11) Jesus sees the heavens ripped open ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), and a voice declares "You are my son, the Beloved."

The content of this revelation then becomes the core of the so-called messianic secret in Mark. Whenever demons, unclean spirits, and those they possess seem near to disclosing Jesus' identity as the son of God, he silences them or swears them to secrecy (e.g., 1:23-26, 34; 3:9-12). Ordinary mortals remain oblivious to Jesus' identity even in the presence of obvious clues. For example, when Jesus exercises authority like the Creator's to control chaos by taming sea and wind, the disciples can only respond with muttered questions (4:35-41).

Two incidents of revelation occur at the midpoint of the narrative. In Mark 8:22-26 Jesus grants sight to a blind man at Bethsaida, but it takes two attempts before the man can see clearly. Many commentators have pointed out that the two stages of receiving sight in this brief healing story correspond to the larger issues of "seeing" in Mark. No one but demons can discern Jesus' identity through all the exorcisms, healings, and other signs and wonders in the first half of Mark's story. Others, including the disciples, remain at least partly blind. It will take a second effort to open their eyes so that they see fully and clearly.

Immediately after the healing at Bethsaida comes the confession at Caesarea Philippi, where Peter's words demonstrate that the disciples have not yet discerned Jesus' identity as the son of God. In parallel synoptic texts, Peter confesses Jesus as "the messiah, the son of the living God" (Matt 16:14) and "messiah of God" (Luke 9:20), but in Mark Peter merely says "You are the Messiah." He "sees" something, but not the full truth of Jesus' identity.

Hard upon Peter's confession (and subsequent confusion over what it may mean even to be the messiah) comes the story of transfiguration (Mark 9:2-9) with its repetition of the baptismal revelation. The voice that spoke first to Jesus now speaks to Peter, James, and John: "This is my Son, the Beloved." This revelation, however, will have no practical effect in Mark until much later, because Jesus "ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead."

This leaves the centurion in Mark's crucifixion scene to serve as the first human being unaided by demons to discern and declare Jesus' identity as son of God (15:39). Two brief revelatory events immediately precede the centurion's confession. One of these the centurion himself sees--namely, the manner in which Jesus died--and the narrator directly attributes the soldier's response to this observation. The other revelation takes place some distance away from the crucifixion scene, in the rending ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) of the temple curtain from top to bottom at the moment Jesus dies. Despite all the many meanings this torn curtain might have in Mark's narrative, (8) it surely serves as part of a literary parallel to the baptismal scene in which the rending of a concealing fabric associated with God's dwelling place immediately precedes a declaration of Jesus as the son of God.

In sum, Mark's narrative seems to assert that Jesus' identity becomes clear not through all the exorcisms, healings, and other wonders he had done back in Galilee but through his dying. Hence, Jesus' death accomplishes something. It reveals something about Jesus, but it also uncovers God.

Another, tighter, sequence of revealing acts in Mark begins and ends with the granting of sight to a blind man, and between these two bracketing stories come the formulaic sequences containing the three passion predictions in Mark. This section of the narrative opens in the middle of Mark's narrative with the two-stage miracle described above in which Jesus heals the blind man of Bethsaida (8:22-26). Peter then declares Jesus the messiah (8:27-30), and Jesus responds with the first of the passion predictions: "Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again" (8:31). Peter immediately demonstrates that he has a very different notion of what a messiah must do or accomplish than the one Jesus seems bound to follow (8:32-33), and Jesus then issues his call to cross-bearing and to losing one's life as the way to saving it and sharing in the Son of Man's glory (8:34-9:1).

After the account of the transfiguration and a discussion of Elijah's coming (9:2-13), another story of a two-stage miracle sets up the next passion prediction (9:14-29). Jesus casts a debilitating spirit from a boy, but the action leaves the child "like a corpse, so that most of them said, 'He is dead.'" Using words that invite association with resurrection language, Mark then says that Jesus lifted ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) the boy, and he stood ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). As Jesus and the disciples leave the scene of this event, Jesus repeats his words about the necessary betrayal, death, and resurrection of the Son of Man (9:30-31), and once more the disciples show that this talk makes little sense to them. They argue about which of them will be greatest (9:32-34), so Jesus issues another call to an alternative way: Strive not to be the greatest, but to be the least and the servant of all, he urges (9:35-37).

Yet another story of partly completed well-being opens a third cycle in this larger pattern. A man comes to Jesus in search of eternal life, and Jesus soon determines that only one thing prevents him from having it (10:17-22). If he lets go of all earthly treasures and follows Christ, he will find what he seeks, but for now, the narrator explains, the man cannot follow. The disciples who overhear this conversation remind Jesus that they have left everything to follow, but instead of congratulating them for reaching a goal the inquirer had for now abandoned, Jesus suggests with somewhat mysterious talk that the disciples still have much to learn about who comes in first or last in God's way of accounting (10:28-31). Then follows the third, most detailed passion prediction (10:32-34). This time Jesus says not only that the Son of Man must be handed over, killed, and raised from death but that he must also be mocked, spit upon, and flogged. The disciples quickly prove a third time how poorly they grasp or believe these things. "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory," ask James and John (10:35-40). The narrator and reader know what these two don't--namely, that those seats of honor will soon be filled by cross-bound lieutenants in the crucifixion scene (15:27)--and Jesus concludes this third portion of the sequence by issuing a third call to service rather than quests for roles and privileges of domination (10:41-45).

This repetitive sequence in Mark closes with a second bracketing story about blindness, this time involving Bartimaeus (10:46-52). This healing does not entail two stages; rather, as we shall see momentarily, it completes the quest for life that the man who lacked one thing failed to grasp. Bartimaeus appears as one who once could see but now must trust that this teacher and Son of David might restore his sight. Significantly, the gift he asks for and receives is identified with the Greek verb [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], which can mean "to see again" but also "to look up" or even "to look to the heavens," as Jesus does while preparing to distribute bread and fish to the crowd of 5,000 (Mark 6:41). Even more significantly, once Bartimaeus can see again, or "look up," he immediately does what the rich man could not: he follows Jesus on his way (10:52). In the very next verse, Jesus' traveling company of the partially blind and newly sighted arrives at Jerusalem, ready or not for all that will transpire there (11:1). If we imagine that Bartimaeus understood his own story, he regains his sight just in time to lose his life.

Among all the other points that the narrator has embedded in this portion of Mark, this repetitive sequence of events surely teaches something about the impossibility of humankind's grasping the significance and necessity of the Son of Man's crucifixion. Only Jesus himself, finally, can give to disciples' eyes the capacity to "look up." Moreover, it seems from Mark's narrative that this only happens in Jerusalem, as it were, where and when one finally sees precisely what the seats of power on either side of the Son of Man look like. Or, better, perhaps, one cannot really grasp the significance of Jesus' words about his death until one gets nailed up as a bandit next to the one mistaken for a bandit and treated as such. (9) Dying with that one holds the only hope for saving one's life (8:35) or having eternal life (10:17, 21).

In God's good time, James, John, and a host of others would find themselves in such ironic places of honor, crucified on either side of the king of the bandits. The list would include the "young man" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) at the tomb who met the startled women with news of the resurrection, but not before he'd been stripped of his burial garment earlier at Gethsemane (14:51-52), vanished beneath the story of Jesus' death, dispatched to a tomb, and finally given a new, white robe and directions for where the disciples might see the crucified and risen one, even as he'd promised (16:5-7).

Two additional stages of revelation await the reader of Mark at this curious ending point to the gospel that hardly seems a gospel. First, there remains one piece of narrative held in abeyance until this moment. As Jesus and the transfiguration witnesses descend from the mountain, Mark says Jesus charged them to tell no one what they had seen until the son of Man was risen from the dead (9:9). Here at the end of the gospel, then, comes the moment for disciples and reader alike to rehearse and ponder the account of Jesus' appearance in the raiment of heaven--or perhaps the robe of the baptized, like the "young man" also wears--and speaking with Moses and Elijah. Here is Mark's answer to a question all of the gospels needed to answer in one way or another: Where is this Jesus whose resurrection you proclaim? And what is he doing now, if anything? If the transfiguration story is the one we now tell, we profess that Jesus has been seen in the company of Moses and Elijah, two whose journeys to the "promised land" were cut short but who now reside with and work for God.

As for the second revelation inherent in Mark's abrupt ending, the words of the young man at the tomb also prompt the reader and listener to engage in another act of rehearsal. "Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you." Today's reader might imagine Peter and the others heading off toward Capernaum, the sea, or the haunts in the mountains where they had conversed so often with Jesus. But how do readers today return to Galilee? Readers who have only Mark for clues must go back to the beginning, which starts, we recall, with Jesus coming to the wilderness from Nazareth of Galilee to be baptized by John in the Jordan (1:9-11). As Gordon Lathrop suggests, (10) in rereading the whole of Mark's story the reader begins to see the risen Jesus all over Galilee. He appears asleep in the stern of the little boat tossed about in treacherous seas but awakes to rebuke the wild winds and to save the bewildered crew (4:35-41). He scatters unclean spirits and restores people to community (5:1-20). He serves up in the wilderness tomorrow's bread today, both to the Jews (6:30-44) and the Gentiles (8:1-10). All these Jesus does, however, not only as the risen one but as the crucified, whose table of fellowship never celebrates the conquering of an enemy or critic (cf. the contrast of two banquets, Herod's and Jesus', in 6:14-44) but the giving of life for many (14:24).

For Mark, therefore, the cross has multiple consequences, though in a sense they amount to a single effect. The death of Jesus cures blindness, and the cross serves as the "place" for finding life in losing it. To wit, the way Jesus died, praying at least part of the song we know as Psalm 22, caused a Roman military officer to make a statement that might have been meant as one more cynical taunt, except that it also declares the full truth of Jesus' identity as Mark understood it. Something about this death also seems to have impacted a member of the Sanhedrin that had earlier voted unanimously, says Mark, to condemn Jesus to death (14:64). Joseph of Arimathea, a member of that assembly who "waited expectantly for the kingdom of God" (15:43), apparently saw something in the scene of Jesus' ascending to his throne as "king of the Jews" that emboldened him to claim Jesus body. Presumably, the women who ran away afraid (16:8) eventually told the disciples and Peter what they had witnessed, and they made their way to Galilee and to the sight of believing. Ultimately, the same thing happens today as readers and hearers witness the death of Jesus in Mark and have their own visions of heaven ripped apart.

In short, Mark's narrative says that the fabric of God's dwelling gets ripped open in the moment of Jesus' death. In that final baptism with which he is baptized (cf. 1:9-11 and 10:38-40), and in the cup that he himself drinks new in the kingdom of God (cf. 10:38-40 and 14:24-25), God's reign and God's glory appear on the cross. What there is to "see" of God appears somehow in this messiah's dying amidst every conceivable discouragement, rejection, and abandonment, including--and this is the ultimate irony--the abandonment of God.

This reading of Mark's Gospel would place it in the category some have called the theology of the cross. It makes the crucifixion of Christ the place one looks in order to glimpse what can be seen of the God who remains hidden from us in the stuff of this earth, the vast distances of heaven, and the unceasing nonsense that goes on around us. In a way, Mark does not do what the other evangelists would later attempt, namely, to explain the cross and to say how it worked, anticipating, perhaps, the skeptical questions from within and without asking, "How exactly can the death of one more Jew be the event that changed things forever?" Mark simply takes us to the cross and says, Look there. Look up, cross-high. In the utter abandonment by God that you witness there, you see the Son of God, the Beloved. There, too, you see the reign of God, the king of the Jews enthroned among the bandits.

What comfort is this? What kind of "good news?" Frankly, many today have deemed it not good enough. It remains as much a stumbling stone as ever, even among Christian preachers--indeed, especially among Christian preachers and theologians. Many have written that the theology of the cross glorifies violence and teaches an image of an angry God who needs the satiation of bloodshed. Others reject it because they blame it for the ways it has been twisted by those who insist on telling the battered, abused, and suffering that such things are good for them or, at the very least, cross-shaped burdens they must learn to suffer patiently at the hands of their abusers.

Nothing in Mark's Gospel, or in any legitimate theology of the cross for that matter, justifies abuse, oppression, or anything else that traitors, priests, governors, screaming crowds, or brutal executioners perpetrate in this world. However, the deep currents that run through Mark assume that, sooner or later, everyone falls victim to these forces. The moment will come when God seems utterly and completely absent. The darkness of our circumstances, diseases, and sins will overwhelm us and finally kill us. No one escapes, though some evade the inevitable longer than others.

But in the moment that comes finally for every individual, family, and community, and most profoundly in that moment, we find ourselves in the company of the crucified, crying out a bitter song that seems the Spirit's only gift at the time, "My God, my God, why ...?" Then we die. Like Jesus and also with Jesus we die without vindication, at least none that we witness, our ears having lost the capacity to hear the startled centurion's words. Our loved ones don't find us or see us when they visit our tombs, though they hear the white-clad speaker say, "Looking for the crucified one? Don't look here, but make your way to Galilee...."

Neither Mark's story nor the theology of the cross seems like good news to everyone, not even to many Christians. Neither offers a practical program for ridding the world of hunger, disease, or oppression, the things we demand that our messiahs do for us or else authorize us to do in their name. Theology of the cross, with its call to finding life only through losing it, doesn't sit well with the wealthy, oppressors, or justice-drunk theologians of prosperity and liberation. Perhaps Mark anticipated rejection such as this in the story of Jesus drawing criticism for finding his place among the wrong people (2:15-17). "Why does this man eat with tax collectors and sinners?" the righteous folks asked. When their question reached Jesus, he allowed as how he had nothing to offer the healthy and whole. Only the sick and dying have any need of what he has to offer. What he offers, of course, is the chance to come die with him.

Many Christian communions spend every third year in the company of Mark. Perhaps that's too much, even with plenty of John as a help through certain parts of the year. Maybe we should reserve Mark until we have need of a physician, and a hospice physician in particular. Then again, the baptized have good reasons to learn how to die, over and over and over. Daily, we learn through such dying, the heavens are rent, and there hangs the Holy One--the ruler, messiah, and beloved, here with all us bandits crucified on every side.

Frederick Niedner

Valparaiso University

1. In John, Jesus' crucifixion occurs at noon on the Day of Preparation for Passover, not on Passover itself as in the synoptic gospels. At that same time the priests in Jerusalem slaughtered the lambs for use in that year's Passover observances after checking them for broken bones and seeing that their blood flowed freely.

2. When the two men refer to Jesus as [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ("this Jesus who was taken up from you into heaven"), their words connect what the disciples have just seen with the sequence that began back in Luke 9:51 with the note '[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ("When the days drew near for him to be taken up ...").

3. So David Rhoads and Donald Michie, Mark as Story (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1982), 113-14. Many discuss the possibility that a redemptive view of a martyr's death derives from martyrdom texts such as 4 Macc 6:29; 17:22; and 2 Macc 7:37ff. Cf. D. E. Nineham, Saint Mark (Baltimore: Penguin, 1963), 281, and Susan R. Garrett, The Temptations of Jesus in Mark's Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 110-14.

4. Garrett, in The Temptations of Jesus, proposes that a full-blown soteriology lies implicit in Mark 10:45 when coupled with the cup-word of Mark's Last Supper scene (14:24). She argues that these verses employ a view of priestly atonement developed also in the Letter to the Hebrews (8:1-13). Nothing else in Mark, however, leads the reader toward a priestly interpretation of Jesus' behaviors or fate, nor do these references play a major role in Garrett's understanding of how Jesus' death "saves."

5. Garrett's understanding of Mark's soteriology (see notes 3 and 4) includes elements of sacrifice and atonement (cf. pp. 174-77), but her reading of Mark casts Jesus primarily as the one who perfects and demonstrates how to withstand and resist temptations that would derail followers from remaining on the cross-bearing way. Although Mark I. Wegener, Cruciformed: The Literary Impact of Mark's Story of Jesus and His Disciples (New York: University Press of America, 1995), 190-99, focuses more on what Mark's narrative seeks to accomplish in its readers than how it understood the effects of Jesus' life and death, his treatment belongs to some extent in this category.

6. E.g., Werner Kelber, The Passion in Mark (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976), 160-62.

7. Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Marks' Story of Jesus (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1988).

8. Commentaries discuss at length whether the reader is to picture the inner or outer curtain of the temple as the one torn and whether Mark meant to declare the temple obsolete and replaced by Jesus. Among the most promising possibilities concerning the curtain comes from the writings of Josephus, who describes the outer curtain of the temple as a massive blue tapestry covered with gold depictions of the Sun and several constellations of stars.

9. "Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit?" (14:48)

10. Holy Things (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 27-31.
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Title Annotation:religious studies
Author:Niedner, Frederick
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Date:Dec 1, 2005
Previous Article:Preaching the mysteries of the reign of God.
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