Recently I had occasion to look a little at Mark’s gospel. This post and the following have arisen from so doing.
For me, a constant marvel and one more evidence of inspiration is the subtlety of the gospel record. The gospels, of course, can be read by a newcomer and their main message is clear to all. Mark, for example, from the outset makes plain he writes to give ‘the good news about Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God’ (Mk 1:1).
Isaiah, whom Mark regularly cites, envisaged a day when Israel’s exile (a judgement) would be over , the people would return to the land, and God himself would return to, Zion. In one sense, the nation had returned to the land, however the people were still sinful (Isa 59:9-15; 63:15-64:12) and so as yet God, in Messiah, had not returned to Zion. Malachi, however, prophesied that God would send his messenger to purify the heart of at least some of the people before he, in person, returned to Israel (Mal 3:5; 4:5). For Mark this messenger is John the Baptist (1:4-8) who precedes Jesus Christ (Messiah and Son of God in a sense not previously fully grasped for he is truly divine, the Lord coming to Zion). He (Jesus) the people must welcome and accept – believe – if they are to enter the kingdom; if they do not then God’s visit in salvation will result instead in judgement when the Lord comes ‘suddenly to his temple’ (Mal 3:1; Mk 13).
Mark proceeds in the eight chapters that follow to demonstrate that Jesus is Messiah, the Son of God’ in whom, and through whom, the long anticipated Kingdom of God arrived. He, Mark will reveal, is literally the Lord coming to his people (Isa 40:1-5). Jesus speaks and acts with messianic authority for he is ‘Son of God’ in a way not previously grasped. He performs miracles that only Messiah, Son of God, inaugurating God’s kingdom could conceivably do (Isa 61:1,2). The sick are healed, the blind see, the lame walk, demons are cast out, and the dead raised; all God’s promised messianic blessings are present in Jesus (Lk 4:18,19). Further he controls nature as God did (Mk 4, 6; Ex 16). He feeds the people miraculously in the desert as God did. He forgives sins – the prerogative of God alone (Mk 2). Messiah is clearly Son of God in an extraordinary sense; he does things that only God is known to do – his sonship is not merely functional (as with Israel’s previous Davidic Kings) but essential or actual; he really is divine (cf. Mk 12:35-37).
He not only acts with extraordinary authority (11:28; 2:10; 3:15) he speaks with authority too, an authority that those who hear recognise; penetrating insight, palpable spiritual wisdom, and divine anointing clothe his teaching (Isa 61:1,2; Mk 1:22,27). Thus all the messianic credentials were placarded for eyes open to seeing and minds willing to understand (Mk 8:27). Only wilful blindness, hardened hearts and deceiving influences explain a refusal to see (Mk 4, 7:6,7). Such unbelief forfeits any right to the kingdom for it was designed for those ‘with ears ready to hear’ (Mk 4:9), those with childlike unpretentious trust (10:15). It is to them the secrets of the kingdom are given (4:11); the others ‘outside’ are confirmed in their unbelief (4:25). Interestingly, paradoxically, and unthinkably for Israel, often those who believe will be Gentiles (Mk 7:24-31; 15:39 cf. Lk 7:1-10) while many Jews will reject and be rejected (12:9).
Although all who wish may hear him and witness his miracles yet he avoids any hint of sensationalism. His intention in what he says and does is not to attract nationalists looking for a leader inspiring enough to ferment an uprising and overthrow the occupying Romans, nor those who enjoy a spectacle, nor the merely curious, nor any with other superficial agendas. His intention is simply to draw to himself those with (opened) eyes and ears to see that he is the fulfilment of OT promise and to deepen faith in him. Thus it is, that at the end of chapter 8 when the question of who he really is arises, his concern is not primarly who others may think he is as who his disciples believe him to be (Mk 8:27). Peter answers for the others when he says ‘You are the Messiah (8:27). God had revealed to them through living with Jesus, hearing his teaching, and observing his miracles that Jesus was the long expected Messiah, the Son of God, for if he was Messiah he must be the Son of God. Both titles are inextricably linked; to be God’s anointed King was to be God’s son (cf. Matt 16).
Yet, although Peter (and the others) recognised him to be Messiah, they did not fully grasp what being Messiah really involved and implied. They saw truly but only dimly. Here one of Mark’s delightful narratival subtleties surfaces. The discussion as to Jesus’ identity is immediately preceded by the rather curious miracle of the healing of a blind man (8:22-25). The healing of a blind man is not unusual for Jesus what is unusual is that he was not healed immediately but in stages. Normally such hearings were instantaneous and complete. Given that such a miracle may seem to diminish Jesus’ power (and so messianic credentials) why does Mark include it?
He includes it because it illustrates (designedly so) the ‘seeing’ of the disciples. They now see partially. They recognise that Jesus is indeed Messiah and in him the promised kingdom has arrived. To this extent their eyes have been opened. However, their understanding of Messiah and the kingdom is still very hazy (like men as trees walking). They have not yet grasped that Messiah must suffer and die (Isa 53) and that all who share in his kingdom must die too. To grasp this will require further divine surgery. It is this that Jesus begins to perform at the end of Mark 8 (8:31-38). He announces his death (8:31-33) and theirs (8:34-38). However, his announcement is met with dismay and incomprehension. Peter resists all thoughts of Jesus dying and a few verses into ch 9 the others are discussing who will be greatest in the kingdom (no notion of self-denial here). The true nature of Messiah and of the kingdom has not yet penetrated despite Jesus’ words. In the following half of Mark’s gospel these new realities will be increasingly pressed upon them. Three times Jesus tells them he is about to suffer and die and on each occasion their response reveals they do not (will not) grasp what he says (Mk 8:31-33 ; 9:30-37; 10:32-45) It is not until post-resurrection days including Pentecost that the second stage of divine eye surgery is fully realised. Only then their vision is as it ought to be and their hearts concerns aligned with God’s. Then they understand why Messiah must suffer and die before entering his glory (1 Pet 1:11; 4:12,13; 5:1). Then they see the true nature of the kingdom Christ had come to establish, one that, initially is suffering not glory and weakness not power.
From ch 9 these new realities are graciously but firmly pressed upon them but in wisdom and grace God prepares three key disciples (Peter, James and John) for this unexpected (and unwelcome) initial kingdom suffering by giving them a preview of ultimate kingdom glory. But this is a subsequent post.