In the run up to Easter this year we produced special copies of Mark’s Gospel with the testimonies of people in our church. The idea was to encourage the congregation to invite their friends to read the Gospel with them. I wrote a section entitled ‘What To Look Out For’ to help orient readers to the Gospel.
Early on in Mark’s Gospel people ask ‘Who is this?’ (4:41) That’s the big question in Mark’s Gospel: Who is Jesus and what has he come to do?
The King who must die
Mark’s Gospel begins: ‘The beginning of the gospel about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.’ Mark makes two claims for Jesus. He says Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God. The Messiah or Christ means ‘the anointed One’. The kings of Israel were anointed with oil. So ‘the anointed One’ is God’s promised King. Messiah or Christ is not a surname, but a job description.
The first half of Mark’s Gospel is full of evidence that Jesus is the Messiah. Look out for descriptions of his authority. This comes to a climax at the end of chapter 8 when his followers finally declare: ‘You are the Messiah’ (8:29).
As soon as this happens, Jesus says he must die. This is not what the Jews expected God’s Messiah would do! They expected him to defeat the Romans and restore the nation of Israel. So the second half of Mark’s Gospel is about how Jesus must die and what it means to follow him. It comes to a climax when a Roman soldier declares Jesus to be the Son of God – the second half of Mark’s opening description of Jesus. But the soldier says this as he watches Jesus die (15:39).
So Mark’s Gospel is in two halves. Part one (chapters 1-8) show that Jesus is the Messiah, God’s promised King. Part two (chapters 9-16) show why Jesus must die.
Secrets and silences
The Jews expected God’s king and God’s kingdom to come in power and glory. In some ways Jesus fits the bill. In chapters 1-2 he appears to have great power. But in other ways he’s a disappointment. In chapters 2-3 he’s opposed and rejected. Is this the kingdom of God or not? Jesus responds in chapter 4 by telling some ‘parables’ – stories that illustrate the truth. He says that one day the kingdom of God will come in power. But first he has come in a secret way. Before God conquers the world, he first offers peace.
A number of times Jesus tells people not to talk about who he is (1:25; 3:12; 8:30; 9:9). At first sight this is a bit odd because Jesus makes preaching his priority (1:38). But Jesus does not want people proclaiming him as King until they realise he is the King who must die. So look out for references to secrets or Jesus telling people not to talk about him yet.
Sight and insight
Mark often uses physical sight or blindness as a picture of spiritual insight or blindness. The kingdom is present in a secret way so not everyone sees it (4:11-12). He says to his followers: ‘Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?’ (8:18) He heals people who are physically blind to show how he gives insight to people who are spiritually blind (8:17-29; 10:35-52). So look out for references to seeing and blindness.
Fear and faith
Mark often presents two alternative responses to Jesus: fear and faith. At one point, for example, Jesus says: ‘Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?’ (Mark 4:40) If you turn to the end of Mark’s Gospel you’ll notice that there an extra section that was probably not part of Mark’s original version. It seems people found Mark’s ending a bit abrupt so they decided to ‘finish’ it off by adding some more. But Mark’s ending perfectly concludes this theme of fear and faith. He finishes: ‘Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.’ (16:8) At the end we and the women are left with a choice between fear and faith.
Who is this?
Above all look at Jesus. As we’ve said, the big question in Mark’s Gospel: Who is Jesus and what has he come to do? As you read each section, we invite you to ask yourself:
- Who is Jesus?
- What has Jesus come to do?
- How do people respond to him?
- How do I respond to him?