Monday, April 27, 2009

The Message of Mark for Us

(With credit given to Mark Dever, whose treatment of Mark in Promises Kept: The Message of the New Testament was a guide in my preparation of this message.)

We began walking through Mark verse-by-verse in August of 2006. Somewhere in the neighborhood of one hundred messages have been preached as we have worked our way through this wonderful text. Before we put it away and move on to another book of Scripture, I thought it best to look back on the Gospel according to Mark as a whole.

Mark’s Gospel, like the other 3 Gospels, was written to introduce Jesus Christ to his readers. Though Mark was not an apostle, he is writing Peter’s account of the public life and ministry of Jesus. What a refreshing change to see Jesus as He was known by eyewitnesses, rather than seeing Him through the lens of popular scholars who seek to recast Him according to their own imaginations. Over the last few weeks, Jesus has been a leading star in programs on Discovery Channel, History Channel, National Geographic, and other networks in addition to being featured in prominent stories in the leading magazines. Yet, in all of these various accounts of Jesus, there is a common starting point: namely, that Jesus is not who you have always thought Him to be. Well, perhaps that is true. Many of our ideas about who Jesus is, what He said, and what He did are shaped more by culture than Scripture, so perhaps we have been wrong in some of our ideas about Him. The need has never been greater for us to return to the writings of those who knew Him best and discover, or rediscover, the real Jesus. This is what we have sought to do for past nearly three years as we have studied this writing.

The book opens with the words: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1). This stands like a heading over the entire book. The word “Gospel” means “Good News”, so Mark declares from the first verse that this book is about the Good News of Jesus. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark does not begin with a birth narrative, but rather jumps right into the ministry of John the Baptist. Jesus is 30 years old when Mark begins. By 1:14, He is already preaching, and by 1:16 He is calling His disciples.

The first 8 chapters of Mark chronicle the ministry of Jesus in and around Galilee. This was a time of public teaching and miracle working. Chapters 9-10 are devoted to the journey to Jerusalem as Jesus began to teach His disciples more intently on the things that were going to take place there. Chapters 11-16 take place in Jerusalem during the final week of Jesus’ life. By use of the conjunction “and”, the adverb “immediately,” and present tense verbs, Mark has sped through three years of Jesus’ teachings and deeds over the course of ten chapters. But the final six chapters slow down to a very slow and calculated pace and we walk with Jesus through the final week to the cross.

We best come to know Jesus by examining His words and His deeds. Some want to place more emphasis on the remarkable miracles of Jesus than on His teachings, but we remember his words in 1:38. After performing several miracles, it was reported to Him that “everyone is looking for You.” To this Jesus responded, “Let us go somewhere else to the towns nearby, so that I may preach there also; for that is what I came for.” Teaching and preaching was the core of His ministry, and the miracles served as powerful confirmation of God’s authority in His teaching. While Jesus taught on a wide range of subjects, most of His teaching was about one subject—namely, Himself. And a very clear emphasis in Mark’s Gospel is on who Jesus claimed to be.
Fourteen times in the Gospel According to Mark, Jesus refers to Himself as the “Son of Man.” In all He speaks of Himself 80 times in the four Gospels with this title. Interestingly, no one else ever refers to Him as the Son of Man. It is used only by Him, and only in reference to Himself. But what did Jesus mean when He used this title?
First, it was a way of just saying “I.” In parallel passages between Mark, Matthew and Luke, “Son of Man” and “I” are used interchangeably. Second, it was a way of expressing His humanity. In much of the Old Testament, the phrase “son of man” is used to distinguish between man and God. Numbers 23:19, for instance, says, “God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent.” But while acknowledging Himself to be fully human, Jesus’ use of this title does not indicate that He is merely human. He is fully human, but He is more than human. He is divine. The most frequently cited Old Testament verse in the New Testament is Psalm 110:1: “The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at My right hand until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet.’” Jesus Himself refers to this passage in teaching about Himself. It appears that Jesus had this verse in mind when He said to the Sanhedrin in 14:62 that they “see THE SON OF MAN SITTING AT THE RIGHT HAND OF POWER.” In this case, He has clearly substituted the title “Son of Man” in the place of the Old Testament word “Lord.” This is an overt claim to deity on Jesus’ part, even insisting that he will be exalted to the right hand of God the Father. So, in the 14 times that Jesus uses the title “Son of Man” in Mark, He is saying that He is fully human, yes, and fully divine. He is a man, and He is God. But this title even conveys something more.

In Mark 12:35-37, Jesus is teaching in the temple and says, “How is it that the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? David himself said in the Holy Spirit, 'THE LORD SAID TO MY LORD, "SIT AT MY RIGHT HAND, UNTIL I PUT YOUR ENEMIES BENEATH YOUR FEET."' David himself calls Him 'Lord'; so in what sense is He his son?” Not only does Jesus equate Psalm 110’s “Lord” with “Son of Man,” He also equates it with “Christ,” or in Hebrew, “Messiah.” And He was not alone. In John 12:34, the crowd says to Jesus, “We have heard from the Law that the Christ will remain forever, so how can you say, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up?’” In this verse, we see that the title “Son of Man” was understood by many to mean “Messiah” or “Christ.”

The Messiah was the one whom the people were awaiting to come from God to deliver them and establish the Kingdom of Peace and Righteousness. In fact, Jesus uses the title “Son of Man” to say exactly that. In Mark 8:38, Jesus speaks of His future coming “in glory of His Father with the holy angels.” Again in Mark 13:26, He says that people “will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.” And in Chapter 14, when Jesus was asked by the high priest if He was in fact the Messiah, Jesus responded by saying, “I am; and you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.” In all three of these statements, Jesus seems to be alluding to Daniel 7:13-14. In that passage Daniel writes of seeing one“like a Son of Man … coming, And He came up to the Ancient of Days And was presented before Him. And to Him was given dominion, Glory and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations and men of every language might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion which will not pass away; And His kingdom is one which will not be destroyed.” So, in using this title “Son of Man,” Jesus indicates that He has divine characteristics and has come forth from the Father, the Ancient of Days, with authority and dominion, and glory, to establish a Kingdom that will consist of people from every tribe and nation and tongue who serve Him. And His Kingdom will be established forever.

Jesus is not suffering from any sort of identity crisis. In His teachings in this Gospel, we can hear in His words a clear understanding of who He is. He is the Son of Man – fully human, fully divine, the Messiah who has come to establish the Kingdom of God. Now, how did He do this? What did Jesus do?

First, we have already seen that He was a teacher, but notice that Mark points out that He was not just an ordinary teacher. When He began to teach, people were amazed because, unlike their other teachers, Jesus taught with authority! This is what Mark tells us in 1:22 – “They were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” They even began to debate amongst themselves, in 1:27, “What is this? A new teaching with authority!” He even claimed unique authority to be the Lord of the Sabbath (2:28) and to forgive people of their sins (2:5). The religious authorities heard Him say this and began reasoning in 2:7, “Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming; who can forgive sins but God alone?” But Jesus demonstrated His authority to forgive the man’s sin by healing him and enabling him to walk again. He also demonstrated His supreme authority by casting out demons. So in addition to the authority of His words, in 1:27 the people also marvel that “He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey Him.”

The fact that Jesus came to teach and exercise divine authority would have been expected if He were truly the Messiah. What was surprising however, in the minds of most, was something else He came to do. Most people assumed that the Messiah would come and orchestrate a political conquest of Jerusalem. They assumed that He would be the proverbial hero on the white horse who would come and secure immediate victory. However, Jesus began to inform His followers that He had not come to do this. Rather He had come to suffer and to die. Had the people understood the full implications of the Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament, they would have known this. They would have seen Isaiah 53 as pointing to the servant of God who would come to save His people when it says, “He was despised and forsaken of men, A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief ; And like one from whom men hide their face He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well -being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him. He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, So He did not open His mouth. … (Isaiah goes on to say)…His grave was assigned with wicked men, … (and) …He had done no violence, Nor was there any deceit in His mouth. But the LORD was pleased To crush Him, putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering, … (Isaiah ultimately concludes by saying) My Servant, will justify the many, As He will bear their iniquities. … (going on to say that) He poured out Himself to death, And was numbered with the transgressors;
Yet He Himself bore the sin of many, And interceded for the transgressors.” [Isaiah 53:3-12 (NASB)]

These very words formed the basis of much of what Jesus said about His mission, and provide the background for what occurred in Jerusalem in His final days. In Chapters 8-10, Jesus was very specific with His disciples about the things that were going to take place. Up until this point, there was a note of secrecy in His mission. He had silenced the demons who acknowledged His true identity (1:25; 1:34; 3:12). He ordered several whom He had healed not to tell anyone what had happened. This was the case with a leper who is healed in 1:44; the raising of Jairus’s daughter (5:43); the healing of a deaf and mute man (7:36); and a blind man in Bethsaida (8:26). Immediately after this, Peter confessed that Jesus was the Christ, and Jesus warned the disciples to not tell anyone this (8:29-30). Why the secrecy? Because Jesus did not desire that the populace would begin to foist upon Him their own messianic expectations of immediate liberation and prosperity. He needed the time to teach His own disciples about the suffering nature of His mission.

In Mark 8:31-32, we read that Jesus “began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. And He was stating the matter plainly.” In Chapter 9, following the transfiguration, Jesus began to teach His disciples even more. They were travelling through Galilee, and Mark says in 9:30-31, “He did not want anyone to know about it. For He was teaching His disciples and telling them, ‘The Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and when He has been killed, He will rise three days later.” But still at this point, “they did not understand” and “were afraid to ask Him,” what He meant by these things. In Chapter 10, He continued to inform them about His suffering. In 10:32-34, we read, “He took the twelve aside and began to tell them what was going to happen to Him, saying, ‘Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death and will hand Him over to the Gentiles. They will mock Him and spit on Him, and scourge Him and kill Him, and three days later He will rise again.’”

So this Messiah, Christ, the Son of Man, Jesus, will establish the Kingdom of God, not by force or an exercise of political or military power, but rather by suffering. He will die for the sins of the people, as He said in Mark 10:45 – “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” He would fulfill the prophecies of suffering that Isaiah had uttered 700 years earlier. When He arrived in Jerusalem in Chapter 11, He began to arouse the ire of the religious leaders. In Chapter 14, He was betrayed by one of His own disciples, Judas Iscariot, and handed over to those who sought to put to Him to death. In Chapters 14-15, He was falsely accused and unjustly tried before the high priest and the ruling council of Jerusalem, and before Pilate, the Roman authority in Jerusalem. Then He was led out to be beaten by soldiers, who then led Him to a place called Golgotha where He was nailed to a cross and died. He was buried in a rock-hewn tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea. But His death would not be the end. He clearly told His disciples that He would rise from the dead. And He did. When some of the women who had followed Him throughout His earthly ministry came to the tomb on the third day, they found the stone had been rolled away and His body was missing. An angel in the tomb said to them, “Do not be amazed; you are looking for Jesus, who has been crucified. He has risen; He is not here; behold, here is the place where they laid Him.” (16:6). Just as He said, He was rejected by the religious authorities, handed over to them, tortured by the Gentiles, and put to death. And just as He said, He rose again the third day.

We have considered what Jesus said and what Jesus did in the Gospel of Mark. Now I want to conclude by examining how people responded to Him throughout this Gospel. First, some were confused. Surprisingly the ones who were closest to Him (His family and His disciples) were the most confused of all. When Jesus tried to teach His disciples in parables, they didn’t get it. He said to them in 4:13, after telling the parable of the soils, “Do you not understand this parable? How will you understand all the parables?” After calming the storm later in Chapter 4, He rebuked the disciples for their lack of faith, saying in 4:40, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?” And then they became even more afraid and said to each other, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?” When they saw Him walk on the water, they were afraid and thought He was a ghost. (6:49). After seeing Jesus feed a crowd of over 5,000 and walk on the water, Mark says, “They were utterly astonished, for they had not gained any insight from the incident of the loaves, but their heart was hardened.” (6:52). Time and time again, they seem to make a few steps of spiritual progress and then fall back into disbelief or lack of understanding. Sometimes they questioned Him, sometimes they even rebuked Him, and sometimes they were afraid to ask Him questions. Other times, they just completely blew it. When children were being brought to Jesus, they rebuked the parents, causing Jesus to become indignant with them (10:13-14). They say and do the wrong things at the wrong times repeatedly, ultimately all forsaking Him on the night of His betrayal.

Now, lest we think we are spiritually superior to these men, keep in mind that the idea of a crucified Savior who would rise from the dead was not something these guys grew up learning about in Sunday School. I’m not sure we could have done much better. They had their bright and shining moments, like when Peter confessed Jesus to be the Christ in 8:29. But overall, the picture we see of the disciples in Mark’s Gospel is one of a confused and slow learning group.

And then we consider briefly Jesus’ earthly family. Not much is said of them in the Gospel of Mark, but what is said is enough to convince us that they were also confused. In Chapter 3 we read about how they began to take custody of Him thinking that He had lost His senses. Having seen Him grow up as a rather ordinary person with an uneventful childhood following the miracles surrounding His birth, it was hard for them to get their minds around the fact that their son, their brother, was out teaching people that He was God in the flesh and performing miracles of healing and exorcism. They were confused, somewhat understandably.

But not everyone was confused about Jesus. Many in this Gospel had their minds mind up decidedly on one side or another about Him. The things He said and did were clear enough for people to understand the implications of His claims. And a good many of them responded negatively and became antagonistic toward Him. By Chapter 2, Jesus is already being questioned by the Scribes and Pharisees, and as early as Mark 3:6 the Pharisees were “conspiring with the Herodians against Him, as to how they destroy Him.” Ordinarily the Pharisees and Herodians would not have gotten along very well. Being staunch Jewish patriots, the Pharisees would have despised the Herodians, the supporters of Rome’s puppet government. But their mutual hatred for Jesus brought them together in a wicked plot to destroy Him.

Opposition to Jesus did not just come from organized bodies of religious and political authorities. He was kicked out of the region of the Gerasenes in Chapter 5 after healing a demoniac, and He was dishonored in His own hometown of Nazareth in Chapter 6. But once Jesus reached Jerusalem, the organized movement against Him grew stronger, now enveloping the chief priests and the Sadducees as well. Before the week was out, one of His own disciples turned against Him and handed Him over to them in a hideous act of betrayal.

But we must never forget that not all were confused and not all were antagonistic. Some believed. So convinced was one group of men, that in 2:1-5, they literally tore the roof off a house to get their paralyzed friend to Jesus. A certain woman who had been afflicted with a blood disorder for many years pressed through the crowds just to touch the hem of His garment in Chapter 5, so strong was her faith in Him. This occurred as Jesus was on His way to the home of Jairus, a synagogue official whose faith in Jesus was so strong that he beckoned Him to come to his home and heal his daughter. A Syrophoenician woman believed Jesus could rid her daughter of a demon, and she refused to be deterred by Jesus’ tests of her faith in 7:24-30. The blind beggar Bartimaeus in 10:46-52 cried out to Jesus as He passed by, believing that He could heal and save him. And then we come to the Roman centurion, the leader of the death squad who crucified Jesus, who Mark tells us was “standing right in front of Him” as He died (15:39). And seeing “the way He breathed His last, he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’”

It is perhaps surprising that those who believed in Jesus in Mark’s Gospel were not the religious people, by and large not the ones who had been steeped in religious teaching and instruction. Those people in large part rejected Him. But the people who had been outcast by the society—the Gentiles, the women, the demonic, leprous, paralyzed, blind, infirm, and poor—these were those who in great numbers believed upon Him. They were the ones who heard what He said, saw what He did, and put their faith in Him to save them.

This is Mark’s message for us. Jesus proclaimed Himself to be the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, the Son of Man, the Savior and Redeemer of humanity. He exercised divine authority in performing miracles which validated His claims. And He died on the cross in the place of sinful humanity as a ransom for us. But He rose from the dead in the ultimate act of triumph over sin, death, the devil and hell. In Mark 8:27, Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They responded that some thought Him to be “John the Baptist, and others say Elijah; and others one of the prophets.” And as we have seen some were confused about Him, vacillating from faith to unbelief, some even thought He was deranged. Many hated Him, but many also believed in Him. So the ultimate question is the one Jesus asks in Mark 8:29, “Who do you say that I am?” Well, who do you say that He is? Will you say, like Peter, that He is the Christ? Will you say, like the centurion, He is the Son of God? Will you believe upon Him be saved from sin, have abundant life in the power of His Spirit in this life, and live eternally with Him hereafter? This is the Good News that Mark set out to tell us in this book. Have you heard and believed the news? Will you go and share the news? This is Mark’s message for us, and it is our message for the world.

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