15 December 2017

Who is Jesus? – part 3

In this the third of five articles, Dr Desi Alexander invites us to take a fresh look at how the four Gospels give an extraordinary portrait of Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ from four perspectives: part 3 – Mark’s Gospel

Familiarity makes us blind to the truly remarkable. Just reading these words involves a process that is indescribably complex. Yet we take this for granted.

So it is with the four Gospels. Do you appreciate how extraordinary they are? Take Mark’s Gospel. No author of fiction could have created such a unique and unexpected plot, a story consisting of two contrasting halves.

The first part highlights the incredible power of Jesus, the unique Son of God. His divine nature enables Him to do extraordinary things, from healing the sick to walking on water. Nothing seems to be impossible for Him.

In striking contrast, part two reveals how this same Jesus suffers and dies at the hands of Roman soldiers, the victim of a conspiracy by Jewish religious leaders. The only display of power is that of cruel tyranny. Yet, in a final twist, Jesus is raised to life again. Who would have imagined such a bizarre storyline?

As the shortest of the four Gospels, Mark’s account is widely believed to have been written first. Named after its author, it possibly draws on the recollections of Peter, one of Jesus’ closest companions.

Whereas Matthew’s Gospel stresses the idea that Jesus is the son of David, Mark wants to emphasise more than anything else that Jesus is the Son of God. This designation is exceptionally important for Mark. As far as Mark is concerned, there can be no doubt about the identity of Jesus. In his opening sentence, he states unambiguously that Jesus is God’s son.

Throughout his account of Jesus’ adult life Mark repeatedly draws attention to the unique father-son relationship between God and Jesus. We encounter this in the opening paragraphs when Mark describes briefly the baptism of Jesus. Remarkably, God announces publicly to Jesus, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11).

Mark later records another instance when, on a hilltop surrounded by cloud, God declares of Jesus, “This is my beloved Son; listen to Him.” (9:7). For Mark there can be no higher authority than God. If God states that Jesus is his son, this testimony must be true.

Most surprisingly, perhaps, God’s testimony is supported by the comments of unclean or evil spirits. When Jesus visits a synagogue in the village of Capernaum near the Lake of Galilee, a man possessed by an unclean spirit cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God.” (1:24).

Sometime later, in a different area of Galilee, Jesus encounters another man possessed by an unclean spirit. When the man sees Jesus, he shouts out, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me.” (5:7).

Mark uses these examples to show that even those who stand in opposition to Jesus identify Him as God’s son.

By way of underlining further Jesus’ divine nature, Mark records how Jesus has supernatural powers.

Not only can He heal those who are sick or disabled in some way, but He can even bring the dead to life (5:21-43). Jesus even places himself on a par with God by forgiving sins (2:5-7).

Mark describes how Jesus has the power to feed thousands with a few scraps of food (6:30-44; 8:1-10), and He can also control the forces of nature, calming a storm (4:35-41) or walking across a lake (6:45-52). For Mark, Jesus’ divine nature is revealed through the extraordinary things that He does. These are the kind of things you might expect God’s son to do.

The issue of Jesus’ divine sonship also arises when He is put on trial by the Jewish religious leaders. They charge Him with blasphemy, for they perceive Him as falsely claiming to be divine. For this reason the high priest asks, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” (14:61).

Even at His crucifixion, when Jesus appears utterly powerless, Mark records how a Gentile centurion describes him as God’s son, “And when the centurion, who stood facing Him, saw that in this way He breathed His last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”’ (15:39).

Mark’s emphasis on Jesus being the Son of God explains his special interest in the hostility of demonic powers towards Jesus. Mark pays more attention to this than the other Gospel writers. He highlights frequently how the Son of God comes into conflict with Satan and those who are associated with him.

Mark introduces the struggle with Satan immediately after Jesus’ baptism (1:13). While Mark does not go into detail about this, he observes how Satan comes to test or tempt Jesus. Elsewhere, Jesus drives out evil spirits that have a hold over certain people.

Remarkably, Mark observes that satanic opposition surfaces when Peter abruptly dismisses Jesus’ prediction that He will suffer and die. Jesus rebukes Peter, saying, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”’ (8:33).

The conflict with Satan also involves the hostility between Jesus and the Jewish leaders. Ironically, in Mark 3:22 they accuse Jesus of being possessed by Beelzebul, that is Satan. In the context of refuting this unfounded claim, Jesus alludes to the fact that He has come in order to bind Satan (3:27).

As Mark’s account develops, it becomes evident that the actions of the Jewish religious leaders align them with Satan. Like Satan, they come to ‘test’ Jesus (8:11; 10:2).

Eventually, threatened by Jesus’ integrity, they maliciously plot His death.

Mark’s whole account revolves around a striking irony. In spite of being the all-powerful Son of God, Jesus permits His opponents to execute Him. Yet, although the cross appears to be a victory for the powers of evil, in reality it is the means by which evil is defeated.

Through the giving of His life as a ransom, Jesus brings life to others (10:45)

While Mark is very clear in affirming Jesus’ identity as the Son of God, he reveals that those who encounter Jesus are often defective in their understanding of Him. Everyone seems slow to grasp who Jesus truly is.

Strangely, perhaps, Jesus avoids using the expression ‘Son of God’ of Himself. Mark is very consistent in noting that Jesus always refers to Himself as ‘the Son of Man’.

Why is Jesus reluctant to state His true identity? The reason is probably to be found in the fact that He views His crucifixion as the key event for understanding who He is. Everything else that Jesus does prior to His death gives an incomplete picture. Any attempt to understand Jesus without taking the cross into consideration is defective. Only at the cross can we grasp the true significance of His coming.

Mark encourages his readers to reflect carefully on who Jesus is. Various questions in the Gospel highlight this interest in the identity of Jesus.

“Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?” (4:41) “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by His hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” (6:2-3)

Mark challenges his readers to discover Jesus’ true identity. To this end, he sets the miracle-working power of Jesus in the first half of the Gospel (1:16-8:26) alongside His suffering and death in the second half (8:27-16:8). By placing these contrasting pictures of Jesus side-by-side, Mark wants to affirm that Jesus is the Son of God who dies to ransom others from the power of evil and death.

Very deliberately, Mark concentrates much of his story on the cross. It is at the heart of understanding who Jesus is. But the cross is also important for another reason.

Mark writes to persuade his readers to become followers of Jesus. Like the Galilean fishermen, Mark wants others to become disciples of Jesus. For Mark, discipleship is about taking up the cross. With good reason he quotes Jesus as saying, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” (8:34-36).

Mark’s account of the life of Jesus is utterly amazing. When you read it, you are left with a choice to make. Is his portrait of Jesus so incredible that I should dismiss it as fantasy, or so incredible that it demands my full commitment to the Son of God who died for me?

Dr Alexander has recently written a short introduction to the Four Gospels, entitled Discovering Jesus: Four Gospels, One Person (IVP, 2010).

Desi Alexander