When it comes to preaching the Gospel of Mark, the preacher faces many the same challenges that a film director might face when confronted with putting together an action feature. Most of us like lots of action, but at the end of the day, it has to add up to something. So too with Mark. Among the four gospels, it is clearly the most action-packed of all. But if we’re not careful, our homiletic journey through the second gospel may begin to warrant the introduction, “This Sunday, like last Sunday, we’re going to take a look at yet another crazy thing Jesus did.” If there’s a method to Mark’s madness, what is it? I submit we can hardly do better than to suggest three themes, three strokes to which the wise preacher may return.
(1) The first theme is movement. As early as Mark 1:1–3 we begin to see hints of a movement surface through the quotation of Isa. 40:3. According to Isaiah, God was going to redeem his people from bondage, just as in the past. When he did, it would mean the rise of a new movement. Immediately then we can expect Mark to tell a story of a newly formed people who would come out from beneath the yoke of their oppressors – all part of a New Exodus.
We are not disappointed, for this is borne out later in the story. Like Moses who extended his once-leprous hand as a sign of his calling (Exod 4:6–7), Jesus stretches out his hand but this time to the leper (1:40–45). Moses called twelve tribes to himself; Jesus calls twelve apostles to himself (3:13–19). Moses allowed the sea to collapse back on to Pharaoh’s army; Jesus does much the same with a herd of swine (5:1–20). If Moses divided the exodus generation into units while in the desert, Jesus does the same (6:20–44). But Jesus is greater than Moses. The world of first-century Judaism understood that the Lord himself walked on the water before the Israelites during the Red Sea crossing. In our text Jesus “passes before” the disciples on the water and says, “It is I!” (6:45–56). Even before Jesus self-reveals as messiah, there is plenty of indication that he is up to something akin to what Moses – indeed even the Lord God himself – did through the Exodus.
The story continues with the account of the Transfiguration (9:2–13), which, as numerous commentaries will affirm, offers up numerous connections with the issuing of the Sinaitic law. This scene can mean nothing less than Jesus’ enthronement (Joel Marcus has done some nice work here in his The Way of the Lord, pp. 87-90), even as Moses was said to be enthroned when he ascended Sinai. Not only so, but the Torah has been transposed. If the Mosaic code had been reduced to the shema (“Listen, O Israel ….” [Deut 6:4]), now Mark’s readers find a new law revealed in Christ complete with its own shema: “Listen to him!” (Mark 9:7). Apparently, with a new Exodus comes a new law, one centered on Christ himself. All this becomes crystal clear at the Last Supper, where Jesus says, “This is my blood of the (new) covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mark 14:24). If Israel had been looking back to the exodus as the moment in which God freed his people from oppression and forwards to when God would do it again, Mark says in effect, “The time has arrived in Jesus.” And if in Christ God has effected a new and decisive exodus movement, this has deep implications for how the church is to understand itself. The church is the elected community which has been physically, socially, economically, politically, and spiritually redeemed. I can hear the preacher say, “Now, friends, is the time to start living like it!”
(2) The second theme is messiah: “the gospel of Jesus Christ,” which may equally be translated as, “the gospel of Jesus the Messiah” (1:1). When John the Baptist turns up in Mark 1 in the appearance of Elijah (Mark 1:6; cf. 2 Kings 1:8), we can start drawing connections with the messianic forerunner right away (cf. Mal 3:1). Yet this proves problematic in its own way – at least by our expectations. If the disciples had thought that John was the promised Elijah-come-back, they would have banished that thought from their minds following John’s demise (6:14–29). Surely, the messiah’s forerunner would not have been subjected to such a humiliating end. Still Jesus asserts, “Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written about him” (9:13). Imagine the disciples’ puzzlement in the case of John; imagine too Peter’s even more profound cognitive dissonance on hearing that the messiah would have to suffer and die (8:31–32). Jesus’ notion of messiahship was completely backwards!
But that is of course the crucial point. One might say that in the first half of Mark, Jesus wants to show himself as a messiah, and in the second half, he wants reveal himself as a special messiah: an upside-down messiah, at least by the world’s standards. Whereas Israel expected her messiah to be received in triumph, this messiah is mocked (5:40, 15:31). If Israel’s expected messiah was to be heralded for overturning foreign oppression, this messiah is best understood by the same foreigners (7:24–30). Is it any wonder that it takes a full eight chapters for the disciples to conclude that Jesus is the Christ?
Again, in latter half of the gospel, Jesus dedicates himself to clarifying the nature of his messianic calling (e.g. 10:45). Moving towards the climax, Jesus enters Jerusalem one last time in order to reveal himself as the enthroned messiah. Jesus has already claimed messianic status for himself as the “Son of Man” (2:10, 28; 8:31, 38, etc.), but now in cleansing the temple (11:12–19), and thereby claiming authority over it, he is making the point all too clear. He is indeed “stone the builders rejected … the cornerstone” (12:10); that is, in a word play on the Hebrew words, he is both the Son of God and the fundament of the temple. Think about who recognizes Jesus as messiah: Blind Bartimaeus who sits “along the way” (10:47), the nameless woman who anoints Jesus at Bethany (14:1–9), and a Roman centurion (15:39). Elsewhere Roman soldiers would call out to him as “King of the Jews!” (15:16–32). The irony can hardly be lost on us. Jesus’ opponents speak far more truth than they know. On the surface, it appears that Jesus never realizes his enthronement. But on closer inspection we find that, on the contrary, he indeed does accede to his throne. Only it is again an altogether unlikely throne: a Roman cross. Precisely in their attempt to disprove Jesus’ messianic claim, ultimately by putting him on the cross, they establish it. In a world preoccupied with acquiring power, Jesus Christ crucified comes as a powerful rebuke.
(3) The third stroke is mission. I don’t know what you think about when I use the term, but “mission” is simply what God intends to do through his church. For Mark, ecclesiology is missiology: to be the church is to be on mission. This is also intoned from the beginning verses: “‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’” (1:3). Astute readers of the second gospel will keep an eye out for this word “way” (hodos); it comes up frequently (2:23; 4:4, 15; 6:8; 8:3, 27; 9:33, 34; 10:17, 32, 46, 52, etc.). The “way” is not just the path of Jesus; it is also the path upon which we must travel if we hope to follow. His way must be our way. That is the cost of discipleship. That is our mission.
The disciples are rather slow to take this in. Perhaps dullness can be attributed to their inappropriate attitude. Like most any Jews of the day, they were looking for a plan involving a political coup within Israel (10:37, 13:1). Instead, they were introduced to a kingdom of God which involved an extension of God’s activity to those beyond the borders of Israel. This receives very strong hints on our following Jesus’ geographical movements back and forth across the Sea of Galilee, where the eastern side represents Gentile territory. While those near-to-home were typically unresponsive (3:31–35; 6:1–6), Gentiles responded well (3:8; 5:1–20; 7:24–30). We notice the contrast between Jesus’ compassion on the Gentiles (8:3) alongside the disciples’ indifference. I believe it is the Twelve’s distaste for the Gentile mission which accounts for their “forgetting” to take bread along with them (8:14–21). “Why bring bread,” they thought to themselves, “if Jesus is just going to continue with this nonsensical interest in the Gentiles?” The problem was that their hearts were hardened: they did not understand that their task was to shepherd a new and more broadly conceived Israel (8:17–21). They did not understand that a favorable response to the word of God was not a function of ethnicity but a function of the heart (4:1–20).
The theme of mission comes to climax in the last five chapters. When Jesus cleanses the temple, he complains bitterly that the temple was not fulfilling its calling to be a “house of prayer for all nations” (11:17; cf. Isa 56:7). In his eschatological discourse, Jesus looks ahead to the tribulations to come and how the disciples must courageously brace themselves as witnesses, until the gospel is preached “to all the nations” (13:9–11). Why? Because “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (8:35). Even when Jesus is anointed at Bethany, he predicts that this anointing will be retold “wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world” (14:9). Jesus has his eye on mission to the Gentiles from first to last.
Of course, implement this same mission would come at some serious cost. Jesus contemplated that cast and was willing to pay; the disciples were less clear. The Passion narrative finds Jesus testifying faithfully (14:62; 15:2) only to be condemned. By contrast, Peter the disciple par excellence disowns Jesus (14:66–72) in order to save his life. The choice which the evangelist sets before his readers is clear: lose your life (like Jesus) in order to gain it, or gain your life (like Jesus) in order to lose it.
Thankfully, human failure never puts a stop to God’s purposes. After Jesus expires, the temple curtain is rent asunder, which symbolizes that the Lord God of Israel was now going out to the nations (15:38). At that very point, a Gentile centurion confesses (15:39) precisely that which the gospel sought to establish from the beginning (1:1, 11): this is the Son of God. That is why the last command of the book is to go to Galilee (16:7). The “Galilee of the Gentiles” is a mission outpost and the place where Jesus’ preaching first started (1:9). God perseveres despite human shortcomings.
Sadly, the women at the tomb fail to heed (at least for the moment) (16:4–8, cf. 9:9): once again God’s chosen human agents have again failed to do their part in bringing forth the message. If the original text really does end at 16:8 (I believe it does), it is striking indeed that Mark should end on such a note of failure. But here is the kicker: it is a comforting failure. Without question, as Mark wrote to the persecuted church, he knew that they would be in a position very much like that of the disciples and the women at the tomb. Like these figures, they too would be tempted to remain silent in the face of fear. Yet the evangelist says, “If you have witnessed the empty tomb, you are not the first to be afraid but you too must go to your own ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’.” We must go where the story first began; today we must start again. It is not our failures that disqualify us, but our refusal to start again when we do fail.
Mark tells us about this new movement, this new messiah, and this new mission. This has all kinds of implications for how we live, the one we live for, and the cause for which we live. Perhaps the most important thing to remember in preaching Mark is that this gospel really is not an action movie of successive high-impact scenes. Rather it is a tapestry of many threads. If you find the main threads, you are better poised to share Mark’s beauty with others. Such beauty was meant to be not merely impressive but transforming.
Dr. Nicholas Perrin is Franklin S. Dyrness Professor of Biblical Studies at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.