Why would Mark write a gospel?

I can understand why Paul would write his epistles. There were churches out there needing his instruction and encouragement, his insight and correction. So, of course, it makes sense that he would write letters to these churches and pass on his teachings. “To the church at Corinth …” “To God’s holy people in Colossae …”

I can even understand why John would write the Revelation. He had experienced this moving, panoramic vision of heaven and earth, the battle between good and evil, the past and the future … and he wanted to share the experience with people he loved … people who would be encouraged by his vision … the church scattered around Asia Minor.

But why would you write a gospel? Biographies were not common in the first-century world—much less biographies about carpenters-turned-preachers from the backwaters of the Empire! Why write a book to recount what Jesus said and did, especially (as was probably the case with Mark) you were not an eye-witness to many of the events you wrote about? Why remember Jesus rather than teach practical lessons about being the church or pass on edifying visions of the heavenly realms?

According to tradition, the Gospel of Mark reflects the sermons of Peter—the stories Peter told when he gathered Christians together and offered them words of faith. If that is true—Mark reproduces apostolic sermons—then Peter’s preaching wasn’t a matter of dusty lectures or dry doctrinal lists or collections of three-points-and-a-poem. Peter’s sermons involved telling stories, remembering what Jesus said and did, reflecting on what people thought about Jesus and how they reacted to him. Peter’s sermons helped people understand who Jesus really was.

Peter would sit down with a group of disciples, cock his head to the side, and out would come some recollection of Jesus healing or teaching or confronting the Pharisees. “I remember one day” he would tell them, “when Jesus came to my house. My mother-in-law was sick. She had a fever that burned her up and laid her out…” Or he would recall a parable Jesus told … or confess a time when he himself had said something foolish, something shameful.

And the people in his audience—who had never met Jesus or seen him in the flesh—would hang on his every word. They would listen to these stories with the fervor of starving men staring at platters of food. They would be ravenous for the stories. They would devoured the stories.

If the traditions are correct, you can almost see John Mark on the back row of Peter’s audiences—seated against the wall with a quill in his hand and a scroll on his lap, scribbling for all he was worth as the stories poured out of the old Apostle. Capturing every tale. Noting the “who, what, where, when, why” about each incident Peter described. Capturing with ink on papyrus the ephemeral words that Peter’s failing voice launched into thin air. For Mark knew that Peter’s testimony would not long survive Peter’s body unless words for the ear could be converted to words for the eye.

Those scribblings, those captured stories and sayings, eventually became the gospel we know as “Mark’s good news.” An Apostolic memoir that turned a world upside down. The ABC’s of Christianity. The foundational narrative on which our faith is built.

Jesus the Messiah

Mark captured Peter’s stories because he wanted us to know about Jesus. What he said. What he did. Whom he met. Where he went.

But not just because Jesus was a larger-than-life personality (though he was certainly that). And not just because Jesus said and did interesting things (though “interesting” is an understatement where Jesus of Nazareth is concerned). Mark repeated Peter’s stories because—like Peter—Mark came to believe that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, the Holy One of God.

For that reason, Mark starts his gospel with this ringing affirmation:

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God… (1:1)

From the very opening of his story, Mark wants us to know who Jesus is, that he is the Christ, the Promised One, the Savior of Israel, the long-foretold Deliverer of God’s people. For his original audience, for the people of his day, the identity of Jesus was essential. Jesus as story-teller was good. Jesus as miracle worker was better. But Jesus as Messiah was best of all.

For hundreds of years, the Jewish people had endured invasion, humiliation, enslavement, and ruinous taxation. They had been second-class citizens in their own country. They were required to bow and scrape, kneel and grovel before one foreign invader after another. Babylonian. Assyrian. Macedonian. Egyptian. Syrian. Roman. Different empire … same song. Different tyrant … same tyranny.

So, for hundreds of years, the Jewish people had anticipated a time when God would notice their plight and send his Deliverer … the One who would throw off the foreign yoke, throw out the foreign armies, free his chosen people, give them back the Promised Land, and grant them peace and prosperity.

He’d done it before. When they were slaves in Egypt, God sent Moses. When the Midianites oppressed them, he commissioned Gideon. When the Philistines threatened, God called Samson. When the Babylonians carried off the Jewish people, God raised up Daniel and Ezra and Nehemiah.

But God had been silent in recent centuries. In the era just before Jesus appeared on the scene, there had been a plethora of enemies but a paucity of Saviors. One invader after another raped Israel, plundered Israel, enslaved Israel, ruled Israel. And the people of Israel had prayed to God for another Moses, another judge, another king, another Deliverer. “Save us!” they cried to God. “Send us your Messiah. Bless us with the Chosen One, the Anointed One, the Christos!”

Though Israel prayed long and hard, those were famine years, lean years—decades of want and surrounded by centuries of need.

Jewish historians recorded that dozens of individuals came to Israel during these years of drought claiming to be the Messiah. They offered hope, only to deliver disappointment and disillusionment. They made promises, but kept them with ashes and dust. They roused the rabble and gathered armies in the desert but to little effect.

Jesus of Nazareth was one of those who came to Israel claiming to be the Messiah. But Mark wants us to understand that Jesus was not like the messianic pretenders who preceded him. He was not a false Christ making empty promises.

Mark presents Jesus as a powerful, competent, wise, miraculous figure who was able to heal and cast out demons, calm storms and multiply loaves, amaze the crowds with his teachings and confound the Pharisees with his logic. Mark presents Jesus as a larger-than-life, bigger-than-normal figure, whom everyone was watching … everyone was evaluating … everyone was measuring against the Messianic standard.

Mark’s Jesus was a man who could draw large crowds, a popular persona who might be dangerous had he used his popularity to whip up a following. He was a man of supernatural power who could have used his power to create a fanatic entourage. He was a man of such captivating words, he could have used his speeches to mold an army from the crowds that gathered around him.

All of this set Jesus apart. He was a man to be reckoned with. A man with a crowd at his beck-and-call. A man with spiritual power at his fingertips. The crowds knew it. The Pharisees knew it. Even the demons knew it.

The Messianic Secret

The Jesus of Mark’s Gospel has spiritual power dripping from his words and fingers. He has “Messiah” written all over him. And, so, it isn’t surprising that the first verse of his story proclaims Jesus as the Christ (Mk 1:1).

Mark next marshals the prophets as witnesses to the identity of Jesus, quoting from deeply messianic passages that were well-known and well-loved by the Jewish people of his day:

“Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.” (Isa 40:3)

He then offers John the Baptist’s testimony to Jesus:

“After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mk 1:7-8)

Finally, he tells the story of Jesus’ baptism and the endorsement of God himself:

“You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Mk 1: 11)

Mark knows who Jesus is and proclaims it in unambiguous terms in the opening paragraphs of his Gospel. But then, only a few sentences into his story, Mark falls strangely silent on this matter and his witness to Jesus as ‘Messiah’ evaporates.

There was a problem with the statement “Jesus is the Christ.” Not a problem of fact or truth. A problem of perception. “Christ” did not mean what the people around Jesus thought it meant. The “Messiah” was not the romantic, warrior-priest figure the Jews had constructed in their imaginations. Jesus was the Christ, but not the kind of Christ the people of his day were anticipating.

And so, for the rest of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus works overtime to keep his identity a secret. He tries to keep his healing powers secret. He forbids cured people to tell others what he has done for them. He raises the dead and won’t let the witnesses speak of it. He takes people aside, away from on-lookers, before he touches them and relieves their suffering. He avoids crowds. He frequents lonely places. He hides in homes.

Jesus is the Messiah, but he’s keeping that truth quiet. He doesn’t want anyone to know.

He won’t let the demons—who know exactly who he is—speak of his identity. Every time you turn around in this Gospel, Jesus is confronting demonic forces. And all of them know him. They recognize him. They shout out: “You’re the Messiah. You’re the Holy One of God. We know who you are, Jesus of Nazareth!” But Jesus forbids them to testify. He silences them.

He does not want anyone to know.

Eventually, the disciples (his most intimate companions) tumble to who Jesus is. They realize the man with whom they walk dusty roads, the man with whom they break bread, is the Christ—the Holy One of God. But Jesus won’t even let them bear testimony. When Peter finally “gets it,” the first thing Jesus tells him is not “Congratulations!” or “Finally!” but “Keep quiet! Don’t tell anyone!” (Mk 8:30)

He does not want anyone to know.

What Kind of Messiah is Jesus?

So, yes, Jesus is the Messiah in Mark’s Gospel. But there is something secretive, something hidden, about him in this story.

Why would Jesus try to keep his identity a secret? Was he being modest? Was it not his time? Did he hope to avoid controversy and, thus, prolong his life? Why he would come on a mission to be the Messiah but work so hard to keep out of the spotlight?

Jesus is not “reluctant” and “secretive” in Mark because of fear or modesty or any lack of confidence in himself. Jesus is secretive because “Messiah” meant different things to him than to his disciples and the other characters of this gospel.

“Messiah”—to them—meant a conqueror, a rescuer, a victorious figure wrapped in a purple robe and crowned with a golden wreath. “Messiah” meant a worker of military miracles, a rebel-leader, a general who stood against the Romans and defied their mighty armies. “Messiah” meant the Deliverer who would defeat the foreigners and cast them into the sea and give the Promised Land back to the Promised People. “Messiah”—to the people of Jesus’ day—was about thrones and worldly power and Empire and politics and nationalistic hopes.

Jesus was the Messiah. But he wasn’t that kind of Messiah.

The reason Jesus tried to keep his identity a secret, the reason he didn’t want others talking about him, the reason he refused to let the demons or even his own disciples to speak of him in messianic terms is that he didn’t want other people—or other agendas—to run off with his ministry.

Jesus was the Messiah. But he was a Messiah with a particular mission. And that mission wasn’t to conquer the Romans or to run off foreign armies or to defend a political agenda. He wasn’t concerned about economic theories or democratic forms of government or social revolution.

This was his mission: to preach the reign of God … to call sinners to repentance … to serve and lay down his life … to do the will of the Father … to pursue purposes of the kingdom.

That is the huge—almost insurmountable—obstacle to the statement “Jesus is the Christ.” It’s why—after the opening sentences of Mark’s Gospel—the statement disappears from the story. The true meaning of “Christ” subverts popular understandings of who Jesus actually is. He is an upside-down Messiah. He is a ruler who serves … a Deliverer who dies … and a rescuer who gives himself so others might live.

The real secret of Mark is not that Jesus is the Messiah, but what it means to be the Messiah. To be the Christ means to lay down your life. Such a definition has real and radical impact on what it means to be a disciple of the Messiah. Discipleship isn’t about having an inside track on God’s blessings or sitting in prominent positions or having all the right answers to all the spiritual questions. The upside-down Messiah of Mark needs upside-down followers who will take up crosses of their own, serve rather than be served, lose themselves rather than win, die rather than kill.

There is no way Jesus’ disciples could grasp this kind of Messiah until the events of Passover and Golgatha. There is no way they could understand “Messiah” until they had stood at the foot of the cross and been to visit the empty tomb and seen Jesus—alive again—in the upper room. This was a “Messiah” too shocking, too contrary to expectation, for them to have ever recognized. This was a “Messiah” who had come to rescue Israel from something bigger than Rome … larger than taxes … greater than politics.

This was not the kind of Messiah Jesus’ contemporaries were looking for. This was not the kind of Messiah they welcomed. They wanted Rome’s armies gone, Rome’s boot off their necks, Rome’s hand out of their pockets.

What Jesus offered, instead, was a more permanent triumph: salvation from evil, a victory over sin, the rescue of souls. Not the kind of Messiah the Jews really wanted. But the kind of Messiah they really needed.

How Do You Spell “Messiah”?

As it happens, we make the same mistakes with our modern understanding of “Messiah.” For many believers, “Messiah” has become synonymous with “gift-giver,” “request-granter,” “sin-forgiver,” and “wish-fulfiller.” We hear Jesus called “Christ” and think of him as some kind of personal spiritual valet—always at our call, always eager to fulfill our needs, always ready to grant us some boon. We might not ask him to kick out the Romans, but we do expect the “Messiah” to give us what we want.

The idea that “Messiah” means someone who has come to do God’s will above all, someone who is more concerned with our obedience than our comfort, someone who has a world-shaping mission that transcends our personal desires and hopes—well, that is as unappetizing a notion today as it was 2000 years ago.

It turns out that Mark’s Messiah is a Messiah we need today. Jesus is the “Christ” all right, just as Mark insists. But what kind of “Christ” is he? And what does that kind of Christ imply about those who would follow him? The real question of Mark’s story is a question we need to ask again: “Given this kind of Messiah, do we really want to follow Jesus?”

Mark intends to define a different sort of “Christ” than the one of popular imagination (whether of the first or twenty-first century variety). Can you and I put aside our preconceptions of “Messiah” and “Savior” long enough to let Jesus—through Mark—describe what kind of Messiah and Savior he is? Can we let him then define what kinds of followers such a Messiah is looking for?

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