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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