Mark tells us these stories of Jesus’ powerful and popular presence, not because he is an adoring fan or a star-struck admirer, but because Mark is a true believer. He understands that Jesus is the Messiah of God, the Holy One who has come to rescue the world. The power of Jesus to heal and dominate the forces of evil is a sign of his true identity. The power demonstrates who Jesus really is.

Jesus is popular because he is powerful. He is powerful because he is the Messiah.

For one brief, shining moment, people basked in his powerful presence. They were captivated by his personality and teaching. They marveled at his miracles and were amazed by his teaching.

Later in this Gospel, some of these same people will react to Jesus in more negative ways. Rather than basking, they will grouse. Instead of marveling, they will quibble. And, in the end, his popularity will leak away and Jesus will find himself standing before Pilate alone and utterly abandoned.

The religious leaders never connect Jesus’ power to his identity. They don’t recognize what his ability to heal and exorcise indicate about who he is. Nor do the crowds. Nor, until late in the gospel, do his own disciples.

Jesus is powerful. Jesus is popular. But he is still the “hidden” Christ.

The Missional Jesus

Perhaps this inability to recognize Jesus as Messiah was the result of sin-hardened hearts and sin-blinded eyes. Or perhaps God was keeping a cosmic secret and deliberately concealing the truth.

But much of the inability to see Jesus for his messianic-self resulted from his stubborn adherence to mission. Jesus, while popular, did not let the crowds set his agenda. He would be his own man, march to his own drum, whether the crowds liked it or not.

Mark has already given us insight (right here in the first chapter) into this aspect of Jesus’ character. Jesus came to preach, not to heal or pander to the miracle-seeking masses (1:38). He came to demand repentance, not tell the crowds what they wanted to hear (1:15). His mission was to make disciples, not keep his poll numbers high. He was driven to obey God’s call, not bend to the whims of his admirers.

Jesus knew who he was even if the crowds did not. He was the Messiah, whomever others might want him to be. When his popularity came into conflict with his mission (as it inevitably did), Jesus spurned his celebrity in order to be obedient to his God.

What lessons can we learn from a “popular” Christ?

As I’ve already suggested, Mark’s portrayal of Jesus-as-celebrity is not something most Christians are comfortable with. It’s hard for us to envision Jesus as the focus of swooning crowds. We prefer Jesus the loner, Jesus the rejected, Jesus the outsider.

But Mark remembers a different Jesus. In fact, his Gospel begins with this different Jesus. Mark’s emphasis on the Popular Christ should make us wonder why this aspect of the person and ministry of Jesus was so important to Mark … and whether it should be more important to us.

The further removed we are from the first century—the more time passes and insulates us from the person of Jesus—the more difficult it becomes for us to “stand amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene.” We lose the “immediacy” of Jesus’ impact, the power of his personality, the breathless sense of being in the presence of greatness. We lose that mixture of awe and excitement that stirs those who encounter the aura of the celebrity.

Perhaps it is good for us to recognize it is not enough to believe in Jesus … to acknowledge him … to quote his words. We (like the people of the Gospel accounts) need to “encounter” Jesus once again … seek him out and listen in rapt attention and call his name aloud … feel the flutter of excitement as we get near him … allow ourselves to gossip about him and follow his every exploit. We must recapture a sense of the living, breathing Lord who amazes us with his personality and thrills us with his presence and affects us as no other individual we know.

Ultimately, it is this kind of encounter that persuades us (like them) to leave our boats and follow after Jesus … to submit to his teaching and trust his lordship … to stand in line at his door … to hound him in the cities and the deserts … to seek him out for wisdom and healing … to journey days (or even a lifetime!) to be in his presence.

The kind of encounter I’m talking about goes beyond creedal statements and liturgies … beyond confessions and convictions. It involves an encounter rooted, rather, in the giddy, heart-pounding, light-headed, rapturous, overwhelmed, nigh-unto-fainting sense that we have just entered the presence of the greatest celebrity in history!

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