Mark’s Big Question

Today I’ve been working on an essay on Mark’s gospel. The question at the centre of Mark’s gospel is the identity of Jesus – and the gospel seems to turn on the episode often referred to as “Peter’s confession of Christ” in chapter 8:

And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am? Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.”

Jesus himself asks this question, and Peter answers that he is the Christ. Who is Jesus? Jesus is the Christ; the Messiah. But is this really the answer Mark is hoping we’ll get at? Are we supposed to applaud Peter’s statement here?

In light of what follows, and Mark’s wider narrative of the way to the cross, I’m not sure we should. Peter’s answer to the question “You are the Christ” (8:29) is true, but it’s not the whole story: before we can applaud Peter’s faith, Mark continues the same episode with a shocking exchange of mutual rebuking between Peter and Jesus, culminating in the suggestion that Peter’s denial of the divine necessity (δεῖ – “must” or, perhaps better, “it is necessary”) that the Christ will suffer means he is playing the role of Satan! Just before this, we have the account of the “botched” miracle (8:22-26), which serves as an “acted parable” of faith. Mark uses the restoration of sight as a metaphor for spiritual “seeing” things throughout his gospel. By placing this two-stage restoration of sight miracle just before Peter’s confession, perhaps we are supposed to understand that Peter’s confession and then rebuke of Christ show his eyes are only half open – that is, he only comprehends half of the truth about Jesus. Peter does not understand the necessity of Jesus’ death, and won’t finally understand until after the crucifixion.

Richard B. Hays points out in “The Moral Vision of the New Testament” that the whole “narrative strategy” of Mark “challenges the reader to… answer the question ‘Who do you say that I am?’ by acknowledging Jesus as the crucified Messiah” (p.79). This is an insight I’m becoming more and more convinced about. There’s just so much in Mark that points to the cross, and that Jesus isn’t the Christ the people are expecting, but the one they need, who must go to the cross. From the rest of the New Testament it is clear that both Jews and Gentiles had big problems with this idea – in 1Corinthians 1:23 it is a stumbling-block (σκάνδαλον) to Jews and foolishness (μωρία) to Gentiles, and an “offence” (σκάνδαλον again) in Galatians 5:11 and 1Peter 2:8. The idea that the Christ would be crucified was literally scandalous, and if you think about it – it still should be! The idea has become perhaps too familiar to us, and to our culture, if people aren’t shocked by this message.

So, if the answer to the question “Who is Jesus?” isn’t just “The Christ” but “The Crucified Christ”; “The Messiah who must suffer and die”, how do we get this across when using Mark’s gospel evangelistically? I think the Free gospel project UCCF are running at the moment touches on this scandalous theme a little – the ‘graffiti’ on the page with 8:27-30 raises the question of why Jesus has to die – but doesn’t major on it, concentrating more on affirming the divinity of Jesus. (Which is something Mark thinks is important, too, but which only intensifies the scandal that Jesus should die on a cross!) Maybe there’s room for presenting this more explicitly – because if the “real Jesus” we want people to find in Mark’s gospel is the crucified Christ then we should tell them about that – and also why Jesus died. “Free” does do a very good job of raising the “why did Jesus die” question in the comment on 10:45 and the endnotes, actually. But perhaps it tones down Mark’s emphasis on the cross, and on the corresponding need for those who want to follow Jesus to be prepared to suffer as they do so (8:34-38). If CUs are about “making disciples of Jesus Christ in the student world for the glory of God” then we don’t want to hide the nature of Christian cross-shaped living from those we reach out to. Maybe it’s possible to draw these two ideas together more that I have done previously, in evangelism using Mark’s gospel… something to try out anyway.

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