“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).
“And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased'” (1:10-11).
Today was supposed to be the first day of class, but the snow stopped everything, so here I am at home, as read up as I can be, with a golden opportunity: Read through the book of Mark. A couple years ago, I was asked to do this for a class at Gordon Conwell, and I was surprised to find how gripping the story can be when you sit down to take it in in one go, rather than reading an excerpt here or there. It’s a “quick read.” Personally, I prefer to read it out loud, but you could really go either way. It takes about the same amount of time as a movie, and it’s a great way to spend a while encountering Jesus Christ.
What really struck me this time was the phrases Mark repeats to hold the arc of the book together, starting with the opening line (above), which comes back in a powerful way on the last page. The repeated lines in the first half emphasize the question that was on everyone’s mind: Who is this “Jesus of Nazareth”? We’ve heard what Mark says God says, but it’s thrilling to watch the people around Jesus unravel this mystery, test this hypothesis.
“And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, ‘What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him’” (1:27).
“And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’” (4:41).
“King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some said, ‘John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. That is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.’ But others said, ‘He is Elijah.” And others said, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old’” (6:14-15).
“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'” (8:27-29).
As the second act begins, the disciples and readers are faced with the question, If Jesus is the Christ, what does that mean? Jesus himself forces the issue, repeating himself and repeating himself again:
“And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:30).
(Echoing his baptism, God reaffirms Jesus’ sonship: “And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, ‘This is my beloved Son; listen to him'” [9:7]).
“he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.’ But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him” (9:31-32).
“And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise’” (10:32-34).
More over, Jesus knows exactly what his disciples will do when he is seized:
“And Jesus said to them, ‘You will all fall away, for it is written, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.” But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee’” (14:27).
This death and resurrection, no one seems to get it. No one can quite wrap their minds around what Jesus is saying: That he is the Christ, that the Christ must suffer, and die…and rise again? They don’t understand, and they don’t react well. In fact, the first person to simply say what God has said is one of the soldiers who overseas his death:
“And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’” (15:39).
Of course, Mark wrote the book for a reason. He tells the story to leave us with questions. Do you believe that Jesus is God’s Son, as God says? Can you accept that to be the Christ is to both die for the people and to rise from the dead? This one whom everyone left in the garden, will you close the book and leave him, or rise up and follow?
“‘Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’ And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (16:6-7).