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Mark’s Gospel is Jesus's Story on Steroids! — An Excerpt from Mark Strauss's "Mark (ZECNT)" Commentary
In recent decades there has been a number of new approaches to the gospel, one of which is so-called narrative criticism. Considering how story-driven we are as a culture—and as people—this seems to be a good development within gospel studies and exegesis.
On Tuesday we explored how Mark Strauss engages the Gospel of Mark using this approach in his new Mark (ZECNT) commentary. Today we extend that exploration with an excerpt giving more insight into Mark’s story of Jesus.
Like any narrative, Mark’s also balances a number of literary devices, complete with point of view, narrators, plot points, characters, climax, setting, denouement, and everything else that makes a story sparkle.
Read Strauss’s thoughts on Mark’s story of Jesus, and why he calls it “a gospel narrative on steroids!” (15) Then add his resource to your library to help you make Jesus’ story come alive to your people.
Mark’s gospel starts off with remarkable speed and energy. The author wastes no time with lengthy stories about Jesus’ birth and childhood or genealogical lists tracing his legitimate messianic ancestry (as in Matthew and Luke). There is no exalted prologue identifying Jesus as the self-revelation of God and placing him within the scheme of salvation history (as in John). Within a few short paragraphs, Jesus is baptized by John, anointed by the Spirit, acclaimed by God as “my beloved Son,” and tempted by Satan in the wilderness, and he embarks on a ministry of preaching the kingdom of God, calling disciples, healing, and exorcism. This is a gospel narrative on steroids!
The Mighty Messiah and Son of God
The first half of this energetic story is characterized by three main themes: authority, awe, and opposition. Mark begins by identifying Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of God” (1:1), and this messianic authority is on display at every turn. Jesus’ message is the arrival of God’s eschatological reign through his own words and deeds. He calls disciples, who drop everything to follow him; he captivates his hearers with remarkable teaching; he commands demons to come out of people, and they obey. He heals the sick with a compassionate touch; he quiets a storm with a strong rebuke. The response to this is awe and wonder. The people are amazed at his authoritative teaching and his power over demons. They marvel when he heals the sick. The disciples stand in shock as he quiets the storm with a command. They wonder, “Who, then, is this, that the wind and the sea obey him!” (4:41).
Such audacious deeds attract not only acclaim but also opposition. The religious leaders of Israel are scandalized when Jesus claims to forgive sins, hangs out with sinners, and treats the revered Sabbath commands as apparently optional. They begin to plot against him, seeking a way to eliminate this upstart who challenges their influence with the people. Unable to deny his mastery over demons, they accuse him of being in league with the devil, casting out demons by Satan’s power. Jesus responds by dismissing their authority and accusing them of standing in opposition to the work of God. By rejecting his authority they are blaspheming the Spirit of God, who is at work in him. Israel’s “insiders” — the religious elite — have now become outsiders to the true people of God. In an implicit denial of their leadership, Jesus chooses and appoints twelve disciples, modeled after the twelve tribes of Israel and representing the restored people of God. His true family, the household of God in the kingdom age, is made up not of those who share physical descent from Abraham, but of those who do the will of God (3:34).
Everything Jesus says and does in the first half of the gospel confirms the author’s initial claim: Jesus is indeed the mighty Messiah and Son of God (1:1). His popularity grows and grows, and he continues to amaze all who encounter the power of God through him. In a second wave of remarkable miracles, he casts out a “legion” of demons, heals incurable disease, raises a young girl from the dead, walks on water, and twice feeds massive crowds with a few loaves of bread and fishes. Yet he is also secretive and circumspect about his identity. He repeatedly silences demons and commands those he heals not to tell anyone about it. A sense of mystery and paradox surrounds his identity. The question, “Who is this person?” hangs in the air. It is as though the narrator is saying, “Yes, he is the Messiah, but there is much more to it than this.”
This theme reaches a climax at the midpoint of the gospel. Jesus takes his disciples away for a retreat to Caesarea Philippi, north of Galilee, where he asks them a question, “Who do people
say I am?” (8:27). Their response shows a variety of popular views: John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets. But when he asks them, “Who do you say I am?” Peter responds for the rest, “You are the Messiah” (8:28 – 29). The gospel narrative has been building to this climax: Jesus’ words and deeds have confirmed the truth about his identity. He is indeed the Messiah and Son of God. Yet here the narrative takes a shocking and dramatic turn.
Instead of affirming the traditional role of the conquering and ruling Messiah, Jesus predicts that he will be rejected by the religious leaders, arrested, and crucified, and that three days later he will rise from the dead. When Peter objects to this defeatist attitude and rebukes Jesus, Jesus rebukes him back, accusing him of acting as Satan’s agent and pursuing a human rather than divine agenda. It is God’s purpose for the Messiah to suffer and die!
The Suffering Servant of the Lord
If the first half of the gospel presents Jesus as the mighty Messiah and Son of God (1:1 – 8:30), the second half develops the theme of his suffering role (8:31 – 16:8). Three times Jesus predicts his death. Each time, the disciples miss the point and respond with some act of pride and self-interest. In response, Jesus repeatedly teaches that anyone who wants to be his disciple must take up their cross and follow him. Whoever wants to be first must be last, and the path to glory is through suffering. This theme climaxes after Jesus predicts his death for a third time (10:33 – 34). Two of his disciples, James and John, approach him and ask for the seats of greatest honor beside the king when his kingdom is established in Jerusalem. The other disciples are indignant, and Jesus must gather them together again for a lesson on humility.
He contrasts the world’s model of leadership with his own:
You know that those recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their
great ones exercise dominion over them. But it is not so among you. Rather, whoever
wants to be great among you will be your servant, and whoever wants to be first will
be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and
to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:42 – 45)
Here we have the essence of Mark’s story. Though Jesus is indeed the mighty Messiah and Son of God, his role is not to conquer the Romans. It is to suffer and die as a ransom payment for sins. This is a far greater achievement than physical conquest. He will provide victory over humanity’s ultimate enemies: Satan, sin, and death. Those who would be his disciples must follow his path, taking up their own cross and following him in a life of self-sacrificial service
— living for the kingdom and for others rather than for themselves... (15-19)
By Mark Strauss
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