The Message of Mark

June 20, 2012  Leave a comment

In preparation for my class on the Life of Christ I’ve once again been studying the gospel of Mark.  Mark focus’ on Jesus’ unflinching journey to his own death in Jerusalem and the devastating failure of those called to follow Him.

There are three things that I think most people find particularly puzzling about Mark

  1. The young man who runs away naked in Mark 14. He’s not found in any other gospel. Who is this man? And why does he appear in Mark?
  2. The ending of Mark at 16:8. The women are told that Jesus is alive and that they should go tell the disciples. But instead the woman run away afraid and say nothing. The longer ending we now have is most likely an attempt to solve the somewhat messy feeling this leaves. Why does Mark end his gospel here and in this way?
  3. The Meeting in Galilee. In Mark the disciples are told to go to Galilee in order to meet the risen Jesus but in Luke’s gospel the disciples meet Jesus outside of Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives and He specifically tells them to stay in Jerusalem. Why does Mark say Jesus will meet them in Galilee?

I think I know the answers to these questions.  I want you to keep them in the back of your mind as we look closely at Mark’s message.

Mark is the shortest of the four gospels. In his succinct narrative he focus’ like a laser beam on the person of Christ and on those who follow him, his disciples. Like a modern action film, Mark uses rapid cutting. Jesus hits the ground running and never stops. He is a man with a lot to accomplish in a very short amount of time.

From the opening quotation from the prophet Isaiah, Mark defines the action of Jesus as a journey. Three times in this quotation we read of the “way of the Lord” and or a “path for our God.”

Throughout the gospel we see Jesus on a journey, a path towards his own death in Jerusalem. It is the disciples alone who called to follow Him. The first thing Jesus does, after his own calling, is to return to Galilee and call his first disciples. “Follow me,” he says to Peter and Andrew on the shores of Galilee and immediately they leave everything to “follow him.” He likewise calls to James and John and they too leave everything to “follow him.” In chapter two, Jesus calls another man, Levi the Tax collector, in much the same way. “Follow me” he says to Levi and Levi like the disciples before leaves everything to follow him. The act of following is again emphasized in Jesus choosing of the twelve Apostles. Mark says that Jesus chooses twelve men that “they might be with him…” The first objective in his selection is a call to nearness. The Apostles are to be where he is. They are to follow him on the road.

And they do follow, at least in the beginning. In Galilee we find the disciples journeying with Jesus back and forth across the Sea. They are with him when His mother and brothers come to take custody of him and when He speaks his first Parable. They are with him when he calmly quiets the storm as well as when he confronts a man possessed with a legion of demons. They are with him when He heals the woman with the issue of blood and they are with him when he raises Jarius’ daughter from the dead. The disciples are with Jesus more than anyone. But the disciples, the group closest to him, don’t have a clue who Jesus is. They are comically and ultimately tragically a dim witted group.

As Jesus abruptly cuts his way through the pages of Mark, people are impelled to wonder, “Who is this man.” The Scribes and Pharisees are confounded by him. When Jesus casts out a demon, they wonder, “What is this, a new Teaching with authority?” When Jesus forgives the sins of the paralytic, they ask, “Why does this man speak that way? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” The questions go on and on. “Why is He eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners?” “Why don’t your disciples fast?” “Why are your disciples doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?

But the disciples, the ones called to follow him, marvel just as much. In Mark 4, they ask Jesus about his parables. In Mark 5, they wonder at His cool reaction to a storm. And later they are dumbfounded when Jesus, bombarded by a crowd, asks who touched me? In chapter 6 they are perplexed when Jesus instructs them to feed the five thousand and again are just as perplexed when he tells them two chapters later to feed the four thousand. When Jesus, in Mark seven speaks in very plain language, the disciples turn around and ask Jesus to interpret the parable. ITS NOT A PARABLE, a fact which underscores the disciple’s total lack of intelligence. And even after Jesus has fed the five thousand and the four thousand with a few loaves of bread, Jesus finds the disciples once again concerned about how many loaves they have.

You may not like the fact that Mark is so hard the disciples. You know we can all relate. But that’s why Mark is so hard on the disciples. That’s the very point. Mark is hard on the disciples precisely because we can relate. Mark wants us to see ourselves in this bumbling group of men.

In chapter eight the journey truly begins. Jesus asks the disciples the central question everyone’s been dying to know. “Who do men say that I am?” The disciples provide a few stock answers. And then Jesus turns the question on them, “but who do you say that I am.” Peter in his boldness shouts out “You are the Christ.” It’s the right answer but Jesus takes it in an unexpected direction.

Immediately He begins for the first time to teach that he must suffer be killed and after three days rise again. Peter doesn’t get it. Though Jesus states the matter rather plainly, Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes Him. You see the Christ, according to Jewish expectation, was to be a conquering hero, a military leader who would kick the Romans out and reestablish the Kingdom of Israel. When Peter called Jesus the Christ, he certainly had this in mind. Jesus, however, doesn’t have the same plan. He is a suffering Christ and not the Christ of Peter’s expectations.

Jesus rebukes Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.” He then gathers his disciples and calls them once again to follow.

If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospels will save it.

Jesus calls his disciples to follow in his death.

With this dramatic exchange Jesus will set out on a straight path to Jerusalem, beginning in the extreme north of Israel, down through Galilee and on into Judea and Jerusalem. Three times on this journey Jesus will teach his disciples that he is going to suffer, die and be raised from the dead. Each time the disciples will fail to understand and each time Jesus will attempt to correct their faulty understanding. Jesus encounter with Peter at Caesarea Philippi is the first of these three instances.

The second instance is in 9:31. Jesus having journeyed from the extreme North enters Galilee and teaches his disciples once again that,

The Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and when He has been killed, he will rise three days later.

But the disciples still don’t understand and Mark tells us that they are afraid to ask. When Jesus enters Capernaum, a city on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, he questions them about what they were talking about “on the way.” Mark states, “But they kept silent, for on the way they had discussed with one another which of them was the greatest.” Their Lord has just proclaimed the impending hour of his own death and here they are arguing about which one of them is the best. Like Peter they simply don’t understand the mission Jesus has in mind. Jesus once again sits them down and teaches a paradox. “If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and the servant of all.”

How many of us have seen these internal power plays, Christians envious and fighting over others prestige? Those prepared to die are never concerned about such things.

In 10:33 Jesus will enter Judea and give the most detailed information about his impending death yet.

Behold we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death and will hand Him over to the Gentiles. They will mock Him and spit on Him, and scourge Him and kill Him, and three days later He will rise again.

But James and John in the very next verse approach Jesus with an astonishing request. “Grant that we may sit, one on Your right and one on Your left, in Your glory.” They just don’t get it. They still think that Jesus is going to be crowned king in Jerusalem. They’re looking forward to being close to an earthly king. Jesus responds, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” They reply all to rashly, “we are able.” Jesus affirms that they will indeed be able but as for sitting on his right and left he cannot grant because “it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

Surprisingly, the only other people we find in the gospel of Mark that are ever on Jesus right and left are the two thieves on the cross. Jesus glory is the cross and he’s calling his disciples to once again follow him on the road. Jesus again teaches a paradox. “Whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.

But sadly the disciples never get it. When they finally arrive in Jerusalem, they show themselves to be tragically and traitorously inept. Judas, one of the twelve, goes to the leaders and offers to betray Jesus. When Jesus predicts this, Peter and the other disciples respond with oaths of loyalty. But in Gethsemane, Mark states that at the sight of the soldiers, “they all left him and fled.” At the sight of the soldiers, the disciples abandon their call. At the first sign of danger, they all run away. Jesus has called them to follow him to his death. He has called them to suffer. The disciples choose life instead.

It is here in this moment that we find the young man running away naked, leaving his linen sheet behind. Who is this man and why does he appear here? There are some interesting clues. First, a linen sheet only appears one other time in the gospel of Mark and its wrapped around the dead body of Jesus. Secondly, nakedness, after the fall, is always a sign of shame. For these reasons as well as one other that I will reveal in a moment I believe Mark uses this young man as a symbol for the very failure of the disciples. They have been called to follow Jesus to his death but in this moment they all run away in shame leaving the death that Christ has clothed them in behind.

Shocking! The disciples, the very twelve apostles, when confronted with the death that Christ demands turn around and flee. But they are our fathers, they are our representatives. And like them we Fat Christians have abandoned Christ’s call. I’m sure each of us can remember the sweetness of our conversion when Christ first called us to follow. Like the disciples we left everything. Like their time in Galilee, the beginning was trouble-free. It was easy to follow because everything was so sweet. But as the years passed life seemed to seep back in. We got married, had some kids, bought a house in which live. Now there were mortgages to pay, vacations to plan, and cars to fix and repair. We sought people and places that would affirm us. We’ve looked for glory in the eyes of others. Suffering for Christ became the last thing on our minds. And now it’s not a question whether we would follow him to his death for we ceased to follow all ready. Like the disciples we’ve already denied him. We’ve already turned and walked away. Examined in light of Christ’s own example we find ourselves totally lacking. Can we do what Jesus did? Can we walk the road he himself has blazed?

That’s the powerful question in Mark’s disturbing ending. Mark tells us that the women who go to the tomb on Sunday Morning are met by a young man clothed in white. Notice how Mark alone among the gospels doesn’t call this figure an angel. Instead he calls him a “young man.” It’s the same description used for the streaking disciple, the young man that runs away in the Gethsemane, leaving the linen sheet behind. Well, now he’s clothed in white and he has a message for the disciples. “’He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He said to you.” But again in the very next verse the women, like the disciples before, run away and say nothing for they themselves are afraid. The end? Yup, that’s it.

All the questions you had about the disciples, Mark doesn’t answer. Did they go to Galilee? Did they meet Jesus again? He doesn’t say. Why not? Why doesn’t he say? Answer: Because he leaves it to you. Without denying the difficulty, Jesus extends his forgiveness in reestablishing the call. He goes before you. Will you follow? The answer and the end is up to you.

Originally Posted October 15, 2007

Matthew Scott Miller

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