Written by Rev'd John Poole | Feb 19th, 2021
A Lenten encounter with Jesus through the Gospel of Mark (Watch the video or read it here)
Friday after Ash Wednesday
With the inability, once again, of being able to offer the possibility of a Lent course, I would like to share some thoughts from my own Lent study this year. Our recent Archdeaconry Synod had as its theme, the words of the glorified Christ from the book of Revelation: ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock.’ (Rev. 3: 20). He promises that if we open the door he will come in to us, he will share more of himself with us. In offering some insights each week on Jesus through the Gospel of Mark, I will try and open that door to Jesus or hopefully open it just a little wider. You are welcome to join me.
Week 1. Introduction to the Gospel; its historical context; the titles of Jesus.
This year the Gospel readings in our Sunday Eucharist are predominantly from Mark. Mark is now universally accepted as the first Gospel to be written and provides a main source for the slightly later Gospels of Matthew and Luke. These three are known as the Synoptic Gospels because their stories of Jesus follow a similar pattern. Before Mark, the only Christian writings in existence that we know about were the letters of Paul to the various Churches, probably all written in the 50s of the first century.
But in or around the year 70, some 40 years after the historical life of Jesus, an early Christian known later as Mark put the story of Jesus into writing for the first time. It was during a time of war, the Jewish revolt against Roman rule, which resulted in Jerusalem being devastated and the Temple destroyed. It was catastrophic. Jewish belief held that God was especially present in the Temple, and that God had promised to protect Jerusalem and the Temple forever.
This is the context in which Mark wrote his Gospel, his good news about Jesus. It was essentially a book of consolation. For it told that God was still with his people. In Jesus, the presence of God was much nearer and greater than in any temple.
Mark’s opening words are: ‘The beginning of the gospel (or good news) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ The sense is that the whole book is but a beginning. It is good news that continues to unfold. It is not just about the past. We are being invited to meet Jesus now and learn what he is about and how we as his followers today can live according to his way and continue to make him known.
While Mark immediately affirms that Jesus is Son of God and Messiah, Jesus does not make this claim about himself in this Gospel. Such claims are made about him ‘in private,’ what is generally known as Mark’s ‘Messianic Secret.’ It is probably more historically factual that Jesus made no claim of divinity or greatness for himself, or even knew about his divine identity in his earthly lifetime. His focus, words and works were totally centred on God and with the coming kingdom of God.
We need to aware that all the Gospel writers (evangelists) wrote post-Easter. Their faith and knowledge of Jesus was shaped by the experience of the Resurrection and their relationship with the risen Christ through the Spirit in the life of the Church. So much of what they wrote about Jesus would therefore have been interpreted in the light of the resurrection, from the perspective of who Jesus became for the first Christians following the Easter event. In varying degrees, Mark and the other evangelists ‘read back’ this understanding into their story of Jesus’ earthly life. Both pre-Easter memory and post-Easter interpretation are involved in the compilation of the Gospels, and we must see that as quite natural.
Let us begin our meeting with Jesus in Mark by considering how he is introduced to us: Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Christ is not, of course, Jesus’ last name but a title from the Greek word christos, that translates the Hebrew word for ‘messiah.’ It means one anointed, particularly by God (e.g. see Psalm 2:2). It was the title of the ancient kings of Judah and Israel, and even of a foreign king, Cyrus of Persia, who in the 6th century BC allowed the Jewish exiles in Babylonia to return to their homeland (Isaiah 45: 1).
By the time of Jesus, Messiah (capital M) meant a specific future leader who would liberate Israel from the oppression of its Roman rulers. Mark declares at the beginning of his Gospel that Jesus is the Messiah, the long expected anointed one of Israel. (However, fairly soon the Christ would come to mean for Christians someone much greater and more universal than the Jewish Messiah, see, for example, John 1, Hebrews 1; we can consider this in more detail later). Mark also identifies Jesus as ‘Son of God.’ The status of Jesus as the Son of God was probably first proclaimed only after his resurrection. St Paul (Romans 1: 1) appears to confirm this, but this does not deny that Jesus was already Son of God in his earthly lifetime, only that it became clear following the first Easter.
However, in Jesus’ time and following, there was another ‘Son of God’ in the world. Augustus, the first Roman emperor who ruled from 31BC to 14AD was hailed in pagan Roman theology as ‘the Son of God,’ the Lord and Saviour of the world who had brought ‘peace on earth.’ Subsequent Roman emperors were also considered divine.
Such titles sound so familiar to us as Christians, and here Mark is naming the conflict that would ultimately lead to the death of Jesus. Perhaps we can now understand just how politically subversive the Gospels were in the time and context in which they were written as they applied the exalted titles of the emperor to the itinerant Jew from Nazareth. In a (comfortable Western?) world where many people believe that religion and politics do not mix or even do not conflict, we have clear Gospel evidence that Christianity, as well as being a reform force within Judaism, also began as a peaceful but thoroughly anti-imperial, anti-establishment movement that hailed the superiority of its leader over the rulers of this world, who would build a kingdom far greater than that of any Roman emperor. Towards the end of the Gospel (15: 39) a Roman centurion, a gentile foreigner, declares that this Jesus was truly Son of God. In that scene beneath the cross, Mark presents us with an image of the Roman Empire testifying against itself!
Questions to ponder: