Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Theme of the Gospel of Mark

In my previous post, I presented a short analysis of the material in Mark that led me to conclude that the oft-repeated servant theme is probably not the unique theme of Mark’s gospel. I do have an alternative that I would like to suggest. I can’t go into all the details in a short blog post, but I can state what I think the theme is and then outline my reasons for coming up with that particular theme. I’m sure this could be improved and would welcome any suggestions. Just remember, this is a quick summary, not a complete analysis.

Theme: The revelation of Jesus as the Messianic Son of God enables disciples to respond in faith rather than amazement and fear.

The first part of the theme I get from Mark 1:1.

Mark 1:1 (ESV)
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

I take “beginning” here to mean an introduction or a starting point for what Mark is going to talk about, namely the good news (“gospel”) that Jesus is the Messianic Son of God (“Jesus Christ, the Son of God”). Another way of saying this is that Mark is planning to progressively reveal, from the beginning, what makes up the gospel of Jesus Christ – His “life and ministry” or His “person and work.” This revelation of the “life and ministry” or the “person and work” of Jesus will show that He is the Christ and that He is the Son of God.

The second part of the theme I get from the structure of Mark. It is possible to recognize three main geographical sections in Mark’s gospels. Those three geographical areas correspond to the three main people groups to whom Jesus reveals Himself.

Mark 1:14-8:30
Ministry in Galilee
Jesus reveals His person and work to the Crowds

Mark 8:31-10:52
Journey to Jerusalem
Jesus reveals His person and work to His Disciples

Mark 11:1-16:8
Mission in Jerusalem
Jesus reveals His person and work to the Religious Leaders

In these sections, Mark specifically records the responses from the crowds, the disciples, and the religious leaders. In each case, Jesus either commends their faith or rebukes their fear and amazement. Here are some examples from the first section:

Mark 5:17 [Healing the demoniac]
17 And they began to pray him to depart out of their coasts. [rejection]

Mark 5:20
20 And he departed, and began to publish in Decapolis how great things Jesus had done for him: and all men did marvel. [surprising, unbelievable – certainly not faith]

Mark 5:40 [Healing Jairus’ daughter]
40 And they laughed him to scorn. But when he had put them all out, he taketh the father and the mother of the damsel, and them that were with him, and entereth in where the damsel was lying. [ridiculed – no faith or trust]

Mark 5:42
42 And straightway the damsel arose, and walked; for she was of the age of twelve years. And they were astonished with a great astonishment. [astonished, surprised, element of fear]

Mark 4:40-41 [Calm storm]
40 And he said unto them, Why are ye so fearful? how is it that ye have no faith? 41 And they feared exceedingly, and said one to another, What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?
This last passage shows that the disciples initially had the same problem as the crowds. But they do make progress. The end of the first section closes with Peter’s famous confession that Jesus is the Christ. The disciples are just beginning to see who Jesus is. In the next section Jesus will reveal more about His mission, three times explaining that He must go and die on the cross. Their responses, however, show that they still have much to learn. They see but not clearly, yet. Because they do not have a complete understanding of Jesus as the Divine Messiah, they still respond in amazement rather than faith.

Mark 8:22-25
22 And he cometh to Bethsaida; and they bring a blind man unto him, and besought him to touch him. 23 And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the town; and when he had spit on his eyes, and put his hands upon him, he asked him if he saw ought. 24 And he looked up, and said, I see men as trees, walking. 25 After that he put his hands again upon his eyes, and made him look up: and he was restored, and saw every man clearly.
There is very little content in Mark that does not occur in the other gospels but this story is unique to Mark. It shows what I believe is going on with the disciples. Their life (and our life) is not designed to work apart from God, and specifically, without a Biblical understanding of Jesus as our Divine Messiah. Unless we are illuminated to see Christ for who He really is, it will be impossible for us to respond in faith rather than fear, amazement, and unbelief!

This, as I see it, is the emphasis of the Book of Mark.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Mark – Portrait of the Servant???

When I taught through the Gospel of Mark several years ago in Sunday School, I began by searching for its theme. Now, I knew that the popular understanding of the theme is that Mark portrays Christ as a servant, or even more specifically, as the Servant of the Lord. That idea fits nicely into the following paradigm:

Matthew – Christ as King
Mark – Christ as Servant
Luke – Christ as Man
John – Christ as God

You can find any number of study Bibles or other aids that promote a similar arraignment. I thought it would be a fairly easy task to quickly confirm that analysis and get on with my study. That turned out not to be the case.

The first idea one comes to, when people try to justify the servant theme, is that Mark is book of action. It shows Christ doing miracles, moving about, working, or in short, serving, just like what you would expect to find a servant doing. Not only that, but the Mark uses “energetic” terminology throughout his narrative. It moves quickly from one story to the other. It is a hard working, action-packed gospel. “OK,” I thought, “that is sort of subtle. Let’s see if we can find something more substantial.” The next thing one reads is that Mark doesn’t include a genealogy, because you just don’t provide genealogies for lowly servants. Not much better, IMO. And next… well, really, there is hardly anything else. It is almost as if the servant theme in Mark is true by dogmatic assertion rather than careful analysis.

In fact, the more analysis you do, the less likely the servant theme becomes. For starters, of the four gospels, Mark uses the term “servant” or “servants” less than any of the others (Matt – 42, Luke – 36, John – 14, Mark – 9, using the ESV as a baseline). Not what you would expect if that was indeed the overriding theme of the book. Next, the quintessential passage that most dramatically depicts Christ as a servant, surprisingly, is not found in Mark at all. The story of Jesus washing the disciple’s feet occurs only in the Gospel of John. Wow! Even more telling is that references to Jesus as the Servant of the Lord, something that is said to be prominent in Mark, are more explicit in other gospels. For example

Isaiah 42:1-4 (ESV)
Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. 2 He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; 3 a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. 4 He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law.

Matthew quotes this passage in 12:18-21. Notice the context:

(1) Matt. 12:1-8 (Disciples pick grain on Sabbath – Jesus is Lord of Sabbath)
(2) Matt. 12:9-14 (Jesus heals man with withered hand)
(3) Matt. 12:15-21 (Jesus withdraws – Matt points out the Servant of the Lord fulfillment)

Now in Mark, the same story is told but Mark does NOT bring out the Servant of the Lord idea:

(1) Mark 2:23-28 (Disciples pick grain on Sabbath - Jesus is Lord of Sabbath)
(2) Mark 3:1-6 (Jesus heals man with withered hand)
(3) Mark 3:7 (Jesus withdraws -- but no mention of the Servant of the Lord fulfillment)

If Mark is supposed to be the portrait of the servant, it is strange that Mark does not point out that identification here. This peculiarity is not the only such aberration. In Luke 22:24-27, for example, we find Christ at the Passover meal and His disciples arguing about who is the greatest. Mark tells the same story but it is Luke, not Mark, who brings out this truth about Christ:

Luke 22:27 (ESV)
For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.

Now there is one place in Mark where Christ does say he is a servant:

Mark 10:45 (ESV)
For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

But that same statement also occurs in Matthew 20:28. So, it is hardly unique to Mark. I could not find a single servant-themed idea that Mark emphasized more than the other accounts.

Consequently, I came to the conclusion that the servant theme in Mark is more wishful thinking than it is the result of careful analysis of the text, likely proposed to create clever thematic arrangements of the four gospels than anything else . Jesus is the Servant of the Lord, so every gospel will show that aspect of His character but it is quite doubtful that Mark was written to highlight that particular theme.