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.


At 12:41 PM, Blogger Mark Perry said...

Very interesting. So, I'll bite: what is the theme of Mark, then? :-)

At 12:52 PM, Blogger Andy Efting said...

I was planning on addressing what I think the real theme is in a subsequent post.

At 1:05 PM, Blogger Don Johnson said...

Hi Andy,

My question also!

I was just preaching on the boy Jesus in the temple last night and went through the traditional thematic proposal. Do you think that the other three themes are as easily dismissed? So far they seem to hold up to me. Maybe the "servant" theme was just to find one.

I have often thought that Mark presents the Lord as an ideal Roman, according to my theory that he writes last, from Rome, to Roman Christians. Not sure how theological that idea is!

I'll be interested in reading your further thoughts on this.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

At 1:22 PM, Blogger Andy Efting said...

The thing that's hard about finding a theme for Mark is that there is very little content in Mark that is not present elsewhere in one of the other gospels. So, for me, it was easier to dismiss the servant theme than it was to find the actual theme.

I think the traditional themes for the other gospels are on more solid footing but I have not studied any of those specifically like I did for Mark.

At 5:39 PM, Blogger FourSistersInACottage said...

Hi Andy,
I came upon your blog by a google search for "unsearchable riches", and felt I needed to write.
Bible Verses Most Christians Can't Believe.
I Tim 4:10
I Tim 2:4
Eph. 1:10
I Tim 2:6
Rom 3:22
I Cor 15:22
I Cor 15:26
I Cor 15:28
Col. 1:16-20
Rom. 5:18-19
John 1:29
John 12:32
I John 2:2
Rom 11:32
Phillip. 2: 9-11
II Cor. 5:19
Eph. 1:20-23
Gen. 2:16-17
Enjoy your bible, a better bible and more to the truth and original translation would be the Concordant Bible.
In Him, Amy (Mom to the Four Sisters)


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