The Gospel of the Suffering Son of God
Sometimes the best stories have surprising twists in their plots. In Agatha Christie’s classic murder mystery, And Then There Were None, the killer turns out to be someone you would never suspect (I won’t spoil it for you). In Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, the selfish and self-loathing Sydney Carton shockingly sacrifices his own life for a man he claims to hate (Charles Darnay), by taking his place at the gallows. In Star Wars, Darth Vader turns out to be *spoiler alert* Luke’s father! The plot of Mark’s gospel is similarly built around a shocking twist in the story. Unpacking this surprising turn will help us understand Mark’s central theme and purpose for writing.
The Mighty Messiah and Son of God (Mark 1:1–8:29).
Mark’s gospel begins with astonishing speed and energy. Unlike the other gospels, Mark wastes no time with lengthy prologues, genealogies, or birth stories. Within a few short paragraphs, Jesus bursts onto the scene and begins his public ministry. In one short chapter, he is baptized by John, tested by Satan, announces the kingdom of God, calls disciples, heals the sick, and casts out demons. Mark is fond of the Greek word euthus, often translated “immediately,” which he uses 42 times. Though the word doesn’t always mean “just then,” it serves to carry the narrative forward at breakneck speed as one event tumbles after another. This is a gospel amped up on caffeine!
The key idea here is “authority.” Jesus teaches with extraordinary authority. With authority he announces the kingdom of God. With authority he calls fishermen to be his disciples, and they drop everything and follow him. He orders demons to depart and they must obey (1:1–26). He heals the sick with a word (1:40–42). The people are amazed at his power. As the narrative progresses Jesus’s power and authority go into overdrive. Jesus not only heals the sick, he raises the dead (5:21–43). He commands nature by ordering a storm to stop, and it does! (4:35–39). He now casts out not just one demon, but a “legion” of them (5:1–20). He feeds five thousand people (6:30–44), and then four thousand, with a few loaves and fishes (8:1–10).
The purpose of these demonstrations of power and authority is to solve the mystery of Jesus, to confirm his identity. One of the most frequent questions in the gospel of Mark is “Who does he think he is/Who is this?” The first line of the gospel reads, “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” (1:1, emphasis added). Everything Jesus is doing confirms that he is indeed the mighty Messiah and Son of God.
Jesus’s identity is confirmed for his disciples at the center point of the story (8:27–38). The event occurs when Jesus takes the disciples on a spiritual retreat to Caesarea Philippi north of Galilee. On the way he asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” and they give the popular answers: “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” But then he asks what they think. Peter responds for the rest: “You are the Messiah.”
This is the correct answer! Jesus’s authoritative words and deeds have confirmed for Peter that Jesus is indeed the Messiah. Yet Peter is only half right. From his perspective, the Messiah is here to conquer the Roman legions and establish a physical kingdom in Jerusalem. Yet Jesus has a different plan and is facing much greater enemies. He has come to conquer not the Romans, but Satan, sin, and death. In a shocking twist, Jesus announces the Messiah’s role:
He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. (mark 8:31)
The Twist: The Suffering Servant of the Lord (Mark 8:31–16:8). In response to Peter’s confession, Jesus predicts that he is going to suffer and die! Peter is dismayed at this negative attitude and rebukes Jesus. Jesus, in turn, rebukes Peter right back and accuses him of speaking for Satan (8:32–33). The Messiah’s role is to suffer and die as a sacrifice to pay for the sins of the world. If Jesus does not go to Jerusalem to die, the world will remain enslaved to Satan, sin and death.
The rest of the story develops this dramatic turn, as Jesus now sets out to fulfill the suffering role of the Messiah. On the way, Jesus three times predicts his death—the “passion predictions” (8:31; 9:31; 10:33–34). Each time the disciples fail to understand and each time Jesus teaches what it means to be a servant leader.
The third of these episodes represents a key climax to the gospel. When the disciples vie for the best seats in the kingdom, Jesus responds by teaching what it means to be a servant leader (“whoever wants to be first must be slave of all”) and then points to himself as the model: “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” (10:45, emphasis added). A “ransom” here means a payment for sin. In the ultimate act of servanthood, Jesus “the one” will die for the sins of “the many” so that they can be saved. This statement echoes the prophecy of Isaiah 53, where the Lord’s “Servant” (= the Messiah), “was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed . . . . by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities” (isaiah 53:5, 11, emphasis added).
Jesus is the “righteous servant” who “will justify many” by “bearing their iniquities”—removing the barrier that separated them from God.
Mark’s Purpose and Audience. Mark’s central theme—Jesus the mighty Messiah and Son of God who suffers as the Servant of the Lord—fits well his purpose in writing. Early church tradition tells us that Mark wrote his gospel in Rome to the persecuted church there and that he was especially preserving Peter’s preaching of the good news.
Mark’s readers would have had two major concerns, which Mark addresses throughout his narrative. On the one hand, the Christians in Rome were trying to convince their neighbors that Jesus was indeed the Messiah and Savior, even though he suffered crucifixion, an excruciating and humiliating death, and one reserved only for the worst criminals. In response, Mark shows that Jesus’s remarkable authority proves beyond a shadow of doubt that he was the Messiah and Son of God. His death was not that of a criminal, nor was it a tragedy; it was all along part of God’s plan to save us from our sins.
Second, the church in Rome was suffering severe persecution and even martyrdom for their faith. Mark therefore points to Jesus as a model of perseverance to be followed. Just as Jesus remained faithful to God even through suffering and death, so all believers are called to be willing to suffer with him. As Jesus says after the first passion prediction: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (8:34). A true follower of Jesus is one who follows him faithfully through suffering and even death. Mark’s gospel is not only a defense of the crucified Messiah, it is also a call for cross-bearing discipleship.