The heavens were torn asunder: ministry in Mark, part one

In my estimation, there is no more beautifully crafted, enigmatic treatment of the life of Jesus than the gospel of Mark. From the packed introduction, to the passion predictions occupying the middle of the gospel, to the abrupt ending that leaves the reader with fear and trembling and not rejoicing, there is no wasted effort. The reader is moved briskly through the life of Jesus and with very little editorial help from the author along the way.

There are clues to Mark’s understanding of Jesus along the way, but only for those with eyes to see. Scriptural citations or allusions, though many, are rarely cited. The amount of space given to Jesus’ teaching is spare in comparison to the other gospels, and what teaching we do have is often enigmatic and puzzling. This is significant because other gospel writers use teaching in unique combinations to editorialize on the actions of Jesus. Not so here. We’re on our own. Mark won’t spoon feed us.

And so the readers, like the twelve, start the gospel following Jesus enthusiastically only to identify with them later in their confusion over who he is and what he’s doing.

So, what is Jesus doing in the gospel of Mark? The clues are there from the beginning. After providing a statement related to Jesus’ identity in 1:1, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ (messiah), Son of God,” Mark quotes Isaiah 40, along with some scraps from Malachi and Exodus. The Isaiah 40 text, which ends with “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,” announces the long awaited end of the exile for Israel. From a highway in the dessert, the Lord will lead his people in a second Exodus and establish the rule of God again over his people in the presence of the nations of the earth. From his baptism in the wilderness, through Galilee, and eventually to Jerusalem, Jesus enters hostile territory (demons and human opposition) to establish again God’s rule over his people. Jesus, as Christ and Son of God, has come to end the exile, bringing both judgment and hope for God’s people, Israel.

At Jesus’ baptism, only Mark tells us that the heavens were “torn apart” as the Spirit in the from of a dove descends on Jesus and a voice from heaven rightly identifies him, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased” (1:10-11). Richard Hays sees the phrase “torn apart” as a reference to Isaiah 64:1, in which the prophet beseeches the Lord to “tear apart the heavens” and act to at long last deliver Israel from the rule of others. (Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, 16-17). Jesus is an eschatological figure, the Son of Man, long promised to restore the kingdom to Israel in the final age. The opening of the gospel ends with a brief summary, “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the good news” (1:14-15).

While the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism identifies him rightly, both here and at his transfiguration (9:7), other human voices consistently misidentify him. The most notable occurrence of this is after Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” (8:27). Peter gets the titles half right and the meaning all wrong when he confesses Jesus to be the Christ, but not the Son of God, and then rebukes Jesus when he explains that being the Christ entails suffering, rejection, and death. “Get behind me, Satan,” is Jesus’ pointed rejoinder.

In contrast to Peter, the rest of the twelve, and the religious leaders (“He is of Beelzebul”), the demons consistently confess Jesus rightly as do outsiders to Israel. In fact, the demons obey Jesus and are subject to his authority. Humans, on the other hand, are disobedient and testify to his actions even though he forbids them to speak of them. In fact, in the scene in which Peter confesses Jesus to be Israel’s messiah, Mark reports that Jesus “sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him” (8:30).

This is often referred to by Markan scholars as the “messianic secret.” Unlike other gospels, notably John, Jesus is coy, not openly confessing his identity. It appears that this has something to do with the centrality of the death of Jesus in Mark. Chapters 8-10 function as a thematic center to the gospel, featuring three passion predictions (8:31-9:1, 9:33-37, 10:32-45). Each story features Jesus predicting his own death and resurrection, the disciples demonstrating their lack of comprehension, and Jesus teaching on the nature of being a disciple.

We have already seen that Peter misunderstands Jesus’ mission when he takes him aside and rebukes him (8:32). We haven’t yet noticed in that account the teaching on what it means to follow Jesus: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel will save it” (8:34-35). This pattern repeats two more times as the disciples argue about who is the greatest or seek positions of power in the coming kingdom of God, to which Jesus says things like “those who would be great, must be the least,” and “those who would be first, must be last.”

The death of Jesus in Mark is not principally about the forgiveness of sins in Mark. Jesus has the authority to forgive sins apart from his death. Rather, Jesus’ death is the outcome of a particular way of life, and invites the same in those who would follow him. The blood of Christ is tied in Mark, not to the levitical codes or to the cult of sacrifice, but to the Exodus story in which Moses sprinkles blood on the people as a sign of covenant (Ex 24:8). Jesus offers his blood in the last supper in Mark as the blood of the new covenant (Mk 14:24), reaffirming the theme of a second Exodus we saw in the opening lines of the gospel.

The trial and death of Jesus also occupy the end of the gospel. Unlike the other gospels, there are no resurrection appearances, only an empty tomb and the appearance of a young man in white robes who tells the women who have come to anoint Jesus’ body that the crucified one, Jesus of Nazareth, has been raised. Peter and the others are to meet him in Galilee, where our story began. Again this differs from other gospel accounts, notably Luke, where the disciples are told to wait in Jerusalem. The gospel ends with the women saying nothing to anyone “for terror and amazement seized them” and “they were afraid” (16:1-8, which I take as the original ending of the gospel).

But I’ve skipped an important detail. The only human voice in the gospel to confess Jesus to be the Son of God was a Roman centurion, who when he saw Jesus die said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (15:39). Jesus has come as the one to reestablish God’s rule over Israel, to end the time of exile and lead God’s people from a wilderness and into the kingdom of God. At the heart of that mission, however, is the shocking story of a crucified messiah. Moreover, it is precisely the death of Jesus that manifests the nature of this new Exodus. God has indeed torn open the heavens and introduced a shocking new story of deliverance. Mark is protective of the identity of Jesus as Son of God, refusing it to be attached to any reality other than the death of Jesus, withholding that confession until the very end of the story. Let those with ears to hear…

One last story detail. Indeed, there are many that I could add, particularly to build out the notion of Jesus’ coming as the end of exile and the beginning of a second Exodus. I want, however, to tie the beginning and end of the gospel together in one more way. Jesus’ ministry begins in Galilee. The opening announcement of his ministry is surprising. Mark reminds us that the setting for this “gospel of God” comes after John has been put in prison, and that its origins are not in Jerusalem or even Judea, but Galilee. It begins outside of officially sanctioned religious authority. It begins in the precincts of exile, in a wilderness, and moves toward Jerusalem. And as we have seen, the disciples are instructed at the end to meet the risen Jesus who has gone before them to Galilee.

Now given the poor performance of the twelve in Mark, it is good news that the story can always begin again. But I think of greater significance is the fact that the origin of the story, which indicate something of its character, is located outside of the realm of religious and imperial authority. It is the only fitting beginning and ending for a story that would tear open the heavens and name a crucified Nazarene as the Son of God, Israel’s Messiah.

So, this is something of a way to brief summary. In the next post, I will offer some ministry implications.

About Mark Love

I am the Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who lives in Portland, OR. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and three amazing granddaughters.
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