From the Ashes of War: The Gospel According to Mark – Part 3

Earlier this year, we started a new series on the Gospel according to Mark.  Today, as we continue to build upon the foundation that was laid in part 1 of the series, we turn our attention to the latter half of Mark 1:1.  As has already been argued, Mark is writing in the context of a war – a war that ultimately leads to the destruction of Israel and the failed last stand of the Jewish Zealots in the desert fortress of Masada.   For the Jewish people, many of whom had been longing for a Messiah for well over 400 years, all appears to have been utterly lost.  Rome had laid waste to Jerusalem and her beloved Temple; and those that actually survived the onslaught had been either scattered or enslaved.

Having said this, you can well imagine than, that it is no small act for the author, John Mark, to suggest that he is writing a gospel.  For as we have already discussed, a gospel is a “joyful announcement” that bears witness to “an historical event which introduces a new situation for the world” at large.[1]  When Mark says that he is writing a gospel, he is daring to suggest that all has not been lost.  And what’s more, in doing so, he dares to take on the precious ideologies of both the victim and the victor.

Turn with me, if you will, to the opening verse of Mark’s oft-neglected Gospel.

 “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ,  the Son of God …”

For many of us who serve and worship in the theologically-weakened church of the early 21st century, the sheer audacity of Mark’s opening statement has been almost completely lost.  Thus, today, as we continue our study in this extraordinary text, I want pause for just a few moments, in the hopes of unpacking the first of two extraordinary claims that are being made.

We begin with the Greek word christos, which itself is a translation of the Hebrew term, māšîah.  The first thing we must take care to note is that christos, or “Christ,” is not a name and it is not unique to Jesus.  Rather, christos is a title that bears the meaning of “anointed one.”  So when Mark begins by telling us that this is the “joyful announcement” of Jesus Christ, we might better read that as being the “joyful announcement of Jesus the Messiah” or “Jesus the Anointed One.”

So what does that mean?  How is that a radical claim? 

To answer that question, we must begin by turning back to the Old Testament where we see that the Jewish people had a long-standing practice of anointing kings and priests with oil. [2]  For the Hebrew people, this was understood as much more than just a formalized, inaugural activity.  To be anointed with oil suggested that the individual in question, the māšîah, was a God-chosen figure specially commissioned for a God-appointed task.  So this is nothing like the modern practice of swearing a President into office.  No one believes that the President has been specially chosen by God, nor do we believe that the task of the President is one that is specially commissioned.

Not surprisingly, as history progressed, so too did the Jewish understanding of the term māšîah.  By the time of the post-exilic period – a time when many within the Jewish population were beginning to wonder what it meant to be the people of God – the writers of Scripture had begun to use this term in a somewhat more aggrandized fashion.  Both Haggai and Zechariah looked to a future time in which the māšîah would actually restore the hope of Israel by reestablishing King David’s throne.[3]

Given that, it should come as no surprise that during the turbulent intertestamental period, Jewish writers, revolutionaries, and religious hopefuls continued to build upon this theme.  Those that were most closely associated with the Maccabean Revolt, saw the māšîah as one who would not only restore the Davidic throne, but as one who would do so as he broke Israel free from her subjugation to foreign empires.  As for the religiously optimistic, such as those that authored the Dead Sea Scrolls, they saw the māšîah as one who would purify the nation through the cleansing of the priesthood and the Temple.[4]

When you take all of this into account with what we have already discussed about the nature of a “gospel,” the opening of Mark’s appeal begins to look far more radical – far more revolutionary.  For in a time when the nation of Israel had been annihilated by the forces of Rome, in a time when not even one stone of the Temple has been left standing, Mark is defiantly suggesting that a great victory has been won by God’s anointed agent, a King has ascended the throne of David, a priest has emerged to purify the nation, and independence has come to those that would hear.  And all of this is still being said as Jerusalem smolders and burns.

Can you imagine what it must have been like for a grieving Jewish listener to hear these words spoken[5] for the first time?  Can you imagine what he or she must have been thinking?

And what does that mean for us?  What does it mean to understand Jesus, not as one that we choose to forgive our sins, but as one who was chosen for us to be a king anointed by God?  As one who is sovereign in spite of the appearances of the madness in this world?  As one who is a priest, come to purify his people who seem to revel in cheap grace?  What does this mean for us? 

[1] Lane, William L.  New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 43.

[2] Examples: Saul is anointed in 1 Sam. 9:15-16; 10:1. David is anointed in 1 Sam. 16:3, 12-13.  Aaron and his sons are anointed in Ex. 28:41. Zadok and Solomon are anointed 1 Chron. 29:22.

[3] See Haggai 2:20-23 and Zech 9:9-10; 12:7-13:1.

[4] See 1QS 9:10-11; CD 12:22-23.

[5] Many scholars believe that the form of Mark’s gospel suggests that it was designed to be performed as an oratory before a public audience.  One reason they believe this to be the case is because Mark ignores many of the teachings and parables of Jesus in favor of unrelenting action that demonstrates a powerful hero overcoming tremendous odds.

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2 Responses to From the Ashes of War: The Gospel According to Mark – Part 3

  1. Rich Bennema says:

    Yay for Part 3!

    Right on, Christ was not Jesus’ surname any more than President is Obama’s first name.

    The American church needs a better understanding of transliterated words. Not to get too far off onto a rant, but Chris Tomlin’s song Jesus Messiah bugs me. Yes, yes, very poetic, nice flow, whatever. But why isn’t this song titled Joshua Messiah? Why substitute one transliterated word, but not the other?

    But back on topic, I love how the issue of Christ-ness is handled in the New Testament. In the Gospels, Jesus is just called Jesus. Other than introductory verses like Mark 1:1, the names Jesus and Christ are almost always followed by a question mark. The central question is whether Jesus is the Christ. John explicitly states it as the purpose of his gospel: “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20:31).”

    Beyond the Gospels, Jesus is never just Jesus. He is almost always Jesus Christ or Christ Jesus. And what switched the word “Christ” from question to identity? Resurrection. “and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 1:4).” Resurrection is the proof that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God who alone can forgive sin and offer righteousness.

    As I think through all of this, I’m now wondering if this is why the Gospel of Mark is so short. If after an opening verse like that, he just couldn’t wait to get to the big finish.

    • Bit at a time, my friend. 🙂

      But seriously, thanks for taking the time to read it and comment. As for why Mark is “so short,” some think that Mark may have been written to be performed as a public play. Thus, in their view, it is short on teachings and sermons, but long on decisive action with clear heroes and villains.

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