How did Jesus understand his own mission? I have been reading through the Gospel of Mark to see how the earliest portrait of Jesus answers that question. Mark is virtually unanimously recognized to have been the first Gospel written and the one upon which two other canonized Gospels were based. The author put a lot of artistry into painting a picture of what would it have been like to live in Palestine in Jesus’ time, hearing rumors about the intriguing Nazarene going from place to place.
To spill the beans up front, I’d like to submit a subtitle for at least the first portion of the Gospel of Mark: A Funny Thing Happened on My Way through Palestine Proclaiming the Advent of the Kingdom of God. A little long, perhaps, but I think it really captures Mark’s portrayal of Jesus and how he goes about his ministry.
Here are my observations as I read through the first chapter of Mark with this question in mind.
* The curtain opens on John the Baptist, who “appeared in the desert” near Jerusalem in fulfillment of the prophecies of “Isaiah” (actually Malachi and Isaiah), preaching “a baptism of repentance for forgiveness.”
* John informs everyone that someone “more powerful” is coming who will baptize with the Holy Spirit rather than water.
* Jesus makes his first appearance, coming down from Nazareth of Galilee to where John is baptizing, and is himself baptized. As if for Jesus’ own assurance, “he saw the heavens torn apart” and heard his sonship affirmed by a voice from heaven as the Spirit visibly descends on him.
John the Baptist had predicted that Jesus will baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit; this authority is given him after Jesus is baptized with water and the Holy Spirit baptizes him.
* The same Spirit “drives” or “casts” him out into the desert to be put on trial by Satan for forty days.
Interestingly, no mention is made either of the specific “temptations” we find in Matthew and Luke (“double tradition” material) or of fasting during his stay in the desert; the fasting aspect seems unlikely to underlie Mark’s version given that the angels are said to “wait on him” (v.13). Might we infer that his diet could parallel that of his desert-dwelling predecessor? Would we be justified to read peirasmoi in its more generic meaning as “trials” or “tests” given the absence of examples of specific “temptations” supplied by Matthew/Luke?
* Once John is arrested, Jesus reemerges back in his home country of Galilee, now on mission “proclaiming the good news of God”.
From the beginning, Jesus’ ministry is as preacher/prophet. And what is the message of this desert preacher, the successor to a desert preacher?
“The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”
Like John, Jesus preaches repentance: but whereas John pointed to a coming order higher than his, personified in Jesus, Jesus pointed to the Kingdom of God now drawn near. “The time is fulfilled.” This message is so strikingly simple and therefore mysterious to anyone not acquainted with this language by prior familiarity with Jesus’ other teachings, or perhaps with an earlier tradition which this teaching may be drawing upon. But what exactly is the Kingdom of God? Is its presence the “good news” itself?
* On his way through Galilee to Capernaum, Jesus calls his first disciples who drop their occupations to learn how to “fish for people”, which they were known by most of this book’s original readers to have fulfilled with their evangelistic role as apostles.
* Next, we see why he’s going to Capernaum: to teach in the synagogue.
Again, he’s shown to be primarily a teacher/preacher. Notice that even before seeing a single miracle, the people there were astounded by his teaching, “for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” Jesus is in his element; this is his métier.
* Yet his mission is interrupted by a man with an unclean spirit, and he is forced to work his first miracle in order to continue his mission.
The man with the unclean spirit commits two grave offenses. Not only does he disrupt Jesus’ teaching but he also lets out a secret that, if believed, would explain the “authority” apparent to those who heard it: “You are the Holy One of God!”
Jesus’ wonder-working is often considered to be one of the main characteristics or even a goal of his mission, but here in its first instance and in many cases following, the author shows us that it is but a practical means to accomplish his greater mission; Jesus’ miracles are painted as incidental.
Instead of merely casting out the demons who outed him as “the Holy One of God,” he silences them and then exorcises the man, revealing an important aspect of the nature of his authority: it’s a secret. In this story we first see that there is tension between his wonder-working and the secret of his authority, a tension that introduces drama throughout the entire Gospel. We can’t help but notice that this has the tendency to both support one and subvert another of his goals: in this demonstration of power, the credibility of his teaching is bolstered but this in turn causes his fame to go abroad against his will.
* Next, he goes to Simon and Andrew’s house for lodging, and found Simon’s mother-in-law sick. Naturally, he heals her.
This miracle happens almost by accident: were you a healer and were your hostess sick, would you not heal her? This is yet another incidental miracle Jesus performs “on the way”. This a pattern of behavior we’ll see over and over.
* The next batch of healings occur when people bring “many who were sick with various diseases” and who had demons to the house where he was staying.
Here it explicitly states that he doesn’t let the demons speak “because they knew him” and could let slip the secret of his identity. But note most especially that they found Jesus and brought him their sick and that he did not go set up a tent and begin a healing crusade. This is a trend that will continue.
* The next morning, after his disciples chase him down, he announces,
“Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.“
This is a remarkable statement. The author is again telling us what he thought Jesus’ mission was: to go from place to place to “proclaim the message”, or literally to “proclaim” (Gk. κηρύσσω) the advent of the Kingdom of God. That’s twice in this first small portion of the Gospel — surely that’s significant!
* He goes “throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and “casting out demons” who are probably, like the other demons mentioned so far, intent to let the cat out of the bag.
* Once again he is found by someone seeking a miracle and he is persuaded by compassion to fulfill the leper’s wish. As usual, he requests secrecy, which is just as usually ignored.
* His fame has become so cumbersome that by the end of chapter one, he is forced to limit his public appearances for a while.
Here are some themes I found and expect to find recurring throughout this, the earliest Gospel portrait of Jesus and his mission:
- Jesus’ mission was to preach in as many places as possible that the “time is fulfilled”, that the Kingdom of God had come. We’re told that this was good news to his audience, but we’re not explicitly told how (at least to begin with).
- Jesus kept getting put in places in which it was difficult for him not to display his power.
- A dichotomous parallel seems to be erected between the “Holy Spirit” of which Jesus is an agent and the “unclean spirits” who fear him. For instance, subsequent to his own being cast out (ἐκβάλλω) into the desert by “the Spirit”, Jesus is said to himself “cast out” (ἐκβάλλω) the unclean spirits.
- Jesus is a man on mission, on the go from here to there, an itinerant preacher who has a message to convey.
- Jesus’ miracles are incidental, usually occurring while he is on his way. It is hard for him to resist working miracles as he sees needs arise, perhaps because he is aware that in so doing he complicates his own mission.
According to Mark, Jesus’ main mission was to proclaim repentance because of the Kingdom of God’s drawing nigh. Mark’s use of sensational material is characteristic of his fast-paced, pulp fiction narrative. There are unclean spirits, mass healings, and resurrections. This has been taken as normative for the Christian experience in today’s world by the charismatic movement. But the thing that stands out when you read Mark especially with the Messianic Secret in mind is that Jesus’ miracles are more often than not portrayed as responses to incidental occasions in which he is seemingly unwillingly put on the spot; they are certainly not his main mission.
Now does my proposed subtitle make a little more sense? Let me know what you think!Tagged with: Baptism • charismatic • Gospels • Historical Jesus • John the Baptist • Kingdom of God • Mark • Messianic Secret • miracles