Mark Week 6
By Laura C.S. Holmes
Seattle Pacific University Assistant Professor of New Testament
Read this week’s Scripture: Mark 8:22–10:52
This week we reach the halfway point of Mark’s gospel. However, Mark sets up the narrative so that it is more like a halfway pivot than a halfway point: this section looks backward to Jesus’ ministry through Galilee, and forward, as we travel to Jerusalem (11:1). In fact, the gospel is increasingly focused on Jerusalem and the fate that awaits Jesus there. While much of the first half of Mark emphasizes Jesus’ unwavering authority over the forces arrayed against the kingdom of God, the second half focuses on Jesus’ life, as Jesus seeks to teach his disciples about his impending suffering and death.
Mark sets up his gospel in such a way to emphasize the importance of Jesus’ suffering and death as well as how the lives of Jesus’ followers should mirror Jesus’ sacrifice and suffering. So far, the narrative has moved at a frenetic pace, with Jesus crossing the Sea of Galilee and traveling great distances every day. Now we slow down both geographically and narratively.
The focus is not the travel; it is the teaching. In fact, Mark sets two similar stories as bookends to this section, directing the reader’s attention inward to the chapters between the two healings. In both healings, Jesus cures a blind man, and these healings seem to function as more than just an additional proof of Jesus’ power over illness. Metaphorically, they emphasize to the reader how important seeing rightly is.
In the first healing (8:22–26), Jesus does not heal the man instantly. Initially, the man cannot see clearly. He sees “people, but they look like trees walking” (8:24). Like the blind man, Mark’s audience is granted repeated instances of Jesus’ disciples being able to see, but what they see resembles things more like trees than people.
In other words, they continue to misunderstand Jesus’ identity and mission, and therefore their own role in following Jesus. The second stage of the blind man’s healing, bringing sight and understanding of what is being seen, provides hope that the disciples will ultimately both see and understand [see Author’s Note 1].
The Crossroads: Caesarea Philippi (8:27–9:1)
Jesus and his disciples are at Caesarea Philippi, the northernmost point of Jesus’ travels in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus asks his disciples what people are saying about him. We have seen this dialogue in the narrative before. When Mark pauses to narrate John the Baptist’s death in Chapter 6, we hear that Jesus is thought to be John the Baptist raised from death, Elijah, or one of the prophets (6:14–16).
The same is true here. As we have noted, Jesus’ proclamation of repentance and forgiveness is very similar to John’s preaching. Jesus’ miracles echo some of Elijah’s. Jesus certainly speaks with the scribes and Pharisees as one of the prophets, criticizing their understanding of holiness (e.g., Mark 7:1–23). Jesus then asks the all-important question: “Who do you say that I am?” Acting as the speaker for the disciples here, Peter answers, “You are the Christ” (8:29). It seems that the disciples are actually seeing rightly. They see that Jesus is the Christ, something that Mark’s readers have known since Mark 1:1, if not before.
However, just saying Jesus is “the Christ” does not explain what it means. Christ is the Greek word for the Hebrew term Messiah. Both mean “anointed one,” and originally referred to kings who were anointed with oil when they became king (e.g., 1 Samuel 16:12–13). Later the term meant a person through whom God is accomplishing particular purposes (e.g., Isaiah 45:1).
As time passes and Israel is subjected to one imperial rule after another, some Jews hope that God will send another figure, another Anointed One, who will restore Israel to the glory days, usually imagined as a return to King David’s rule. From the texts we have dating from the centuries around Jesus’ time, we know that there were people who claimed to be the Messiah and even gained followers. When these messiahs were killed, their followers disbanded. Their death indicated that they were false messiahs and not the true Messiah.
Given the discussions that follow Peter’s proclamation, it seems that Peter may have claimed that Jesus is “the Christ,” the Messiah, who was going to restore Israel to these Davidic glory days (e.g., Acts 1:6). Jesus does not want Peter spreading this idea around (8:30), and so tells his disciples what being the Christ really entails, which is the exact opposite of what they likely think: he tells them that he will suffer, be rejected, and be killed, rising from the dead three days later (8:31) [see Author’s Note 2].
While this revelation would have certainly been surprising to the disciples, Peter’s reaction to it is even more astonishing. He “rebukes” Jesus, as though he were trying to exorcise a demon out of his master (see Mark 1:25; 9:25)! From Peter’s perspective, something terrible must have taken hold of his teacher’s mind, because there is no other reason for Jesus to be proclaiming his own death sentence. Real messiahs don’t die; only false messiahs die.
So, if Peter is right, Jesus has to be wrong, and Peter seems to think a demon is a possible explanation. Ironically, Jesus turns around and now rebukes Peter, calling him “Satan.” By doubting the necessity (Jesus “must” die; 8:31) of Jesus’ suffering and death, Peter has aligned himself with humanity, as people still in the grip of sin and death. Jesus claims that there are only two sides: God’s side, and humanity’s side. Peter has shown his cards; he is on the side of humanity.
Jesus now turns to his other disciples (8:33) and also a larger crowd, and teaches them about discipleship in the same language that will govern the end of his life. He describes discipleship in terms of crucifixion. This must have been a shock to a first-century audience; after all, they did not associate crucifixion with a savior, as Christians do now, but with a torturous form of capital punishment. Drawing parallels between his own life and death, and what a disciple’s life looks like, Jesus leaves additional connections implicit that later theologians clarify. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words in Discipleship may be the most poignant on the subject:
[This is the call] laid on every Christian. … Those who enter into discipleship enter into Jesus’ death. They turn their living into dying; such has been the case from the very beginning. The cross is not the terrible end of a pious, happy life. Instead, it stands at the beginning of community with Jesus Christ. Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death.
Discipleship (ed. Geffrey B. Kelley and John D. Godsey; trans. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss; vol. 4 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, ed. Eberhard Bethge et al.; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 87.
While for some Christians this death has been a physical one, for many disciples it means dying to our own wills (3:35; compare 14:36) and our goals, so that we may paradoxically lose our lives to save them, thereby becoming part of this “community with Jesus Christ” (8:35; see Romans 6:1–4; see Author’s Note 3).
Transfiguration on the Mountaintop (9:2–13)
We have spent significant time on the first section in this week’s Lectio because it represents a defining moment in Mark’s gospel. Throughout the rest of this section on discipleship, Jesus continues to reiterate the paradox of discipleship (see above), both in his own life (9:31; 10:33–34) as well as for his followers. At the same time, Jesus claims that this same Son of Man who will suffer and die (8:31) will come again with the angels (8:38), and that those standing near him will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God come in power (9:1). At a traditional place for God’s revelation to come down to earth, the top of a mountain (see Exodus 20), Jesus’ transfiguration shows a glimpse of this glorious kingdom.
On this mountaintop, Peter, James, and John see several unusual sights: not only does Jesus change, but Moses and Elijah appear, talking to Jesus. It is no wonder the disciples were clueless about what to say and were “terrified” (9:6). The point is not to dwell on the top of the mountain, as Peter desires (9:5), but rather to see God’s power and to hear God’s voice.
The same voice that comes from the clouds here came from the open heavens at Jesus’ baptism, and God is proclaiming something rather similar: Jesus’ sonship is not in doubt, and the disciples are to listen to him (9:7). In other words, God confirms that Jesus’ statement about the Son of Man’s suffering is not a whim, a fancy, or a possible prophecy. It is part of Jesus’ identity as both Son of Man and Son of God.
Furthermore, the fact that Moses and Elijah were on the mountain demonstrates to the disciples (as Jesus later will to the Sadducees, 12:18–27) that the resurrection of the dead is clearly possible, in that, however Moses and Elijah appeared, they were recognizable as themselves [see Author’s Note 4].
This clearly made an impression on the disciples, as they ask Jesus not about his transfiguration, but, obliquely, about the resurrection of the dead, by inquiring about Elijah (9:11–13). Here, Mark gives us a clue to why the disciples may miss many of the clues that seem so obvious to us about Jesus’ identity and mission: Jesus’ resurrection is going to clear up many of the details that blind them now (9:9).
Discipleship in the Kingdom: A Summary (9:14–10:15)
For the rest of this section, Mark describes Jesus’ illustrating the sacrificial discipleship to which he calls his followers. First, Jesus exorcises a demon out of another child, thanks to the pleas and faith of a desperate father. This exorcism, much like the healing of Jairus’ daughter (5:21–43), concludes with an allusion to Jesus’ resurrection when he raises the boy (9:27).
This reminder that Jesus, beloved by God (9:7), can raise the dead, foreshadows both Jesus’ own death and his resurrection. Furthermore, it should remind the disciples that the “rising from the dead” that so perplexed them (9:10) is central to understanding Jesus’ identity and authority (9:28–29).
Jesus also uses a variety of examples to demonstrate the importance of sacrifice to his followers. He claims that disciples should receive children into their community because in receiving those with the least power on the social scale, they were in fact receiving God (9:33–37). Furthermore, anything that separates a disciple from God should be cast aside (9:42–50) or restored (10:1–12).
Near the conclusion of this section on discipleship, Mark introduces us to the only person in the gospel who refuses Jesus’ call to become a disciple. This man declines Jesus’ offer because he is unable to disentangle himself from what has separated him from God. The commandments the man says he has kept are the commandments that are directed toward the love of one’s neighbor.
Nevertheless, these commandments emphasize the negatives: they tell the man what not to do. Jesus then exhorts the man to do two positive things to attain his goal of eternal life: “sell what you own and give the money to the poor” and “then come, follow me” (10:21). It is only at this point in the story that we learn that this man is rich, and his wealth separates him from his life of discipleship, even though Jesus loves him (10:21; see Author’s Note 5).
Entering the kingdom of God — synonymous with “attain[ing] eternal life” — is not a human possibility. It is possible with God, not because of certain acts that we do [see Author’s Note 6]. At the same time, the disciples do seem to want credit for the sacrifices they have made, as they have left everything and followed Jesus (10:28), exactly what Jesus wanted this rich man to do (10:21). These are the actions of a true disciple, who loses everything to save it. Of course, Jesus still shows that they have missed the point if they see a direct equation between losing everything and then gaining it all back in return. They will be rewarded, Jesus promises, but he ominously includes the fact that they will also gain persecutions, just as he will (10:30, 33–34).
Looking Backward: 20/20 Hindsight? (10:46–52)
Mark concludes this section on the theme of discipleship by narrating Jesus’ last healing miracle, which he performs on another blind man. Like the first miracle in this section, this action serves a secondary purpose for Mark: he points again to the necessity of seeing rightly. Even though Bartimaeus is blind, he can still see that Jesus is a Son of David who can have mercy on him.
In direct contrast to the rich man, who was called to follow Jesus and could not give up his possessions (10:21), in response to Jesus’ call, Bartimaeus immediately “throws off” his cloak, showing his willingness to follow Jesus “along the way” (10:52). The reader knows this way is leading to Jerusalem and, therefore, to Jesus’ death (11:1).
What will it take for the disciples, still arguing over questions of greatness and superiority, to see rightly? For that matter, what will it take for Mark’s audience of any age to see rightly? Perhaps the greatest comfort is found in Jesus’ response to his disciples: “all things are possible with God.” However, even this central theological claim will be put to the test before the end of the gospel.
Questions for Further Reflection
- How would you translate Jesus’ command to “take up [your] cross and follow” him (8:34) into a 21st-century idiom, especially if you were trying to communicate with people who do not know what a cross is or how it was used in the first century?
- How do you think the church should interpret Jesus’ commands about divorce (Mark 10:1–12)? How do these teachings fit into this section of Mark, where the main theme is discipleship?
- In 1 Corinthians, Paul describes a time when prophecies and knowledge will come to an end, claiming that this end is similar to the process of growing up: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways” (1 Corinthians 13:11). How does this analogy, claiming that the end of all things will look like adulthood, compare with Jesus’ aphorisms that the kingdom of God belongs to children (Mark 10:13–16)?
- In what ways do you think Jesus’ suffering and death still serve as a “stumbling block” or “foolishness” (as Paul claims in 1 Corinthians 1:23), as it clearly did for Peter (8:32–33)?
- In today’s world, we are often called on to “make the world a better place” through humanitarian gifts. What kind of monetary — or other — sacrifices are Christians called to make? For what reasons? How does Jesus’ encounter with the rich man (10:17–30) inform our decisions about how we should or should not live?
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