Mark Week 4

“Who Then Is This?”: Mark 4:35–6:6a

By Laura C.S. Holmes
Seattle Pacific University Assistant Professor of New Testament

Read this week’s Scripture: Mark 4:35-6:6a


Painted by Eugene Delacroix depicting Christ asleep during a storm on the lake.
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“It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane …”

In 1939, a new character appeared in comic books. This figure had a docile, newspaper-reporter persona by day, and a cloaked, superhero guise by night. While the audience could look at Clark Kent and see that he simply needed to take off his glasses and change clothes to be Superman, even his closest associate and sometime-love-interest Lois Lane could not see the Superman in Clark Kent, or the Clark Kent in Superman. Despite the simplicity of the costume change, Lois Lane showed that Superman did not need a more concealing disguise as she — and others — saw what they expected to see.

The theme of this section of the Gospel of Mark resembles Lois Lane’s blindness to Clark Kent’s identity. Jesus’ disciples raise the main question of these passages near the beginning of this section: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (4:41).

The crowds, the disciples, and Jesus’ opponents all see what Jesus is doing and come to certain conclusions about him. They see him as a teacher (rabbi), an exorcist, and a healer. His hometown and family also see him as “the carpenter, the son of Mary” (6:3). They notice many things about his identity, but they do not know — and cannot see — “who this is” any more than Lois Lane could see the connection between Superman and Clark Kent.

While the characters in the narrative may be unable to see the truth of Jesus’ identity, Mark implies that this is precisely the danger for his audience, as well. It is all too easy to look at Jesus and see what we expect to see. Unrelenting dramatic displays of power over nature, unclean spirits, illness, and, ultimately, death itself compel both the characters in the narrative and Mark’s audience to ponder in awestruck wonder, “Who then is this?”

Who Then Is This: Calming the Storm

This section of Mark begins with Jesus getting into the boat his disciples have prepared for him (4:35; see 3:9). As they are crossing the sea of Galilee, a major storm blows onto the lake. Fierce storms were common on the Sea of Galilee, given its geographical location. Since at least four of the disciples were fishermen, there is no reason to think that this was their first time dealing with a storm on the lake. Therefore, based on the disciples’ extreme fear for their lives (4:38), this must have been a terrifying storm.

Jesus, however, seems supremely unconcerned for their safety, as he sleeps through the storm (4:38; see also Jonah 1:4–5). Once woken, Jesus “rebukes” the wind and the waves, just as he has rebuked unclean spirits (see 1:25; 3:12).

Miraculously, the storm does not simply slow down but ceases immediately, producing “a great calm” (4:39). Jesus has authority over the wind and the water in a way that is expected of God alone (see Psalm 65:5–7; 89:8–9; 104:6–9; and especially 107:25–32). Jesus has brought life out of a deadly situation.

In this passage, the emotional responses of Jesus’ disciples travel in the opposite direction of Jesus’ actions. While Jesus moves from absence to authority, the disciples move from fight to fear. They are able to fight the storm until it gets too much for them to handle, and they seem personally insulted that Jesus does not seem as concerned about their lives as they are. Dealing with Jesus’ absence is the disciples’ first hurdle. Their second hurdle is facing their fear, rather than their faith, in Jesus’ actions. After such a miracle, a reader of Mark may wonder why the disciples would have been afraid, rather than worshipful [see Author’s Note 1].

The clue to this answer lies in their interpretation of Jesus’ actions. They have been thinking that they know who Jesus is. He is a teacher, a healer, an exorcist, and one who proclaims the nearness of the kingdom of God. Now, however, they realize that his power over the wind and waves is frightening in itself and far beyond what they anticipated.

An illuminated manuscript of Jesus casting out the demon into a group of pigs
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Who Then Is This: Casting out Legion

When Jesus and his disciples make it across the now-calm Sea of Galilee, they arrive in Gentile territory for the first time in the gospel. Upon arrival, their welcoming committee is a man who is living among the dead. Terrorized by violent unclean spirits, this man lives alone, away from civilization, with no apparent hope for change available to him. When Jesus comes, he brings life out of this death in the story of this Gentile’s transformation.

After Mark describes the dire situation of this man in great detail, he narrates the encounter between Jesus and the possessed man. The man immediately “bows down” before Jesus (5:6). This verb, “to bow down,” can also be translated “worship” (KJV and RSV). Why would a demon-possessed man worship Jesus, when Jesus’ own disciples cannot figure out who he is?

From the beginning of the gospel, Mark has illustrated that those who are possessed by unclean spirits have “spiritual” insight into Jesus’ identity. From Mark’s perspective, worshiping Jesus is a perfectly legitimate response from the unclean spirit, because it demonstrates Jesus’ authority over all the spirits, just as Jesus had shown his authority over the storm (see also Philippians 2:10).

Beyond his initial action of submission to Jesus, Mark’s audience witnesses an interesting dialogue between Jesus and the unclean spirit. Jesus asks the spirit’s name, and the spirit says “Legion” [see Author’s Note 2]. Even though the spirit has already submitted to Jesus, the spirit begs Jesus not to send it out of the country (5:10).

Astonishingly, Jesus consents to the spirit’s plan and sends the spirit into nearby swine, who then destroy themselves running into the sea. These connections would likely seem quite logical from a Jewish perspective. Swine are unclean animals (Leviticus 11:7–8), and they throw themselves into the water that has just demonstrated its tendency towards chaos in storms (5:13; 4:35–41). Unclean spirits go into unclean animals, which are destroyed by forces of chaos, all united in their opposition to Jesus.

When people from the surrounding countryside come to see (5:14–16) what had happened, they find a transformed man. Jesus has brought life out of his living death. These bystanders are not angry with Jesus, as they could conceivably be, given that their livelihood has just drowned itself in the sea. Instead, they are afraid (5:15). A person and a power that can bring about this kind of transformation is not a safe, controlled power. Contrary to the plea of the unclean spirit, who had begged to stay in the country, the people beg Jesus to leave. As with the unclean spirit, Jesus honors their request.

At the same time, the transformed man begs (5:18) to stay with Jesus. For the first — and only — time in the gospel, Jesus refuses to let someone who wants to follow him do so (1:17; 2:14). Instead, Jesus gives this man a different commission: he is to become a witness to “the Lord” in these Gentile cities, foreshadowing the future proclamation of the gospel to all nations (13:10). The man embraces and expands his commission. Not only is he a witness to the Lord (God), but he also proclaims “how much Jesus had done for him” (5:20). Bringing a man from death to life and foreshadowing the future proclamation of the gospel, this narrative communicates much about who Jesus is.

Who Then Is This: Curing the Bleeding, Raising the Dead

When Jesus returns to predominantly Jewish territory on the other side of the lake, he encounters a “leader of the synagogue” named Jairus, whose daughter is dying (5:22–23). Jesus agrees to go to Jairus’ house to heal the little girl (5:24). On the way, however, they encounter another woman who needs healing (5:25). Mark has clearly intercalated these stories — that is, he has set one story inside the other, like a sandwich. In this way, each story should interpret the other. The connections between the two healings are easiest to see in a chart.

Jairus’ Daughter (5:25–34, 35–43) Bleeding Woman (5:25–34) Parallels
12 years old Suffering for 12 years 12 years
At the point of death, beyond doctors’ help Doctors make illness worse Inefficacy of doctors
Dies, therefore ritually unclean Blood ritually unclean Ritual uncleanness
Brought from death to life Lifeblood restored Restoration of life
Taking her hand Touching her garments Healing by touch
Jesus claims she sleeps; they say she’s dead Many people touched Jesus, they say; why single out one? Skepticism of bystanders
Jairus falls at Jesus’ feet Woman falls down in fear and trembling Prostrate supplication
Jairus’ daughter Jesus’ “daughter” (5:34) Daughter of a [religious] leader
Jesus exhorts persistence in faith Jesus praises boldness in faith Role of faith in healing
Jairus seeks healing (also “salvation”) for his daughter The woman is healed (also “saved”) by her faith Connection between healing and salvation

This chart highlights several themes across both stories. Obviously, both stories are focused on Jesus’ ability as a healer, both in private and public settings. There is more at stake in these stories than just Jesus’ identity as a healer, however, as that identity was clear as early as Mark 1. Here, these narratives highlight Jesus’ ability to bring people from death to life. Furthermore, these stories also develop the role of faith for a healing to occur (remember 2:1–12).

When Jairus approaches Jesus, he asks Jesus to “come, lay your hands on her, in order that she might be made well and live.” “[B]e made well” is a form of the Greek verb σώζω (sozo), which also means “save.” As we saw in the healing of the paralytic in Mark 2, the salvation that Jesus brings is physical and spiritual wholeness. These women are not simply to “be made well” in the sense that they will feel better and no longer be sick. Instead, their lives will be restored, even redeemed, so that they can live wholly and completely. In both instances, Jesus demonstrates that these healings snatch life back from the clutches of death.

Both healings also mention faith. The bleeding woman is praised for her faith, which is apparent in her bold action in reaching out for Jesus’ garments. She thought she could be surreptitious, but Jesus denies her this chance. Instead, he acknowledges her action and corrects a possible misunderstanding.

It is not as though “power” leaving Jesus makes him a magician whom one simply needs to touch to receive healing. Instead, it is the woman’s faith that makes this healing possible. Just as in last week’s reading we saw faith demonstrated by boldness in lowering a paralyzed man through the roof of a house (2:4), so here faith is shown by the woman’s courage to come into contact with Jesus. She is not left trembling in shame, but Jesus gives her peace, healing, wholeness, and life out of a living death (5:33–34).

Jairus, on the other hand, has already demonstrated the kind of bold faith the woman has, in that he approaches Jesus and acknowledges Jesus’ authority. While the narrative has been open about the massive crowds who have responded appropriately to Jesus’ teaching, most of the Jewish leaders have not. Jairus, as a leader of the synagogue, is certainly an exception to that generalization.

The challenge to his faith comes not in whether Jesus can heal his daughter from her disease, but rather in why Jesus is willing to delay this healing (see, similarly, John 11:1–41). The delay costs Jairus’ daughter her life, and Jesus now asks Jairus to exhibit even more faith. A faith that persists despite obstacles, delays, and impossibilities is the kind of faith Jairus needs. The result of Jairus’ bold faith is literally life after death for his daughter.

Who Then Is This: The Carpenter, Mary’s Son

The final episode of this section of Mark describes Jesus’ homecoming, presumably at Nazareth (see 1:9). While those present are able to see Jesus’ “deeds of power” (6:2; see 5:30) and “wisdom” (6:2), they cannot reconcile these deeds with the Jesus they thought they knew. They saw the person they expected to see: the carpenter’s son, the son of Mary, the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon and other sisters (6:3). They “took offense” at Jesus, or, as the NRSV note indicates, they “stumbled” because of the conflict between their expectations and the reality they witnessed (6:3; see 4:17) [see Author’s Note 3].

“… It’s a Teacher … It’s a Carpenter’s Son”

The collective effect of these different episodes in Jesus’ ministry is a bit like the stories of Clark Kent and Superman. The disciples see Jesus as a teacher and healer, but have trouble understanding how he can, essentially, act like God. The Gerasene demoniac is a transformed man who can see who Jesus is, but he cannot follow Jesus. Both Jairus and the bleeding woman see a great healer, who can perform great “deeds of power” (6:2), but they are challenged to have even greater faith than they demonstrate when we first meet them.

Finally, those who knew Jesus best, the Lois Lanes of the story, meet Jesus when he comes back home, and are unable to account for these Superman-like deeds. Who then is this, really? He is the one who has authority and power, who exhorts people to new kinds of faith, and who continually astonishes those who think they have understood completely, bringing life out of death over and over again as one hopeless situation after another is transformed.

Questions for Further Reflection

  1. Why do you think Jesus has asked some people to keep quiet about his actions or identity (e.g., 5:43) and asked others to “go, tell” (5:19–20)?
  2. Are there areas in your life where you feel that you want to move from “death” to “life”? What kind of healing would you pray for?
  3. Think about the models of faith in the narratives in Mark 4:35–6:6a. Which of these characters do you think describe(s) your current position of faith or lack of faith? Are you like the disciples, who can fight as long as they are in control, but trade their faith for fear when they lose control? Are you like the Gerasene demoniac, who needs a full transformation to move from death to life? What about the bleeding woman, who demonstrates brave, courageous faith in reaching out to Jesus? Or Jairus, who needs persistent faith to stay with Jesus despite delays and severe disappointments? Or even the folks at Nazareth, who cannot see beyond what they expect to see?

Author’s Notes

Author’s Note 1

This fear is even more apparent in the Greek than in the NRSV translation, as a literal translation of Mark 4:41 would begin “and [the disciples] feared a great fear,” rather than “and they were filled with great awe.” This is astonishment at Jesus’ actions that is not connected with a wonder that drives one to worship, but rather with a fear that drives out faith.


Author’s Note 2

Ched Myers is one of the first scholars to develop the connection between the unclean spirit’s name, Legion, and Rome. In other words, Jesus’ exorcism could be seen as an act of political resistance, casting Legion (Roman legions of soldiers) out and sending it to its destruction (see Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus [Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2003], 191–94). As “legion” is a Latin word in this Greek text, it is certainly possible that Mark wants us to see political implications of Jesus’ actions against the unclean spirits: these spirits and Roman rule are presented on the same side, both in opposition to Jesus, and over whom Jesus has ultimate authority.


Author’s Note 3

The connection between faith and healing in these narratives (5:21–6:6a) imply that faith is a necessary precondition for healing. In some ways, this is true: If Jairus or the bleeding woman had not had the faith, expressed in courage, to seek out Jesus, it is unlikely they would have experienced healing. At the same time, other healings occur in Mark that never describe the healed person’s faith. Faith and healing do not work like a vending machine, where faith would be the monetary cost and healing would be the item purchased. There is certainly a connection between faith and healing, but Mark allows Jesus the freedom to heal with and without particular preconditions being satisfied.


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Discussion and Comments

3 Comments to ““Who Then Is This?”: Mark 4:35–6:6a”

  1. Hannah says:

    I really enjoyed this lectio reading.

    One of my favorite songs is actually inspired by this biblical passage, “Touch the Hem of His Garment” by Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers. If you have never heard it, you must listen!

  2. Kathy says:

    Laura — My Bible study group is using your Mark Lectio series. We are a few weeks behind the current one, but everyone is thoroughly enjoying your writing. It has sparked much discussion. Could you e-mail me a bit more about what you meant in your note, “This is astonishment at Jesus’ actions that is not connected with a wonder that drives one to worship, but rather with a fear that drives out faith.”? We were discussing what the disciples must have felt to have been in this catastrophic storm, see Jesus snoozing blissfully, matter of factly calming the storm, and then scolding them for their lack of faith. The question arose, “Did this cause the disciples to have more faith or less, and why?” Thanks to you for writing this and to your mother to alerting me to it.
    Aunt Kathy