St Marks Gospel Session 4




1 Princess Elizabeth way, Cheltenham GL51 7RA

Professor Hazel Bryan and Professor Philip Esler
(The University of Gloucestershire)

7.00 pm on Wednesday 29th November and 6th, 13th and 20th December 2017.



One of the most powerful theological emphases in the Gospel of Mark is the extent to which Christology and discipleship are intertwined. As this integration is achieved via the way the narrative unfolds, it is clearly to be attributed to Mark and not to the tradition before him. This gives one some idea of the magnitude of Mark’s theological creativity and insight. Reading him we are in the presence of an intellectual and theological giant.

The importance of discipleship to Mark comes out very early in the Gospel. Immediately after the summary of Jesus’ teaching in Mark 1:15-16 (‘Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the Good News of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Good News."’) we have his call of the first disciples and teaching:

[16] And passing along by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net in the sea; for they were fishermen.
[17] And Jesus said to them, "Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men."
[18] And immediately they left their nets and followed him.
[19] And going on a little farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets.
[20] And immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and followed him.
[21] And they went into Capernaum; and immediately on the sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught. (Mark 1:16-21)

Note the immediacy of their response to Jesus, even though this involves breaking up families and domestic economies. So, gathering disciples is mission-critical as far as Jesus is concerned. Yet to understand what he means by discipleship it is best to go somewhere else in the Gospel.

The part of the Gospel where the interconnection between Christology and discipleship is worked out most carefully, as Ernest Best pointed out in a hugely influential essay in 1970 (reprinted in his Disciples and Discipleship: Studies in the Gospel According to Mark [Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1986], pp. 1-16) is in 8:22-10:52. This theme is also taken up by William Telford in his book Mark (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), pp.140-144.

Noting that in Mark 1:2 a voice off-stage spoke of one who would prepare ‘your way’, the context for this section of the Gospel is a journey to Jerusalem, with seven references to being ‘on the way’ (hodos: 8:27; 9:33, 34; 10:17, 32, 46, 52). This underlines the fact that discipleship is mapped onto a process that has a spatial and a temporal dimension. Movement through time and place was the context for the first disciples to be shown what discipleship was about and it is also the case for us.

That Mark intended this section as a somewhat self-contained treatment of Christology and discipleship appears from the fact that it is framed at its beginning and its end by two miracles where blindness is cured, or perhaps we should say where sight is given: 8:22-26 and 10:46-52. Let us enter this section with reference to the first of these miracles.

Mark 8:22-26

[22] And they came to Bethsaida. And some people brought to him a blind man, and begged him to touch him.
[23] And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the village; and when he had spat into his eyes and laid his hands upon him, he asked him, "Do you see anything?"
[24] And he looked up and said, "I see men; but they look like trees, walking."
[25] Then again he laid his hands upon his eyes; and he looked intently and was restored, and saw everything clearly.
[26] And he sent him away to his home, saying, "Do not even enter the village."

This story makes Jesus look a bit like a Hellenistic miracle-worker, which may be why Matthew and Luke omit this story (as they do Mark 7:31-37, where Jesus also uses saliva in a miracle cure of deaf and dumbness). But the incredible thing about this miracle is that Jesus has to do it in two stages. Despite the impact this has on his Christology, Mark is willing to portray Jesus as, in effect, having botched the cure at his first attempt! This is almost certainly to allow Mark to say something about discipleship, that the effort to get the disciples to understand who he is will not be a straightforward process. In short, they will only come to see gradually and over time. Note that this miracle ends with one of the Messianic secrecy statements.

In the very next verse after this, we find Jesus putting the big question that we considered last week too:

And Jesus went on with his disciples, to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, "Who do men say that I am?" (Mark 8:27)

The point of this question is so that Mark can set up a distinction between what the crowds think about Jesus and what the disciples (and Mark’s readers) think about him,

They answer: ‘And they told him, "John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others one of the prophets."’ (Mark 8:28)

But then he asks them a more pointed question, which inevitably raises the question of discipleship:

[29] And he asked them, "But you, who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Christ." This is the first time that a character in the Gospel has used the word Christos. Peter is certainly honoured by this recognition. He is on the path of discipleship. To his reply we would comment: ‘The right answer.’

But Jesus then immediately re-interprets what Christos might mean:

[30] And he charged them to tell no one about him.
[31] And he began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.

This is the first Passion Prediction (the others being 9:31 and 10:32-33). So Jesus immediately tells them what we can imagine was big new: that he would be a suffering, dying and rising Messiah.

This proves too much for Peter:

‘And he said this plainly. And Peter took him, and began to rebuke him’ (Mark 8:32). Now this would have been a perfectly reasonable response at the time. Only the fact that we are so used to having a Messiah of this kind causes us to miss the naturalness of Peter’s reply. Ernest Best wrote:

… so part of discipleship is acceptance of the strange idea that Jesus the Lord
should die, and acceptance takes time; even at the end of the journey to Jerusalem the disciples do not fully understand; and if they do not fully understand the death of Jesus, still less do they understand what this means for themselves (supra, p. 7).

But Jesus isn’t having any of Peter’s rejection of a suffering and dying Messiah:

But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter, and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men." (Mark 8:33)

Many scholars believe that the two-stage process of understanding that Peter goes through, first the recognition of Jesus as the Christ and then the need to accept that this will be a suffering, dying and rising Christ, parallels the two-stage healing of the blind man in Mark 8:22-26. In other words, becoming a disciple of Jesus is also a process of coming to sight, or to understanding, and for this is symbolically equivalent to the process of moving from physical blindness to sight.

But his emphatic statement of the nature of Jesus’ Messiahship, that is, a powerful statement of Marcan Christology, is followed by Jesus teaching on discipleship, thus showing the connection between the two areas (Mark 8:34-9:1):

[34] And he called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
[35] For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and sake of the Good News will save it.
[36] For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?
[37] For what can a man give in return for his life?
[38] For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."
[1] And he said to them, "Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power."

Mark has here collected six sayings.

Note that in v. 34 Jesus calls in the crowd with the disciples. This emphasizes the universality of the point. Note the three elements: deny oneself; lift up one’s cros

s and follow him. ‘Following’ is a standard NT expression for discipleship. It fits with being on the way. Jesus is making a call to fall in behind him and follow him. It is not about acquiring knowledge, but about going along behind a particular person. Deny onelself is not about denying this or that; it is the opposite of affirming oneself, of putting a value on oneself above that of God or other people.

‘Take up the cross’ is probably not meant literally. Luke makes this very clear by adding ‘daily’ (Luke 9:23). But it is not literal in Mark either. The next statement ‘and follow me’ cannot be a reference to the short journey to the place of execution. Also, Mark clearly expects that some Christ-followers will live until the Parousia (the second coming) (Mark 9:1).

In V. 35 to lose one’s life probably means more than just ‘die.’ To lose one’s life, as Ernest Best suggested, probably means to succumb to the sort of temptations mentioned in the Parable of the Sower. This indicates the type of demands that discipleship makes on us.

The Transfiguration Account (9:2-13).

After this we have the Marcan account of the Transfiguration (9:2-13).

[2] And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves; and he was transfigured before them,
[3] and his garments became glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them.
[4] And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses; and they were talking to Jesus.
[5] And Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah."
[6] For he did not know what to say, for they were exceedingly afraid.
[7] And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, "This is my beloved Son; listen to him."
[8] And suddenly looking around they no longer saw any one with them but Jesus only.

[9] And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of man should have risen from the dead.
[10] So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what the rising from the dead meant.
[11] And they asked him, "Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?"
[12] And he said to them, "Elijah does come first to restore all things; and how is it written of the Son of man, that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt?
[13] But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him."

Note that above all the Transfiguration is about Christology. The central message is that God reveals the divine sonship of Jesus to the core three disciples just as he had revealed it to Jesus himself at the baptism. But the disciples need more in the way of accompanying events than Jesus himself did.

But there is also some Christology here. Peter still does not understand. As Morna Hooker has suggested, in suggesting that they build three tents, one each for Jesus, Moses and Elijah, Peter comes close to equating Jesus with these other figures. But this is softened somewhat by being attributed to Peter’s great fear. But we then learn that they were not sure what rising from the dead might mean.

It used to be thought that the Transfiguration was a misplace resurrection account retrojected back into the pre-Easter experience of Jesus. This idea has been largely abandoned now. Nevertheless, it does bring home (as Eugene Boring, Mark: A Commentary, p. 261, suggests) that ‘the Markan narrative as a whole is indeed seen from the perspective of the risen Lord of the church’s faith, so that there is a sense in which much of his narrative is a retrojection of post-Easter faith onto a pre-Easter screen.’ Here the line between early Christian theology and the historical Jesus was not firm or crisp.

Healing of a Possessed Boy (Mark 9:14-29).

When Jesus and the inner three disciples descend from the mountain they discover the disciples had been unable to exorcise a demon from a young boy. As Donahue and Harrington suggest (The Gospel of Mark, p. 280), ‘9:14-29 reminds us that even with the glory of Jesus made manifest in his transfiguration the power of evil continues to exist, and that the disciples’ faith remains inadequate.’

The conversation between the father and Jesus is very notable:

[23] And Jesus said to him, "If you can! All things are possible to him who believes (pisteuonti)."
[24] Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, "I believe (pisteuo); help my unbelief (apistia)!"

This is one of the most popular verses in the New Testament because it seems to reflect the mixed nature of faith for most people. Jesus seems to be inviting the father to move to a higher level of faith.

But then there is a conversation between Jesus and his disciples:

[28] And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, "Why could we not cast it out?"
[29] And he said to them, "This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer."

This looks like a Marcan message related to discipleship for the later church: ‘Even after the victory of God over demonic powers at the resurrection, the church still itself confronted with such powers and is not always able to overcome them’ (Boring, Mark, 276).

Second Passion Prediction and The Meaning of Discipleship: Second Version (Mark 9:31-50)

Now we find the same pattern as in Mark 8:31-38, a Passion Prediction plus instructions about discipleship. For shortly after this we have the second Passion Prediction (9:31), coupled with the disciples’ typical incomprehension:

[31] for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, "The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him; and when he is killed, after three days he will rise."
[32] But they did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to ask him.

We now have very specific instructions about discipleship (Mark 9:34-50).

[34] But they were silent; for on the way they had discussed with one another who was the greatest.
[35] And he sat down and called the twelve; and he said to them, "If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all."
[36] And he took a child, and put him in the midst of them; and taking him in his arms, he said to them,
[37] "Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me."
[38] John said to him, "Teacher, we saw a man casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him, because he was not following us."
[39] But Jesus said, "Do not forbid him; for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon after to speak evil of me.
[40] For he that is not against us is for us.
[41] For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ, will by no means lose his reward.
[42] "Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea.
[43] And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.
[45] And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell.
[47] And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell,
[48] where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.
[49] For every one will be salted with fire.
[50] Salt is good; but if the salt has lost its saltness, how will you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another."

The theme of the disciples’ misunderstanding is continued in the dispute they have about which one of them is the greatest and by trying to restrict the power of Jesus to their own narrow circle (vv. 38-40).

Note that v. 35, which represents an inversion of the usual honour culture of this world, concerns the need to focus on the humble service of others. This would have been very fresh and new in the first century CE.

There are many Christological dimensions to this passage as well.

Mark 10

Let us now leap forward to the end of this section:

[32] And they were on the way, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; and they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him,

[33] saying, "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles;
[34] and they will mock him, and spit upon him, and scourge him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise."
[35] And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him, and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you."
[36] And he said to them, "What do you want me to do for you?"
[37] And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory."
[38] But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?"
[39] And they said to him, "We are able." And Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized;
[40] but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared."
[41] And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John.
[42] And Jesus called them to him and said to them, "You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.
[43] But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant,
[44] and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.
[45] For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."

For the third time we have the same pattern, a Passion Prediction and then teaching about discipleship. That teaching again begins with the disciples’ misunderstanding. Vv. 42-44 are critical for the nature of discipleship.

Then we have the closing miracle:

[47] And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"
[48] And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent; but he cried out all the more, "Son of David, have mercy on me!"
[49] And Jesus stopped and said, "Call him." And they called the blind man, saying to him, "Take heart; rise, he is calling you."
[50] And throwing off his mantle he sprang up and came to Jesus.
[51] And Jesus said to him, "What do you want me to do for you?" And the blind man said to him, "Master, let me receive my sight."
[52] And Jesus said to him, "Go your way; your faith has made you well." And immediately he received his sight and followed him on the way.

This time there is no botching of the cure. And a man who can now see following Jesus on the way symbolizes the true disciple.