In 1982, I returned to seminary and took a job as youth minister at a church near the seminary. Because of some of my studies in seminary that semester, and because of something I heard Dr. John Piper say in a sermon, I determined to make the Gospel According to St. Mark a major life’s project.
At the time, 27 years ago, it seemed like many other resolutions that I made but probably wouldn’t keep. Surprisingly, I have kept that resolution, much to the chagrin of all those around me who have come to hear far more sermons, lessons and talks from Mark than any other Gospel, and especially to the regret of my Bible students, who have come to view my annual trek through Mark as the great mountain to be climbed in my Bible survey class.
This began with seeds planted by Dr. G.R. Beasley-Murray’s introduction to the New Testament, and Dr. David Garland’s class on the Gospels. It continued in my own studies of the New Testament and building an extensive library on Jesus studies, particularly regarding the literary aspects of the Gospel of Mark.
In my ministry, this turned into something I love to do: cover the entire Gospel of Mark in the setting of a retreat or 3 sessions. A large part of this is asking everyone to read Mark and then, working with a group, graphically present the Gospel of Mark.
I’ve now led studies of the Gospel of Mark dozens and dozens of times. I go through the book 3-4 times a year with my students, and have done so for 15 years. I’ve concentrated on Mark in my preaching and teaching. I can be annoying about my interest in Mark, but I hope it’s been helpful to my students and congregations.
It is immediately apparent that almost no one has any idea that the Gospels have structure, and that this structure is a major part of the author’s way of telling the story. A few hours of time with Mark under the guidance of anyone who knows the terrain will reveal the following facts.
a) The Gospel has two halves.
b) Most of the miracles, healings, Kingdom teaching, parables, exorcisms and initial discipleship material is in the first half of the book.
c) This first half has only the slightest of foreshadowed interest in the coming passion of Jesus.
d) The first half occurs in the Galilean context, which is both Jewish and multi-cultural.
e) This first half is dominated by the question “Who is Jesus?” This is asked in the context of Messianic expectation.
f) This question is asked and answered multiple times and ways. It is unmistakable.
g) Jesus’ response to clear identifications of him in the first half of the Gospel are downplayed, including the “Mark’s Secret” material, where Jesus discourages actions that would reveal him to be a miracle-working messiah.
h) The first half of Mark abruptly comes to a conclusion in the middle of chapter 8, as the disciples correctly identify Jesus and he begins repeatedly and plainly speaking of his upcoming passion.
It is obvious that the author of Mark has arranged the material in the Gospel so that a correct identification of Jesus in the context of his works is the critical aspect of the first half of the Gospel, but that this identification is not “true” until the passion/cross/resurrection is experienced.
While Matthew and Luke have more material and a more complex arrangement, this basic outline (minus Mark’s secret) holds true for both of those Gospels as well. The material in the Gospel of John is quite different, but also holds to the idea that Jesus himself revealed his full purpose in stages, leading directly to the cross, resurrection, Pentecost and beyond.
Without an appreciation of this structure, Christians typically see the first half of the ministry of Jesus as a collection of stories and teaching with no real relationship to one another. Preachers have, for centuries, used these miracles, parables, exorcisms, etc. as their playground, hanging onto these texts whatever they wanted the texts to say or mean.
The lesson here is that the first part of Jesus ministry was purposeful. It’s purpose was to “connect” Jesus to those who heard and followed him. Jesus is “on display” in the first part of his ministry in a different way than in his passion, but in a way that is crucial for Christians today to understand, imitate and include as they present the full, Biblical message about Jesus and the Gospel.
In the next post, I will discuss Matthew and Luke, and the discipleship material that precedes the passion accounts in all three.
This will build for us the following picture of the three primary purposes of the ministry of Jesus:
1) Miracles, exorcisms and signs that reveal the presence of the Kingdom by way of the presence of God the Son in history.
2) Kingdom teaching on the nature of the presence of God in history and the role played by Jesus in that Kingdom.
3) Preparation and formation of faithful disciples of Jesus who serve the King in the Kingdom and in history.