Mark 15:34-39. The secret is out.

And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “Behold, he is calling Elijah.” And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

  1. In the darkness, Jesus cries out, using the opening words of Psalm 22. What does he mean? Why does he quote this psalm?

  1. Some bystanders, hearing Jesus’ words, say that they’ll wait around and see if Elijah shows up to rescue him. Why do they take it that this is what Jesus said- why would it make sense to them if he had?

  1. The Temple curtain is torn from top to bottom. Why do we need to know? What is the history of the Temple curtain and significance of the tearing? Why from top to bottom and not bottom to top?

  1. The centurion, watching Jesus die, declared him to be the Son of God. What did he mean?

  1. v37-39 is the high point of Mark’s Gospel, both theologically and structurally. How does it fit into his structure?

 

1. In the darkness, Jesus cries out, using the opening words of Psalm 22. What does he mean? Why does he quote this psalm?

Psalm 22 actually ends on a high note. It is the prayer of a man weighed down by suffering, persecuted unjustly, and despairing. But he calls out to God, and although he felt abandoned, he is sure- in the end- that God will answer. The righteous man seems to know that he will be vindicated, and his enemies overthrown.

But Jesus doesn’t quote the end of the psalm. He quotes only the first verse. Those are the words Jesus uses- the cry of a righteous man who feels abandoned by God. Jesus is usually very aware of the context of all the Scriptures he quotes or to which he alludes, and we are usually justified in reading a great deal into his words. I’m not convinced that the same applies here though. Jesus is in agony, and to read the happy ending of the psalm into his words here is to undermine the words as they stand. On the cross, we see Jesus overwhelmed. Not just with physical pain and exhaustion- which none of the Gospel writers dwell on even though it must have been considerable- and not just with the taunts of the crowd and the humiliation of his position, but with the agony of being abandoned by his Father.

As a Christian, I can say that sin makes me miserable. I mean, I sin all the time. There has never been a sinless moment in my life. But at times, I am especially aware of some failing. It is particularly obvious to me that I am a sinner. My own conscience accuses me. And that is a miserable feeling for a child of God, to feel cut off from God. And if I feel like that, one who can go days without really praying and not even realise it, how much more would Jesus feel the weight of sin? Jesus has always lived in complete harmony with God. He has never known what it is to sin. He has never been cut off from God. Nothing has ever come between the Son and the Father. And now, he looks up to his Father, and there is nobody there. And make no mistake- Jesus is here accursed. He is God forsaken, having become the sin-bearer.

If you’ve ever gone swimming, and gone to swim a length underwater, and your lungs are nearly bursting when you reach the end, and you go to surface, but one of your friends is there, and puts his hand on your head for just a second to stop you coming up- there is a moment of panic, a split second when you think you’re going to drown. Maybe this felt like that, but worse. It is as though he has gone down underwater, and can’t see any way back up again.

In what way was Jesus forsaken? In the way that God forsakes sinners. We find after the fall that God forsakes the company of Adam. God has walked with Adam in the garden, but now Adam is driven out of the garden, forced out of God’s presence, away from the tree of life.

At the flood, God forsakes the world. He abandons it because of its sin, and he destroys it. Sodom and Gomorrah became God-forsaken places. Had there been ten righteous men there, they wouldn’t have become so, but there weren’t, and they did. And now God forsakes his Son. He is cursed, hanging on a tree, as Paul writes to the Galatians. He was made sin for our sake, Paul writes to the church at Corinth.

Psalm 22 must have been on Jesus’ mind on the cross- it can’t not have been. He’s seen people dividing his garments (Ps 22:18/ Mark 15:24). He’s seen them mock, wagging their heads (Ps 22:7/ Mark 15:29). They’ve taunted him, challenging him to save himself (Ps 22:8/ Mark 15:30-31). Perhaps now Jesus is so weary that he can’t even pray in his own words, and the words that come most easily are those of the man broken and abandoned, feeling that God is far from helping him or hearing his prayers.

And yet Jesus does pray. He is utterly forsaken by God, and feels it, but he is still looking to his Father. He sees God turning his face away- and yet keeps looking to God, keeps trusting. And though he experiences the pain and the God-forsakenness, and cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, there will come a time when his head breaks up through the water again, and he will be able to breathe, and his Father will speak to him. He will be buried in the tomb, but on the third day, he will rise again. And even before that, he will be able to cry out as he dies, and his cry- as we shall see- will not be one of despair, but one of victory.

 

2. Some bystanders, hearing Jesus’ words, say that they’ll wait around and see if Elijah shows up to rescue him. Why do they take it that this is what Jesus said- why would it make sense to them if he had?

On hearing his cry, one of the bystanders seems to have thought that he was calling Elijah. Why the misunderstanding? There are several possibilities.

a) There was a Jewish myth that Elijah would come for the oppressed and needy righteous man, to help in his hour of need. It was folk-religion, superstition, much like the patron saints of some Catholics. Elijah was the patron saint of the oppressed, and so they might pray to him. The later Jewish literature indicates that this belief was present- there are a number of bizarre episodes where Elijah is said to have made a sudden appearance to come to someone’s aid. So perhaps these men are Jewish, but are more in tune with the folk Judaism of their day than the Bible. And if Jesus’ cry is indistinct, then perhaps they genuinely thought he was calling Elijah, mistaking “Eloi” for Elijah’s name. There’s option 1. But it seems unlikely. Would a Jew, even a not-very-religious one, really not know Psalm 22? Would he never have heard it? Would he not have sung it himself at some point, or heard it read in the synagogue? This level of ignorance is very unlikely- like someone who has grown up in the English evangelical scene from childhood, but who doesn’t know that the words “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound” form the first line of a hymn, or that “Shine, Jesus, Shine” is the start of a ubiquitous and irritating chorus. Unless Jesus’ voice was so unclear as to obscure the words, this option seems pretty shaky. And if Jesus’ voice was that unclear, then how does Mark know what he said?

b) It is in fact Roman soldiers who are the bystanders saying this, and not Jews. Their ignorance of Ps 22 is to be expected. But then, you have the opposite problem. They show surprising knowledge for Gentile Romans. Would such men know about Elijah, or any Jewish folk religion going around? Maybe they’d have picked a bit of it up, but then would they give Jesus wine and suggest waiting to see if Elijah comes? Maybe the wine and the suggestion are mockery- and with Psalm 69:21 in the background, that seems likely- but Roman mockery wouldn’t take the form of exaggeratedly holding the breath and waiting for Elijah to show up. Some think that the very fact that one of these men is able to get near to the cross shows that he must have been a soldier in the execution detail. But it is far from unthinkable that the soldiers would let bystanders come near, as long as they weren’t trying to get the criminals down.

c) The bystanders are Jewish. They understand full well that Jesus is quoting Ps 22, and they also are well aware of the folk religious superstitions going around. But they are above such beliefs, and are mocking Jesus,. Perhaps they are pretending that he couldn’t possibly be calling on God, and so are using the folk tradition as a joke. “Oh, listen, he must be calling Elijah! Give him some wine to keep him going a bit longer! Clear the area, and let’s see if Elijah comes to save him!” That would be my reading of what is going on, and Mark may be introducing a further irony here- Elijah has come, and they did not listen. They put John the Baptist to death. So how is Elijah to appear and deliver the Elisha?

 

3. The Temple curtain is torn from top to bottom. Why do we need to know? What is the history of the Temple curtain and significance of the tearing? Why from top to bottom and not bottom to top?

Mark whisks us away from the cross outside the city, to the heart of the city, to the Temple. v38 could be cut out, and the narrative would superficially run more smoothly. So why is v38 there? Because Mark is making an important point? Well, Mark is probably making more than one important point.

In the Tabernacle of Moses, and the Temple that succeeded it, there was an inner barrier and an outer barrier. Exodus 26:31-36 describes both; the inner curtain separates the Most Holy Place from the Holy Place, and the outer curtain separates the Holy Place from the rest of the Temple. The inner curtain is blue and purple and scarlet, and carries images of cherubim, and the outer curtain may well be a larger copy of it- Josephus, the Jewish-Roman historian, described the outer curtain of Herod’s Temple as carrying a panorama of the heavens. The function of both curtains (and Mark doesn’t name one of the two in particular) is like the function of the curtain between first class and livestock class in an aeroplane. It marks the boundary, and hides the inner sanctum from the unwashed gaze of the masses.

Go back to Genesis 1, and we see God and Adam walking together in the cool of the evening. They speak face to face, as it were. But then in Genesis 3, man sets himself up as God. Because of sin, Adam is driven from the mountain garden where he knew God and the way back is permanently barred. What bars it? Why can’t Adam just climb back up the mountain and walk back into the garden? Gn 3:24- the cherubim and a flaming sword turning every which way. There is fire and a sword and guardians. Man is cut off from God. There is a barrier- with cherubim.

Then fast forward to Exodus. God has chosen a nation, and has promised to be their God, and to dwell among them. How will God dwell among them? Moses is given detailed instructions about a tent, a tabernacle, which he is to make, and which is to be the place where he will meet with God. This is the “Tent of Meeting”. It is a series of concentric chambers, one within the next within the next, like those Russian dolls you can buy. There are two veils within the tent of meeting. The inner veil splits the Holy Place with the table of show bread and the lamp stand from the Most Holy Place with the Ark of the Covenant inside. God comes to rest over the Most Holy Place, and there are boundaries in between God and the rest of the world. On the innermost veil to the Most Holy Place, what is pictured on the divider? Cherubim, just like at Eden, barring the way in to God’s presence.

It isn’t just the tent of meeting itself that forms the layers. The whole Israelite system is packed full of layers. Israel live in a camp, and there is a boundary between the camp and the wilderness. And within the camp, there is an inner layer of Levites, camped in the middle with all the other tribes around them on the outside, because the Levites are holy to the Lord. And the tabernacle is in the middle of the Levite encampment There is a multiple separation between God and the rest of the world.

In Leviticus 16, there is a glimmer of hope. One man, on one day of the year, can actually come all the way in to the Most Holy Place. The high priest can break through all the boundaries and be in God’s immediate presence- on earth, at least. If you read through the chapter, you will see all the rituals, the detailed washings and changing of clothes which had to be done, and all the blood that had to be shed, before a sinful man could enter the Most Holy Place. Everyone must be aware of how holy God is, that he cannot be freely approached. Aaron’s sons who offer unauthorised fire, and Uzzah who actually dares to touch the ark, all die immediately. There is no “Step away from the holy thing” warning- just instant death (Lev 10, 1 Chron 13). The holy God is dangerous to sinful men.

With all that as background, we can see several things going on here. On the one hand, this coupld be seen as a desecration of the Temple. But on the other hand, it could be seen as a consecration of everywhere else.

In view of 12:38-13:2, it is pretty clear that Jesus took a dim view of the Temple and its activities. The Temple was run by those who devoured the houses of destitute widows, and it would soon be levelled to the ground. The properly appointed guardians of the Temple had turned it into a robbers’ hideout. God’s Son came to purify the Temple, and they have killed him. They have already desecrated the Temple, and now God himself desecrates the Most Holy Place within it. With Jesus’ death, the fate of Israel is sealed. She has rejected the Messiah, and judgement is inevitable. The tearing of the curtain is a foretaste, a guarantee of what is to come when the whole temple is torn apart.

But at the same time, there is another- and corresponding- significance. The point of the original veil was to bar access to God. But now God himself reaches down from heaven and tears the veil in half. It is important that the veil is torn from top to bottom, the way it would be torn by God himself reaching down from heaven to grasp the top. God is removing the inmost barrier to his presence. He is opening the way in. This verse fits just where it is. Jesus dies, and through his death Eden is reopened for those who come through him. Man can walk with God again. The obsolescence of the Jewish Temple means the ingrafting of the Gentiles. The Messiah comes and the Jews reject him, but he comes to open a way for all, Jew and Gentile alike, into God’s presence. The barriers are all torn down.

It is an interesting question as to what was actually in the Most Holy Place at this point in history. Originally, the Ark of the Covenant had been housed here- the visible symbol of God’s presence, the seat of God. But the fate of the Ark is mysterious- we read at the end of Jeremiah that the Babylonians ransacked the Temple and stole away all the precious things of gold and silver- but the Ark itself is not mentioned. Did the Babylonians take it? If so, was it ever brought back to Jerusalem? There is no mention of it in Nehemiah or Ezra. When Herod the Great rebuilt the Temple, was the Ark around? We don’t know. And once the Most Holy Place had been rebuilt, only the High Priest would know what was in there. So if the veil is torn to expose the Ark, it fits well with the way being opened to God. But if the veil is torn to expose the absence of the Ark, then it fits with the exposure of the emptiness of the Temple-made-with-hands.

Either way, it means that we can draw near to God through his Son, Jesus Christ. We can have the confidence to come to God. God made the world and everything in it, and we are sin-stained little creatures. God is perfect and undefiled, but we can come near through one who can make us perfect and undefiled. I don’t know whether you are ever afraid of God. Whether you ever know that you are unworthy, feel that you are sinful. Feel more like running away from him than coming into his presence? Well, you’re right. But you can’t run from him. Where would you run to? God made you and everything there is- you can’t run and you can’t hide. And the torn curtain tells you that unworthy as you are, you can come because of Jesus Christ. Come trusting in him, and you will be received as a son.

 

4. The centurion, watching Jesus die, declared him to be the Son of God. What did he mean?

Mark’s Gospel began with the statement “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” And here, very near the end, we have the same title for Jesus. The centurion who was standing at the foot of the cross, and who presumably had been in charge of the actual crucifixion, hears Jesus’ loud cry, and it amazes him. He hears it, and it makes him say “this man was the Son of God”. This was a hard man, and a successful man. He was an active soldier, who had been promoted to be in charge of a hundred men. He wasn’t young and foolish, and he wasn’t old and senile. He is no stranger to death. We hide death away from ourselves, putting the old into nursing homes and hospitals, rather than keeping them at home. When our loved ones die, we put them into coffins and don’t look at them. That isn’t the case in Israel, and certainly wouldn’t be the case for this man. He must have seen plenty of men die. Probably hundreds if he had anything to do with execution squads in Jerusalem. This should be just another day at work for him, but it isn’t. What makes this particular death so different for him? Why is he amazed, and what does he mean by that phrase owning Jesus as Son of God?

Perhaps oddly, it is the way in which Jesus breathes his last that surprises the soldier. We might expect him to be surprised by the unnatural darkness, but it is the cry and the way in which Jesus dies that makes him say that Jesus is the Son of God.

How did the Roman commander understand the phrase he uses? It is difficult to know exactly what he actually meant when he said it. He’s a Roman, and probably has a Hellenic theological background. It is probably some sort of Greco-Roman expression of attained divinity, or a heroism so dramatic that it can only be the work of the gods. In his culture, it was commonplace to believe in many gods and goddesses, all with special qualifications and areas of power. But these gods and goddesses weren’t much like God. They were basically big magic men and women. They had human desires, human temper tantrums, and limitations- they weren’t all-powerful. Sometimes they fell in love, and came into the world and slept with men and women, and had children. And these “sons of gods” were heroes, and were themselves idolised. Achilles was the son of Peleus, a human king, and Thetis, a sea goddess. His mother dipped him in the Styx when he was a child, and he became invulnerable- all except the part she was holding on to, his heel. This is why we have the phrase “an Achilles’ heel”. Hercules was ranked among the gods after his death. In the book of Acts, we read of Simon Magus who did impressive works of power, and the people of Samaria called him “the divine power known as the Great Power.” (Acts 8:10).

There is all that background, and one more thing. Something possibly closer to home for a Roman centurion. “Son of god” was a term used for Caesar. There was the cult of emperor worship, where the emperors had themselves set up as divine. Like Hercules, but while they were still alive, the emperors claimed to be gods. And now one of Caesar’s own soldiers is using the term for a naked bruised battered broken dying man. It is strange. This man would have known about- maybe even taken part in- what had gone on in the barracks, where the soldiers mocked Jesus and spat on him. But still, he sees something somehow noble and heroic in the way Jesus dies, and he is driven to express his thoughts when he hears Jesus cry out. It is a bizarre comparison. The emperor, who stands in Rome, in shining clothes, with crowds cheering him as his endless armies march past- and this man, convicted as a criminal and now dead. The emperor, the supreme power in a dominion so vast that you could travel on a horse for half a year and not cross it, and this bloodstained friendless helpless Jew. And yet the centurion still says “This man was the Son of God”

What is it about this cry that evokes the statement? Jesus’ final cry is not a whimper, but a victory cry. John tells us that he cried “It is finished”. Quite possibly the centurion didn’t understand what Jesus was saying, and it isn’t important in Mark’s scheme, since Mark doesn’t record it. But it is clear that Jesus didn’t die as crucified men were supposed to- slowly and painfully weakening until the effort required to breathe was too much. He shouted loudly, and his cry was one of victory. Like the torn curtain in the Temple, this is testimony to the fact that his work was accomplished on the cross. Mark has shown us that Jesus has been leading up to this through the whole of his public ministry. Mark has been working up to it through the whole of his Gospel. Jesus came to die. He deliberately, willingly, obediently laid down his life, the shepherd for his sheep. And so Jesus doesn’t die a defeated figure- his death has not been in vain. The centurion presumably thought that this Jesus, “King of the Jews” as the sign above him read, was another failed religious revolutionary. A man who had wanted to lead the Jews in an uprising against Rome, and was now dying at Roman hands, his followers scattered. Such a man would have reason only to despair. He would see his life’s work in tatters. But Jesus clearly does not.

And even though all the centurion may have meant by his statement that Jesus was the Son of God was that he died bravely and triumphantly, it is clear what Mark means. We don’t limit the meaning of this statement to the meaning of the man speaking it. Think of Caiaphas in John’s Gospel, saying “It is better for you that one man should die for the people”- by which he means “Let’s kill Jesus and stop this Messianic nonsense getting out of hand and getting us into a fight with Rome”, but John tells us that he spoke as a prophet because Jesus would die for the nation, and not the nation only but all the scattered children of God (John 11:50f). Or think of Peter’s statement about the OT prophets in 1 Peter 1:1-12. The prophets themselves didn’t fully understand all that they said. They realised that there were deeper meanings than the immediate one. The OT is like a room full of dimly lit figures and mysterious shadows- but when you study the NT and come back to the OT, it is as though somebody has turned the lights on. We can see so much more of what is there in the OT than the Jews ever did, because we understand what it is pointing to. And so it is here. Jesus does die with a shout of triumph, which is probably what the centurion is referring to, but we are to understand more than he did. We don’t read his words as 1st century Romans. Mark has identified Jesus as the Son of God right at the outset (1:1). Mark has recorded for us that the Father said “You are my beloved Son” at Jesus’ baptism, and “This is my beloved Son” on the Mount of Transfiguration. Now the centurion also says it. He has never seen or heard anything like this in his life before, and even if he doesn’t see this far, the cross reveals Jesus as the Son of God, doing his Father’s will even to the point of death, and loving his own even to the point of death.

Again, like the torn curtain, this shows us that Jesus’ death worked. It accomplished what it was meant to do. Jesus was the shepherd, laying down his life for his sheep- and it was not pointless. He was not like a shepherd who fights the lion, and loses, and dies knowing that the lion will go on to destroy the flock. By dying, Jesus won.

 

5. v37-39 is the high point of Mark’s Gospel, both theologically and structurally. How does it fit into his structure?

How does Mark work as a book? What is the structure? The Gospels are structured- they are considerable works of literature. They are works of art. A great painting isn’t simply a realistic snapshot of what the painter sees. It is an impression, a meaning-laden image. Each brushstroke is designed to hold the eye or to direct the attention in a certain way. A master portrait-painter might be giving you a portrait of Lord and Lady X, but his intent isn’t just to show you what they looked like on the outside to the disinterested observer. He will frame the couple, pose them, paint light and shadow, use colour and perspective, in order to focus the attention on certain things. He will bring out some aspects of reality and minimize others in order to tell a story about the couple, about their characters, and their relationship to each other. The Gospel writers, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, are doing the same sort of thing. If they weren’t, then we wouldn’t need four Gospels. We should expect to see the Gospel writers using form and structure and style to advance their theological agendas. And when we read their works, that is what we do see.

We’ve observed several times that Mark has split his Gospel into two halves, geographically and thematically. The first part is set around Galilee, where Jesus proclaims to Israel that the Kingdom of God has come, and demonstrates that it is among them. The second part is set on the way to, and in, Jerusalem, where Jesus teaches that the king must die, and that his kingdom is one of humility and servant-leadership. Mark overlays the geographical divide with a change in focus. In the Galilee half, Jesus teaches that he is the king and the kingdom has come. In the Jerusalem half he teaches that as king, he will lay down his life for his people. First half, Galilee, Jesus is the Messiah. Second half, Jerusalem, Jesus is a particular sort of Messiah with a particular work to do. This is a stylised presentation, but there’s nothing wrong with that. All the Gospel writers stylise to underline their central point(s). Luke omits every encounter between Jesus and a Gentile until Cornelius in Acts 11. Matthew has a 5-fold structure.

Mark’s two sections are marked off by three events- one at each end, and one in the middle

Overview of Mark's structure

The events all have things in common- all of them share a common statement about Jesus being God’s Son. All of them involve similar words to do with movement top to bottom. All of them explicitly have the heavens being torn.

The Gospel is split by Peter’s confession and the transfiguration, which are themselves two halves of one event. The Christ is revealed as the son of God by internal revelation to Peter and the other apostles, and then by external revelation on the mountain. Peter says -the first time that anybody has said- that Jesus is the Christ. He says this as spokesmen for all of the Twelve. It is implicit in Mark (though explicit in Matthew) that flesh and blood could not have revealed this to him. It is a secret from everybody else, but the Twelve are aware that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God. Then on the mountain, three of the twelve (and there is a reason why three) are shown Jesus revealed in glory. Peter puts Jesus on a par with Moses and Elijah, offering to build three tents for them so that all three may stay on the mountain, but the Father then speaks to tell the three to hear Jesus. Then they see Jesus only.

How have the disciples been brought to this point? They’ve followed Jesus, seen his signs, heard his public teaching, and his private explanations of the things the public aren’t allowed to know. They’ve been given all the data they need to identify Jesus as the Christ.

All that has happened in Galilee. There in the North, the disciples see the signs and hear the teaching. The first half of the book is set in Galilee. Then, at 9:30, they pass through Galilee, no longer stopping. They say goodbye, and come to Judea and the region beyond the Jordan. From that point onwards, we’re in Judea and moving towards Jerusalem, where we arrive in 11:1. In the first half, Jesus has made it plain when he leaves Galilee that he hasn’t been sent there, and the people don’t have a claim on him.

Mark has simplified things. We know that Jesus visited Jerusalem several times in the course of his ministry, but in Mark, Jerusalem comes only after the mid-point and the revelation to the disciples of Jesus as the Christ.

So as the disciples travel to Jerusalem, Jesus’ teaching changes also. Now, he is spelling out to the disciples exactly what his work is. He began to do this immediately after they recognised him as the Christ (8:31), saying, “I’m the Son of Man and I will suffer many things”. He then gives a series of predictions of his death. In the first half, we have only obscure hints of anything like this. Direct statements are reserved for the second half.

We can see the structure underlined for us by an incident which occurs in the middle of the Gospel. The blind man at Bethsaida (8:22-26) is like the disciples. He is blind at first, then his eyes are opened to see. But though he sees, he doesn’t see fully. He sees in a distorted way- men look like walking trees. Then, in a second stage, Jesus opens his eyes to see clearly. So, in narrative terms, if we ask how Mark structures his story, the answer is that he is telling us about the disciples and how their eyes were opened. It is hard for us to forget what we know and put ourselves in their sandals. We take for granted that Jesus will die. They knew nothing of that. We also see why Mark has no birth- narrative in his book. He doesn’t want one. He is writing about Jesus as seen through the eyes of the disciples, not Mary or shepherds or kings. We’re supposed to discover the secret along with the disciples, and for them, the earliest starting point was John’s ministry.

Mark’s Gospel is a colossal literary achievement. Mark manages, though writing post-resurrection and post-pentecost, to succeed in writing proper history. He presents the developments as they took place. Consider Mark’s relationship with Peter. Mark knew Peter as a great man, a hero of the faith, a man who had 100% clarity on who Jesus was and why he came. Peter had taught Mark most of what Mark knew. But even so, Mark grasps that Peter once was pretty clueless, and had to be taught himself. And Mark doesn’t just grasp this in a theoretical sense- he is able to enter into it all.

The whole Gospel of Mark, then, is about a secret being revealed. The book has three peaks of revelation. At the start, there is Jesus’ baptism. In the centre, there is Peter’s confession and Jesus’ transfiguration, and at the end, there is the cross. At all of these points, Jesus is identified as God’s son. At baptism, the voice says, “You are my beloved Son”; at transfiguration, the voice says, “This is my beloved Son”; at the cross, the centurion says, “Truly this man was the Son of God”. At each of these three peaks, the secret is let out further.

At the start, only Jesus knows the secret. Jesus, and perhaps John. Mark says that when he came up out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. Mark doesn’t say that anybody else saw those things happen, and the voice from heaven addresses Jesus personally- “you are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased”. John tells us that John the Baptist saw the dove, and implies that he heard the voice. Luke says that the dove came “bodily”. But even so, John didn’t necessarily understand the secret. And Mark doesn’t mention anybody else seeing or hearing anything. He is focussing on the Father and the Son sharing the secret at this point. The revelation will develop as we progress through the Gospel. In other Gospels, we have hints that the disciples might have some inkling of what is going to happen- John tells us that Thomas said something like, “let’s go to Jerusalem and die with him”. But in Mark, the disciples don’t get it. Jesus becomes more and more explicit until he is there at the Lord’s supper almost trying to force them to see- breaking bread and pouring out wine in front of them, eating dead lamb. But they are still arguing about who will be the greatest of them in his kingdom. The disciples had the same OT as we have. Why didn’t they see in it all that we see? Maybe Jesus explained parts of it to them. When Mark tells us how Jesus called himself the “Son of Man”, he could be condensing several hours of teaching into one line. But the disciples were half-blind. They didn’t understand when Jesus told them in plain Aramaic. Perhaps their blindness was even wilful. They feared to ask (9:32), like a wife who makes sure she doesn’t find any proof that her husband is having an affair, not even asking why he’s back home later then he used to be. They have got the idea that Jesus is going to bring God’s kingdom about, and they want it to be a particular sort of kingdom. James’ and John’s mother expects Jesus to take the throne in triumph inside a month or so. James and John have no idea what sort of baptism they will undergo. The disciples have all the pieces of the jigsaw, but only post-pentecost do they put the pieces in place. Jesus is Messiah, and Jesus has to die. But not until Jesus rose from the dead do we see the disciples put those things together. And Mark doesn’t really give us resurrection narratives either.

Hengel, in the third book of his trilogy, discusses at length the question of whether a suffering hero would be comprehensible to a Jew. He argues that only in the Maccabean age did this idea come through, and even then only as a rare thread in the tapestry. Post-Gospels, Tolkein can tell such a story and captivate even unbelievers. Samson was glorious in defeat, but we read Samson with Christian eyes. Maybe his death was not the glorious thing- his destruction of the idolatrous temple was the glorious thing. Baldur was beautiful, and he died. But his death was tragic. He was honoured for being beautiful, not for dying. The idea of the hero laying down his life and therefore being raised to the highest place is distinctively Christian.

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