Knowing Jesus Through the Cross

The cross is central to the Gospel of Mark.  Though his Gospel is much shorter than the others, Mark’s passion account is just as long as Matthew’s and Luke’s.

Mark also introduces the plot to kill Jesus much earlier (3:6) than the others.  Mark fixes his readers’ gaze on the cross, the lens through which they must see everything about Jesus and his mission, the identity of God, the nature of discipleship, and everything else connected with Christian realities.

Mark uses several devices to shape his readers’ vision along this line.

William Congdon, "Crucifixion #2" (1960)

William Congdon, “Crucifixion #2″ (1960)

Most prominently, perhaps, is the “messianic secret.”  Throughout Mark, Jesus exhorts everyone to keep quiet about him.  In Mark 1:40-43,

a leper came to him and fell to his knees, asking for help. “If you are willing, you can make me clean,” he said. Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I am willing. Be clean!” The leprosy left him at once, and he was clean. Immediately Jesus sent the man away with a very strong warning. He told him, “See that you do not say anything to anyone

This happens so often that it seems that Jesus is the “anti-evangelist” in Mark (3:7-12; 5:35-43; 7:31-37; 8:27-30; 9:2-9).

That’s not necessarily the case.  It’s just that Mark has a keen grasp of the human tendency toward triumphalism and power.

Mark makes his readers wait until the very end of his account to fully experience all that God is.

Don’t get caught up in the miracles, the healings, the exorcisms, the transfiguration.  Keep quiet about all of that.  Hold your fire.  If you get excited too early, you’ll miss it.  You’ll preach and embody something less than the truth.

When does it come, then?  When do we get the full revelation of the identity of God and of his Son, Jesus?

That comes in this climactic scene:

At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.” Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said. With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:33-39).

Mark purposefully juxtaposes the tearing of the temple veil and the confession of the centurion so that the climax of Mark answers this question: “where is God?”

In this scene, the temple is exposed as a sham.  The veil isn’t torn to symbolize that the way to God is open.  It’s torn to indicate that the temple apparatus is a fraud, corrupted by power and greed.  There’s nothing there and there’s nobody home.

So where is God?

He’s that corpse out there on that cross.

And Mark puts the dramatic confession in the mouth of a Roman centurion.  God’s people missed it.  The religious leaders missed it.  Jesus’ own disciples were mystified and offended by the cruciform character of Jesus’ identity and mission.

Readers and hearers of Mark need to make it to the end.  And then take up and read and hear again, and again.  Like his disciples, we find ourselves arguing about positions of prominence (10:35-45) and wishing Jesus had accomplished salvation some other way (8:27-38).

Like his disciples, we need to keep quiet, knowing our tendency to fashion Jesus in our own image.  We need a constant re-orientation by the cross-shaped narrative of Mark’s Gospel.

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5 responses to “Knowing Jesus Through the Cross

  • Dexter

    Right on, Mark displays Jesus primarily as the suffering Son of God.

  • holylandphotos

    Besides the Gentile Centurion (Mark 15:39), the demons(!) recognize Jesus as “you are the Son of God” (Mark 3:11). It seems like it took His followers (read disciples) a bit longer to catch on. Hmm.

    • timgombis

      That’s exactly it. I think Mark is warning readers that truly knowing Jesus requires seriously setting aside all preconceived notions of who he must be, and that humans are always making him in their own image. A good warning for contemporary churches!

  • Weekly Meanderings, March 2, 2013

    [...] Tim Gombis on the cross in Mark: “The cross is central to the Gospel of Mark.  Though his Gospel is much shorter than the others, Mark’s passion account is just as long as Matthew’s and Luke’s. Mark also introduces the plot to kill Jesus much earlier (3:6) than the others.  Mark fixes his readers’ gaze on the cross, the lens through which they must see everything about Jesus and his mission, the identity of God, the nature of discipleship, and everything else connected with Christian realities. Mark uses several devices to shape his readers’ vision along this line.” [...]

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