Knowing Jesus in Light of 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)

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 dying corpse out 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.

13 thoughts on “Knowing Jesus in Light of the Cross

  1. Jaime Hancock

    Excellent, Tim. This is a great reminder that we need to be fixing our eyes on the “true” Jesus, and not the Jesus we want. Jesus is much more offensive and subversive than we let ourselves believe most of the time.

  2. John Thomson


    While I agree we need to ‘fix our eyes on the true Jesus’ the Jesus we are told to fix our eyes is not so much the Jesus running the race (as in the gospels) as the Jesus who has run the race (the Jesus in heaven). Though the pattern of our obedience is Christ on the cross (and of course we must look at all this means) yet the power of our obedience is Christ in heaven.

    We are to set our affections on things above, where Christ is… It is this living with our hearts in another world that enables us to take up the cross and say no to the siren voices of this world. Colossians 3:1-4

    1. timgombis


      The NT doesn’t distinguish between an earthly and heavenly Jesus. Jesus reveals God in his life and especially his death. And the exalted Jesus as the same one who made his way to the cross.

      Bifurcating those may lead you into a troubling sort of christology.

      1. John Thomson

        Indeed it does Tim. As theologians have recognised for centuries. There is Christ in humiliation and Christ in glory. Of course it is the same Jesus who dies and is exalted, but in different states. Christ in glory is the object of faith in Colossians which I cited. Also in Hebrews. The purpose of this ‘heavenly’ Christ is to draw our hearts away from ‘earthly’ things and so enable us to live as those who have died. In my view your theology here lets you down because you have an inadequate eschatology which is colouring everything else – far too creation restored. I recommend a study of the words earth and heaven in the NT and correlated words and concepts.

        If I am wrong on liturgical calendars, which I don’t believe I am, then so have many others been through history… Calvin for instance… and the Puritans… and most independent evangelicals until recently. But the big issue is what Scripture says. I won’t expiate on this here but I will be blogging on it shortly for any interested. I do believe however Paul strongly opposes the promoting of such Judaistic practices in the church.,, they are for him weak and beggarly elements rich in humbug (according to Paul). Col 2. We have not understood what death with Christ means if we have not grasped this (again, this is Paul’s view not mine).

      2. timgombis

        You’ve got some Platonic impulses determining your christology here, John. And I think you’re misreading Colossians and wrongly applying Paul’s theology in general.

  3. Michael DeFazio

    Absolutely love the post. First time I’ve heard the torn veil explained in this way, which for me always raises the same question: how do we know? How do you know that the torn veil is about exposing the Temple and not about the way to God being opened? Not being antagonistic at all, just wondering.

    1. timgombis

      It seems that Jesus is exposing the leadership of God’s people throughout Mark as corrupted and needing to repent. The apparatus of leadership and the temple administration is all corrupted, too. Jesus is replacing the temple throughout Mark as the place where sins are forgiven, where healing takes place, etc. It’s the climax of that entire narrative thrust throughout Mark. So, Mark’s setting those two statements next to each other–Jesus is God’s Son out there on the cross and the exposure of the temple as bankrupt and fraudulent brings all of that to a dramatic high point. I had always assumed the veil tearing was opening the way to God until studying Mark recently and noting throughout that for Mark, the temple is corrupt; God isn’t there. So the tearing is the final verdict on the emptiness of that earthly building.

      1. John Thomson

        Heb 9:6-9 (ESV)
        These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper,

  4. Pingback: Elsewhere (03.03.2012) « Near Emmaus

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