In the Gospel of Mark, Satan is obviously the enemy of God and of Jesus and the people of God. But his opposition isn’t merely generalized. It’s very specific, taking the form of preventing Jesus from being the cross-shaped Messiah who goes the way of weakness and self-giving love.
Mark doesn’t say much about Jesus’ temptation by Satan, and it seems that readers should regard the temptation in 1:12-13 in light of Jesus’ rebuke to Peter in 8:33. Peter is enthusiastic about Jesus as Messiah but doesn’t want to hear any talk of going to Jerusalem to be betrayed and put to death. The temptation in 1:12-13, involves, presumably, Jesus embodying his role through some spectacular display, through grasping after power and prestige, leading a revolutionary movement to get rid of Rome and establish the Kingdom of God.
So, as others have suggested, in Mark’s Gospel, Satan is opposed to the cross, to a cross-shaped Messiah, and to a cruciform people of God.
It seems to me that the specific opposition of Satan should inform the parable of the soils and its interpretation in 4:1-20, especially Satan’s action of taking away the seed sown in v. 15. Like birds that pick up seeds scattered along the path (v. 4), Satan takes away the seed that is sown in some people.
I don’t think this is a generalized action. That is, it doesn’t involve gospel preaching in general, as if Satan snatches away the force or the content of what we might understand to be gospel proclamation so that a person doesn’t repent and believe the gospel.
The action of Satan seems specific here because the “word” also seems very specific. It is the gospel of the kingdom (here, the “secret of the kingdom”) that Jesus has been proclaiming. Now, it appears that all of Galilee is rife with kingdom fever and longing for the arrival of God’s anointed. But Jesus knows that this fervor is corrupted by a desire for a powerful, revolutionary Messiah who will rally a military revolt through spectacular displays of heroism leading to an uprising.
In this context, the preached word is specifically the word of an unexpected kingdom, an unanticipated Messiah, a countercultural people of God. This is why Jesus keeps tamping down expectations, keeps telling people to keep quiet and not spread the word about him. If momentum grows, the expectations will get out of hand, and people won’t understand that Jesus is not bringing in the sort of kingdom they imagine.
All of this is to say that the way Satan “snatches away the word” is not necessarily by removing from a person’s consciousness gospel preaching as we might conceive of it – a generalized announcement. Satan does so by taking away Jesus’ message of a Messiah who goes to the cross, who refuses to grab for power, who gives his life for others, who calls for kingdom participants to take up their crosses.
Satan takes away the word by clouding Jesus’ message of the cross with the mounting revolutionary fervor so that people respond positively to Jesus because they think he’s going to be the sort of Messiah they want him to be.
Perhaps this is why throughout Mark, the crowds that gather around Jesus and press in on him are not regarded positively. They prevent Jesus from carrying out his ministry and from clarifying his role as Messiah.
Ironically, for modern readers of Mark, it can only be a great thing that there is popular and enthusiastic response to Jesus. And certainly in an American culture of celebrity, cravings for prestige and power, the gospel gets corrupted so that ministries are evaluated by their size and the celebrity magnetism of the pastor.
Where we see signs of ministry “success,” Mark might see Satanic opposition to the “secret of the kingdom” – the gospel of the cross.
4 thoughts on “Satan & the Secret of the Kingdom”
Spot on exegesis, in my opinion. I would add that Israel’s “blindness” is connected with this (Isaiah 42:18-23; 53:1). Throughout the WAY section (beginning with the partial healing of the blind man and the partial understanding of Peter), Jesus is leading “the blind down a path they do not know” (Isaiah 42:16). And as you point out, the “secret” they do not know is the cross and how that is the centerpiece of the mission of Son of David, Son of Man and Servant of YHWH (10:45).
Thanks for making this explicit. I had not see this specificity before.
Exactly — the Israel component is essential to this, as you point out. And it’s integrated into and interconnected with so many other dynamics up and running in Mark.
I am indebted to Rikk Watts and Greg Beale for helping me connect the blindness motif of Mark 4 back to Psalm 115 and 135 through Isaiah 42 and Isaiah 6. See pp 362-363 of Beale’s NT Biblical Theology.
Thanks Tim, this is really great. My friend Sean Du Toit put me on to your blog as i am running a four hour lecture summary of Mark at a local seminary as help for a friend and he told me you had some exciting snippets on Mark he has really enjoyed – first one i’ve read [and have four others tabbed so heading there next] but this was really insightful – simple and so obvious and yet not – well presented, thank you!
love brett fish