Many Christians have never taken a moment to consider what ‘discipleship’ (following Jesus) is really all about. They might be good at ‘church going’ and do lots of ‘religious things’ including praying and trying to live a good life, but they have never taken seriously the words in Mark 8:34-35 where Jesus says;
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.”
Jesus is not calling us to religious conformity or trying to live a moral life (though he is not calling us to less than that!) but to a complete surrendering of our lives to him and a total reorientation of our ambitions and plans. But this seems over-the-top for many and so over the years what Jesus said and the ‘cost of discipleship’ has often been dialed down to fit with contemporary culture. In doing so we have replaced discipleship (following Jesus) with religion (church going and trying to be moral).
In Mark’s Gospel, chapters 9-16, the author is trying to help us answer the question of what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus and as we’ll see, just as many Christians today find following Jesus hard to grasp, so too his first disciples found it hard. There is good news and an encouragement for any of us who are struggling to work it all out.
Mark’s Structure – The King…and his cross
If you remember from our previous series in chapters 1-8, Mark’s gospel is structured into two parts. The first half is all to do with Mark helping us understand that Jesus is the king (the Christ) and the second part (chapters 9-16) are all about what it means to follow this king to the cross. Everything that the disciples expected about Jesus being their king needed to be reworked:
- His power would be shown in weakness
- His victory would be won through defeat
- His love would be shown in substitution
In Mark 9-16 Jesus is in effect saying to his disciples;
“I came not to live but to die, I am here not to come to take power but to lose it, I am here not to rule but serve…that’s how I am going to defeat evil and put everything right as king…my throne will be a cross, my crown will be made of thorns”
The hinge verse which moves us from part 1 to part 2 is Mark 8:31 where, after Peter confesses Jesus to be the Christ (Mark 8:29-23), Mark tells us that:
“He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things… and that he must be killed.”
Once we have understood Jesus is the king, we need to learn about his suffering so we don’t get false ideas of the kingdom and have unrealistic expectations of following the king. Just as Jesus had to carry a cross and suffer, so will we! As Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said:
When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die
In chapters 1-8 we have Jesus engaging with a a very ‘wide’ ministry to the crowds, in chapters 9-16 the crowds falls away, the road narrows and his ministry zooms in on his disciples and Jesus’ journey to the cross. In chapters 1-8 we have 18 miracles (showing Jesus is the king of Isaiah 32), in chapters 9-16 we have two miracles (as we see Jesus is the suffering servant of Isaiah 53). It is quite amazing that nearly half of Mark’s book is devoted to the last week of Jesus life, we obviously have lots to learn!
The four Purposes of Mark’s Gospel
So what is a ‘gospel’ and why did Mark write one? Before Mark wrote his gospel there was no record in history of any book being given this title or genre. It is most likely that Mark, unknowingly, coined the phrase when he wrote the opening lines to his book “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus the Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). The word gospel means ‘good news’ – news of an event that has happened that should bring us joy and make us dance (like a victory in battle or the rise of a new king).
So why did Mark write his gospel? Well he wanted to help Christians in the Roman Empire around AD60-70 understand who Jesus was and what it meant to follow him. But why? What led him to want to do this? One commentator on Mark (Alan Cole) discerns four reasons:
- To make the good news accessible to Gentiles – Rome was a gentle city and Mark has a missionary purpose to spread the good news to the outsider, the non-Jewish world. He uses less ‘insider’ language and quotes the Old Testament less than the other gospels. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:21 we are to become like the outsider to reach the outsider. We too have lots to learn about the language we use so we don’t create the insider and outsider dynamic.
- To encourage those facing persecution – We know from Roman writers of the great persecution of Christians at Rome under Nero about AD64, after the great fire of Rome (for which the Christians were blamed). So it was written to a minority church in a hostile environment which is increasingly true of Dublin.
- To defend the faith – With the Christians under attack Mark wants to show that they are good citizens of the Roman empire, not revolutionaries, and that any fair minded Roman official would see that at once, as would ordinary people, not blinded by prejudice. He wants to remove false ideas about Christians that might hinder evangelism, something we too need to learn.
- To explain the significance of the cross. Cole writes:
He is clear that the cross was God’s age-old plan of salvation…that God’s way for the establishment of his rule on earth would involve the death of the Messiah, his chosen one, was a hidden and mysterious plan, and none but Jesus saw it at first. That seems to be the meaning of the phrase ‘the mystery of the kingdom of God’ in Mark 4:11. Even people who admired Jesus as a miracle worker or even saw him as a prophet could not see this. That God should choose to bring in his kingdom through the shameful death of his chosen servant was a stumbling block to many, both Jesus and Gentiles, who listen to the preaching of the early church
The hiddenness of the king
A big theme of Mark’s gospel is silence of Jesus over his identity (so people don’t have wrong expectations of him), the mystery of the kingdom (it’s not something you discern through your intellect but something that is revealed to you by God) and the ineptitude of his disciples (they continually fail to see what Jesus is trying to teach them). The only people who Mark tells us who ‘see’ Jesus for who he is are: (a) blind bartimeaus who the disciples try to shut up (Mark 10); (b) an unknown women who anoints him with perfume to the indignation of everyone else (Mark 14); (c) the roman centurion at the cross, where we read (Mark 15:39)
When the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”
It’s the outsiders who get Jesus whilst the insiders seem to be blind!
Our Preaching Series
- Sept 10 – The transfiguration (Mark 9:1-32)
- Sept 17 – The hard sayings of Jesus (Mark 9:38-50)
- Sept 24 – Blind Bartimeaus (Mark 10:46-52)
- Oct 1 – Jesus & Children (Mark 9:33-37 and Mark 10:13-16)
- Oct 8 – Jesus clears the temple (Mark 11:12-19)
- Oct 15 – Jesus anointed by a woman (Mark 14:1-11)
- Oct 22 – The Lord’s Supper (Mark 14:12-26)
- Oct 29 – Gethsemane (Mark 14:27-42)
- Nov 5 – Peter’s Denial (Mark 14:66-72)
- Nov 19 – The Cross (Mark 15:33-41)
- Nov 26 – The Resurrection (Mark 16)
Aside from our church weekend away (Nov 10-12th) we meet every Sunday at 4.15pm at Synge Street Secondary School. I hope to see you there.