Mark's Theology of the Cross
As a 10-year old boy growing up in Hawaii, I clearly remember the day our pastor was fired. He was a gentle, elderly saint -- an exceptional shepherd and a good Bible expositor. And then he suffered a stroke. His willingness to persevere in the midst of his weaknesses and debilities left me gasping. What an example of power-in-weakness, I thought to myself, little knowing that 20 years later I would write my doctoral dissertation in Basel on the very same topic (Paul, Apostle of Weakness). Suddenly, he was gone. The adults kept saying, "It's too hard listening to him talk," or "He was ready for retirement anyway," or "We were losing our youth because of him." "Merciful heavens!" I cried out. "Is this how the church is to treat its pastors?"
Jesus faced a similar struggle with His new disciples. From the experts in the Jewish law, they had learned a distorted view of leadership. Knowing this, Jesus redefined their concepts of power and spiritual leadership. That redefinition was so profound that we are still talking about it 2,000 years later. As I begin to teach through According to Mark in 2 weeks. it's my job to make sure my students get it.
It is generally agreed that According to Mark is our earliest Gospel. There are many reasons for questioning this conclusion (see my Why Four Gospels?). Mark's Gospel is really comprised of the eye-witness testimony of the apostle Peter, an "elder" who witnessed the sufferings of Christ (1 Pet. 5:1). Mark is his "son" in the faith (5:13), and the patristic evidence is clear that Peter used Mark as his stenographer in composing According to Mark just as He used Silvanus as his amanuensis in writing 1 Peter (5:12).
Recent scholarship has suggested that According to Mark is a "passion narrative with an extended introduction" -- a witty yet accurate description. As I have attempted to show in Why Four Gospels?, According to Mark directs our attention to two major themes, one dealing with Christology, the other dealing with ecclesiology. Of primary importance is the Christological theme. According to Mark introduces Jesus as the Son of God who accepts suffering and death at the hands of the same Jewish leaders who were responsible for the death of Jesus' predecessor, John the Baptist. (There are actually two "passion narratives" in According to Mark: John's and Jesus'.) Thus Mark's Gospel is a Gospel of paradox from the very beginning. Jesus, the Son of God, not only commended but exemplified the lowly attitude that contrasts with the world's sense of self-importance. Jesus' mission was not to rule in earthly triumph but to suffer and be rejected by His own. Some scholars (most notable Ralph Martin in his book Mark: Evangelist and Theologian) have suggested that According to Mark was written for a church that faced the danger of misunderstanding Paul's message, particularly the latter's theologia crucis, his "theology of the cross." For both Peter (=Mark) and Paul, Jesus achieved glory only by way of rejection and the cross -- cf. the divine parabola in Phil. 2:5-11, about which I have written considerably in my book The Jesus Paradigm.
This theme of suffering and rejection is then carried forward in According to Mark by means of a magnificent rhetorical ploy. If the Messiah will experience suffering rather than triumph and rejection rather than popularity, how much more will His followers expect the same treatment (8:34-38; 13:9-13)? "Mark campaigns against balcony-type Christians who are too high for the mission and discipleship that in Mark's terms necessarily involves cross-bearing and self-sacrifice" (H. Anderson, The Gospel of Mark, p. 55). Therefore, any person or thing or human tie or affection that might stand in the way of a disciple's commitment to the kingdom of God must be dealt with decisively and be broken. The cross is not a religious symbol but an instrument of death. And "taking it up" requires the death of self, all personal ambition, and any form of selfish attainment, no matter how noble it may seem to others. True discipleship is a treasure worth more than all other earthy possessions. It is a pearl of great price and will cost a person everything he or she has. Moreover, According to Mark makes it absolutely clear that discipleship cannot be carried out in the abstract. Words must be matched by deeds, and because this is true, According to Mark strikes the reader as a Gospel of action, not of speculative theology. Likewise, in our day and time there is no possibility of a genuine renewal of the life of the church unless the principle of suffering is accepted without reservation.
Here, then, is the fundamental message of According to Mark as I see it. It is the message of personal involvement and it applies to all persons, male and female, clerical and lay, old and young. All Christians must be in the business of cross-bearing whatever their occupations might be, because the non-obedient follower of Christ is a contradiction in terms. Millions of back-seat and back-slidden Christians are content to be willing observers of a performance staged by professionals, and not a few of our clergy class are content to glory in the contrast between their exalted status and the lowly status of the ordinary Christian. Their attitude seems a far cry from that of Jesus when He washed the feet of His disciples.
So you see, our task in studying According to Mark is far more than exegetical. It is to try and see the entire problem of ministry in biblical perspective. "The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give His life a ransom for many." The only kind of exegesis that is worth encouraging is that which makes a radical difference in the entire Christian enterprise. We may as well face the fact that the message of According to Mark -- this theologia crucis -- is bound to be an unwelcome word in a church that fails to understand the concept of commitment. But what Jesus sought to produce is not a fellowship of the self-righteous but a fellowship of men and women who, though recognizing themselves as inadequate and unworthy, nevertheless are absolutely committed to becoming personally involved in the effort to "go into all the world and proclaim the Good News to every creature" (16:15). The churches that are succeeding best at this are are those in which every-member ministry is most nearly complete. The sooner you and I acknowledge the role we play in this universal task, the quicker the forces arrayed against Christianity in the modern world will realize that Christ's cause is something worth paying attention to.
August 3, 2015
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.