“Wake Up!” “The Voice is crying out in the wilderness!” “The Day of the Lord has come: Blessing and Judgment” “Where does the King come from, again?” “This is no underdog!” “Choosing a new nation with a new vocation.” “Should the Messiah be this controversial?”
Mark 1 plunges us into Israel’s national history, but right at its end. You and I are most likely unfamiliar with what can be called the backstory.
Israel seems to have anticipated a glorious deliverance from the Roman Empire much like they experienced in Egypt. God sent Moses to warn Pharaoh of the consequences of not letting Israel leave the land to worship Him (permanently). Moses was forced into a scenario where God did great wonders through him. Israelites sacrificed a lamb in order to avoid experiencing death firsthand. The Egyptian military, led by Pharaoh, pursued Israel after their departure but God miraculously rescued them through the waters of the Red Sea. Moses led the nation into the wilderness to meet God via the covenant of Moses. God would eventually lead Israel into the land of promise, Canaan, in order that they might establish their dominance as a kingdom of priests unto the one true God (Exodus 19:6; Deuteronomy 28:1). Israel would find their glorious pinnacle under David’s rule.
This is the story, haphazardly recalled, that Israel expected would be repeated in the sending of the Messiah. Only this time, there would be no failures with Israel under His rule. The Messianic age (“eternal life” as described by the rich young ruler) would never witness ruin as Israel had in the past. The Messiah would bring with Him a dominion that other kingdoms could only dream of. Previous empires would find themselves crushed by the Messiah (Daniel 2). Jerusalem and the Temple would be restored in such a way that no other city on earth could compare.
Who could resist visions of grandeur like these, especially if your own forefathers, kept predicting their arrival (1 Peter 1:10-12)? Israel had some elements of their dreams correct. They understood that God wanted to renew the earth with their presence and their faith in Him. This is what God’s desire for mankind had been from the beginning of creation, to have creation reflect all of His goodness. The Messiah was supposed to restore this vision and judge the earth in righteousness, separating the righteous from the wicked. Yet, Israel wouldn’t be the victor through whom these blessings came, at least not the way Israel imagined. Virtually no one imagined how the Messiah would actually become king, especially in the midst of such a volatile and unstable period of history.
It’s this backstory, Israel’s backstory, the Biblical backstory, that I suspect we need to become more familiar with in order to begin to hear what Mark and the other gospel writers have to say about Jesus’ ascension to power. When we hear history about Roman emperors or Alexander the Great, or Babylon’s Nebuchadnezzar, it isn’t difficult to imagine them being the sole ruler of the entire known world at that time. We depict them in all of their honor, decadence, and intimidating god-like status with ease. We understand (to some degree) what it could have been like to witness the reverence surrounding these rulers. Yet, what those empires didn’t recognize and what ours doesn’t recognize either, is the backstory, the understanding of how God has been sovereign over all the earth from its inception, and also what His purposes for people of the earth have been from the beginning.
Most of us haven’t been taught the full Biblical story. We’ve been taught much of the story that surrounds Jesus and even that has been distorted by several generations preceding us. Mark’s original audience is much more aware of this Biblical story, and Israel’s backstory, than we are today. This is a problem for those reading the Gospels today. Today, most emphasize aspects of the story surrounding Jesus while leaving other vital aspects out altogether. I’ve even heard people say recently, “Just imagine what Jesus could have done if he’d been able to stay around and live a full life.” Even though this might have been said flippantly, the statement itself has serious flaws and exposes our ignorance of what Jesus’ mission was. Mark isn’t assuming his readers, although more prepared to read his gospel than we are, understand quite what Jesus was all about. For one thing, they never anticipated their Messiah becoming King of the world through His death. And they certainly didn’t imagine their Messiah being raised from the dead to live forever more (cf. Luke 24). This is enigmatic for us even though we know and believe it’s true.
Why did the man God wanted to rule over all the earth have to die? For many of us, our reaction to that question would quickly be, “because Jesus paid for humanity’s sins.” That’s very true, but that can also be misleading from a New Testament perspective. We aren’t in the habit of questioning the status quo very often. We’re very good at repeating it though. In other words, we’re not (especially as teachers, preachers, and leaders) teaching the whole story. We’re used to expecting people to accept the insurance policy we’ve been taught to accept and then move on to the next soul. Ask yourself this, “Why wasn’t Jesus just taken to a private mountain and sacrificed for the sins of the world, sort of like the story of Abraham and Isaac?” Ask, “Why did Jesus die?” to a youth group and see if you receive identical answers.
Why did the current King of the earth need to die on a Roman cross? Why couldn’t Jesus have died at the beginning of time or during some other empire? If a human sacrifice is so important then why wasn’t a child sacrificed for sins long ago? If these questions are beginning to confuse you then perhaps its because they don’t fit with Jesus’ actual story. And if Jesus’ actual story is key to answering these kinds of questions then we’d probably be wise for becoming familiar with it. Mark can help us.
However, if we immerse ourselves into Mark’s writing and discover that Mark isn’t interested in providing anecdotal principles every other passage, then I’d say we’re on a better track. Don’t be mistaken though, Mark is very interested in us learning how to apply his teaching. However, the application may be much richer than we’ve been conditioned to think.