Identity, mission and call in Mark’s gospel

Outline of Mark 8:27-38So if I took the opportunity to ask someone Rico Tice’s question, “Would you like to look at the Bible with me?” (see previous post), which passage would I go to in order to present them with the gospel? Well, to some extent it would depend on the circumstances, but one likely candidate is Mark 8:27-38.

This choice derives from another talk by Rico Tice, one I heard back in 2002 at the first London Men’s Convention. Rico is passionate about using Mark’s gospel as a basis for our evangelism, and he presented Mark 8:27-38 as the key to the whole book. He argued that this passage summarises the three key themes about Jesus in Mark’s gospel, themes which can be summarised in the three words identity, mission and call (as shown in the diagram – click for a larger version):

1. Identity: Who is Jesus? (vv.27-30)

Jesus is typically regarded today as a “good man”, a “great moral teacher”, an “important spiritual figure”.

But as vv.27-30 make clear, Jesus is far more than this. Indeed, as Dick Lucas points out, even those who did not believe in him didn’t reduce him simply to “great moral teacher”: those descriptions of him as John the Baptist or Elijah returned from the dead show how Jesus’ contemporaries struggled to understand what was happening in Jesus’ ministry. Great moral teacher? More like someone from another planet!

The burden of Mark’s gospel from its first verse up to Peter’s confession has been to pose this question: who is Jesus? (See, for example, 4:41.) Mark artfully builds up to the confession by sandwiching the account of the healing of the blind man (8:22-26) between accounts of the disciples’ blindness about Jesus in 8:14-21 and Peter’s moment of understanding and confession in 8:27-30.

So that is Mark’s statement as to the identity of Jesus: he is the Messiah (8:29), the Son of God (1:1).

2. Mission: Why did he come? (vv.31-33)

Having established Jesus’ identity, Mark then goes on to present us with Jesus’ teaching about his mission (“Then he began to teach them…”, v.31).

Mark 8:31-33 shows that our understanding of Jesus’ mission is determined by our understanding of the cross. In human terms, the cross seems like the waste of a remarkable life and a promising spiritual career. To Peter it seemed even more shocking: the denial of the very Messiahship that he had just confessed.

But for Jesus the cross is the main focus of his mission. “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering” (8:31), for he came “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (10:45).

We cannot understand Jesus’ mission until we understand the cross to be a rescue rather than a waste.

3. Call: What does Jesus ask of us? (vv.34-38)

Is Jesus’ call for his followers to “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow [him]” (v.34) law or gospel? I don’t believe it is law in the conventional sense. Jesus isn’t laying down an exacting standard of behaviour for us to live up to. Rather, he is describing what believing the gospel looks like.

As Rico Tice put it, it is a question of whether we see the focus of our lives as being concerned with the present or with the future. In other words, whether we believe the promises of Jesus, which are all (in the end) promises about the future, losing our life now in order to save it in the future, or whether we cling to our lives in the here and now (and thus lose them).

Conclusion

So there we have the heart of Mark’s message in his gospel: Jesus’ identity, mission and call. If you need to convince yourself that this is faithful to Mark’s gospel, then I can recommend the exercise suggested by Rico Tice: get a copy of Mark’s gospel and three highlighter pens, and go through Mark’s gospel highlighting sentences or sections according to whether they are concerned with Jesus’ identity, mission or call. Almost all the gospel can be seen to fit within one or other of those categories, and there is a definite (though by no means total) shift of emphasis before and after 8:27-38, from “identity” to “mission”/”call”.

I used Rico’s summary of Mark’s gospel along with his book “Christianity Explored” to create a three-part evangelistic study in Mark’s gospel (.doc only, I’m afraid). I’ve not edited this since 2002, and the third study in particular probably needs some work (to reduce the decisionistic/”law” emphasis, and to correct the mistaken identification of two separate Herods). However, on the one occasion I had (or recognised/took) the opportunity to use it, it worked reasonably well as a basis for study and discussion. Feel free to use/adapt it as you wish.

Alternatively, Rico’s suggested approach is less formal and methodological: simply reading through Mark’s gospel with someone, showing how those themes emerge from the text of the gospel.

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5 Responses to Identity, mission and call in Mark’s gospel

  1. Phil Walker says:

    “Is Jesus’ call for his followers to “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow [him]” (v.34) law or gospel? I don’t believe it is law in the conventional sense. Jesus isn’t laying down an exacting standard of behaviour for us to live up to. Rather, he is describing what believing the gospel looks like.”

    And ain’t that so important? It’s one of those subtle nuances which trips people up if they’re trying to think too hard, like “is repentance necessary for salvation?” or “what’s all this about counting the cost?” I’ve had interesting discussions on that first point (set out the question that way and people begin to look all confused), and it’s only this approach which settles the second satisfactorily.

  2. Rick Ritchie says:

    “Rather, he is describing what believing the gospel looks like.”

    The gospel in the sense of Cary’s Lutheran syllogism?

    Major premise: Christ told me, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
    Minor premise: Christ never lies but only tells the truth.
    Conclusion: I am baptized (i.e., I have new life in Christ).

    Cary’s presentation was as follows:
    What faith says, fundamentally, is “God speaks the truth.” Only secondarily, and not fundamentally, faith may also say, “I believe.” But faith may also say, “My faith is weak” or “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief” or “I have sinned in my unbelief and denied my Lord, like Peter the apostle.” [end of quote]

    But to say “I will deny myself, pick up my cross, and follow Jesus,” is to say other things that Peter said (e.g. Matthew 19:27, Matthew 26:33) that did not prove indicative of faith. Peter later did suffer martyrdom. But it doesn’t seem to be the case that his earlier resolutions had a lot to do with that fact. So I would be wary of evangelism that is geared toward getting such resolutions out of people. When Peter himself evangelized a crowd after his failures, he said “Repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:38). We should maybe attempt some account for the difference between evangelism before and after the Resurrection. We should also consider the implications of Cary’s argument for evangelizing those who may previously have been baptized.

  3. John H says:

    Rick: thanks for your comment. I agree we need to be careful here, and if you compare what I said in my post with what I was saying in the study I prepared back in 2002 you’ll see my own position has shifted some distance sine becoming a Lutheran.

    I’ve turned my further thoughts on this question into a follow-up post. One point which I didn’t pick up on in my post though relates to your query about evangelising the baptised as opposed to the unbaptised.

    I’m not sure there is such a fundamental difference between evangelising the baptised and the non-baptised, precisely because repentance for the baptised is a return to their original baptism rather than being something separate and distinct in its own right (as was the understanding of medieval Catholicism). A return to the first ship, not a second ship after the first has been wrecked. And the gospel promises are the same for both baptised and unbaptised, though for the baptised we may express those promises partly in terms of the implications of their previous baptism rather than as a call to be baptised.

  4. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Blog Archive » Can we call people to take up the cross?

  5. D'zy says:

    I believe that what Jesus is saying here is to deny the “world” … become like Him. Keep your focus on the Father and prepare your hearts for a place that is beyond anything we can imagine. God is bigger than “BIG” To be given the opportunity thru His Son’s death to actually partake of eternity in His prescense should not only be thought provoking but awe inspiring. Walking Like Jesus – Taking Up the Cross – is to deny that we are in Control. To believe that the only one in control is God and HIS plan is greater than anything we can imagine. Keep the Commandments for there will be many who will cry out Lord, Lord and He will not know them. But those who keep the Commandments of God, God will show favor just as he’s always done. Past – OT, Present – NT, and Future.

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