So 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).
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.