Who is Jesus? Your answer to that has huge implications for how you will live your life, and all the decisions, both big and little, you make along the way. It will also have an effect on what comes next after this life, but more on that later. For now as we dig into the Gospels of the New Testament we want to recognize the central question of the gospel of Mark. Who is Jesus? This question of identity is fundamental to Mark’s Gospel. In a Facebook challenge last year I was asked to list my favourite scriptures over the space of ten days. On one day I listed the entire Gospel of Mark as a favourite scripture passage, for while we tend to read the Bible in small chunks, the whole of Mark belongs together. It is the shortest of the Gospels and as such gives us “the Essential Jesus.”
But how does Mark even know who Jesus is? Why should we listen? The Christian believers among us will appeal to his writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. But there are reasons even the unbeliever should pay attention to what Mark has to say. From the writings of early church fathers we have good reason to recognize Mark as John Mark mentioned in the New Testament, and as a companion to Peter the disciple. Mark is said to have brought together his Gospel based on the preaching of Peter. Therefore what we have in Mark is not something cooked up a century after the facts, but an account based on eyewitness testimony. So the question is therefore not even, “who is Jesus according to Mark,” it is “who is Jesus according to people who were there and knew him?”
So who is Jesus according to the eyewitnesses? What are the earliest conclusions drawn about the identity of Jesus? Let’s look and see some examples of how the Gospel of Mark spells this out:
1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’” (Mark 1:1-3)
Straight off we are made aware of Jesus being the Son of God, but even more profound is the reference to a prophecy from Isaiah 40:3. John the Baptist in just a few verses says “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” (Mark 1:7) The inference from Isaiah 40 is that Jesus is not merely a prophet, nor merely even the Messiah, but rather God Himself. Isaiah 40:3 explicitly refers to God by name. Furthermore, who can baptize with the Holy Spirit but God Himself? “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:8)
Next is a voice at the baptism of Jesus: “And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11)
Next is an unclean Spirit: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24)
Next is the questioning of the religious leaders: “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone” (Mark 2:7) And then a miracle by Jesus to show that he can back up his authority to forgive with authority to heal.
Next are the reports of what people are concluding about Jesus:
When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” 22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons. (Mark 3:21-22)
Next is the questioning of the disciples at the stilling of a storm: “And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’”(Mark 4:41 NRSV)
Next is the confession of a man possessed by a legion of demons: “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” (Mark 5:7 NRSV)
By now I am sure you are getting the point of how Mark time and again brings us back to consider the identity of Jesus. Next up is an important confession right in the middle of the Gospel:
27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. (Mark 8:27-30)
There are other examples from the following chapters but let us skip forward to what happens following Jesus’ arrest:
Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”
62 Jesus said, “I am; and
‘you will see the Son of Man
seated at the right hand of the Power,’
and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven. ’”
63 Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “Why do we still need witnesses? 64 You have heard his blasphemy
(Mark 14:61-64 NRSV)
Here Jesus is speaking of his own identity and is pointing to himself as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Daniel 7 where the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of God’s Messiah who will reign forever.
And finally, we have the identity of Jesus spoken of by the Roman centurion: “Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’” (Mark 15:39) The fact should not be lost on us that the centurion stood for the authority of Rome and that he ultimately took his orders from the emperor. But here he witnesses the death of One greater than the emperor.
So why does it all matter? Why does Mark have us wrestle with the question “who is Jesus?” Let us go back to the beginning: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1) Jesus was good news to all who met him. You could see that among those who experienced the wisdom of his teaching, and of course the benefits of his miracles. But that good news points us to an even Better News. Early in the book Mark gives us a summary statement of what Jesus was doing:
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:14-15)
While being healed is good news, being offered a vital connection with God is Good News. God has come to us, which normally should be a terrifying event for sinners like us. But instead of coming to condemn, He has come to forgive and offer salvation. The Kingdom is coming and the Good News is that though we deserve to be rounded up as enemies of the Kingdom, we are welcome instead to be a part of it. Repentance is the way of accepting this offer.
Having considered the first verse, let us now look to the last. According to most Bible scholars Mark has an unusual ending at Mark 16:8 where we find the response of the women to the empty tomb: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8 NRSV) Yes, there are other verses following this one in most Bibles, but if you follow the footnotes you will see that they are probably added later. Many a snake handler in certain churches would have been been wise to check the footnotes and have some respect for Biblical scholarship.
So why does Mark end his account with fear? Actually it is better to say that he does not end his account at all, but rather leaves the ending quite open. Will the women be filled with terror so that they will never speak up about Jesus? Or will they recognize that the death and resurrection is evidence of really good news? The point is, once you grasp the identity of Jesus, and the gravity of that identification, then it is up to you whether the Gospel ends with fear or rejoicing. If Jesus were to return tonight would that be good news to you? Your answer to that will depend on your response to Mark’s question: “who is Jesus?”