“Preparing the Way”–A Pastor’s Thoughts on the Gospel of Mark (Matthew Claridge)
In my intro piece I mentioned there being three central concerns to Mark’s Gospel which also happen to be my three central pastoral concerns in ministry: biblical theology, gospel-centrality, and discipleship ministry. In this post today, I will unpack the first of these as Mark develops it in his opening citation in Mk. 1:1-3.
“Biblical theology” can be, of course, a wax nose. As one of my former professors said, “everyone thinks their theology is biblical.” As far as I am concerned, biblical theology is in essence an attempt to read Scripture in its own terms and in light of its total intent. More specifically, it follows the dramatic story in which God is the main protagonist. Its about helping people piece together the “big picture” of God’s redemptive story spanning from Genesis to Revelation, and to feel the dramatic tension and conflicts driving that story onward.
The more conversant we become with that “big picture,” the better readers we become, the better interpreters, and the better able to apply God’s word thoughtfully, faithfully, and thoroughly to our lives. It’s profoundly important to develop the hermeneutical acumen of our people. I don’t think it would be too farfetched to say that most American Christians operate with a biblical hermeneutic that is essentially rationalistic and leftist-liberal, whatever their theological stance on the Bible may be. It was essentially my own, adolescent view growing up. There are two common traits of this rationalistic approach: proof-texting as the primary method of doctrinal formulation and “gold-digging” as the primary method of personal application. Most concerned Christians recognize the dangers of “proof-texting” as practiced by various cults. But I’ve been surprised to see it occurring in conservative Bible study material as well. Bible studies often provide the illusion of “depth” by having students turning all over the Bible to other verses that apparently explain things better than the context of the passage under discussion. Now, as a biblical theologian, I am a champion of the principle “Scripture interprets Scripture,” but that’s different from the principle “isolated verse interprets isolated verse.” Verse divisions serve their purpose, but I can’t help but think they can subtly suggest that every genre of Scripture is the same as that of Proverbs.
“Gold-digging” is the close cousin of “proof-texting.” When Christians read the Bible devotionally, their first thought usually is “how does this apply to me?” or, with more tongue in cheek, “what nugget of truth can I excavate from this horribly dull and bizarre story?” Now I recognize that some days that’s about all we have the strength to do in our daily Bible reading. But as a go-to method, it’s equally dull and bizarre. We don’t read any other story or novel that way. Our first impulse is not to find “nuggets of truth” while reading a thrilling novel or watching an engrossing film. Reflection and literary criticism more naturally comes long after one’s been enchanted and “drawn in” by the story. Ultimately, it’s a failure of imagination. “Gold-digging” is a topical procedure, not a systemic procedure. The scope and vision of the Biblical story gets reduced and narrowed to the scope of our lives, trials, and troubles. It can become a horrible form of navel-gazing.
In contrast, biblical theology as I conceive it reminds us that we are not the main hero nor are our lives the main drama of the story—God is writing an epic not a soap opera. He wants us to recognize that he is the main character in this drama, and all creation is the stage. Here’s the practical payoff, we come to recognize that God has a place for us in an epic story that is much, much bigger than our own. Our trials, temptations, and concerns are placed in proper context. Instead of becoming a devastating tragedy in their own right, they are merely scenes in the Divine comedy of the dying, rising, and reigning Christ.
Similarly, biblical theology meets our deepest need to glorify and enjoy God forever. By drawing our gaze away from our belly-buttons to the wide horizon of Scripture, it naturally draws our gaze to the hero of the plot—God himself. Like an expertly crafted novel there are twists and turns, cliff-hangers and catastrophes; but there is an great eucatastrophe, a glorious lightning bolt that finally and breathlessly resolves the charged tension that’s been building and gathering in dark clouds of God’s wrath and the hard soil of man’s rebellion. This is part of Scripture’s design that we feel the conflict of the plot and the satisfying resolution in Christ. And by feeling that resolution we cheer, we weep, we exult, we glory in our Second Adam, our New Israel, our Better David, our stronger Hercules, our nobler Jean Valjean, our more faithful Frodo, our untamable Aslan, our Lamb once slain now victorious.
This is the goal of Mark’s Gospel. That Mark wants us to see that the story of Jesus is not a quaint story of a peasant who moved the hearts of his community in a Pollyanna or “Anne of Green Gables” fashion is evident in the opening three verses: “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ as it is written in the prophet Isaiah …” the wider context of Mark’s Gospel does not stop with 1st century Palestine under Roman occupation. It’s not a historical tract for its times giving us insights into the particular conditions that gave rise to one of the many religious movements that shaped and strove in the milieu of the Pax Romana. The wider context is the still developing story of God’s creation and redemption, His dealings and promises with the estranged race of Adam and the failed reboot of Israel. This isn’t a Jesus who stumbles upon his calling and who, through a process of self-discovery, realizes his knack for healing the hurts of his community. This Jesus entered the world with a purpose forged in the forethought of the divine Narrator.
This is evident in how Mark draws in the context of the OT expectations to explain Jesus’ appearance on the stage of history. First, Mark says he is quoting from Isaiah but in fact he is quoting from three different texts woven into one: Exodus 23.20; Malachi 3.1, and Isaiah 40.3. We have three different texts drawn from the length and breadth of the OT canon. The entire scope of the OT drama is being re-told and re-forged in the image of Christ. Particularly, Mark draws on Israel’s founding moment, the Exodus, to describe Jesus’ entrance. All three passages in fact focus on the Exodus theme: God’s royal rescue of his subjects from the grips of a foreign power. Clearly the Exodus of the OT and the hope of a new, greater Exodus as prophesied in Isaiah and Malachi is the context in which Jesus’ mission is to be understood.
It also suggests that Jesus is the same protagonist involved and expected in the previous chapters of the OT. In Malachi and Isaiah particularly, the messenger prepares the way for YHWH, the Lord and husband of the Old Covenant. For Mark, Jesus is one and the same. The continuity of the story centers on the continuity of the main character. Of course, this is one of the surprising and powerful twists in the whole tale. In their expectation of a New Exodus, the prophets envisioned that God would arrive and lead his people in a similar display of storm, fire, and cloud—a numinous theophany of terrible aspect (cf. Isa. 64.1-4). Instead, Jesus of Podunk Nazareth arrives on the stage.
The OT quotations also strike a foreboding note. Read in the light of their original contexts, these quotations introduce us to the central tension and conflict that builds through Mark’s Gospel. Rescue is a central motif of the Exodus but so is judgment. In Exodus 23, the “angel of the Lord” was sent because of Israel’s rebellion; in Isaiah, the coming of the Lord will be in the form of a “root out of dry ground” who will be pooh-poohed and rejected; in Malachi, the coming of the Lord is anything but a happy homecoming. Jesus arrives not as a traveling sales agent with a take it or leave it offer to would-be consumers but as a King with rights and authority over his covenanted subjects.
Without biblical theology, we would simply gloss over these opening quotations. We would miss the redemptive and cosmic backdrop of this story. We would essentially be jumping into the action with no clue what is going on. We’d be left to guess at it for ourselves. And if it’s left to chance, we will always take the road of least resistance—we’ll write the story in our image, we’ll tell it with ourselves as the focus and envision Jesus as that sales agent who’s got a product to offer that may or may not be congenial to our “pursuit of happiness.”
Matthew Claridge is married to Cassandra and has three children, Alec , Nora, and Grace. He is an editor for Credo Magazine and is Senior Pastor of Mt. Idaho Baptist Church in Grangeville, ID. He has earned degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.