And a young man followed him, with nothing but a linen cloth about his body. And they seized him, but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked.
I love this small, seemingly insignificant verse. The reason I love it is because of the way it challenges our imagination. It is a verse that is only found in Mark, and it’s curious nature has led to much speculation about whether this was in fact John Mark that it is referencing. We have no way of knowing this for certain of course, but the reason I really like this theory is because of how it helps frames this Gospel tradition, a tradition that has long been associated with Peter. It’s striking that the Gospel (Christ’s work on the Cross) could emerge from such a moment like this, just as astonishing that a work driven by Peter’s own ministry could be willing to depict Peter and the disciples in such a light. It’s such a grand, human expression and it reminds me that in all our messiness, and in all of our questions and fears and doubts, God still works.
The Earliest Gospel, and a Persistent, Undeniable Word
Mark has long been understood to be the earliest of the Gospel writings. Although the author remains ambiguous, as I mentioned it has generally been placed within the tradition of Peter, with John Mark perhaps the same one we encounter along with Peter and Paul’s travels. One of the wonderful things about the Gospel of Mark is how all the evidence for its dating and authorship consistently pushes back on more modern attempts to try and position the writings of the New Testament neatly into a post-exilic, and often very post-exilic framework (no matter how hard one tries, the Gospel seems to want to position itself as being written in the mid to late 50’s, which has definite impact on so many working theories). The Gospel of Mark just refuses to be wrestled down in such a neat and clear fashion, which has this affect of challenging our perception and our ability to categorize these writings in a particular way. In this sense it brings us closer to Jesus and the Cross in a more faith driven way.
The purpose of Mark is simple and clear. It was written to a gentile audience in order to help them learn about Jesus’ Jewish context (within its universal reach). It occupies a distinctive and unique place among the Gospel writings n this regard, and we see in the words of Matthew and Luke the influences of Mark’s intimate concern.
The Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus- Who is Jesus and Where are We Following Him To
Mark begins in a familiar place in the Gospel tradition, establishing its opening words as
“The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God (1:1)”. Mark keeps it simple and concise, moving to connect it to Isaiah as a way of establishing Jesus straight within the Jewish tradition, before then locating this within the ministry of John the Baptist as “the messenger” who is preparing the way for the long expected Jewish Messiah. In a brief 11 verses we are brought from Israel’s prophetic ministry to the ministry of John to the ministry of Jesus, all anchored by the confirming declaration of his baptism, “You are my beloved son.” (1:10) This, as Mark says, is the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, ‘the son of God”.
Mark’s explanation of the baptism narrative is also refreshingly uncomplicated. The water is John (man), the Spirit is Jesus (God 1:8), which leads to water and Spirit becoming one in Jesus (both man and God 1:9-11). It is the Spirit then that drives this man Jesus into the wilderness (1:12-13), which contrasts with John’s imprisonment (1:14) as both the “sign” of the Kingdom’s arrival (1:15), an important theme that will push through Mark, and of God’s work being set in the context of man’s bondage to Sin. What emerges in an equally brief Temptation Narrative (1:12-13) is that this bondage is a “spiritual” reality, with Mark establishing the central conflict between the Power of the Spirit and the Power of the Devil (or the Power of Sin and Death, which is the Pauline language). As Jesus enters the temple (which he returns to over and over again in Mark), he is established as different than the “scribes” (1:22), and the kingdom then established as different than the one they expect, with a spiritual battle surfacing between the Powers (Jesus and the Demons, which are a visible mark of the healing narratives in Mark) in the midst of the earthly kingdom.
With all of this established in quick succession, we get this declaration that “The time (the Jewish expectation) is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand (1:15).” Leading to the call of the disciples as participants in this kingdom work (1:16-20). This imagery is going to become hugely important for carrying through to the of Mark. Here Mark finally slows down though and settles in with the call to “follow Jesus” to where he is going. The idea of “following” is a motif in 1:16-20 that opens up this question that will inform the journey in Mark. Who is Jesus and where is it that we follow Jesus to? Mark has established that Jesus is the Son of God, but where He is going is something that has yet to unfold. All we know at this point is that time has both come and is at hand, and what we get in these opening words is this indication that somehow and in someway where we are following Jesus to is into some picture of the wilderness that informs the Temptation Narrative.
The Temple and the Gospel’s Jewish Roots
Jesus journey begins in the temple (1:21) and reaches out (1:29) from house to house. This reemphasizes Mark’s concern for unfolding the Gospel’s connection to these Jewish roots, with the journey beginning in this place.
Just to emphasize Mark’s concern for establishing these Jewish roots, Jesus will return time and time again to the temple, later connecting His ministry to its cleansing, and finally the Temple’s destruction (and rebuilding). When the Authority of Jesus (which contrasts with the declaration that He is God’s beloved Son) is challenged in 11:27-33, Jesus tells a parable in response (12:1-12). The parable is a powerful picture of Israel’s story, a people who rejected the prophets (John in 11:27-33), and who are now rejecting the beloved son because, in some way, they believe that Jesus is the heir to their vineyard and has arrived to take it from them rather than establishing their Kingdom, a Kingdom for their liberation. What, then, will the “owner of the vineyard” do with these people is a question that fits firmly with Mark’s desire to explain the Jewish roots of the Gospel. Will he come and destroy the tenants and give the Vineyard to others? No. This is not how God’s Kingdom is being built. As it was declared in the life of Israel, the stone rejected (Christ) has become the cornerstone. In this way, all is God’s (12:13-17). God is the God not of the dead, but of the living (12:27). Israel’s failure did not leave God devoid of His witness. Rather it opens up the world to his redemptive work. Who’s son is the Christ? He is the son of David, the son of God, which means that He is God’s witness to the world.
Therefore, it says, beware the Scribes who ignore the poor and devour widows (12:38-40), the same Scribes that Jesus describes as leaven working against this Kingdom vision. For the temple (the Kingdom, not the people) will be destroyed (13:1-12) so that this God can be established in Christ for the sake of the world.
Jesus Ministry: From the Desolate Place to the People
Mirroring this movement from the temple to the houses, what we also find in Mark’s gospel is the movement from the “desolate” place to the people (or from the people to the desolate place). In 1:35-39 we see Jesus get up early in the morning and move to this desolate place where he can pray. He then moves from the desolate place to the people where he preaches and heals. It is in going to the people where he encounters a man (a Leper) whom he heals and then instructs to “tell no one”, but rather show proof of his healing by way of the letter of the Law for the sake of the religious leaders (the Jewish roots). Only it says that the man doesn’t do this. Perhaps too hyped up and excited by what he has experienced, he disregards the Law and tells everyone he comes across.
The result of this is that the people now invaded the “desolated” place (1:40-45), and Jesus loses his place to rest and pray. Now we see Jesus praying and resting in the midst of the storms and the people (Jesus asleep in the storm (4:35-41), Jesus retreating to the desolate place to pray when in 6:46 he walks on the water to meet the disciples in their struggle against the wind, Jesus retreating to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane 14:32-42 ). Later, when Jesus extends the invitation for the disciples to come to a desolate place with him to find rest (6:31), the disciples are faced with the same influx of people looking for healing and to be fed and bombarding their place of rest. Here there is this rising tension in Mark’s narrative that exists between the work of Christ and the rest that Jesus looks for in the desolate place. Jesus’ call to the disciples here is to feed the people rather than protect their place of rest (6:35-44). This is something that informs the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus returns to the Disciples twice and finds them sleeping as he retreated to pray. The inference that Mark holds in both hands here is the work of Christ now and the work of the disciples in his coming absence. The call is for the disciples to stay awake, for soon they won’t have a physical Jesus, but they will have the poor (in which we find a poor woman anointing Jesus 14:3-9). So continue to proclaim the Gospel (work) in memory of her, because the Gospel is for the sake of the world. The Jewish roots are meant for the Gentile world.
Healings, Forgiveness of Sins, and a Jewish Rooted Gospel for Sinners
The call to proclaim the Gospel in memory of the poor woman in the anointing story is anchored by the connection between the healing stories in Mark and the idea of “the forgiveness of sins”. While these healing stories bring to the surface the spiritual battle (God and Devil, Powers of Christ and the Powers of Sin and Death), in 2:1-12 these healings bear witness to the forgiveness of sins in an earthly fashion “in Christ”. As the script is flipped on the idea of the desolate place, and the people in need start crowding into Jesus home and the places of rest, this is where the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins bears witness within its Jewish context to the saving work of Christ for the world. It is this idea of the forgiveness of sins that leads to the conflict between the Jewish leaders and Jesus that emerges in 2:16-17. Jesus is with sinners, and this begins a righteous-sinner paradigm which Jesus applies in Mark’s Gospel to the contrasting imagery of the old and new wine-skins (2:18-22), the picture of the earthly Kingdom of God’s Kingdom. What Jesus is doing here is taking the Spiritual battle and giving it an earthly expression, something he does as this notion of forgiveness establishes tension between Christ and the Law (2:23-28), once again the two competing images of the Kingdom. This is why we return to the same progression of home-people, people-home immediately following in Chapter 3:1-6, where we find Jesus beginning in the synagogue, and then moving out to the people (3:7-12), a movement that is once again set back into that picture of the spiritual battle between the Powers (Jesus and the Demons 3:1-12), the calling of the disciples like we find in the first chapter (3:13-21), and then back home where we see a confusing of the Powers between Jesus and the Devil (3:22-30), which Jesus later describes as a bit of irony.
All of this movement is meant to portray the Jewish roots of Christ in a Gospel for the world. Home (mother and brothers) is now established as the world (whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother 3:35), which leads to a Parable (of the Sower) that is all about this Gospel for the world (4:1-9).
The Parable of the Sower and Christ for the world
Parables, Mark’s Gospel indicates, are so that “they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear by not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.” (4:12) While forgiveness creates tension between the two ideas of “the kingdom”, the Jewish failure to believe throughout their history is so that Gentiles can receive this forgiveness, “for nothing is hidden except to be made manifest (4:2).” The emphasis here is that the Kingdom that they (the Jewish people) are looking for is God’s work (4:26-29; 4:30-34), and God’s work is a saving work in the world, not simply within their history. This is why when Jesus returns home again he says (that bit of irony I mentioned), “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own house (6:4).” This is ironic because of his rejection, but it is also hopeful because his audience is the Gentiles, and by seeing Christ at work within the Jewish people, they can then know that Christ is at work in them. In 7:1-13, Jesus points out the Jews long resistance to God in the prophets (7:1-13). He brings them up to reposition the tension between Jesus and Law within the promise for the Gentiles. What defiles in the eating of food (the Jewish accusation of the disciples according to the Law in 7:2) is compared to the washing of ones hands to eat. Jesus’ intent is to use this a metaphor to say, is it the food that is dirty, or what comes out the other end after we eat that makes hands dirty? This is a raw analogy that is intended to bridge the Jew-Gentile divide, allowing the Gentile faith to find a unifying presence in its Jewish history apart from the Law. The point of Israel is not for them to save themselves by following the Law (eating clean food), it was so that they can be a witness (what comes out) to the world. It is the witness of the Spirit that is their saving work, not the Law. This is the point of that metaphor. This brings positive expression to the following story of the Gentile woman’s faith (7:24-30) and the deaf man, whom coincidentally are told to tell no one of Christ’s saving work in their life (which of course means they tell everyone, because they just couldn’t help themselves 7:36).
From Called To Sent- A Growing Movement and An Unfolding Journey
To emphasize this growing movement, this idea of a journey to somewhere, Mark now goes from the call of the 12 to the “sending of the Disciples” (6:7-13). This coincides with the death of John the Baptist (6:14-29), anchoring this idea of Christ for the world. The spiritual battle is once again positioned back into their earthly reality, with John’s death echoing the Way of Jesus into the wilderness, an earthly expression that is about to find its practical unfolding in the great feeding of the crowds narrative.
The Feeding, the Sign and the Faithlessness
There are two “feeding the crowds” narratives in Mark, the 5,000 in 6:30-44 and the 4,000 in 8:1-10. While this becomes a practical and earthly expression of the Gospel in full movement (them feeding the hungry that have invaded their personal space), Jesus uses it to make a point about their spiritual reality. In anticipation of the coming Kingdom, they have been looking for a sign, a definitive and earthly example of their liberation. To which Jesus says, “why does this generation seek a sign (8:12)?” Turning the event into a parable, Jesus explains that the loaves were actually the sign they are looking for (8:14-21). The disciples see the loaves as literal food feeding a literal crowd that has invaded their space, but Jesus defines the loaves as Himself. He is the sign, the one who feeds the spiritual and earthly hunger. This is what they were meant for. If we return to that parable mentioned earlier, while they were afraid that Jesus was taking away their Kingdom and giving it to others by feeding the Gentiles (with spiritual food), God is in fact building the Kingdom. When he then says to beware the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod, what he is doing is taking their unbelief in their work and setting it back into the framework of God’s work. As we hear the man looking for healing declare, “I believe, help my unbelief (9:24)”, this connects to the disciples being unable to cast out the demons as an expression of their own unbelief, a people (a faithless generation 9:19) still looking for a sign even though it is standing right in front them.
This unbelief is now merged into an expression of belief as God’s revealing, God’s work, with Peter confessing Jesus as Christ (8:27-30). But this confession comes with the declaration of the way in which they are being called to follow, the first of three foretellings of his death and resurrection. The question at the heart of Mark (where aer we following Jesus to) is now becoming clear. This is the Way into the wilderness (8:34).
And yet as we travel on the Way, we do so in the Power of the Spirit. Jesus, after all, controls the wind and the sea and the Demons (4:35-40; 5:1-20). And yet the Power that Jesus proclaims is a different kind of sign than they were expecting. As we find in the Transfiguration, the continued unfolding of this question (where are we following Jesus to) becomes more clear (9:1-13). As Peter proclaims Jesus, the Spirit of Heaven now joins in the chorus. So, as the son of God comes in the expression of the Prophets (the sign in Jewish history), how is it written that the sign would arrive like this, Jesus asks? But Elijah did in fact come, and he was rejected (indicating John the Baptist) just as the prophets were. And just as he was rejected, so must the Son of Man suffer (9:12-13). We then come to the second foretelling (9:30-32), with the following accompanying proclamation, “the one who is not against us is for us.” This gives a positive force to this Jewish-Gentile movement (9:40), a movement that is shaped around the idea that the first shall be last a servant to the world, establishing those who Jesus came to reach as “children of God (9:37)”. Therefore, let the children come to me (10:13-16), for “it would be better” for “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin” to have a “great millstone” “hung around his neck” and be “thrown into the sea.”
The Apocalyptic Tradition, Children, Fire and Salt
These words are startling, especially for modern ears, but it it is important to recognize both the language and the context. This passage is framed between two passages which foretell Jesus’ death (9:30-32; 10:32-34), which reveals the way in which they are are to follow Jesus, the way into the wilderness (which coincides with the shared theme of “temptation” which we find in the Jesus’ temptation narrative). It belongs with a passage which finds the disciples arguing about who will be the greatest in the Kingdom of God. Jesus then raises up a child to explain how it is that God’s Kingdom is going to work, suggesting that the Kingdom of God is for least and the last. They (Israel, we) are to be a servant to all. Whoever receives the Kingdom of God will be a child of God (9:37), therefore receive the Kingdom like a child (10:15), because that is the only way one can enter it. This is reemphasized in the accompanying story of the Rich Young Man, in which the point is that “many who are first will be last, and the last first”, using the money as an example of how difficult it is to enter the Kingdom like a child.
All of this is written in the context of the Jewish-Gentile relationship, and all of it is set within the developing tension of Jesus and the Law, and the Spirit of Power and the Power of the Devil (both of which inform Mark’s entire Gospel). Those who were arguing about who will be greatest are those under the Law. They are trying to argue about who has done more to earn that right in the new Kingdom. In reality, God’s Kingdom is for the world, for the Gentiles, for the oppressed, for the poor, the sick, the marginalized, and the invitation is to come into this Kingdom and receive full embrace. That is what God’s Kingdom is coming to do, to bring justice to the injustice that we find in this world. And the way it does so is by bringing the world into the Kingdom, or building the Kingdom in the world, and thus establishing the Kingdom not by works, but according to the restorative work of Jesus, the work that calls us all sons and daughters of God.
When we bring 9:42-50 in to this picture, we can see in the light of these accompanying sections concerned for these little ones, the Gentile world, the oppressed, the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the least of these. Mark now incorporates hyperbolic language. He doesn’t mean to literally cut off a hand, a foot, or to tear out an eye. He doesn’t literally mean to tie a stone around your neck and throw yourself into the sea. Some people have used this passage in an overly literal way to reinforce a picture of hell as the greatest judgement (9:48) for ignoring the least of these and causing them to sin. But doing that removes this from the force of it’s hyperbolic language and misses (completely) the restorative nature of its final two verses (9:49-50). Here it says “for everyone will be salted with fire”, and this salt is “good” (9:50), not bad. This holds in view the imagery of Jesus’ baptism that we find formulated in other Gospels, in which fire is applied to Jesus as a “refining” work. As people tried to make sense of Jesus’ words and works, especially in His absence, this idea of fire as a refining and restorative Power was part of what had been passed down by Jesus’ teachings and part of what the writers were wrestling with as these letters were composed. Here Mark recalls the tradition of Jesus’ words within the apocalyptic tradition that informed their world, one which would have brought in the language of their time, language that also echoed the Greco-Roman world that surrounded them. Here fire is understood as an image of “judgment” and “destruction”.
Jesus’ words locate fire in a different sense, using it as a metaphor to uncover the work of Jesus, the Power of the Spirit and the growing Kingdom. Everyone, it says, is being salted with fire, a fire which is making salt for the world. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? All they will be left with is the fire, a fire which they will then use to keep the Gospel from moving out into the world, a fire which will ultimately consume them as well. Therefore, it says, “have salt in yourself” (9:50). Be “at peace” with one another (9:50). Don’t let the fire become destructive. Instead, let the fire refine you for the sake of the world.
This also forms the interest for 10:1-12, in which he uses the example of a broken marriage and a healthy marriage to emphasize this peace with one another in a practical way, informing their tendency to let the fire divide rather than join together. If we incorporate the whole of the New Testament emphasis here, the Law (Divorce, or the Broken Marriage) reveals Sin (the divide, the destructive fire), and the Sin (the fire) reveals the Light (the Healed Marriage, the healthy Marriage, the salt). That is how the salt and the fire are “good” images. As Paul understood, in Israel’s rejection of the prophets and Jesus, Jesus is being revealed to the world.
Anchoring this even further, as the Rich Young Man calls Jesus “Good” teacher in 10:17-31, Jesus responds with “why do you call me good? No one is good (the question of the Law that informs their need to know who will be “the greatest in the Kingdom) except God alone (10:19).” If he is calling Jesus good, then he is calling Jesus God, which is where Jesus steers his question away from the Law to the Kingdom of Jesus, where the first shall be last and the last shall by first. This is the true riches, the same riches Jesus sets into the reality of Cross which awaits. Just as he tells James and John in their wondering about who will occupy the most respected seat in the Kingdom with Jesus, Jesus’ Cross is built on becoming a servant to all, becoming the least so that the least shall be first. All of this Law that they are trying to raise as the their earned right to the be first and the greatest in the Kingdom is now framed around the greatest commandment as “love God” and “love others” (12:28-34), for the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.” (10:45) This is what Jesus is doing on the Cross, the image of the servant entering Jerusalem (11:1-11 the image of the new Kingdom, the temple which is being cleansed 11:17), destroyed and raised up again in Jesus (for the world) in triumph, finding victory in his coming death. In this new temple, Jesus’ “house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations” 11:17 That is why the salt and the fire are refining them.
The Fig Tree, A Sign of Faith and The Present-Future Time
The fig tree is a symbol that reemerges in Mark’s Gospel and elsewhere in the Gospel. Here it fits with the question that emerges earlier in Mark about the “signs”. They are all looking for signs that the Kingdom is being established in their midst, but they were missing the fact that Jesus is the sign. As Jesus enters Jerusalem looking to establish God’s Kingdom by way of the servant, we see him retreating to this fig tree on a hill, only to find no fruit. “It was not the season for figs” he says (11:13). When Mark revisits the fig tree in 11:20-25, we discover that the lesson of the fig tree is actually about faith in God, faith in what God is doing in bringing about the Kingdom of God (12:20-25). Instead of looking for sign of God’s judgment on their oppressors, forgive so that they can be forgiven, having the same faith in which Jesus controlled the wind, the seas and the Demons, not the faithlessness which we saw earlier when they couldn’t throw out the Demons. Have the kind of faith that can move a mountain and throw it into the sea, because in Christ all things are possible. In their present circumstance, a Kingdom can be built for the sake of the world. In death there can be life.
The third mention of the fig tree (matching up with the three foretellings of the cross and the 3 denials of Peter) comes in 13:28-31, which pulls this faith into the “signs” of the “closing age”. Here once again we come to this apocalyptic language. The fig tree in the second passage had leaves but no fruit. Here the leaves are said to indicate that the season is upon us. It is coming soon. The destruction of the temple that Jesus foretells in 13:1-2 is a part of this season, with the signs that we encounter in chapter 13 carrying this present-future focus. Just as it says to “stay awake” for the time is upon us in 13:32-37, the disciples who fall asleep as Jesus goes to pray in Gethsemane (14:32-42) are called to stay awake because the time is upon us. This is the thing people often forget when encountering this kind of apocalyptic language. The imagery here for its readers would have been applied directly to their reality at the time. This is how they would have interpreted the hope of Jesus’ liberation. And later, when the destruction of the temple does come, all of this language would have been eventually regathered and applied to the present generation. Chapter 13 has a present-future focus (13:3-27), with all of the language ultimately pointing to the Cross as Jesus’ definite “word” of victory (13:31). The Kingdom will come, but the Kingdom is in fact already here. So stop looking, and get to work. Stay awake. Because the Gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations (13:10).
This is how the ministry works in our waiting, in our present reality. While we apply the language of the Kingdom come, the New Heavens and the New earth, we always apply it to the present with Jesus’ death and resurrection pointing us to the promise of the future restoration. These words of a coming restoration (what is wrong being made right) linger in the air, with the Resurrection shaping them as our hoped for reality and the Cross shaping how we respond to this hope in the present. This is why, as Peter breaks down and weeps in his own failure (denials, which expresses itself as doubt, a lack of faith in what Jesus is doing), the failure is set within the seeming loss of this Kingdom promise (14:72). This becomes the grand movement of Jesus on the Cross in Mark’s Gospel. If the reigning question in Mark is, who is Jesus and where are we following Jesus to, the questions now merge together. As Pilate asks, “are you the King of Jews”, Jesus responds with “you have said so (15:2).” This is reminiscent of the rich young man calling him “good teacher”, and is set alongside the Spirits declaration that says this is the Son of God. We then see this progression in response. They say “Hail the King of the Jews” in mockery as Jesus is marched to the Cross. The “sign” (evoking Jesus as the sign they were looking for) is put over his head saying “The King of the Jews”, and then they once again mock him saying “let the King of the Jews come down” from the Cross (15:21-32). All of this then leads to this sudden declaration that “truly this was the Son of God (15:39), a statement that comes when the Cross is revealed as Power, not weakness. Jesus is the sign they were looking for, and His Kingdom has now come, establishing the Cross as the measure of their faith, the way in which they were and are follow. The shared wilderness in this present reality.
As Mark’s Gospel comes to an end (excluding the added piece in 16:9-10), we find this revealed reality leaving them trembling and in astonishment, followed by the admonition, why are you standing there looking for Jesus (as if they were still looking for the sign). He (Jesus, the sign) has risen and has gone “before you” to Galilee (16:1-8). This is your sign that the Kingdom of God has been established. Therefore, don’t sleep, stay awake. Take up your own cross now and follow Jesus into the suffering of the world, for the time is near. In fact, the time has now come to build this Kingdom for the sake of all.