Old Pictures & Renewed Vision
Years ago, in my grandfather’s living room, there were two little black-and-white pictures of him that my grandmother hung with pride. Both were true of him and were taken around the same time. One was him in his garden leaning on a rake, five o’clock shadow, hair disheveled, grinning from ear to ear. The other was him in his Sunday best, clean-shaven and hair combed, grinning from ear to ear. The pictures were so different. He looked like two different people. When they had guests over, some had a hard time believing it was the same person. They would stop to take an extra look, even ask if it was a brother. In the end, his grin always gave it away. My grandmother thought it a keen observation that his farming friends would get tripped up by the well-groomed picture. His city friends never picked up on the fact that it was him leaning on that rake. Only his church friends recognized it was him in both, they knew him by his smile.
Mark’s gospel tells the story of Jesus in much the same way. It is as if Mark wanted to give us two pictures of Jesus. The pictures are complementary but distinct. Different but the same person, all you need to do is look for the smile.
Mark’s Pictures of Jesus
In the first sentence, Mark gives us the two pictures of Jesus that will be teased out over the rest of the gospel story.
“The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God,” Mark 1:1.
Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God. In the first half of Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ power is on display. The picture put forth is of a powerful, miracle-working Messiah. In the second half of Mark, the theme of suffering rises from Jesus’ teachings as well as His experience. The picture that develops is Jesus as the suffering Son of God. Let’s look at each from the text.
Section one: Powerful Miracle-working Messiah
In Mark 1:2 – 8:29, Jesus is on fire. He bursts on the scene healing and proclaiming the arrival of the kingdom of God. Mark presents Jesus as the powerful Messiah, then proceeds to narrate exactly what is meant by power. The first 6 chapters show Jesus’ authority and power over everything, especially over demons and Satan. There are three episodes in which Jesus casts out some evil spirits (1:23-28; 5:1-20; 7:24-30). There are also summary references to healings and exorcisms without much detail (1:32-34, 39; 3:11-12, 20-30). Being the powerful Messianic figure means healing the sick and kicking demon butt and that was just an average Tuesday. These summary texts cast Jesus as a healer and exorcist with a problem: He was too popular and that was the problem.
The power theme continues in the next set of episodes which show Jesus’ power over the natural world, such as calming a raging storm at sea with only a word (4:35-41), and walking on a stormy sea and thereby calming it by His mere presence (6:45-52). There are also creative miracles like the two feeding of multitudes which also display power over the natural world (6:30-44; 8:1-10). Out of the 20 miracle stories in Mark, 17 of them are in the first 8 chapters. So, all of the above focuses on Jesus as a figure of power greater than any other figure of power ever known.
In the first half of Mark, the portrayal is bold and direct. It checks all the boxes of what we think of as a person wielding the power of God. Mark’s audience would have understood this as an impressive catalog of abilities, proof that Jesus was the powerful Messiah. For the first-century Jew, Jesus was the “Man of Power for the Hour”.
Section Two: Jesus the Suffering Son of God
The suffering theme is mostly absent from the first half of Mark’s Gospel. But in the last half, you can’t throw a piece of unleavened bread without hitting it. In Mark 8:30-15:39, there is a noticeable lack of miracle stories. As the suffering theme escalates the power displays diminish. After Jesus’ pivotal conversation with His disciples (8:27–9:1), the miracles nearly cease. We find only one exorcism marked by reluctance (9:14–29), one healing (10:46–52), and the withering of one fig tree (11:12–13, 20–21).
The suffering theme is seen first in Jesus’ teaching then in His actions. In the last half of Mark, Jesus spends much of his time teaching on suffering primarily through the passion predictions. Three key ones are found in 8:31, 9:3 and 10:33-34. After explaining how He will suffer, the narrative abruptly slows down and from chapters 12-15 recounts the last 7 days of Jesus’ life. On the first day of Jesus’ last seven days, Jesus continues the theme of suffering (Mark 12). Jesus is in the temple after the triumphal entry. He gives the Parable of the Tenants. A parable that is a not-so-subtle allegory in which He uses imagery of God’s vineyard from Isaiah to describe what is really going on, and predict His fate at the hands of the religious leaders. At one point, Jesus identifies Himself as the son of the vineyard owner (God); a veiled reference to Him being the Son of God. In this way, he ties together His identity as God’s son with suffering and death.
Second, the theme of suffering is illustrated through the passion narrative (ch. 14-15). Mark focuses on the physical aspects of His suffering with many details scattered throughout the narrative. In the garden, Jesus is arrested by armed men (14:42-49); abandoned by His followers (14:50); accused falsely(14:55-59). Jesus is spat on and beaten (14:65). Jesus is denied three times by His friend, Peter (14:66-72). Jesus is flogged and mocked by Roman soldiers (15:16-20). The crucifixion itself is a high mark of physical suffering. At the hands of the Roman’s, crucifixion was a skillfully executed means of torture and punishment. Yet, Mark adds other aspects like His clothes are divided among his executioners (15:24) implying He died naked and ashamed. While on the cross, Jesus is mocked (15:29-31; 35-36) adding insult to injury. In anguish, Jesus cries loudly from the cross expressing utter abandonment (15:34). Jesus did not just die, He suffered death.
This is the moment Mark has been driving towards. Taking the gospel as a whole, Mark has the cross as his story’s climax. All of what Jesus has been preparing His disciples for in chapters 9-13 will be realized in the passion narrative. The pinnacle of the passion narrative is not Jesus’ death on the cross. It is the moment after His death when the centurion identifies Jesus as the Son of God–again we have a connection to 1:1. The whole thrust of chapters 9-15 reveals Jesus is the suffering Son of God.
In this way, Mark unfolds two pictures of Jesus throughout his gospel. Mark plots out story-by-story how Jesus was a powerful, miracle-working Messiah then shifts in the last half of the gospel to focus on Jesus as the suffering Son of God. While making it clear that only in the suffering on the cross is Jesus’ divinity revealed. For Mark, Jesus is the powerful miracle-working Messiah and Suffering Son of God with the latter taking primacy, without diminishing the former.
A Vision of Jesus for the Church Today
Mark’s portrayal of Jesus serves as a helpful corrective for the modern church’s vision. How do we view Jesus? What picture dominates our imagination? The greatest need is for the church to see Jesus as Mark saw Him. It is my contention that Mark gives us what we have been missing in terms of our vision of Jesus.
The two pictures of Jesus are not an either/or but a both/and issue. Seek only one and you find only a hazy outline of Jesus. Vague outlines can be colored in with our own subjective details and privately anointed as the real thing. My point is that both are necessary to have a clear vision of Jesus.
Many in the church today favor one picture of Jesus over the other. We preach both but trust only one. It is the image that comes to our mind when we think about Jesus that is most important. That is the conception of Jesus that makes a difference in our life. Regrettably, in the American christian mind, He has become a bit one-sided. They have reasons and arguments to explain away this one-sidedness but the truth is, their vision of Jesus is myopic. Below are two myopic visions of Jesus in the American church today. The greatest need in these groups is to recapture the lost picture of Jesus they have forgotten and in so doing regain a complete vision of Him.
The Consumer Christ
The greatest need for the evangelical church is a renewed vision of Jesus from Mark 1-8. The evangelical church forgets Jesus is one who serves with power. Jesus is the Miracle-working Messiah, and His power is extended to the church. Yet, many not seeing Him as powerful have searched for power in other places. If a belief in Jesus’ power is anemic, then leaders will seek out other means to make the religious business a success. In this way, many have constructed forms of godliness but forgotten about the power (2 Tim 3:5). I know of churches where His power has been eclipsed by business strategies and sociological research. The Jesus who serves with power and extends that power to the church has been traded in for programs catering to consumeristic mindsets. In the end, the church runs flawlessly, ignorant of its powerlessness.
Regrettably, Many churches are blind to the fact that they are nothing more than self-sufficient leaders ruling prayer-less people. Such churches preach the good news that a God of former glory brought people needing life skills to participate in a Kingdom that could come tomorrow, through the assistance of a Christ who needs people to accept Him, before He can be powerful.
The belief in a Powerful Messiah for today calls us to live a different way, a way dependent on Christ alone and nothing else. It is a necessary implication: If Jesus is the Powerful Messiah, then we can’t trust in human ingenuity, human creativity, all the things of Babel. Paul described it as having confidence in the flesh. Since Jesus is the powerful messiah, there is no room for us to depend on the flesh. Despite this truth, human history is full of stories testifying to the power of the flesh. From the Mona Lisa to Mt. Rushmore, human creativity can make splendid things. Things that capture the heart and shape the loves of a culture. Likewise, human ingenuity can develop systems and form plans that will move mountains (often on the backs of the vulnerable and the voiceless). Such are not evil in themselves, yet is when human ability is the sum of one’s trust. When the heart is weighed down with self-sufficiency, it is at that point the scales of justice shift.
I admit that cocky, often smug confidence in our own ability will get results. People have followed this kind of arrogance since the beginning of time. The flesh can produce golden calves which are inspiring and beautiful to behold but lifeless and unable to change the heart or move people towards the good. For there is no gospel when Jesus is not clearly seen as Powerful Messiah, Suffering Son of God. Much could be written on this but I want to focus on the second.
The Charismatic Christ
The greatest need in the charismatic church is the vision of Jesus from Mark 9-16. Jesus is the suffering servant, who calls us to come and die. In many quarters of the charismatic and third wave churches they have forgotten that Jesus serves as the One who suffers.
Many Christians today love the power, and quickly affirm the suffering part, only to forget about suffering just as quickly. When it comes to discipleship, many churches value the first (power) but only give tacit acknowledgment to the second (suffering). This is especially among those of us who believe in God’s power for today. More and more of the church’s talk is about the powerful Jesus and think the suffering servant Jesus is only for salvation. It is Jesus for the freshmen Christians, but we are the seniors, who have progressed beyond that elementary view. For us, blessing is equated with Triumphalism. We have moved on to a better Jesus, one who reveals His power through us by saving us from our problems, and never allowing us to suffer. We are the winners.
Mark clearly wishes to show us that the second is the clearest picture of God’s son. The love of God, clearly seen more in Jesus’ loving obedience to the father, in His substitutionary work, than in all the healings and works of power He performed. Power without suffering is half the story. Power without obedience, love and sacrifice is shallow miracle-working. We think suffering means the devil is winning but it was through suffering that Jesus won the victory. How did we get it so wrong? We focused on the power without the cross. We have constructed our vision of Jesus from Mark 1-8 and ignored Mark 9-16. This is not at all a good thing as Hayes warns:
“Those who perceive Jesus as a purveyor of power—whether supernatural or political—have failed to understand him. He can be rightly understood only as the Son of Man who will surrender power in order to suffer and die.”
Here we have a ‘powerful’ reminder. We cannot just know Jesus in power, such a knowledge in isolation is incomplete and dangerous. Hayes also reminds, “Those who know Jesus only as a worker of wonders do not understand him at all, for the secret of the kingdom of God is that Jesus must die as the crucified Messiah.”
For Mark, to suffer for the gospel is more ‘Jesus’ than to empty a hospital through the power of God. Both are very very good things, but in Mark’s view the first is just more like Jesus. In Mark’s day, like in ours, triumphalism and over-realized eschatology has shaped the church leading to an attitude much like Peter’s in Chapter 8. We think we know what is right. But we only see in part. We even presume to rebuke Jesus, claiming the real Jesus heals everyone or assume He is legally bound by covenant obligation to do what we want. Others hold a more sentimental version that has Jesus so love-sick for us that He will do anything we say. Over and over Mark warns his readers against any triumphalist rendering of their faith.
Mark shows us this through Jesus’ teaching that the kingdom is present but vulnerable (as in the seed parables in 4:1-20, 26-29, 30-32); in warning that victory was not imminent but troubling times and conflict were coming (13:3-37). Mark quotes Jesus’ explicit statements of His coming death, and the rejection of family, friends, and the religious establishment. Even setting the centurion’s climactic confession in the light of the cross, declaring victory through weakness, sacrifice, and suffering.
The implication of Mark’s picture of Jesus as the suffering son of God is a game changer. If Jesus is the suffering Son of God, then our view of God’s plan must change. In Mark’s theology, the cross is the climax of the gospel story. It is a distinctive of the gospel. From chapter 8 to 15, Jesus moves deliberately towards the cross. The cross was God’s plan. It was God’s plan to have the most powerful person ever to walk the earth die on the cross. In this, Mark is clarifying that while the miracles and power are great, suffering was a key element of God’s plan. Seeing suffering as part of God’s plan separates power from the triumphalism that so often distorts our view of power.
Many are like Peter in Mark 8, blindly assuming they know how the victory will come, but failing to hear Jesus’ calls to come and die. The greatest need for the Charismatic church today is rediscovering the doctrine of suffering. The first place to begin is in the knowledge of Jesus, the suffering Son of God.
The church today needs Mark’s vision of Jesus as the Powerful Messiah and the Suffering Son of God. Much of the imbalance evident today can be corrected by a sound and stable vision of Jesus. Jesus knew humiliation and exaltation, death and resurrection, suffering and power, a christian can be assured we will know both in our life as well. Only in both pictures of Jesus will life have a stable foundation, only through both will we see Jesus grinning from ear to ear.
 The elevation of the suffering theme, especially in the cross, is understandable in light of the disciples’ ignorance and power-hungry behavior. The portrayal of the disciples shows them to be people who seek position over service and are enamored with the power to the point of denying the suffering. Jesus called them to trust His work as well as follow His example of cross bearing.
 The way I speak of ‘primacy’ is not to invalidate the other, only drawing a distinction for clarity. The same pattern of thought was used by Jesus in Luke 10:20. Just as receiving salvation takes ‘primacy’ over the power in exorcisms, without diminishing either, The same is true when it comes to the vision of the suffering Son of God taking primacy over the powerful Messiah. Both are true, one is just more central for it is a closer descriptive of Jesus’ place in the plan of God.
 I confess I may be overstating it a bit but the critique stands on its own merit.
 Richard B. Hayes, Moral Vision of the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2013) 80.
 Richard B. Hayes, Moral Vision of the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2013) 79.
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