Radical Discipleship in Mark
Mark teaches his readers about discipleship in two ways. First way is by recounting Jesus’s general teaching on the subject. Including Mark’s choice of examples that illustrate discipleship for his readers. He retells different accounts in which Jesus invites various individuals to follow him and their response. The second way is by narrating how Jesus disciples people. We look at the overall approach Jesus takes in disciplining others, highlighting how Jesus interacted with his disciples in Mark. These interactions reveal Jesus’ method of discipleship.
In this blog we will look at the first of the two ways. Mark teaches about discipleship. But first a few general point on discipleship in Mark.
A. General Character of discipleship in Mark
- Just as God earlier had called Israel to reflect his character, so too must Jesus’ followers reflect his character, especially in self-denying, cross-bearing discipleship (8:34–38).
- Impurity is not a like a biological contagion. It follows that purity is not a social badge of honor. Holiness is a matter of the heart (7:15–23) and is expressed particularly in love of God—and thus love of Jesus—and in how we treat others (9:35–10:16; cf. 12:30–31).
- Jesus’ followers must be prepared to face the same kind of rejection he experienced.
B. The general Logic of obligation in Mark
- If Jesus is A Ransom for Sinners, then we have been bought with a price.
- If the Gospel of Mark is about who Jesus is, it is also about who we are and his claim on our lives. His claim is total. Here is how Jesus put it in 8:34: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
I. Jesus’ teaching on discipleship in Mark
A special connection exists between the cross and discipleship in Mark. It can been seen in the way Mark connects Jesus’ passion predictions to discipleship. In light of this, special attention should be to the times Jesus teaching on discipleship arise from Jesus’ predictions of his passion. The passages are Mark 8:34–9:1; 9:35–10:31; 10:42–45.
The clearest example Jesus teaching in this a issue is found in 8:34–38. Here the general invitation to follow Jesus is extended to “anyone” (note the reference to the crowd in 8:34a) and involves three requirements: 1.) denying oneself, 2.) taking up one’s cross, and 3.) following Jesus.
1.) The first involves not just denying oneself of things, such as giving up something for a season, but denying oneself as the determiner of one’s goals and purposes in life. It is to deny mastery over one’s life and ambitions and place oneself under the lordship of Jesus. That this involves denying various things is evident from the examples of Jesus and of those who chose or chose not to follow him but these “things” are simply the consequences of denying oneself. Denying oneself refers to an initial act of commitment (an aorist imperative). It is a negative command involving an inner decision, and it functions much like the command to repent (1:4, 15; 6:12). At it’s core, Self denial implies renouncing self-rule, no longer making oneself the center of one’s life and actions. This requires an essential reorientation of life in which God is at the center.
2.) “to take up one’s cross,” is a figurative expression. Mark understands this as giving a specific example of what “denying oneself” might entail. Mark’s Gospel is not generically portraying hardship in life. Rather, it portrays a condemned man carrying His cross to the execution site, as Jesus did. To “take up one’s cross” recalls Jesus denying himself (14:36–39) and committing himself to fulfill God’s will even to death (8:35; 13:12–13). For Jesus’s hearers, Mark’s readers, and present-day readers, the figurative nature of this expression was/is self-evident. The command does not require actual martyrdom for all who choose to follow Jesus. Luke makes this clear by adding “daily” to this command (9:23). The expression refers rather to a total commitment to follow Jesus that accepts even the possibility of martyrdom.
3.) In contrast to other two requirements, the command “to follow Jesus” is a present imperative and refers to a continuing action. This expression is a popular one in Mark to describe being a Christian, or “follower” of Jesus (1:18; 2:14–15; 9:38; 10:21, 28, 52; 15:41). It emphasizes outward, continual actions and refers to the living out of Jesus’s teachings and example. We live out a particular style of life as we follow Jesus in community with others following Jesus.
This cross centered style of life involves
- loving God with one’s entire being and loving one’s neighbor as one loves oneself (12:29–31),
- becoming a servant/slave of others (9:35; 10:43–44),
- keeping the commandments (10:19)
- following Jesus above even one’s love and commitment to family (9:29; cf. Matt. 10:37–38/Luke 14:26–27 and note that loving Jesus more than one’s family is followed immediately by a reference to taking up one’s cross),
- having faith (Mark 1:15; 2:5; 4:40; 5:36; 9:42; 11:22),
- praying (11:24; 14:38),
- confessing Jesus and not denying or being ashamed of him (8:38),
- removing any stumbling block from one’s life, even if it’s a life long struggle (9:43–47).
1.) Mark also reveals what discipleship consists of through various examples. These examples show us how this style of life is expressed in the ambiguity and uncertainty of real life. Marks gives both positive and negative examples making for a well rounded picture.
A.) The greatest example is Jesus. What discipleship demands, Jesus himself lived out. From the beginning he was aware of his forthcoming passion and denied himself in order to fulfill God’s will (14:36, 39). He modeled a life of prayer (1:35; 6:46; 14:32–39) and served as the supreme example of what it means to be a servant of all (10:43–44) by giving his life as a ransom for many (10:45).
B.) The disciples also modeled what discipleship involves by denying themselves, by their leaving their “nets” or livelihood (1:18) and family (1:20;10:28–30). Despite their many failures in Mark they continued to follow and it is in the simple determination to continue to follow through it all that they demonstrate what it means to follow Jesus. They follow not perfectly or triumphantly but step by step by the grace of God. For this group, faith developed slowly, even laboriously, by repeatedly hearing, receiving, and finally bearing fruit (4:10–20). The disciples only see ‘in part’ but still they press in for a second touch. And, like the blind man at Bethsaida, they too begin to see clearly, but only out of the sustained interaction and repeated “touch” of Jesus (8:14–26).
C.) Negative examples
- The story of the rich man provides an important example of what it means to deny oneself. Here Jesus points out that entering the kingdom of God involves denying oneself and that, for the rich man, this requires that he sell whatever he has, give it to the poor, and follow Jesus (10:21). Unwilling to do this, he provides a negative example of what not denying oneself involves (10:22) and its consequences (10:22–25; cf. 8:36–37).
- The disciples also are shown as negative examples. They lack of understanding is a mark of chapters 1-8. The disciples shown to be self-seeking as they seek personal greatness, advantage over others, and places of honor (9:32-34; 10:35-45). They know little to nothing but want power and position. At Jesus’ lowest point the three closest to Jesus sleep while he prays (14:32-42). the disciples avoid persecution as all abandon Jesus (14:50-52).
- Peter is a negative example. Peter lacks sound self-awareness. He is unaware of his own shortcomings as well as the dangers of his impulsive tendency (14:29-31). Peter lack of introspection fully blossoms in him doing what he claimed he could never do. He denies Jesus three times (14:66-72).
Eduard Schweizer explains that the disciples’ failure never affected Jesus gracious response:
“So man’s continued inability to understand is contrasted with Jesus’ promise to go before them and accomplish what human hearts cannot do; despite every failure he would call the disciples again to discipleship and would encounter them in a way that would enable them to see him.”(1)
The point Schweizer gets at is as simple as it is profound. Even in all the disciples failures Jesus never failed them. Such a truth should bring our hearts to worship.
(1) Eduard Schweizer, The Good News according to Mark (trans. Donald H. Madvig; Atlanta: John Knox, 1970), 373
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