“He Said All This Quite Openly”
If you read up about the Gospels, you often hear that the Jewish people at the time were waiting expectantly on the Messiah. This is true, but only partly true. The better way to phrase it would be to say that the Jewish people of the time (who were not monolithic by any stretch of the imagination) were waiting expectantly on a Messiah. Messiah just means “anointed one.” It could be anyone anointed by God to deliver them from their suffering. David was a messiah. King Cyrus of Persia, who defeated the Babylonians and ended the exile was a messiah. To find a comparable modern example you might look to Abraham Lincoln, who issued the Emancipation Proclamation – that was the functional act expected of a messiah: liberation. The most recent messiah for people of Jesus’ time was Judah Maccabee, who in the 160s BCE led the revolt immortalized in the story of Hanukkah and brought about the first independent Jewish kingdom in 500 years.
That independent kingdom had lasted until 63 years before the birth of Christ, roughly 90 years before his ministry. Just long enough for no one to remember it as it was, but not so long ago that people hadn’t heard stories. The people had not forgotten that they were once free. Now, just like under Pharaoh, just like under Rehoboam (Jeroboam), just like under the Babylonians, just like under the Seleucids, the people were suffering and in need of salvation. The boot of the Roman Empire rested heavily on their backs. Some people were holding out for a Messiah like Judah Maccabee, the warrior-priest sent from God to liberate the people. Others had given up hope on the world all together, and were expecting some cosmic apocalyptic end-of-the-world-type thing. Elijah often figured into these narratives, because according to 2 Kings Elijah did not die but was taken up in a chariot of fire. Nor were those the only options, Jerusalem has always been a very religiously diverse place, and the Samaritans, the Essenes, the Zealots, the Pharisees, the priests, and the scribes all had different hopes and expectations. What we can say with certainty, is that many people in 1st century Judaism, even those with a significant amount of wealth and power within the Roman system, were hoping for salvation and liberation. There was a common acknowledgment within a wide set of social strata that they needed to be saved.
Here is perhaps where our culture touches theirs. Salvation is a common theme in our lives as well. We don’t often talk about it that way. The word salvation more frequently brings up Reformation and Great Awakening era arguments about theology. But we do want to be saved. We do want to be liberated. We have debts that we don’t know if we can pay, we have fears about whether we’ll ever have enough to retire, or have we retired too early? We worry about our kids and our jobs and our country. We look at ourselves and cannot see anything of value, and we want to be recognized as people by a world that does not care.
And we have no shortage of saviors. It’s the law of supply and demand. When there is demand for salvation, pretty soon there will be a supply of saviors. And that’s exactly what we have. You can’t find me a problem in modern society, that I can’t find a person who will offer you a solution and accepts Mastercard or Visa.
The same thing was true for Jesus’s time. There was demand for messiahs, and there was a supply of messiahs. There was no shortage of Jewish miracle workers at the time of Jesus. My favorite is Honi the Circle-Drawer. Look it up. Jesus isn’t even the only miracle-worker named Jesus from 1st century Judea. That era had plenty of people who were advertised, either by themselves or others, as messiahs. There was not a shortage of promises of salvation. There was a shortage of actual salvation.
That’s the context that begins the book of Mark. The people are hoping for a Messiah. They have a sense that they need someone to deliver them, some one to save them, someone to lead them to salvation, and they are expecting it from God in time. And Mark opens the book with these words, which place Jesus right square in the middle of that hope: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” That’s the first verse. Christ is the Greek word for Messiah, so in that one sentence, we have established that according to Mark, Jesus is the messiah they’ve been looking for.
The disciples are not privy to that bit of information. They don’t get to hear the narrator. They have come along with Jesus in amazement and wonder, as he casts out demons and heals the sick and tells baffling parables about God. He has been so many things to them. But even after traveling with him for some time, they wonder who he is. Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?
Slowly they come to believe that Jesus can save them, and Peter finally says it in our passage. For the reader it feels like a triumph, the disciples have finally realized what we’ve known all along. They finally have the key to understanding who Jesus is. Only they don’t. The key to our understanding happens in the verses prior to this, in which Jesus heals a blind man at Bethsaida.
It is an unusual miracle. Because it doesn’t quite work on the first try. Jesus places some saliva on his eyes, and he asks, “Can you see now?” And the man explains that he can see a little, but his vision isn’t yet clear. The people are like trees walking. And so Jesus has to take another crack at it. Only then can the man see clearly. Nowhere else in the Bible does Jesus have trouble performing a miracle. Nowhere else in the Bible does Jesus even need to ask if his healing has worked. There is more to this story than meets the eye.
What Mark is trying to tell us is that this realization that Jesus is the messiah is only part of the story. The disciples can see a little, but their vision is not yet clear. But now, Jesus is telling them.
The road to salvation passes through Golgotha. He is going to the cross. This is the crux of the Gospel of Mark. The Son of Man must suffer and be rejected by the authorities, be killed, and then three days later rise again. The only way to save yourself is to lose your life.
The power that God holds is not like the power of this world. It is the power of powerlessness. It is the power of love. To love someone is to let yourself be vulnerable, to let yourself be hurt. God loved the world such that God chose to become powerless, God chose to become vulnerable. God chose to be hurt. But God is God, and God is not defeated by the sin and brokenness that we are vulnerable to. Instead, God rose up, and God lifts us up, to new life in Christ. If we want to save ourselves, we will not seek our own salvation, but the salvation of our neighbors. We will seek salvation in the power of love, the power of serving others, as Christ has served us.