As I said in the first post in this series, on Matthew’s presentation of Jesus, an author’s introduction of a character tells us a lot about what they want us to think about that person. My earlier post looked at how Matthew introduced Jesus – emphasising his authority as a Jewish Davidic Messiah, king and religious leader.
Now we turn to Mark, who uses different techniques to emphasise qualities of Jesus’ character that don’t come across so strongly in Matthew.
The God-king of prophecy
Mark starts by doing something that, by modern standards, would be unthinkable. He takes two old testament verses, Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3, mashes them together in a quote he says comes from ‘Isaiah the prophet’ and, perhaps most surprisingly of all, alters the wording of Malachi 3:1 to make it say exactly what he wants it to say. As you can see here, with Mark’s changes in bold:
Malachi 3:1a – “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me.”
Mark 1:2b – “I will send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way.”
Unless Mark is quoting a different version of the Old Testament to ours (though, as far as I can see, the Septuagint text is pretty much the same as our standard OT), Mark has consciously decided to change Malachi’s words for his own uses. In this instance, the pronoun switch changes the passage from God clearly speaking about Godself to God clearly speaking to another person.
Why would Mark do this? I don’t think he’s being manipulative. I think, instead, he is providing his own interpretation within the text as a way to show what he thinks the Old Testament passage means (i.e. that God is sending John the Baptist to prepare Jesus’ way)…not so different from the kind of thing we see in paraphrased Bibles like The Message nowadays.
Furthermore, by switching first person pronoun to a second person pronoun, Mark could be suggesting early Trinitarian theology, showing that Jesus is a separate person from God the Father, but a person who can still be considered God, thus preserving the original sense of Malachi’s prophecy.
What’s the overall effect of this? Like Matthew, Mark places Jesus in a Jewish messianic tradition, but there is a hint of Jesus status as one of the persons of God, giving Jesus a more cosmic, universal appeal that Mark will unpack further.
The mighty son of God
John the Baptist is the first person in Mark’s gospel to speak about Jesus, calling him ‘mightier’ than he is and predicting that Jesus will baptise with the Holy Spirit. The famous baptism seen that follows includes God’s direct confirmation of the prophet’s words, as God calls Jesus ‘my beloved son’ and the Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove.
What do we make of all this? Mark doesn’t feel the need to use genealogies and other conventional Jewish devices to legitimise the authority of Jesus – he goes straight to the top. Mark very quickly shows God’s approval of Jesus and identifies the Holy Spirit as the mark of that approval.
This also has implications for Mark’s first readers. Writing for the early church, Mark wastes no time showing how the baptism and commissioning of the Spirit were integral to the start of Jesus’ ministry, happening before Mark records any of Jesus’ words. This would send a clear message to early Christians that the ministry of the Holy Spirit preached and enacted by the apostles is a direct heritage from the man in whose name they claimed to act.
A man to be followed
So what is the first thing Jesus says? After very briefly touching on Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, with an almost throwaway reference to Satan, wild animals and angels, Mark tells the story of how Jesus called Simon (aka Peter) and Andrew fishing (1:16). Jesus calls out to the brothers, saying, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.”
He then goes on to call James and John immediately after. Mark doesn’t recall any response from either pair other than that they instantly left their nets and families and followed Jesus.
This is Jesus’ first action after his baptism and temptation. Before any teaching or healing, he calls followers. This not only shows how compelling Jesus’ personality must have been to draw these men to him, it also shows how important his followers were to his ministry. The implication is that these first four at least were with him for everything that happened next.
Jesus the healer
The rest of chapter 1 focuses on the healing of someone with an unclean spirit, the healing of large numbers of people and the healing of a leper. Taken together, these episodes introduce a recurring theme in Mark: Jesus’ power over both spiritual and physical afflictions.
I think this highlights one of the most important of Jesus’ traits according to Mark: his actions legitimise his authority. For Matthew, Jesus’ authority was legitimised by his character and his place in Jewish religious tradition. For Mark, while those things remain true, his authority is really legitimised by what he did.
Right from the start, Mark relates a series of powerful events in Jesus’ ministry, that apparently happened in quick succession. These actions back up the claims of the prophets that Mark sets out in the first verses and work in tandem with the blessing of God through the Holy Spirit that happened in the baptism.
Jesus, according to Mark, is a man of tangible power, who’s followers were there with him right from the start. The implications for the early church, and now modern day Christians, is that Jesus’ followers have always been a part of his mission and that his power is available to us all now through the same commissioning of the Holy Spirit. This theme will be unpacked throughout Mark’s gospel and the whole of the New Testament, but it is a basic truth that must remain central to our Christian lives today.
Jesus, in the assurance of his standing before God, was proactive and obedient to the Father’s will, and so should we be.