Mark as Gospel: Jesus' Kingdom Ministry (1:21-2:12)

Jesus announced the kingdom in word and deed. Mark’s first story about Jesus’ ministry holds these two together perfectly. Jesus enters the synagogue to teach. An essential aspect of his identity is teacher. Mark tells us, however, that he was not just a garden-variety instructor. The authority with which he taught was astounding. From this point on, authority will be a key word for Mark. As will be evident when we come to some of Jesus’ particular teachings, he was a man with extraordinary insight into the will of God revealed in Scripture. The comparison with “the scribes” suggest that Jesus broke from the rabbinic tradition of citing other authorities’ views, opting instead to act as an authority himself. It’s a bold style, possibly presumptuous for many (certainly so for the religious authorities), but it seems that the listeners at Campernaum sensed his strange authority. 

And suddenly a crazy man walks in! As if this brash new teaching style isn’t enough excitement for one day, just at the moment when everyone soaks in the astonishment of it, a man known to be possessed crashes the scene. If we are attuned to Mark’s controlling question, the “unclean spirit’s” words hit us with the same force as his sudden interruption of a perfectly interesting Bible class. “I know who you are: The Holy One of God.” It may strike the reader as strange that the first to answer the question of Jesus’ identity after the Father is a demon. Now that Jesus has come through the desert temptation and announced the arrival of the kingdom of God, though, it is an expected progression. Satan has begun to lose ground. A new kingdom is invading. The demons are naturally the first to recognize what is going on. 

As for the demon’s specific description of Jesus, it is equally fitting considering its source. The demon, in its essence quite the opposite of holiness, cannot help but see Jesus in terms of his hidden nature--an essence of holiness. This is Mark’s next clue that Jesus is more than meets the eye, though it is not unambiguous to those who overhear the demoniac’s words. There have been “holy men of God” in Israel’s history, yet any Jew would also know that only Yahweh himself is truly worthy of the description “holy.” There is only one Holy One. The words point us to Jesus’ prophetic role (cf. 2 Kings 4:9) and beyond, as the demon fears in the Holy One the power to destroy. How can it be that Jesus of Nazareth bears this title? 

That is the question that the witnesses must ask themselves, though especially in light of the issue of authority. “What is this?! A new authoritative teaching and he commands unclean spirits and they obey him?” This is word and deed authority, and it is confirmation that the kingdom is breaking in. If we were to ask the man liberated from the oppressive rule of the demon, “Who is Jesus,” perhaps he would say that Jesus is the one with the authority to announce God’s rule and then make it happen. This is what it means to be the Holy One of God. 

Jesus’ day isn’t done yet, however. He leaves the synagogue immediately goes to Simon’s house, and straightaway heals Simon’s mother-in-law. Of course, word gets out, and a long day turns into a long night of healing. This is, then, a kingdom of freedom from the power of evil and a kingdom of healing. Jesus is the one with authority over demons and disease. If we let our imaginations loose for a moment in the presence of this man from Nazareth, hope may get ahold of our hearts. For if he is the coming king, as Mark first claimed, what a kingdom it will be! When the king can banish evil and suffering with a word, his realm is a place of unspeakable wellbeing. We may well weep with longing to experience that reality. The good news has begun to take on a very tangible quality in the kingdom ministry of Jesus. 

Mark gives us a wonderful glimpse into Jesus’ spirituality in the following passage. Although it is really just the stage for the exchange with his disciples, many have rightly made much of his prayer discipline, for it too is a mark of his identity. Yet, the primary point here is the conversation. His disciples, excited about the power and fame suddenly Jesus’ for the taking, would rather he not disappear and waste time on less important matters. “Everyone is searching for you” is one of those phrases that human beings like to hear. They want you, say the disciples. They need you. And now Jesus must make a choice--no doubt a choice rooted in his conversation with the Father. If we wonder what Jesus was praying about, we likely come close to the mark imagining that his own strength to chose the right priorities was a central issue. Resisting the lure of fame and the power of ego, Jesus decides that he must do what he has “come out” to do: proclaim. His job, his purpose and priority, is to make known the word and deed message of the kingdom in other places, not to fully realize it in just one. 

Here we may sympathize more with the disciples in a sense, because the reader naturally wonders why Jesus doesn’t just heal everyone in Capernaum with a word, or everyone in the whole world for that matter. Why can’t God just declare the kingdom a reality and be done with it? Such questions in the reader are not foreign to the concerns of the text, but they can only be answered in reference to the much bigger story of the whole Bible, and Mark is not interested to pause and make sense of the discussion in that way. It is best, therefore, that we accept Jesus’ subtle suggestion that there is a plan at work which relativizes other important matters--such as the healing of those still suffering back in Capernaum. Mark does not give us a “mission statement” in the way that Luke does (Lk 4:18-19), but we can perceive here a very similar sense of mission. For now, his task is to proclaim. 

At the same time, Mark is not insensitive to the seemingly callous task-orientation of Jesus. Doesn’t he care about the people? Is it too much to take a few more minutes with them? The next story seems strategically placed to address this doubt. To do so, Mark zooms in on a more intimate exchange with a leper. It has already been stated that Jesus healed “various kinds of disease,” so the reader might infer that healing leprosy isn’t really going to be progress in the narrative. Yet, there is much more at stake than physical illness in this scene. The leper virtually puts the words in our mouth: “If you want to, you can purify me.” Jesus’s reaction is the one we’re hoping for, not busy indifference but extreme compassion and the desire to make the man well. The compassion is extreme because it brings Jesus to touch the man, who is ritually impure (hence, “purify me” rather than “heal me”) and therefore is a threat to Jesus’ status as the Holy One of God. This man’s problem is threefold. 

He is sick. He is religiously unacceptable. He is socially outcast. The reader may safely venture to imagine that Jesus didn’t need to touch the man to effect the healing. Rather, the touch is connected with Jesus’ compassion. We don’t know how long the man had gone without the touch of “acceptable” society, but Jesus’ gesture is certainly one of gratuitous kindness, not to mention religious and social risk to himself. His purity proves to be more powerful than the leper’s impurity, though, and rather than Jesus ending up unclean the leper ends up clean. 

Jesus warns the man not to say anything to anyone but rather to go to the Temple to meet the Law’s requirements in the case of recovery from leprosy. Contrasting the two actions in this way, in addition to the words “as a testimony to them [the requirements],” gives the impression that Jesus does not want the healing to be a testimony to himself that detracts from the Law. He is conceding the glory to God. But the fact that he also ordered the demon to be silent in the previous story compounds the curiosity of Jesus’ command. If the big issue is Jesus’ identity, why isn’t he shouting it from the rooftops. This too is part of the peculiar restraint that characterizes the plan unfolding in Jesus’ ministry. There have been many attempts to explain the special way that Mark emphasizes Jesus’ “secret identity,” and it will be easier to make sense of it later in the story. For now we do well to note that Mark is clear about the immediate adverse effect. Jesus can no longer carry out his work openly in populated places. When people start getting their world set right, the population can become very demanding. 

Having returned to Capernaum, his base of operations, Jesus’ spreading fame turns his own home into an impromptu meeting-place, packed beyond capacity. He is “speaking the message to them” when, all of the sudden, a demolition job starts on his roof. As this must have been a least a little distracting, the teaching probably stops while everyone waits to see what’s going to happen. Eventually, a hole is made, large enough to lower a man on a mat, who proves to be a paralytic with some very zealous friends. So, Jesus, when he sees their faith, says, “Child, get up and walk.” No. He says the unexpected. “Your sins are forgiven.” The paralytic is undoubtedly a little confused. His friends didn’t go to all that trouble for a pronouncement of absolution. Forgiveness of sins is great, but, after all, if you’re a paralytic, you make a hole in the healer’s roof because you want to walk. 

Aside from upsetting the paralytic’s expectations, Jesus also offends the sensibilities of a number of his listeners, whom Mark labels “scribes.” Their question cuts to the heart of the matter once more: “Who is able to forgive sins except God alone?!” Who do you think you are?! They consider Jesus’ words to be blasphemy, because they know theologically that only God has the authority to forgive sins. And they are not wrong. It is not one man’s place to forgive another man’s offense against God. Therefore, to say this moment of revelation is shocking would be a gross understatement. Only God can forgive sins; Jesus can forgive sins. The irony of the story begins with the fact that the scribes’ question was so close to the right one but so far from the right disposition. Jesus carries the irony further by asking which is easier, to speak words of forgiveness or to make a paralyzed man walk. The real punch-line is implicit, though. One who has just blasphemed God will certainly not be given the power to cure paralysis. As the witnesses say after the fact, it’s an unprecedented sort of healing, and for believers in God, his involvement is undeniable. 

This is a good point in the study to remind ourselves of our job as readers. Can we elbow in alongside these onlookers and get a view of what’s happening? Can we experience their seemingly continual amazement and wonder? What is it to look in on these events and witness the Messiah’s time on earth? Who is this Jesus? If we let such questions penetrate our hearts, we may find ourselves also glorifying God along with our partners on the journey. Have we ever seen anything like this?