Thursday, August 30, 2018

Walking through Mark #3

Messiah in training?
For most of my early life I believed that the word “messiah” was synonymous with “savior.” A messiah was someone like Luke Skywalker or Rodimus Prime (see Transformers: The Movie, 1986) who was destined to save the universe, bring balance to the force, and all that jazz through a singular (and possibly momentary) act of heroism.

Matrix of Leadership = Messiah?

While my definition of messiah got a few things right, it largely missed the mark of what scripture means when it says “the messiah.” When we read “messiah” in scripture (“christ” in Greek) we should really just think “king.” It technically meant “anointed one,” which more or less meant God’s chosen ruler (which could be fulfilled by a prophet or priest as well).

By the time of Jesus’ ministry the word “messiah” was a little more loaded with meaning, because Israel had not had a “true” king (descended from King David) in hundreds of years, and had been colonized and oppressed in that time. Those who looked for a messiah in Jesus’ day looked for a king who would restore Israel to glory, usher in a time of peace and prosperity, and deal with “the Gentile problem” (i.e. Israel’s oppression). There were many different takes on how these things would roll out, but the bottom line of all of them was that the Messiah would be the king of Israel.

This is important for us today because in the third section of Mark (6:31-8:30) we discover through the disciples and crowds that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel.

So how does Mark show us that Jesus is the Messiah?

Jesus picks up where Moses and David, Israel’s greatest leaders, left off.

We find Jesus in 6:31 in the wilderness with a large crowd and nothing for them to eat. If you know the Old Testament this should immediately remind you of Israel in the wilderness after they leave Egypt. And just as Moses asked God to provide and received manna, so Jesus prays and bread is provided for the crowd. The implication could not be clearer: Jesus is standing in Moses’ shoes, and is therefore leading an exodus of sorts in Israel.

Often overlooked in this story is a nod to David as well. We’re told Jesus has compassion on the people because they are “like sheep without a shepherd.” In the ancient world kings often spoke of themselves as shepherds, and of course the most famous shepherd (literal and figural) of all-time in Israel was King David, and he too spent many years in the wilderness before taking the throne. If Jesus is the true shepherd, then he stands in line with David.

In our next story (6:45-52), we find Jesus walking on water. Again, this should remind us of the Exodus, when the people miraculously cross the Red Sea. Here Jesus not only evokes Moses, but supersedes him by not even needing the waters to part. And finally, when Jesus is confronted by the scribes and Pharisees (7:1-23) he shows himself to be at the very least an authoritative interpreter of the law, and perhaps a law-giver as well. Again, our most famous law-giver and interpreter was Moses, and Jesus is now in his place.

Jesus shows his rule is meant for Gentiles (non-Jews) as well as for Israel and the Jews.
Many of the most treasured words and prophecies concerning the Messiah (or at least interpreted in that way) in the years leading up to Jesus spoke of the Messiah ending the conflict between Israel and the Gentile nations (Isa. 49:6-7, 2:3-4, Ps. 2:4-9, Dan. 7:14 etc.) In the stories of the Syrophoenician Woman, the Deaf Man, and Feeding the Four Thousand Jesus is most likely (obviously with the first) dealing with Gentiles. In these stories we see:

Gentiles submitting to Jesus (7:28)
Gentiles being healed in the same manner as Israelites (7:31-35)
Gentiles being fed in the same “Exodus” manner as Israelites (8:4-8)

In other words, Jesus is shown to be the king and shepherd of Gentiles too!

Peter tells us!
Of course this was the obvious one. At the closing story of this section, Jesus asks who the disciples who they think he is and Peter answers correctly by saying “the Christ,” (which means the messiah, 8:29). People often ask why Jesus then tells the disciples not to share this, and I think there are two good reasons. One, because if you are called king and there is already a king (Herod and essentially Pilate) you will find yourself in hot water pretty quickly. Two, because they don’t really know what it means for Jesus to be the “messiah.” Which leads us into our final issue…

What’s with the weird story of the half healing?

Why does Jesus only heal a guy half-way on his first attempt in 8:22-26? Or, better question, why does Mark tell us this story right before Peter’s confession? The best answer is that Mark is probably making a point about the disciples level of understanding. They are about to say that Jesus is the “messiah,” but they really don’t know what that means… they are the blind guy who thinks people look like trees (so he can see again, but not clearly) before he’s entirely healed!

So, what does it mean for us?
This section of Mark is a turning point in the story, because now the disciples know the first critical identity of Jesus: he’s the king. This is a substantial shift because teachers can be listened to and appreciated from a distance, and the powers of prophets can be admired at a distance, but a king makes an immediate claim of authority over us. You can be neutral with a teacher and avoid a prophet but if you have a king you either submit or you rebel.

It is crucially important for us to recognize this claim of Jesus’ that he is king. Many people want Jesus as their savior (the hero messiah of my youth), but far fewer really want him as their king. This is because kings demand obedience, and we generally prefer to do things our own way.

The most basic Christian confession was, and is, that Jesus is Lord (i.e. messiah/king). That’s what Peter gets right in 8:29. To be a disciple of Jesus then is NOT simply to trust that Jesus will forgive me if I trust in him or his death for me or believe he is a savior-hero. Rather, to be a disciple is to recognize Jesus’ kingship over us and everyone else, and in light of that, to obey him to the best of our ability. There of course are more key pieces to discipleship (namely, imitating Jesus in character and ministry) but it all begins with recognizing that he is the king and being willing to bend the knee to him. 

Bonus Points: What’s up with the numbers in the mass-feeding stories?

Many biblical scholars believe that the numbers we are given in the “mass-feeding” stories have symbolic significance… here is a little chart to give you some food (bread?) for thought!

Feeding 5000
5 Loaves
5 books in the Torah… “man does not live by bread alone…”; Think also of the ideal OT king who embodies and gives the Law to the people (Deut. 17:18-20)  

12 Baskets left over
12 tribes of Israel… there is enough for all of Israel
Feeding 4000
4000 People
4 is the number for “the whole”; 4 directions, 4 winds, 4 corners of the earth… in other words, the whole world is represented

7 Loaves, 7 baskets left over
7 represents the 70 Gentile nations traditionally taken from the genealogy Genesis 10… there is enough for the whole world

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