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The Gospel of Mark begins like an NBA game. Upbeat music blares from the speakers, the lights are dimmed, spotlights circle the arena, and an announcer introduces the starting line-up, saving for the finale the team's MVP, who in Mark is not LeBron James, but Jesus the Messiah and Son of God. Pretty big deal—especially since the prophet Isaiah totally called it.
Fans are super pumped when John the Baptist comes on the scene in the Judean wilderness donning an outfit of camel's hair, reminding everyone of the prophet Elijah. And we thought black socks with black shoes was pushing the envelope. Anyway, John baptizes people who are turning their lives around, but explicitly tells everyone that he's the warm-up act for someone much, much more important and stronger than he is.
He's talking about Jesus of Nazareth, of course, who arrives at the Jordan River, where John baptizes him. As Jesus comes up out of the water, some pretty amazing stuff happens. The heavens split open, a dove-looking Spirit descends upon Jesus, and a voice echoes through the heavenly loud speakers calling Jesus "my beloved son" (1:11). Yowza.
The Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness, where—no big deal—he beats a formidable demonic opponent named Satan. The end. Oh wait…not even close.
Jesus pursues his career at first mostly in Galilee, though he also takes a few business trips to non-Jewish territories like Sidon, Tyre, and Caesarea-Philippi. He's a busy guy as he teaches, performs miracles and exorcisms, trains his wayward disciples, and argues with religious leaders. He can barely even find time for a lunch break. Seriously (6:31).
His supernatural abilities are astounding, and the crowds love him. He's a serious celebrity. But no one's quite sure what to make of him. He's not a singer-songwriter, that's for sure. That means he must be some prophet of old like Elijah who has returned to the earth. Natch.
For those of us with back-stage passes, though, the narrator makes it clear that Jesus is a veritable God-man of supernatural parentage (see 1:1, 11 and 9:2-8). This means that even the demons are right about Jesus's identity (1:24; 3:11; 5:7). He's a walking epiphany.
But being a Son of God isn't all it's cracked up to be. Even while detailing Jesus's outstanding resume, the narrator introduces some pretty disheartening complications. It turns out that Herod, who ruled Galilee, arrested and beheaded Jesus's precursor, John the Baptist (6:21-29). Yikes. Also, the religious leaders together with Herod's cronies begin a plot to crush Jesus as early as 3:6. So yeah, things aren't looking great.
What's more, Jesus's disciples are slow learners, if not downright dumb. They're supposed to be privileged recipients of God's secret messages (4:11-12), but one of them is a real back-stabber (3:19) and all of them understand very little of what Jesus actually teaches and does (4:13; 7:17; 6:52; 8:15-18). A lot of the time they're scared silly (4:41; 6:49-51)—although who wouldn't be, walking around with the Son of God and all?
Things just get worse for the disciples as they take a long road trip with Jesus to Jerusalem (8:27-10:52). While they're "on the road" (8:27; 9:33; 10:17, 32, 46), Jesus warns his disciples three times that he will suffer, die, and be resurrected in Jerusalem (8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34). Mark interprets Jesus's suffering as the model for how to be a disciple, and Jesus himself repeatedly underlines the point during their road trip (8:34-38; 9:33-37; 10:41-45). Disciples are supposed to risk their lives, choose last place, and compete over who can best serve the other.
The disciples don't get this counterintuitive stuff at all. Peter, James, and John are expecting Jesus to become king like the Messiah is supposed to. Just check out their reel of bloopers.
In Jerusalem, things turn out exactly as Jesus expects. Initially, crowds welcome him with a big party, but Jerusalem's top brass snub him and don't attend. Jesus doesn't really like them all too much anyway. He ticks them off big time when he closes the stores in the Temple's precinct, which is not a place for bling. Then he systematically proves himself a whole lot smarter than each of the religious leaders, who are unable to go toe-to-toe with Jesus while debating some weighty religious questions.
When Passover rolls around, Jesus and his disciples share a somber meal, where the table-talk is of betrayal, abandonment, body, and blood. Ah, dinner parties.
Meanwhile, Judas has already turned Jesus over to the authorities who want to arrest him on the sly. While he's praying in Gethsemane, an armed gang grabs him and his disciples abandon him. It is not long before the Jewish leaders declare him guilty of blasphemy for claiming to be the Son of God. They lead him to a Roman administrator named Pontius Pilate, who sentences him to crucifixion, giving in to the pressure of the crowd. The claim to be king is, after all, tantamount to treason against Rome.
Jesus dies, and Joseph of Arimathea places his body in a tomb. Done and done.
The body turns up missing when a few of his female followers arrive to prepare it for burial. But a youth dressed in white informs them that Jesus is no longer there because he was raised. He instructs the women to brief the disciples, but they say nothing, "for they were afraid" (16:8). These are likely the last words of Mark's gospel. Go figure.
Questions? Make your way to "What's up with the ending?" to see what we have to say.