The Opposed One
Opposition began early
We come to meeting Jesus the redeemer in Mark’s gospel. How early do you find hints of the cross? Some would say it’s as early as the opening phrase, ‘the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ’, but that’s probably reading into what you already know. But it does come very early.
Opposition begins very early for Jesus’ ministry. Chapter 2, The Healing of the Paralytic; Jesus is in the house teaching when the paralytic is lowered down. Jesus says ‘my son your sins are forgiven’ in 2:6. Now some of the scribes are sitting there ‘questioning in their hearts why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming’. So in this early miracle, some are beginning to ponder and question as to whether what this man Jesus of Nazareth is doing and teaching is blasphemous. Of course, blasphemy would be seriously punishable in the eyes of the Jewish leaders. In the next incident that Mark recalls, Jesus calls Levi, the son of Alpheus the tax collector, and Levi says ‘come home with me’ and invites lots of his friends round and this is what we read in 2:16 And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat[b] with tax collectors and sinners?” And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
So blasphemy in the first incident in chapter 2, in the second incident he’s accused of mixing with the wrong people. We then have the incident where there is a question about fasting “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” So whilst it’s not quite obvious opposition, they are certainly questioning him. But the next incident they certainly do. ‘One Sabbath he was going through the cornfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck ears of corn. And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” He and his disciples are accused of Sabbath-breaking. So you’ve got blasphemy, mixing with the wrong kind of people, questioning the lifestyle around fasting and Sabbath observance. All in the second chapter of the gospel, the opposition is clear. Jesus of Nazareth from the earliest phases of his public ministry finds himself as the one who is opposed.
Opposition hardens early
Well, not only is he opposed, but actually that opposition hardens very early as well. This is chapter 3, ‘Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. And they (which refers to the scribes of the Pharisees) watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him.’ So they are now definitely on the hunt. Somehow, because of his teaching and the apparent blasphemy about forgiveness of sins and because of the Sabbath breaking and because of who he mixes with and because of his lifestyle, this group have already decided ‘we are going to get him.
And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.” And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. And he looked round at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
We are still very much in the early days of Jesus public ministry and the opposition has already hardened to the point that they are willing to consult and counsel with a group that the Pharisees didn’t particularly like or approve of. That is the Herodians. But their antagonism to Jesus is so strong that they are willing to break some of their previous unease with collaborating with the Herodians, because they are out to get him and want to destroy him. Now at this point we have no indication about what destroying Jesus might look like. It may have been that death had not been on the agenda yet, but it may have been ‘we are going to destroy him as a person, as a character or we are going to destroy him in his ministry’, certainly it is a very strong word. So Jesus is living with opposition from this very early phase.
Then from Mark’s telling of the story, he adds a bit more later in Chapter 3 because we have the calling of the Twelve. ‘And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles),… and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.’ So for people coming to the gospel of Mark for the very first time, who have never read it before, which is very hard for all of us, but if you’ve never read it before, very early on in the story you get the idea that what Jesus is doing is disliked, is actually more than disliked, by a whole group of people who are out to get rid of him. And we are told that even from his inner circle he will be betrayed.
Now as the gospel keeps running so this theme of opposition keeps flowing. So straight after the naming of the betrayer
‘Then he went home, and the crowd gathered again, so that they could not even eat. 21 And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, “He is out of his mind.”
Now we have never heard of the family of Jesus before this in Mark’s gospel. The first mention of Jesus family in Mark’s gospel they think he’s gone raving mad.
And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” And he called them to him and said to them in parables,
So he is being accused of being not a good man at all but a decidedly evil man. A demonic man who’s acting out of evil powers not out of the powers of God. In verse 30 ‘for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit. Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters[c] are outside, asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ So it’s very strong, isn’t it, in Chapter 2 and Chapter 3, this whole thing of opposition is incredibly strong. And we know somewhere in the story that lies ahead, he’s going to be betrayed.
We then have Chapter 4 which is full of parables and Chapter 5 which has these long stories. One that we looked at last week, the healing of the demoniac, the Gerasene known as Legion and then the healing of Jairus’ daughter and the woman who comes through the crowd and touches the hem of his garment. Then we get to chapter 6 and he goes back to his hometown. Now it has to be said that Jesus immediate family do not appear in a very good light in Mark’s gospel. First instance, they’ve come to seize him because he is out of his mind. Second instance, he puts a distance between himself and them. Third instance,
‘He left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.’
So he has opposition from the scribes and the Pharisees, he has opposition from the Herodians. We’ve been given the hint that he will be betrayed by one of his closest friends and he has problems in his hometown and with his own family. It’s not looking good.
Chapter 7 is a debate with the Pharisees about traditions and commandments and it begins
Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the market-place, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,
“‘This people honours me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’
You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
Now to say to the leading teachers of the faith at that point ‘You leave the commandment of God’ was not the most tactful thing. He went on
“You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!”
So there’s a degree at this point where as the story unfolds, where not only does Mark make it quite clear they are continuing their opposition, they’re continuing their move to stop Jesus.But at this point at least Jesus, I suppose you could say, ‘adds fuel to the fire’ by the way in which he responds to them. And then there are growing tensions, chapter 8,
The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” And he left them, got into the boat again, and went to the other side.
So unlike the earlier incident, where actually he does push back at them, here he says ‘right I’m going to get out of the way. I’m just going to move away.’
Now they had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.”
So Jesus puts the Pharisees and the Herodians together, as they had been earlier. He’s warning the disciples about what is going on. But for those of us, as we read Mark’s gospel, we need to hear watch out, beware the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod. This is sometimes where I forget what I’ve said where and when. Because I can’t remember whether or not I said in the first talk here, that one of the biggest problems that I have with the gospel of Mark and indeed with the synoptic gospels as a whole, is the more I read them the more I realise I am in danger of being like the Pharisees. And I think we are meant to hear that. Jesus warned the disciples, because remember the Pharisees were really good religious leaders. Jesus is saying to disciples down through the ages beware, we, you as disciples, can trip up and become pharisaic. But it built up and built up and the tensions had grown.
Heading to the Cross
Teaching on the cross begins
What happens in Chapter 8 after that Jesus Heals a Blind Man at Bethsaida, you then get Peter’s great confession
And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” 29 And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.”
In Mark’s gospel that’s it. It is just a very bald statement of faith. A declaration ‘Jesus you are the Messiah you are the Christ’ And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him. And then this,
And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly.
The disciples have travelled with Jesus. They have observed his healings. They have listened to his teaching. They have observed the growing opposition, the difficulties that they’re facing. All of that has been happening, but they have become convinced and Peter has become their spokesman, ‘You really are the Messiah’ and this clearly was the trigger for Jesus to move them on to understand that the future of the Messiah was going to be very, very different from everything they were traditionally taught. This Messiah is not going to throw the Romans out. He’s not going to lead some kind of revolution. He’s not going to lead some kind of armed insurrection. This Messiah is going to suffer, be rejected, killed and after three days rise again. This is a very different Messiah story from anything that they’d anticipated. So utterly different that we should not be surprised that Peter doesn’t get it. The very Peter who has said’ You are the Christ’. And its Peter who takes him aside and began to rebuke him.
But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter – now this must have been one of those moments in Peter’s life where he’s just made this fantastic statements of faith and he’s now stood up to Jesus and saying ‘ you’re the Messiah, you can’t possibly mean death.’ And what does Jesus do? He publicly rebukes Peter in front of the other disciples. “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’ And this theme of Jesus teaching them about how he must be; must be rejected, must suffer, must die and then will be raised, then flows right the way through. Now, we are only halfway through the gospel and from halfway we’ve built up all this opposition but now it’s absolutely clear, Mark is saying Jesus is heading to death.
The second half of the gospel is entirely about heading to the cross and the resurrection beyond and that gets followed through. But it’s worth noting at this point what happens around John the Baptist. Jesus goes up the Mount of Transfiguration and Moses and Elijah appear. On the way down, Jesus says to Peter and James and John, who’ve been up the mountain with him.
‘And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead might mean.’
Death, it appears they got. Rising from death, that was something else. They were thinking ‘What? What? What’s he on about?’ And they asked him,
“Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” And he said to them, “Elijah does come first to restore all things. And how is it written of the Son of Man that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt? But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.”
Jesus is clearly referring to John the Baptist, and we’ve had the John the Baptist story back in Chapter 1 and in Chapter 6 we’ve had the story of how John the Baptist was put to death. At this point then, our minds are meant to be thrown back to the beginning of the story to think about John the Baptist. What happened to John the Baptist? He died. I don’t know how many of you enjoy reading good novels, but one of the delights for me about really good novels, is that when they are really, really well written, you get halfway through and you suddenly think ‘oh that happened back in chapter 1, back in chapter 2 wasn’t that there?’ and I go scurrying back and look, to check did I remember rightly. They dropped a clue in that I didn’t spot at that point but now I’m supposed to think my way back. I think that’s what Mark is doing with John the Baptist. So that you can actually, at this point go back and say ‘you know what’. The whole idea of rejection and so on, is in the opening verses of Chapter 1, because John the Baptist and claiming baptism and repentance for forgiveness of sins and all that stuff and everything we’ve heard about John the Baptist ties in with where Jesus is heading.
Jesus keeps teaching 9:30
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he did not want anyone to know, for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.
So what Mark is saying is that Jesus is very focussed with the disciples, all the way. From Peter’s declaration, Jesus is consistently teaching his disciples ‘I am going to be delivered over. I am going to be killed. I am going to rise again.’ But they couldn’t get it, they couldn’t grasp it, they couldn’t understand it. And we shouldn’t criticise them for it because I think if we’d been there we would have been exactly the same. Because it was so contrary to everything that they had been told would be the case for the Messiah. Then you get into all of the discussions about greatness and what true greatness is through the rest of Chapter 9 and the incidents with the children Chapter 10.
What is the cross about?
At the end of Chapter 10 we get to the heart of Jesus’ purpose and we are told what the cross is about.
In 10:32 we have another repetition – “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.”
And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant…
So there is a strong emphasis on drinking the cup and being baptized with a baptism, which clearly can’t be the baptism that happened back in the River Jordan. So the notion of the cup, which of course then gets picked up at the last supper. Back in the Psalms you have a number of references to the cup. It’s true there also in some of the Prophets but the Psalms probably communicate this most clearly.
The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot.
Here’s a great image. The Lord is my cup. He’s my portion. Psalm 23 is probably the one you remember most
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
So the cup of the Lord on one hand is absolutely a cup of blessing, of delight, of joy. But then there is another side to the image of the cup, which comes out both in the Psalms and the Prophets. This is Psalm 75:8
For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup
with foaming wine, well mixed,
and he pours out from it,
and all the wicked of the earth
shall drain it down to the dregs.
There is this image of the cup which is the cup of God’s judgement. So it’s both of God’s blessing and it’s of God’s judgement. And it’s an image that’s particularly picked up by Isiah both in Chapter 51 and again in Chapter 53. It looks as though when Jesus was talking about ‘drinking the cup’ he was talking about drinking God’s judgment. Certainly the references to Isiah 53 in particular, point in the direction that as he goes to the cross, he sees the cross as a place where he takes God’s anger and God’s judgement into himself and upon himself. And the baptism is simply about being overwhelmed, because baptism is about being fully immersed, it’s about being drowned, dying. So the cup and the baptism image together speak of the overwhelming nature of the suffering which has something to do with God’s judgement on wickedness and sin and evil.
Which ties in with 10:45 “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Ransom. An Old Testament image both of releasing from slavery if someone was in slavery and to be set free from slavery a ransom had to be paid. In Isiah 53, the image of the ransom is of dying in place of others. Jesus saw his death on the cross as in some way him being overwhelmed by the judgement of God in order that he could release and free everybody else. That’s what he thought the cross was about. It was about bringing God’s new freedom and release and deliverance and redemption. That then of course gets played out in the final week.
The Final Week
The last 5 chapters, although admittedly chapter 16 is very short, are all about the final week. If you take from Chapter 8 onwards where it is utterly focussed on the cross, even though Jesus public ministry is 3 years actually the concentration on the final 7 days is immense, in the amount of time and space of the gospel takes. I haven’t got time to go into the detail of it because this is quite a complex argument. But if you look at Mark 11 and then when you have time go and read Psalm 118 and what you will see that there are several references to Psalm 118 in Mark 11. It’s particularly around the whole Hosanna. ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ That comes from Psalm 118 which was one of the Psalms which we know was sung by pilgrims on the way to Jerusalem for the Passover. So it’s not in that sense a great surprise that they were singing, but what they are doing is they are taking one of their Psalms and they are applying it to Jesus as he enters Jerusalem. In these final chapters the opposition really does develop rather strongly and fairly rapidly.
And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”
Jesus is saying, of the temple ‘my house’. Now he’s quoting scripture God’s house, but he’s placing himself in the position of God by saying that.
And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching.
They are absolutely determined now that they are going to destroy this man. Why? Because of fear. Because they are afraid of what is happening in front of their eyes. Their power has been taken away. Their authority has been questioned and undermined. They fear losing their position and their place.
And they were seeking to arrest him but feared the people, for they perceived that he had told the parable against them. This is the Parable of the Tenant in which the son is killed and in which Psalm 118 is quoted
“‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvellous in our eyes’?”
So they left him and went away. They didn’t arrest him for fear of the people. There’s a lot of fear in the Pharisees and the priests. They’re fearful of Jesus. They’re also fearful of the crowd because they’re fearful if they get it wrong, the crowd will turn on them. They know they have to get the crowd on their side.
It was now two days before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him, for they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar from the people.”
Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve,(we haven’t heard anything about Judas Iscariot in this gospel between 3:19 and this verse) went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. And when they heard it, they were glad and promised to give him money. And he sought an opportunity to betray him.
We have the account of the Lords supper and then in 15:10 Pilate perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up. So what drove the opposition? It was fear and it was envy. All the way through we have these references to ‘as it is written’. Jesus clearly saw what was happening to himself as fulfilment of the scriptures. So too did Mark, which why you have all these subtle references to places like Psalm 118 and Isiah 53 because they are embedded in the way that Mark writes his texts. What is happening at the cross is all about human fear and human envy and human greed and power and so on. But from Jesus point of view it is utterly ‘this is what God has sent me to do. I am about redeeming.’
King of the Jews
What then happens in the crucifixion itself is an emphasis on Jesus being the King of the Jews. One little tip for bible study from time to time, is if you get some highlighter pens or colouring pens and photocopy the text so you don’t do this on your bible because you’ll regret it. Because you won’t know why you did it the previous time and take a passage and use a highlighter pen to mark where there is repetition of the language. Actually in a chapter like Chapter 15 you’ll need 3 or 4 different colours in which to do it. What you develop is a coloured visual image of what’s happening in the passage. When you do that sometimes it just helps get a pictorial version of the words. Because when someone puts the phrase ‘King of the Jews’ on the lips of different people in different ways but in verse 2, 9, 12, 17 – 20,26 and32, you now know that this writer is trying to say something. This is very deliberate repetition of the name King of the Jews. Mark is absolutely determined to help us understand that the one who hangs on the cross is King of the Jews. The one who is being crucified is the king.
Temple destroyed and raised
This you have to do over a slightly longer stretch but the second theme that is there all the way through for the crucifixion is a connection between Jesus and the temple. And how his body in some way the crucifixion is about the destruction of the temple. Jesus talks about that in Chapter 13, where he’s talking about the literal destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. But also there’s something else going on with him which is about the destruction of the temple which is depicted particularly when he dies 15:38 ‘And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.’ Mark is trying to get across to us that the death of Jesus has a lot to do with a complete destruction with the old way of knowing God and a complete opening up of the new way. That temple has gone because this temple has been destroyed so that the new can come. The way is open to God through the death of Jesus.
This is emphasised too by the words of those who mock him.
So also the chief priests with the scribes mocked him to one another, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself.
And I think we are meant to hear very loudly and very clearly he is doing just this saving job as he hangs on the cross. It’s not that he saved others, in fact, it is that he’s in the whole process of saving others. That’s why he will not save himself. It’s not that he cannot save himself but he WILL not. Because this death is about bringing about salvation, release, redemption, freedom. Opening up the new way because the curtain is being torn apart. It is left of course to a centurion standing by to say truly this man was the Son of God. So crucifixion is all about the true kingship about the whole way to god through the temple and about the saving work that Jesus is doing.
For many people the fact that the Resurrection is told so briefly and abruptly in Mark’s gospel is a bit of a problem. But he doesn’t need to say any more than he’s said in Chapter 16:1-8 because he has repeatedly said all the way through the gospel Jesus said after 3 days he would rise. After 3 days he would rise. After 3 days he would rise. I only need to tell you once that after 3 days he rose. There are other longer arguments than that but that’s one of the things I think he was doing. So what do we make of all that just to finish? It calls us not only to glory and to wonder and to worship but to live the way of the cross. The first way to live the way of the cross is simply to trust Jesus. You may remember in last week’s talk in healing I made the point fairly rapidly that everyone of Jesus healing miracles is in one way or another a little symbolic act of what Jesus was going to do at the cross. So the paralysed man, he is forgiven his sins. It’s pointing ahead to what Jesus is going to do at the cross. The leper is cleansed and put back into the community. It’s pointing ahead to what Jesus is going to do at the cross. The woman is healed and cleansed and welcomed back into the worshipping community. It’s what Jesus is going to do at the cross. The blind man is able to see. What Jesus does at the cross is help us to see. All of them do that and therefore all those stories tell us how we should respond to the cross. And what was the common thread of all of them? They are trusting Jesus to meet them in their need. They place themselves at his mercy. They recognise in him the one who can heal, restore forgive up one up relationship with God. We live the way of the cross by trusting Jesus for what he did. And as we trust him so we take up the cross ourselves. We hear his words ‘if any would come after me’ if we take that offer of mercy then we respond by taking up the cross laying down in our own lives. We respond by being a servant just as he was a servant. And we respond, interestingly, I would argue quite strongly at the heart of 9 and 10, if we are truly living the way of the cross we will always be the people who receive children and welcome them. That actually is one of the clearest expressions that we have grasped who Jesus is and why he came and why he died is to welcome the children. Because in them we find the kingdom and the way to live it.
The Rt Revd Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham