[K:NWTS 9/3 (Dec 1994) 3-10]

The Gospel of Mark from Beginning to End

Mark 1:1-15; 15:33-39; 16:1-8

James T. Dennison Jr.

Mark begins and ends his gospel with schism—a division, a parting, a rending—the schism of the heavens (chapter 1:10); the schism of the veil in the temple (chapter 15:38). These two schisms—these two dramatic tearings/rendings—form, as it were, the boards of the book of Mark. The front cover—God splits the heavens; the back cover—God splits the veil of the temple. In between the boards of the book of Mark—in between the schisms—lies the vigorous, rapid-moving, dynamic gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (as Mark prefaces chapter 1:1). If we view the schism of the heavens and the schism of the veil as a literary bracket which envelopes this shortest of the four gospels, then within these brackets, inside this shortest of gospels, inside is the good news of Jesus of Nazareth and the good news of the kingdom he brings. Mark writes to tell us the gospel story—the gospel story of who Jesus is and the gospel story of the kingdom Jesus brings. Notice, if you will, that before the schism of the heavens at the Jordan (1:10) is Mark's prologue—his introduction to his gospel story. Notice that after the schism of the veil of the temple (15:38) is Mark's epilogue—the conclusion to his gospel story. Mark has structured his story of Jesus and his kingdom in this way: Prologue introduction; rending of the heavens; ministry of Jesus from Jordan to Jerusalem; rending of the veil of the temple; Epilogue conclusion. The heart of Mark's story of Jesus is inaugurated with the schism of the heavens; consummated with the schism of the veil.

Now that we have found these markers for Mark's gospel, let's look a little more closely at the sections. The introductory prologue (1:1-13) places us squarely in the flow of the history of God's plan of salvation. In fact, the events of 1:1-13 take us back into the Old Testament—back into the preceding phase of the history of redemption. In Mark's prologue, we have wilderness themes, water-passage themes, temptation themes, prophetic themes—all themes from the Old Testament history of redemption. The concluding epilogue (15:39-16:8) places us squarely in the current or present phase of the history of redemption. The angel at the empty tomb tells the women on the morning of the resurrection, "He is going before you" (16:7). Between the prologue and the epilogue, the history of redemption receives its eschatological fulfillment. Now I use that term eschatological fulfillment to indicate how Jesus fulfills the Old Testament law and the prophets—how the kingdom Jesus brings is the accomplishment of the Old Testament Scriptures. The advent of Jesus is the advent of the eschatological kingdom—"the kingdom of God is at hand" (1:15). The advent of Jesus is the plundering of the kingdom of Satan—"come out" unclean spirit (1:25). The advent of Jesus is the beginning of the lifting of the curse—lepers are cleansed, the lame walk, the palsied are healed, the blind see and the dead are raised. In the heart of Mark's gospel, Jesus brings the eschatological gifts—the eschatological gifts of the kingdom of heaven—no more sickness, no more death. The kingdom which Jesus brings is a preview—no, a replica of the kingdom which is heaven itself.

At the inauguration of the arrival—the eschatological arrival—of this kingdom, Mark places the parting of the heavens, the manifestation of God in the form of a dove and the voice—the voice of the Almighty—"Thou art my beloved Son." God speaks of his Son out of the heavens—commissions his servant-Son out of the heavens just as he had commissioned his servant Moses out of the burning bush. You will remember God told Moses—Go down! Go down Moses and tell pharaoh to let my son go. Yes, Moses, tell pharaoh to let my son go that he may serve me. Do you see the pattern: the manifestation of God; the voice; the commission; Moses, the servant of the Lord; Israel, God's son—the exodus. And now at the Jordan: the manifestation of God; the voice; the commission; Jesus, the servant of the Lord; Jesus, God's Son—the new exodus.

This new exodus stands out in the structure of Mark's initial divine manifestation. The voice of God—in the wilderness—"prepare ye the way of the Lord." That call to preparation is a quotation from Is. 40:3. Isaiah projects that cry arising from a voice in the wilderness. For Isaiah, the wilderness is to become a place of new beginnings. Isaiah's wilderness is the reverse of the wilderness of Sinai. The Sinai wilderness was a place of rebellion, failure, death for God's son Israel. But in Is. 40 and later chapters, the wilderness is a place of rejoicing, abundance, life and blessing for the Israel of God. In Is. 40, the wilderness becomes the location of a new exodus for the people of God. Out of bondage they come—up from exile—out of malediction and cursing they flow—into a sojourn of freedom—a pilgrimage of rest—an odyssey of benediction and blessing. In the wilderness of Isaiah's new exodus, streams of water will flow, pillar columns of light will illuminate the way, cedars and myrtles, fig trees and cypress will dot the landscape—a virtual paradise garden of God.

Now, in Mk. 1:2-4, John the Baptist appears to signal the inauguration of the new exodus projected by Isaiah. In the wilderness, a new beginning occurs in the history of redemption. This John the Baptist—this final prophet of the former era declares the end of the old the dawn of the new. The new age has arrived! "Prepare ye the way of the Lord". In Christ Jesus, God's true Son—the age of fulfillment has arrived. Here, in Jesus, is the Israel of God who can enter the wilderness and bind the curse of sin. Here, in Jesus, is the Israel of God who can sojourn in the desert and spoil the strong man's goods. In the wilderness, this Israel will not fail through unbelief; this Israel will not long for the meat of Egypt; this Israel will not serve any save the Lord God and him only.

This Jesus—this Israel of God—God's Son appears in the wilderness at the end of the age in order to submit himself to the ordeal by water: through the waters Jesus goes signaling the end of the old and the beginning of the new. The new beginning—the new age is before us from the time of Jesus' ordeal by baptism. He passes through the waters—the heavens are split asunder and God himself declares this one is Son of God as no other. No other could pass through the waters and receive the dove—no other could plunder the kingdom of Satan whose forces cry in terror, "have you come to torment us before our time"—no other could banish the curse from the fallen creation (even the dead are raised!)—no other could intrude heaven on earth by the touch of his hand ("O leper, be thou clean"!)—by a word from his lips ("Take up thy bed and walk")—by a glance from his eye ("Daughter thy faith hath made thee whole"). The appearance of this Jesus—this Son of God—is the rending of the heavens. What separates God and man is pierced—shattered—laid open by the voice of the Almighty. This well-beloved Son of the Father marks the beginning—the new beginning—the beginning of the gospel—the gospel of the God-man—the new beginning of the gospel of the kingdom of the incarnate Son of God.

Here is Mark's incarnation narrative—the rending of the heavens by the Father is a declaration that the One on whom the Spirit rests is the Son out of the heavens. The Son of God has pierced the barrier between heaven and earth; he has shattered the cosmos in incarnation. There is no story of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem in Mark's gospel. No angel choir, no magi, no shepherds around a manger. These events are not recorded in Mark chapter 1 not because Mark is ignorant of them, but because the drama of the incarnation of God irrupts with the rending of the heavens and the voice from above. In Mark's gospel, the incarnation of the Son of God is declared by the revelation at the baptism. Dramatically, abruptly—voice, dove, split-heavens—all announce that now the kingdom of God is at hand; now, from this moment at the Jordan, the kingdom of God has come; now, the beginning of new things—a new beginning in the history of redemption with the advent—the coming—of the Son of the Father. The exodus finds its fulfillment in Jesus; the sojourn in the wilderness finds its accomplishment in Jesus; the passage through the waters finds its fulfillment in Jesus. Indeed, the eschatological kingdom of God is near.

In Mark's prologue, Jesus is passive. In Mk. 1:1-13, Jesus is silent. John the Baptist is active; God, the Father, speaks, but the Son of God never says a mumblin' word.

In Mark's prologue, Jesus does not testify of himself. In Mk. 1:1-13, the transitional servant (John the Baptist) testifies of Jesus' might—of Jesus' worth. John the Baptist marks the transition from the Old Testament to the New Testament. He is the last Old Testament prophet—the last figure of that era. But John the Baptist is also the first to proclaim the new age—the era of fulfillment. John the Baptist bears witness to the end of the old—the beginning of the new. John the Baptist bears witness to Jesus. But he is not the only witness, is he. The heavenly visitor—the visitor with the voice from above—the heavenly visitor also testifies. The Father declares his Son. But the voice of Jesus is not heard.

Not heard until he has endured his first assault by the Evil One—not heard until he has triumphed in his first encounter with Satan. Even there, in the temptation by the Devil, his voice is not heard. In Mark's gospel, the temptation by the Devil in the wilderness contains no dialogue. The voice of Jesus is not heard in Mark's gospel until he returns to Galilee and declares the presence of the kingdom. "The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel" (1:15). Now we hear the voice of Jesus; from 1:15 on we hear Jesus' voice in Mark's gospel—a staccato of words and deeds—a machine-gun cadence of voice and action. He proclaims the kingdom—he declares the kingdom (in parables)—he demonstrates the kingdom (in miracles)—he displays the kingdom. From 1:14 on, Mark's gospel is ablaze with the presence of the kingdom of God. From 1:14 on, Mark's gospel presents a Jesus who is active. After Mark's prologue through to the beginning of Mark's epilogue, Jesus is active and talkative. The kingdom comes—in a rapid panorama of action and speech—in a flurry of words and deeds. And at the center of this kingdom is Christ; at the center of this gospel is Christ; at the center of Mark's revelation to you and to me—is Christ. That's who Mark wants us to see. He wants us to see Jesus—Jesus at the center—Jesus as the focus—Jesus as the heart of the Christian faith.

Now the climax of the action in this fast-moving gospel is the final battle—the last encounter—the final conflict between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan. Throughout Mark's gospel, the Son of God has marched his kingdom in an invasion of the fortress of Satan. Back and forth, from Galilee to Judea, the king advances his kingdom in word and deed against the forces of darkness. Now the climax, the hour of darkness and the power thereof. Satan plays his trump card—death to the Son of God. The last battle will be waged on a hill, in a city, at a cross. Satan will be active; Christ will be passive. Satan's minions will do the talkingaccusing, convicting, lying. Christ will be silent. Satan's servants will be active—arresting, dragging, mocking, spitting, nailing. But he never said a mumblin' word.

The final schism—the last splitting apart—the climax of the gospel: the rending of the temple-veil. On the death of the Son of God, the barrier between the sacred and the profane is torn in two. The curtain separating the holy of holies from the outer court is split apart. When Jesus wages his assault on the kingdom of death at the cross, he also attacks the temple ritual. Christ's death is the tearing away of the temple barrier to the presence of God. The gospel of the new beginning in the history of redemption sets the temple aside once and for all. From the crucifixion of Christ, the kingdom of the Lord Jesus replaces the Jewish temple. The former era in the history of redemption is fulfilled. It has served its purpose—behold, from this time forth, better things are here. No more temple—no more veil—no more barriers. Those are finished—completed—displaced—replaced—they will never appear again. Yes, that's right, we will never see a time in the future when there will be a temple for the people of God—a temple in Jerusalem—a temple anywhere. The former things are passed away—behold better things are here. This kingdom which Jesus brings is a kingdom in which death—his death—the death of the true Son—the death of the true Israel—has abolished the separation of heaven and earth. Heaven has been opened by the death of the Son of God. From this time, a new heaven and a new earth.

And at the foot of the cross where the lifeless body of the Son of God hangs in silence—from the foot of the cross comes the testimony—comes the witness—of a Gentile—a Roman centurion, "surely this was the Son of God." It's the proclamation that the Father made when he split the heavens above the Jordan in chapter 1. It's the same witness that the voice accompanied with the dove gave forth—"This is my Son." Now that proclamation—that witness—that testimony—that Jesus is the Son of God will be carried by the church. The Son of God will be proclaimed by all who begin at the foot of the cross—all who stand with a Gentile and confess him Son of God. Now, the church will confess him....

For you see, the final journey of Christ in Mark's gospel is not Jerusalem—not Calvary—not the tomb. No! the final journey of Jesus in Mark's gospel is Galilee—Galilee of the Gentiles. "There you will see him," the angel tells the women in chapter 16. Lo, the risen, triumphant Lord Jesus goes before you into Galilee—Galilee from whence the church will be born. Galilee—where his disciples will be commissioned to proclaim the kingdom of God—the kingdom of the crucified yet risen Son of God—the kingdom of victory over Satan—the kingdom of the splitting apart of the heavens—the kingdom in which the exodus for the enslaved people of God has resulted in liberty for the sons and daughters of the Most High—the kingdom in which the wilderness becomes a place of victory, not defeat for the sojourning people of God—the kingdom in which the passage through the waters marks the transition from the old to the new.

The epilogue of Mark's gospel finds Jesus silent. Mk. 16:1-8 contains no words of Jesus. As with the prologue of Mark, the testimony of the transitional figures and the heavenly messenger are central. The women and the disciples are the transitional figures—they mark the commencement of the era of the church—the church of the risen Christ which confesses with the Father, with the centurion—Truly this is the Son of God—the well-beloved of the Father. Hear him—for he is the bringer of the kingdom.

And to those who confess him Son of God, he still brings his kingdom. No more curse—you have been forgiven all your sins; no more death—you have been made alive; no more darkness—you have become sons and daughters of the Light of the world to come; no more barriers—you have been seated in heavenly places even now in Christ Jesus.

For you see, Jesus says to you, "I have rent the heavens and come down so that you—you! may become the sons and daughters of the heavenly kingdom ever beholding the face of my Father."

Go—for you are the continuation of the story. Go—in Christ, for you are now the witnesses of the gospel of the final exodus for the people of God. Go—until the final schism. Go—until the eschatological schism of the heavens at the return of the Lord of glory!

Escondido, California

Suggestions for Further Reading

David Ulansey, "The Heavenly Veil Torn: Mark's Cosmic Inclusio." Journal of Biblical Literature 110/1 (Spring 1991): 123-25.