November 1, 2013

Right Out of the Gate

"The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." (Mark 1:1, ESV)


Mark starts his Gospel off, not merely with a bang, but with a theological BOOM. He designates Jesus as the Christ, but even more telling, as "the Son of God". Both of these terms are theological black powder, igniting worship in the hearts and minds and lives of believers throughout the world, in Mark's time as well as in our world today. Right out of the gate, boom! "Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus is the Son of God."


Amen and Hallelujah.


Mark pushes the theological launch button at the very beginning of his writing by choosing to dive directly in the deep end of Christian theology... into pure Christology. It is an intriguing choice. Every author has decisions to make... questions to answer. Who is my audience? What is their vocabulary? What do I want to say? How do I start? At what background rhythm do I introduce new ideas and flesh them out? As an author, Mark had those and other questions in mind as he wrote, and he made choices for each of them. (sidebar: I fully acknowedge the role of the human author in writing inspired Scripture, as well as the superintending of the Holy Spirit to ensure a fully God-breathed, inspired Scripture as well.)


Mark's evident decision is to play his hand in the opening sentence, serving his readers with a foundation for everything Mark writes. In fact, he starts so big that I am struggling myself with an adequate description of what Mark has done. I hesitate to use the word-picture "foundation", since the concepts of Jesus as Messiah and as the Son of God are so large. They extend beyond a foundation, providing a towering superstructure to give shape and substance to the entire construction of Mark's gospel.


Mark's Gospel has been characterized as "the Gospel to the Romans". Why would people describe his work this way? Partially due to the repeated emphasis on Jesus as a man of action and authority, appealing to Roman cultural sensibilities built up from a long history of military domination and victory. Further, Mark translates Jewish ideas for his readers, assuming they are unfamilar territory to his audience, so they may grasp the deep realities he is communicating. Perhaps this is a new idea to you. Maybe you've never thought about Bible authors and how they wrote as authors;  considering their intended audience and writing from their own perspective while reaching through the cultural/religious window, influencing not only what they would write but also how they would write it. And yes, it is possible to hold to Biblical inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility while acknowledging the very real role of the individual human authors.


Then again, this might be nothing new to you at all. Perhaps you've wondered about whether and how much should we contextualize our message. Should we modulate our vocabulary and imagery to avoid stumbling people with deep theology until we walk quite a ways down the road with them?


What I gather from Mark's opening is, at a minimum, we do not always need to back off, dumb down, or gloss over rich theology early on. Why, Mark hasn't even taken a second breath and we've already seen Messiahship and "Son of God"-ness come into play. While both of these need to be fleshed out in the subsequent text, it doesn't force Mark to abandon using them in his opening.


Taking this principle in hand, we see now that we are not compelled to always test the waters with a tentative toe in the pool, pulverizing the good news into a digestible mush in order to reach the unchurched masses. No, instead of a fearful foray into the dark land, we can carry the bright torch of our Messiah, our Savior, the Son of God with us, to give light to lost souls living in darkness.

 
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