Part 16 of series:
What Was the Message of Jesus?
In my last post in this series, I examined the passage in Mark 8 where Peter confessed Jesus as the Messiah (Mark 8:27-30). But, when Jesus starting talking about the Son of Man suffering and dying, Peter rebuked Jesus, who in turn rebuked Peter for thinking in human, not divine terms (8:31-33). Peter, like most of his Jewish compatriots, expected the kingdom of God to come in power. The Messiah would lead this victorious charge and share in God’s glory, not suffer and die along in the process.
Peter was not the only one of Jesus’ disciples to be confused over the nature of his messianic calling. Two chapters later in Mark, Jesus once again informed his closest followers that he, as Son of Man, was going to be assaulted and killed (10:33-34). Immediately after Jesus said this, James and John approached him and asked, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (10:37). Rather cheeky, don’t you think, not to mention obtuse. Jesus responded by asking James and John if they were able to drink the cup that he drinks, and then by informing them that it was not his job to decide who gets to sit at his right or left hand (10:38-40). (The idea of the cup Jesus drinks deserves further attention, and will be the subject of my next post in this series.) When the other disciples heard what James and John were plotting, they became angry, presumably because they wanted to sit by Jesus in his glory. Jesus proceeded to rebuke the whole lot of them:
“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as ransom for many.” (10:42-45)
The attitudes exhibited by James and John, and the rest of the disciples for that matter, are inconsistent with the way of Jesus, which leads to greatness but only through servanthood. The prime illustration of this paradox? Jesus’ own destiny as Son of Man. Here, for the first time, Jesus supplies a hint as to the reason for his imminent death. He is going to give up his life as a “ransom for many.”
Jesus wasn’t the first Jew in Second Temple Judaism to speak of giving up one’s life for the sake of others. A century and a half before, Mattathias, the father of Judas Maccabeus and his brothers, urged his sons to “show zeal for the law, and give your lives for the covenant of our ancestors” (1 Maccabees 2:50). The Maccabean brothers were to fight to the death for the sake of their faith. Even closer to Jesus’ understanding of his sacrifice is a description of martyrdom found in 4 Maccabees: “[Those who died] having become, as it were, a ransom [antipsychon] for the sin of our nation. And through the blood of those devout ones and their death as an atoning sacrifice, divine Providence preserved Israel that previously had been mistreated” (4 Macc 4:21-22). Here, the willingness of Jewish people to suffer and die rather than compromise their faithfulness to God is seen as making up for the sin of the Jewish people, which in turn motivated God to preserve the nation.
These texts from the Maccabean literature and Jesus’ description of his own sacrifice in Mark 10 were inspired by two crucial chapters from the prophet Isaiah. These chapters begin with a hopeful vision of the coming of God’s kingdom:
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” (Isa 52:7)
But then the passage takes an unexpected turn, picturing God’s servant as anything but attractive (52:14-53:2). Moreover,
He was despised and rejected by others
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account. (53:3)
Yet this Suffering Servant endured such scorn for the sake of others:
Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases; . . .
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him as the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed. . . .
Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out himself to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many, . . . (53:4-5, 12)
Although this passage from Isaiah does not use the word “ransom” (lutron in Mark 10:45), it clearly conveys the idea of one who suffers for the sake of others, so that they might be made whole. Through his painful death, the Servant of God bears the sins of others. And somehow this is part and parcel of the coming of God’s kingdom announced at the beginning of Isaiah 52.
Of course what makes Jesus’ statement in Mark 10:45 so curious is that he doesn’t speak of the Servant of God giving his life as a ransom for many, but the Son of Man filling this role. There’s nothing in the Hebrew Scriptures to suggest that the Son of Man would bring the kingdom through some sort of sacrificial death. We don’t find this connection in the Maccabean literature or in other Jewish writings either. Jesus is weaving together disparate strands of Jewish tradition to create a unique tapestry of the coming kingdom. He, as Messiah and Son of Man, will bring the kingdom, but only by fulfilling the role of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52-53. For the first time in the Gospels, we see a part of Jesus’ rationale for suffering and dying. He will bear the sin of many in order to bring the healing and forgiveness of God’s kingdom.
In my next post I’ll examine in greater detail Jesus’ curious statement about drinking the cup (Mark 10:39). This, as it turns out, provides another window through which we can glimpse Jesus’ sense of his passionate destiny.