And the centurion said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” —Mark 15:39
The cover on TIME magazine that generated the most reader mail ever was in 1966 when, for the first time, there was no picture or photograph on the cover but only words – the question “Is God dead?” The TIME cover that generated the second most reader mail was in 1988, when the cover asked the question, “Who was Jesus?”
We all want to know. Depending on who Jesus is, we do or we don’t have answers to the deepest questions we all ask, like, “Can I get free from my past? Can my life get better? Can I change? Can I love the people I love? How do I forgive those I don’t love? How can we all get along, with our many differences? Is prayer real? Does God care when I’m sad? Will God be there for my family when I’m gone? What will become of me, after I die? Does God see the horrible things going on all over the world, and is he ever going to change it? What hope is there for the future, what hope is there for me?” And so forth.
Who Jesus is opens up the answers to all our deepest questions. A better future doesn’t depend on who we are. A better future depends on who Jesus is. When we receive him with the empty hands of faith, something changes. Who we are is no longer the key to our future. Who Jesus is becomes the key to our future. And every one of us can have him forever, in spite of everything we’ve done. That is why we’re pressing into this question: Who is Jesus?
Last week we saw from Matthew’s gospel that Jesus is God’s long-term plan to fix this broken world and make it beautiful again. Today we are in Mark’s gospel. Matthew’s gospel is very Jewish, with long passages of Jesus’ teaching. Mark’s gospel addresses the non-Jewish world and has more action. Mark’s favorite word is “immediately.” The Greek word for “immediately” appears 42 times in this gospel. Each of the four gospels shows Jesus from its own angle of vision.
So, as we look at him now through Mark’s eyes, we’re watching Jesus in action. And our dominant impression is how much he does. He is no dreamy idealist. He is a man in motion. If we had been there, we would have been breathless trying to keep up with him. And that’s good for us as a church to notice, because churches tend to do things slowly. Sometimes we should do things slowly, but not always – not if we are walking with Jesus. He acted immediately, and immediately, and immediately – 42 times in 16 chapters. The Jesus of this gospel makes our heads spin. Mark doesn’t begin with an account of how Jesus was born, like Matthew and Luke. He doesn’t begin with a long theological explanation, like John. Mark starts with John the Baptist introducing Jesus, and 16 verses into it Jesus is already calling his first disciples.
Who then is Jesus, as we perceive him through the lens of the gospel of Mark? The answer is in chapter 1, verse 1: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Mark wants us to know two things about Jesus. He is Christ, and he is the Son of God. Mark’s whole gospel is structured to impress this upon us. It moves forward in two broad strokes, each one about eight chapters long. Following through on the title here in 1:1, Mark tells us who Jesus is in two ways. First, Peter’s declaration of Jesus as the Christ halfway through the book in chapter 8:
Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” —Mark 8:27-29
Second, the Roman soldier’s declaration of Jesus as the Son of God near the end of Mark’s gospel in chapter 15:
And when the centurion, who stood facing him [at the cross], saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” —Mark 15:39
Jesus Christ, the Son of God – that’s familiar language. We’ve heard it many times before. But what does it mean? And how does it help us?
Jesus is the Christ
A point of clarification. “Christ” is not his last name. “Jesus Christ” is not like “John Smith.” “Jesus” is his name, and “Christ” is actually a title. It comes from a Greek word that means “anointed.” The Old Testament word “Messiah” also means “anointed.” It’s the Hebrew version. This title “anointed” came from the ancient ceremony by which a man was set apart to God. In Israel they poured oil on the head of a king, for example, when he was recognized as king (1 Samuel 9:15; 10:1). He was anointed with oil, symbolizing God’s approval of that man, his power and authority coming upon that man. But every anointed leader throughout the Old Testament, even King David, failed to live up to their high calling, the way we all fail. Jesus the Christ did not fail.
Looking at Mark chapter 1, Jesus was tempted by the devil, but he stood firm (Mark 1:12-13). He called the disciples to leave everything and follow him, and they did (Mark 1:16-20). He taught with authority, and people listened (Mark 1:21-22). He commanded the demons, and they obeyed (Mark 1:27). And that’s just for starters, in chapter 1.
We’d been waiting a long time for someone like that. Walker Percy described us as castaways on an island, shipwrecked people waiting for news, waiting for a message in a bottle to float by, so that we know we’re not alone. Jesus was God’s message in a bottle. We’d been waiting for someone like that, someone better than we are, someone greater than everything against us, someone we could believe and he wouldn’t let us down. We waited – until Jesus. All the promises of God converged on this one human figure – Jesus the Christ, the Messiah.
This title “Christ” appears 531 times in the New Testament, because the Bible is not primarily about us and what we do but primarily about Christ and what he does for us. God did not abandon us, when Adam defied him at the beginning. God promised he would send another Adam, a better man, who would obey God and make everything new again forever. The Old Testament is filled with these promises. And the Christ, the Messiah, was the one to accomplish it all for us.
What we see in the title “Christ” is the hope of the ages, the only one anointed by God to answer our questions and satisfy our longings. But Mark has another messianic title for Jesus. In fact, the Lord called himself by this title: “the Son of Man.” Jesus knew exactly who he was. He said, “The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Mark 2:10), and he did it. He said, “Even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45), and he did it.
This title “Son of Man” – everybody knew what it meant. It had a pre-history in the Old Testament. “Son of Man” links Jesus with a prophetic vision in the book of Daniel. Everyone around Jesus knew Daniel chapter 7. It shows God giving over to “one like a son of man” every kingdom and every culture in all the world, at the end of time. God deeded over to the “Son of Man” the future of the world. So, at his trial, when Jesus said to his accusers, “You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62) – he knew it would tick them off. They were standing in judgment on him. But he flipped it. He said he will stand in judgment over them. They could kill him, but they couldn’t stop him, and they would see him again, and they would answer to him for what they did. The high priest called it blasphemy, because everyone knew the Son of Man in Daniel 7 was even more than messianic. He was divine. That becomes obvious in the second title for Jesus.
Jesus is the Son of God
Here is a fascinating thing about Mark’s gospel. Nearly everyone misunderstands Jesus. Even his disciples don’t get him. But there are two profiles on the stage of Mark’s gospel who do understand who Jesus is:
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” —Mark 1:9-11
God the Father knew who Jesus is. At the Transfiguration, God said, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him” (Mark 9:7). God the Father knew. Here is the other profile in Mark’s gospel that understands Jesus:
And whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.” —Mark 3:11
The man with a legion of demons in him screamed at Jesus, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” (Mark 5:7). God and the demons clearly understood Jesus.
What did other people think of Jesus, and how did Jesus respond to their incomprehension? Here are quotes from Mark’s gospel. “What is this? A new teaching with authority!” (Mark 1:27). “Why does this man speak like that?” (Mark 2:7). “We never saw anything like this!” (Mark 2:12). “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Mark 2:16). “His family went out to seize him, for they were saying, ‘He is out of his mind’” (Mark 3:21). “He has an unclean spirit” (Mark 3:30). “Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41). “They laughed at him” (Mark 5:40). “They took offense at him” (Mark 6:3). “He marveled because of their unbelief” (Mark 6:6). “When they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost” (Mark 6:49). “They did not understand; their hearts were hardened” (Mark 6:52). “He said, ‘Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? Do you not yet understand?” (Mark 8:17-18, 21). “He said, ‘O faithless generation, how long am I to bear with you?’” (Mark 9:19). “They did not understand, and were afraid to ask” (Mark 9:32). “They marveled at him” (Mark 12:17). “After that no one dared to ask him any more questions” (Mark 12:34).
Nick Cave – an unlikely commentator on the Bible – wrote a preface to Mark. He told us how he started reading it and what happened next:
One day I met an Anglican vicar and he suggested I read Mark. I hadn’t read the New Testament. I spent my pre-teen years singing in a cathedral choir and even at that age I recall thinking what a wishy-washy affair the whole thing was. The Anglican church was the decaf of worship and Jesus was their lord. “Why Mark?” I asked. “Because it’s short,” the vicar replied. I was willing to give anything a go, so I took his advice and read it, and the gospel of Mark just swept me up. Even Jesus’ disciples, who we would hope would absorb some of Christ’s brilliance, seem to be in a perpetual fog of misunderstanding, following Christ from scene to scene with little or no comprehension of what is going on. It is Christ’s divine inspiration, versus the dull rationalism of those around him, that gives Mark’s narrative its tension, its drive.
It’s wonderful that Jesus receives as his disciples the merest beginners. And it is so good for us to stay humble and keep growing and always remind ourselves there is much more to him than we understand yet.
But at the end of Mark’s gospel, there is a flash of insight. Mark has been building his whole gospel to take us here. The insight comes from an outsider, a Roman soldier presiding over the Lord’s execution: “And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in his way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39).
When we face Jesus on the cross – there he is in his dying love, giving his life as a ransom for many, not for an elite but for the uncomprehending, the unwashed, the unprepared, the unworthy – when we face Jesus on the cross, what do we finally see with clarity? “Truly this man was the Son of God!”
This title, “Son of God,” does not mean “God Jr.” For Jesus to be the Son of God means that he alone has personal intimacy with the Father, at a level you and I have no right to. It means that he alone lived in perfect obedience to the Father, the way you and I never do. The title “Son of God” does not place Jesus down below God but up with God. That’s why this climactic point in Mark’s gospel is stunning. In the verse before, Mark 15:38, we find out what the Son of God accomplished by his death on the cross: “And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” The moment the Son of God died, the Father demonstrated what he had accomplished. There was a curtain at the entryway into the Most Holy Place, the most sacred place in the temple, where God’s presence was unfiltered, immediate, thick, felt, glorious – and fatal to sinners. Only the High Priest could enter in, and then only once a year. There was no trespassing for sinners into God’s holy presence, except under strictly controlled conditions. Jewish tradition tells us the curtain closing off the Most Holy Place was more like a tapestry, as thick as the palm of your hand. You and I couldn’t have torn it open. And if we had, it would have been torn from bottom to top, us reaching up to God.
But that isn’t what Jesus died for. The Son of God dying to remove the barrier of our was God himself reaching down, tearing open from top to bottom the barrier between his holy presence and our unholy sneakiness, so that any sinner may stop hiding and running away and enter in and find safety and acceptance and a home through the crucified Son of God. We don’t have to claw our way up to God by our own merits. We don’t have to linger forever outside, skulking around in guilt and shame. God is open to sinners through Jesus. The Bible says, “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh . . . let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (Hebrews 10:19-22).
If you have received Jesus, you can leave behind all sense of separation and rejection and outsider-ness, because you have been brought in by the blood-bought grace of God. You have been brought into the holy place, where all his promises come true for sinners. When you enter in, you do not defile him; he cleanses you. The death of the Son of God was God himself reaching out to you, drawing you in, insisting that everything be open to you forever through the cross. Only the Son of God could do that. And he did.
What is our part? Jesus said, “Do not fear; only believe” (Mark 5:36). He was not saying, “Don’t think.” So, yes, read all the books on apologetics you want to. Read C. S. Lewis. Read the others. Read to your heart’s content. Satisfy your mind. But eventually, you must decide. “Only believe” means you don’t need to deserve him, but you do have to trust him. That’s all you need to do. He does the rest. Stop standing off at a distance. Trust him, and enter in. “Do not fear; only believe.” Will you?