Secret Identity

Original Date: 
Sunday, January 8, 2017

Mark 1 Secret Identity

Today we are starting a new series on the Gospel of Mark. Mark is one of four books in the Bible known as “gospels”—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—which tell the story of Jesus. We might call them biographies of Jesus, but they are not like our modern biographies. They are life stories written with the intention of helping us to believe in Jesus.

No one is completely certain who wrote Mark, but traditionally it has been associated with John Mark—a relative of Barnabas (Acts 12:12, 25) who accompanied Paul on at least one missionary journey and was also the reason Paul and Barnabas split ways in Acts 15 (37-40). There is nothing in the book itself that indicates authorship, but tradition holds that Mark spent time in Rome with Peter. If this is true, then this gospel would largely be based on Peter’s recollections; and in fact, very little happens in the book that Peter would not have been present for.

Scholars also believe Mark was the first gospel to be written down. There are many similarities between Matthew, Mark, and Luke—whereas John as a distinctive style and contains many different stories—and so it is commonly believed that Matthew and Luke had Mark’s gospel in front of them when they wrote theirs.

Mark is the shortest gospel. It contains no account of Jesus’ birth. And it is action packed. One of Mark’s favorite words is “immediately.” So after Jesus does one thing, Mark will often move on to the next story by saying “immediately” or “now” or “as soon as they left…”

My goal is that we will get to the end of Mark at Easter, so that as we celebrate the Resurrection we will be reading Mark’s version of the empty tomb. That’s about 14 weeks. There are 16 chapters in Mark. So we’re going to have to take a chapter or more a week.

Now, of course, at that rate, it’s going to be impossible for me to comment on every verse or even every story. Some weeks we might take a whole chapter for our text, but I might only preach on four or five verses. But my goal is that between now and Easter every word of Mark will be read in our worship services.

And so, we are going to do something old school. Each week we are going to invite someone from the congregation to come and do the scripture reading. And to get us started, I’ve asked Kent Kilpatrick if he would read Mark 1.

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Insider Knowledge We all know the story. Clark Kent reports to work as a reporter for the Daily Planet and is assigned to write a piece on Superman. The whole newsroom is abuzz because Superman has once again saved Metropolis from almost certain disaster. People come up to Clark and ask his theory as to who this superhero is, or where he might have come from. Clark just shrugs his shoulders.

At the same time, Lois Lane is going on and on about how much she loves Superman. Once again she has been at the center of the action and her life was one of the first to be saved by the man in the red cape. Even as Clark tries to work up the nerve to ask her out on a date, she prattles on and on about how wonderful Superman is.

Meanwhile, we, as the readers of the comic book, get the irony. And as we read the story, or watch the movie, we have the privilege of being in on a secret that most of the characters themselves are not aware of. We know that Clark Kent really is Superman. We know who Clark really is--and so if he has a bit of insider information on Superman, we know why. And if Lois turns him down because she's in love with Superman, we know what a mistake she is making. Because of the way the story has been written, we are privy to information which the characters must figure out for themselves.

In a way, Mark's gospel is similar to the story of Clark Kent and Superman. One of the things that you notice as you read through the gospel is the secrecy Jesus maintains with regard to His identity. It's not quite the same as Superman--Jesus wasn't putting on glasses and acting like a nerd--but again and again we read about Jesus warning people not to tell others what they have discovered about Him.

A good example is the final story of chapter 1. After healing a man of leprosy Jesus very specifically says to him: "See that you don't tell this to anyone." He did not want the man to go spreading the news of Jesus' ability to heal. And throughout the first half of the gospel we will see this sort of thing again and again--Jesus telling people to say nothing about the miracles He had performed.

Now, the theories about why Jesus was so secretive are many and varied. A lot of scholars have spent a lot of time writing about this thing they call the "Messianic Secret." In a little bit I'll give you my theory about at least part of the reason I think it was important to Jesus to keep His identity under wraps. But what I want you to notice now is that while Jesus' identity was kept a secret from those around Him--Mark wants his readers to know right from the start who this man is.

Just like the Superman comic books, Mark has written his gospel in such a way that even as we read about people trying to work out who Jesus is, we are already in on the secret. Right from the first chapter Mark lets his readers know precisely who Jesus is.

Verse 1 Mark reveals the secret already in the first verse.

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.

This is sort of title statement for the rest of the book. There are no less than three bold statements about Jesus' identity in this verse.

The first is contained in that phrase "good news." This is the word “gospel.” It’s where we get the title for these four books about Jesus.

The word that Mark uses here was well known in the Roman world. It was the word which was used to describe major events which had special significance for the future. Thus, if a mighty ruler began his reign or a new child was born into the house of the emperor--that was gospel, good tidings. Events which introduced something new to the world were considered gospel.

So you wouldn’t use the word for something minor. It’s not like you would says: “Gospel! Good news! I just saved a bunch of money on car insurance.” That wouldn’t qualify. This is a word that was saved for major events.

A parallel from modern times might be the day World War II ended, or the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, or the day the Cubs finally won a World Series. Something of major significance has happened. It’s news. It marks the end of one era and the beginning of a new one.

And so, when Mark uses this word to describe the story he is about to tell he is making a bold statement. We have grown used to using the word gospel to describe the story of Jesus--so much so that word is only used among Christians anymore--but for Mark to use it back in the days of the Roman Empire was to make a statement that the story he was telling was the story of an historical event which would bring about a radically new state of affairs for mankind. He was making a claim that his story was on a par with--if not greater than--the crowning of a new emperor. He was saying that he had good news which would introduce a new situation into the world.

The weight of his good news is further revealed as he explains who it concerns. The second statement this verse makes about Jesus' identity is that He is “the Messiah.”

The Greek equivalent of “Messiah” is “Christ.” Christ is not really a part of Jesus’ name—it’s not as though Christ is His last name like Muilenburg is mine--rather, Christ is a title or an office. He is Jesus, The Christ. Jesus, the Messiah.

What the word means is "anointed one." And technically, if you were to go over the history of Israel, you would come across a lot of people who could have been given the title “Messiah”--because kings, prophets, and priests were all anointed with oil before they began their service.

But over time--as the throne of Israel fell into the hands of foreigners and as many, many years passed without a prophet--an expectation arose that one would come who would be the supreme king, the ultimate prophet, and the great high priest. Again and again in the pages of the Old Testament there are promises to this effect. That one would come to establish David's throne forever. That one would come who would be a prophet greater than Moses. And the title that was given to this anticipated hero was "the anointed one." The Messiah. The Christ.

Not just another person anointed with oil. Not a messiah. Not a Christ. But The Christ. The One in whom all the promises would be fulfilled.

And so, by calling Jesus "the Messiah" here at the beginning of his book Mark is making a bold statement about who Jesus is. He is saying that this man whose story he is about to tell is the long-awaited hope of Israel. He is saying that all of the promises of the Old Testament were fulfilled in Him. He is saying that this is gospel because the King, the Prophet, the Priest, has arrived.

But of course, not everyone who read Mark's gospel would have been familiar with the Jewish Scriptures. For the Greeks and Romans who read this story there would have been no expectation of a great Israelite King and so the title “Messiah” would have meant very little to them. But that does not mean that they would miss out on learning who Jesus was. For Mark makes a third, even bolder statement in this first verse that makes Jesus' true identity clear from the start--he calls Him the Son of God.

More than just a man who is destined to become the King of Israel, Jesus is divine. He is intimately connected to the God of the Universe--the Creator of Heaven and Earth. In fact, He is so closely connected to God that He could be called His Son--which in that culture was another way of saying that He was exactly the same as God. To be someone's son meant you had the same social standing, the same occupation, the same essential character.

By calling Jesus God's Son Mark is saying at the very beginning of His story that Jesus is the expression of God on earth. That Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem and died in Jerusalem, has always been the Son of the Most High God. He has shared God's being from the beginning. He reveals in a full and final way God's nature and purpose. He is the everlasting, almighty God who became a human being like us.

And so we are let in on the secret at the very beginning. Jesus' arrival on the scene is gospel--good news--because it has momentous consequences for all the earth. He is the long awaited hero of Israel, the supreme King, the ultimate Prophet, the great High Priest. But more than that, He is God. He is God's own son.

Testimony To support the claims of this first verse Mark immediately includes the testimony of three key figures so that there will be no doubt in our minds as to what Jesus' true identity is.

First is the testimony of John the Baptist. In verses 7 and 8 John is quoted as saying:

“After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” John was a religious superstar in Israel. It had been some 400 years since a prophet had appeared in the land. Many had begun to believe that God had forgotten about them and moved on to another people. And then, suddenly, this man John began to attract crowds in the wilderness. He preached on the need for repentance and called for the people to recognize their dependency on God. He called for humility, the confession of sins, and baptism as the sign of their new start with God.

As the crowds gathered they could barely contain their excitement that a new prophet had come to Israel. They began to compare John to Elijah, long considered one of Israel's greatest prophets. He was like no one in recent memory, a man through whom the word of God had come. He was a star.

And so when he began to tell his audience that there was one more powerful than he coming, it must have caused some confusion. The people must have wondered what he could possibly mean. To them, he was the greatest thing they had ever seen.

But what John was saying only goes to support what Mark claimed at the beginning. Jesus is the one John is pointing to, and He's greater than John because He's the Messiah. He's the fulfillment of the promises. He's the Lord about whose coming Isaiah prophesied.

And then there is the testimony of God the Father Himself. When Jesus went to be baptized by John verses 10 and 11 say:

10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

Here Mark's claim in the first verse is supported by no less than God Himself. Jesus is the Son of God. He has the approval of the Father. As the main story of the gospel unfolds there can be no doubt in our minds as to who Jesus is.

This chapter contains one more testimony to Jesus, and it comes from a strange source. In verses 23 and 24 it says:

23 Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, 24 “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”

Even the demons know who Jesus is. When Jesus approaches, the evil spirits panic. They can’t stand to be in the presence of the Holy One of God.

So Mark wants us, his readers, to know from the very beginning. Jesus is special. He’s the long awaited Messiah. The one more powerful than John. The Son of God. The One with whom God is pleased. The Holy One.

Why I Have Come But this last little story is instructive because it shows us the secret identity thing. Because even as the evil spirit is shrieking that He is God’s Son, Jesus is commanding the demon into silence. Later it says that He drove out many demons but would not let them speak, because they knew who He was (v. 34). It seems like Jesus doesn’t want the attention. He keeps telling people not to spread the news about Him.

Why the secrecy?

The answer, I believe, is also found here in chapter 1, and it has to do with the purpose for which Jesus came.

After His baptism we read that Jesus began to proclaim the good news of God. After calling the first disciples He went to Capernaum where He cast the evil spirit out at the synagogue and then He went to Simon's home where He healed Simon's mother-in-law of a fever. By the time the day drew to a close the whole town had gathered at the door to watch Him heal the sick and cast out demons.

You would think this was good right? If the Son of God had come--the Messiah--He needed to attract a crowd, right? But Mark tells us that in the morning Jesus slipped out of the house before the others had awoken so that He could go to a solitary place and pray. We can pick up the story in verse 36:

36 Simon and his companions went to look for him, 37 and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!”

In other words: "What are you doing out here while that whole crowd is gathered just for you?" These disciples have signed on to help spread the word about Jesus, and now would seem to be the perfect opportunity. The whole village is crowding at the door, looking for a miracle or a healing or an exorcism, shouldn’t Jesus go back and give them what they want?

But instead of going back, Jesus says:

38 Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.”

Jesus knew why those people were gathering. They weren't stupid, they had figured out that there was something special about Jesus. A lot of them were guessing that He was the Messiah. But they had a preconceived notion about what the Messiah would be. They were looking for someone who would come and fulfill their ideas about what Israel should be. They were interested in someone who would fill their needs and desires.

When they saw Jesus doing miracles, that's what they thought they had. They were drawn to the spectacular, the flash and dash. They thought they had someone who could provide all the things they thought they deserved. But they were not the kind of followers Jesus was looking for.

The people who were drawn to the extraordinary weren't likely to hang around if the message started to make them feel uncomfortable. The people were figuring out that there was something special about Jesus--but when all they saw were the miracles they weren't ready to listen to the claims He made on their lives.

But that's not why Jesus came. He came to preach. He had a message. He was more than just a traveling miracle man. He was indeed the Son of God--the Messiah. But He wasn't the kind of Messiah that the people could turn into a hero who would just automatically meet all of their perceived needs. He had come not so the people could tell Him what to be, but so that He could deliver a message to them.

And the content of that message is given in verse 15: "Repent and believe the good news." The people needed to hear His call to turn from their sins, the call to put their faith in Him. While it was important to Jesus to heal the sick and cast out evil spirits, He couldn't let those miracles get in the way of His message.

And so He was secretive. He told those He healed to keep quiet about it. Not because He was trying to hide that fact that He was the Son of God, but so that He could make it clear what that meant. So that He could call people--like Simon and Andrew and James and John--to follow Him, not because they were drawn to the flash and dash or the spectacular, but because they were prepared to hear His message and commit their lives to Him.

The whole matter of Jesus' secrecy raises an important question for us. How do we react when we learn that Jesus is the Son of God? What do we expect when we reflect on the fact that Jesus is God come to earth? Do we think that that means we can expect Him to meet all our needs? Does that mean that we can shape Him into whatever we think He should be? Our own personal miracle man?

Or do we realize that as God come to earth He is the one who tells us what we should be? Do we see that He is the King and that in His kingdom He has the right to reign supreme?

The whole point of Mark writing His book like a comic book--so that we would know who Jesus is even while the people around Him don't--is so that we could see how we should react to Him--even if the people who first met Him didn't. As we read the gospel we know that Jesus is God--we are in on the secret. And that means that we should listen to Him. That we should hear His call to repentance and belief and follow Him.

Jesus does not want to hide His identity from us. But we have to see that understanding the significance of that identity occurs on His terms. We cannot make Him into something that He is not--a spectacular miracle worker who has come to meet our every desire--but must see that as our Lord and creator He has come to deliver a message about how we can be made right with God.

If we are prepared to listen--to really listen and not just come for the excitement--then we will be prepared to follow Him wholeheartedly, the way Simon and Andrew and James and John did.