How does Mark begin his Gospel, his telling of the story of this servant of God?
The very first sentence surprises us:
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Mk 1.1).
To a Jewish reader, this would be astonishing.
We learn first that this man has a typical Jewish name: Joshua. No real surprise there.
But then we learn that he’s specially anointed: that’s what the title Christ means. It’s the Greek synonym for the Hebrew Messiah, “Anointed One.”
Now, this isn’t necessarily surprising in itself. In the Hebrew Scriptures—what we Christians call “the Old Testament”—lots of people were anointed as a sign that they were being set aside for a particular role:
- The priests were anointed (Ex 28.41)—but they had to be descendants of Aaron, from the tribe of Levi, so Jesus, a descendant of Judah, couldn’t be one of those, or so it appears.
- The prophets were sometimes anointed (1K 19.16); perhaps Jesus will be a prophet? Well, there have been lots of prophets, so while that would be interesting, it wouldn’t be astonishing.
- The kings were anointed as well (1S 15.1; 16.12-13)—and Jesus is indeed from the tribe of Judah, David’s tribe (1Ch 2.3, 15), the tribe to whom Jacob had prophesied that “the scepter” belonged (Ge 49.10).
Could Jesus be the coming king? That would be a much bigger surprise. There hasn’t been a king since just before Judah’s exile to Babylon, six centuries ago. (That would be like the year 1400—well before Columbus—to those of us living in the 21st century.) But how can there be a king, with Rome dominating the entire known world? And much more significantly, how can there be a king, if God has cursed the royal line by telling Jehoiachin, the last Davidic king, that none of his descendants would ever sit on the throne of his father David (Je 22.24-30)?
OK, maybe Jesus is just a prophet, then. That’s reasonable, and it meets the terms of the verse’s language, and it will make a good story. Elijah was interesting, wasn’t he? And Elishah? And Jonah?
But then Mark explodes all of our expectations with three little words.
Jesus, the anointed one, is the son of God.
To a first-century Jew, what does that mean?
There’s the reference to the “sons of God” in Genesis 6.2, but the rabbis were all over the place in trying to interpret that. The book of Job refers to the “sons of God” presenting themselves before the Lord, apparently in heaven (Jb 1.6; 2.1)—is Jesus some kind of angel? And again in Job, God himself refers to the “sons of God” in parallel with the “morning stars” (Jb 38.7), which seems to imply some sort of heavenly body or being.
But this is all pretty confusing. What does it mean that Jesus is “the son of God”?
I’d suggest that the mind of the first-century Jew would go immediately (!) to a far more significant passage.
In the second Psalm, Yahweh / Adonai laughs (Ps 2.4) at the assembled rebellious kings of the earth (Ps 2.2) and tells them, “I’m going to set my own king on the hill of Zion” (Ps 2.6). And who is that king, the one preferred over all the kings of the earth? He himself speaks in verses 7-9:
7 I will declare the decree: the LORD hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee. 8 Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession. 9 Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel (Ps 2.7-9).
Yahweh has told the speaker, “You are my Son!”
This is a king, all right. But he’s not like any other king. He’s going to rule over the entire earth (Ps 2.8), and he’s going to be unopposed and unopposable (Ps 2.9).
And the Psalm continues,
Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all they that put their trust in him (Ps 2.12).
This absolute sovereign is one in whom all humans are urged to put their trust.
This is no mere human king, or even an angel.
This is no ordinary servant.
There’s more. Next time.