Mark's Picture of Jesus

by Darrel Cline

Chapter Six

Implications of Literary Structure for the Picture of Christ


In the introduction to this article the confusion regarding Mark's Christ was noted. Lightfoot was quoted in order to point out the traditional confusion in respect to the traditional assignment of the characters of the living creatures in Revelation 4 to the four gospels. From his approach, which many have taken, it is obvious that Christ is seen as both human and divine, as both kingly and servile. The question that has been traditionally raised concerns the focus of Mark. Was his Christ principally God or Man? Was He principally King or Servant? This article was designed to show that the confusion can only be laid to rest by recognition of the literary design (structure) of the gospel itself.

The reason for the claim that the structure is determinative is that Christ is obviously God and man, King and servant, in all four gospels. But literary design is the only available instrument that makes a fair evaluation of a particular emphasis possible. For instance, Christ's humanity is obvious in every chapter of all of the gospels. In fact, it is so overpoweringly obvious (every thing done and said by Jesus is done and said through a human body and within the sphere of humanly recognized conventions -- even the miraculous things) that without a legitimate grasp of the literary design there would be no way to see any other primary focus. But does this obviousness automatically mean that it is a primary emphasis? Likewise, Jesus' identity as the Christ of the Jews is obviously indicated in all four gospels. But how do we tell if it was a primary emphasis of the author?

It is the contention of this study that literary design is the primary, if not only, instrument by which the author's emphasis can be adequately identified. Theological design, subject/complement issues, and terminological factors are all dependent upon structure for emphasis. A couple of illustrations can demonstrate this point. The literary device of chiasm has, as its function, to focus attention upon what Man has called "the central element". Therefore, to see a chiastic structure and then to proceed to emphasize some lesser theme than the central point is to ignore the literary design and miss the author's emphasis. Thus, if Christ is seen as deity in a lesser paragraph in the chiasm, but its center has its focus upon His humanity, though Christ is seen as deity, the author's intent is that his readers focus upon His humanity. By this means it is possible to determine how the author intends for his readers to see Christ. A second illustration involves Mark's use of power stories. This is the issue of subject/complement. But it is only after one sees the arrangement and relationship of those stories to the other information that an emphasis can be established.

The Focal Points in the Literary Design

It has been the argument of this study that Mark consists of four primary parts: the prologue (1:1-20), which prejudices the entire body of the work; the first major section (1:21-8:26), which moves inexorably to a major conclusion about Jesus as the Mighty One; the pivot, or hinge (8:27-38), which summarizes the first section and introduces the second; and the final major section ((9:1-16:8), which develops the meaning of the conclusion that Jesus is the Mighty One.

Therefore it is to these four units of thought that appeal must be made in order to establish the particular picture of Jesus that Mark sought to present.

The Picture of Jesus in the Prologue

As was argued in Chapter Two, the focus of the prologue is upon 1:9-15. Mark used John (1:2-8) as a precursor to get to these verses, and he used the call of the four disciples afterward (1:16-20) to establish the objective of His Principle Person and to set Him in the center of the stage of history ... between the Old Era and the New.

Therefore it is the picture of Jesus of 1:9-15 that determines the focus of Mark's work. Thus, to use John's identity as the forerunner of "the Lord" in 1:2-3 to argue for a picture of Christ as deity (though it is obviously there) is to miss Mark's focus. And likewise, to argue for a picture of Jesus with an emphasis that might arise out of Jesus' call of the four disciples is to also miss Mark's focus.

So, what is the emphasis of the picture of Jesus in the prologue? The key elements of 1:9-15 are: first, the identification of Jesus by God as "My Beloved Son"; second, the characterization of this Son as the One in whom God is "well pleased"; third, the relationship sustained by this Son in the wilderness to the Spirit, to the Adversary, to the wild beasts, and to the angels; and fourth, the activity of Jesus in respect to John's status and in respect to the content of his preaching.

A consideration of Mark's references to Jesus as God's "Son" (3:11; 5:7; 9:7; 12:6; 13:32; 14:61; and 15:39) gives us these facts: a) two of them have God identifying Him as His Son; b) two of them have demons identifying Hims as God's Son who is able to determine their destiny; c) three of them have His being identified in respect to His office as the Father's Agent of Rule; and d) one of them has Him being recognized as God's Son based upon the way He died. When these factors are added together, they make an unmistakable argument for Jesus' deity. Thus, Mark's picture of Jesus is that of God, the Son.

Second, Mark's use of the identification of Jesus as God's beloved Son is deliberately set forth as the fulfillment of John's "Mightier One" thesis in 1:7. This is a critical fact. The term for "mightier", as has been noted several times already, is a term for inherent might. This makes the the relationship between inherent might and identity as God's Son special. A mere man might be called God's son. But when that man is identified as possessor of inherent might, it means that as God's Son He does what He does by His own power. This makes Jesus substantially different from all other men who exercise the power of God. They exercise it as agents of God. He exercises it as God. Since Mark's primary focus in the first half of his gospel is upon Jesus as the "inherently mighty one", it is his contention that Jesus is God -- the Elohim of Genesis One.

A consideration of Jesus as the One in whom God is "well pleased" serves to introduce another focus. One who is well pleasing to another is one who has fulfilled the expectations of that other. This implies a focus upon Jesus as the Servant of God.

When this focus upon service is taken into 1:12-13, it is intensified. First, Jesus is in the wilderness because the Spirit "drives" Him there. Both other synoptic writers say that Jesus was "led" into the wilderness. The difference seems to be that two gospel writers felt it necessary to see Jesus as following the Spirit's leading of His own accord (perhaps as a man who was seeking to accomplish the will of his God). But Mark felt it necessary to present Jesus as dominated by the Spirit. This intensifies the idea of servility.

Second, in the wilderness Jesus is opposed by Satan. This is unlike Matthew and Luke who present Him as the object of deception by the devil. This introduction of Satan as opposer indicates that Jesus has a task to accomplish. This intensifies the idea of servility. But since God cannot be tempted, only opposed, the use of the designation "Satan" may well have been Mark's way of maintaining a focus upon deity while introducing the alternative concept of servant.

Third, Jesus' presence among the wild beasts also signifies something about His task because He is in the wilderness to demonstrate His "moral might" (according to John's pre-indication in 1:7b). Whatever the significance of the presence of the beasts is, it relates to Jesus' task which requires moral power. This focus upon task maintains the servant focus.

Finally, the ministering angels seem to revert to the earlier theme of Jesus' deity.

In the final part of Mark's introduction to Jesus, He is seen as coming after John's imprisonment and preaching the "at-handness" of the Kingdom of God (1:15). This focus fulfills John's identification of Jesus as more powerful in what He can accomplish (1:8). And its focus upon Jesus as superior to John is inconclusive in that the superiority and ability to establish the Kingdom indicates the power of deity, but the preaching indicates service to God.

Therefore, Mark's picture of Jesus in 1:9-15 is that Jesus is God, but also the Servant of God for men. This dual thrust indicates that Mark wants his readers to understand that God is a Servant. This seems to be the primary picture of Jesus in Mark's entire effort as it is pre-indicated in this prologue.

The Picture of Jesus in the First Major Section

As was argued in Chapter Three, the first major section of Mark's work (1:21-8:26) consists of three sub-sections (1:21-3:35; 4:1-6:6; and 6:7-8:26). Thus, in order to grasp the particular focus of Mark upon Christ, it is necessary to evaluate the three sub-sections for their individual emphases.

The sub-section of 1:21-3:35 has, as its literary focus, the responses of the people to Jesus as the One who has authority to command demons, heal all manner of illnesses, and teach authoritatively. This is seen in that the response theme surfaces as the conclusion to Jesus' acts of power three times in the unit. Thus, the picture of Jesus is focused upon Him as the Exerciser of the Power of God. He teaches with demand (authority). He exorcises demons by command. He heals diseases of all kinds. He forgives sins -- a prerogative of God. And He claims to be the Lord of the Sabbath. This means that the first sub-section has a focus upon Jesus as deity as the argument for the use of the term for "inherent power" has already established.

The sub-section of 4:1-6:6 has, as its literary focus, the issue of whether men will believe in Jesus as the inherently mighty God. This is seen in the focus upon faith/unbelief in respect to the arguments for His identity as the Mighty One (see the structural summary in chapter two). This means that the second sub-section has a focus upon Jesus as deity.

The third sub-section of 6:7-8:26 has, as its literary focus, the power of Jesus in respect to the problem of leaven (see the structural summary in chapter two). This power thesis is climaxed in this sub-section with the story of the healing of a blind man in two distinct steps. The immediate outcome of this unit is Peter's confession that Jesus is the Christ. But by now, the "Christ" means the inherently mighty One --- i.e. God. This is seen from the fact that, apart from the title (1:1), Peter's conclusion is the first time the term "Christ" has come up. Before that Jesus was called "the Lord" (1:3; 5:19-20; and 7:28), "the mightier one" (1:7), "God's Son" (1:11), "the Holy One of God" (1:24), the "Son of Man" (2:10, 28), and "Teacher" (a title that mostly reflected the unbelief of those using it -- 4:38; 9:17). In Peter's mind, "the Christ" is a summary term that includes the implications of all that He did and was called.

In conclusion, then, the primary focus of Mark upon Christ in his first major section is the same as the initial focus in his prologue: Jesus is God.

The Picture of Jesus in the Hinge

As was argued in Chapter Four, the pivot of 8:27-38 does two things: it concludes the focus of the first section; and it introduces the focus of the second section. As a conclusion, Peter confesses that the evidence is that Jesus is more than John, Elijah, or one of the prophets. This "more than" is a conclusion drawn from the focus upon deity in the first section.

However, in the pivot, Jesus is presented as immediately turning the "Christ" focus (God as King of the Kingdom of God) into a focus upon suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection. He did this deliberately by choosing to call Himself "the Son of Man: in every setting in which He was portrayed as a sufferer (8:31, 38; 9:9, 12, 31; 10:33; 14:21, 41). This alteration indicates that Jesus wants His disciples to understand something about the God whose Kingdom is to come: He is a Servant Who is willing to suffer for the sake of others. This is in perfect harmony with Mark's second focus in his prologue in which Jesus becomes a serving God.

Thus, the picture of Jesus in this pivot is a wedding of two major perceptions of Christ -- that He is God and that He is Servant: God, the Servant.

The Picture of Jesus of the Second Major Section

The second major section of Mark has two sub-sections: 9:1-13:35 and 14:1-16:8. Each sub-section has three units of thought: 9:1-13:35 is made up of 9:1-11:11, 11:12-12:44, and 13:1-37; and 14:1-16:8 is made up of 14:1-72, 15:1-47, and 16:1-8. Each of these units have a certain picture of Jesus.

The first major sub-section uses its three units of thought to do two things: maintain the focus upon Christ as deity while introducing His character as servant. The chiasm of 9:1-11:11 does this by beginning and ending with a focus upon Christ as King, but making the central element a statement upon the prerequisite of the Kingdom: humility. The chiasm then develops that humility in terms of becoming a "servant of all". The second unit does it by Christ's question: "David himself calls Him 'Lord'; and so in what sense is He his son?" (12:37). This statement is centrally located in the development of this unit and it directly addresses the issue of deity and humanity in which the themes of deity and servanthood are couched. The third unit does it by making Christ both the unknowing Son (13:32) as well as the Judge of all the earth (13:27). In each case the focus is upon Jesus as Christ and is directed to His character as a servant.

Then, in the final sub-section, Jesus is presented at the height of His servant role as He prays for the Father to alter His will regarding the cross. But He does it in the context of the power of the Spirit -- something the disciples do not have when it is pitted against the power of the flesh. This overwhelms the reader with the servant thesis, but it does not eclipse the deity theme. Then Jesus goes to Calvary and is noted to be the "Son of God" when He dies. The two themes are balanced. But at the resurrection, Jesus is returned to the thesis of "the Mighty One" by the record of this last, and greatest, power story. Thus, the final sub-section is structured to intensify the servant theme without destroying the deity theme -- just as the prologue indicated.


It has been the contention of this study that literary structure is a key to understanding, and that Mark's structure produces a clear picture of Jesus. The two most critical parts of the structure are the prologue and the pivot. It is here that the issues are set forth most precisely. In both, Jesus is presented as the God of the Kingdom and as the Servant Who suffers. The respective sections then develop what is given -- but the given is a picture of God as Servant.

Mark wanted his readers to understand a critical fact: one of the most necessary truths that believers must grasp is that their God is of a servant mindset. This is a key to their justification -- for He served them there; and it is a key to their sanctification -- for becoming an exerciser of the power of God means to become a servant of all.

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