Chapter 16. Following the real Jesus
Please read Mark 10:32-52
Abraham Lincoln is acknowledged as one of the greatest US Presidents. From a young age he began to campaign against the evils of slavery. In 1860 he was elected President; and his well-known stance on the slavery issue precipitated the secession of the southern, slave-owning states and the American Civil War. For four years Lincoln led his country through that war. In January, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation came into effect, declaring all slaves free throughout the United States. Before the Civil War was over, Lincoln was seeking reconciliation and the swift rebuilding of the southern states. A great man; and on April 14th, 1865, in Ford’s Theatre in Washington, a Confederate spy named John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln dead.
Mahatma Gandhi is acknowledged as India’s greatest founding father. For many years, following his painful formative experiences in South Africa, he gave a moral and political lead in the fight against British rule in India. He refused to use violence. He longed to bring about an independent and united India where people of different religions were able to live in peace. Independence came at last, but to Gandhi’s intense sorrow it came with partition into two separate states and bloodshed on a huge scale. Even so, he continued to struggle for reconciliation. A great man; and on January 30th, 1948, in New Delhi, a Hindu extremist named Nathuran Godse shot Mahatma Gandhi dead.
Martin Luther King is acknowledged as the noblest and greatest leader of the American civil rights movement. In the face of abuse, intimidation and violence he provided moral leadership through his stirring speeches and bold campaigns. He too refused the path of violence, even though other civil rights leaders were taking that route. Instead, he refused to condemn the white population and even offered friendship to those who felt threatened by his movement. A great man; and on April 4th, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King was shot dead, probably – though no-one is really sure – by James Earl Ray.
Jesus Christ is widely acknowledged as the greatest moral teacher in human history. Born in very humble circumstances, like Lincoln, he lived a simple and basic lifestyle, like Gandhi. He taught people to love God and to love their neighbours. He challenged the corruption and hypocrisy of the national leadership. Like Gandhi and King, he refused the pathway of violence. His people were to be peacemakers, he said. A great man; and in the spring of AD 30, just outside Jerusalem, Jesus Christ was executed by the Roman authorities.
The question is, what did any of these deaths achieve? Clearly, for Lincoln, Gandhi and King, violent death was hardly in their plan. Death was a tragic and widely-mourned ending to their heroic careers, that was all. The most their deaths could achieve was to inspire their followers to carry on the cause of their fallen leader. But was the death of Jesus like that? Many people think so. Some people think that Jesus’ death was simply the result of the risks he took. He pushed the authorities one step too far, provoked them one time too often, until their patience finally ran out. Then after he was gone, his followers – refusing to give up his cause – carried on his work, expanded on his teachings, followed his shining example and built up his movement, until it became the worldwide Church we know today. His death was an inspiration; and Jesus is placed in the pantheon of the great, along with men like Gandhi – or for the more religious, in a great line of prophets, or avatars of the gods. But either way, his death was the end of the story; and it has no more power to achieve anything than the death of those other great leaders. That is what so may think of Jesus Christ; but the facts say otherwise. In Mark 10:32-52, Jesus speaks about his own leadership. He speaks of what it will really mean for him to be a great leader; and it’s startling. In the cases of Lincoln, Gandhi or King, you could never say that their death was an expression of their leadership. The most you could say is that they knew the risks they were taking and they bravely accepted those risks. But the idea that their leadership was supremely focussed in their deaths would be ridiculous. Yet that is exactly what Jesus says about himself here. For Jesus, his leadership is supremely expressed in his own, deliberate, violent death.
Jesus the servant leader
Jesus is on his way, his face fixed on Jerusalem, leading the way – and about to show us what his leadership really is. Look at vv.32-34. It’s an energetic picture of Jesus, determinedly striding ahead while his disciples straggle along behind, worrying about what lies ahead of them. There is something uncanny, something daunting about the look on his face; and clearly they don’t know quite what to make of it. It seems it’s in response to that fear and bewilderment that Jesus explains, in not very comforting terms, just what is going to happen. For the third time Jesus tells them very directly what awaits him. I am going to Jerusalem to die. The first of these passion predictions came in 8:31, the second in 9:31; and this is all part of Mark’s big theme of setting out what it means for Jesus to be the Christ, the promised Jewish Messiah, which the disciples now know him to be. This third prediction is the clearest and most detailed of all. There are two new elements in what Jesus says. In v.34 he explains the detail of the hideous treatment he will receive. This death will not simply be a clinical, judicial execution. It will be accompanied by vicious verbal and physical abuse. Jesus will suffer agonising pain and humiliation even before he is led out to die. The second new element is really more shocking still. His condemnation will begin with the Jewish religious leaders, but they will then hand him over to the Gentiles – in other words, the Roman authorities – and it is they who will both abuse and execute him. The Jewish Messiah – the hoped-for, longed-for, prayed-for national saviour – is to be handed over to their oppressors, the very people who are crushing them, the very people who surely they need to be saved from! What a bitter ending this will be! And all this in Jerusalem, their ancient and beloved capital city, the place where kings are enthroned – but the place where their Messiah declares he is now going to die horribly, and at enemy hands! True, Jesus does say he will rise again. Three days later that amazing reversal will come. Jesus gives that as a word of assurance that all will finally be well, that beyond the darkness of his passion there lies the glorious light of his new life. But at this stage he does not dwell on his resurrection. The prediction is given. Jesus’ death an unfortunate accident? The result of one risk too many? It doesn’t look like it. Whatever else it may mean, Jesus’ death is something he goes to face quite deliberately, quite by his own choosing. This is no mere premonition. He knows; and he goes knowing full well the horror which it will involve.
It seems incredible that James and John can now react in the way that they do (vv.35-37). It must be the thought of going up to Jerusalem that sparks off their train of thought, some sense that Jesus’ mission is reaching its conclusion; and he is the Messiah after all, so surely there will be some important jobs up for grabs. So here they come to make a pre-emptive request for the two places of highest honour at the top table. Surely they have a phenomenal nerve to make this request at this highly inappropriate moment. But on the other hand, for all its clumsy awkwardness, their request also shows they have some kind of faith in Jesus; they do believe there will be a top table to sit at! Perhaps that is why Jesus responds rather gently to their approach (v.38). But also, sadly, their request proves that James and John have completely missed the point of what Jesus has told them all. He is going to suffer and die; and this is no time to be making a grab for glory. When it happens, when Jesus comes to his moment of greatest triumph, the places on his right and left will be occupied by a pair of crucified robbers (15:27). That was Jesus’ path to glory. Can you really face what I am going to go through? Would you dare to face the same yourselves?, Jesus asks. And so glibly and with such blind self-confidence they reply, Yes we can!
What exactly does Jesus mean by these mysterious expressions in v.38, the cup he is going to drink and the baptism he will undergo? ‘Drinking a cup’ is a common OT expression describing the effects of God’s wrath, his anger against evil. For example in Psalm 75:7-8 the ‘cup’ is the fury of God against the evildoers. The theme recurs in Jeremiah 25:15-16, where the following verses describe the different nations who will have to drink this cup of wrath. This is what Jesus says he is going to do. Not the nations now, but Christ himself, will drink the cup of God’s wrath, face the fury of the Father against the sins of the world. The ‘baptism’ he speaks of is his submission to suffering and death. Just as Jesus submitted to water baptism by John the Baptist, identifying himself with all the sinners who stood in that line in front and behind, so now he will submit himself to the death that rightfully belongs to them all. Jesus goes on to assure them that they will indeed share in his sufferings (vv.39b-40). Of course, this doesn’t mean the same for them as it does for Jesus. His death is unique. Even so, the suffering will be real. James will be executed in his turn by Herod Agrippa, the grandson of Herod the Great (Acts 12:2). John, on the other hand, James’ brother, will live to old age and as far as we know dies peacefully in his bed. But still his life will be hard and full of suffering. In later years he is exiled to the stone quarries of Patmos; and no doubt he reflects on the day long ago where so lightly he told his master he was ready to face what he faced. A long life, but a disciple’s life of suffering: that’s what following Jesus the Messiah means for him.
Jesus does not commit himself on the question of who gets the top places in the end. He leaves such matters to his Father. Gently but firmly, then, James and John are put in their place. Now how will the other ten disciples react? With greater restraint? With more understanding? Not a bit of it (v.41)!. They aren’t shocked at what James and John have done – they probably wish they had thought of the idea first! Even his closest friends squabble and grab rather than give him support; and we can only imagine how that must feel. They are ‘indignant’ – the last time we heard that word was in v.14 but the circumstances could hardly be more different. Jesus was indignant because the disciples were barring the children who wanted to see him. Now the disciples are indignant because James and John have tried to jump the queue! Just as he has done in previous episodes, Jesus now picks up what has happened and turns it into a teaching session for the disciples (vv.42-45). There is an earthly model of leadership readily available as an object lesson – the same authorities who will shortly crucify him. For those pagan Romans, says Jesus, leadership is about grasping whatever power and influence comes within your reach. The Roman emperors of the time are minting coins which describe them as gods, or as the sons of gods. Leadership means lording it over people: that is normal. Now we know that not all human leadership is like that, but much of it is. It was Lord Acton, writing in 1887, who famously said: ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ He added, ‘Great men are almost always bad men’. At the very least, all human leaders have feet of clay, whether in the political world, in business, or even in the Church. Too often, leaders are people on a power trip, relishing the opportunity to make or break the lives of their underlings. Jesus says, Not you, my friends. He said much the same in 9:35, but he says it more fully here, and in a moment he will take it much further. Look at vv.43-44 and see what he is doing here. v.43: If you want to be great, you must become a servant. Then v.44, reinforcing it by making both parts of the saying more extreme: if you want to be first, you must be a slave. This is Jesus’ picture of leadership. Not high and mighty, but humble. Not lording it, but longsuffering. Not a tiara, but a tea towel! If you want a position of leadership in the Kingdom, says Jesus, that’s fine. It’s not a bad thing to want. But understand what comes with the territory. To lead my people means serving them in humility, not standing on your dignity.
That brings us to the climax of this passage, and in a sense of the whole of Mark’s gospel: hence the title of this book! V.45 is the clearest, most magnificent expression anywhere in the gospels of the meaning of Jesus’ death. He has explained very clearly what lies ahead of him; he has made it crystal clear that he is going deliberately to his death; but now he spells out just what it will mean. Far from being an accident or a mistake, he says that his mission is exactly this, to lay down his life. Without his death – and this is diametrically opposite to all those other heroes – his life makes no sense at all! He lives in order to die.
Jesus says his death means service. Here is Jesus, the supreme example of leadership; and he has shown it by abandoning his status, which was as high as it could possibly be, and making himself nothing (Philippians 2:5-8). He is just this: the first who made himself the slave of all. He says his death means a ransom. A ransom is what is paid to get a hostage or prisoner set free. In that sense, the ransom is the exact equivalent of the one who is bought out: the ransom takes their place. It is a direct, one-for-one substitution. Jesus’ death pays the ransom for
Seeing the real Jesus
Although Jesus must have healed hundreds of blind people during his ministry, Mark picks out exactly two of them – the story of Bartimaeus which follows in vv.46-52 is the second; and remarkably, both of these stories he uses in this same way, to show us the real Jesus. They form the beginning and end of the section I have called ‘Jesus shows he must suffer’. Giving sight to blind eyes symbolises the way God opens our eyes to see the real Jesus and what he has come to do; it is thus a highly appropriate commentary on what Jesus has just taught. Mark, like the other gospel writers, does not throw stories together at random. He has not picked out these episodes just because they are the nicest stories, or the most dramatic, or even the most memorable, but for what they show us about the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus’ three years of public ministry would have produced hundreds of stories like this – teaching, parables and miracles by the score – and most of them we never hear about. But we hear about this one, because Mark has chosen it to reveal more about the real Jesus as he heads up to Jerusalem.
The scene Mark paints for us in v.46 is of a noisy, bustling throng leaving the ancient city of Jericho: Jesus himself, the twelve disciples, and a large crowd. Jesus has been on this journey for some time now. By this point he has re-crossed the River Jordan: Jericho is five miles west of the river and just eighteen miles, one day’s walk, short of Jerusalem. Most of this crowd will be pilgrims on their way up to the great city. The Passover festival is probably only a couple of weeks away and thousands of people are converging on the capital: Jews from all over Israel and beyond. This cavalcade in Jericho is just one component of that great movement of people. But some of them undoubtedly are also keeping a very close eye on Jesus. He has done so many amazing deeds, spoken so many startling words; and the rumours about him have flown far and wide. They know he is heading up to Jerusalem; they have realised there is something special about him; and now they will make sure they are travelling along with him, just to see what he is going to do next.
It’s not an unusual sight to come across a beggar at the side of the road – a busy road, this, even if it is known to be dangerous. This man is blind and therefore unable to support himself through work. (Mark’s is the only gospel to tell us that his name is Bartimaeus – or ‘the son of Timai’. It’s unusual for Mark to name people in the miracle stories; this may mean that Bartimaeus later becomes well-known in the church, but we don’t know.) It is obvious to Bartimaeus that a crowd is approaching. There is a noise down the street, the pounding of feet on the ground and the smell of dust in the air. As soon as he discovers the identity of the man in the middle of it all, Bartimaeus starts to shout (v.47). Clearly, he has heard of this Jesus of Nazareth. The stories about him are being swopped up and down every road in the land; and a blind man learns to be very skilled at tuning in to the latest news. We can’t be sure how much he knows about Jesus; but he knows this is someone special – someone who can give him a chance. Normally he calls out for money – it’s the only way he can survive – but not this time. ‘Mercy’ is what you ask from someone who’s greater than you. Bartimaeus understands this at least: Jesus can give him something better than money. Jesus can give him his sight back.
The crowd around Jesus tell him in no uncertain terms to shut up (v.48). It wouldn’t be surprising if this is Jesus’ own disciples again, reprising their performance in v.13. Jesus has other matters on his mind, they think: he has a schedule to keep, he doesn’t want to be bothered with you. But Bartimaeus is still shouting, refusing to be put off. It soon turns out that Jesus does want to bother with him. He stops; and no doubt everyone else stops too. Whatever is Jesus going to do now? As Jesus says, Call him (v.49), the crowd suddenly switches sides! Bartimaeus becomes the focus of everyone’s attention as they call him: Come on, over here! The man’s been seated by the roadside, ready to receive whatever people drop in his begging bowl. But the moment he hears this call, he springs into action. Not a second is wasted (v.50). Guided by the sounds, he makes his way over to where Jesus stands waiting. Jesus’ question in v.51, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ is exactly the same question he asked James and John in v.36. What they wanted was glory, honour, prestige – pride of place alongside Jesus in the Kingdom of God. Here is a clue to why Mark has included this story! Still blind to the true nature of Jesus’ mission, James and John made a grab for glory. Now here stands a man who is literally blind. ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The answer is obvious; but Jesus wants him to speak it out, because that makes his need clearer and encourages his faith. ‘I want to see’! In fact he calls Jesus ‘Rabboni’, the more respectful form of the word ‘Rabbi’ – my lord, my master. Jesus needs no dramatic gestures. In a moment, without any fuss, Bartimaeus receives what he asks for. Suddenly, his darkness is ended. The sun shines again. Bartimaeus can see (v.52). And with that he turns, falls in behind Jesus, and sets off with the crowd. He too is now heading for Jerusalem. But Bartimaeus has a special, additional reason for going there. He will be making a sacrifice to thank God for giving him back his sight. No longer a helpless beggar, Bartimaeus now has a life!
In this short passage Mark gives us a great deal of help in seeing the real Jesus. He shows us that Jesus is a real man, the one who grew up in Nazareth and was known in that way (v.47). But he also shows us that Jesus is the coming King. Bartimaeus calls repeatedly to Jesus as the ‘Son of David’ (vv.47-48). ‘David’ is King David, who reigned over Israel a thousand years ago – their greatest of all kings. The great longing of the Jewish people at this time is that God will intervene in their nation’s sad story again, place a descendant of David on the royal throne once more and bring in a golden age. The prophets have promised it and the people yearn for it, especially now, after a hundred years of Roman occupation have snuffed out the last living memory of national independence. The expression ‘Son of David’ evokes that picture of the promised, coming King. Quite possibly, Bartimaeus does not know that Jesus of Nazareth is literally a descendant of David. It may simply be a respectful title that indicates someone worthy to be mentioned in the same breath as the great David – and someone God is using to bring healing and blessing to the land. The fact that Jerusalem is just up the road – Jerusalem, the city David himself established as his capital and where he reigned supreme – is always there in the background too. But even if Bartimaeus does not have the full picture, Mark does; and Bartimaeus may well have guessed it. Jesus is indeed David’s literal descendant; Jesus is indeed the coming King, promised by God through the prophets (Jeremiah 23:5-6). That’s the dream; and in Jesus it will become reality.
Mark began his story with Jesus’ identity a secret. Little by little, the curtain has been lifted and more and more has been revealed. Now, just a day out from Jerusalem, the time for secrecy is past. Jesus has accepted the title which a blind man has given him; and very soon now, as the crowds acclaim his entry into Jerusalem itself, this is just what they will be crying (11:10). Jesus’ true identity must be made known so that when he dies in Jerusalem, it will be known that he dies as the Messiah, he dies as the coming King.
Finally, Mark shows us that Jesus is the splendour of God. Here’s what Bartimaeus certainly doesn’t know – not yet at least – but Mark does; and he’s put the clues in the story. Read vv.49-52 again and note that the literal translation of v.49 is not ‘cheer up’ but ‘take courage’. Now look at Isaiah 35:1-10, where the prophet speaks in poetic words about what it will be like when God intervenes to save his people. Remember that ‘Zion’ is Jerusalem. When God at last breaks in, we read, the land will be glad, breaking into new life as God reveals his glory and splendour. We read about specific signs that will be seen as God begins to move. We read of a highway of pilgrimage, God’s people streaming up to Zion, singing his praises and being crowned with everlasting joy. And the signs that Isaiah mentions that will be seen in the land are these – vv.3-6: the feeble and weak will be made strong so that they can stand strongly on their feet; a message of courage to those who fear, because God is coming; the eyes of the blind will be opened, the deaf will hear, the lame will leap and the mute will shout for joy.
Now Mark has already pointed us to this passage, in the story at the end of ch 7 about the man who was deaf and tongue-tied (see on 7:31-37). Now we see it again. In this story the onlookers say to Bartimaeus, Take courage, and get on your feet. On the face of it, not the most obvious words you’d say to a blind man! But Mark is pointing us back to Isaiah 35. Then, of course, the eyes of the blind are opened. And in events like these, Isaiah says, ‘they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendour of our God’. The appearance of Jesus is the splendour of God revealed. Not completely, as yet: we are not yet at the place of everlasting joy – sorrow and sighing have not yet fled away. Isaiah 35 has not been completely fulfilled – but for those who are on the pilgrimage highway up to Zion, it should be dawning that in Jesus the glory and splendour of God are shining out on the earth. Little by little it becomes evident that this is nothing less than the coming of God himself.