The unknown Jesus (Mark 1:1)

Out of all the Star Wars movies, my favorite is definitely The Empire Strikes Back. It’s a more mature movie than any of the others, containing a depth of story and characters that is rarely found in the series. And, of course, there’s the surprise ending. It came as a total shock to moviegoers in 1980 to discover that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father. However, this wasn’t a surprise to me when I first watched the movie. First, it’s become such common knowledge in the last 30 years; it’s almost impossible not to know it already before you watch the movie. Second, I saw Return of the Jedi first. So that kind of spoiled it, too.

If you want to begin a great story with an element of mystery, it’s generally a good idea to keep the plot under wraps. If The Empire Strikes Back had identified Darth Vader as Luke’s father in the opening crawl, it would have ruined everything. With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at the very first verse of the gospel according to Mark:

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
—Mark 1:1

Well, plotwise, that’s something of a letdown. In Mark’s story, Jesus’ disciples don’t identify him as the Christ—the Messiah king that God promised to his people—until halfway through the book (8:29). He is not publicly recognized as the Son of God until he is crucified (15:39). The whole story revolves around two questions: “who is this man?” and “what has he come to do?” The second question is answered by chapters 9 through 16; the first question is taken up in chapters 1 through 8. Yet Mark has given away the answer to the first question before the story even begins! If he were a screenwriter, he’d be fired.

So, let’s stop and consider this. Why would an author reveal the plot of his story before the story even gets started? Usually, it’s because the author understands that his audience already knows the story. The first verse of Mark gives us an important key to interpreting the book. The key is this: Mark wrote his story for Christians.

Isn’t that a bit odd? We would expect the gospels to be geared toward people who have never heard of Jesus and want to learn more about him. Now, it’s true that they are accessible to people who are encountering Jesus for the first time. However, this book was mainly written for people who have already heard about Jesus and have already chosen to believe in Jesus. It was written for people who already know the story.

So what’s the point of writing about a guy whom we already know? Again, there’s only one reason to write about a person with whom the readers are familiar. Mark would only be writing about Jesus if he believed that we, the readers, have an inadequate understanding of who he is and what he came to do. In other words, by writing this book, Mark is telling you, “Jesus is not who you think he is!”

Like his disciples, you and I are invited into a story where we encounter Jesus in all his threatening mystery. This is a Jesus whom we never knew growing up. It’s not flannelgraph Jesus. It’s not Veggie Tales Jesus. It’s not hippie Jesus. This is a Jesus who pushes the boundaries of our sensibilities, who is not afraid to offend us, who is not afraid to confront us because we haven’t learned to trust him. This is a Jesus who will stop at nothing less than total ownership of our lives. This is a Jesus who is not afraid to love us with a love unknown.

This unknown Jesus is the One whom we meet on the pages of Mark’s gospel. My hope as we travel through this story together is that we will see him with new eyes. May these familiar stories take on the unfamiliar air of another world. Let’s meet the real Jesus.

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