Faith and healing in the Gospel of Mark: a brief reflection

Jesus healsFaith is closely connected with healing in Mark. Jesus heals the paralytic on the basis of the faith of his friends (and of the paralytic himself, too?) in 2:5. Mark 5:34, 7:29, 10:52 feature similar healings where the faith of the healed seems to be at least a partial basis for Jesus’ healing.

At the same time, Jesus shows his frustration with lack of faith. He exhorts his disciples in 4:40 after he calms the storm, since they are afraid and not showing faith. In 6:6 and 9:19 Jesus expresses disapproval of the crowd who does not have faith in him. And in Mark 11:22 Jesus tells the disciples, “Have faith in God” (or, “Have the faith of God,” ἔχετε πίστιν θεοῦ).

Causation in general is difficult to prove, and although some hold that Mark 6:5-6 say that lack of faith limits Jesus’ power, one should be careful not to conclude from Mark that if someone is physically sick or mentally ill, it is just because that person does not have enough faith. At the same time it is clear that in Mark Jesus heals those who have faith. Mark seems to convey that Jesus’ act of healing is at least in some sense related to their faith, if not a direct result of it.

Robert A. Guelich, in his commentary on Mark, writes, “Faith represented the critical link in one’s relationship with Jesus” (312-3). And, “although Mark does not actually define ‘faith,’…it meant much more than being impressed with Jesus’ words and deeds in view of his modest family background. …To those who came to him in faith seeking help…, he responded by meeting their need” (313).

Just as Jesus tells the disciples (as noted above) to “have faith,” he says in Mark 9:23, “All things are possible for the one who believes.” The father of the boy with an evil spirit says, “I believe (πιστεύω), help my unbelief (ἀπιστία)!”

Mark’s Gospel finally reaches a Christological culmination in the profound profession of faith by the centurion in chapter 15, who declares Jesus to be truly the “Son of God.” Such faith!

Amazed by Jesus

Amazement is a common crowd reaction to Jesus’ teaching and to his miraculous powers of healing and exorcism in the Gospel of Mark.

Mark uses the Greek words ἐκπλήσσω, θαμβέω, ἐξίστημιθαυμάζω to depict others’ amazement at Jesus. In Mark 1:22 the people are “amazed by his teaching.” In 1:27, they reiterate their amazement at his teaching and at his command of unclean spirits. 2:12 shows the people amazed at the healing of the paralytic. In 5:20, “All were amazed” (πάντες ἐθαύμαζον) after Jesus healed the Gerasene Demoniac. 6:2 shows the people amazed again at his teaching.

Then in 6:6, whereas the subject of the verb “amaze” has been the people, Jesus is amazed (ἐθαύμαζεν) on account of the lack of faith (ἀπιστία) of the people. The prior verse has said, “And he could not do any miracle there, except to lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them” (AKJV). This is odd. Just as Jesus’ miracles lead to amazement, now his lack of miracles in 6:5 lead to a lack of belief on the part of the people, and this leads to Jesus’ amazement at the people’s lack of faith.

In 6:51 the disciples are amazed at Jesus’ walking on the water, and in 10:24 and 10:26 at his pronouncement that it is difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. In 7:37 the crowd has gone back to being amazed at Jesus’ curing of a deaf man. In 11:18 and 12:17 they stand amazed (ἐξεπλήσσετο) at his teaching.

In 15:5 there is a new subject who is amazed: Pilate is amazed at the lack of a reply from Jesus in his own defense at his trial.

The theme of amazement is significant in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus in Mark is the divine Son of God who has authority to teach, heal the sick, and cast out demons. Because of this the crowds and his disciples are amazed. (Except in 6:5-6, where they are not.) And yet Jesus is not the political Roman empire-conquering Messiah that many Jewish people expected, so there is amazement even on Pilate’s part in 15:5 when Jesus does not respond.

Though no “amazing” words are used, the centurion in Mark 15:39 seems to have the final word of amazement in the Gospel. Having watched Jesus die, he utters in astonishment, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

Why did Jesus tell the disciples not to tell anyone about him?

Why did Jesus sometimes tell people not to tell others about who he was, or about how he healed them? This passage from Mark 8:27-30 (NIV) looks almost anti-evangelistic:

Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”

Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.

This hard-to-understand aspect of Jesus’ ministry is often called the “messianic secret.” I.e., Jesus wanted his messiah-ness kept secret (at times). As the Handbook on Biblical Criticism (4th ed.) puts it, the “Messianic Secret refers to a discernible phenomenon in the Gospels, most especially in the Gospel of Mark, in which Jesus explicitly conceals his messianic character and power until the closing period of his ministry” (124).

The messianic secret is not an attempt on the part of Jesus to keep people from knowing, believing in, and following him. But Jesus did seem to be careful throughout the Gospel of Mark to keep his identity as divine Son of God/Messiah from spreading. There are at least two reasons for this that I can see.

First, though Jesus is identified early in the Gospels as a miraculous healer and exorcist, early in his ministry is not yet time for his identity to be revealed. The fullness of time has simply not come. Perhaps Jesus had certain ministry objectives that needed to be accomplished before his crucifixion? He knew, either way, that as his fame spread, he would be tried and crucified for it. But this could only happen in due time.

Second, Jesus may have been cautious that a misunderstanding of the title “Messiah” would result if people were to say things like, “Here is the Messiah!” He was not the military insurrectionist and ruler than many Jews were expecting (I wrote more about this here), and he wanted to prevent title confusion, I suspect. So he often warned the evil spirits and those who received healing (and, as above, even the disciples!) not to tell anyone about him.

Even with those explanations in view, I still find the “messianic secret” difficult to understand. But perhaps this is because I am like Peter, in Mark 8:33, who all too often has in mind the things “of humanity” rather than “of God.” The messianic secret remains, at least to me, something of a mystery.

William L. Lane free downloads on the Gospel of Mark

Here’s a link to a Mark teaching series that Dr. William L. Lane led at Christ Community Church in Franklin, TN in 1998. He’s the author of the commentary pictured at right, one of the best for the Gospel of Mark. (Click on the image to look inside the book at Amazon.) From the By/For site:

This Mark teaching series is led by Dr. William L. Lane, author of The Gospel According to Mark from the New International Commentary on the New Testament series. This series was the final time Dr. Lane lectured on Mark.

The study page includes a pdf file of class notes and 13 lectures by Dr. Lane. See it all here.

July 2012 Biblical Studies Carnival

Head over to Reading Acts for the July “Biblical Studies Carnival.” It’s a compilation of many, many posts on all things Biblical studies on the blogosphere in July. There is some really good stuff there, and Phil has done a great job gathering some informative links. I’m thankful to have received mention in the carnival (of my July posts here, here, and here).

Restoration in the Wilderness

From the wilderness comes restoration.

The wilderness for Israel was all too often a place of dissension and lack of trust in God’s promises.

Exodus 17:7 says, “Moses called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, on account of the quarreling of the children of Israel, and on account of their testing Yahweh, which they did by saying, ‘Is Yahweh in the midst of us or not?'” (AKJV) Massah means testing and Meribah means strife or quarreling. “Whining” would not be an inappropriate translation for Meribah. Psalm 78 (go here and scroll down to 78) details the repeated lack of faith Israel had in their delivering God.

(Disclaimer: I am not claiming I would have done better or have done better in wilderness settings.)

In the Gospels, however, Jesus redeems and transforms the wilderness experience on behalf of the entire people of God. In the New Testament Jesus serves as a stand-in for the people of God, both in the wilderness and on the cross.

One of Mark’s first καὶ εὐθὺς statements has Jesus going into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. But unlike the people of God in Exodus, Jesus did not sin when he was tempted to walk away from God and worship another. I once heard a preacher say that where Adam failed, where Israel failed, and where all humanity failed… Jesus succeeded on behalf of all people when he refused to listen to Satan in the wilderness.

The wilderness, isolated place that it is, connects with hope to the whole of salvation history.  John the Baptist, the “voice of one crying in the wilderness,” hearkens back to Old Testament prophets that “prepare the way of the Lord.”  John self-identifies as the prophet par excellence who prepares the way for Jesus. The wilderness may be lonely and despairing, but it is also the place to which Jesus comes.

As R.T. France writes, “The wilderness was a place of hope, of new beginnings…in the wilderness God’s people would again find their true destiny.”

From the wilderness comes restoration—even if it’s only the beginning of the process of restoration. Saint Mark’s first listeners/readers saw the wilderness motif immediately at the beginning of the Gospel (no birth narrative!), with John as prophet in the wilderness and with Jesus conquering Satan’s temptation in the wilderness. This alerted them that something significant was about to happen.

“Is God in our midst or not?”

I confess I’m too quick to ask that question with Israel when I find myself in a proverbial desert. But the desert wilderness is the exact place to which God saw fit to send John, preaching the good news of forgiveness and calling people to a baptism of repentance. The desert wilderness is the exact place to which God saw fit to drive Jesus, so that he could resist the devil’s temptations, beginning to win for us a victory we could never win for ourselves. God in Jesus restores what we have made “Massah” and “Meribah” by our lack of trust and rush to complaint.

Next wilderness I come to, I’m going to try to ask myself… what restoration is on the other side of this?