The Atonement in Mark: A Literary and Exegetical Study

Echoing many before him, Donald Guthrie states that “No understanding of the work of Jesus can be reached without coming to terms with his death.”[1] In the 21st century, the cross of Jesus suffers from overt sentimentalism and abundant confusion. We may wear it around our necks and sing about it, but what is the cross really about?

Such a concern was certainly in the mind of Mark who writes his account of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (1:1). But what does the cross mean? How does Mark present the work of Christ on the cross?

In this essay, I will be arguing that in the Gospel of Mark, the cross of Christ is God’s decisive yet subversive saving-action in which the Kingdom of God invades a hostile world overrun by Satan, sin and death.

I will attempt to do this by surveying the thematic high notes of Mark, whilst seeking to show how these high notes are themselves consistent with Mark’s inner exegetical logic.[2] When considered as a literary whole, the cross in Mark is a divine revealing event in which God’s saving reign invades a world occupied by humanity’s greatest enemies: Satan, sin, and death.

This essay consists of two main parts: in the first, I will present a broad sketch of Mark’s Gospel, highlighting how the overarching structure speaks of the cross. In the second part I will attempt to unpack the thesis presented, showing—briefly—how a few passages of Mark establish and interpret the meaning of this all-important event: the cross is God’s decisive yet subversive saving action in which God’s promised reign is realized.

Framing Mark’s Gospel

The Gospels have for some time been perceived as ‘passion narratives with an extended introduction.’ It is true; amidst mysterious apocalyptic urgency, Mark’s Gospel seemingly makes a dart for the crucifixion.[3] However, whilst this estimation is somewhat accurate, Mark’s elusive account calls us to look past the walking trees (8:24), to look a little deeper than what appears on the surface. Indeed, the whole gospel account is a gospel of salvation, expressed more in historic act than in teaching, and so it is to these acts that we must go if we are to understand the atonement in Mark.[4]

For Mark, the cross is certainly the climax of the narrative, with everything preceding it working towards this all-important event. Narrative analyses of Mark have sought to understand the function of the cross within the narrative as a whole. As some scholars have observed, when we consider Mark as one literary unit, three key moments of revelation come to the fore; three moments of revelation aimed at unveiling just who this man Jesus is and what his death meant.[5]

Upon a closer inspection, it becomes evident that Mark’s entire presentation evidences the commonly perceived ‘Markan sandwich’. It’s an interpolation that is essentially apocalyptic, though artistically woven together.[6] Working backwards in this interpolation, the third and final key revelatory event—and certainly the climax—is the ironic proclamation that in his death Jesus is said to be ‘the Son of God’ (15:39). And if this was not ironic enough, these words come to us from the lips of a pagan.

But, the identification of Christ’s divine identity at the moment of the crucifixion calls us to consider the initial point of contact of a similar revelation: Christ’s baptism (1:10). In both instances, Christ undergoes two symbolic acts that identify him with those under sin-imposed exile, with the baptism foreshadowing the cross, the precise point of his being forsaken and cut off by God.[7] These two events thus serve as the bookends to the narrative, only the latter (15:39) is an escalation of the symbolism represented in the first: Christ, in his death, not only identifies with the godforsaken but is actually himself forsaken by God for sin.

Additionally, for what seems to be an emphasis of Mark, in both these events God’s presence is uniquely highlighted. First, as breaking through the heavens and coming to rest on Jesus at his baptism.[8] The allusion to Isaiah 64:1 here is inescapable. In context, Isaiah speaks of the “rending of the heavens and the descent of the Messiah.”[9] Secondly, the presence of God is dramatically depicted as vacating the temple in the tearing of the curtain veil in response to the murder of his Son.[10] Whatever happened at the cross has, for Mark, a divine-revelation component inherently built in, and thus has both cosmic[11] and theological consequences.[12]

If these two god-revealing events serve as the bookends, then what exactly does Mark insert in between? As Richard Bauckham has suggested, the two bookended events serve to frame and qualify another moment of the divine identity being revealed: the unveiling of the glory of the Son of God at the transfiguration (9:2).

It is here that Jesus speaks of the coming kingdom, which of course is a recurring refrain heard on a few occasions prior to this mountain top experience (1:15; 4:11; 26–30). It seems that the baptism and cry of desolation on the cross work to qualify the nature of the coming kingdom in and through the Son of God (8:38–9:1). This is because for Mark the overarching purpose of the cross, of Christ’s atonement, is the ushering in of the kingdom of God. It is that which was predicted, or “as it was written” (9:12; 14:21): the death of the one on behalf of the many (10:45) will be the key act in which judgment for sin, i.e., ‘exile’ is assumed.

For God’s saving reign to presence itself on enemy territory will take nothing less than the tearing open of both the heavens (1:10) and the old forms of religiously imposed barriers that provoked exile (15:34).[13] Now, at last, and as expected, God’s saving rule is here to take its residence on earth as it is in heaven. With the judgment for exile dead and buried, quite literally, the divine presence is revealed and restored—seen, even if ironically—by pagan watchmen (15:39). God’s new covenant is ratified (14:24), and creation itself is reinstalled to its initial purposes.[14] In Christ’s cross, God has “done all things well” (7:37).

The Cross as God’s Decisive Yet Subversive Act

Having briefly surveyed the Markan structure as a whole, we’ve been able to glimpse the big picture of Mark’s view of the cross. Ironically, the cross is the revelation of the divine identity of the Son of God, the moment in time in which God’s promise to rend (schizō, 1:10; 15:38) the heavens and usher in his saving reign on earth begin to materialize.

Mark’s presentation is, as many have observed, allusive and suggestive. His reliance on the Old Testament Scriptures in particular attests to this.[15] But, as with any artistry, Mark offers us much more for those who have eyes to see (8:23). As such, the rest of this essay will seek to explicate in finer detail the particulars, showing how the many threads of Mark’s Gospel are tied to one another, confirming the proposed shape of the cross as God’s decisive yet subversive saving action in which the Kingdom of God invades a hostile world overrun by Satan, sin and death.

Upon a cursory reading of Mark’s Gospel, the first of these finer details surfaces: the cross of Christ is inherently part of the divine plan—an expected, decisive act—yet, as we will see, it is inherently a subversive act.

The Beginning of the Gospel (Mark 1:1–2:17)

Despite Mark’s allusive account, the reality that the cross is a divine necessity, part of a predetermined plan, stands out clearly. Right from the get go, Mark informs us that what follows in his account is nothing less than the beginning of the fulfillment of ancient promises.[16]

Isaiah, Malachi and even Exodus are alluded to in the opening scenes of Mark’s Gospel (1:1–3). Scenes of Israel’s past flash before our eyes: the wilderness, water crossings, temptations, and an encounter with the accuser. With the Scriptural connections established in 1:2–3, Mark implies that all things are proceeding according to plan.

It is not long, however, before the usual expectations of Israel’s Scriptures are turned somewhat on their head, subverted even. If “the way” (1:2–3, a reference to Mal. 3:1-3) is being prepared for the Lord’s coming eschatological presence, then Jesus’ ministry aspirations and points of conflict are somewhat puzzling. As expected (Isa. 61:1–4) the demonic, those with deathly diseases, and deadly natural elements are all tamed under Jesus’ feet. But so too are the religious leaders’ concern for their traditions and practices: Jesus possesses an authority in teaching that overpowers and tames the teaching of the day (1:22, 27). Jesus runs into increasing conflict in the early chapters of Mark not with Rome, but, quite shockingly, with the Pharisees and Scribes (2:7, 16, 24; 3:2). In fact, they plot to end his life (3:6) even though Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath (2:28), able to forgive sins (2:10), healer of both disease and demonic oppression (1:34; 1:27), as well as the bridegroom of the people of God (2:20).

The Bridegroom (Mark 2:18–20)

It is in this last reference that we are introduced to the very first allusion to the death of Christ, and it confirms both of our present concerns: the cross is both part of the divine plan and yet it is so subversively.

Jesus prefaces this parable of the bridegroom (2:19–22) with the all too familiar words that recall Old Testament expectations, “days are coming” (2:20). In doing so Jesus revives Old Testament hopes of the last days, the days in which God would act decisively and redemptively. More specifically, the image of God as the bridegroom to his people Israel is called to mind (cf. Isa. 50:1; 54:5; 62:4; Jer. 2:2, 32; 3:1, 14; 31:32; Ezek. 16:8).[17] Collectively, the imagery of the bridegroom, new wine and feasting, speak of the eschaton, the dawning of a new creation as per Amos 9:13–14. All things are finally proceeding according to the divine plan of old.[18]

Yet, Jesus alerts his listeners that there will in fact come a time in which fasting will be appropriate, though it is not the time now. According to Jesus, the coming dawn of God’s new creation strangely includes the bridegroom being unexpectedly “taken away” (2:20). One cannot assume things will move along as expected; the life of the bridegroom will come to an abrupt end, ushering in a time of appropriate fasting. The divine plan includes this subversive turn of events.[19] The confluence of the revelation of God in Christ and the cross, his being “taken away” is initially mystifying here in 2:20.

The Passion Predictions (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34)

However Jesus does provide a clearer, more plain opportunity for readers to comprehend this enigmatic data. The three passion predictions stand out as obvious examples of Jesus’ impending death (8:31; 9:31; 10:34).

The first of the three is particularly clear in disclosing the divine necessity of the cross. Following Peter’s famous confession of Jesus as the “Christ” in 8:29, Jesus in plain, though shocking language, takes it upon himself to teach the disciples that “the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed” (8:31). The word “must” (dei) here stresses the divine necessity behind Jesus’ journey to the cross. As William Lane observes, ‘must’ “points to the overruling purpose of God.”[20]

Quite naturally the question must be asked: what overruling purpose would see the Son of Man undergoing suffering?[21] Readers and scholars of Mark have long seen the obvious connections to Isaiah’s ‘Servant of the Lord’ (52:12–53:12), which will be looked at under the next heading.

However, another more indirect connection might be seen in Jesus’ reference to the “Son of Man” (8:31). No sooner than Jesus accepts the title ‘Messiah’ does he begin to turn its meaning on its head by invoking this Danielic figure (7:13–14).[22] Whilst Jesus connects the authoritative Son of Man with messianic hopes, the “must”—the divine plan—is set on subverting these very national hopes: the powerful Son of Man figure “must suffer many things” (8:31; 9:31).

But where is suffering to be seen in this Danielic text? Scholars suggest that it is only when we see the Son of Man and the “saints of the Most High” as inextricably linked that we see suffering in stall for the Son of Man.[23] In Daniel’s vision (7:2–14) the two entities are spoken of almost interchangeably, with the Son of Man in a sense representing the saints of the Most High. In Dan. 7:14 the Son of Man appears before the Ancient of Days and receives an everlasting dominion, even though in 7:27 the saints are said to be given this same kingdom, though only after a time of intense suffering (7:25). Both N. T. Wright and G. K. Beale note the Old Testament’s anticipation of a period of distress and affliction that must precede the eschatological salvation. Similar ideas appear elsewhere in the Old Testament (see Hos. 13:12–13; Ezek. 38:20; Hos. 4:3; Zeph. 1:3; Dan. 12:1).

Put simply, the Son of Man, representing the “saints of the Most High”, must go through a time of trial and affliction before receiving the kingdom.[24] As the representative of his people, summing them up in himself (in quite the same way various pagan kings represent the beasts in Daniel’s vision), Mark, in corresponding Danielic fashion, describes this Son of Man figure as undergoing the very suffering that lies in stall for the saints of the Most High. It is only on the basis of the Son of Man’s suffering, then, that the kingdom can be received.[25]

Simon J. Gathercole, in particular, has observed some striking verbal parallels between the experience of the Markan Son of Man and the Danielic saints, which confirms this understanding.[26] In Daniel 7, the destiny of the saints entails their being “given into the hand(s) of” the fourth beast (Dan. 7:25), which parallels at least three other key atonement texts in Mark, as the table below demonstrates:

Daniel 7:25 Mark 9:31 Mark 10:33 Mark 14:41
He shall speak words against the Most High,
    and shall wear out the saints of the Most High,
    and shall think to change the times and the law;
and they shall be given into his hand
    for a time, times, and half a time.  

for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.”

The Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles.
And he came the third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? It is enough; the hour has come. The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.  

In each Markan text above, Jesus again stresses the overruling divine plan: the cross is the end of the Son of Man’s earthly pilgrim, that is, before he is raised from the dead.

Thus the necessity of the Son of Man’s suffering and ultimate death (as depicted in Mark) lies in his work of standing and acting as the representative of the saints of the Most High. The cross is both the decisive and subversive act of God.

The Parable of the Tenants (Mark 12:1–10)

One more text that speaks of the divine intention behind the cross is Mark 12:10, where we find a direct quotation from Psalm 119:22.

The parable of the tenants is possibly one of Jesus’ most subversive messages for his listeners since he issues a final word of judgment to those who have rejected his authoritative ministry. Just as Yahweh had found in Saul a disobedient son (1 Kings 15:28), so Christ finds Israel and her religious leaders as failing to produce fruit for the Lord. It’s upon this failure of faithfulness that ironically provides the religious leaders with the impetus to put the heir, the “beloved son” (again, echoing the divine identity at Jesus’ baptism) (12:6) to death. In a stunning turnaround, the one rejected becomes the cornerstone of a new work, no doubt, a work in which faithfulness will now be realized.

Without a doubt, the scribes and Pharisees never thought that the content of Ps. 119:22 could be applied to them. They were, after all, seeking to usher in the kingdom of God themselves. That being said, Jesus’ own rhetorical question, “Have you not read?” (12:10) alerts us to both the divine necessity and subversive nature of the cross: the death of the heir is the result of his rejection at the hands of the tenants, whilst at the same time it is the event in which the tenants are replaced by faithful servants who will successfully do the Lord’s bidding.

Despite the unmasking of future events, all proceeds “as it was written.” (14:21) The cross “must” (8:31) happen in order for God’s purposes to be achieved, for the kingdom to be given, for fruit to be amassed, for the marriage of God to his people. And all of it is fundamentally “his doing” (12:11).

This looming death, as we have briefly seen, is inherently subversive and unexpected, requiring a careful consolidation of various Old Testament texts in order to discern its meaning and purpose.

Having seen that the cross is both part of the overruling plan, albeit subverting messianic and eschatological hopes, we now turn our attention to exactly why this action was necessary. For this we must look to Mark 10:45 and other texts to see what further light can be shed on that which is “marvelous in our eyes” (12:11).

The Cross as God’s Saving Action

As already mentioned, Mark’s gospel is structured around an interpolation of three key events that reveal the divine identity of Jesus as the Son of God. The baptism (1:11) and the godforsaken cry (15:38) hem in the divine glory as revealed in his transfiguration (9:2). Jesus’ journey to the cross is both decisive, as part of a culminating and predicted event, and deeply subversive, redefining the long-expected Messiah—he has come to suffer.

It is the argument of this essay that these three events ought to be mutually interpreted, with the baptism and cry of desolation informing and redefining the glory as beheld from the mount. Up till this point, we are left with the necessity of Jesus dying according to plan: it’s a subversive act, one in which, strangely, the divine identity of the Son is revealed in his godforsaken death.

The question at hand however is that of impetus, the actual reason behind such a death: why is it necessary? Why did he need to be forsaken and identify with the consequences of the sin-imposed exile of God’s people?

It is in considering these questions that the essential heart of the cross is seen. The cross is not only the decisive and subversive action of God, but is also his saving action, in which one suffers the full wages of exile—namely God’s wrath and judgment—on behalf of those in exile, so that God’s reign might be established amidst a world held under by the power of sin.

A Ransom for Many (Mark 10:32–45)

Why was the death of Christ necessary? Typically readers of Mark will look for an answer in 10:32–45, and rightly so. Verse 45 is in many ways the key verse in understanding the theology of the cross in Mark.[27]

But before we look at the third and final passion prediction, we need to establish some context from the surrounding narrative. Jesus is now set on heading toward “Jerusalem” (10:32), the place where, for the first time, Jesus predicts his sufferings will be realized. The expected confluence of the messianic and Son of Man’s exaltation will be turned on its head in the royal city itself.[28]

The disciples’ blindness is paradigmatic for all disciples: they must gradually learn on “the way” that suffering precedes glory. The famous words of 10:45 are framed by the childish request of James and John to sit at his right hand in glory. Perhaps for them, the pair ‘Messiah’ and ‘Jerusalem’ can only mean one thing: glory. Jesus is gracious as ever and takes yet another opportunity to expand on his looming fate: the suffering that awaits the Christ in Jerusalem is characterized by two vivid Old Testament images: that of a cup and a baptism (10:39). The twins are quite mistaken. Glory must be preceded by wrath.

The Cup of God’s Wrath. Christ’s reference to the “cup” (10:38; 14:24) suggests that the cross has the judgment of God in view. Scholars have long noticed the references to God’s wrath being poured out on sin in the images of the cup and baptism. The cup of God’s wrath appears in several OT texts (Ps. 11:6; 16:5; 75:8; Isa. 51:17–23; Jer. 25:15–28; 49:12; Zech. 12:2–3; Lam. 4:21; Hab. 2:15–16.)[29]

An obvious connection within Mark is made to the last Passover meal in 14:22–25, where Jesus refers to the cup as containing the “blood of the covenant” (14:24). Allusions of the exodus, the Passover lamb, and deliverance from pagan powers abound. This cup is one that he must drink before the glory of the kingdom can be realized.[30]

One learns that the suffering the Son of Man must face at the hands of Jewish authorities, entails the swallowing up of God’s wrath. It is here that the parable of the tenants in 12:1–12 is confirmed. In a strange and subversive series of events, the rejection and killing of the true heir becomes the pathway for a new marvelous work; a work, no doubt, in which the will of the master will finally prosper (cf. Isa. 53:10). Indeed, Isaianic reflections are manifold, since the prophet predicted a time when Israel would exhaust the dregs of God’s wrath (51:17),

Wake yourself, wake yourself,
    stand up, O Jerusalem,
you who have drunk from the hand of the Lord
    the cup of his wrath,
who have drunk to the dregs
    the bowl, the cup of staggering.

If one is wondering how and when Israel will face such a fate, Isaiah points us to the answer in the following chapter: the servant’s death on behalf of Israel.[31] The servant is “smitten by God and afflicted” (53:4); “pierced for our transgressions…crushed for our iniquities” (v. 5); “the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (v. 6); “his soul makes an offering for guilt” (v. 10); since “he bore the sin of the many” (v. 12). It is thus in the rejection of the Son and heir that the Lord’s wrath is meted out. It is this “cup” that Christ speaks of to the Zebedee brothers.

The Baptism of Judgment. Jesus’ reference to a “baptism” further spells a sense of judgment wrapped up in the cross. “Baptism,” like the “cup” is similarly used to depict being overwhelmed by disaster or danger, demonstrated most vividly by the Genesis deluge (see 1 Pet. 3:18–22).[32]

In particular, Peter Bolt points out how Psalm 69 uses baptism language to indicate wrath and suffering: the psalmist’s drowning in the flood is used in parallel to his dying, the grave, and as experiencing the wrath of God (69:1–2; 14–15).[33] It seems that for Jesus the journey to Jerusalem provides this intersection of the cup and baptism of God’s wrath, as undergoing judgment.

The Son of Man Will Be Delivered Over. Additionally, scholars have observed the Son of Man being “delivered” (ESV) or ‘handed over’ (NRSV) into the hands of his enemies (9:31; 10:33) as indicative of being rejected by God.

The language of ‘delivering over’ is not merely descriptive of the events yet to take place, but rather is laden with Old Testament allusions that speak of facing the judgment of God, of exile.[34] Leviticus 26:25 and 2 Kings 17:39–40 show that the language of being delivered to the enemy was language of covenant retribution.[35] As Bolt confirms, when God is the one handing people over, the expression has overtones of divine judgment and of God’s wrath (Ezek. 39:23; Judg. 2:14; Ps. 78; Rom. 1:18).[36]

This would mean that Mark envisions Jesus’ sufferings as the result of covenantal unfaithfulness. God is ultimately behind this handing over, since it is according to the divine plan, but “human hands are instruments of his judgment, his wrath”.[37]

Again, Isaiah’s suffering servant further clarifies this point. Isaiah 53:6, speaks of the Lord’s handing over the servant ‘for the sake of our sins’ (tais hamartiais hēmōn). His sufferings, the judgment he faces, and his being handed over in death, is for the sake of others.[38] The great period of wrath that Israel had anticipated begins to take form bodily in the person of the servant who will suffer the judgment and wrath of God before the kingdom can be actualized. Having established a little bit of Mark’s allusive yet rich intertextuality we are now ready to look at Mark’s words in 10:45.

To Give His Life as a Ransom. In Mark, the story of the cross is the story of the Son of Man giving up his life in the place of others. Framed by Jesus’ teaching on leadership (10:40-45), the Son of Man, in all his attended glory and authority, is said not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (10:45).

Much ink has been spilt in trying to describe the “ransom” in view here. Broadly speaking the word “ransom” (lytron) was typically used in classical literature to communicate the price of redemption from captivity. It conveys the idea of ‘life for life’.[39] Even the word “life” (psychēn) calls us to consider Old Testament echoes that further substantiate the idea of an exchange being in view.[40]

Two important language connections are key to understanding the significance of the ransom. Firstly, in the Septuagint usage it is routinely used in connection with the freeing of slaves (Lev. 19:20; 25:51–52), and redeeming land (Lev. 25:26), both in the context of the year of Jubilee.[41] The regulations for the celebration of the year of Jubilee ran conterminous with the Day of Atonement (Lev. 25:9) and connoted the idea of the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation.

The second language connection to “ransom” is the exodus out of Egypt, when God redeemed Israel from slavery (Exod. 6:6). Again, Mark’s intertextuality, the many layers of Old Testament allusions and layers here emerge. Here is yet another allusion to Isaiah’s return from exile, who himself frames the return in redemptive terms.

In Mark, then, the idea of forgiveness of sins and the ushering in of end of the exile, converge in the Son of Man’s giving himself up for others. In obedience to the ancient prophetic vocation, Jesus will give his life as a ransom, in the place of the many. A new Passover presents itself, bringing an end to exile; but it will only be accomplished through the one taking the place of the many.[42] The Son of Man, as representative of the saints of the Most High, as the suffering servant, gives his life up in exchange, taking upon himself the affliction and cup of God’s wrath so that the last days can be ushered in, the day of God’s Jubilee, the new exodus in which slaves are freed and sins are forgiven.[43]

That this ransom is substitutionary in nature is further confirmed by the proposition “for” (anti). As Guthrie argues, given the context in view, this preposition must convey a stronger meaning, most probably ‘in the place of’, as opposed to ‘on behalf of’.[44]

At this point, however, we must ask the question: to whom is the ransom paid, and from what are the captives purchased? Scholars argue for the ransom as being vitally connected to the promised forgiveness of sins.[45] If Isaiah’s servant is in view here, then the ransom provided is the sins of the many borne by the Son of Man (Isa. 53:12). As Bolt and others note, this is sacrificial language; a penalty for sin is in view.[46] Sins, not necessarily in a narrow, individual sense, but sin as a descriptor of an age, of an era defined by unrighteousness and its companions, death and Satan—sin as the object of God’s judgment against covenantal failure. [47]

We can now make sense of the death Christ must face. The Son of Man goes as it was written of him: it so pleased the Father that the Son of Man, the Christ, would take the place of the many and offer himself up as an offering for sin.[48] If Israel will be delivered from her exile, then the forgiveness of sins must be dealt with, since it is sin that drove her there in the first place. It is Mark’s burden that the cross deals with precisely this matter. The Son of Man gives his life up as a ransom for sin and the merited judgment of God—this is what the captives are rescued from—and he does so by taking upon himself the cup of God’s wrath, the wrath that no doubt is directed at Israel’s iniquity, the very iniquity that had driven them into exile.[49] The transaction is between the Father and Christ and not Satan as some have argued.[50]

The cross of Christ is thus the decisive saving act in which God deals with sin through the place-taking sacrifice of Christ, rescuing and freeing captives from sin and judgment. Salvation is here.

The Blood of the Covenant Poured out for Many. Before looking at the crucifixion itself, one cannot neglect the words of Christ at the institution of the Lord’s Supper (14:22–25). From the breaking of the bread to the sharing of the cup, sacrificial, exclusive-place-taking is in view.

Of particular importance is Jesus’ words concerning the cup: “This is my blood, the blood of the covenant, that is poured out for many.” (14:24) (NET) Many recurring themes of Mark concerning the atonement converge here. The connection between blood and covenant is reminiscent of the sealing of the old covenant with sacrificial blood (Exod. 24), pointing to the fulfillment of the new covenant being instituted (Jer. 31:31–34). Our observations concerning the forgiveness of sins from other Markan texts are only confirmed since at the heart of the new covenant promise is the remission of sins. [51]

It should be noted that this single event is the clearest description we have from Christ himself that interprets the looming cross: his shed blood is “for many” (14:24), not merely in a representative way, but in a unique manner that would bring new covenant blessing to his people.[52]

The cross, in Christ’s own words, affected the forgiveness of sins, the end of exile. The arm of God’s salvation is revealed; the cross is God’s saving act.[53]

It is in Christ’s godforsakenness that God draws near to rebellious humanity.

The Crucifixion. We come now to the crucifixion itself (14:41–15:47). The entire journey to the cross is riddled with shadows of rejection and affliction—pointing to the vicarious death of the Son of Man.[54]

First, Jesus is faced with mocking, spitting, an in-just trial, deserted by his disciples, betrayed by one, and then, at the very climax of his sufferings, is forsaken by God.[55] We are to understand even the mockery as evidence of God’s rejection, as the one chosen to receive God’s wrath. Psalm 89 supports this: “But now you have cast off and rejected; you are full of wrath against your anointed.” (89:38)

Second, the being delivered up into the hands of the Gentiles has already been explained. [46]

Third, although Mark does not make the connection explicit, the apostle Paul does: the cross of wood itself stands as an emblem of God’s cursing (Gal. 3:13; Deut. 21:22–23).

Fourth, the darkness enveloping Jesus (15:33) brings back sharp images of the Passover and the exodus. Such is indicative of the judgment of God, of being under his curse of death that swept through the night, taking the life of the firstborn child (Exod. 12:29–32; also cf. Deut. 28:29; Job 5:14; Isa. 59:10).[57] In this light, Amos 8:9–10 is possibly in Mark’s view.

Fifth, and as briefly touched on earlier, the cry of dereliction marks Jesus’ identification with the godforsaken: Christ was treated like an enemy, as one under the judgment of God. It is here, in Christ’s godforsakenness that, ironically, God draws near to rebellious humanity.[58]

For the presence of God to once again reside with man, for exile to have run its course (Isa. 6:9–13), for sins to be forgiven, for humanity to be restored to God, for God’s salvation to be revealed, the divine Son of God must suffer many things, experience rejection, and be killed. Only to rise again to receive the kingdom. It is in this way that the cross of Christ is the decisive yet subversive and saving act of God.

Conclusion: The Cross of Christ as Inaugurating the Kingdom of God

Mark’s Gospel, as has been argued in this essay, orbits three key revelatory events in which the divine identity of Jesus is disclosed.

The tearing of the sky at his baptism speaks of God’s saving reign becoming a reality, though not without Jesus undergoing the waters of judgment (Mark 1:10–11).

The final cry of Christ and the ironic centurion’s confession that “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (15:39) (NET), at the precise point of his being forsaken by God, speaks of God’s saving reign being ushered in through the death that once and for all dealt with sin, and that does away with old religious forms.[59]

The third, central revelatory event left is that of the transfiguration, where the Son of Man is seen in all his glory (8:38).

But to what end? What ties all of this together? What connects the decisive, divine-necessity of the cross with its subversive and saving purposes? It is this: the cross functions as the precise junction in which the Kingdom of God invades a hostile world overrun by Satan, sin and death.

The true enemy, sin (and not Rome), must be dealt with in order for God’s saving reign to tear into a world under the spell of unrighteousness and death. This was the kerygma of Jesus, that “the kingdom of God is here,” that all people were to “repent and believe in the Gospel.” (1:15) Thus, the promise of salvation for the people of God goes hand in hand with the promise of the coming Kingdom (cf. Isa. 52:7).[60] As Scott Hafemann states,

God’s sovereign power and presence was now invading the world to deliver his people from the oppression of sin and evil which plagued them ever since the Fall in the Garden of Eden.[61]

The cross in Mark, then, presents the decisive yet subversive action that marks the coming of the Son of Man to the ancient of Days (Dan. 7:13–14), who, having undergone a time of affliction and rejection for sin, now ushers in God’s saving reign, binding the strong man (Mark 3:27), and triumphing over our greatest enemies; enemies that no amount of religion or tradition could pacify: Satan, sin and death.

[1]Donald Guthrie, New Testament Theology (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1981), 436.

[2]I was helped to arrive at this precise wording from correspondence with a friend and seminary student, Neil Kruger (May 16th 2019).

[3]Richard B. Hays, Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (London, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2015), 17.

[4]Guthrie, New Testament Theology, 436–437.

[5]Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 262; Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 38–39.

[6]See N. T. Wright who argues that Mark is an apocalypse, especially in these key revelatory events. N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God. Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 1 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1992), 390–396.

[7]William L. Lane sees a parallel with Jesus’ baptism and the first Exodus in which “God could not come down until the people had been consecrated (Exod. 19:10).” William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark. The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 56. This implicitly confirms Jesus’ identification with those under sin-imposed exile.

[8]I would agree with Thomas R. Schreiner that Mark’s intention here is to communicate Jesus’ anointing for ministry. Thomas R. Schreiner, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 437. This is also in line with R. T. France who asserts that the Old Testament expectation centered on a messianic figure who would be endowed with God’s Spirit (Isa. 11:2; 42:1; 61:1). R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark. The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 77.

[9]James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark. The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 37. See France, who suggests that the opening of heaven is a recurrent theme in biblical and other literature to indicate a vision which reaches beyond the earthly dimension. France, The Gospel of Mark, 77.

[10]See Leroy A. Huizenga, Loosing the Lion: Proclaiming the Gospel of Mark (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2017), 294.

[11]‘Cosmic’ in the sense that one of the curtains that Mark could be referring to was arrayed with scenes of earth, the sea, and the heavens, typifying, in the words of Josephus, “the universe” and “a panorama of the heavens” (quoted in Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, 478–79). I am in agreement with Edwards that the curtain in view would have been this initial curtain and not the one veiling the Holy of holies, since the latter could not have been witnessed by Gentile onlookers. See also Lane, The Gospel of Mark, 575, who is in agreement.

[12]Edwards is in agreement. Both events “are supernatural occurrences revealing Jesus as the Son of God.” Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, 36. Again, Edwards asserts: “the death of the suffering Son of God is not a tragic end but an event of divine fulfillment and revelation.” Ibid., 477.

[13]Lane states, “Jesus’ death and the destruction of the formal structures of Judaism are inseparably bound together.” Lane, The Gospel of Mark, 575.

[14]N. T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’ Crucifixion (London: HarperOne, 2016), 222.

[15]Hays writes, “Many of the key images in this mysterious narrative are drawn from Israel’s Scriptures; indeed, a reader who fails to discern the significance of these images can hardly grasp Mark’s message…Mark’s way of drawing upon Scripture, like his narrative style more generally, is indirect and allusive.” Hays, Reading Backwards, 17.

[16]On this point, Lane notes, “There can be no proper grasp of Mark’s theology apart from a recovery of the texts of Scripture to which reference is made.” Lane, The Gospel of Mark, 303.

[17]See Peter G. Bolt, The Cross from a Distance: Atonement in Mark’s Gospel. New Studies in Biblical Theology. Edited by D. A. Carson (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004), 43.

[18]See Schreiner, New Testament Theology, 619.

[19] It is worth noting that this parable also speaks to my initial suggestion that Mark is concerned about the divine identity of the man Jesus. Edwards in particular show that Jesus’ claim to be Israel’s bridegroom is a designation foreign to messianic expectations, and is instead exclusively reserved for the person of God himself. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, 90.

[20]Lane, The Gospel of Mark, 301. See also Bolt who says that this ‘must’ (dei) is often labeled the ‘divine necessity’…according to the divine plan, the divine will.”Bolt, The Cross from a Distance, 49. Guthrie qualifies this and warns of reading the dei as fatalistic. Guthrie, New Testament Theology, 438.

[21]Guthrie notes, “Of all the titles appearing in the synoptic gospels ‘Son of man’ is both the most significant and the most enigmatic.” Ibid., New Testament Theology, 270.

[22]Scholars are in general agreement that Jesus preferred the Son of Man title since the Messianic badge carried obvious religio-political expectations, expectations Jesus probably wanted to avoid given the turbulent context of his day. ‘Son of Man’, on the other hand, allowed Jesus to go about his work under ambiguous guise. See Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, 249. Wright, in surveying the Old Testament and 2nd Temple Judaism makes several insightful, albeit tentative, conclusions concerning expectations around the ‘messiah’: 1) expectation was focused primarily on the nation…texts which might be thought to speak of a Messiah are referred to the whole community; 2) the main task of the Messiah…is the liberation of Israel, and her reinstatement as the true people of the creator god…It will also involve action in relation to the Jerusalem Temple, which must be cleansed and/or restored and/or rebuilt; 3) he will be the agent of Israel’s god; 4) nor is the case that the Messiah was expected to suffer. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 319–20.

[23]G. K. Beale asserts, “the interpretative section refers to the Son of Man as the faithful nation Israel, presumably because he as the individual king of Israel representatively sums up the people in himself.” G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 193. Also Simon J. Gathercole, “The Son of Man endures the projected suffering of the Saints of the Most High. The ‘one like a son of man’ stands in Daniel 7 as heavenly representative of the saints of the Most High.” Simon J. Gathercole, “The Son of Man in Mark’s Gospel.” The Expository Times 115, No. 11 (August 2004), 370.

[24]“If representational identification is granted at all between the Son of Man and saints, then the idea of suffering for the Son of Man must be allowed as viable in Dan. 7.” Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, 398; 194.

[25]See Beale, New Testament Biblical Theology, 194. Also Wright, The New Testament and the People of God,277–8.

[26]Gathercole, “The Son of Man in Mark’s Gospel,” 370.

[27]See Witherington, The Gospel of Mark, 288.

[28]Beale notes the apparent “ironic development” of the Daniel 7:14 prophesy in Mark 10:45. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, 196.

[29]See Witherington, The Gospel of Mark, 287; Huizenga, Loosing the Lion, 230n28.

[30]Wright notes, “He also has a “cup” to drink, an allusion to the vocation, which comes into sharp focus in the later scene in the Garden of Gethsemane (14:36); he must drain to the dregs the “cup of the wrath of God” so that his people won’t have to drink it (see particularly Jer. 25: 15–17; 49: 12; 5: 7; Lam. 4: 21). Wright, The Day the Revolution Began, 221.

[31]See Bolt, The Cross from a Distance, 67.

[32]Witherington writes, “Clearly water is an image of calamity or disaster in the OT (Ps. 42:7; Isa. 43:2). In any case, the images are images of suffering and death.” Witherington, The Gospel of Mark,287; Bolt, The Cross from a Distance,67.

[33]Bolt argues for some profound intertextuality between Psalm 69 and the Markan crucifixion that exceeds the limits of this study. Ibid., 68–69.

[34]This is further backed up by Beale’s insistence that Isa. 40–66 describes Israel’s exile as an expression of divine wrath. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology,533.

[35]See Lane, The Gospel of Mark, 463.

[36]Bolt, The Cross from a Distance, 53.

[37]Bolt summarizes this final passion prediction helpfully, “In this final passion prediction, Jesus states that he will be handed over to the nations. This is tantamount to being delivered over to the wrath of God. Just as Israel was once delivered over to the nations, under the wrath of God, so the Son of Man, the suffering servant, the Christ, will be handed over into the hands of the nations by Israel’s leaders.” Ibid, 58. See also ibid., 54, 56–58.

[38]Ibid., 52–53.

[39]Ibid., 71. See also Witherington, “‘Ransom’…refers to the deliverance by purchase.” Witherington, The Gospel of Mark, 290; Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, 485; George Smeaton, Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement (Edinburgh, Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), 194–195; also Guthrie, “the root notion in the saying is…one of deliverance.” Guthrie, New Testament Theology,440.

[40]Smeaton understands the blood to communicate ‘life,’ especially in connection with Lev. 17:11: “whenever the blood was offered, it was understood that the soul of the sacrifice was meant to stand for that of the offerer.” Smeaton, Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement, 193. Smeaton also argues that the idea of sacrifice passes over into that of a ransom. Ibid., 194.

[41]See Bolt, The Cross from a Distance, 71.

[42]Wright, The Day the Revolution Began, 222; also John Calvin, “his life is the price of our redemption.” John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries. Vol. XVI (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1979), 427; and Smeaton who says that this passage is “descriptive of Christ’s death as the price or purchase of redemption.” Smeaton, Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement,190.

[43]Witherington notes how God’s redemptive work for Israel is consistently described in terms of a ‘ransom(lytron)in Isaiah (35:9; 41:14; 43:1, 14; 44:22–24; 52:3; 62:12; 63:9). Witherington, The Gospel of Mark, 288.

[44]Guthrie, New Testament Theology, 441.

[45]See Bolt, The Cross from a Distance, 73, who insists the meaning of sins here is the consequences of sin as opposed to the activity of sinning. It’s hard to account for the wealth of Old Testament texts that speak to this promised forgiveness of sins. Isaiah 33:24; 40:2; Jer. 31:34; 33:8; 36:3; 50:20; and Ezek. 36:22–29 certainly lie at the forefront.

[46]Bolt, The Cross from a Distance, 74; also Witherington who carefully points out that in view of the Exodus 13:13–16 it is certainly wrong to suggest that substitutionary sacrifice is a later idea that could not stand in the background of the material of both Isaiah and Mark 10:45. Witherington, The Gospel of Mark, 288.

[47]On this point, Bolt labors the decisiveness of the coming cross and how it does away with an era that lives under the shadow of death. Bolt, The Cross from a Distance, 46–47, 75. See also Wright who states, “If Israel’s god was to deliver his people from exile, it could only be because he had somehow dealt with the problem which had caused her to be there in the first place, namely her sin.” Wright, The New Testament and the People of God,272.

[48]Smeaton observes, “He came into the world to act on the behalf of captive, with the definite purpose of dying for the redemption of sinners.” Smeaton, Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement,192.

[49]As Beale argues, “Jesus’ predictions of his suffering and death are understood to be the means by which the Isaianic new-exodus restoration will be carried out…the messianic Servant Israel would be the key agent under God’s hand in executing the new exodus by his redemptive death.” Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology,698.

[50]Guthrie surveys Origen’s view that the ransom was paid to Satan and finds it wanting: “There is no suggestion anywhere that Christ bargained with the devil.” Guthrie, New Testament Theology, 441. See also Stephen J. Wellum who also offers a critique of Origen’s view, arguing that this view “mistakes Satan for God as the one who requires a payment.” Stephen J. Wellum, Christ Alone: The Uniqueness of Jesus as Savior. The 5 Solas Series. Edited by Matthew Barrett (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 164.

[51]So Smeaton, the “remission of sins is the effect, and…the blood of Christ is the cause.” Smeaton, Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement, 213.

[52]See Guthrie, New Testament Theology, 444; also Smeaton, “Christ gave Himself for the disciples, with the ulterior purpose or design that they might be taken into a new covenant relation and be God’s peculiar people” Smeaton, Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement,210.

[53]See Huizenga, who sees the eschatological exodus in view of the synthesis of Christ’s blood, the Passover, and the new covenant institution. Huizenga, Loosing the Lion, 231.

[54]Bauckham observes, “Mark’s presentation of the death of Jesus is remarkable for the exclusiveness with which it focuses on Jesus’ godforsakenness. In the whole passion narrative, from the Last Supper onwards, there is a crescendo of forsakenness that prepares for this presentation of Jesus’ death.” Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel, 266.

[55]Bolt’s survey of the mocking Jesus experienced is indicative of one who is considered as sinful. The Psalms again and again refer to the spurned, the rejected, scorned, and despised (Ps. 89:38–41; 22:6–8; 69:19–20). In this, we are also to see Mark’s cross as embracing the expectation of Isaiah’s suffering servant who, too, was on the receiving end of insult (Isa. 50:6). Bolt, The Cross from a Distance,123–4.

[56]Witherington notes, “They would only hand the worst of their race over to the despised Romans.” Witherington, The Gospel of Mark, 286.

[57]See Bolt, The Cross from a Distance,126.

[58]Bolt, The Cross from a Distance, 173.

[59]See Nicholas Perrin, “Mark sees the removal of the temple not as an end unto itself but rather as the requisite transition toward a new sacred space, constituted through Jesus’ death and resurrection.” Nicholas Perrin, “Jesus as Priest in the Gospels.” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 22, No. 2 (2018): 82.

[60]See Brian J. Vickers, “Mark’s Good News of the Kingdom of God.” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 8, No. 3 (2004), 14; also Thomas R. Schreiner, The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 456.

[61]Scott Hafemann as quoted by Vickers, “Mark’s Good News of the Kingdom of God,” 16.


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