October 22, 2020

The Jesus Disconnect (2): How does the ministry of Jesus fit into our consideration of Jesus?

UPDATE: In the latter part of this IM essay, I deal with some of this issue.

I am continuing an extended series on how and why so many Christians are disconnected from Jesus as he is revealed in the Gospels. We began here.

How does the ministry of Jesus fit into our consideration of Jesus?

In 1982, I returned to seminary and took a job as youth minister at a church near the seminary. Because of some of my studies in seminary that semester, and because of something I heard Dr. John Piper say in a sermon, I determined to make the Gospel According to St. Mark a major life’s project.

At the time, 27 years ago, it seemed like many other resolutions that I made but probably wouldn’t keep. Surprisingly, I have kept that resolution, much to the chagrin of all those around me who have come to hear far more sermons, lessons and talks from Mark than any other Gospel, and especially to the regret of my Bible students, who have come to view my annual trek through Mark as the great mountain to be climbed in my Bible survey class.

This began with seeds planted by Dr. G.R. Beasley-Murray’s introduction to the New Testament, and Dr. David Garland’s class on the Gospels. It continued in my own studies of the New Testament and building an extensive library on Jesus studies, particularly regarding the literary aspects of the Gospel of Mark.

In my ministry, this turned into something I love to do: cover the entire Gospel of Mark in the setting of a retreat or 3 sessions. A large part of this is asking everyone to read Mark and then, working with a group, graphically present the Gospel of Mark.

I’ve now led studies of the Gospel of Mark dozens and dozens of times. I go through the book 3-4 times a year with my students, and have done so for 15 years. I’ve concentrated on Mark in my preaching and teaching. I can be annoying about my interest in Mark, but I hope it’s been helpful to my students and congregations.

This was in real contrast to my own church experience. The Gospels were never addressed as texts other than to say “The Bible says” or to preach from various verse combinations. I had almost no idea that four books of the Bible were devoted to an in-depth presentation of Jesus. Obviously we sang about, taught about and preached about Jesus, but little of this was rooted in the Gospels. Most of what we believed and preached were expansions and exaggerations based on Paul.

I believe Paul accurately (and in an inspired way) taught the same Christ and the same message that the Gospels present. (Many of his writings were, in fact, before the Gospels.) But I believe the Gospels have a specific intention in regard to Jesus himself, and especially his ministry, that Paul does not have. Thinking and living Biblically requires an appropriation of the Gospels and their specific content.

It is immediately apparent that almost no one has any idea that the Gospels have structure, and that this structure is a major part of the author’s way of telling the story. A few hours of time with Mark under the guidance of anyone who knows the terrain will reveal the following facts.

a) The Gospel has two halves.

b) Most of the miracles, healings, Kingdom teaching, parables, exorcisms and initial discipleship material is in the first half of the book.

c) This first half has only the slightest of foreshadowed interest in the coming passion of Jesus.

d) The first half occurs in the Galilean context, which is both Jewish and multi-cultural.

e) This first half is dominated by the question “Who is Jesus?” This is asked in the context of Messianic expectation.

f) This question is asked and answered multiple times and ways. It is unmistakable.

g) Jesus’ response to clear identifications of him in the first half of the Gospel are downplayed, including the “Mark’s Secret” material, where Jesus discourages actions that would reveal him to be a miracle-working messiah.

h) The first half of Mark abruptly comes to a conclusion in the middle of chapter 8, as the disciples correctly identify Jesus and he begins repeatedly and plainly speaking of his upcoming passion.

It is obvious that the author of Mark has arranged the material in the Gospel so that a correct identification of Jesus in the context of his works is the critical aspect of the first half of the Gospel, but that this identification is not “true” until the passion/cross/resurrection is experienced.

While Matthew and Luke have more material and a more complex arrangement, this basic outline (minus Mark’s secret) holds true for both of those Gospels as well. The material in the Gospel of John is quite different, but also holds to the idea that Jesus himself revealed his full purpose in stages, leading directly to the cross, resurrection, Pentecost and beyond.

Without an appreciation of this structure, Christians typically see the first half of the ministry of Jesus as a collection of stories and teaching with no real relationship to one another. Preachers have, for centuries, used these miracles, parables, exorcisms, etc. as their playground, hanging onto these texts whatever they wanted the texts to say or mean.

The lesson here is that the first part of Jesus ministry was purposeful. Its purpose was to “connect” Jesus to those who heard and followed him. Jesus is “on display” in the first part of his ministry in a different way than in his passion, but in a way that is crucial for Christians today to understand, imitate and include as they present the full, Biblical message about Jesus and the Gospel.

In the next post, I will discuss Matthew and Luke, and the discipleship material that precedes the passion accounts in all three.

This will build for us the following picture of the three primary purposes of the ministry of Jesus:

1) Miracles, exorcisms and signs that reveal the presence of the Kingdom by way of the presence of God the Son in history.

2) Kingdom teaching on the nature of the presence of God in history and the role played by Jesus in that Kingdom.

3) Preparation and formation of faithful disciples of Jesus who serve the King in the Kingdom and in history.


  1. I’ve always been a Matthew guy myself, but just this year after teaching New Testament(we focus on Luke but I was doing quite a bit of cross referencing), I became enamored of Mark and wanted to know more.

    If you have more to come on this, I’m eager to hear it.

    I remember when my own mind and spirt shifted from an almost exclusive consideration of Jesus’ teachings to a view of the Lord that included his actions not only as the context for those teachings but as significant in and of themselves.

    It was huge.

  2. Is this kind of what Dallas Willard has been saying/advocating all along?

  3. sue kephart says

    Those of us that come out of a liturgical tradition are in cycle B. Which means the Gospel of Mark, Matthew being A and Luke being C with John being interspursed. So most of our readings and preaching are from your favorite Mark. I say this as we have been hearing Mark since Advent (begins four Sundays before Christmas).Although during this Easter session (from Easter til Pentecost) we have been having a lot of John. So thanks for picking what we have listened to for Sunday after Sunday for the last four + months.

    Reading your post I thought of Epiphany. After the twelve days of Christmas comes Epiphany: ‘AH Now I get it’. The readings answer the question how do we know Jesus is the Messiah. The first Sunday is the Baptism of Our Lord.

    So I gather one thing you are saying is in the first part of Mark is how do we know Jesus is the Messiah.

    You will have to wait til after Penecost Sunday to hear Jesus ministry. It will run all Summer and fall until Advent starts again. So by December all your liturgical based Christian followers should be able to answer all your questions!!!

  4. alvin_tsf says

    i “became” a christian in my tweens bec my father, a fairly new convert at that time had no other audience except me. and he echoed his bible studies to me. and i had no idea what he was talking about. then i read the gospel of matthew for myself and was shocked, awed, confused and could not sleep bec Jesus was so different from what i had previously learned from school and church (was a roman catholic). i kept hungering for more of this Jesus that was so new to me. i made a decision (or so i thought then, this is pre-TULIP) to follow Him, declaring Him to be the Lord and Savior of my life. but, as i grew to understand my experience and the Gospel through various Bible teachers at our church, a conservative Baptist, the Jesus of the Gospels was indeed quite, as you used, disconnected. it is only very recently that i’ve read and studied the four gospel accounts in depth. it is quite difficult but enriching. i’ll be following these posts. thank you very much for this. i think we christians really need to study this.

    thanks again.

  5. Wayne B. says

    Allow me to recommend the online commentary on Mark by the Rev. Michael Turton. You may find it eye-opening:


  6. Note on the above link: The “commentary” linked above should be approached with caution. I reviewed the material in chapter 8 and some other sections. The methodology here is one of radical deconstruction based on criteria of “historicity” that yields a complete denial of almost every historical fact asserted in Mark. If you are of the Crossan-Ehrman school that the New Testament reflects no historicity at all, this commentary is on your team.

    DO NOT assume that because I have left the link that I approve of he commentary or of the “Jesus Seminar” style methodology employed. I couldn’t disagree more deeply.

    See N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God for a response to these kinds of methodological approaches.

  7. “It is obvious that the author of Mark has arranged the material in the Gospel so that a correct identification of Jesus in the context of his works is the critical aspect of the first half of the Gospel, but that this identification is not “true” until the passion/cross/resurrection is experienced.”

    That’s a fascinating observation, and one I had never before considered. I’m familiar with the handy short-hand classification of the Gospels identifying the Evangelists with the representation of the Tetramorphs (Mark the Lion, Matthew the Man, Luke the Ox, and John the Eagle) and saying that Matthew concentrates on Jesus as Son of Man, Mark as Lion of Judah, Luke on the sacrifical aspect, and John the high theology.

    What you say makes me wonder – if Mark is presenting the Son of David, the Lion of Judah, the King who will sit on the throne of His father David, and he’s priming us all along to make that identification – then, it all comes to a halt in the middle as soon as the disciples have done this.

    Our and their expectations of what a King, the King of Israel, is going to be and do are turned upside down. He’s not going to drive out the Romans and restore a Kingdom of Israel alone on earth; the Kingdom of God is something completely other than we expect and His throne will be the Cross He is raised high on, above us all.

  8. Two of my friends and I have been studying Mark using Tim Keller’s/Redeemer’s material. One of the things that has struck me is that I’ve never heard any teaching on Mark. (Of course I could be wrong on this, but I really really think I’ve never heard any teaching on the whole book.) I’ve been a Christian for 14 years and in churches that preach on whole books of the Bible from start to finish. I had read Mark three or four times over the years during my periodic read-the-whole-Bible efforts (which are good, but I didn’t allow for much meditation or study). In studying the text over the last few months, I’ve seriously learned things about Jesus, His ministry, and His place that I have never before considered. Bring it on…

  9. Book recommend: Jesus: A New Vision, by Marcus J Borg.

    Borg presentation of Jesus is a good antidote for a childhood spent coloring pictures of Jesus in Bible School.

  10. I have benefited a lot from Borg’s insights into Jesus’ ministry and have read all his books on Jesus. I blogged on him here at IM a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, Borg rejects the entirety of orthodox Christian belief and redefines Jesus as a first century wisdom teacher and spiritual guide. I think he understands some things about Jesus we need to hear, but I’d recommend the book he did with N.T. Wright as a needed corrective to his radical critic approach to the big questions of incarnation, resurrection, etc.

  11. Sue,

    Dito. Reason number 1001 why I love using the lectionary. It has deepened my preaching and study.

  12. A great book for those interested in beginning serious Jesus studies is Recovering Jesus by Neulfeld.


  13. treebeard says

    iMonk, could you describe what you mean by this: “something I heard Dr. John Piper say in a sermon.” What was it he said that turned you on to Mark?

    I have to admit, I can understand being captivated by Luke or John, but Matthew and Mark were always hard for me. Still, I enjoyed what you shared about Mark above.

  14. Martha — “Our and their expectations of what a King, the King of Israel, is going to be and do are turned upside down. He’s not going to drive out the Romans and restore a Kingdom of Israel alone on earth; the Kingdom of God is something completely other than we expect and His throne will be the Cross He is raised high on, above us all.”

    When I do what this series of discussions is all about — looking for the real Jesus in the Gospels — I hear Him talking about the “Last Days” an a cultural epoch that we are still in.

    Then I ask: “Who are today’s Pharisees, today’s crowds of townspeople, today’s moneychangers.” I look at what each were doing and saying in the Gospels — what were the “players” then looking for from the Messiah they expected? Who are the ones today expecting the Lord to bring judgment on those engaging in sexual offenses, child sacrifice, governmental interference in religious affairs? Who would still be shocked if He forgave the sinful and fraternized with them while scolding and condemning the self-aggrandizing religious authorities and only them?

    I find the answers telling ….

  15. He said make one book a life’s project. I was drawn to Mark for a lot of reasons, mostly because of its teachability to students.

  16. good advice imonk,

    unfortunately, the only book a lot of folks want to make a life’s project is Revelation, I was having breakfast the other day at a restraunt having breakfast and there as a bible study group nearby eating breakfast and fellowshipping, they were studying Revelation, anytime I ask for suggestions about what folks in Sunday school might like to study next, Revelation, i talk to a stranger on the street or a co-worker, and they find out i’m a minister, they always have questions about Revelation

    Dont’ get me wrong, it’s in the canon, so I study it and accept its value, but there is so much more in the gospels

  17. One thing I noticed about Mark is his use of detail/descriptive words. He has the shortest Gospel but takes time to tell us such details as Jesus slept on a cushion (Mark 4:38) or that the grass was green when he fed the 5,000 (Mark 6:39). I thought that was interesting. Probably not spiritual significance there, but interesting for me.

    Also, do you have any articles on the ending of Mark – 16:9-20?

    Looking forward to more on this series.

  18. There was a whole conference on the ending of Mark at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. It’s probably in their archives.

    I believe the ending was lost and can be found in Matthew 28: 1-10, 16-20. (See Edwards, Pillar Commentary on Mark.)

    Mark 14:28 indicates there was a meeting in Galilee predicted, and I do not believe Mark would omit it but Matthew include it.

  19. Kenny Johnson says

    I think NT Wright suggested that both the original beginning and the original end of Mark were likely lost in history. It is interesting that Mark’s beginning and end differ from Matthew and Luke (no genealogy, birth story, etc).

  20. Look closely at Matthew’s ending.

    Match up the Galilean reunion predicted in Mark 14.

    Remember that Mark would have had one appearance at least.

    See where Mark breaks off at “afraid,” and how Matthew follows that exactly and goes on.

    Note that Jesus said in Mark 13 that the Gospel would be preached to every nation, and the command to do that is the ending of Matthew.



  21. I think people who grow up in the west tend to see the miracles and signs of Jesus as somewhat separate from the question of who Jesus is. But in many eastern cultures, these would be viewed not just as proof, but as integral to Jesus’ identity. Many muslims, for instance, put great stock in signs and visions, so even today it is not uncommon for them to experience the reality and true identity of Jesus in and through such events. So the first half of the synoptics are really building the case for Jesus’ true identity in a powerful way that doesn’t always translate well to our western culture.

  22. Waybe B. says

    The Turton commentary (linked above) is not so much like Dominic Crossan, Bart Ehrman, or the Jesus Seminar, but closer to Earl Doherty.

    I’m sorry you disapprove. N.T. Wright represents the “conservative reaction” against what strike me as quite reasonable objections to the historicity of the gospels. (Remember, *everybody’s* a skeptic–against competing religious views, if nothing else.)

  23. When a book is recommended in the comments here, it can be quoted as an endorsement from me. I want to be clear on that one. I am not “disapproving.” Just stating that this is, from the standpoint of someone with my confessional commitments, a radical deconstruction that appears, to me, to be Crossanian.

  24. Scott and Michael,

    About the end of Mark: I encourage you to take a look at my full essay on the subject, a PDF of which (Origin of Mark 16:9-20, eMail Edition) can be tracked down at http://www.textexcavation.com/jimsnapp.html .

    Michael, I think it is clear that Matthew used a source that closely resembled the Gospel of Mark, but why do you think that source was Mark 1:1-16:8 instead of a form of Proto-Mark? How do you account for the “Minor Agreements” between Matthew and Luke where they share wording but where Mark’s wording is different?

    Mk. 14:72 – EPIBALWN EKLAIEN

    M: “See where Mark breaks off at “afraid,” and how Matthew follows that exactly and goes on.”

    This looks like an argument from silence, as if the idea is that since Matthew does not use Mark 16:9-20, he must not have known about it. But a few things can be said against this:
    (1) I think Matthew used a Proto-Mark, but supposing that he had a copy of Mark that contained Mark 16:9-20, he may have perceived that it had not been added by Mark, and decided to take the narrative in a different direction to deal with the story of the guards.
    (2) There are other substantial parts of Mark that Matthew does not use.
    (3) Matthew 28:8 has APANGEILAI; Mk. 16:10 has APHNGEILEN in Mk. 16:10.
    (4) Which seems like the younger, more developed passage: Mk. 16:15-16 or Mt. 28:18-20?

    Yours in Christ,

    James Snapp, Jr.