Kingdom or Cross? — A Study of Mark 10:45

Often ‘kingdom’ is contrasted with ‘cross’, ‘king’ with ‘saviour’. The ‘cross’-people [1], most of the times advocates of the centrality of justification and substitutionary atonement, are glad when they stumble upon some atonement-verses in the Gospels. and prefer to discuss Paul, while the ‘kingdom’-people point to the fact that the teaching of Jesus was all about the kingdom. This is a good example of a ‘false dichotomy’: two opposites seem irreconcilable, but in reality aren’t. But how then should we relate kingdom to cross? To answer that question, Mark 10:45 can serve as a good study case.

The Immediate Context

Mark 10:45 reads as follows: ‘The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ We find this famous ‘ransom’-verse at the end of a pericope, Mark 10:35–45. This paragraph has broadly two parts: the conversation between between James and John on the one hand and Jesus on the other, and the address of the disciples by Jesus.

Firstly, the conversation. John and James ask for a position of privilege ‘in your [Jesus’] glory’ [2], referring to the time when Jesus would ascend to the throne, fulfilling the hope of the Jews. Jesus counters by asking if they are able to face the ‘cup’ and the ‘baptism’. What is Jesus talking about? Well, just before this conversation Jesus has explained to his disciples that he is going to Jerusalem to be ‘delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn [the Son of Man] to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise’ (vv 33–34; for the term ‘Son of Man’, see my article on John 5). That’s the cup and the baptism. The disciples obviously don’t know what Jesus is talking about when they say they are able. Still Jesus says that they will share in his suffering somehow, but that the seats of privilege in God’s kingdom are not for him to give.

The other disciples overhear the conversation, and become angry at James and John. Then Jesus addresses them all. He points out to them that the kingdom he brings (Mark 1:14) is radically different from the kingdom they were expecting. They were expecting the Messiah to defeat their oppressors, the Romans, and to establish the Davidic kingdom in Jerusalem. Jesus indeed was coming to Jerusalem, but he has something much bigger in mind, which they would only understand later: Jesus was going to defeat sin, Satan, and even death, and launch God’s new-creational, multi-ethnic, Spirit-empowered kingdom. And the paradox is that, while this kingdom is much greater than they could have hoped for, it comes in a way that they would never have expected. The way this kingdom conquers is the exact opposite of the way of the ‘Gentiles’ [3]: not by being served, but by serving, ‘for even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ The king of this kingdom dies a substitutionary death for his people. Therefore whoever wants a position of privilege in his kingdom must give up all privilege in this world.

Whoever wants a position of privilege in Jesus’ kingdom must give up all privilege in this world.

The Ultimate Context: the Meta-Narrative

Now let us step back to put this text into the great context of the storyline of Scripture. In the OT prophets, the ‘cup’ denotes suffering as punishment for sin, the expression of God’s wrath. [4] The ultimate cup Israel had to face was its exile (cf. references above). The prophets foresaw a two-stage ‘new exodus’: a physical return under Cyrus, and a spiritual return under the Servant. The Jews returned under Cyrus, but the majority of the promises still hadn’t come true. From the very beginning of the Gospel of Mark Jesus pronounced that he was the Servant who was going to bring about the new exodus (Mark 1:2–3). But the shock was that he was going into exile himself first, as representative king of his people. This happened climactically at the cross when Jesus was deserted by his Father, and the darkness of judgement surrounded him.

The second image Jesus uses is baptism. Baptism is a type in Scripture that refers to several significant events in the Bible’s storyline, in particular these two:

  • Noah who rises out of the floods of God’s judgement on the whole earth in the Ark (cf. 1 Peter 3:20–21);
  • Israel that rises out of the flood of God’s judgement on the Egyptians through the splitting of the Red Sea (cf. 1 Cor. 10:1–2).

The point of baptism is that it represents both death and life: the death of judgement, and the life of salvation. It portrays exodus. [5] At the cross the waves of God’s judgement over all his people’s sins flooded over Jesus (cf. Luke 12:50). But this was necessary in order for him to appear out of the ashes and unleash something radically new: God’s new-creational kingdom, by way of his resurrection: ‘And after three days he [the Son of Man] will rise’ (verse 34). So we come to see the ultimate connection between Jesus’ kingdom teachings and substitutionary atonement: Jesus establishes his new-creational kingdom by atoning on the cross. That is the radical, upside-down ethics of the kingdom: it conquers not by being served (the way of this world), but by serving.

Jesus establishes his new-creational kingdom by atoning on the cross.

The disciples were to follow in the footsteps of Jesus: ‘The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.’ They, as members of his body, were going to share in his suffering — but also in his glory. Jesus’ resurrection represents and guarantees the resurrection of all believers, spiritually now and physically on the last day. The Spirit that brought Jesus from the dead now dwells in believers, to transform them into new creations. They now have a new way of being human and live in victory over the powers of the old world, following their Messiah, the King of the Jews: Jesus.

Notes

[1] Of course this is an over-simplification. However, on this issue there seems to be a tendency to go to one of both extremes. Also, it is not good to equate ‘cross’ with ‘atonement’, thereby neglecting Christus Victor, but the point is that the ‘cross’-people often do just that.

[2] Mark 8:38 and 13:26 shed light on this. They can be related to 10:35 because (1) they’re the only other texts in Mark where δόξα ‘glory’ appears, and (2) the term ‘Son of Man’ is used in (the proximity of) all three texts. 8:38 and 13:26 are allusions to Daniel 7, where the royal Son of Man, now identified with Jesus, receives from God the dominion over all the nations. In this way these texts shed light on the questions of John and James.

[3] Most probably referring to the Romans, considering that the Gospel of Mark was written to the Christians in Rome.

[4] Isa. 51:17, 22; Jer. 25:15, 17, 28; 49:12; 51:7; Lam. 4:21; Zech. 12:2. Cf. also Job 21:20; Ps. 60:3; Obad. 16. I owe some of these references to Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 573.

[5] Thus both images, the cup and baptism, are connected with the crucial concept of the ‘new exodus’ found in the Prophets, especially Isaiah, and the New Testament.

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