A Theology of Mark by Hans F Bayer
“An exploration of the dynamic relationship between Jesus and his disciples, taking a radical view of discipleship. What does it mean to be a disciple? In the Gospel of Mark, discipleship is a process in which Jesus radically transforms his disciples from self-dependent to God-dependent, beginning with their hearts”
Discipleship is one of those topics that in the past few years has grown in attention. It is now frequently addressed in different Christian circles, organisations, communities and even other secular groups. It pops up whenever a leadership crisis occurs, or when there is decay in a project, a ministry, or a church. These are the moments when our understanding of discipleship is often challenged head-on. These are also the moments when we realise how important it is to have successors in every good activity, project, and mission.
Often discipleship is mis-understood and presented as a transfer of skills. Equally, in the modern world, it has come to mean a process of developing different capabilities and expertise in people, in order to keep things going and flourishing.
When I started to research this subject more thoroughly early this year, I discovered that there are plenty of good books on the topic of discipleship. A Theology of Mark is one of those books that I particularly enjoyed because it is profoundly theological. The text is biblically rooted and more specifically rooted in Jesus Christ’s teaching and example of discipling. It is a good read for both theologians and those who are not theologians - for all who want to learn about discipleship, built on a sure biblical foundation - and also for those who just want to study the Gospel of Mark.
Two Major Questions
H. Bayer’s exploration of the theology of the Gospel of Mark presents an approach to discipleship by asking two major questions of identity:
1. Who do you perceive yourself to be?
2. Who do you perceive God to be?
Arguably, these are the most debatable questions in our society today. All people, from theologians, to scientists, philosophers, and sociologists are arguing about these two questions:
1. Who are we as human beings?
2. Who is God, if there is a God?
According to H. Bayer:
“Mark’s testimony to Jesus claims nothing less than the following: the eternal Son of God entered this world by incarnation in order to address this baffling pair of core problems facing human beings, both individually and corporately. Initially, Jesus’ calls far a radical assessment of self-perception and God-perception in order to lead to a reconciled relationship with true God self and others. This reconciled relationship with God is an essential foundation for transformed identity, character, and life.”
As soon as we understand who God is, who he made us to be, as well as how far we are from him and his purpose and how much we need his help, we stand on the path of glorious transformation in his likeness, in the path of coming back to God’s original vision for humans.
A Relational Understanding
As such, discipleship arises from the renewed and even more fundamentally restored relationship with God. This in turn can lead us to a true God-centred view of ourselves and others. We cannot follow the disciplines of discipleship in autonomy and self-sufficiency, says the author.
“Rather, they grow out of a reconciled relationship with God and a personal realisation of the need to be radically transformed. Thus confronted, we come to understand deeply that we are broken persons in need of both individual and communal transformation, healing and purification.”
This book is not about tips and tricks for how to multiply disciples. Rather, it goes to the very root of who a disciple is from Jesus’ teaching, and it is based on his relationship with his very first disciples.
Christology and Authentic Discipleship
Therefore, discipleship is a radical change of identity and character growth that radically overflows into a way of living. These are the essentials of followers who are Jesus’ disciples. It is radical because it is impossible for a mere mortal, unless s/he enters into a relationship with God through the atonement of God the Son, the Messiah.
According to the author, the core pillars of discipleship are five-fold:
- Surrender to God, that starts with reconciliation - restored relationship with God
- On going, permanent surrender to God - a posture of return and repentance
- Depending on God - living (as opposed to inanimate) dependence on God
- Christ-like individuals and communities - living beyond autonomy
- Both individual and communal transformation - living beyond self-sufficiency
This book presents a holistic view of discipleship that includes all aspects of a disciple’s life. It also addresses the core of discipleship. According to this book, discipleship involves identity (redeemed in Christ and permanently surrendering to God), action (how one lives and speaks), teaching (especially by personal example) and testing (in hardships and in the difficulties of life). It is clear from the book that discipleship is a lifelong and transformational altering of every aspect of a disciple’s life. And it is clear that it is not self-assessing nor self-realisation, or just following a set of rules, nor disciplines or perfecting yourself.
A Theology of Mark
The entirety of the book is structured on an outline of the Gospel of Mark that is given in Part 1 of the book. This points to the events related to Jesus’ life and his relationship with his disciples. This structure helps the reader to understand the writer’s point of view on the issue of discipleship, in the way he follows the narration of Mark about Jesus and his disciples. In this part the author explains the literary composition of the Gospel of Mark, by considering: genre, biography, witness accounts, structure, purpose, thought flow, and thematic framework. Bayer describes the plot and the purpose behind Mark’s writing of his Gospel. These cover consistent and supportive theological details on the Gospel.
Already in this part, the author makes it clear that Jesus is calling people to follow him so he is the initiator of discipleship, unlike other teachers of those days. His calling is not just to come to a great teacher, which in those days was common (as it is nowadays) to get the best education and be a follower of a certain school or especially a teacher. Rather, Jesus’ calling is a deeply counter-cultural call, to a new kingdom and to a new king. This kingdom is centred on Jesus’ identity and therefore the identity of his followers. The main component of Jesus’ discipleship is not getting knowledge and perfecting yourself, according to the teachings of a teacher, but rather an identity rooted in Jesus’ character moulded by him. Bayer reminds us that it is impossible for a mere mortal to change his identity into a new being for a new kingdom, that is not from the earth.
A Shift of Allegiance
The ultimate purpose of the Gospel of Mark according to Bayer is:
“…to legitimise Jesus’ universal and authoritative call to discipleship (see the narrative repetition of this theme and the fact that the audience of Jesus splits into followers and opponents as narrative unfolds). … The central effort in legitimising this call is to narrate the identity, action, teaching and severe testing of Jesus. The ultimate legitimisation is Jesus’ resurrection. This observation already indicates that discipleship in Mark is essentially a function of eminence of the Master’s person, deeds, teaching, and impact; discipleship is not primarily a matter of pursuing a certain code of conduct. The form of Mark’s account thus already suggests that fellowship with Jesus (including dependence upon his atonement), confessing him, and being marked by his conduct make up the heart of discipleship, resulting in transformed persons who then also act differently (pattern-imitation). Discipleship thus promises to be profoundly Christ-centred.”
The second part of Bayer’s book on Mark is about the dynamic of God’s Messiah and Authentic disciples. The themes of Jesus’ call to follow him (the meaning of discipleship is to follow your teacher or leader, or the authority), the challenges to the twelve and to all disciples, Christlike character, discipleship qualities, approach to discipleship and how to follow Mark’s call in the 21st century.
As the writer unfolds the answer to the two core questions of self-perception and God-perception in the Gospel of Mark, he makes a remarkably radical statement as an axiom that cannot be denied:
“Without God pursuing us, we cannot truly know ourselves.”
Following this the author continues by explaining how the two core questions relate to each other, saying they are intertwined.
“We cannot give the answer to one without affecting the other. Discipleship, then, is not essentially a matter of how we conduct ourselves. It is not chiefly a matter of moral decision, but it is more fundamentally a matter of Christ’s exposure - and transformation - of our self-perception and God-perception.”
Jesus’ radical teaching and living amongst his followers as well as his opponents led people either to embrace him and his teaching, accepting who he claimed he was, or to reject him up - which ultimately led to his killing. So there is no middle ground in following Jesus.
Resolution to double crisis is the cure of self-centredness, self-sufficiency and self-perception. By surrendering to Jesus as the Lord and the Messiah as the new king, the result is a new identity radically different, opposed to the old self. This surrender is not an event once for all time - rather it is both an event and a process that goes on day by day as the disciples walk and work with Jesus.
Self-perception crises cannot be solved without the resolution to the God-perception crisis. As soon as the disciples become aware of who Jesus truly is and how unworthy they are of him, part of the crisis comes into focus. On the other side, they come to understand that he is there for them - both calling them out of their state of being and also providing a way out into his Kingdom. And this way was nothing less than through Christ himself! They could not escape Jesus who also acted as their servant, giving them a living example of discipleship.
The effect of radical discipleship according to this has a triple outcome that H. Bayer describes as a “Tri-Pod Effect” - a healed perception of God and self that leads to surrender and reconciliation with God and self. This also resonates more widely into deep communal effects.
First, Bayer works to clarify the identity crisis, to which a radical resolution is brought by Jesus. Following this, the relational implications are forwarded by H. Bayer, bringing the idea of a Christlike character into his analysis. He goes on to list 8 discipleship characteristics from Mark’s Gospel - presenting them in a very useful chart with verses and passages for context in the Gospels. I will not list them here - for the sake of those who would love to study this for themselves. The writer makes a radical statement at the end of this chapter about core character traits of a disciple:
“These core character traits mark each follower as being shaped and transformed by Christ. They are to be understood as the fruit of Christ’s impact, not as spiritual disciplines that followers of Christ emulate in their own strength.”
The Reciprocal Approach to Discipleship
In the following chapter, Hans Bayer shows how Jesus started working in the lives of his disciples. In these lives we see a peer discipling way of living emerging, according to their faith in him. Hans Bayer calls this a “Reciprocal Approach to Discipleship”
“… reciprocity ensures ongoing communal internalisation of Christ’s impact. Transformation thus happens in the process of life to the one who disciples as well as to the one who is being discipled. This process includes following the commission to make disciples. … This means that we are learning from each other wherever we are. It is one of God’s tools for the transformation of our hearts in the global body of Christ. … discipleship dynamics are characterised by learning together in dependence upon Christ what it means to grow as his disciples.”
So discipleship in Mark’s Gospel is presented as a process of becoming and growing into a new identity. This new identity has a new character with new character traits and renewed relationships with God, self and others. The author gives further biblical references in support of this.
The last chapter of the book addresses the issues of relevance of discipleship as it is taught in the Gospel of Mark - with particular relevance to our present-day society. Bayer gives an accurate picture of how spirituality is perceived in our days, especially in Western cultures/societies. He adds to this how the 8 traits of discipleship respond to the core needs of human identity. His analysis of contemporary spirituality and Christian spirituality through three spiritual layers provides an incisive understanding of the individual quest for authenticity. As individuals take their spiritual journey through “spiritual yearning”, “spiritual self-disclosure”, “spiritual self-assertion” and other key stages of development. Bayer shows how Jesus’ fundamental resolution to the identity double crisis addresses the deepest desires of the heart. This has a ring of St Augustine to it - “our hearts are restless until they rest in God”. The human soul therefore is actual in our century and the call of Christ - through Bayer’s understanding of Mark - is a call for all nations, ethnicities, races, gender, and ages.
“Jesus’ fundamental deconstructive and reconstructive call to discipleship offers a key to each individual’s life by which to affirm, reject, and transform various expressions in contemporary cultures.”
Throughout the book the author brings pertinent examples and passages from other texts of the New Testament that support Mark’s call to discipleship.
As a bonus there are two appendices with useful context about Mark’s gospel:
- Contemporary challenges and answers to the origin and formation of Mark’s account
- The message of Mark 8:34 reflecting on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “The cost of discipleship”
There is also a useful tool for a Socratic Bible study: “Questions for study and reflection for each chapter of Mark’s Gospel” which can be used for individual study and small group in your church, with friends, or in a discipleship program/journey with other fellows. It is also rich in references to other good books and known authors, philosophers and thinkers. It is a deep, holistic, well-documented, biblically-rooted, and challenging book that is easy to read individually, or together with other people in community.
***** Readability (5/5) – deep & comprehensive teaching in simple language
*** Application (3/5) – many good examples from other parts of the New Testament and many illustrations it addresses
***** General Appeal (5/5) – general topic of discipleship recommended for all young professionals to better understand what it means to be a follower of Jesus in this world in our days
**** Commitment (4/5) – yes, you need to read it together with your Bible and dig deep. It takes more than a week to read it!
***** Challenge (5/5) – presents a radical view and teaching on discipleship
**** Recommendation (4/5) – Looking for a deeply transforming book for you and your fellows? Then this is a helpful one!