By Theresa Dwane, Christendom College
The theme of the Suffering Servant is portrayed and developed throughout Mark’s gospel, fulfilling what was prophesied in Isaiah’s four suffering servant songs. Beginning with Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah all the way to the Passion itself, Jesus makes known the suffering and resurrection that he must undergo for the redemption of sinners, while also revealing aspects of His identity. He manifests that although He is Lord and King, He is also ultimately a servant.
- PETER’S CONFESSION AND THE FIRST PASSION PREDICTION
The main event that begins the development of the Suffering Servant theme is Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah after Jesus asked His disciples who people say that He is. Following this confession, Jesus links this profession to His impending Passion by then predicting for the first time the suffering that He must bear, while referring to Himself as the Son of Man. By this title, He is referring to the vision in Daniel of “one like a son of man, coming on the clouds of heaven” (Dan 7:9-14). It is implied that this man is kingly, who stands for Israel who will suffer but God will eventually give them victory and glory. In other words, Jesus will also take on the suffering of Israel represented in Daniel and conquer it in the end. In addition, as theologian Mary Healy comments on this title, “His own royal glory will be veiled in suffering and humiliation, but this abasement is only the necessary prelude to his glorious vindication by God, when His divine majesty will be revealed.” Behind the tribulation, it is difficult to comprehend any glory or royalty; however, the Passion is necessary to conquer evil and sin before fully revealing His divine identity with His resurrection. Christ continues to hint at the gravity of His Passion by saying that His true disciples are those who carry their crosses after Him (c.f. Mark 8:34). During Christ’s life on earth, the cross was a sign of humiliation, and the fact that He defines His followers in this way, implies the weight of this command. However, as with all things in Christ, death and affliction are never the end. With Christ, all who carry their crosses will follow Him to His resurrection, “when he comes in glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38). His disciples can follow His example as the suffering servant not only in death, but also in new life with the heavenly company.
After the first prediction of His passion, Christ reveals His glorified form to Peter, James, and John, a foreshadowing of His glory to come (c.f. Mark 9:2-8). Like Christ’s baptism, the Father commands the disciples to listen to Him; however, in this circumstance, He is emphasizing His words on His suffering to come. This leads into further discussion between Jesus and His disciples on this exact subject. The disciples asked Jesus if Elijah should come before His rising and in response, Jesus said that he has already come and links him and Himself to John the Baptist. John lived out a similar lifestyle to Elijah as a prophet and by his sufferings also foreshadowed the sufferings of Christ as the Suffering Servant. In this brief episode, Jesus provides His disciples with visible and scriptural revelation. He displays His future glory over sin by His glorious transfiguration and leads them deeper into the mystery of the cross and its scriptural context in relation to Elijah and John the Baptist. Little by little, after His shocking first prediction, He guides them on a pre-via dolorosa to the Passion itself.
- SECOND PASSION PREDICTION
While in Galilee, Jesus predicts His Passion a second time, carrying on the theme of the Suffering Servant. This time, He makes clear that He will be “delivered into the hands of men and they will kill him” (Mark 9:31). This action of being “delivered into the hands of men” displays the surrender that Jesus exemplifies as the Suffering Servant from Isaiah. He freely gave Himself over and obeyed His Father for the sake of the coming of the kingdom and defeat over evil. In other words, as Healy comments, “the human handing over of Jesus out of sin, betrayal, and hardness of heart becomes the instrument of the Father’s handing over of his Son in love for the redemption of the world.” God always brings good out of evil, and He even used the wickedness of mankind to send His Son into the world out of love to shepherd His people toward the Truth. Likewise, Christ never ends His predictions on a mournful note, always assuring that resurrection on the third day will glorify His death. As St. Thomas notes, following Theophylactus, “after, however, saying what was sorrowful, He adds what ought to rejoice them … in order that we may learn that joys come on after struggles.” Even in the midst of distress and despair, there is alway hope at the end of the line; even Christ’s tormenting Passion and death was not the end, but culminated in His glorious resurrection.
- THIRD PASSION PREDICTION
The third and final prediction of the Passion is the most crucial one. It takes place in Jerusalem where He will undergo His suffering and death. He emphasized that the Jews would hand Him over to the Gentiles, or essentially the Romans who would then scourge, mock, and kill Him. According to Thomas in the words of Theophylact, Christ overall told His disciples these predictions so that “they might the better bear them afterwards, and might not be alarmed at their suddenness, and also in order to shew them that He suffered voluntarily; for he who foreknows a danger, and flies not, though flight is in his power, evidently of his own will gives himself up to suffering.” Christ is preparing His disciples for their own cross that they must carry by experiencing Christ carrying His own. In addition, He re-emphasizes the point of the Suffering Servant’s obedient surrender to the trial, and that He grants this entirely of His own will and that of the Father.
Following this prediction is the climax of the development of the Suffering Servant theme. After the request of James and John to sit at his right and left hand (c.f. Mk 10:37), Christ openly and explicitly speaks of His nature as servant to mankind, when He says: “For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45). Christ came to earth for one ultimate purpose: for the redemption of the world. He fled at the prospect of the crowds crowning Him king of their city after He had performed a great miracle or teaching. His primary goal on earth was to serve, which He did through the healing of the sick, raising of the dead, teaching, etc. However, He came ultimately to suffer and die in order to defeat evil in the world. As much of a contradiction it may seem to be both king and servant, being a good king is only possible by being a good servant. Mankind can follow Christ especially in this way for “if, in the light of this attitude of Christ’s, ‘being a king’ is only truly possible only by ‘being a servant’, then ‘being a servant’ also demands so much spiritual maturity that it must really be described as ‘being a king.’” By temperance and self-mastery over oneself, only then will one be able to truly serve others to the fullest.
- ENTRY INTO JERUSALEM
The mode that Jesus takes to enter into Jerusalem invokes the last point made about being both servant and king. He rides into the city on the back of a donkey to the welcome of the people shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Mark 11:9). This manner of entry is alluding to an oracle in Zechariah, as Him riding on a colt “symbolizes the king’s humility as he comes to Israel in ‘peace’, not mounted on a ‘war horse’” (c.f. Ignatius Study Bible 86). In addition, it refers to Solomon entering into Jerusalem as King of Israel (c.f. Ignatius Study Bible 86). He now reveals Himself to the people as the Messiah, who comes to be at their service in humble royalty. In addition, as He said to Peter at his confession that He was the Messiah, He again links His Messianic identity to His suffering to come; He comes to establish peace by His trials, not war. He comes to serve and not be served.
- PASSION ACCOUNT AND RESURRECTION
Overall, the Suffering Servant Theme is fulfilled at Christ’s Passion and Resurrection. For as Thomas Aquinas paraphrases Isaiah’s description of the servant’s redemptive suffering, “His shame took away our shame; His bonds made us free; by the thorny crown of His head, we have obtained the crown of the kingdom; by His wounds we are healed.” This is shown in Mark 15:18-19 when the Romans “began to salute him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ And they struck his head with a reed, and spat upon him, and they knelt down in homage to him.” Although they were mocking him, the soldiers’ actions echoed Christ’s identity as the Suffering Servant. He is the King of the whole world, including the Jews, and mankind owes Him homage for the great redemptive act that He humbled Himself to execute. Ultimately, then, by His death on the cross, He consummates His role as the Suffering Servant, pouring out His heart for the conversion of sinners. Yet, as Christ never ended His predictions on a mournful note, His death culminated in His resurrection. As His Transfiguration revealed His everlasting glory to Peter, James, and John, His resurrection reveals His glory and triumph to the whole world. The Suffering Servant, Christ, bears His suffering at the service of His people to the point of death by crucifixion and resurrection to new life. In this way, “the Resurrection means that Jesus has overcome death, sin, pain and the power of the devil” and humanity not only can follow in His footsteps in His suffering, but also in His resurrection, as He invites all to do.
The theme of the Suffering Servant throughout the book of Mark leads both Christ’s disciples and the gospel readers deeper into the mystery of Christ’s identity. From Peter’s profession of Christ as the Messiah, to Christ’s predictions about His Passion, death, and resurrection, to His Passion and resurrection themselves, Christ fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy of the Suffering Servant while contributing to the reader’s knowledge of Christology by His actions and words relating to His identity both as the Messiah and the Suffering Servant. By fulfilling this role, He not only redeems the world, but directs mankind on how to be a true disciple by following His way of suffering to the cross.
Augustine. Gospel of John 94.5. Quoted in Andrew Louth, ed. Mark. The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture Series, New Testament, Vol 2. Thomas C. Oden, general editor. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001.
Aquinas, Thomas. Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels Collected out of the Works of the Fathers. Vol. 4, St. Mark. Edited by John Henry Newman with a new introduction by Aidan Nichols. Southampton, NY: St. Austin Press, 1997.
Donahue, S.J., John R., and Daniel J. Harrington, S.J. The Gospel of Mark. Sacra Pagina Series. Vol.2. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002.
Faculty of Theology of the University of Navarre. The Navarre Bible: Mark in the Revised Standard Version and New Vulgate. New York, Scepter Publishers, 1999.
Healy, Mary. The Gospel of Mark. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008.
Mary Healy, The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 164.
Mary Healy, The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 175.
John R. Donahue, S.J., and Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., The Gospel of Mark, Sacra Pagina Series, vol.2, (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002), 275.
Mary Healy, The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 183.
Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels Collected out of the Works of the Fathers, vol. 4, St. Mark, edited by John Henry Newman with a new introduction by Aidan Nichols (Southampton, NY: St. Austin Press, 1997), 180.
Augustine, Gospel of John 94.5, quoted in Andrew Louth, ed. Mark, The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture Series, New Testament, vol 2; Thomas C. Oden, general editor (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 148.
Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels Collected out of the Works of the Fathers, vol. 4, St. Mark, edited by John Henry Newman with a new introduction by Aidan Nichols (Southampton, NY: St. Austin Press, 1997), 208.
Faculty of Theology of the University of Navarre, The Navarre Bible: Mark in the Revised Standard Version and New Vulgate (New York, Scepter Publishers, 1999), 146, n. to Mark 10: 43-45.
Ibid., 146, n. to Mark 10:43-45.
Ibid., 149, n. to Mark 11:1-11.
Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels Collected out of the Works of the Fathers, vol. 4, St. Mark, edited by John Henry Newman with a new introduction by Aidan Nichols (Southampton, NY: St. Austin Press, 1997), 314.
Faculty of Theology of the University of Navarre, The Navarre Bible: Mark in the Revised Standard Version and New Vulgate (New York, Scepter Publishers, 1999), 197, n. to Mark 16:6.