In this excerpt from The Trinity and the Bible: On Theological Interpretation, Scott Swain reflects on Mark 12:35–37 and how that text forms the foundation of Mark’s Trinitarian Christology.
One question remains for those who would follow the implications of Mark 12:35–37 to the point of theological understanding and confession: What does it mean within a Markan context to assert that Jesus is God’s lordly Son? The answer to this question comes to light when we consider our passage in relation to both its immediate and broader contexts.
Jesus’ parable in Mark 12:1–12 distinguishes his identity as God’s “beloved son” from that of God’s “servants” (especially 12:2–6). Not only does the beloved son come last in the series of emissaries (12:6), but he also stands in a relationship to the vineyard that is different from those who precede him. With his father, he owns the vineyard. He is “the heir” of its fruits (12:7). The distinction between the owner’s beloved son and his servants is telling. And when this distinction is juxtaposed with Mark’s monotheistic emphasis in 12:13–34, its significance becomes clear: Whereas it belongs to servants to gather the fruits that are due to another, it belongs to a beloved son to gather the fruits that are his own. The beloved Son alone is worthy, with his Father, to receive the fruits that are due him (compare 12:32). Consequently, the failure to respect the beloved Son (12:6) is tantamount to the failure to “render to God the things that are God’s” (12:17).
The characterization of Jesus’ divine Sonship within the immediate context of 12:35–37 corresponds to what we find within the broader context of Mark’s Gospel as well. In Mark’s prologue, we learn that the “way” of the One sent by God to inaugurate the kingdom is “the way of the Lord” himself (1:2–3). Accordingly, as Mark’s story unfolds, God’s beloved Son appears as one who exercises the Lord’s unique and incommunicable authority: forgiving sin (2:7, 10), perfecting the Sabbath (2:28), quieting the storm (4:41), walking on the sea (6:45–52), and so forth. The messianic Son who “comes in the name of the Lord” (11:9) comes as the Lord. Moreover, the consummation of his coming is realized when, having given his life as a ransom for many, God’s beloved Son sits enthroned as Lord at his Father’s right hand (compare 12:10–11, 35–37; 14:62).
According to Mark’s characterization, therefore, Jesus’ identity as God’s lordly Son signifies his status as one who, with God his Father, is the one true and living God. While this lordly characterization provides new meaning to the title “Son of God,” which in the Old Testament can be accommodated to the title “son of David” (compare 2 Sam 7:12, 14), it provides this new meaning in a way that does not compromise biblical monotheism. Mark does not wish to say that the Son is another god alongside God the Father (perhaps in the manner of an apotheosized emperor), but that he is one God with his Father. Just as Mark 12:35–37 presents two regents who share one divine throne, so Mark’s Gospel as a whole presents two dramatis personae who share one divine life, power, and glory. In doing so, Mark’s Gospel exhibits the same Trinitarian grammar that is enshrined in the Nicene homoousion. The Markan Son of God is “one of the Trinity.” Herein lies the glory of his identity; and herein lies the gravity of the decision with which those who meet him are confronted: Will they respect and receive him, and thereby enter into his kingdom and blessing, or will they disregard and reject him, and hence be trampled under his feet (compare Mark 12:36)?
The present interpretation further illumines the function of Mark 12:35–37 within the Markan plotline as a whole. Jesus’ question regarding the Messiah’s pedigree comes at the conclusion of his last public confrontation with the Jewish authorities on the stage of Mark’s Gospel. The next time Jesus faces this group is at his arrest and trial. There his accusers bring a number of charges against him that do not stick (14:55–59), until at last the charge of “blasphemy” prevails (14:60–64). At a minimum, the charge of blasphemy implies that Jesus had assumed certain unique divine prerogatives. This charge is linked with Jesus’ acceptance of the title “Son of the Blessed [One],” as well as his prediction of the Son of Man’s enthronement “at the right hand of Power” (14:61–62), two themes that also appear in 12:35–37. The question is: Whence did Jesus’ accusers get the idea that his self-identification as the Son of God entailed a claim to unique divine prerogatives, thus opening him to the charge of blasphemy? In terms of the Markan narrative, it seems that Jesus’ accusers derived this entailment from Jesus’ own question in Mark 12:35–37. By proposing the idea of a lordly Son of God who shares God’s singular sovereignty, Jesus introduced his opponents to a new understanding of messianic sonship and thus provided them with the very rope that they would use to hang him. Of course, it is a matter of no little dramatic irony that in providing his accusers with the grounds for his execution, Jesus also set the stage for the completion of his mission (compare 10:45) and the climactic unveiling of his identity as the Son of God on the cross (15:39). Mark 12:35–37 thus proves to be quite pivotal in Mark’s characterization of Jesus as God’s lordly Son.
This post is adapted from The Trinity and the Bible: On Theological Interpetation by Scott R. Swain (Lexham Press, 2021).