Jesus-shaped Christianity will grow out of the soil of a Story-shaped Gospel. The more we immerse ourselves in the Story and get to know the Gospels, the greater the impact the Gospel of King Jesus will have in and through us.
That is the burden of this series, which encourages Christians and churches to make the Gospels (and Acts) the primary documents for forming our Christian identity, theology, and calling. At this point in the series we are giving brief introductions to each Gospel to prime the pump for your individual and congregational study and contemplation.
• • •
“…Mark’s task was the projection of Christian faith in a context of suffering and martyrdom. If Christians were to be strengthened and the gospel effectively proclaimed it would be necessary to exhibit the similarity of situation faced by Jesus and the Christians of Rome. The Gospel of Mark is a pastoral response to this critical demand.”
• William L. Lane, NICNT: The Gospel of Mark
There is a consistent tradition in the early church that the second Gospel was written by John Mark, a companion and coworker of both the Apostle Peter and the Apostle Paul. Evidence from the work itself suggests that it was written in the second half of the decade 60-70 AD, that its setting was Rome in the days of Nero’s persecution, and that its intended audience was made up of followers of Jesus who were undergoing severe trials in those days.
As a pastoral response to these believers who were suffering persecution and battling fear, it portrays Jesus as the Conquering Servant-King, who displayed his awesome power of the forces of sin, evil, and death by his divine words and works during his life and ministry. It also places great emphasis on the last week of his life (6/16 chapters), showing him to be the Suffering Servant-King, who revealed his true identity and the way of salvation through his death, burial, and resurrection. Mark highlights these twin themes to promote courage and hope among those suffering for their faith in Rome. It encourages them to take the way of the Cross, knowing that the One who bore it for them is the ultimate Victor.
Mark, who became Peter’s intepreter, accurately wrote, though not in order, as many of the things said and done by the Lord as he had noted.
• Papias, 120-130 AD
William Lane observes that the narrative flow of Mark follows Peter’s “kerygma” (proclamation) of the Gospel in Acts 10:36-41:
|GOSPEL OF MARK||ACTS 10:36-41|
|1:1 – The beginning of the Gospel||10:36 – The message he sent to Israel|
|1:2 – As it is written…Prepare the way of the Lord||10:36 – By Jesus Christ – he is Lord of all|
|1:14 – Jesus came into Galilee, preaching||10:37 – beginning in Galilee|
|1:4ff – John the baptizer appeared||10:37 – after the baptism which John announced|
|1:10 – The Spirit descending like a dove on him||10:38 – God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit and power|
|1:16-10:52 – Jesus’ ministry of healing and exorcism through God’s power||10:38 – He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him|
|11-14 – Jesus’ Jerusalem ministry||10:39 – We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem|
|15:1-39 – Jesus’ crucifixion||10:39 – They put him to death by hanging him on a tree|
|16:1-8 (ending?) – He is risen, as he said||10:40-41 – God raised him on the third day|
1. A Gospel of Action and Detail
Two connecting words are used throughout Mark in the original language (not always clear in English versions). The first is the simple word “and.” Two thirds of the verses in Mark begin with this, giving the impression of non-stop activity. The second is the word “immediately,” which occurs forty times (ten in ch. 1 alone), moving the reader rapidly from one scene to the next.
Also, several details are highlighted in Mark’s narratives that do not appear in the other Gospels. One particularly vivid example tells of the presence of “wild beasts” when Jesus was “driven” into the wilderness and tested. If our suggested setting for the Gospel is correct, this detail would have had special significance to believers in Rome who faced the real possibility of being forced into the arena and facing the wild beasts of imperial judgment.
2. A Gospel of “Amazement”
This key word describes how people responded to Jesus’ remarkable words and works. He created a sense of awe and wonder wherever he went. On one occasion, however, the word describes a reaction Jesus’ himself when he came to his home town and people took offense at him: “And he was amazed at their unbelief” (Mark 6:6).
3. The “Messianic Secret”
Mark emphasizes several commands or actions of Jesus designed to prevent others from proclaiming his identity:
- Commanding demons to be silent (1:25, 1:34, 3:11-12)
- Commanding those who had been healed to be silent (1:43, 5:43, 7:36, 8:26)
- Commanding the disciples to be silent (8:30, 9:9)
- Withdrawing from the crowds (7:24, 9:30)
Mark 9:9 places a time limit on making Jesus known as the glorious Messiah, perhaps because he wanted to make sure that his identity and mission be understood only in the light of the Cross and Resurrection.
4. Jesus, Victor over Evil Powers
Whereas Matthew’s Gospel stresses Jesus’ healing ministry, Mark emphasizes exorcisms. Note, for example, the way they treat the story of Jesus healing a demon-possessed, epileptic boy (Matt. 17:14-18, cf. Mark 9:17-27). Mark pictures Jesus vividly as the One who invaded the realm of the evil powers to conquer and plunder them.
5. A Gospel of Discipleship and Its Struggles
Robert Guelich observes that Mark portrays the disciples as both “privileged and perplexed,” with an intensified focus on their confusion and failure to grasp Jesus’ words and what it means to follow him. This theme is especially prominent in the narratives that take place after he starts talking to them about the Cross (8:31-10:52). The Gospel even includes a unique vignette about an event that took place when Jesus was arrested: “A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked” (14:51-52). Many of the early Church Fathers thought this verse was about Mark himself, and his own failure to remain with Jesus at a time of crisis.
6. Jesus, the Silent Sufferer
It is Jesus’ silence when accused that amazes Pilate (15:5). In fact, Mark records very few words spoken by Jesus and notes his silence on several occasions during his trial. If, as tradition holds, Mark represents Peter’s perspective on the Gospel, then his passion narrative is of a piece with Peter’s own counsel to suffering believers in Rome: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (1Peter 2:21-24). The sign above Jesus’ head on the cross, which Mark says read “King of the Jews,” was a statement by the imperial power of Rome that no challenge to its power would be permitted. The first readers of this Gospel would have recognized the empire’s powerful claim. Would they, like Jesus, silently entrust themselves to God’s care in the face of its cruel threats?
• • •
All of these characteristics make Mark “good news” to fearful Christians under duress, encouraging them to remember that their Savior and King endured the Cross and was vindicated when God raised him up.
One more observation about Mark. We must briefly mention its ending.
- The Gospel as we have it now ends at Mark 16:1-8, which most scholars think cannot be the original ending, since it leaves the book with no resurrection appearances, and with an account of how the women who went to Jesus’ tomb remained silent and fearful after having heard the good news that Jesus was alive.
- Some manuscripts have a “shorter ending” of one verse placed after 16:8.
- Others have a “longer ending” of Mark 16:9-20, which is extremely doubtful and appears to be a summary of events recorded in the other Gospels and Acts.
If there is a genuine “ending” to Mark beyond 16:8, we don’t have access to it. Some modern readers have argued that stopping at verse 8 can be read as making sense. If we understand it as an “open ending” — what did the women do next? — it might make sense as a challenge to its first readers. In this case, Mark would be saying, “Even on the morning of the resurrection, fear kept Jesus’ followers from giving a faithful witness.” The implied question is, “What will you do?”
This is possible, but widely considered unlikely. How much more encouraging to the suffering Roman Christians would it have been to give them assurance of vindication and life through their risen Lord! Why God in his providence would have allowed a portion of Scripture to disappear is hard to understand. Perhaps this is a small piece of evidence to remind us that we put our faith in a perfect Person, not a perfect book.
• • •
Some recommended commentaries on Mark:
One of the best commentaries ever written is William Lane’s The Gospel of Mark in the NICNT series.