Mark: An Introduction to His Gospel
The shortest of the four Gospels, Mark, is also perhaps the earliest. It contains a fast-paced narrative of Jesus powerful works, presenting an intensely human Messiah who wields remarkably divine power. Surprisingly, Mark is also one of the most neglected Gospels.
Most Biblical scholars agree on a concept known as Markan priority, the idea that Mark was the first Gospel account to be written, of the four Gospels. The book was probably written around the middle 60s AD, while Peter was in Rome, and prior to the destruction of Jerusalem (70 AD).
The book was written by ‘Mark,’ taken to be the same as John Mark. This man shows up several times in the book of Acts. He begins a missionary trip with Paul, but later deserts the apostle and heads home. Paul refuses to take him on later missionary trips, while Barnabas is more merciful. In the end, Mark proved himself capable and Paul recognized his valuable contributions, despite his initial abandonment.
While the Bible doesn’t tell us the exact details behind the writing of Mark, several early church historians record some details. They indicate that Mark wrote the gospel from the city of Rome, recording the stories that Peter reported. Clement of Alexandria describes how Mark was written:
“When, by the Spirit, Peter had publicly proclaimed the Gospel in Rome, his many hearers urged Mark, as one who had followed him for years and remembered what was said, to put it all in writing. This he did and gave copies to all who asked. When Peter learned of it, he neither objected nor promoted it.”
The book is written primarily for Christian communities, providing a brief summary of the life of Jesus and encouraging Christians to follow in the example of the Messiah who came to serve others.
There are two primary ways to outline the book of Mark, in order to understand how Jesus is presented. One method focuses on the theology of Jesus, the other method focuses on geography.
In the theological outline, Jesus appears as a man with remarkable power. The whole land is amazed and people repeatedly ask the question, “who is he?” As Jesus shows his power to heal the sick, raise the dead, and cast out demons, it is clear that he is someone remarkable. By the middle of the book, Jesus himself asks the disciples who they think he is. Peter responds that he is the Messiah.
In the second half of the book, Jesus begins to teach his disciples what the Messiah has come to do. Rather than setting up a powerful military kingdom, the Messiah has come to earth in order to serve, to suffer, and to be a ransom for many. This new view of Messiahship climaxes at the cross, where Jesus is not coronated but crucified. Yet the resurrection validates his claims to be the Messiah.
The geographical outline consists of three parts. In the first section, Jesus does powerful works in Galilee, upsetting the religious establishment. In the second section, Jesus and his disciples journey toward Jerusalem. His identity as the Messiah is validated on the Mount of Transfiguration, and his disciples are educated about the coming passion. In the third section, the climax in the city of Jerusalem, Jesus is crucified and resurrected. Here the true character of the Messiah is seen, as one who gives his life for others.
The summary verse for Mark is found in 10:45 – “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Style and Themes
Mark writes in a dramatic, fast-moving style. His favorite word is the Greek word eutheos, meaning ‘immediately.’ It is used about forty times in the short book.
Mark also provides detailed accounts of Jesus actions. He gives details that other gospel writers do not provide, focusing on the works of Jesus, more than on the words of Jesus. This means that the book consists primarily as action, not dialogue.
Using a device called intercalation, Mark sometimes sandwiches one story inside another. He often groups stories into groups of three – such as three passion predictions and three times in which the disciples get into a boat and misunderstand Jesus.
Mark shows Jesus as an intensely human figure. As M. Strauss notes, “To be sure, Mark presents the most human and down-to-earth portrait of Jesus. Jesus expresses a range of human emotions, including indignation (1:41; 10:14), exasperation (8:12; 9:19), anger and grief (3:5), sorrow (3:5), amazement (6:6), love (10:21), and overwhelming anxiety and distress (14:33-34; 15:34).”
Though he does not shy away from the title of the Messiah – even confessing that in front of the Jewish Sanhedrin – Jesus presents his role as one who came to serve. He takes his disciples aside to teach them about service. He says that he came not to be served, but to serve. He takes an active interest in ordinary people and their problems.
Jesus also says that he came as a ransom, to give his life for many others. While modern readers know that this is a key theological concept, it does not clearly occur until relatively late in the story.
Despite the lowliness, meekness, servitude, and suffering that Jesus undergoes, he is also presented as a powerful miracle-worker, one directly in touch with the divine, who is always active, bringing mercy and compassion into the world. Even his enemies cannot deny his supernatural authority.
Mark’s Gospel is a short and fascinating read. We have only dealt with the most basic concepts, but Mark contains so much more to learn. More than head-knowledge, it serves as a call for Christ-like servanthood to God’s people. I hope you are challenged to read it!