This book is based on a series of sermons preached at Kensington Baptist Church in Bristol, a series I began a few weeks after concluding the series on Revelation which subsequently became a previous book, The Final Word (also in the Welwyn Commentary series). I have loved preaching through Mark. Increasingly, and beyond my expectations, I have been drawn in by the sheer power of the story-telling. Grasping something of the skilled and beautiful construction of the gospel has frequently shed fresh light on familiar passages; recognising the half-concealed links to the Old Testament prophets has opened up new understanding of the mission of the Lord Jesus.
I would like to thank many people who have helped and guided me with thoughts about Mark’s gospel, beginning with Craig Smith, formerly of Trinity College, Bristol, who has been a model of the godly scholar combining academic integrity with spiritual insight and the ‘real world’ of Christian ministry. Chris Kelly’s article in Foundations provided very valuable help with the structure of Mark. I greatly appreciate the support of my ministry colleagues, my family and those others who have encouraged me in this preaching series in particular – they know who they are!
Mark’s gospel focuses on the Lord Jesus as the crucified Christ; as his followers we are called to take up our cross and follow him who gave his life as a ransom for many. If this book encourages you in this path of discipleship, it will have achieved its purpose.
We are all used to having four gospels; most of us probably grew up knowing many of the gospel stories. But what is a gospel? Is a gospel just a straightforward biography of the life of Jesus, or is it something else? The vital clue is in the name. The English word ‘gospel’ is our translation of the Greek word euangelion – sometimes in English we still use the word evangel. It means an announcement of good news. A gospel, an evangel, is a proclamation: originally, something that was announced. The gospels, like the rest of the New Testament, were written in the days of the Roman Empire. In Rome, when a new Emperor was enthroned, or if the Emperor’s wife gave birth to a son, it would be announced through an evangel, good news. In Jewish tradition, an evangel meant good news especially about God’s coming Kingdom.
This helps us to understand what kind of documents our four gospels are: they are making announcements of good news. They are not simply dispassionate, factual biographies of the Lord Jesus, but were written to bear witness to his life and ministry, both for Christians to learn about their Lord and for unbelievers to be challenged to accept the good news. So we should not think of the gospels as simply stories written down by people who had nothing better to do! Each was put together, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, for a specific reason. They all have a theological purpose in mind, and by reading each gospel carefully we can understand something of what that purpose is. It is important that we let each gospel speak for itself. You do sometimes hear preachers, for instance, preaching on some gospel narrative and constantly cross-referencing to the parallel accounts in the other gospels – as if the Holy Spirit would have done better to produce just one gospel story, with all the differences of emphasis and selection of story ironed out. But the Holy Spirit did not do that; and I think we need to let each account stand on its own with its own integrity. Sometimes there is much to learn by comparing them; but we should remember that under divine inspiration, Mark chose what to include, what to leave out and how to express what he wanted to say.
Although the gospel itself nowhere says so, there is an unbroken tradition from the earliest days that the author is the John Mark we know from Acts. It is quite likely that Mark is the young man we meet briefly in ch 14, running away from the scene of Jesus’ arrest. We know that Mark lived in Jerusalem where his mother hosted one of the first house churches (Acts 12:12). Peter goes there when an angel rescues him from jail; Mark will no doubt have been present at the time. A few years later we meet him again: in Acts 13 Paul takes him along on his first missionary journey along with Mark’s cousin Barnabas. At this point, Mark is what we would call a ministry assistant, or an apprentice. He doesn’t do too well; a few weeks into the mission he gives up and goes home (Acts 13:13). Paul is not impressed. When Paul and Barnabas launch out on their second missionary journey, they have a blazing row which ends with Barnabas taking Mark with him and Paul going elsewhere (Acts 15:36-40). But Mark comes good in the end. At the end of 2 Timothy, his very last letter, Paul writes: ‘Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry’ (2 Timothy 4:11). Interestingly, this verse also suggests that Mark and Luke spent time together in Rome, in which case they would surely have discussed the gospels they were both about to write. When Peter writes his own letter from Rome, he describes Mark as his son (1 Peter 5:13). So Mark is someone greatly beloved by both Peter and Paul.
We can’t be sure, because of course none of the Bible books comes with a date attached, but tradition tells us that Mark was closely associated with Peter especially; that his gospel is based very closely on what Peter told him; and that he wrote his gospel either just before or soon after Peter died. That was almost certainly during the reign of Nero and the persecution of Christians in Rome around 65 AD. As we read through Mark, it is easy to imagine the voice of Peter recalling the times he spent with the Lord Jesus thirty years before.
Obviously, the gospels have much in common, especially Matthew, Mark and Luke, which are known as the synoptic gospels. Over the years, there has been much discussion about how the three synoptic gospels are related, and which was written first. There is certainly not time to go into the arguments now; it is enough to say there are good reasons for believing that Mark was the first of the gospels to be written and that both Matthew and Luke had a copy of Mark’s gospel in front of them as they wrote soon afterwards.
There are a number of clues in the book that it was written not for Jews, but for Gentiles. For instance, in 7:3-4 Mark takes the trouble to explain about Jewish ceremonial washing. No-one in Israel would need that explanation, but it would certainly be helpful to Gentiles living elsewhere. Mark 12:42 uses the Greek form of the Latin word quadrans to explain the value of the widow’s gift; but the quadrans was used only in the western Empire, not in places like Israel. There are also clues that Mark was writing to believers who were persecuted: there is an emphasis on suffering throughout his gospel, as we will see shortly. All this fits the idea that Mark was writing for the Christians in Rome in the later years of emperor Nero.
The Greek of Mark’s gospel is plain, even rough; it is different from the more correct and polished Greek of Luke, for instance. Many things seem to happen ‘quickly’, ‘suddenly’ – it’s one of Mark’s favourite words (Greek euthus). The most obvious difference from the other gospels is that it is far shorter: there are no birth narratives, unlike Matthew and Luke; no extended accounts of Jesus’ appearances after his resurrection; and whole blocks of material that Matthew and Luke include about his ministry are absent. With Mark, a larger proportion of the gospel is concerned with the passion of Christ: in this gospel, it is even more obvious that the death and resurrection of Jesus are central to the whole story, with six out of sixteen chapters devoted to the closing events of Jesus’ earthly life.
Mark’s key aims are to show us who Jesus Christ is and what he came to do. He structures his gospel in a way which will serve those aims. Various ways have been found of dividing it into sections, some more helpful than others; but everyone agrees that the vital turning point of the gospel is at the end of ch 8. In the first half of the gospel, we follow the disciples as they spend time with Jesus, seeing him work miracles, teach in parables, heal people, face opposition and so on; and through all these events, gradually, it becomes clear who Jesus is. The disciples see and hear many amazing things, but only very slowly do they begin to understand. Thus the first half of the gospel is about answering the question, Who is Jesus?
Peter’s confession of Christ in 8:27-30 – the moment when he grasps that Jesus is in fact the longed-for Christ – is the hinge-point on which the whole gospel turns. It is immediately followed by Jesus’ first prediction of his death. There will be two more of those predictions before they get to Jerusalem; but here for the first time Jesus says, This is what I have come to do, and this is also a model for everyone who wants to follow me. At this point, then, the focus changes from who Jesus is to what he has come to do. The whole gospel is built around this central point as Jesus’ identity and mission are revealed, stage by stage. My suggested outline structure, dividing by themes rather than the geographical movements which some prefer, is as follows
1:14-6:30 Authority and Opposition. This section begins and ends with John’s imprisonment. This and the next sections are both concerned with ‘Who is Jesus?’
6:31-8:21 From Israel to the Nations. This section is bracketed by the two great feeding miracles: in 6:30-44, the feeding of the five thousand – a story which has a very Jewish feel; and in 8:1-21, the feeding of the four thousand – with no Jewish feel. Thus this section moves from providing for Israel to providing for the whole world.
8:22-10:52 Jesus shows he must suffer. This section is bracketed by two stories about opening the eyes of a blind man – the only such stories Mark includes.
11:1-13:37 Jesus declares judgement. This section is bracketed by stories about Jesus and the Temple. At the start, he enters Jerusalem and then condemns what is going on in the Temple, declaring its failure. At the end, he prophesies the destruction of the Temple and the end of the age.
14:1-16:8 Jesus’ passion and vindication. This section is bracketed by stories of Jesus being anointed. In 14:1-11 he is anointed for his burial by the woman at the dinner party; in ch 16, the women come to the tomb, the place of burial, with the intention of anointing him – but they cannot, because he is risen!
Mark’s Christology – the way he presents Christ – is ‘a story of a crucified Messiah’
Following closely from Mark’s presentation of Christ, he focuses especially on three intertwined themes, all of which relate very closely to the cross.
The key passage here is 8:34-38, where Peter has just declared in v.29 ‘You are the Christ’ and Jesus begins to explain what that will mean for him. Then from v.34 we discover that coming after Jesus, being a disciple, means denying yourself, taking up your own cross and following him. The last thing any follower of Jesus will be found doing is boasting about himself and his achievements; because to follow Jesus means to deny yourself and place him at the centre. Following Jesus means taking up the cross. Jesus himself will have to do that literally; as his disciples, we must be prepared to follow our master on the path of suffering, and if we are called on, we too must be willing to die. In vv.35-37, Jesus expands and reinforces the message. Of the four gospels, Mark gives the starkest and, in a sense, the bleakest picture of discipleship.
Over and over again throughout his ministry, Jesus faces relentless opposition; and not just from the people we might expect. If Jesus the master faces such opposition, then his followers must expect to face it too. First, there is a block of five stories, collected together in 2:1-3:6, where opposition comes from the teachers of the law, the Pharisees and others. In 3:20-35 we find opposition from two different sources; it is interesting to see how Mark arranges the story. At the beginning and end of this passage, you have Jesus’ family – they are actually going to come and take him away because they think he has gone mad (v.21). In the middle, the religious authorities appear again, this time accusing him of driving out demons by the power of Beelzebul. Then in 6:1-6 we find Jesus rejected in his own home town. In 7:1-23 we have another round of opposition from the Pharisees and teachers of the law. They are criticising him once more for not doing the proper religious things; he in turn criticises them because their religious rules have missed the point of following God. Finally, in the closing week of his life, in the approach to the cross, there is another series of opposition stories. By now the authorities have decided that Jesus has to die, and they are just looking for the right opportunity. So from the middle of ch 11 onwards comes attempt after attempt to catch Jesus in his words, to trap him into saying something dangerous. If we are misunderstood, or we find that people who should be on our side turn against us, we are in good company: it is exactly what happened to the Lord Jesus.
Immediately after Peter’s confession in ch 8, Jesus begins to talk about how he must suffer. Three times he does this; three times they misunderstand him; and three times he has to correct them. We can set out the pattern like this:
Passion prediction Misunderstanding Corrective teaching
8:31 8:32-33 8:34-9:1
9:31 9:33-34 9:35-37
10:32-34 10:35-41 10:42-45
The three-fold repetition emphasises that the cross was at the heart of God’s plan. This is exactly what the Lord Jesus came to do – to face the cross, to face rejection and suffering and die in our place. If our Master suffered, then we will face suffering too. We can expect to be persecuted.
Mark places greater emphasis on persecution than any of the other gospels. The first example is in 1:12-13. Mark’s account of the temptations is very short, but he alone includes the note that Jesus ‘was with the wild animals’. The reason, presumably, is that Mark’s readers are facing persecution. In Rome, the emperor Nero is arresting Christians and making them fight wild beasts in the arena. In 9:47-49, Jesus is talking about how terrible it is to lead other people into sin; but in v.49 he adds this strange note about fire – it’s quite difficult to understand until we realise that Jesus is referring to persecution. Again, only Mark includes this. Salt was added to sacrifices in Old Testament times; it was part of making the sacrifice acceptable to God. Jesus says, Your sacrifice to God is going to be made acceptable through the fiery trials which you will face. In 10:28-31, Peter reminds Jesus that the disciples have abandoned everything in order to follow him. Jesus promises them a recompense; but at the end of this list Mark alone has included ‘and with them, persecutions’.
Mark’s gospel is well-served by longer, more technical commentaries. Some valuable recent works are Robert Gundry’s Mark: A commentary on his apology for the cross, which emphasises the clarity and straightforwardness of the gospel as against the claims scholars sometimes make for hidden meanings or codes. Dick France’s Mark, in the NIGTC series, is very good, although like many I differ sharply from his view of ch 13. Alan Cole’s Mark, in the TNTC series, is a good shorter commentary, at least in the revised edition. My favourite commentary, however, is William Lane’s The Gospel of Mark, in the NICNT series, which I have found unfailingly helpful and illuminating, even where I have not followed his line. I have also found fresh and useful Richard Hays’ The moral vision of the New Testament.