Read: Mark 1:1-20
This quarter’s lessons focus our attention on the New Testament book of Mark. This first lesson will be a bit longer than the others because it is important to address some background issues before moving to the content of the book itself.
I. Background Issues
- Mark is one of four books (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) which tell the story of Jesus’ life and ministry. These four books are frequently called Gospels. The root meaning of gospel is “good news” and originally did not have a religious connotation. It is important for readers today, then, to recognize that however one chooses to interpret the “Gospels,” they should be proclaimed and received as good news. The first three Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, are often referred to as the Synoptic Gospels. Synoptic means that they “see together”–in other words, they share a similar perspective on the life of Christ. Mark is the shortest gospel and contains only sixteen chapters. It is also interesting to realize that most of Mark’s material is repeated in Matthew and Luke. Some have suggested that more than 90% of Mark’s words have a parallel in Matthew, and over 80% have a parallel in Luke.
- Although debate continues, many scholars believe Mark was the first New Testament gospel written. The exact date of composition is not known, but most believe Mark was written between 40 and 70 A.D. A likely date is probably the late 50’s to mid 60’s.
- The book of Mark is anonymous. However, several extrabiblical sources suggest that the author was in fact someone by the name of Mark. Who was Mark? In about A.D. 140, Papias, then Bishop of Hierapolis, wrote what he had been informed by John the Elder concerning Mark, namely: “Mark became Peter’s interpreter and wrote accurately all that he remembered, not, indeed, in order, of the things said or done by the Lord. For he had not heard the Lord, nor had he followed him, but later on, as I said, followed Peter . . .” Another possible witness to Mark authorship (and close association with Peter) comes from the Anti-Marcionite Prologue to the Gospels (ca. 160-180 A.D.) Although the preface to Mark there has been partially lost, it provides some additional information: “ . . . Mark declared, who is called ‘stump-fingered’, because he had rather small fingers in comparison with the stature of the rest of his body. He was the interpreter of Peter. After the death of Peter himself he wrote down this same gospel in the regions of Italy.”The Gospel of Mark, then, probably consists primarily of Peter’s preaching, which was then shaped by Mark. It is possible that this Mark in extrabiblical literature is the John Mark we read about in the New Testament. If so, Acts tells us that John Mark’s mother had a home in Jerusalem where believers met. We also find that John Mark traveled with Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey, but deserted them to return home. When Barnabas suggested John Mark travel with them on their second missionary journey, Paul refused. Ultimately, this “sharp disagreement” (Acts 15:39) led to Paul’s choice of Silas rather than Barnabas as a traveling companion. Ultimately, however, John Mark seems to have regained Paul’s confidence (see Col 4:10) so much so that Paul asks specifically for him, “because he is helpful to me in my ministry”(2 Tim 4:11).
- Mark probably wrote his Gospel with Roman Christians in mind. He explains Jewish customs and Aramaic words, which indicates a Gentile audience. Also, Mark shows a special interest in the cost of discipleship. Jesus was misunderstood and ultimately killed. Followers of Jesus should not be surprised if they must face the same sort of misunderstanding and mistreatment. If Mark wrote to Roman Christians in the mid-60’s, this theme would have been of special importance because Christians in Rome were facing persecution at the hands of Nero. Whatever the situation, it is clear that Mark wrote with a pastoral concern. He wanted Christians to be reminded that suffering was to be expected. More importantly, Jesus identified with them in their agony. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Mark makes it clear that suffering and even death would not be the end of the story. Jesus, the crucified, was alive. This message of ultimate victory, delivered by Mark, would have indeed been “good news” to Christians in Rome.
- Perhaps the simplest outline of Mark divides the book into two sections: Jesus’ deeds of the Kingdom (1:1 – 8:26), followed by Jesus’ movement toward the cross (8:27 – 16:8). The connecting “hinge” between these two sections is Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah. The first section focuses on Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, while the last section is basically an extended passion narrative as Jesus moves toward Jerusalem.
II. Mark’s Gospel Begins (Mark 1:1-20)
Mark begins with a declaration that Jesus Christ is the Son of God–a divine title. While Mark presents Jesus as one who was not fully recognized by his contemporaries, Mark lets his readers know the truth from the very beginning.
What is perhaps most striking about the beginning of Mark’s gospel is its abruptness and its silences. There is no mention of Jesus’ (or John’s) birth or early years, for example. We don’t know why John is in the wilderness, except that he is there in fulfillment of prophecy. Mark also begins at a breakneck pace. In this introduction, we read of Jesus’ divinity, John the Baptist’s clothing, diet, and message. Jesus is baptized and affirmed by a voice from heaven, then tempted by Satan in the wilderness. John is imprisoned, while Jesus preaches his first sermon and calls his first disciples. All this takes place in a mere 20 verses! Clearly, Mark has much to say, but he will say it in a concise fashion. We must read carefully, or we will miss his very important message.
III. Questions for Contemplation
- The four Gospels, while similar, also contain differences (or even apparent contradictions) which lead some to doubt the accuracy of the Bible. Why might God have wanted these four unique accounts of Jesus life and ministry? Why not have a single, “authorized” version? What might be gained if there was only one canonical Gospel? What would be lost?
- Why didn’t Jesus himself write an account of his life and teachings while here on earth?
- Mark seems an unlikely candidate to write a Gospel. If extrabiblical source can be trusted, he had short fingers! But it gets worse. While Jesus was alive, Mark apparently didn’t know him or follow him. Finally, even after he was a supposed follower of Jesus, he deserted Paul and Barnabas in the midst of a missionary journey. Ultimately, his desertion led to the break-up of one the world’s most amazing missionary teams. Jesus himself had said, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). How can such a person be fit to write a book of the Bible? How do we react to people who have questionable pasts, as Mark did? Does a past, public failure in ministry exclude one from future leadership in the church? Is it possible that godly people (like Paul and Barnabas) may not agree on how to restore someone who has failed in the past? Finally, given his own past, how could Paul be so quick to give up on Mark?
- Mark’s intended audience probably faced persecution for their belief in Jesus. If becoming a follower of Jesus today meant possible persecution and even death at the hands of the government, how would we respond? Would the Church grow in quantity of believers, or in quality of faith? Would it be both? How about you personally?
- The story of Jesus’ birth seems important to most Christians today. Why would something so important be left out of Mark’s gospel? Might the story of Jesus virgin birth have been a stumbling block for Gentiles? Are there parts of Jesus’ life and ministry that, while true, should not be proclaimed to all people? In other words, based upon a given audience, should a Christian sometimes avoid telling the whole truth?