Among the four Gospels, Mark’s was the most neglected by the early church. Indeed, no commentary was written on it until the sixth century! Various factors may account for this. It is by far the shortest of the four Gospels. Ninety-percent of its stories are found in either Matthew or Luke. The early church father, Augustine, considered Mark to be a mere abbreviation of Matthew and Luke. Mark’s Gospel also has a somewhat rougher, less literary style than its peers. It is not nearly as elegant as Luke, for example, nor as thematically structured as Matthew. Mark also has a greater number of “problem passages,” difficult statements and actions by Jesus that Matthew and Luke tend to smooth out.
This historical neglect, however, has been reversed in recent years, and today Mark’s is among the most intensely studied of the Gospels. A significant majority of scholars consider it to have been the first Gospel written and a primary source for both Matthew and Luke. Mark writes with a powerful and energetic literary style, full of drama, mystery, and color. Like the other Gospels, he provides a unique portrait of Jesus, with a special insight into who Jesus was and what he came to accomplish.
The structure of Mark’s Gospel provides the key to the author’s purpose. The first half of the Gospel concerns the identity of Jesus as the mighty Messiah and Son of God (Mark 1:1–8:30). The second half concerns the mission of Jesus (Mark 8:31–16:8). Shockingly, the Messiah is not here to conquer the Roman legions but to suffer and die as an atoning sacrifice for sins. Mark writes to show that Jesus’ crucifixion does not negate his claim to be the Messiah, but rather affirms it! His faithfulness to this mission becomes the model for all discipleship. Following Jesus means denying yourself, taking up your cross, and following him (Mark 8:34).
The Identity of Jesus: Mighty Messiah & Son of God (Mark 1:1-8:30)
The first line of the Gospel introduces Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of God” and the narrative that follows is clearly meant to confirm this identity. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark tells us nothing about Jesus’ birth or childhood. Unlike John, we learn nothing about his pre-existence or “incarnation” (coming to earth as a human being). Instead, Mark plunges right into the public ministry of Jesus. In a few short paragraphs, we hear about Jesus’ preparation for ministry: the role of John the Baptist as the forerunner of the Messiah, the baptism of Jesus by John, and Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness by Satan (Mark 1:1–13). Before we can catch our breath, Jesus launches into his ministry, announcing the kingdom of God, calling disciples to follow him, and beginning a campaign of preaching, healing, and casting out demons. Mark is fond of the Greek word euthus, often translated “immediately,” which appears 41 times. Though the word does not always mean “just then,” it serves to propel the narrative forward with speed and urgency. This is a Gospel on steroids!
The key word throughout this first half of Mark’s Gospel is “authority.” Everything Jesus does he does with authority. Jesus’ announcement of the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:13) is itself a claim of extraordinary authority. God’s “Kingdom” refers to his sovereign authority over all things as Creator and King. He is Lord of the universe. Yet since the “fall” of Adam and Eve, creation has been in a state of rebellion, fallenness, and decay. The “Kingdom of God” is shorthand for the renewal of all things. Jesus makes the remarkable claim that he is here to restore creation itself!
Claims to authority continue as Jesus begins his public ministry. He calls four fishermen to be his disciples and they drop everything to follow him (Mark 1:16–20). Jesus’ authoritative command inspires them to leave behind family, homes, and occupations. Jesus then enters the synagogue in Capernaum and begins to teach. The people are amazed because he teaches with authority, not like the teachers of the law (Mark 1:22). A demon-possessed man suddenly shows up in the synagogue. The demon quakes with fear at Jesus’ authority, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” (Mark 1:24). Whenever Jesus encounters demons, they recognize his identity and are terrified (Mark 1:24, 1:34, 3:11-12, 5:7). He is the mighty Messiah and Son of God!
Acts of authority continue throughout Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. By healing a lame man, Jesus confirms that “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Mark 2:10). As “Lord… of the Sabbath” he exercises authority over the Old Testament law (Mark 2:27). By appointing twelve apostles, representing the restored tribes of Israel (Mark 3:13-19), Jesus acts with the authority of God himself, who first called Israel into existence. Divine authority is also evident as Jesus controls the forces of nature, calming a storm with a command, “Quiet! Be still!” The terrified disciples respond, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” (Mark 4:39, 41). This question, “Who is this?” nicely summarizes the theme of this half of the Gospel. The question will be answered with Peter’s confession in Mark 8:30. More and even greater miracles follow. Jesus casts out not one, but a “legion” of demons (Mark 5:1–20); he heals chronic disease that no one has been able to help (Mark 5:25–34); he raises a young girl from the dead (Mark 5:35-43). Twice he feeds thousands of people with a few loaves of bread and fish (Mark 6:30-44, 8:1–13). He walks on water (Mark 6:45-56), a divine act, since “God alone… treads on the waves of the sea” (Job 9:8).
Mark’s Gospel reaches its initial climax and center point in the confession of Peter. Jesus takes his disciples north of Galilee to Caesarea Philippi for a time away from the crowds. On the way, he asks them, “Who do people say I am?” Their answers are varied: “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” Jesus then turns to them: “But what about you?... Who do you say I am?” Peter answers for the others: “You are the Messiah!” Jesus’ authoritative words and actions have convinced Peter that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, the Savior of Israel.
But in a shocking twist, Jesus defines the role of the Messiah as one of suffering and death (Mark 8:31). Peter is shocked at this defeatist attitude and rebukes Jesus. Jesus, in turn, rebukes him right back: “Get behind me, Satan!... You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns” (Mark 8:33). Though Peter is right that Jesus is the mighty Messiah and Son of God, he cannot fathom the suffering role of the Messiah. Yet without his suffering and death, the salvation of humankind will not be accomplished. This is Satan’s goal, to thwart God’s plan of salvation.
The Mission of Jesus: The Suffering Servant of the Lord (8:31-16:8)
This is the key turning point in Mark’s Gospel. From this episode onward the focus is on the cross. Three times in the next three chapters Jesus predicts his suffering and death (Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:34). These predictions climax in Jesus’ teaching at Mark 10:45, where he defines the reason for his death: “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus’ death will be an atoning sacrifice to pay for sins and to restore human beings to a right relationship with God.
In chapter 11, Jesus enters Jerusalem riding into the city on a donkey in fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9. This “triumphal entry” is Jesus’ first public disclosure of his messiahship. Prior to this, Jesus has intentionally kept a lid on his identity as the Messiah. Scholars refer to this unusual feature of Mark’s Gospel as the messianic secret. Jesus silences demons when they try to identify him (Mark 1:25, 1:34, 3:11-12, 5:7); he commands those who are healed not to tell anyone about it (Mark 1:44, 5:43, 7:36, 8:26); and he warns his disciples not to disclose that he is the Messiah (Mark 8:30, 9:9). Why the secret? With Jesus’ announcement in Mark 8:31, the reason becomes clear. Popular expectations among the Jews were centered on a warrior Messiah who would defeat the Romans and establish God’s Kingdom on earth. The inclination of the people would be to make Jesus king on their terms. In response, Jesus tamps down messianic expectations in order to define the true (suffering) role of the Messiah. He is here to conquer much greater foes than the Roman legions. He is here to destroy humanity’s greatest enemies: Satan, sin, and death.
Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem as Messiah is followed by several provocative acts. Jesus clears the temple of moneychangers (Mark 11:1–11), engages in a number of controversies with the religious leaders (Mark 11:27–33, 12:13-37), and tells a parable that presents the religious leaders as evil tenant farmers who are mismanaging God’s vineyard (Israel) (Mark 12:1–12). All of these acts challenge the authority of Israel’s leaders and provoke them to respond. Their response is to plot Jesus’ murder (Mark 11:18, 12:12, 14:1).
Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion are dark and disturbing scenes in Mark’s Gospel. At Jesus’ arrest, Judas, one of his own, betrays him. All of his disciples abandon him. While Jesus stands trial, outside in the courtyard Peter—the leader among the disciples who claimed absolute loyalty (Mark 14:29, 14:31)—three times denies him. In a travesty of justice, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate concedes to Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus dies on the cross in darkness, rejected by his own nation, mocked by bystanders, and abandoned by his closest followers. Even God seems to have abandoned him as Jesus cries out the words of Psalm 22:1: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).
Yet for those with eyes of faith, this is no tragedy. As Jesus has been teaching all along, his death is part of God’s sovereign purpose and plan to provide an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world (Mark 10:45). Victory comes through sacrifice, suffering, death, and resurrection.
Mark’s Unusual Ending
On the third day after Jesus’ death and burial, Mark describes how a group of women come to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body. They are shocked to discover that the stone is rolled away and the tomb is empty. An angel announces that Jesus has risen from the dead! Yet the women are bewildered and leave the tomb in fear and silence (Mark 16:1–8).
Surprisingly, this is where Mark’s Gospel ends in our earliest manuscripts. There are no resurrection appearances described. Later copyists were clearly disturbed by this ending and added a longer one, which summarizes a series of resurrection appearances. This longer ending appears in our Bibles today, though most versions mark it off with footnotes stating that it is not in our earliest and best manuscripts.
So what happened to Mark’s ending? Before attempting to answer this question, several clarifications are in order. First, it is not true that there is no resurrection in Mark. Jesus has repeatedly predicted the resurrection (Mark 8:31, 9:9-10, 9:31, 10:34, 14:28) and told his disciples that they would see him again in Galilee (Mark 14:28). Jesus is always a reliable character in Mark’s Gospel and so, from Mark’s perspective, Jesus rose from the dead, and his disciples saw him alive in Galilee. The angel, who is also an absolutely reliable character, also announces the resurrection and the resurrection appearance in Galilee (Mark 16:6, 16:7). So for Mark, the resurrection and resurrection appearances are facts of history.
Why doesn’t Mark describe these resurrection appearances? Some scholars think that Mark did describe them, but that the last page of his Gospel was lost. While this is posible, it seems more likely that Mark intended to end his Gospel this way. In many respects, the whole Gospel is a call to faith in the face of trials and suffering. Mark’s readers, who were likely suffering for their faith (see below), have heard the announcement of the resurrection, but they do not see Jesus physically with them. In this way, they are in the same position as the women. Will they respond with faith or with fear? Mark’s whole Gospel, including the empty tomb story, is a call for faith instead of fear in the face of an uncertain future.
Who Was Mark and Why Did He Write?
Strictly speaking, though all four Gospels are anonymous, early church tradition identified the author of the second Gospel as John Mark, cousin of Barnabas (Col 4:10) and son of Mary, a prominent woman in the church in Jerusalem (Acts 12:12). This attribution of authorship is probably accurate. Mark is a minor character in Acts, and it is unlikely the church would have invented a tradition in which a relative unknown authored a Gospel.
According to church tradition, Mark worked not only with Barnabas and the apostle Paul (Acts 13:5, 13:13, 15:37-41; 2 Tim 4:11), but also later, with Peter in Rome. The early church father, Papias, says that Mark became Peter’s interpreter and that his Gospel reflects Peter’s version of the Gospel. This makes sense for several reasons. First, 1 Peter 5:13 suggests that Peter and Mark worked together in Rome. Second, if Peter’s authority stands behind Mark’s Gospel, this would help to explain the Gospel’s acceptance by the church and also why Matthew and Luke would be willing to use it as a source for their Gospels. Third, the church in Rome was suffering severe persecution under emperor Nero about this time (64 B.C.E.). This context of persecution fits well with Mark’s narrative theme and purpose. The Gospel is a call to faithful discipleship in the face of suffering and even death. “Whoever wants to be my disciple,” Jesus says, “must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).
In summary, Mark’s Gospel is a narrative proclamation that Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God, whose death and resurrection paid the penalty for our sins and achieved victory over Satan, sin, and death. With this joyful announcement comes the call to all believers for faith and cross-bearing discipleship.