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 (Mark1:1-8:30)
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 preexistence 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.
Now, 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.