This book is one of the first accounts of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The earliest historical traditions available link this book to a Christian scribe named Mark, or John Mark, who was a coworker with Paul (Col. 4:10; 2 Tim. 4:11) and a close partner with Peter (1 Pet. 5:13). In fact, an ancient church historian named Papias recalls that Mark had collected all the eyewitness accounts and memories of Peter, shaping them into this account.
But Mark did not randomly throw the account together. He has very carefully designed this story of Jesus. In the first line, Mark makes his claim about who Jesus is: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). What’s interesting is that this is the only time Mark says what he thinks about Jesus. For the rest of the book, he hopes to influence you by simply putting Jesus’ actions and words in front of you and showing you how other people react to him.
Mark designed the story of Jesus as a drama with three acts. The first act is set in Galilee, the second act is Jesus traveling, and the third takes place in Jerusalem. Each act focuses on a repeated theme. In Act 1 (chs. 1-8), everyone is amazed and wondering who Jesus is. In Act 2 (chs. 8-10), the disciples struggle to understand what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah. In Act 3 (chs. 11-16), we see the paradoxical way Jesus becomes the messianic King.
The earliest historical traditions available link this book to a Christian scribe named Mark, or John Mark.
The events described in Mark take place in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the surrounding occupied lands of the Greco-Roman Empire during the early 1st century, between 10-40 C.E. Mark was likely composed between 50 and 70 C.E.
The book of Mark is written in narrative, along with some discourse sections.
The good news of the Kingdom of God
Jesus of Nazareth as the suffering servant
The invitation to follow the Messiah
Mark is divided into four parts. Mark 1:1-8:26 show the mixed reactions to Jesus’ message. 8:27-10 present Jesus as the Messiah. 11-16 detail Jesus’ persecution, crucifixion, and resurrection. And 16:9-20 is a longer ending found in later manuscripts.
Mark 1:1-8:26: Mixed Reactions to God’s Kingdom Arriving in Jesus
After the opening line, Mark quotes the ancient prophets Isaiah and Malachi, who said that God would send a messenger to Israel to prepare them for God’s arrival and rescue of Jerusalem (Mark 1:2-15). Mark introduces John the Baptist as that messenger, and right when you expect God to show up, Mark introduces Jesus. As he enters the scene, the heavens open, God’s Spirit descends upon Jesus, and God says, “You are my beloved Son” (Mark 1:11).
Mark then includes a summary of Jesus’ core message. He went about Galilee, announcing “the good news that God’s Kingdom has come near.” Jesus is carrying forward the story from the Hebrew Scriptures about God’s rescue operation for his world. Through Jesus, God is restoring his reign over the world by confronting and defeating evil. Jesus then invites all to live under his reign by following him as a disciple.
After this introduction to Jesus and his message, Mark places a block of stories showing Jesus’ power as he brings God’s Kingdom into reality. Jesus goes around healing people whose bodies are sick, broken, or under the oppression of dark spiritual powers. He even does something that, for Jewish people, only God has the authority to do—forgive sins. Jesus’ provocative actions in these stories produce very different responses. Many people become his disciples and follow him, while others don’t know what to think. There are some who totally reject him, like Israel’s leaders, who accuse him of blaspheming God and being empowered by evil.
Jesus isn’t surprised by these diverse responses; he even draws attention to them. In chapter 4, Mark collects many of Jesus’ parables about the hidden, mysterious nature of God’s Kingdom. Jesus says that his message is like a seed falling on different types of soil. Some soils are receptive to this seed, but others are not. Like a tiny mustard seed, it seems small and insignificant, but it will grow to a huge size and surprise everyone. Jesus’ point in these parables is that he is the Messiah bringing God’s Kingdom, but it doesn't look like what anyone had expected.
This growing confusion about Jesus among the crowd is related to an important and repeated idea that Mark emphasizes in Act 1. Even among Jesus’ circle of disciples, there are multiple occasions where they are confused about him. Mark is highlighting how everybody struggles to grasp who Jesus is.
Mark 8:27-10: What It Means for Jesus to Be the Messiah
This brings us to Act 2, which begins with a crucial conversation. Jesus takes the disciples aside and asks, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers quickly, “You’re the Messiah!” But it becomes clear that, for Peter, this means a victorious, military king from the line of David, who will rescue Israel from the Romans. But for Jesus, the messiah is the suffering servant king of Isaiah 53, who’s going to establish God’s rule by giving up his life in Jerusalem.
The disciples just don’t get it. They think following King Jesus will mean fame and status and importance, but Jesus makes it clear that following him is like dying and carrying a cross to your own execution. It means rejecting violence, pride, and selfishness, and pouring out your life for others in acts of service and love. Jesus has this same conversation two more times in Act 2, and it all culminates in Jesus’ important statement: “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to become a servant and give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). The disciples still don’t get it and respond in confusion and fear.
Here in Act 2, Mark has placed another key story that echoes the book’s introduction. Jesus takes three of his disciples up to a mountain, where he is suddenly transformed and radiates with light and glory as a cloud envelops them. This is just like the glory of God that showed up long ago on Mount Sinai (Exod. 19- 20; 1 Kgs. 19). The two prophets who stood in God’s presence on Mount Sinai, Moses and Elijah, appear next to Jesus as God announces again, “This is my beloved Son” (Mark 9:7).
By placing this story in the middle of all these conversations in Act 2, Mark makes the astounding claim that Jesus, God’s Son, is the physical embodiment of God’s own radiant glory. Through Jesus, the glorious God of Israel will become King by suffering and dying for the sins of his own people. It’s a shocking claim that confuses and scares the disciples as they leave the mountain.
Mark 11-16: Confrontation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection
This brings us to Act 3 in which Jesus makes his public, royal entry into Jerusalem for Passover, where he is hailed as the Messiah. He then enters the temple courtyard and asserts his royal authority by running out the people scamming a profit off the worshipers and stopping the sacrificial system. This kicks off a whole week of Jesus debating and confronting the leaders of Israel, exposing their hypocrisy. In response, these leaders set in motion a plan to have Jesus killed. Jesus warns the disciples, predicting that Jerusalem and its temple will be destroyed within a generation (ch. 13). His disciples will also be persecuted like him until he returns to bring God’s Kingdom fully over all the world.
This all leads up to the final night (ch. 14). Jesus has the Passover meal with his disciples, a symbolic meal that tells the story of Israel’s liberation from slavery through the death of the Passover lamb. Jesus takes these symbols and gives them new meaning. They point to him and the liberation from sin and death that will take place through the death of the suffering servant Messiah. From here, the story rushes forward to Jesus’ arrest and trial before Israel’s priests and the Roman governor Pilate, resulting in Jesus’ crucifixion.
This culminates in a key scene that matches the important scenes in Acts 1 and 2. In this scene, darkness descends instead of a cloud, and instead of a voice from heaven, we hear Jesus cry out before he dies. Surprisingly, a Roman soldier sees Jesus die and grasps who he is. “This man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39). He’s the first person in the story to recognize Mark’s shocking claim about Jesus’ identity. The Messiah is the crucified Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth, who died for his friends and his enemies.
Jesus’ body is placed in a tomb, and, on the first day of the new week, two women from among Jesus’ disciples discover that the tombstone had been rolled away. An angelic man informs them that Jesus is not there because he’s risen from the dead! The angel orders them to go tell the good news to the other disciples—Jesus is alive and will meet them in Galilee. The women are freaked out. As Mark says, “They fled from the tomb in terror, telling no one, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8). That’s how the book of Mark ends, with Jesus’ disciples showing the same kind of fear and confusion that concluded the first two acts.
If you look in your Bible, you’ll see there’s more to Mark’s Gospel account. It includes a longer ending where Jesus appears and speaks to the disciples, but there’s also a note telling you that this ending is not part of the original book and is only found in later, less reliable manuscripts. It’s possible that the original ending got lost or Mark never actually finished his account, but it’s more likely that the abrupt ending with the terrified women is intentional.
The entire story has focused on the shocking claim that puzzled Jesus’ disciples all throughout the story, that the suffering, crucified, and now risen Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God. God’s love and Upside-Down Kingdom were revealed when Jesus died for the sins of the world. The story ends without closure, forcing the reader to grapple with this strange and scandalous claim. Will we run away like the disciples, or will we recognize the crucified Jesus as our King? Will we go forth and tell the good news? We have to answer these questions for ourselves, and that’s exactly what the Gospel of Mark is prompting us to do.