A few years ago I was about to preach for the first time in a certain church. As I began to arrange my papers and books I noticed a sign on the top of the pulpit. It was a quotation from John 12:21 in which it is recorded that certain Greeks approached Philip and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” I have since learned that many churches have placed these words on their pulpit as a reminder to the minister that one non-negotiable purpose of preaching is to show the glories of Christ to the congregation. I remember getting a little nervous as I thought about that sign, wondering if Christ was clearly set forth in my sermon. I’ll never forget this event.
It is, of course, possible to lose sight of Christ in one’s theology. But to do so is to forfeit the foundation of our faith. We become like Peter, who knew his theology but took his eyes off Jesus and began to sink in the sea. It is critically important for us to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. One of the best ways to do so is to spend some time in the Gospels.
This first study introduces Mark’s Gospel using his own preface: “the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Mark tells us in his first verse that he has not written an epistle or a book of poetry but a Gospel. In so saying, Mark gives us a clue to help us understand his contribution to Holy Scripture.
Introducing the Gospels
What is a Gospel, and why is this question critical in our study of this second book of the New Testament?
The Gospels Are Narratives
“Broadly speaking, biblical truth comes in two basic literary forms, narrative and discourse. Narratives are stories” of historical events.1 Gospels are distinct from poetry, or epistles, or prophecy, in that their teachings are couched in story.
The fact that the Gospels are narratives suggests several implications for how we study them. First, we need to keep the story form as much as possible. To take a tiny portion of a story and expound it at great length is to risk destroying the power of the story.2 Second, it is usually best to study one Gospel at a time. In other words, there is a place for judicious comparison with parallel Gospel accounts, but we should remember that “it is precisely their distinctives that are the reason for having four gospels in the first place.”3 So, for example, this study will not consider Jesus’ birth narrative because Mark says nothing about it.
Third, we need to try to enter into the story as much as possible. A good story draws us in. And Mark, more than the other Gospel writers, includes the kind of details that help us imagine that we are in the story. Mark presents his message not as a dry lawyer’s brief but as a fast-paced historical account of the ministry of the Savior of the world.
The Gospels Are Prophetic Fulfillment
The Gospels are direct historical fulfillment of the Old Testament. Mark’s second verse draws forward the testimony of the prophets: “As it is written in the prophets . . .” The Gospels essentially answer the question, “What has become of the message of the prophets?” Remember that the Old Testament had been completed around four hundred years before the first Gospels were written. During the intervening time there had been little to no prophetic movement. People were waiting and wondering, “Where is this promised Seed?” For this reason, Matthew begins with a genealogy. In his defense to Agrippa, Paul says that the only charge against him is that he has been saying “no other things than those which the prophets and Moses said would come—that the Christ would suffer, that He would be the first to rise from the dead and would proclaim light to the Jewish people and to the Gentiles” (Acts 26:22-23). Mark would have agreed with Paul.
Gospels Are Good News
Unlike other narratives, biblical narratives have a very specific purpose, namely, to describe the redemptive acts of God. “Gospel” comes from the Old English “godspell,” or “good news.” Gospels are theological biographies which announce the greatest story ever told (cf. Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1-3): Christ has come in the flesh to “deliver a ruined world, and to restore men from death to life.”4 As we study this Gospel we need to keep asking the question, “How does Jesus’ life teach us good news?”
Profiting from the Gospels
You probably wouldn’t be reading this study if you didn’t believe that it will be profitable to your spiritual life. One of simplest plans to profit from Mark’s Gospel is to expect to see Jesus in his role as mediator. Christ came to fulfill the badly-deteriorated Old Testament offices of prophet, priest, and king (Jer. 8:1-3). As prophet he teaches us God’s will; as king he rules over history and judges the thoughts words, and deeds of men; and as priest he lays down his life to save his brethren. As we see Jesus in his threefold splendor, we respond as his loyal subjects.
We Witness God’s Redemptive Work in Christ
When studying the Gospels we must ask, “Where is God in this story?” The Gospels help to give us a theological world and life view. The Gospels are different from modern histories in that their authors write from a transcendent viewpoint; they write from the perspective of God. They help explain the supernatural purposes lying behind the natural events.5 This is how we need to see life. In order to be shaped by the theological history of the gospel we must not read the Gospels simply as moral lessons. The events in the Gospels are significant because they actually happened.
Biblical history is essentially the history of Christ. This is blatant in the Gospels. Other characters come in and out of the story, but the story never ceases to be about Jesus (even if none of them say everything about Christ).6
We Observe the Life That God Blesses or Judges7
When we read the Gospels we catch a glimpse of God interacting with men; in some cases blessing, in some cases cursing. We learn from these interactions what type of life God honors and which he rejects. We learn about this life in the Epistles through doctrine; in the Gospels through illustration.8 Someone has said, “History is moral philosophy teaching by example.”
We see the characters in narrative as mirrors. Sometimes we see an image that resembles us (for better or for worse). Sometimes we see an image that doesn’t resemble us (again, for better or for worse). For example, we see Judas filled with remorse for his sins but not exhibiting true repentance (Matt. 27:3). We see Pilate give in to crowd’s pressure and refuse to do what he knew was right. We watch Peter confess Christ and then falter (Mark 8:29; 14:66-72). The characters in the Gospels are literally living before the face of God in Christ. This fact cracks open a special window into our own lives as we seek to live before the face of God. We must learn to ask, “Where am I in this story?”
We Submit to the Great Teacher
The epistle to the Hebrews begins by saying that God, previously spoke by the prophets but “has in these last days spoken to us by His son, whom he has appointed heir of all things” (Heb. 1:1). God speaks to us through his Son. When Jesus was transfigured on the mountain God’s voice boomed from heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son, hear him!” (Mark 9:7). Jesus speaks through the entire Bible. But God insists that there is something unique about the prophetic earthly ministry of Christ recorded in the Gospels. In the words of Christ, the will of God takes on flesh and blood and communicates to us in a powerful way. If we did not have the Gospels we might miss God’s tender invitations, his angry warnings, his solemn commands.
Introducing Mark’s Gospel
The more we know about this book the better we will be able to enter into it.
Although we will talk about a human author of this book, the preeminent author is God the Holy Spirit. The Bible teaches that God moved holy men to record his very words (2 Peter 1:21). The book which we are undertaking to study is, properly speaking, God’s Gospel, not Mark’s.10
As the human author of the second Gospel, John Mark was not an apostle but a close associate of the apostle Peter, who calls him his son (1 Peter 5:13). He likely grew up right in the center of the exciting start of Christianity (Mark 14:51-52) because his mother, Mary, occupied a position of prominence and influence among the early Christians (Acts 12:12). He was present for part of the first missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas, who was his cousin (Acts 12:25; 13:13). Mark evidently proved himself faithful thereafter, for when Paul is imprisoned in Rome he commends Mark to the Colossians (Col. 4:10). In fact, shortly before Paul died he requested Mark’s presence (2 Tim. 4:11). By this time, Mark had probably written his Gospel.
When Mark first met Jesus he was likely a young man who seems to have grown up in a pious home. Some people take this to be a boring thing. The life of Mark was anything but boring. Nor was it unproductive. He seems to have failed greatly on Paul’s first journey. Yet he did not sulk in defeat but rather continued to labor for the Lord.
Prominent Themes in Mark
As we begin our study it will be helpful to catch a glimpse of some of the themes we should expect to encounter along the way.
First, Mark focuses more on the works than the words of Christ (in comparison with the other Gospels).11 Understanding this is helpful in two ways. First, it teaches us that we are to be not only talkers but also doers. The Gospel of Mark is a grand illustration of James’s point that faith is made perfect by works (James 2:22). Second, it reminds us that Christ was a doer. We are not saved because Christ talked about the kingdom of God (as important as this is) but because he ushered in the kingdom of God by his deeds. He fought against Satan. He performed miracles. He walked this earth faithfully to fulfill the law’s demands for us. As one commentator has said, Mark presents the ministry of Christ “as one of strenuous activity. Task follows task, with almost breathless rapidity.”12 It is not insignificant that Mark frequently prefaces Christ’s action with the word immediately.13 It is true that in his doing he sets a pattern for us, but he also comforts us with the promise that “it is done.” Christ is the ultimate doer. He labored for us so that we could rest in him. At the same time, Mark records ten occasions on which Jesus withdrew from the crowds to be alone with his disciples or with God.14
Second, Mark emphasizes Christ’s passion. Mark devotes a greater proportion of his Gospel to the events surrounding Christ’s death than Matthew, Luke, or John. He uses ten chapters to describe the first thirty-three years of Jesus’ life, and five chapters to portray the week of his death. This dual emphasis is a beautiful picture of our redemption which is accomplished by both the active and passive obedience of Christ. We might say that Mark divides his Gospel into two scenes, although with significant thematic overlap. In the first scene Christ identifies with sinners. He demonstrates his power over evil through his miracles; he declares that he has power to forgive sins. He fulfills the will of God. This scene focuses on his active obedience. In the second scene he gives his life as a ransom. He is forsaken by both his friends and his Father. His blood falls to the sin-cursed ground. He paid the price for our disobedience. In his death, Christ’s passive obedience shines like the stars on a dark night.
Third, Mark stresses the suffering nature of discipleship (8:34; 10:21). Throughout the Gospel, Mark makes it clear that to follow Jesus necessarily means to tread the way that he trod. Mark’s Gospel stresses that suffering always precedes glory; it did for Christ and it will for the Christian. We need to grasp this especially in light of the impact the health, wealth, and prosperity gospel has made on the church.
Fourth, Mark prioritizes Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom; he uses the word kingdom at least twenty-one times. Louis Berkhof succinctly defines the kingdom as “the rule of God established and acknowledged in the hearts of sinners.”15 This is what Christ is doing in Mark’s Gospel. This definition of the kingdom helps us avoid two dangerous errors. First, we deny that the kingdom of God can be brought to bear by “human endeavors, such as education, [laws] or social reforms.”16 When Christ and the disciples go out preaching the kingdom, they call men to repent and believe in Christ (1:15). Unless one’s heart is changed, one cannot be an agent of change in the world. Second, we learn the fallacy which suggests that true religion is strictly a private matter which is impotent to engage the world. When God changes our hearts, we become citizens of his kingdom who are obliged to use kingdom principles to make war against the gates of hell (Matt. 16:18).
The great irony is that Christ doesn’t establish this kingdom through typical means of force but through suffering service. Charles Erdman has suggested that the key verse of Mark’s Gospel is Mark 10:45, “The Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” This is what we will see in the Gospel of Mark: The King of kings establishing a kingdom through service and sacrifice. It is this very thing that makes him the King of kings.
1. Dan Doriani, Getting the Message: A Plan for Interpreting and Applying the Bible (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1996), 61.
2. In preaching through a Gospel periscope it is best to follow the story line of the text. This seems to suggest that there should be manifest progress in a narrative sermon and sermon series. See Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 307.
3. Compare John Broadus, Preparation and Delivery of Sermons (New York: Hodder and Stoughton, 1898), 330, and Greidanus, Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text, 297.
4. From John Calvin’s definition of Gospel in Harmony of the Gospels, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989), xxxvi.
5. See Dan McCartney and Charles Clayton, Let the Reader Understand: A Guide to Interpreting and Applying the Bible (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2002), 224.
6. Compare John 21:30-31; 21:25, and William Klein, Craig Blomberg, and Robert Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 400.
7. See Doriani, Getting the Message, 73-75.
8. Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth: A Guide to Understanding the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 83.
9. This section borrows from the clearly written introduction to Mark’s Gospel found in Charles Erdman, The Gospel of Mark (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1945), 7-14.
10. Nonetheless, Jesus was comfortable with referring to the human author of Bible books (e.g., Luke 24:27).
11. Notably, Mark records very few of Jesus’ parables (four) but a host of miracles (nineteen).
12. Erdman, Gospel of Mark, 11.
13. This word in the Greek is found forty-two times in Mark, which is more times than it is used in all the other books in the New Testament combined.
14. Erdman, Gospel of Mark, 12.
15. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 408.
16. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 408.
Points to Ponder and Discuss
1. What is a Gospel?
2. How is a Gospel both similar to and different from a biography?
3. Who is the author of the second Gospel? Explain.
4. What are some themes that are evident in the book of Mark?
5. Why might Mark’s Gospel slow down near the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry?
6. How is Jesus’ constant activity in Mark a comfort for believers?
7. What are three questions that can help us profit from our study of the Gospels?
8. What are some practical implications of grasping Mark’s theme of “victory through suffering”?
9. Reflect on the definition of “kingdom” offered in this study.