Action! Mark’s use of the word “immediately” occurs well over thirty times. The Gospel paints a moving, vivid, day-to-day drama of the dramatic life of Christ. It rushes from event to event as if breathlessly moving toward one final ultimate climax.
As a writer Mark would feel very much at home in he literary genre of today. his economical use of words, direct style and storytelling ability are appealing to modern readers. The Gospel of Mark is the shortest of the four records of Jesus’ life, and it covers only three and a half years. On the first page, Mark jumps into the action. Mark focuses his attention on Jesus’ public ministry. He is interested in Christ’s works, not just his words. Although Mark presents events in chronological order, he gives little or no historical linkage between the events. Readers feel, “Jesus is on the move; we’d better stay alert or we’ll miss something!”
Writing to a Roman audience, Mark did not have to recite Jesus’ genealogy or refer to Old Testament prophecies that have been fulfilled. Gentiles don’t need a Jewish history lesson; they need a clear picture of Christ. And the Romans believed in power and action. So Mark made sure they had a no-nonsense, concise, action-packed summary. Mark pictured Jesus as powerful—giving sight to the blind, raising the dead, calming stormy seas, restoring deformed bodies. But he showed Jesus using this mighty power to help others, taking the form of a servant, not a king. Mark wove the servant theme throughout his book and presented the servant Jesus as an example to follow. Here is the key verse: “For the Son of Man, came here not to be served but to serve others, and to give my life as a ransom for many” (10:44-45).
The Gospel of Mark is a short, action-packed account, bustling with life and focused on Christ’s ministry. As you study Mark, be ready for nonstop action, be open for God’s move into your life, and be challenged to move into your world to serve.
Mark was probably the first Gospel written. The other Gospels quote all but 31 verses of Mark. Mark records more miracles than does any other Gospel.
Mark put Peter’s oral accounts of Jesus’ ministry into written form. Some believe that Mark took notes from Peter’s preaching so that many stories in this Gospel were probably presented verbally before they appeared in written form. Perhaps Mark worked with Peter on the Gospel in those earlier years together but then released it for wider distribution after Peter’s death.
Mark was young, perhaps in his teens, at the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Evidently his mother, Mary, was a well-to-do widow who had come to faith in Christ. Many surmise that Mary’s house was the site of the Last Supper (14:12-26) and the home where the disciples gathered at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4); some believe that Mark was the young man who ran away naked when Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane (14:51-52). Regardless of the truth of these speculations, Scripture clearly states that fourteen years after the tumultuous events leading to the Crucifixion, in about a.d. 44, the church gathered at Mary’s house to pray. King Herod had begun to persecute believers; he had executed James, the brother of John, and he was keeping Peter in prison. The church was praying for Peter’s release. Luke explains that after Peter had been miraculously released from prison, “After a little thought, he went to the home of Mary, the mother of John Mark, where many were gathered for prayer” (Acts 12:12). Mark was deeply involved in the drama of the Jerusalem church and was well-known to Peter and the other disciples.
In Colossians 4:10, Paul reveals that Mark was the cousin of Barnabas. Perhaps that is what motivated Barnabas and Paul to take Mark with them back to Antioch from Jerusalem (Acts 12:25). Soon thereafter, Barnabas and Paul were commissioned by the church in Antioch to begin their first missionary journey (Acts 13:1-3), and they included Mark as their helper (Acts 13:5). Early in the trip, however, at Perga, Mark abruptly left and returned to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13). Luke gives no reason for Mark’s departure (perhaps he was homesick, fearful, or ill). Later, however, when Paul and Barnabas began to plan the second journey, Mark became the cause of a sharp disagreement between the two men. Barnabas wanted to include Mark again, but Paul was strongly opposed because Mark had “deserted” them on the previous trip. So Barnabas and Paul parted company. Barnabas sailed to Cyprus with Mark, while Paul chose Silas and traveled to Syria and Cilicia (Acts 15:36-41).
We know little else about John Mark. Evidently, he and Paul reconciled completely because later he joined Paul in Rome, during Paul’s first imprisonment (a.d. 60–62), and was a comfort to him there (Colossians 4:10-11; Philemon 24). During Paul’s second imprisonment and just before his death, he asked Timothy to bring Mark to Rome, “for he will be helpful to me” (2 Timothy 4:11). Mark must have matured emotionally and spiritually through the years and under the mentoring of cousin Barnabas.
Mark also enjoyed a very close relationship with Peter. In fact, Peter may have led Mark to Christ because he calls Mark “my son” (1 Peter 5:13). After Paul’s release from prison in a.d. 62, Mark may have stayed in Rome (also called “Babylon”—1 Peter 5:13) to work closely with Peter. Mark probably left Rome in about a.d. 65 or 66, during Nero’s intense persecution. Both Paul and Peter were executed by Nero in about a.d. 67 or 68. According to tradition, Mark died soon after.
John Mark provides a sterling example of how a young Christian can grow and mature. Perhaps basking in the attention of the spiritual giants Paul and Barnabas, and excited by the prospect of reaching the world with the gospel, he had sailed to Cyprus on the first missionary journey. A short time later, however, when the going got tough, Mark returned home. Whatever Mark’s reason for leaving, Paul didn’t approve; in fact, he wanted nothing to do with Mark after the incident. Yet fifteen years later, Mark was serving as a ministry companion to both Peter and Paul, and later he wrote the Gospel bearing his name. Little is known about Mark during those years, except that Barnabas took personal interest in him, encouraging Mark by continuing to work with him in ministry.
Date and Setting
Written in Rome between a.d. 55 and 70
Rome is identified as the place of writing because both Paul and Peter mention Mark as being there with them. (Colossians 4:10; 1 Peter 5:13. All roads led to Rome, the capital of the vast and mighty Roman Empire. At that time, Rome was the largest city in the world, with a population of approximately one million. Wealthy and cosmopolitan, it was the diplomatic and trade center of the world, the epitome of power and influence. No wonder Paul and Peter were drawn to Rome—it was a strategic beachhead for the spread of the gospel.
Roman Christians living in Rome
It is fairly certain that Mark directed his Gospel to Romans. One reason for this conclusion is that he took time to explain Jewish terms for his readers (see, for example, 5:41). Mark also explained Jewish customs (7:3-4; see also 3:17; 7:11, 34; 14:12; 15:22, 34, 42). Gentile readers would need such phrases and customs explained. There are other indications that Mark wrote to Gentiles in general and Romans in particular: He used several Latin words, some of which do not appear elsewhere in the New Testament. (This is evident in the original text of Mark 5:9; 12:15, 42; 15:16, 39.) He referred to the Old Testament less than the other Gospel writers; he did not use the word “law,” which was mentioned often by Matthew, Luke, and John; he used the Roman way of telling time (6:48; 13:35). All of this evidence points to a Roman audience.
It also seems clear that Mark was writing primarily to Christians. He used distinctively Christian terms such as “baptize” (1:4) and “Holy Spirit” (1:8) without explaining them. And Mark seems to have assumed that his readers were familiar with Jesus’ background, with John the Baptist, and with the major events of Jesus’ life.
Being a Christian in Rome meant being part of a distinct minority, religiously and socially. Rome was filled with gods, and the prevailing thought was that all the gods were real. So, Jews and Christians were viewed as atheists because they believed in only one God and denied the existence of all the pagan deities. Christians also came into direct conflict with basic Roman values. To Roman citizens, the highest allegiance was to the state, but for Christians, God took priority. Roman citizens were very class conscious, and non-Romans were seen as distinctly inferior. But Christians believed that “there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. For you are all Christians—you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Believers also refused to participate in immoral activities (see Galatians 5:19-23). Christians stood out and eventually were singled out for terrible persecution. Mark wrote to men and women who could have felt overwhelmed by pressures and problems and needed a clear, fresh look at Christ.
In many ways, Roman culture resembles ours today. Certainly we live in an almost pagan society, filled with a wide variety of gods, both secular and religious, with true followers of Christ being a distinct minority. In addition, ours is a Gentile church, with believers from all races, nationalities, and walks of life. So Mark’s Gospel translates easily to us today and provides a clear picture of Jesus.
Occasion and Purpose
The exact occasion that spurred Mark to write this Gospel is unknown. Unlike many epistles written by Paul to counter heretical teachings or church divisions, Mark hints of no precipitating event or problem. It may have been that Mark simply felt led by the Holy Spirit to give Peter’s eyewitness account of Christ, geared especially for the Roman people among whom they were ministering. Certainly the increasing pressure from the Roman government must have played a key role, because persecution can lead to doubts about the faith and discouragement. Believers needed assurance and hope. The Gospel of Mark gave them a close and personal look at Jesus, their Savior and Lord. They could be assured that the faith they were living and for which they were giving their lives was true and reliable. Jesus, the Son of God, had lived, served (1:1–13:37), suffered, and died for them (14:1–15:47). And he had risen from the grave (16:1-8)—their triumphant Savior was alive!
Today we enjoy the Bible, complete with Old and New Testaments. In fact, most Christians probably own several copies of the Scriptures. First-century believers did not have that privilege. The holy scrolls—ancient copies of the books of Moses, the prophets, and other Old Testament writers—were safely kept in the Temple and in synagogues, and were cared for and guarded by rabbis. These scrolls were studied and memorized and read on the Sabbath. As for the New Testament, most of the books and letters were just being written and circulated among the churches. So Christians had to rely on the teachings and eyewitness accounts of the apostles and others who had known Jesus. Members of the church at Rome, especially Gentiles, desperately needed to learn about Christ and what it meant to follow him. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Mark provided an accurate account of Jesus and the twelve disciples.
Like most new believers, the Romans also needed to know the cultural, social, and personal implications of their faith. How should they live in a hostile environment, in a society with values totally at odds with their own? Mark’s Gospel presented Jesus, the Servant, as their model to follow.
Centuries later, we live in a secular culture whose predominant values are far from Christian, and where under the banner of pluralism, government officials strain to remove every vestige of historic Christian faith from public life. While usually not as violent as Roman persecution, our society still pressures Christians to forget Christ. In a society replete with aberrant and heretical religious beliefs, cults, and idols, true followers of Christ have become an absolute minority. As in Rome, it would be easy to become discouraged, dismayed, and doubtful. As with the Romans, we need a fresh look at Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, our Lord.
As you read Mark, look at Jesus and see him for who he is—God in the flesh, the suffering Servant, your Savior and model for how to live.
.Jesus Christ, Son of God –Jesus was God in the flesh. When Jesus lived on earth, he clearly told his followers, the crowds, the religious leaders, and his accusers that he was the Son of God (see 14:60-65). And he demonstrated this truth by forgiving sins (see 2:5-12), controlling the forces of nature (see 4:35-41), and overcoming disease, demons, and death (see 5:1-43). In addition, Mark affirmed the divinity of Jesus by reporting the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism (1:11), the Transfiguration (9:2-10), and the Resurrection (16:1-8). Truly Jesus was and is the Son of God.
*Importance for today. The truth that Jesus, the man, is also God means that Jesus has the authority to forgive sins and to change lives. In fact, he died in our place, paying the penalty for our sins. So we can trust in Christ for forgiveness and eternal life. It also means that he is Truth and our authority. Those who know Christ as Savior must obey him as Lord. Christ was fully man, but he was much more—he was, and is, fully God. Do you know him as Savior? Do you follow him as Lord?
Jesus Christ, Servant –Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies about the coming Messiah by coming to earth. He did not come as the conquering king that the people expected, but as a servant, keeping the fact that he was the Messiah a secret. Eventually Jesus would reign as King of kings and Lord of lords, but first he would reveal himself as the Suffering Servant. Jesus served by telling people about God, healing them, and giving his life as the sacrifice for their sins. Jesus suffered by being born into a poor family and by being tempted, questioned, rejected, falsely accused and convicted, beaten, hit, spat upon, tortured, mocked, and crucified. Giving his life and becoming sin on the cross was the ultimate act of suffering and service.
*Importance for today. Those who claim Christ as Savior and Lord should follow his example by serving God and others. Real greatness in Christ’s Kingdom is shown by service and sacrifice. Instead of being motivated by ambition or love of power or position (as is true with most people), we should do God’s work because we love him and his creation. What does it mean for you to be a servant? What can you do to serve God today? To whom in your home, neighborhood, school, place of employment, or church can you give a “cup of water” in his name (9:41)?
Discipleship –Through the eyes of one of Jesus’ closest followers, Peter, Mark described the disciples’ difficulty in understanding Jesus’ true identity. They didn’t understand Jesus’ parables (see 4:13, 34; 7:18), his miracles (see 4:35-41; 6:45-52), his teaching on divorce (10:10-12), and his predictions of his approaching death and resurrection (8:32-33; 9:9-13, 32). In fact, in this Gospel they never did fully grasp who Jesus really was (see Peter’s response to Jesus in 8:31-32) and why he had come to earth. Jesus knew that his disciples wouldn’t truly understand his identity and mission until after the Resurrection, and he wanted to keep his true identity partially concealed until it would be revealed publicly after he had been raised from the dead. Yet he continued to teach the disciples about the cost of following him (8:34-38), about humility and Kingdom living (9:33–10:31), and about the importance of serving others (10:35-45).
*Importance for today. We live many centuries after Christ and have the benefit of reading about his life, death, and resurrection. But do we truly understand his identity as God and man, as Savior and Lord? And do we realize the cost of being his disciple? Following Jesus means dying to self, obeying him, and serving others (8:34-35). What kind of disciple are you?
Miracles – Mark records more of Jesus’ miracles than sermons; in fact, every chapter until his final ministry in Jerusalem (chapter 11) and subsequent capture, trial, and execution contains at least one miracle. Mark’s Roman readers could clearly see that Jesus was a man of power and action, not just words. Jesus performed miracles to release people from their sufferings (see 1:41-42), to convince the people who he was (see 2:1-12), and to teach the disciples his true identity as God (see 8:14-21).
*Importance for today. The more convinced we become that Jesus is God, the more we will see his power and love. Christ’s mighty works show us that he is able to save anyone, regardless of what he or she has done. His miracles of forgiveness bring healing, wholeness, and new life to all who trust him. Nothing is too big or too difficult for Christ to handle. We can give him all our needs and tell him all our problems. Are you struggling with doubts and fears? Trust Jesus. Are you hurting or suffering? Tell Jesus. Do you need a miracle in your life? Bring your request to Jesus.
Evangelism – Jesus directed his public ministry to the Jews first (1:21-28, 38-39), but he also brought healing and the Good News to the non-Jewish world. Syrians (7:24-30) and other Gentiles (5:1-20; 7:31-37) were given the Good News. Jesus challenged his followers to take his message into all the world (6:7-13), preaching the gospel of salvation.
*Importance for today. Jesus crossed national, racial, social, and economic barriers to spread the gospel. His message of faith and forgiveness is for the whole world, not just our church, neighborhood, community, or nation. We must reach beyond our own people and needs to fulfill Christ’s worldwide vision that people everywhere might hear this great message and be forgiven of their sins and receive eternal life. Who do you know that needs to hear about Christ? What keeps you from sharing the Good News with them? What can you do today to begin to reach out to those who do not know Christ?
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