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by Donald C. Fleming
INTRODUCTION TO MARK
Like the other three Gospels, Mark is anonymous. However, from the first century the commonly held view has been that the author is John Mark of Jerusalem, and that his Gospel reflects Peter’s account of Jesus’ ministry.
Mark came from a prominent family in the early Jerusalem church. His parents were wealthy enough to own a large house and employ servants (Acts 12:12-13) and at least one of his close relatives, Barnabas, was a reasonably prosperous landowner (Acts 4:36-37; Colossians 4:10). The traditional belief is that Mark’s family home was the place where Jesus held the last supper and where the disciples met in the early days of the church (Luke 22:11-13; Acts 1:13).
Mark’s service in the gospel
Perhaps the first reference to Mark is in the story of the young man who followed Jesus and his friends to the Garden of Gethsemane but fled when opponents tried to seize him. This story appears only in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 14:51-52). According to a common practice, an author might include a reference to himself but not use his own name directly (cf. John 13:23; 2 Corinthians 12:2; 2 Corinthians 12:2).
Because the early church leaders met in Mark’s family home, Mark would have known Peter and other early Christian leaders (Acts 12:12-14). Paul and Barnabas were impressed with him sufficiently to take him with them from Jerusalem to Antioch in Syria, and then to Cyprus and Asia Minor on a missionary journey (Acts 12:25; Acts 13:1-5).
After only a short time, Mark left Paul and Barnabas and returned to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13). Paul thought this showed a weakness in Mark and refused to take him on his next missionary journey. When Paul and Barnabas quarrelled about the matter and separated, Barnabas took Mark on a return mission to Cyprus (Acts 15:36-41).
The Bible records nothing of Mark’s activities during the next ten years or so. Other early records, however, provide evidence that he spent some time with Peter evangelizing the northern regions of Asia Minor. He became so closely associated with Peter that Peter referred to him as his son (1 Peter 5:13). Later the two visited Rome, where Peter helped the church by his teaching on the life and ministry of Jesus. When Peter left Rome, Mark stayed behind, and in response to the needs of the local Christians he wrote down the story of Jesus as they had heard it from Peter. The result was Mark’s Gospel. (For further reference to Mark’s ministry in Rome see earlier section ‘The Writing of the Gospels’.)
Paul visited Rome while Mark was there, and recommended him as one who could be of help to young Christians (Colossians 4:10). A few years later, when Paul was awaiting execution, he called for Mark to be with him in his final days (2 Timothy 4:11).
Features of Mark’s Gospel
In Mark’s Gospel there are many features that reflect the interests and character of Peter. Apart from events surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection, most of Jesus’ ministry recorded in Mark was centred in Galilee, where Peter’s home town of Capernaum seems to have been Jesus’ base. In fact, his real base may have been Peter’s own house (Mark 1:21,Mark 1:29; Mark 2:1; Mark 9:33).
The account in Mark shows the characteristic haste of Peter, as it rushes on from one story to the next. The language is usually more clearcut than in the parallels of the other Gospels, reported statements are more direct and details are more vivid. This is particularly so in describing Jesus’ actions and emotions (Mark 1:41; Mark 3:5; Mark 4:38; Mark 6:6; Mark 10:14,Mark 10:16,Mark 10:21,Mark 10:32). The genuineness of Peter is seen in that his mistakes are more openly reported than in the other Gospels (Mark 9:5-6; Mark 14:66-72), whereas incidents that might bring him praise are omitted (cf. Matthew 14:29; Matthew 16:17).
As the story of Jesus was set in Palestine, the Gentiles in Rome needed certain details explained. Consequently, Mark translated Hebrew or Aramaic expressions (Mark 3:17; Mark 5:41; Mark 7:11,Mark 7:34; Mark 15:22,Mark 15:34) and explained Jewish beliefs and practices (Mark 7:3-4; Mark 12:18,Mark 12:42; Mark 14:12; Mark 15:42).
Persecution of Christians
During the decade of the sixties, the government intensified its persecution of Christians, particularly after Nero blamed Christians for the great fire of Rome in AD 64. Just before this, Peter had written a letter from Rome (which he code-named Babylon; 1 Peter 5:13) to Christians in northern Asia Minor to warn them that, although they were already being persecuted, worse was to come. He gave them encouragement to face their trials positively and to look forward to a victorious future (1 Peter 1:6; 1 Peter 2:20-23; 1 Peter 3:14-17; 1 Peter 4:12-16). Not long after this he himself was executed by Rome (2 Peter 1:14; cf. John 21:18-19).
Mark’s Gospel, like 1 Peter, was written at the beginning of this time of increasing persecution. It reminded the Roman Christians (from Peter’s own experience of the life and teaching of Jesus) that they would need strength and patience to endure misunderstandings, false accusations, persecution and possibly betrayal (Mark 3:21,Mark 3:30; Mark 4:17; Mark 8:34-38; Mark 10:30; Mark 13:9,Mark 13:13; Mark 14:41,Mark 14:71-72; Mark 15:15,Mark 15:19,Mark 15:32).
Mark’s view of Jesus
The Gospel of Mark records more action than the other Gospels, but less of Jesus’ teaching. Its basic teaching purpose, as the opening verse indicates, is to show that Jesus is the Son of God (Mark 1:1). According to Mark, the entire ministry of Jesus showed that he was a divine person in human form, the Messiah who came from God.
At the baptism of Jesus, the starting point of his public ministry, God’s declaration concerning Jesus showed what this unique ministry would involve. That declaration combined Old Testament quotations relating to the Davidic Messiah and the Servant of the Lord, showing that Jesus’ way to kingly glory was to be that of the suffering servant (Mark 1:11; cf. Psalms 2:7; Isaiah 42:1). Jesus was the heavenly Son of man to whom God promised a worldwide and everlasting kingdom, but he would receive that kingdom only by way of crucifixion (Mark 8:29-31,Mark 8:38; Mark 10:45; Mark 14:62; cf. Daniel 7:13-14). (For the meaning of ‘Son of man’ and ‘Son of God’ see ‘Jesus and the Kingdom’ below.)
As might be expected, the death of Jesus is the climax of Mark’s Gospel, but Mark draws attention to the confession of Jesus that brought about that death. Mark alone records that when the Sanhedrin asked Jesus if he was the Messiah, the Son of God, Jesus replied openly, ‘I am’. Jesus then expanded his answer to show that he was both messianic Son of God and heavenly Son of man, and he was on the way to his kingly and heavenly glory (Mark 14:61-64).
Throughout his Gospel, Mark reinforces this essential truth that Jesus was the Son of God. Demons knew that Jesus was the Son of God (Mark 3:11; Mark 5:7), Jesus’ disciples recognized it (Mark 8:29), and the Father confirmed it at his transfiguration (Mark 9:7). Jesus declared it plainly to his disciples and to his enemies (Mark 13:32; Mark 14:61-62), and even a Roman centurion at the cross was forced to admit it (Mark 15:39).
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29