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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

- Mark

by Various Authors


Paul S. Minear


The Churches in Rome

The book we know as the Gospel according to Mark was in all likelihood written in the city of Rome during the middle decades of the first century a.d. We may well begin our study, therefore, by trying to picture that city. Situated in Italy, on both sides of the Tiber River, the ancient city occupied roughly the same location as does today’s Rome. Its population was probably well over a million and included people who had migrated from all provinces of the empire and even from beyond its frontiers. Jostling each other on its streets were men of many nations. Some had been drawn by the magnetic pull of commerce; others had been brought as slaves from territories conquered by Roman legions. They had brought with them their own cults and cultures, their ancestral traditions and tongues. In the shops, therefore, virtually all the languages of the Mediterranean world could be heard, although, as in most polyglot cities, the people of a given tongue and heritage gravitated toward the same borough of the city.

Rome was the administrative headquarters for a powerful empire, reaching from Spain in the west to unruly Parthia in the east, from Britain in the north to the land of the Egyptians and the Carthaginians in the south. From its extensive barracks, legions of soldiers were dispatched to keep order within a vast domain and to extend the boundary of political power. This was the city of emperors, the site of palaces, of senate buildings, of courts and temples, a city even more impressive then than it is today — the queen of the world.

Rome was also the undisputed financial and commercial center of the empire. It was linked closely to all parts of the empire by land and sea routes, by frequent courier service, and by a surprising volume of travel and trade. All roads did in fact lead to — and away from — Rome. On the success of ocean-borne trade its people were dependent for both their necessities and their luxuries (see Revelation 18:11-13 for a sample list). The value of the currency was basically controlled by its banks and legislators, so that Romans (or at least some of them) would profit from successive waves of inflation or deflation. Here was determined the amount of taxes to be collected from the provinces; here were levied all sorts of duties — excise, import, and export — on the flow of trade. As was true of earlier and later Babylons, Rome embodied the grandeur and shame, the wealth and poverty, the power and cruelty, the administrative efficiency and petty bureaucracy, of human society at its worst and at its best.

The student who is interested in what happened in this ancient city must perforce follow a calendar which is punctuated by the accessions of successive emperors. Four of these are significant during the first generation of Christian history:

(1) Tiberius (a.d. 14-37), the sovereign during Jesus’ ministry (Luke 3:1) and the one who appointed the governors of Judea;

(2) Caligula (a.d. 37-41), called "the mad emperor," whose orders to install his ensign in the Jerusalem Temple provoked riots among the Jews;

(3) Claudius (a.d. 41-54), who expelled many Jews from Rome after the introduction of the Christian movement had excited disturbances among them (Acts 18:2);

(4) Nero (a.d. 54-68), an erratic and turbulent ruler, whose career ended in suicide after his repudiation by the Senate.

Although the enthronement of these rulers punctuated the calendar, and although their policies affected the fortunes of all groups, including the Christians, the Christian movement established more direct contact with the lowlier folk and became more deeply rooted among groups which were far less powerful and prominent (1 Corinthians 1:26-29). In Rome, as elsewhere, the first community to feel the impact of the Christian gospel was the house of Israel. Already more sons of this house lived outside Palestine than within it. Because of faithfulness to the Covenant with their God, many of them remained strangers and aliens, refusing assimilation into pagan citizenries. For the same reason Gentile hostility toward them remained, and slight provocations could produce bloody anti-Semitic riots in almost every city at any time. Not all Jews, to be sure, obeyed the command to remain separate. Then, as now, it must have seemed the path of prudence to become wholly identified with the holders of power. Yet the synagogues persisted, and to Roman citizens they must often have appeared as centers of sedition and treason.

Certainly this was the case in Rome, where Jews formed one of the largest of the foreign blocs. They had lived in this city for over a century, ever since Pompey had brought slaves and hostages from his capture of Jerusalem in 63 B.C. During subsequent decades other Jews had come voluntarily, drawn by business affiliations and opportunities. By the time of the Christian invasion of Rome, the Jewish community probably numbered more than fifty thousand: slaves, manual laborers, traders, shopkeepers, professional people. Their shops and homes were clustered together in various wards of the city.

Near their homes they established synagogues, of which the names of thirteen have been recovered by historians. Attached to each synagogue was a school for both children and adults. Here the Scriptures were systematically studied, and here on the Sabbath they were publicly read and expounded as an essential act of worship. Here the holy days of Israel, the festivals and the fasts, were faithfully celebrated. Some of the Roman neighbors of the Jews, attracted to their ancient and austere faith, probably attended the synagogues and became familiar with their traditions and hopes. But others were repelled and became suspicious of these foreigners with their strange customs and their staunch loyalty to an alien god. And among the Jews themselves controversy was continuous — between those who loved and those who detested Rome, between those who favored and those who feared assimilation, between those whose hearts were still fixed on the Judean homeland and those who had fused their hopes on achieving greater wealth and status in the western metropolis.

Into this vortex of world power, and into this cluster of synagogues, came messengers from Judea bearing the announcement that the God of Israel had now at long last sent a deliverer to his people and that this deliverer had been crucified in the Holy City. We will never know exactly what brought them, whether they came on business, or on visits to kinfolk, or at the command of employers, or simply from the constraint to bring the news of deliverance. We can do little more than speculate concerning the earliest days of the Christians in Rome. A few clues, however, may be recovered from surviving records.

The first episode in the life of the Roman churches which left traces in written history came during the reign of Claudius (a.d. 41-54). These traces were the direct result of trouble aroused by the Christians, trouble so pronounced as to call for their expulsion from Rome. According to Acts 18:1-3, when Paul first reached Corinth, he found a place to live and to work with Aquila and Priscilla (about a.d. 50). It is almost certain that this couple were Christian Jews who had themselves been active in mission work in Rome. They had lately moved from Italy to Corinth because "Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome." This casual remark in Acts is corroborated by the Roman historian Suetonius, who told his readers that Claudius had expelled certain Jews from Rome because a certain "Chrestos" had instigated riots among them. Putting these two clues together and drawing the likely inferences, we may conclude that Aquila and his wife had probably provoked those disorders through their efforts to convince other Jews in the Roman synagogues that Jesus of Nazareth was in fact God’s Messiah (Christos). Whether or not Aquila and his wife were the first to bring the news of Jesus to Rome we do not know, but we do know that the news, when it came to Rome, soon set off an explosion among the synagogues. The reports of riots under Claudius suggest that those who believed in Jesus as God’s Messiah were willing, for his sake, to accept sharp resistance from their neighbors and kinsmen. We will come back to this point after noticing the second bit of evidence concerning the Roman churches, this clue being provided, only a few years after Claudius’ edict, by Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome.

It is altogether probable that, even as early as Claudius’ edict, there had been more than one congregation in Rome. A handful of disciples would hardly have caused such a riot as to require the emperor’s sweeping effort to expel all the troublemakers. This supposition is strengthened by the postscript to Paul’s letter (Romans 16), which probably, although not certainly, was included in Paul’s original letter. In this postscript Paul wrote as if he knew of the existence of several Christian cells in the capital city. He spoke of the church which gathered in the home of Aquila and Priscilla (Romans 16:5). Another congregation seems to have met regularly in the house of Aristobulus (Romans 16:10), another in the house of Narcissus (Romans 16:11), another in the house of Asyncritus (Romans 16:14), and still another in the house of Philologus (Romans 16:15). Other house-churches may have been represented by the other disciples whom he mentions. All in all, he greeted more than five congregations and more than twenty five individuals. What an impressive list of church members in Rome! How much we would know if we knew their whole story! Yet we know little more than their names. There must have been many other staunch believers whose names have been wholly lost.

One thing is overwhelmingly clear from this list: Claudius, the emperor, had failed. Within a very short time after his efforts to expel the believers, there had developed at least five house-congregations of whose existence Paul had learned in distant Corinth. These congregations were scattered in different sections of the huge metropolis on the Tiber. Some were Jewish in membership, some Gentile, some mixed. Some were led by men who had been followers of Christ for as long as twenty years. The leaders in some were women, of whom Paul salutes at least six. These groups were, in all likelihood, not well known to one another. The city was large. There was no page for church announcements in the daily paper. There was no separate building for church assemblies, no headquarters, no staff. Yet the various house-churches maintained some contact with fellow believers in other provinces, in Judea, Achaia, and Asia. Travelers moved constantly from one congregation in the East to another in Rome. In fact, one of Paul’s reasons for writing was to introduce the deaconess from the household of faith in Cenchreae, who doubtless intended to continue her ministry after moving to Rome (Romans 16:1-2).

Paul’s letter to the Roman congregations tells us far more, however, than simply the names of Roman Christians and the number of houses in which they met. It provides valuable clues concerning what was going on in those congregations, what difficulties they were facing. Because this letter preceded Mark’s work in Rome by less than a decade, we should pay heed to these clues. Paul’s discussion in Romans 14, 15 shows all too clearly that these churches were at odds with one another. House churches composed of Jews did not extend hospitality to Gentile Christians. Why not? Because these Gentile brothers refused to consider the Sabbath Day holy, according to the commandment of the Law (Deuteronomy 5:12). Furthermore, they refused to observe the dietary commandments of the Law, but were in the habit of eating any food, however unclean it might be judged by Scripture. Jewish Christians were therefore impelled by loyalty to God’s Word to consider Gentile Christians unclean and to refuse to eat with them. From the opposite side, these Gentile Christians quite naturally despised and ridiculed their Jewish brothers who held such compunctions about what days were holy and what foods clean. They tried to persuade Jewish disciples to break the Law even before their consciences would permit them to do so. So whenever the two groups met, they fell to wrangling about food and holy days. Their animosities destroyed the peace and joy which should have been theirs in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17).

The issue was far more serious than twentieth-century Gentiles can easily imagine. Far more was involved than "blue laws" and dietary fads. What was involved may become clearer to us if we consider the series of questions which Paul poses in his letter to Jews and Gentiles in Rome. Each question reflects a heated debate among those readers, a debate in which both negative and positive answers were firmly held, a debate which steadily increased division within the churches.

Consider, for example, the question: "What advantage has the Jew?" (Romans 3:1). This query was the occasion for endless friction among the Roman Christians. Some answered, "None"; others answered, "Great advantage, indeed." And these two groups could hardly live in peace with each other. As another example, "Has God rejected his people?" — that is, Israel (Romans 11:1). Again we infer that there were Roman Christians who rejoiced in the affirmation (anti-Semitism is not a modern invention) and others who insisted on the negation. The debate was a warm one, as it always is when some groups are being excluded from the select circle or given inferior positions.

These questions may be sufficient to illustrate how deep and difficult were the chasms between one group of Roman believers and another. The student of Mark should carefully examine the other key queries in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Many of them sprang from the controversies over the continuing validity of the Law and the Prophets. "What then shall we say about Abraham . . .?" Did not God promise a unique destiny to his descendants? (Romans 4:1). Does circumcision lose its value in this new day? (Romans 2:25). Does faith in Jesus Christ justify us in overthrowing the Law? (Romans 3:31). If we ignore God’s demand for obedience to his will, as embodied in Moses’ covenant, will faith in the gospel alone be adequate to ensure salvation? (Romans 1:16). If so, does this mean that the more we sin, the more we honor the power of grace? (Romans 6:1), All these questions reveal agonizing hostilities within the churches, and poignant need for reconciliation.

Paul’s letter thus echoes the dilemmas of the Roman believers. But it also suggests that these believers were bound together by forces of which they were only partly aware. If we are to understand the churches for whom Mark’s Gospel was written, we must ask not only about the tensions within their fellowship but also about the forces which held them together. The Apostle who had heard so much about their disputes knew something as well about these cohesive forces.

All of them had heard God’s summons to believe in the good news and had accepted it. All had been loved by God, had been claimed as his property by Christ. All shared the same status as Christ’s slaves. All were therefore saints (Romans 1:1-7). Having accepted the same gospel, they had received redemption as a gift (Romans 3:24) which God had offered to them while they were his enemies (Romans 5:10). They thus shared in the same status before God, however different might be their standing within the political, economic, or religious brackets of Roman society. In fact, Paul reminds them that every one of them has already passed through death. They are now "dead men on holiday," living on time borrowed, or rather given to them, from God. Together they had died with Christ, and had been united to him in the hope of "a resurrection like his" (Romans 6:1-11). Henceforth this Master was their owner. Everything given to them was given by him, therefore their first obligation was to give thanks to him. So complete was his control over them that such matters as whether they died or continued to live did not affect their destiny. Even so decisive a matter as death had lost its power to separate them from him. How much less power then, should be assigned to those matters on which they were at odds. For those who had inherited God’s Kingdom, such things as earthly wealth or social status or religious practice could no longer serve as barriers to hospitality. Such was the logic of faith as Paul understood it.

This, then, is a brief sketch of conditions in the Roman churches a decade or so before Mark, and we need not suppose that conditions had greatly changed when his Gospel was written. Judging by these two glimpses into the story of the Roman churches (the edict of Claudius and the letter of Paul) we may infer that certain factors remained rather constant. First of all, there is evidence of sharp conflicts between Christians and the Roman authorities. Claudius had driven out Priscilla, Aquila, and others. Paul speaks of the perils of persecution as normal results of discipleship (Romans 8:35-36). No society of that day welcomed the appearance of the Church. Second, this opposition of the political authorities was often occasioned by quarrels between the synagogues and the congregations of believers, as well as between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. These quarrels usually were provoked by the fact that to some Christians faith required loyalty to the sacred Scriptures while to others it required their rejection. Third, when this conflict developed among believers, those who minimized the clash between the gospel and the Law were usually those who wanted to allay the hostility of synagogue leaders and the suspicions of the state. On the other hand, those whose faith in the gospel produced maximum freedom from the Law found themselves accentuating the hostility of both Jewish and Roman leaders.

These matters were still disturbing the Roman community a few years later when Paul himself came to Rome as a prisoner. For glimpses of this situation, we may well turn to his letter to the Philippian church, written, as most interpreters conclude, from a prison in Rome. Paul was not alarmed or angered by imprisonment. He did not worry about the outcome of his trial even though it might result in his execution. Because it was his work for Christ which had led to jail, he was confident that Christ’s work would be advanced by his imprisonment, whether or not it ended in the death penalty (Philippians 1:12-26). It seemed to him entirely reasonable that those who served a crucified Messiah should be ready to share his cross. Jail was the ideal place for announcing a gospel which freed men from all anxieties. The letter also makes clear how completely Paul the Jew (and he remained Jew to the end) had been freed by the gospel from counting as gain any privilege or status accruing from his heritage, his achievement, or his piety (Philippians 3:1-16).

But our chief interest here is not in Paul but in the Roman churches. What effects did Paul’s presence have upon them? He himself tells us of the two major reactions, neither of which should be surprising to us. We may call these responses that of the "care-free" and that of the "care-full." The care-free had welcomed Paul’s arrival in Rome as a convict. They had taken the risk of visiting him, thus admitting that if he were guilty of sedition they were as well. Like him, they were confident that the living Christ could use even the scandal of a death sentence to advance his cause. Paul’s example made them bolder than ever to preach in the streets the same chain-breaking gospel, although this invited similar arrest and chains. They were thus freed from the care to placate Jewish and Roman authorities.

But the care-free disciples enhanced the anxieties of the carefull. Responsible leaders, these men sincerely felt that greater caution was necessary to prevent bloodshed and even the extermination of the Church. They felt that Paul’s fate discredited his message and his way of preaching it. Believers could not hope to succeed if they flouted both the standards of God’s Law and the requirements of peace with the empire. To Paul, these carefull saints were "enemies of the cross of Christ" because they did not really accept that cross as demanding of them a like humility, a like obedience, a like freedom (Philippians 1:15-17; Philippians 3:18-19). To them, Paul endangered everything with his radical and uncompromising attack upon all securities, all superiorities, all cautions.

Can any guess be more certain than that these two groups must have found it hard to live together within the same brotherhood? Paul’s presence in prison, and his bold advice from that pulpit, must have prompted heated debate at every meeting. We can readily imagine some of the epithets which would cut through the air: "dogs" is one of the milder ones (Philippians 3:2). Behind the debates would lie the same issue: "Assuming that we confess Jesus as the Messiah, to what extent does this faith demand from us a message like Paul’s, a way of life which breaks all the rules of the Law, participation in a breach of the peace which may lead to prison and death?"

So the story of the Roman churches takes shape, a story which Mark would have heard and which his readers would have remembered. When the Christian message had first appeared (perhaps thirty years earlier) , it had created such hostility among both Jews and Gentiles that its exponents were attacked by the former and expelled by the latter. Later (perhaps twenty years earlier than Mark) , Paul’s letter to the Christians had reflected continuing strife not only with the political rulers (Romans 13:1-7) and the synagogues, but also among the Christians themselves. Still later (perhaps ten years before Mark), when the same Apostle had written to the church in Philippi from a Roman prison, he had disclosed the same violent conflicts: with Roman authorities, for he was still in jail; with the synagogues, for he was still accused of destroying the Scriptures; and with other Christian leaders, for Paul charged them with envy and jealousy, with cowardice and anxious compromises, with unwillingness to carry the cross.

The whole confused situation reached explosive intensity very soon after Paul wrote to Philippi. In that letter Paul had mentioned the possibility of his execution, but had expressed the conviction that he would be released (Mark 1:20-26). What happened was something quite different. With many other Christians he was made the scapegoat of a great disaster which befell the city on July 19, A.D. 63. Curiously enough, this disaster is not mentioned in the New Testament but only in the secular histories of the period. A fire broke out in the shops in a crowded central section of Rome. Fanned by strong winds it swept fiercely through the narrow passages and congested streets, killing hundreds and perhaps thousands of the trapped citizens. It consumed temples as well as tenements, and even the emperor’s palace was not spared. Of the fourteen wards of the city only four remained untouched; the others were either totally destroyed or badly damaged.

Nero, the emperor, immediately began rebuilding the devastated city with lavish magnificence along the lines of a new master plan. But the more vigorously he devoted himself to urban reconstruction, the more his action seemed to substantiate the rumors that he himself had started the fire as the cheapest way to clear the site of his new city. Obviously such rumors did not endear the emperor to the thousands who had lost everything in the holocaust. To shift the blame from his own shoulders, he picked out a group of "foreigners" who were unable to offer resistance: the Christians.

According to Tacitus, the historian who reported all this, he could hardly have made a better choice. These Christians were "hated for their abominations." They were guilty, if not of setting the fire, at least of "hatred against mankind." They fully merited such "extreme and exemplary punishment." Whether merited or not, the penalty was meted out by both emperor and enraged populace. Those convicted of holding this faith were nailed to crosses. Or they were clothed in the skins of leopards or tigers and then thrown into the arena to be mauled by hunting dogs. Or they were dipped in pitch and set on fire to provide human torches, illuminating the emperor’s gardens for public enjoyment. Such things happened to Christians in the very city where, within a decade, the Gospel of Mark was to be written for those who had survived the holocaust.

Where was Mark himself during these days? We do not know. But we do know that he had been colleague of Peter and Paul, both of whom, according to Clement, had probably been among the first to fall prey to Nero’s sadism. How did their colleague, John Mark, manage to escape? We do not know. Perhaps he had been sent to Asia with letters and instructions for churches there (Colossians 4:10). If so, he returned to Rome soon after their deaths. In any case we can be quite sure that he knew the story well and that he was courageous enough to continue his ministry among the survivors in the same city. In studying his record we need to keep this background in mind. We know all too little of the man himself, but we know that he was a minister of churches which had been riddled by persecution and tormented by inward divisions. He was writing for congregations which had lost their experienced leaders, and which were more than ever temped to a policy of care-fullness, in order to pacify the synagogue, the Roman populace, and the police force.

This turbulent situation was aggravated by another ominous development which began shortly after the death of the Apostles. In Judea the Jewish community became embroiled in a bitter and bloody effort to oust the Roman troops and to expel the provincial rulers. Their revolt developed into a full-scale war against the Goliath of the West. For four years the futile battle lasted, until Jerusalem itself was captured and destroyed by the Roman army in A.D. 70. What effects did this war have on churches which had so recently been branded as traitors? Roman minds, of course, linked the Christians more closely to the Jews than to any other group.

The course of the war must therefore have fanned the flames of suspicion. Even within the churches, loyalties must have been severely tested and the lines between Jew and Gentile painfully sharp. How strongly should Jewish Christians support their kinsmen in Jerusalem who were starving and dying during the siege by Roman mercenaries? How vigorously should they cultivate their neighbors in Rome? With whom should the Christians ally themselves when they had so recently suffered from both Romans and Jews?

It was at about the time of this Jewish war, in the midst of such conditions, that the Gospel of Mark was written by a man who had been in close touch with all that had happened: John Mark, Let us summarize what had happened to him. A native of Jerusalem, Mark had at a very early date joined the ranks of followers of Jesus. He had been associated, as we have noted, with the apostolic work of both Peter and Paul. He had visited many churches in all parts of the empire. He had lived through imprisonments; he had seen friends and leaders martyred; he had for several years been at work among Roman Christians who had experienced for at least thirty years the difl5culties of following a crucified Lord. Such an author writing to such churches produced this Gospel.

Mark was probably a Jew, well versed in the Law and the Prophets, acquainted with the traditions and customs of the Judean homeland and bound by many strong ties to the hope of Israel. He was a Jewish Christian, whose life had been turned upside down by the story of Jesus the Messiah. He had interpreted discipleship as an inescapable call to be a witness and had devoted many years to preaching the gospel in Asia, Achaia, and other Roman provinces. His work had been similar to that of Peter and Paul, and, like theirs, it had carried him into intimate fellowship with Gentile congregations and therefore into the cross fire of opposition from synagogues and even from other Jewish Christians. He had done his best to heal the schism between Christians of left and right wing — a task which was as difficult in Rome as anywhere else.

In our study of the Gospel, we must be as concerned with the first readers of this book as with its author. What were they like? Why would they find the book of interest and value? How would they react to the story told by their own brother and leader? One thing is clear: before reading this Gospel they had already accepted the gospel. They had accepted as Lord a Jew of Nazareth who had been condemned and executed as a criminal by the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. They knew how this Jew had attracted at once the enmity of Jewish leaders in Palestine and the passionate loyalty of Jewish laymen — fishermen, farmers, tradesmen. All of them in Rome who had accepted baptism in the name of Jesus had jeopardized their standing with both the Jewish and pagan communities there. They would have accepted some degree of fellowship with those Christian leaders in Rome, whether Jew or Gentile, who had so alienated the populace and police. Mark was writing, then, to baptized believers who were living near the center of a maelstrom of human passions, near the frontiers where men daily faced death. The Gospel was written by and for pilgrims of faith in a crucified Messiah. Imagining what it was like to live as such pilgrims may prepare us for studying this book, because rightly considered it is a part of the dialogue which transpired between the man John Mark and the believers who lived in Rome. The more fully we enter into that dialogue the more fully we will understand Mark’s story.

Mark’s Intentions

We cannot unlock the meaning of any written document unless we understand the motives of its author. The motives are the keys. Why should he have written anything at all? What difference would his book make in the situation of his first readers? At what points did he want them to share his knowledge and his convictions? Sometimes all we need to say about a book is simply this: "The book is itself a plain answer to these questions. This is what the author wanted to say and he said it." Although this is true of Mark, there are other things which we can say about his motives. We can say, for instance, that he felt impelled to write this book because of his own loyalty to Jesus. Like other Christian leaders, he thought of himself as a slave of Jesus Christ, compelled by love to tell the story of his Master. He had himself been instructed by those memories of Jesus which had been relayed to him by other disciples. From various episodes in Jesus’ ministry Mark had received courage and joy, a sense of direction for living, insights on how to meet the varying trials of faith. He wanted to share such insights.

We must go on to say that, like other servants of Christ, Mark had been assigned to minister to the needs of the churches. Once we have imagined ourselves living in the Rome of his day, we will recognize how varied were those needs, and how difficult to meet. Each disciple confronted numerous personal dilemmas as he tried to embody his loyalty to Christ in the daily situation. Each congregation was caught up in a welter of problems in which efforts to establish church discipline often tended to split the congregation. We have seen how steps taken to advance the mission of the Church often heightened the hostility of Jewish and Roman officials. Effort to increase mutual hospitality among the scattered congregations encountered the inertia of long-standing isolations and prejudices. Yet that effort had to be made.

Then, as always, one need was to keep all minds focused on the call to discipleship which Christ had issued. This call had come to each disciple when for the first time he had heard the story of Jesus as the Son of God. The story had reached its climax in the death of Jesus as a ransom for many. In the forsakenness on the cross, in the darkness that shrouded the whole earth, his power as the Son of God had been most luminously disclosed. The narrative of this event, therefore, occupied the largest single section of the Gospel (Mark 14:1 to the end). All that came before it is prelude: an extension of the story backwards, sufficiently full to make the significance of the Cross clear. What came after it was postlude: the witness of the Apostles to the Risen Lord and the story of the Church; these Mark did not attempt to relate, at least in this particular document.

Many various impulses may have induced Mark to commit to writing the Passion Story, with this necessary prelude. The chief Apostles, in whose sermons this story had from the first been the heart, had now suffered a martyr’s death like their Master’s. To put into writing their witness to the Cross would both safeguard that witness from undue change and fittingly commemorate their own faithfulness. To tell again, for reiterated use in the churches, the gist of their apostolic testimony would provide a continuing pattern for those who inherited their mission to the world. This story would serve as the spearhead of evangelism, calling all men to repentance and faith. By repentance, those who heard the story would identify themselves with those who had crucified Jesus and for whom he had died. By faith in him as God’s Son they would accept his self-offering as nothing less than God’s power made available for the world’s redemption.

Mark could not, in fact, say anything about Jesus without throwing some light upon the conditions of discipleship in Rome a full generation after Jesus’ death. This is why the first disciples of Jesus played so important a role in Mark’s narrative. Their involvement in the events was more than incidental or accidental; it was essential. Because Mark was interested in Jesus, he could not avoid being interested in the men whom he enlisted. Therefore Mark shows how Jesus’ work as Messiah had begun with the call of four men to fish for other men (Mark 1:16-20) . Jesus could not, in Mark’s view, announce God’s Kingdom without issuing this summons. And very soon thereafter, from the whole band of followers Jesus selected twelve "to be with him, and to be sent out to preach" (Mark 3:14). If Jesus could not preach the good news without calling for followers, those who believed him could not long follow him without receiving the mandate to preach. Their work as newscasters, in turn, could not be accomplished without issuing the same summons for others to repent and to believe. The story of the beginning of the gospel was thus shown to be inseparable from the story of the beginning of discipleship and of the formation of the Church as Jesus’ family (Mark 3:35). It is significant that the disciples were absent from none of the episodes recounted by Mark except the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan and the fulfillment of this baptism on Golgotha. Yet even in those events their lives were entangled in a deeper sense, for Jesus was being baptized for them. Mark could therefore not tell the story of Jesus without telling the story of Jesus’ first disciples.

But there were practical reasons for doing this, in addition to the historical reasons. Each story in which Peter and John had been actors became a story in which the disciples in the Roman churches were present through their identification with Peter and John. The battles between Jesus and Satan remained current history because the believers in Rome were caught in the same vortex of conflict; their loyalty to the living Jesus exposed them to onslaughts from the same Adversary. When Jesus had corrected the blindness and stubbornness of the Twelve, he had included their successors, too. So in Mark’s account of how the Twelve had learned to follow Jesus to the cross, every later disciple could find disturbing examples and austere instruction. Mark had intended it that way. To his whole Gospel he applied what Jesus had made explicit at a climactic moment: "What I say to you I say to all" (Mark 13:37). As laymen, the Twelve had heard what Jesus, and Mark, had wanted all later laymen to hear.

These Twelve, however, were not only laymen but also Apostles. As the first leaders they provided the clearest pattern for leaders in later generations. Because Jesus had trained the Twelve as his accredited representatives, every later missionary and evangelist could learn from their story the ABC’s of his own task. For example, when Mark told how the Twelve had competed with one another for top honors (Mark 10:35-37), he could not avoid thinking of all sorts of quarrels among later leaders. With his experience of working with the Apostles, Mark had access to information about what had happened before Golgotha; he also had access to the experience of the Twelve on the mission field and to the subsequent experiences of Apostles in Rome. He therefore told the stories about Jesus with one eye on the dilemmas and opportunities faced by leaders of his own day.

These dilemmas, as we have seen, often took the form of intra-church conflicts which were prompted by the wish to keep peace with the police. Roman Christians could not for a moment forget the suspicions of the Roman government. In telling the stories of Jesus, Mark reminded them of how Jesus and the Twelve had incurred the hostility of the same government. For this reason, Mark took a special interest in what had been said and done by the centurion in Galilee, by the Roman puppet Herod, and by Pilate, the procurator in Judea. He did not fail to tell of the trial, the verdict, the mocking and scourging, the cruel execution. Nor could a Roman Christian read that story without recalling the edicts of Claudius and Nero and preparing himself for a repetition of the same fate. In telling the good news, Mark could not forget how frightened the disciples had been in the storm-tossed boat, how much they had dreaded that last trip to Jerusalem, how frantically they had betrayed their Master by leaping into the darkness when he was arrested. Nor could his readers ignore the relevance of such anecdotes to their own daily fears. Mark was quite aware of this relevance. In fact, he desired to tell each episode so simply and so clearly that each reader would read himself right into its center and recognize himself in its actors.

We have already noticed that trouble with the pagan government was almost always linked to trouble with the Jewish synagogues. Christians who wanted to avoid trouble with one usually wanted to avoid trouble with the other. The Christian community was caught between two obligations. On the one hand, because Jesus was the Messiah of Israel, who had come to fulfill God’s promises to Israel, they were obliged to carry his message to all the sons of Israel. They could not repudiate their Jewish foes; they must rather try to win them to their rightful King. On the other hand, the Messiah had upset the Law and rejected the traditions, had been repudiated by the scribes and condemned by the Sanhedrin. His disciples were therefore obliged to join in this revolutionary path, even though it meant hatred from their own synagogues and kinsmen. What was the best course to follow? Mark believed that the answer could be discerned in the debates between Jesus and the Pharisees. To him, the story of the Cross was unintelligible apart from the stories of all the controversies with the Jewish leaders which made the Cross inevitable. By what authority had Jesus done these things? By the power of Beelzebul? Why had he eaten with unwashed hands? Why had he defiled the Sabbath? Why had he consorted with sinners and tax collectors? Why had he claimed authority over the Temple? Why had he set aside the commandments of the Law? Why had he encouraged his disciples to do likewise?

By telling the stories of Jesus’ debates with his antagonists, Mark was also telling the story of the Church’s debates with the synagogue and the story of debates within the churches concerning the relationships between the gospel and the Law. Mark intended to do this, in part through loyalty to Jesus himself and in part through loyalty to his brothers in Christ who were placed in situations where daily temptations and decisions ran strangely parallel to those of the earlier day.

In summary, we may say that Mark had many purposes in collecting the anecdotes about Jesus and in editing them into a single story. Noting the personnel in each episode may alert us to a recognition of these purposes. Every reference to Jesus threw light upon the requirements incumbent upon every disciple, upon the conflicts within every congregation, and upon each congregation’s difficult mission to the world. Every reference to the disciples held its significance either for apostolic leaders or for ordinary believers, or for both. Every reference to the crowd, as being astonished or offended, suggested both the initial audiences for the gospel message and contemporary audiences. Mark wrote his Gospel so that the wealth of the gospel’s meaning and the depth of its power might be made more accessible to the Christians in Rome.

Mark’s Message

Mark had a message which he wished to share with the members of the Roman churches. If this had not been true, he would not have produced a document at all. Books of this size and importance do not appear without specific reasons. What this message was, however, is not so easily determined. In a sense, this whole document was the message he wished to convey. He wanted churches to have available for frequent use this whole cycle of stories and teachings.

It is very difficult, accordingly, to reduce his message to any statement shorter than his own. He did not ask himself first what message he wanted to give and then how he could give it most effectively. He did not first make a point and then search for anecdotes to illustrate and to support it. He did not state a case and then prove it. But why not?

When we try to answer that question, we begin to realize that this is indeed a very strange kind of document, different from every earlier type of story and in fact quite different even from the other books in the New Testament which later came to be called Gospels. Yet there are certain traits which these four books have in common, and these traits tell us why we cannot separate the message from the narrative as a whole.

For example, the Gospel writer is concerned simply to recount what God has done, not for the storyteller alone or through him, but for the world through his chosen Son, Jesus of Nazareth. The writer is therefore himself more the recipient than the narrator of the story, more its servant than its master.

Moreover, the deeds done by Jesus and the recital of those deeds have come to the writer through various channels. The Apostles, themselves "eyewitnesses and ministers of the word" (Luke 1:1-4), had recited the deeds of Jesus on numerous occasions. Men like Mark and Luke had heard their predecessors recount memories of what Jesus had said and done, of what men had said and done to him. These memories became traditions, and these traditions were common property, not the special creation of a particular writer.

When Mark combined these memories and traditions into a single consecutive story (and he was probably the first person to do so), he used materials with which his audience was familiar. They had heard the gospel before they read the Gospel. They had heard accounts of Jesus’ baptism, his ministry, his climactic visit to Jerusalem, his death, his meetings with his disciples after his resurrection. They already had heard "the preaching of Christ" and had responded with "the word of faith" (Romans 10:17; Romans 10:8). This word had proved to be as near to them as their own heart and lips. In short, before composing his story with his pen, Mark had shared with his audience the memory of the "beginning of the gospel" (Mark 1:1). He was bound to his audience by the same faith, the same baptism, the same vocation, the same Lord, the same Spirit. By gathering their mutual memories into a single, consecutive recital, he would remind himself and them of the basic Covenant into which they had entered. They had heard the word before, but they needed to listen to it again. They needed to catch anew the implications of Jesus’ baptism for their own faith and work. They needed to see more clearly the links between what had happened in the story of Jesus and what was happening in their own story as Roman disciples. So Mark sought to meet these needs by retelling the stories in such a way as to accent their relevance to the varied opportunities and obstacles faced by servants of Christ in Nero’s Rome.

We can perhaps come closest to Mark’s conception of this relevance by choosing the word "gospel" and by describing what meanings this term conveyed when seen from three different angles: as the news which Jesus had announced, as the news which his Apostles had announced, and as the inauguration of a New Covenant between God and men through the ministry of Jesus and his Apostles.

The News of God Which Jesus Had Announced

In his story Mark takes his readers back in time to those days, and back in space to those places, in which Jesus had first announced a message about God’s action. Readers therefore need to follow the story from this angle. When Jesus had come into Galilee, he had begun his work by shouting "the gospel" or "the good news" of God (Mark 1:14). Then, as now, news meant that something had happened, something which made a difference, something which changed decisively the situation in which men were standing. News of God meant that this something had been done by God. By his action God had altered the situation, altered it in such a way as to alter all situations. The newscaster must therefore tell what God had done and was still doing. But he could not do this unless he had seen and heard what God had done, and unless God had authorized him to tell others what he had seen and heard. The newscaster must first be appointed by God as his prophet and empowered by God to speak to men as his interpreter. Only with such authorization and power could the words and deeds of the prophet point beyond themselves to the immediate intentions of the Most High. Before Jesus had begun his work he had received this authority and power. He had seen and heard what God was doing — a prophetic vision. He had been called and sent by God with power to speak and to act in accordance with God’s purposes — a prophetic vocation. In his opening verses, Mark tells with extreme terseness the story of this vision and this vocation.

What had Jesus seen and heard before he announced with authority, "The time is fulfilled"? (Mark 1:15). What had enabled him to know that the period of preparation had been completed, that God had come to the point of fulfilling the promise which he had earlier given to his people? We may not know the complete answers to such questions, but we can see what Mark believed was essential to that answer. God’s pledge, given to Israel in the prophets, had at last been redeemed. He had sent Elijah again to his people (John the Baptizer) with an authority direct from heaven (Mark 9:13; Mark 11:30). In the baptism of repentance which this Elijah had preached, in the forgiveness of sins which accompanied the contrition and baptism of Israel, God had given an authentic sign that the time of waiting was over (Mark 1:4-8) . The work of John the Baptizer, embodied in the contrition, baptism, and forgiveness of God’s Israel, had marked the end of the epoch which God had ordained as preparation.

This epoch had now given way to a new epoch in which God had sent his Spirit, baptizing his people with the powers of the coming Kingdom. Jesus had seen and heard the descent of this very Spirit, a sign to him that had enabled him to proclaim with confidence: "The kingdom of God is at hand" (Mark 1:15). This sign had been disclosed when he had accepted the baptism proclaimed by John with divine authority. Then Jesus had seen the heavens opened. He had been granted a vision of those heights and depths of reality where God’s invisible deeds were already shaping the later course of earthly events. From the opened heavens he had seen God’s Spirit descending — sign of the accomplishment on earth of what God had already initiated in heaven. God’s Kingdom at that very moment had invaded earth’s territory. The Spirit had descended on Jesus himself, a clear token of his own appointment as one through whom the powers of the Kingdom had begun to operate. Henceforth he must speak and act out of this mysterious authority from heaven (Mark 11:30) communicated by the Spirit and indicative of God’s intention to share his favor and his grace with men. The Kingdom was at hand because God’s Spirit had appeared with power among men. (For a similar picture of the heaven’s opening, and of the Spirit conferring authority on the prophet, see Revelation 1:10-11; Revelation 4:1-2.)

This power, however, had been effective not in the termination of struggle, but in its initiation. The Spirit had not invited Jesus into an ideal Utopia but had driven him into the wilderness, to engage there in a strange warfare. The Kingdom’s approach had precipitated a fearful battle between God and Satan. The battlefield could be described as both the wilderness of superhuman conflict and the very human heart of Jesus of Nazareth. What Jesus had seen and heard at the Jordan was given a terrifying authentication in what happened in this wilderness. His baptism plunged him into lonely combat with the wily Prince of Evil — Satan himself. If, in this combat, the ruler of all the demonic forces had won, that victory would have made nonsense of the news of God’s Kingdom (Mark 3:27-29). But Satan had been overcome. And that defeat had proved to Jesus the reality of the Spirit’s power, and the new accessibility of God’s Kingdom. Henceforth, he took any denial of the Spirit’s presence to be an act of blasphemy against God. God had actually begun to plunder Satan’s dominion. He had demonstrated his power to free men’s hearts from demonic controls. He had sent his Spirit to extend the range of forgiveness and freedom. And Jesus was the messenger, fully authorized to proclaim the news because he had fully met and vanquished the Devil. This was what had happened. This was what enabled Jesus to proclaim that the time of preparation had been completed and that the new order had been inaugurated. The King of the world had established by his edict a new government. Henceforth all human affairs must be conducted on the basis of this new system, now declared to be in effect. This edict was good news for all who wished a victory over the demonic powers on God’s terms, bad news for Satan and for all who wanted release on other terms than God’s. What were the terms which the King had specified? "Repent, and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:15). This twin command corroborated the announcement which the prophet John had relayed from heaven: repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4). Jesus continued to relay this same demand, no longer merely as preparation for a coming judgment, but now as a necessary response to the fact that God had made his forgiveness available to sinners. Therefore, the twin command received a quite new accent: men must trust joyfully in what God had now done. God had already introduced his power among men by defeating Satan and by releasing men from their captivity to him. To trust in this good news brought men within the range where the Spirit was in control. It also gave them an essential share in the temptation of Jesus. By believing in the good news, men opened themselves to bitter attacks by Satan, but they discovered therein how the Spirit could overcome the powers of darkness.

These were God’s terms for those who would receive his Kingdom: repentance and joyful trust in the good news which Jesus proclaimed. The opening verses of Mark introduce the basic thrust of these terms. The rest of the document spells out the meaning of the terms to those whom Jesus has called as followers. The twin command is Mark’s summary of all the commands. The basic terms remained the same, although the words changed and the shape of obedience changed in accordance with the shape of the Devil’s resistance.

Those who repented accepted their place in Jesus’ baptism and in his humiliation. This required the surrender of personal ambitions and the adoption of God’s standard of greatness (Mark 10:35-45). It meant instant readiness to detect and to resist the temptations of Satan, who subtly suggested at every step that the disciple seek easier forms of obedience (Mark 4:15; Mark 8:33). It meant the endurance of bitter tribulation and brutal persecution because of the Word (Mark 4:17). It meant a thorough rejection of anxiety over earthly fortunes. The Word, by its very nature, excluded delight in riches and desires for prestige and security (Mark 4:19; Mark 10:27-28). Repentance took on the shape of Jesus’ own obedience, the shape of total self-denial and self-renunciation, the shape of investing all hopes in the dawn of the new day (Mark 3:35; Mark 8:34-38; Mark 10:29-30).

Satan had one great advantage: How could any news be considered good when it cost so much? How could God demand that men pay this price? Considering what this news demanded, its acceptance was nothing short of miraculous. Jesus knew well (as did Mark) that to trust wholly in this news was quite impossible for men (Mark 10:27). But it was possible for God to enable men to hear Jesus’ voice as being indeed the voice of God himself (Mark 1:22-27; Mark 2:10). Those who heard were empowered to share Jesus’ own joy over the miracle of God’s forgiveness of sins, God’s power over Satan, God’s desire to cleanse the lepers and the insane. Faith in such goodness on the part of God gave his hearers power to forgive their own enemies — all of them and the worst of them (Mark 11:20-26). Was it hard for the disciples to do this? Of course it was, tremendously hard. But faith in God’s news produced confidence that God’s Word would continue to reap its appointed harvest. Though God’s elect be slain (as John had been, 9:13), their endurance to the end would mean their salvation (Mark 13:13). Jesus himself would be slain, but his message concerning God’s salvation would survive even the passing away of heaven and earth (Mark 13:31). Could men believe such news? Not without accepting Jesus’ promise as being so true that it displaced the authority of the leaders ordained to govern Israel (Mark 12:9), the sanctity of God’s Temple and its worship (Mark 11:17; Mark 13:2), and the demands of the holy Law (Mark 2:27; Mark 7:1-13). Belief in the good news of God catapulted believers into the very center of this revolution in human affairs.

What evidence did Jesus give to prove that this revolution had begun? The evidence was far from obvious. Jesus gave his own word as evidence, but who could accept a word which cost so much and which was challenged by so many? Jesus gave his own deeds as evidence, but who could see these deeds as more impressive than the march of Roman armies and the power of empires? Yet even when Jesus moved along his inconspicuous way, a few individuals seemed eager to believe him. Who were they? A nameless woman who anointed Jesus’ head for his burial (Mark 14:3-9), a poor widow who cast into the Temple treasury every cent she had (Mark 12:41-44), men and women driven to despair by demons (Mark 1:32-34; Mark 1:39), lepers who had no home among men (Mark 1:40-45), prostitutes and traitorous tax collectors whom the good people had ostracized, the "dead" who had nothing left but God’s grace, and here or there a disciple who had begun to move from one act of obedience toward the next. Mark does nothing to minimize the strangeness of the story.

Mark did not play down the strangeness of the revolution which Jesus had announced; in fact, he stressed it. How? By making clear at each turn of the page how people of every class and condition had rejected the news. To be sure, men had now and again been amazed by the authority with which Jesus had cast out demons (Mark 1:21-27), yet this amazement had usually turned into rejection rather than faith. Jesus’ assurance that God had forgiven sinners was interpreted as blasphemy (Mark 2:7). His friendship for outcasts, his repudiation of the Law, his Liberation of the demon-possessed — all in the name of Israel’s God — had alienated the leaders of Israel. Their loyalty to the Law had impelled them to plot his death (Mark 2:16; Mark 3:2; Mark 3:6; Mark 3:22). Those in his own town, his relatives and neighbors, had been unable to fathom the mystery (Mark 6:1-6). The longer he pursued his task, the longer grew the roster of enemies: Herod and his supporters, the synagogue leaders, the Temple and its governors, Pilate and his soldiers, even his own disciples. At the end he was rejected by all, helpless and forsaken. The terms of God’s revolution had indeed proved too rigorous. Faith in it had become altogether impossible for men (Mark 10:27). Jesus had been unable to show his own generation any sign convincing enough to induce among them the kind of repentance and faith which God demanded. But he had accomplished one thing: he had made his death a test of the truth of what he had said and done. Henceforth, the proclamation of his death by those whom God should summon would be the means by which the fact of revolution would be attested. His own announcement of the good news of what God had done would be continued in their announcement. Heaven and earth would pass away, but not his word.

We suggest now to the reader that this would be a good point at which to take Mark’s Gospel, to read it through slowly, and to ask himself how well the successive episodes do, in fact, embody the news which Jesus had announced.

The Good News of Jesus Christ Which the Apostles Announced We have examined the full meaning of the slogan which Jesus had placed over his work: the good news of God. After his death the Apostles placed over their ministry a similar slogan: "The gospel [good news] of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (Mark 1:1). This second slogan, adopted by Mark, stands as the very title of his book. We now wish to make clear what he had in mind in selecting it.

The message which Jesus proclaimed before Golgotha can at certain points be distinguished from the gospel which the Apostles proclaimed after that event. He had been called and authorized by God; they had been called and authorized by the Risen Lord. Jesus’ loyalty had centered on obedience to the heavenly King; their loyalty had been made possible by the King’s Son. His news had dealt with God’s work, theirs with the work of the exalted Christ. His ministry had ended in a crucifixion which had seemed to discredit his message about God; their ministry had begun, they had been in fact ordained to it, when God had shown them how much power he had given to the Crucified. Earlier, men had rejected the news by discounting Jesus’ authority; now they would reject the news by discounting the Apostles’ authority. The good news had become the word which they preached about Jesus Christ. It is the beginning of that word which we have before us in Mark’s Gospel. For the full title of Mark’s document as it left his hand was "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (Mark 1:1). This is the new book of Genesis, the origins of that message about Christ which his Apostles preached in Jerusalem, Corinth, and Rome.

Notice, now, how the beginning of the task of the Apostles ran parallel to that of Jesus Christ. The task of the Messiah had begun in a threefold event: an authentic vision of heaven expressed in a word of God spoken from heaven with absolutely inescapable authority; the descent of the Spirit from heaven, carrying power to accomplish on earth what God had prepared in heaven; the experience of lonely struggle with Satan in the wilderness, a struggle in which the Spirit gave a decisive victory. This was the beginning. It was this three-sided event which authorized Jesus to teach, to preach, to heal, and to enlist men for God’s mission to the world. Of his work this was the beginning.

Where may we locate a similar beginning for the work of the Apostles? How were they to receive a comparable authority and power? Without that authority they could not proclaim the Kingdom. And that authority required participation in the same kind of event. They needed a vision of heaven opened to disclose God’s purposes. They needed a voice from heaven assigning them their task. They needed the power of the Spirit, descending from heaven, to enable them to vanquish the Devil, a victory which would yield its harvest in power to forgive sins, to fish for men, to face their own Golgothas with joy.

Does Mark tell us this story? No, not the whole story. He limits himself to its beginning. He does not give us, at least not in the present edition with its abrupt close at 16:8, any account of the Apostles’ vision, of their appointment to the task, of their victory over Satan, of their calling men into the New Age as heirs of the New Kingdom. We do not know the reasons for this omission. It is possible that he did actually include it and that the postscript to his story has been accidentally lost. Possibly he did not tell it because the Apostles themselves were in the habit, at this point in their preaching, of giving their own account of their appointment, using the confessional first person ("we," 1 Corinthians 15:8-11). Possibly he did not want to tell it because his conception of his task was to carry the story only through the Passion of Jesus, leaving the Passion of the Apostles for other narrators. But in any case, Mark had the later story of the apostolic preaching in mind all the while he was telling about the Messiah’s preaching. At frequent intervals he pointed ahead to that later story. He enabled readers to see how the Apostles’ preaching about Jesus Christ was based upon this beginning, those events which reached from the Jordan to the empty tomb.

Let us be more specific. When Jesus had begun his work he had called the Apostles from their nets to follow him and to learn how to fish for men. They had followed, although the new fishing may have been delayed until after their apprenticeship was complete. The basis of their following him had been at first Jesus’ message about God’s Kingdom, not about himself as God’s Son. Like his, their initial work had been to proclaim the Kingdom and to call sinners to repentance (Mark 1:38; Mark 2:17; Mark 3:13-19; Mark 6:7-13). To Mark these events had proved extremely significant: the call to follow, the period spent with Jesus, the commission to preach the Kingdom and to cast out demons. But this significance had not become clear until after Jesus was taken away from them. To be sure, he had tried to communicate to them the secrets of the Kingdom of God but had found their minds too obdurate (ch. 4). He had encouraged them to use their own resources for feeding the hungry sheep, but, alas, they were quite without the power to serve as shepherds (chs. 6, 8). Obeying his command they had gone to various towns, preaching the Kingdom. It had not, however, occurred to them to proclaim Jesus. The demons had recognized in him a heavenly authority greater than Satan. Not so the disciples. "They did not understand . . . their hearts were hardened" (Mark 6:52).

An important shift had come in the episodes recounted in the eighth and ninth chapters. "On the way" (that road of the Messiah which Mark saw as leading only to Calvary), Jesus had invited a discussion concerning himself (Mark 8:27). The impetuous disclosure by Peter that Jesus was indeed the Messiah had been accompanied by four strange and even shocking echoes: First, Jesus had commanded them to keep silent about him (Mark 8:30). Second, he immediately had told them of his coming rejection, death, and resurrection. Third, Peter’s protest against such a fate for Jesus had prompted the strongest of rebukes. Fourth, Jesus had announced that every disciple must carry a cross. All this Jesus had insisted upon, but its truth was lost upon them. It could become God’s truth for them only after their Master had died. The beginning of their work had been anchored in the early days with Jesus, but this beginning could first become a genuine beginning for preaching the gospel only after Jesus’ suffering had been accomplished.

To be sure, Mark included in the earlier stories intimations of this later climactic authorization. In the account of the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-13), for example, three disciples had experienced a vision of heavenly reality. While on a mountain they had seen Jesus clothed in heavenly attire, speaking with Moses and Elijah. They had heard God’s own voice, the same voice which had spoken in Jesus’ baptism, commanding them to obey Jesus. Yet this was not the moment when they had received power for their ministry. The Spirit had not yet come upon them, a deficiency made painfully obvious by the very next encounter with demons. Jesus had ordered them not to speak of what they had seen until after the Resurrection. Only the Resurrection could make intelligible and release the power which had indeed been latent in their days with Jesus. The disclosure of Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah, the voice of God commanding obedience to his Son, these things would make sense only after the Son had died and had been raised from the dead. God’s power which had operated in Jesus must first be released through the Risen Lord before the disciples would be fully empowered to proclaim the good news about Jesus Christ. Until then he must teach them about his suffering; until then they would fail to understand (Mark 9:30-32).

Over and over again, Mark carefully noted the forecasts which Jesus had made concerning what would soon happen to the disciples. At Jesus’ arrest they would frantically run away — yet later they would stand before governors and kings "for my sake, to bear testimony before them" (Mark 13:9). Accused by a menial in Pilate’s household of being friends of Jesus, they would swear, "I never knew him" — yet later they would be instrumental in preaching the gospel to all nations (Mark 13:10). While their Master was in direst agony they were unable to stay awake — yet later they would watch through the long nights for the Master to return (Mark 13:35). They would scatter like sheep at the Shepherd’s death — yet the Shepherd would go before them to Galilee (Mark 14:27-28). There they would see him (Mark 16:7); and seeing him, they would drink the cup again with him (Mark 14:25). They would see ample signs of the coming of God’s Kingdom with power. They would become in fact the fishers of men (Mark 1:17) whom Jesus had called, and they would call men by proclaiming the good news about Jesus Christ the Son of God. All this is included in Mark’s title: "The beginning ..."(Mark 1:1 ) .

Here again a rereading of the entire Gospel of Mark at a single sitting is desirable, with each reader thinking of the entire document as the place where such Apostles as Peter and Paul would begin their addresses in the Roman Forum.

The Covenant with God

There is a third aspect of Mark’s message which is as significant as the first two. We should read his document as his way of describing the New Covenant which God has inaugurated with men through the ministry of Jesus and his Apostles.

Mark’s first readers had never heard Jesus preach. Perhaps none of them was an Apostle. Many of his readers must have heard an Apostle preach, but that number was rapidly decreasing as the years succeeded Nero’s purge. To the degree, then, that this document focused on the preaching of the Apostles, it might exert a diminishing attraction after all the Apostles had died. Mark must keep in mind the whole company of Christians and write in such a way as to include them.

One way of doing this, as we have noted, was to write about the Twelve in such fashion that every disciple in Rome could see himself in their shoes. When Mark told of the specifications Jesus had set for companions, he made those specifications binding on all: total repentance, eager watchfulness, fearless trust, ruthless self-denial. So, too, when Mark described the anxieties and stupidities, the cautiousness and the greed of the Twelve, he knew that no disciple was immune and that no disciple would feel superior to the Twelve.

But Mark had another way of including all later disciples within the covers of his book. He tells the story of the inauguration of an eternal Covenant between Jesus and disciples of every generation. This story covered sixteen chapters, yet it also could be condensed into a dozen words: "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many" (Mark 14:24). Roman Christians in Mark’s day were accustomed to drink this cup, to participate in this supper. This Covenant had been sealed with them just as fully as with the Twelve in the Upper Room. Christ had been as fully present with them; he had just as certainly given them the cup. Mark believed this. Therefore there is special significance in how he tells the story. When he makes a special point of Judas’ presence at the table, he is thinking of the table in every city and year. Judas is there. Mark makes it clear that Jesus poured out this Covenant for men who were about to flee in cowardly hysteria. We can almost hear him add, "If this was the case with Peter and John, how much more the case with you?" With his eyes both on the Twelve and on his Roman friends, Mark tells of disciples whose typical responses are those of fear and guilt, shiftiness and unpreparedness. But he also tells of a Christ who proclaims God’s forgiveness of sins, and who demonstrates that forgiveness by pouring out for them the blood of the Covenant.

Mark gives careful attention to another form of this Covenant — that expressed by baptism. The Roman Christians had been baptized with Jesus’ baptism. What did this mean to Mark? It meant that Jesus had established a binding Covenant with them, the significance of which appears in Mark’s account of a dialogue on the road to the Cross (Mark 10:32-45). The baptism which Jesus had begun in the Jordan was to be completed in the Crucifixion. Disciples are expected by Jesus to accept the same baptism. It is characteristic of the Twelve, however, that they exaggerate their readiness for such a fate. But it is even more characteristic of Jesus to promise them, in spite of the self-deceptions, that they will ultimately join him in his baptism and drink his cup. They will learn from his death the only law of greatness (Mark 10:43-45); they will be bound to become slaves of all for his sake.

This Covenant we must view as the key to Mark’s understanding of the nature of the Church and of its ministry to the world. The Church had not been far from Mark’s mind when he pictured the first preaching of Jesus. It had been there in the Master’s call and in the disciples’ response of following. To Mark it had been significant that the call had come in the midst of daily and ordinary routines and that it had challenged the hold which those routines exercised on men’s minds (Mark 1:16-20). To Mark, however, it was clear that Jesus had not limited his healing work to those who followed "on the way." His power had been designed to help "all who were sick or possessed with demons" (Mark 1:32). The impact of the good news of God had extended into whatever regions Satan had controlled. To be sure, Jesus had called disciples, he had formed a new people, but he had done this in order to reach the sick, the outcasts, the lepers, the harlots, and the traitors. It is striking that Mark made no effort to restrict the healing work of Jesus to the band of disciples. In fact, he tells not a single story of Jesus healing a disciple. The area which God’s redemptive power had entered was much larger than the "Church." The Church was simply the number of those who joined the Messiah in his ministry to the world.

It was this which made the disciples so different from other human groupings. For one thing, their attitudes toward sacred places and sacred days had been changed. They now knew that the Temple could be found wherever Jesus ate with men. They knew that he had become the Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-28). He had made all foods clean (Mark 7:19). Mark saw the Church as a family composed of Jesus’ brothers, sisters, and mother (Mark 3:31-35), made kindred by devotion to the will of one Father. He saw it as the company of those who discovered in the storms of their journey the presence of One who could command the wind and the sea (Mark 4:35-41). This is the symbolic way in which Mark pictured the Church. In all these pictures God’s power creates the Church by calling men and women into a new fellowship. In them all, Jesus stands at the center, sharing with men his generosity and grace.

But Mark did not allow his readers to suppose that the work of Jesus stopped at the circumference of this circle. On frequent occasions Jesus reminded his followers that his chief concern was with the sheep who had no shepherd (Mark 6:34). The first business on the disciples’ agenda was to provide food for the multitudes (Mark 6:30-44; Mark 8:1-10). Those thousands were alone in the desert without bread; when the disciples failed in their task Jesus would feed them, but he did so after rebuking the disciples for their impotence. The "Church" itself was intended to be a company of servants and not a select circle of people served by others (Mark 10:45). In this regard as in others, the "Church" during Jesus’ ministry was unable to fulfill his expectations. In this regard as in others, the Covenant could not become truly effective until Jesus himself had so drawn the circle as to include all sinners. This was the circle drawn by the Covenant in his blood. His followers could not honor this Covenant except by sharing his love for others.

This is the kind of community which God had created through the call of his Messiah. Mark saw the Church as constituted by that call. But he also knew that the Church could not exist apart from the ransom provided in Jesus’ death. Just as the Apostles awaited the completion of Jesus’ mission before they could begin to proclaim the good news, so, too, the family of Jesus awaited the drinking of his cup before the Covenant could be fully effective. The Passion Story was central, therefore, not only in the mission of Jesus and in the message of the Apostles but also in the everyday life of the Church. The centrality of the Passion was for Mark the basis for the regular observance of the Eucharist by the churches of Rome.

The power of the Last Supper did not lie in the merit of the Church, for all were guilty of denying the Lord. Rather it lay in the promise of Jesus to break bread with his brothers in the Kingdom of God, a promise that could be fulfilled only in his resurrection. But it would be fulfilled; in Mark’s day it had been fulfilled. The builders had rejected the stone, but God had made it the cornerstone of his temple (Mark 12:10-11; Mark 13:1-2). Mark saw the Church as this temple — "a house of prayer for all the nations" (Mark 11:17). Or, changing the figure, Mark thought of the Church as a tenant of God’s vineyard, replacing the earlier tenants who had defaulted in their duty (Mark 12:9). The vineyard remained the same: God’s people, where God produced and claimed the harvest. But the personnel of the caretakers had changed: the Church inherited the stewardship (Mark 12:1-9). It must preach the good news to all nations (Mark 13:10), accepting the hatred of all nations "for my name’s sake," and enduring to the end (Mark 13:13). The Church was the company of God’s elect, subject to all the temptations of Jesus himself, but recipients of the promise of a final harvesting (Mark 13:27) and of the command to watch for the Master’s coming (Mark 13:37).

In Mark’s eyes, then, the Covenant of the cup signified the sharing of the Church in the very mission on which Jesus had been sent: the Church received in Jesus’ blood a vision of the Son of Man, a voice from heaven with its authorization to proclaim the good news, to heal the sick, to cast out demons, and to call all the nations to repentance and faith. This was the message which Mark gave to the Roman churches — and in his mind it was the very message which the Apostles had proclaimed from the beginning of their baptism. Their message in turn had been the same as Jesus himself had proclaimed from the beginning of his baptism. The Messiah, the Apostles, and the Church were thus bound together in a single Covenant community, bearing to the world the fulfillment of God’s promise.

The Structure of the Story

As a person reads this earliest of the Gospels, his eyes move rapidly from paragraph to paragraph. The sequence of episodes draws him onward toward the end. He is frequently unaware of the literary form because of his obsession with the content. For the reader, as certainly for the author, the message is everything; by comparison the form attracts little notice. Nevertheless, the structure of this document is not unimportant, and we should look at it.

Mark did not create his materials out of his own mind; he inherited them. So completely did he depend upon common memories that it is almost impossible to detect his signature anywhere in the document. Where this is true of a literary composition, the best clue to the author’s intentions will often be discovered in the order and arrangement of the separate episodes and sayings.

So we ask about Mark’s method of arranging the anecdotes which he had received. Why did he combine the various episodes in the order which we find? The first answer is obvious: he knew how Jesus’ ministry had begun, so he put those items first; he knew how it had ended, so he put those memories last; he arranged the other episodes in between, even though in many cases he had no fixed record concerning the proper location of many intervening sayings and deeds.

We must therefore ask why Mark chose the sequence for these materials which fell between the opening and the close of Jesus’ work. We may be aided at this point by the question: Where lies the center of gravity in the book as a whole? As a person reads the book rapidly, he discovers this magnetic center not in the earlier chapters, nor in the middle span of stories, but at the end. The reader’s attention is magnetized toward the account of the very last day, as found in chapters 14 and 15. (We should remember that our chapter and verse divisions had not been introduced in Mark’s own writing.) From the Last Supper until the burial was a single day in his understanding, for the Jews measured days from sunset to sunset. In the record of this day, we notice a concentration of interest and suspense. Here the author gives more complete details than elsewhere. He also weaves the successive episodes very tightly together into a single dramatic whole. From the plot of the priests (Mark 14:1) to the entombment (Mark 15:46) the story moves forward with almost breathless haste in spite of its fullness of description. There is no doubt at all; this narrative provides the climax of the book.

We understand why this is so when we recall that Mark was a close companion of the Apostles and that the story of the death of Jesus constituted the invariable center of their preaching. The writer Luke furnishes us with records of that preaching in the Book of Acts. Entirely typical is the following as a sermon climax:

"The God ... of our fathers . . . glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered up and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and killed the Author of life . . ." (Acts 3:13-15a).

Or if we wish firsthand evidence from one of the Apostles, we should listen to this: "I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Corinthians 2:2). Like Paul, Mark knew nothing but Jesus crucified. To him the account of the arrest, the denial, the Crucifixion, was the center of the gospel which the Apostles preached, and therefore the center of his story. From this center we should think of Mark as working backward, and as arranging everything else in such a way as to lead most surely to this climax. He added first the accounts of Jesus’ journey to the Holy City and of what had happened there (chs. 11-13). Christians wanted to know what events had led to the plot and to the arrest. In this section, alone in all his document, Mark takes pains to preserve a daily sequence from the entry into Jerusalem until the visit of the women to the tomb (Mark 11:1 to Mark 16:8). This might be called the Larger Passion. In this section Mark brought together materials of varying kinds and diverse sources. He retold the memories of how Jesus had arrived in the city as its Messiah, how he had come to the Temple as its Lord, how he had sought to cleanse it and to restore its original purpose. These stories epitomized the paradox of faith that this Messiah had been responsible for both the destruction and the salvation of the Holy City and the Temple. Between the Messianic act of cleansing the Temple (Mark 11:15-19) and the Messianic act of promising the Temple’s destruction (Mark 13:1-2), Mark inserted seven stories of a sort different both in form and origin. These are accounts of Jesus’ debates with his adversaries, the Herodians and the Sadducees, and especially the scribes and Pharisees (Mark 11:27 to Mark 12:44). These short anecdotes had probably served the Apostles as sermon illustrations for their countless debates with leaders of the synagogue. They gave Jesus’ answers and those of the Church to challenges such as these: What was the source of his authority and theirs? How had he betrayed his people, and how had they? Who was he, and how might they test his credentials? Located in the larger context of the Passion these conflicts between the Messiah and his people answer the basic question of why the Son of Man had to die.

Located between these debates with Jesus’ adversaries and the redemptive events of Supper and Cross, a collection of sayings appears, addressed to his disciples (Mark 13:3-37). This moment gave Jesus opportunity to prepare them for their own trials. He chose as the classroom the Mount of Olives, overlooking the city where he must die. In their minds, as well as in his, was the anticipation of stormy times ahead. At this strategic moment he answered questions which were to haunt them during their own careers: What will be the sign when all these things are to be accomplished? How will we recognize the coming of the Son of Man? What shall we do when we are beaten in synagogues and handed over to governors and kings? What are we to do when the world turns against us and we are left alone? It is to deal with such problems that Mark placed here this small collection of predictions and demands. To summarize all the commands he uses the simple order: "Watch."

We have now examined the method by which Mark organized the materials which were available to him into a consecutive narrative of Jesus’ last week:

1. Symbolic narratives of the Messiah’s entry into city and Temple (Mark 11:1-26).

2. A collection of controversies between Jesus and his adversaries (Mark 11:27 to Mark 12:44).

3. A collection of sayings outlining the coming dangers and duties of disciples in their own Passion (Mark 13:3-37).

4. A tightly knit series of stories covering Jesus’ Supper, arrest, betrayal, trial and execution, and resurrection (Mark 14:1 to Mark 16:8).

The foregoing arrangement assumes that the Passion Story had begun with Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem. But Mark was not himself satisfied with that assumption. To discover an earlier pivot in Mark’s arrangement of materials we should ask where and when the journey to Jerusalem began. For as Mark understood the matter, Jesus had made his plans to go to the Holy City knowing full well what would happen there. Where then did he start on his way to the Cross? Where did he begin to teach his disciples of his coming rejection? Caesarea Philippi. The way began there (Mark 8:27) and ended in Jerusalem. This road is marked by a threefold repetition of his teaching: "the Son of man must suffer" (Mark 8:31; Mark 9:31; Mark 10:32). The lesson was prompted by the disciples’ recognition that he was God’s Messiah (Mark 8:29). In this and each successive lesson, the Teacher made clear the fact that the disciples had started walking on the same road. Anyone who follows this Master must take up his own cross (Mark 8:34). His interest focused not so much on his own Passion as on theirs. Satan tempted them to expect a more successful leader (Mark 8:33), to substitute other standards of greatness (Mark 9:35), to set other requirements for entering the Kingdom (Mark 10:15), to want glory without shame (Mark 10:37). At every point, by precept and example, Jesus sought to correct their evasions, making it as clear as he could that the Son of Man was establishing a new norm of service for every disciple (Mark 10:43-45). It must be conceded that Mark included some materials in this section which did not fit this particular theme. He was not inclined to force every episode into arbitrary harmony with his editorial plan. Nevertheless, the basic drift of his thought is clear. He understood this whole section (Mark 8:27 to Mark 10:52) as a necessary prelude to Jesus’ death and to the mission of the disciples.

We must constantly remind ourselves that Mark was not writing a biography of Jesus. He was shaping an account of the beginning of the gospel. He was doing this with the materials at hand, anecdotes which came to him through various channels, often without reference to date or place of origin. Those which we have now surveyed he incorporated into a single narrative, all taking place on the way from Caesarea Philippi to Jerusalem, all pointing toward the Passion, all indicating mounting opposition to his work, all illustrating his intention of training the Twelve.

In our analysis of structure, we have dealt with the last half of the Gospel. What may we now say about the organization of the first half? We must say at once that here the ordering of episodes and teachings is not so dependent upon the Passion Story. The ministry of Jesus before Caesarea Philippi does not fall into a single time sequence, nor do the events take place upon a single road. In this section Mark allows earlier collections of memories to retain their separateness. We find, for example, a collection of debates (Mark 2:1 to Mark 3:6) which center on the points at issue between Jesus and the Pharisees; a collection of parables (Mark 4:1-34) which coalesce around the character of the Kingdom; and a collection of marvelous deeds (Mark 4:35 to Mark 5:43) which pose the problem in the minds of people: "Who, then, is this man?"

There is no day-by-day diary, no map of Jesus’ movements. No one theme dominates. Mark did not write from an outline of topics, but reported diverse samples of teachings and healings which had been preserved either in oral form or in brief written collections.

Even in this first half of the Gospel, however, Mark kept in mind the outcome of the story, and preserved those memories which pointed toward that outcome. For example, the initial account of Jesus’ baptism and struggle with Satan gives an understanding of the vocation which would reach its fulfillment on Golgotha. Later on, Jesus makes this connection explicit (Mark 10:38). Another signpost can be detected in the references to John’s arrest (Mark 1:14) and to his execution (Mark 6:14-29), which offer striking parallels, and even previews, of Jesus’ arrest and death. Again at 2:20 a prediction of that death is given. Yet again Mark shows how the earliest debates between Jesus and the Pharisees led to the plot to destroy him (Mark 3:6). His betrayer is identified as early as 3:19. So, too, the rejection of the prophet by his own family appears as harbinger of final rejection by Israel (Mark 6:4). In these early chapters, then, we discern no neatly articulated pattern of organization, but we cannot ignore the frequent anticipations of the end of the story, an end which had become for all Christians the true beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ.

The Shape of the Commentary

In a sense Mark, as we have seen, wrote his book backwards from its end. We, on the other hand, can only read his book forward from the beginning. And we can write a commentary only in that order.

Since our book is designed for modem students of Mark, it must have an outline and follow a definite sequence. As a commentary, the sequence is provided by the order of episodes in Mark. We will not divide the document into separate verses or chapters, inasmuch as those divisions were adopted long after the document appeared, but we will select for the sake of easy reference the separate units of tradition, which we will call episodes, incidents, or pericopes. Then we will arrange into larger cycles these units, which altogether number more than a hundred. The plan for this arrangement is given in the Outline, but we caution each reader: Remember that this is not Mark’s outline, but ours, designed purely for the sake of smoothing the way for a fruitful study of the document.


The Beginning of the Beginning. (Mark 1:1-20)

The Title (Mark 1:1)

The Prophecy (Mark 1:2-8)

The Descent of Power (Mark 1:9-13)

The Call of Fishermen (Mark 1:14-20)

The Power of the Good News. (Mark 1:21 to Mark 3:6)

To Cast Out Demons (Mark 1:21-28)

To Heal the Sick (Mark 1:29-45)

To Forgive Sinners (Mark 2:1-17)

To Defy the Righteous (Mark 2:18 to Mark 3:6)

Responses to the Power. (Mark 3:7 to Mark 6:6)

Reactions to Jesus’ Deeds (Mark 3:7-35)

Reactions to Jesus’ Word (Mark 4:1-34)

The Response of the Twelve (Mark 4:35-41)

The Army of Demons (Mark 5:1-20)

The Belief of the Unbelieving (Mark 5:21-43)

The Unbelief of the Believing (Mark 6:1-6)

The Flock and Its Shepherds. (Mark 6:7 to Mark 8:26)

The Appointment of Shepherds (Mark 6:7-32)

Shepherdless Sheep (Mark 6:33-56)

False Shepherds (Mark 7:1-23)

Sheep from Other Folds (Mark 7:24-37)

Two Kinds of Bread (Mark 8:1-21)

A Blind Man Sees (Mark 8:22-26)

The Road to Jerusalem. (Mark 8:27 to Mark 10:52)

The Coming Confession (Mark 8:27 to Mark 9:1)

The Coming Victory (Mark 9:2-13)

Power to Heal (Mark 9:14-32)

Proverbs for the Journey (Mark 9:33-50)

The Good News and the Law (Mark 10:1-31)

The Coming Baptism (Mark 10:32-52)

The Temple and the Vineyard. (Mark 11:1 to Mark 13:37)

Hosannas at the Gate (Mark 11:1-10)

Curses on the Tree (Mark 11:11-26)

A Parable Against the Tenants (Mark 11:27 to Mark 12:12)

Traps Set for the Son (Mark 12:13 to Mark 13:2)

A Warning from the Fig Tree (Mark 13:3-37)

The End of the Beginning. (Mark 14:1 to Mark 16:8)

Three Forecasts (Mark 14:1-16)

The Covenant in Blood (Mark 14:17-31)

The Night Watch (Mark 14:32-52)

The Twin Trials (Mark 14:53-72)

Innocent or Guilty ?(Mark 15:1-15 )

The King’s Enthronement (Mark 15:16-39)

Fear and Trembling (Mark 15:40 to Mark 16:8 )

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