The Gospel of Mark


Mark 1:1

Read: Mark 1:1

We begin this morning a new series of sermons on the Gospel of Mark. I want briefly to explain my choice, having finished, as you may remember, a long series, more than two years of mornings sermons, on the Gospel of Matthew a little more than a year ago. Mark will not take as long to preach as Matthew, of course, but, in many respects obviously, it is the same story again. Over the past five years or so, I have preached through Ephesians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, the Gospel of Matthew, Titus, Amos, and Philippians in the morning (besides sermons devoted to Christmas and Easter themes, a short series on homosexuality, and a few other individual sermons). In the evening service over that same five year period, I have preached through 1 and 2 Samuel – at least the latter part of that series ended less than five years ago – Hebrews, Malachi, Judges, Ruth, and Exodus, along with series of messages on biblical eschatology, the Psalms, the Bible’s theology of work and of the Sabbath Day, and, most recently, an eleven sermon series we entitled “Our Sins.” Having just begun to preach Ezekiel, a very large Old Testament prophet, in the evening service, I was hesitant to begin in Numbers or Kings in the morning which is where we go next after Ezekiel; I thought it best we should remain in the New Testament. But having preached so much recently from the letters of Paul, it seemed wisest to return to the Gospels.

I have through the years preached all four Gospels so this is the second time I will have preached through the Gospel of Mark. The first began in September of 1986 and lasted until April of 1988. Some of you were not born at that time, most of you were not here twenty years ago and for the rest, we cannot be in the Gospels too much or too often. These four books are, unquestionably, the heart of the Bible. Everything else in Holy Scripture looks forward to, prepares for, or looks back to and explains the incarnation, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, reported in these four books. And that, of course, as you know, is the content and the subject of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

There is nothing else in the literature of the world like the four Gospels. We are so familiar with them that we don’t realize how unique they are. Most of the books that make up the New Testament are letters and we have no difficulty in recognizing them as letters. We still may call them by the fancy name “epistles” but they are letters and no one mistakes them for anything else. They begin with the ancient equivalent of “Dear so and so” and they conclude with a typical greeting. But what would we compare the Gospels to? They are not like anything else that we have read. Sometimes people have referred to them as biographies, but they are not like any biographies we have read. There is almost no psychological detail. We get very little of Jesus’ thoughts or attitudes or private opinions. We are not told what he looked like or sounded like. Two of these four books tell us nothing about the birth or early life of their subject. None of them tell us very much about his youth. None of them tells us a thing about his young adulthood, even though even the ancient world as well as ours understands that the character of a man is formed in his youth and young adulthood. The Gospels don’t tell us many other things we expect to learn in biographies and their purpose, very clearly, is not simply to describe a man and his life, but to proclaim that man as the Lord of the whole world and to proclaim that his life as the way of salvation, and the only salvation, for every human being. The Gospels tell a story but only in order to preach a message. [cf. M. Hooker, Beginnings, 1-2] Other biographies could not be regarded as the publication of good news!

Sometime ago a very interesting thing happened. A German classical scholar by the name of Günther Zuntz, read the Gospel of Mark for the first time. Now Zuntz was a man thoroughly at home in the language and culture of the Greco-Roman world of Mark’s time. He spoke Greek probably as well as Mark spoke Greek. I’ve met and studied with men like him. They could actually speak and think classical Greek and Latin and, if you could somehow have dropped them into first century Antioch or Athens or Rome, of all men in the 20th century, they would have not only been able immediately to enter into conversations but would have understood and appreciated what they saw and heard. They would have felt at home. But Zuntz’ scholarly world was that of Greco-Roman world its language and culture, not that of early Christianity. He had not read the Gospel of Mark. He was not familiar with the Bible. And so when Günther Zuntz came to read Mark for the first time, it was almost as if he were reading it with the mind of someone from that long ago time when Mark was first written and read and heard. He understood its Greek just as a first century hearer would have. But he did not have “Christian conditioning,” that most people have nowadays who come to the Bible, the sort of conditioning the modern reader is likely to have whether he understands it or not. This is as near to discovering how the Gospel of Mark at first reading would have struck a citizen of the world of that time as we are likely to get at this distance. Mark came to Günther Zuntz as something entirely new. In other words, his response represents what the book may very well have sounded like to an educated reader of the first century when he heard it read for the first time. There were a great many people who heard this Gospel read probably at a sitting having never heard it before. Zuntz said, after reading Mark, that he had a strong impression that

“something very important was being put forward here with a superior purpose and concentration throughout the book…. The style and content of the story arouse a feeling of otherness, a feeling that this is not a history like other histories, not a biography like other biographies, but a development of the actions, sayings, and suffering of a higher being on his way through this anxious world of human beings and demons.” [Cited in France, 6-7]

Not a biography like other biographies, not a history like other histories. Books have authors, of course, and that is another unusual thing about the four Gospels. None of them identifies its author, nor does Mark. Perhaps these four men felt that their names did not deserve to belong on these histories of the Son of God. That the book was written by Mark is without doubt. He is identified as the author of the Gospel very early and universally. This is the Mark, John Mark, as he is sometimes known in the New Testament, who was the son of a woman named Mary, in whose house in Jerusalem the Christians gathered for prayer in those early, heady days after Pentecost, as we read in Acts 12:12. What that means is that it is very likely that Mark, as a young man, was a part of the company of Jesus’ followers even before the Lord’s death. It has long been wondered – though this too cannot be proved – it has been wondered if the odd reference in Mark’s account of the Lord’s arrest in Gethsemane to the young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, who was following Jesus, and who, at the appearance of the soldiers, fled the scene naked leaving his garment behind – is not, as it were, Mark’s signature. He was that young man which is why he put that statement in about an otherwise unknown person with an otherwise unknown purpose. He was that young man humble enough to describe his own cowardice and putting himself in the narrative as Alfred Hitchcock used to put himself in his films. If so, that links up with another thing we know from the New Testament about Mark. He was not the hardiest soul. He accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey and wimped out at Perga (Acts 13:13). His departure, as you remember, caused a rift between Paul and Barnabas so significant that it prevented their continuing to work subsequently, though, thankfully that rift was eventually healed and Paul names Mark among his co-workers in three later references in his letters. A final reference to him in the NT indicates that he was working with Peter in Rome. What all of this indicates is that Mark was well connected to the apostolic community, He knew personally many of the principals of the Gospel story, and may very well have known the Lord Jesus himself, when he was a young man, even if he was not a part of the inner circle of the Lord’s disciples.

You may remember that, from the very earliest days, the Gospel of Mark has been associated with the Apostle Peter. An early second century Christian writer, Papias, the bishop of the church of Hierapolis in Asia Minor, who appears in this statement to be quoting the Apostle John, describes Mark, the author of the Gospel, as Peter’s interpreter who wrote down what he had heard Peter preach and teach many times. It was the universal testimony of the early church that the Gospel of Mark was in a very real way “Peter’s Memoirs.” Its authority derived from the authority of the great Apostle, one of the Lord’s innermost circle of disciples, an eyewitness of and participant in most everything that happened in the Lord’s ministry. [Edwards, 5] Perhaps it is this fact, too, that gives the Gospel what Günther Zuntz called its “feeling of otherness.” Peter, of course, was an eyewitness of most of the events reported in this Gospel and heard the Lord deliver the teaching that is reproduced in Mark. It has long been noticed that Mark is characterized by a special vividness and a special immediacy in its narrative. This may be due less to Mark’s ability as a writer and more to Peter’s way of telling the story of what he had seen happened. He was there; he could remember, no doubt as if it were yesterday, the extraordinary things he had seen and heard. The enthusiasm of his teaching must have been tremendous.

We get the sense of the dramatic eyewitness recollection of Peter throughout the Gospel. And the eyewitness element has long been noted to be prominent. Mark contains a long list of little details that only an eyewitness would have been likely to remember. Little things: like the fact that Jesus was sleeping in the stern of the boat on a cushion when the storm hit on the Sea of Galilee, as we read in 4:38 or that the grass was green when Jesus fed the 5,000 in 6:39. Many details like that. I suppose we can all imagine Peter, years later, holding a crowd of people spellbound as he closed his eyes and saw again in his mind’s eye those remarkable events before recounting them again.

It is interesting that in Acts 10:34-40, in his address to the Roman centurion Cornelius and those gathered in his home, Peter provides a summary of his preaching. Or perhaps we should say Luke supplies a summary of what Peter thought most important to tell these Gentiles gathered that day in Cornelius’ house. Listen to what Peter told those Gentiles, some of whom no doubt were hearing this for the very first time.

“You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.” That is not unlike the first verse of Mark 1. “You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached – how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him. We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen…”

That is a fair summary of the Gospel of Mark. If that is a summary of Peter’s preaching – just a summary, of course; no doubt he gave a great deal more detail to those folk in Cornelius’ house – then it is entirely understandable that Mark as a Gospel should have the outline that it does and contains the material that it does. It is Peter’s reminiscence of the career of Jesus Christ. It is the way Peter told the story. That then is the content of the Gospel of Mark: beginning with John the Baptist’s ministry, the Lord’s anointing at his own baptism, his ministry of good – teaching and healing – and, finally, his death and resurrection.

And then Peter goes on to say to Cornelius,

“[Jesus] commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

That is the purpose of the Gospel of Mark: the proclamation of that glorious message of forgiveness and peace with God through faith in Jesus Christ. Mark wrote the book as a record of Peter’s preaching and teaching, which was itself based upon his personal recollection of what he had himself witnessed and the commission he had received from Jesus to tell the world what had happened and what it meant.

And it is important for us to remember that Mark is proclamation. It may help us to remember that Mark was intended to be heard not read. Literacy in the ancient world was very low; perhaps only 10% of the people could read, perhaps somewhat more in the cities. [France, 9] And books were very scarce; few people had them or could afford them. Each book had to be copied by hand, of course, which made them both rare and expensive. The Gospel of Mark, to its original audience, was therefore, in our terms, more like preaching that you hear in church on Sunday rather than a book to read. Scholars will tell you that there are features of its narrative that suggest that it was written with the understanding that it would be read aloud. One example of this is the breathless pace at which the narrative moves along. The reader’s mind isn’t given an opportunity to wander. One way this is achieved is by Mark’s use – some would say his overuse! – of the adverb “immediately.” It occurs 7 times in the Gospel of Matthew, once in Luke, and three times in John. We find it 42 times in Mark! Interestingly, the NIV sometimes just leaves it out in its translation, so much is it a translation for readers rather than for hearers! There is, for example, in Mark’s Greek an “immediately” or “at once” in both 1:10 and 1:21 but not in the NIV’s English.

Or consider the adverb “again” which is used 26 times to link a new incident with the one before it. Or consider this: more than 150 times we find the historic present tense – putting past events in the present tense to increase vividness and to create a sense that the hearer is actually seeing the event unfold before his eyes. Matthew’s much longer text has only half as many historic presents as does the Gospel of Mark and Luke hardly any at all. [France, 16-17]

In other words, this is not a narrative intended for a reader who could read a particular passage several times, or go back over a passage to refresh his memory, or page back and forth comparing one paragraph with another or underlining word or putting notes in the margin, all the things that we do when reading the Bible. We have a great privilege, having the Gospel in our hands and being able to read it whenever and however we wish. But we have perhaps lost something as well, reading, rather than hearing, the Gospel as the first century Christians did and as many did who first became Christians hearing its account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

And what they heard, as the reader began to read, was:

“The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

It would strike the Greek ear as a bold beginning because the very first word of the Gospel is the noun “beginning,” perhaps harking back to the first verse of the Bible, the very first word of the Bible which in a sense is two words but in Hebrew they are squished together into one “In the beginning…” Mark may even be suggesting, by making that word the first in his book that a new creation, a new beginning for human beings, is to be found in Jesus of Nazareth.

And in that first sentence we have the great themes of the book: the identity of Jesus and the fact that in him, with him, by him, because of him, come wonderful news to the world! Every paragraph, every incident in the Gospel of Mark except for two concerning John the Baptist, his predecessor, is about Jesus. He “is the uncontested subject of the Gospel…” [Edwards, 13]

None of the other Gospels begins with a reference to the word gospel, that old English word that translates the Greek word “good news.” The fact that we call these four books, these four accounts of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Gospels is due to the fact that Mark, following Peter, put gospel in the first line of his book. Now the word “gospel” itself has a history. In the world of that time the announcement of the birth or the enthronement of an emperor or even his visit to a place might be heralded as “good news” “gospel.” There may be something to the idea that in using the term gospel Mark is mimicking such announcements and saying to his hearers in effect, let me tell you about the real birth, the real enthronement, the real visit of the real emperor, the King of Kings. I say there may be something of that.

But more important, as the following words from Isaiah indicate, is the use of the term and the idea in the OT and especially in the prophets where “good news” refers to the coming of salvation and the establishment of God’s kingdom. What every believing and pious person was longing for, looking for, praying for, and hoping for. For, example, a few verses after the verses Mark cites from Isaiah 40 here in vv. 2 and 3 of chapter 1 the citation you see immediately below the verse we read – and referring to the same thing –, we read:

“You who bring good tidings (or good news) to Zion, go up
on a high mountain. You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem,
lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid;
say to towns of Judah, ‘Here is your God!”

In Isaiah 40 the good things or good news is that the Lord is drawing near to deliver his people, even to pay for her sins, which is how that whole section is Isaiah 40 begins (Isa. 40:1). As we noted before, Peter said in Acts 10 that the good news concerned peace with God and the forgiveness of sins.

And all of that good news concerns this one individual, Jesus Christ, that is, Jesus the Messiah – for that is what “Christ” means – who is the Son of God. Names meant more in the ancient world than they do today. “Jesus” as you know, means “Savior” or, literally, “Yahweh is salvation.” But, other men of the time would have had that name. There are a lot of people in the Hispanic world and the world of Latin America who are named Jesus for example. And so it was in the Lord’s own day. It means a great deal to us now, but it wouldn’t have distinguished Jesus that much at the time.

But “Christ” would have got everyone’s attention. Mark is saying that this Jesus of Nazareth is no one other than the long awaited descendant of David who would bring deliverance to Israel and the people of God and establish God’s Kingdom in the world.

And “Son of God,” means even more. Throughout the Gospel “Son of God” will be Mark’s favorite title for Jesus. Along the way we will hear Jesus declared to be the Son of God by God the Father, at the time of his baptism, by the demons, by the Jewish high priest, even by the centurion who was responsible to oversee the Lord’s crucifixion. We will see as we proceed that “Son of God” is a title that marks out Jesus as having a particularly unique and intimate relationship with God the Father and, finally, cannot be explained in any other way but that Jesus Christ is God himself. So Mark tells us with his slam-bang opening that the good news he has to tell concerns Jesus, who is the Messiah and the Son of God.

There is something very predictable, natural, inevitable about the Gospel of Mark. What the Christian faith proclaims to the world is not an idea, or a theory, or a philosophy, or a system of ethics. In this it is entirely different from every other religion and philosophy of mankind. What the Christian faith, what the Bible proclaims to the world is instead history, events, and, in particular, a life, a person, a man: a man who came from heaven to open the way to eternal life.

If you, like Peter, had seen and known him; if you had witnessed the wonderful, the stupendous, the breath-taking things that he did; if you had been astonished like so many other people who were there to see things happening that you could scarcely believe but which were obviously real and true; if you had heard the marvelous wisdom he taught; if you had witnessed the Truth – capital T – in this single human life; if you had seen what Peter saw and heard what Peter heard you would have realized that in this man, in touching him and knowing him, you were touching, you were coming to know the secret of all reality and all human life. And if so, is this not precisely what you would tell others.

You wouldn’t tell them your theories about Jesus, your mature reflections on the time you spent with him and on the teaching you heard him give. It wouldn’t occur to you to do that. You would tell people what you saw and what you heard! To the end of your life you would tell these stories again and again to as many people as you could. Everything you could remember about him, everything you saw and heard, and all that happened to him. You would say to people: I was there. I saw it with my own eyes. Amazing as it may seem to you, amazing, breathtaking as it was to me at the time, I witnessed it all. This is what happened. You would say, I can still hear his voice as he said this. I still get chills up and down my spine thinking about what he did that day: how the leper’s skin turned from white to brown, how the crippled man leapt to his feet, how the demon possessed man was immediately restored to a sound mind, how he raised that dead girl to life; I was there when he fed 5,000 people with some scraps of food, when he calmed the storm, and when he walked on the Sea of Galilee. I saw blind men see for the first time. And I saw Jesus on the top of that mountain in Galilee with the glory of God upon him. I saw Moses, I saw Elijah come back to life and I heard the voice of the living God. My palms still sweat when I recall that first sight of Jesus, alive again, after he had been crucified. I remember how we all marveled at his power, his perfect goodness, his compassion and love. We were such dolts then. It took us so long to figure out what was happening. But looking back on it now, it is all so perfectly clear: God had come down and made his dwelling with us and we beheld his glory! We saw the salvation of the world accomplished before our very eyes!

And you would do that and you would say that because you would know that once people knew that, what Jesus had done, what he had said, how he had died, and that he rose again, I say, you would know that once people knew that they would know everything. They would have discovered the secret of all truth and the way to God.

Peter did what anyone would have done. He told the story as he had seen it unfold. And he told it to proclaim it: because this story is not only the greatest story ever told; it is the story of the one life that explains the story of every other human life that has been lived in this world, that is being lived today or that every shall live. Every human being either finds himself or loses himself here: in the life, in the ministry, in the death, in the resurrection of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God. Peter’s point, Mark’s point as you begin his Gospel is the obvious one: because Jesus is the Messiah, and the Son of God, he is the only one for you! The only one! Good news indeed! Amen.