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Gospel of Mark: Introduction


Today, we begin a new sermon series on The Gospel of Mark which I have entitled “Following Jesus”. I would like to give you an introduction to this Gospel by asking and answering a few important questions. (If you would prefer to listen to the audio version of this sermon you may click here: The Gospel of Mark)

First, when was this Gospel written? I, along with many scholars, believe that this was the first Gospel ever to be written. The reason that many scholars believe this is because when you lay Matthew, Mark, and Luke beside each other, you find that Mark has 661 verses, Matthew has 1,068 verses, and Luke has 1,149 verses. Of Mark’s 661 verses, Matthew reproduces no fewer than 606. Sometimes Matthew changes Mark’s wording slightly, but he still reproduces 51% of Mark’s actual words. Of Mark’s 661 verses Luke reproduces 320 verses and 53% of Mark’s actual words. Of the 55 verses of Mark that Matthew does not reproduce 31 are found in Luke. So, the result is that there are only 24 verses in Mark that are not reproduced in either Matthew or Luke. This makes it look quite likely that Matthew and Luke were using Mark as a source, the main source in fact, for their Gospels.

What makes this even more likely is that Matthew and Luke, for the most part, follow Mark’s order of events. Sometimes Matthew and Luke vary from Mark’s order. However, Matthew and Luke never agree together against Mark. Where one of them varies the order, the other retains Mark’s order. When you see how closely Matthew and Luke follow Mark’s wording and order of events, it makes it clear, at least to most scholars, that Matthew and Luke had the text of Mark’s Gospel in front of them as they were writing. [1]

But when exactly was this Gospel written? Irenaeus, one of the early church fathers, believed that Mark wrote his Gospel after the death of Peter under Nero.[2] So that would put the date of this Gospel probably sometime after AD 64. One thing we know for certain that took place in the first century in Palestine is that the Romans leveled Jerusalem and destroyed the Jewish Temple in AD 70. Intriguingly, Jesus predicted this in Mark 13, but the prediction as recorded there is somewhat vague, suggesting that Mark perhaps wrote his Gospel before 70. Luke, on the other hand, mentions “Jerusalem compassed with armies” (Luke 21:20) suggesting that Luke was writing after 70 and thus aware of the details of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. So somewhere in the 60s of the first century is probably the best date for Mark.

Who was Mark’s audience? Bible commentator Donald English writes, “The people addressed include a majority of Gentiles, since Mark needs to explain Jewish customs. Yet he is not apparently writing to a church torn by Jewish-Gentile power struggles within its life. The spread of the Gospel of Mark, and its use by other gospel writers, suggest that a reliable and strong church stood behind it. The obvious relevance to the ‘suffering’ element in discipleship hints at a place and time of recent or current persecution. Rome under Nero certainly provides just such a scenario, and is supported by the likelihood that the gospel was written after the death of the apostle Peter, and probably of Paul too.”[3]

Who was Mark? The Gospel itself does not contain any direct claim of authorship. None of the Gospels originally had a title. “The earliest evidence of Markan authorship is set forth by Papias (c. 60-130), the bishop of Hieropolis in Phrygia, in the vicinity of the New Testament churches of Colossae and Laodicea [in what is now modern-day Turkey]. We find this testimony in a primitive Christian fragment preserved by Eusebius”[4] who was an early church historian. Papias writes, Mark, who was Peter’s interpreter, wrote down accurately, though not in order, all that he recollected of what Christ had said or done.”[5] This view of Markan authorship of this Gospel was shared by nearly everyone in the early church.[6] Furthermore, it fits with the fact that Peter refers to Mark as his son in the faith in 1 Peter 5:13.

What can we learn about Mark from the New Testament itself? Mark is mentioned in 10 verses in the New Testament. From Acts 12:12 we learn that Mark, whose other name was John, was the son of a wealthy woman named Mary whose house in Jerusalem was a meeting place for the first church. Several verses later, in Acts 12:25, Mark is mentioned along with Barnabas and Paul. In Acts 13:5 we learn that Barnabas and Paul have John Mark with them on their first missionary journey. But in Acts 13:13, John Mark leaves Barnabas and Paul and returns to his home in Jerusalem. When Paul and Barnabas decide to set out on their second missionary journey together, Barnabas wants to take Mark with them but Paul does not because he considers Mark a deserter. Their disagreement is so sharp at this point that Paul and Barnabas decide to part company and Barnabas takes Mark with him on a missionary journey to his native Cyprus.

After this, “For some years Mark vanishes from history. Tradition has it that he went down to Egypt and founded the Church of Alexandria there.”[7] Mark’s possible connection with Egypt is very interesting for the following reason. Up until recently, the earliest copy we had of Mark’s Gospel was a piece of papyri called p45 dating to about AD 250. This may sound far distant from the events of Jesus’ life in the first century, but you must remember that some of the earliest manuscript evidence that we have for other writers of ancient times dates from about one thousand years after they lived and wrote.[8] So the fact that we have a fragment of Mark dating from only 200 years or less after the time it was written is amazing. Even more amazing still is the fact that some scholars now think they may have uncovered a fragment of the Gospel of Mark dating from the first century. And they found this fragment in an Egyptian mummy mask.[9] So it may well be that Mark lived and wrote his Gospel in Egypt, and that may be why we now have a partial copy of his Gospel discovered in Egypt.

What else do we know of Mark from the New Testament? Well, when we get to the end of Paul’s letter to the Church at Colossae we learn that Mark is there with him in Rome where he is writing from prison. We also learn in Colossians 4:10 that Mark is Barnabas’ nephew. This may help to explain why Barnabas was keen to take Mark on his missionary journey with Paul and why he wanted to keep Mark as part of their team, even after Mark’s desertion.

In another one of Paul’s prison letters, Philemon, he counts Mark among his fellow-workers. (Philemon 1:24) Then, when Paul is awaiting execution under Nero, he writes to Timothy, his right-hand man, and says, “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful in my ministry.” (2 Timothy 4:11) Obviously, by this time, Paul has changed his perspective on Mark. Rather than seeing him as a deserter, Paul, at the end of his life, views Mark as a fellow-worker who is helpful to him.

What are some of the characteristics of Mark’s Gospel? First, it is vivid. The living color details that Mark provides are the hallmark of an eyewitness. Let me give you a few examples….

Both Matthew (18:2) and Mark (9:36) tell the story of Jesus taking a little child and setting him among his disciples as an answer to their question: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom?” The difference is, Mark adds the little detail that Jesus wrapped his arms around the child.

When Mark tells the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, something recorded in all four Gospels, he is the only one to say that they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties on the green grass. (Mark 6:40)

When Mark tells the story of Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee, he is the only one to tell us that when the storm arises, Jesus is asleep in the back of the boat with his head on a pillow. (Mark 4:38)

When Jesus and his disciples are on their final journey to Jerusalem together, Mark is the only one of the Evangelists who records that “Jesus was going before” his disciples. (Mark 10:32) With that one added detail, Mark conveys something of the loneliness of Jesus as he faced his impending death.

There can be little doubt that these details are the contribution of an eyewitness. Mark was recording the recollections of Peter who saw all of this with his own eyes.

Another characteristic of Mark is that he shows us both the divine and human nature of Jesus. From the get-go Mark tells us this is: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Mark leaves us in no doubt as to who he thinks Jesus is. Throughout the Gospel of Mark people show astonishment, amazement, and awe in response to what Jesus says and does. (Mark 1:22, 27; 4:41; 6:51; 10:24, 26)

At the same time, Mark gives us perhaps a more human portrait of Jesus than any of the other Gospels. Mark calls Jesus “the carpenter” (6:3) whereas Matthew corrects this and calls Jesus “the carpenter’s son” (Matthew 13:55). It is as if calling Jesus a simple carpenter is too much for Matthew’s sensibilities.

When Mark relates the temptation of Jesus he says that the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. (Mark 1:2) Matthew and Luke do not seem to like the idea of Jesus being driven, so they soften this to “Jesus was led by the Spirit…” (Matthew 4:1; Luke 4:1)

Mark conveys to the reader the emotions of Jesus. He tells us more than once that Jesus sighed deeply in his spirit (7:34; 8:12). Mark records that Jesus was moved with compassion. (6:34) On other occasions Jesus is moved with righteous anger (3:5; 8:33; 10:14). Mark is the only Evangelist to tell us that when Jesus looked at the rich young ruler he loved him. (10:21) According to Mark, Jesus felt the pangs of hunger (11:12) and he got tired and needed rest (6:31) just like every other human being.

Another characteristic of Mark is his simple style. His writing style is not polished. He tells the story of Jesus almost the way a child would do it. He often adds statement to statement with the simple connecting word “and”. There are 34 clauses like this in the third chapter alone.

Mark is very fond of the word “straightaway” or “immediately”. These words occur some 30 times in his Gospel. Somebody once noted that Mark’s story marches along. And that is true. As William Barclay has said, “he rushes on in a kind of breathless attempt to make the story as vivid to others as it is to himself.”

Mark speaks of the events of Jesus’ life in the present tense rather than the past. This doesn’t always come out in the English translation, but Mark’s repeated use of the present tense shows how vivid and real the story is in his own mind; it is like it is happening before his own eyes as he writes.

One final characteristic that reveals the eyewitness nature of this account is that Mark very often gives us the exact Aramaic words that Jesus used. To Jairus’ daughter whom he raised from the dead Jesus says: “Talitha cumi.” (5:41) To the deaf man with the speech impediment, Jesus says: “Ephphatha.” (7:34) In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prays to his “Abba”. (14:36) And on the cross Jesus cries out in Aramaic: “Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani?” (15:34) “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” William Barclay explains, “There were times when Peter could hear again the very sound of Jesus’ voice and could not help giving the thing to Mark in the very words that Jesus spoke.”[10]

But was Mark himself an eyewitness to any of the events of Jesus’ life? I think he was. And here is why I think so…. There is a very curious incident recorded in Mark 14. When Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, we read that all his disciples deserted him and fled. However, “A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They (that is the Temple Guard) caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.” (Mark 14:51-52) What are we to make of this? Here is what William Barclay once wrote about these verses….

These are two strange and fascinating verses. At first sight they seem completely irrelevant. They seem to add nothing to the narrative and yet there must be some reason for them being there.
We saw in the introduction that Matthew and Luke used Mark as the basis of their work and that they include in their gospels practically everything that is in Mark. But they do not include these two verses. That would seem to show that this incident was interesting to Mark and not really interesting to anyone else. Why then was this incident so interesting to Mark that he felt he must include it? The most probable answer is that the young man was Mark himself, and that this is his way of saying, “I was there,” without mentioning his own name at all.
When we read Acts we find that the meeting place and head-quarters of the Jerusalem church was apparently in the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark (Acts 12:12). If that be so, it is at least probable that the upper room in which the Last Supper was eaten was in that same house. There could be no more natural place than that to be the centre of the church. If we can assume that there are two possibilities.
(i)             It may be that Mark was actually present at the Last Supper. He was young, just a boy, and maybe no one really noticed him. But he was fascinated with Jesus and when the company went out into the dark, he slipped out after them when he ought to have been in bed, with only the linen sheet over his naked body. It may be that all the time Mark was there in the shadows listening and watching. That would explain where the Gethsemane narrative came from. If the disciples were all asleep how did anyone know about the struggle of soul that Jesus had there? It may be that the one witness was Mark as he stood silent in the shadows, watching with a boy’s reverence the greatest hero he had ever known.
(ii)           From John’s narrative we know that Judas left the company before the meal was fully ended (John 13:30). It may be that it was to the upper room that Judas meant to lead the Temple police so that they might secretly arrest Jesus. But when Judas came back with the police, Jesus and his disciples were gone. Naturally there was recrimination and argument. The uproar wakened Mark. He heard Judas propose that they should try the garden of Gethsemane. Quickly Mark wrapped his bed-sheet about him and sped through the night to the garden to warn Jesus. But he arrived too late, and in the scuffle that followed was very nearly arrested himself.
Whatever may be true, we may take it as fairly certain that Mark put in these two verses because they were about himself. He could never forget that night. He was too humble to put his own name in but in this way he wrote his signature, and said, to him who could read between the lines, “I, too, when I was a boy, was there.”[11]
One more thing to note about these verses: they contain one of the most important words in the Gospel of Mark. “A certain young man was following him…” The Gospel of Mark is all about Following Jesus. And Mark himself tells us in these verses that he followed Jesus into the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of his arrest.

But the story does not end there. The same Greek word for young man, νεανίσκος, that Mark uses to describe himself in Mark 14:51 is also used in Mark 16:5 and these are the only two places where Mark uses this word in his Gospel. Mark 16:5-7 says that as the women entered Jesus’ tomb early on Sunday morning to anoint his body with spices, “they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

Could it be that Mark, the young man who followed Jesus into Gethsemane, is the same young man in these verses? If that is correct, it means that Mark, a young man, a teenager at best, may have been the first person to see Jesus risen from the dead. Mark passed Jesus’ message on to the women at the tomb, and some 40 years later he passed the message of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection on to the world when he wrote this Gospel.




[1] William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975, p. 2.
[2] Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, Downer’s Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1970, pp. 72-73.
[3] Donald English, The Message of Mark, Downer’s Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992, p. 22.
[4] Thomas C. Oden, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Mark, Downer’s Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1998, p. xxi.
[5] Barclay, p. 4.
[6] Oden, p. 2 ff.
[7] Barclay, pp. 3-4.
[10] Barclay, p. 8.
[11] Barclay, pp. 347-348.

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