Background of Mark
Author, Date, and Recipients
The apostle Peter passed on reports of the words and deeds of Jesus to his attendant, John Mark, who wrote this Gospel for the wider church as the record of Peter’s apostolic testimony. The book was likely written from Rome during the mid-to late-50s AD (though the mid-or late-60s is also possible). Mark’s audience, largely unfamiliar with Jewish customs, needed to become familiar with such customs in order to understand the coming of Jesus as the culmination of God’s work with Israel and the entire world, so Mark explains them.
Purpose and Theme
The ultimate purpose and theme of Mark’s Gospel is to present and defend Jesus’ universal call to discipleship. Mark returns often to this theme, categorizing his main audience as either followers or opponents of Jesus. Mark presents and supports this call to discipleship by narrating the identity and teaching of Jesus. For Mark, discipleship is essentially a relationship with Jesus, not merely following a certain code of conduct. Fellowship with Jesus marks the heart of the disciple’s life, and this fellowship includes trusting Jesus, confessing him, observing his conduct, following his teaching, and being shaped by a relationship with him. Discipleship also means being prepared to face the kind of rejection that Jesus faced.
1. Jesus seeks to correct messianic expectations and misunderstandings (Mark 1:25, 34, 44; 3:12; 4:10–12; 5:18–19, 43; 8:30; 9:9).
2. Jesus is man (Mark 3:5; 4:38; 6:6; 7:34; 8:12, 33; 10:14; 11:12; 14:33–42).
3. Jesus is the Son of God (Mark 1:11; 3:11; 5:7; 8:38; 9:7; 12:6–8; 13:32; 14:36, 61; 15:39).
4. Jesus is the Son of Man with all power and authority (Mark 1:16–34; 2:3–12, 23–28; 3:11; 4:35–41; 6:45–52; 7:1–23; 10:1–12).
5. Jesus as the Son of Man must suffer (Mark 8:31; 10:45; 14:21, 36).
6. Jesus is Lord (Mark 2:28; 12:35–37; 14:62).
7. Jesus calls his followers to imitate him in humble service, self-denial, and suffering (Mark 8:34–38; 9:35–37; 10:35–45).
8. Jesus teaches on the kingdom of God, and implies that God continues to call a people to himself (compare Mark 1:15; 9:1; 14:25; 15:43).
I. Introduction (1:1–15)
II. Demonstration of Jesus’ Authority (1:16–8:26)
A. Jesus’ early Galilean ministry (1:16–3:12)
B. Jesus’ later Galilean ministry (3:13–6:6)
C. Work beyond Galilee (6:7–8:26)
III. Testing Jesus’ Authority in Suffering (8:27–16:8)
A. Journey to Jerusalem (8:27–10:52)
B. Entering and judging Jerusalem (11:1–13:37)
C. Death and resurrection in Jerusalem (14:1–16:8)
[D. “Longer ending of Mark” (16:9–20; see note)]
The Setting of Mark
The Global Message of Mark
The Central Message of Mark
The central message of Mark’s Gospel is that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has come to earth (Mark 1:1), that “the kingdom of God is at hand,” and that all should “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).
Mark establishes early in his Gospel that Jesus is indeed the very Son of God—as we see when Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. When Jesus came up from the water, immediately the heavens opened, the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus, and the voice of God the Father spoke from heaven saying, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:9–11). These verses show clearly that the One True God of the Bible exists as three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Other books of the Bible also show that Jesus is the Creator of everything in the universe, including this earth and every human being on it (John 1:1–3). The apostle Paul writes that Jesus “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities— all things were created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:15–16).
The global significance of this is massive. Because Jesus created everything, he is the rightful ruler of everything. But the tragic reality of human existence is that life on this earth is deeply damaged by cruelty and suffering, by evil and injustice, by sickness and finally death.
Global Good News
Mark’s Gospel starts off with global good news—the triumphant announcement of the arrival of the kingdom of God: “Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel’” (Mark 1:14 –15). The long-awaited worldwide kingdom—in which all would be put right and justice would prevail—dawned when Jesus came into the world. Though injustice and evil still ravage this world, the King of creation, the rightful righteous ruler has landed! Evil’s defeat is certain and imminent. God’s cosmic, global restoration has begun—in the coming of Christ, in his life and death and resurrection.
Immediately after announcing that the “kingdom of God is at hand,” Jesus calls his first disciples from among a group of fishermen (Mark 1:16–20). Here we see a pattern that has been reflected in Christianity around the world throughout history and down to the present. It is not the social elites that Jesus calls to leave everything and follow him, but common people from every walk of life. The gospel is for all peoples, not limited to a select few who outwardly observe a list of rules (Mark 7:3–4). Jesus underscores the inclusion of people from every nation—by showing mercy to the Gentiles (e.g., Mark 7:24 –30) and by welcoming “whoever does the will of God” into his own family (Mark 3:35).
We also learn, right from the start of Mark’s Gospel, that Jesus cares deeply about physical suffering—as he heals a leper, a paralytic, and a man with a withered hand (Mark 1:40–45; 2:1–12; 3:1–6). Later on Mark says that wherever Jesus went “in villages, cities, or countryside, they laid the sick in the marketplaces,” and all that touched “the fringe of his garment” were made well (Mark 6:53–56). Likewise, Mark’s Gospel tells how Jesus miraculously fed a great crowd of five thousand, having “compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34). On another occasion he fed a crowd of four thousand who had been with him three days and had nothing to eat (Mark 8:1–10). Many other times throughout Mark we see Jesus caring for people’s physical needs (e.g., Mark 7:31–37; 8:22–26). While spiritual sickness is the fundamental disease that Jesus came to heal (Mark 2:5, 17), Jesus cared deeply about the physical well-being of people as well, because all are made in the image of God. Thus the proclaiming of the gospel of God in word (Mark 1:14) was likewise demonstrated in deed.
Mark also has much to say about global poverty. On the one hand, Jesus encourages his followers to be generous toward the poor, even exhorting one wealthy man to sell all that he has and give it to the poor (Mark 10:21). Such generosity is not only for the rich, for Jesus makes a point to praise the generosity of the poor widow who gives a tiny amount, which was “all she had to live on” (Mark 12:41–44). Sacrificial giving to alleviate the poverty of others is not restricted to a certain class but is something to which all believers are called. At the same time Jesus makes clear that he himself is the greatest treasure (Mark 14:7; compare Mark 2:19). While material poverty is close to Jesus’ heart, and is something that global Christians are called to alleviate, Jesus himself—not money or anything else—is the fundamental need of every human heart. Jesus is our supreme treasure, and release from spiritual bondage and poverty is our greatest need.
Lastly, Jesus teaches the divinely ordered relationship between people and government. When the religious officials of the day tried to trap Jesus in his teaching, he astonished them with his answer: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). Thus Jesus teaches the appropriate submission to government that helps ensure social well-being while also indicating, more deeply, that God’s kingdom transcends earthly kingdoms, and that the Christian’s deepest loyalty must be to God.
The Global Message of Mark for Today
What then is the global message of Mark’s Gospel today? Clearly the kingdom of God has come near in Jesus’ ministry of word and deed. Clearly Jesus calls all who believe in him and call him Lord to “proclaim the gospel of God” and to demonstrate the fruit of the gospel in all of life. “If anyone would come after me,” Jesus said, “let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). If Christ is the Lord of life, he must be the Lord of all of life. The first great commandment, Jesus said, is, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Mark 12:29–31).
It is not a matter of either/or. If we truly love the Lord with all our heart, we will love our neighbor as ourself. Thus the grave questions that face the global church are at the heart of our calling as Christians—not only to bring the gospel to every corner of the earth but also to care for orphans and widows; to uphold the dignity of each individual; to defend the sanctity of every life; to feed the hungry; to relieve poverty; to work for justice; and to care for the creation that God has entrusted to us.
We do these things because Christ is Lord of all. But we also do them knowing that we can do nothing in our own strength (John 15:5). So we look to Christ as our strength and our salvation. We trust in his death and resurrection for the forgiveness of our sins and for our redemption. And we look to the day when he will come “with great power and glory” to gather his own “from the four winds, from the ends of the earth” to establish his eternal kingdom (Mark 13:26–27).