The Witness of Mark

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Matthew contains 97 percent of Mark’s verses. Why, then, do we have Mark, since we could just read Matthew? Two competing theories reply that either Mark was written as a digest of the larger Matthew or that Matthew was written later as an expansion of Mark. Regardless of possible gospel origins, we should not fail to appreciate that Mark has its own value in the New Testament canon apart from comparison with the other gospels. Mark is a brilliant, lively, exciting presentation of Jesus as the Messiah who marched inevitably to the cross where He was determined to give Himself as a ransom for His people and, after death, to be raised as the glorious king of God’s kingdom. Let’s look at some of the particulars of this most vital book.

Mark opens and closes abruptly. The opening is like the beginning of a horse-race with no narration of the birth of either John the Baptist or Jesus. The first verse reads like a title: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Then after a quick, combined Old Testament quotation with Isaiah as the lead prophet concerning John as forerunner (Mark 1:2–3), we are given only a scant summation of John’s life and work (1:4–8). There is no time to catch one’s breath before Jesus appears and takes over the narrative for the rest of the book at the same galloping pace.

Mark’s narrative speed is caused by his focus on actions and only rarely on words. In contrast, for example, with Matthew’s long Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7; see also Luke 6; 12–13), Mark has two short blocks of Jesus’ teaching (Mark 4 and 13), and some small segments sprinkled throughout. For the most part, Mark focuses on the Lord’s deeds.

Compare, for instance, the temptation of Jesus. Mark has only two verses (Mark 1:12–13) compared to the much fuller description in the other Synoptic Gospels (Matt. 4:1–11; Luke 4:1–13). In the others, Jesus is “led” into the desert and the temptation itself is recorded, but in Mark Jesus is driven out into the wilderness to be with wild animals and the content of the temptation is not recorded. Mark focuses on the fact of Jesus’ temptation and how His baptism inaugurated His undergoing the wilderness and wild animal curse on behalf of His people (see Mark 10:39; Lev. 26:22; Jer. 12:9; 50:39; Ezek. 14:21) so that we may now dwell securely in the wilderness as a result (Ezek. 34:25; Rev. 12:14–16).

The quickness of Mark’s style is marked in many ways. He uses short, active statements in place of a more circuitous style favored by Greek authors. Mark also prefers lively, direct quotations, and he has some unusual redundancy, such as: “That evening at sundown…” (Mark 1:32) or “when he was in need and was hungry…” (2:25). A more notable feature of Mark is his favorite way of introducing a new event: “and immediately” — used some forty times, which is almost twice as often as found in Matthew and Luke combined.

When you read Mark verse by verse, the full effect of the unusual features of Mark’s redundant, lively style is lost, but this brings us to an important observation. In antiquity, most books were written to be read aloud and therefore to be experienced by hearing (see especially Rev. 1:3). Literacy was not common back then, and even those who could read preferred to hear a work read and to experience it presented well by a reader who could add emotion, gestures, and even different voices for the characters in the reading. In a public setting, it was normal for the audience to get into the story and jeer the bad guys and clap and cheer for the good guys.

In recent years, the oral features of Mark have been explored most fruitfully. One conclusion from this is that repeated phrases like “and immediately,” which may seem choppy when reading Mark in bits and pieces as we do today, actually help to orient the listener to a new plot development and to keep the narrative flowing. Like Jesus with His parables, Mark is a master storyteller. To experience this yourself, listen to Mark read out loud. It only takes about ninety minutes to hear the whole book and the experience is well worth the effort.

One feature of Mark that stands out when listening to it is the interconnection between episodes separated across chapter divisions. Let us look at some central episodes, which will display the main outline of Mark’s gospel.

In Mark 6:30–44, Jesus feeds five thousand people and the disciples puzzle over Jesus’ command: “You give them something to eat” (6:37). The narrative then moves along quickly to Mark 8:1–10 where Jesus tells the disciples that He has compassion on the four thousand people following Him and wants to feed them. But the twelve respond, “How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?” (8:4). As listeners we’re thinking, “Wait a minute, didn’t they just see Jesus feed five thousand? Don’t they see that Jesus can do anything?!” Mark has drawn us into the story.

As Mark further unfolds after the second miraculous feeding of Mark 8, Jesus tells the disciples to avoid the leaven of the Pharisees, but they can only think about the one loaf of physical bread they have. So Jesus reminds them of the two feedings (Mark 8:14–21). At this point in Mark’s narrative we listeners are beginning to despair of the disciples, but then the miraculous happens in Mark 8:27–30. Jesus probes the disciples as to His identity, and Peter, representing the thick-witted disciples, finally confesses, “You are the Christ” (8:29; compare Matt. 16:16 and Luke 9:20).

Peter’s confession of Jesus is the great centerpiece and hinge of Mark’s gospel, which he has masterfully drawn us to see as such. In the first half of the gospel, Jesus’ powerful deeds attest to His identity as the Christ (or Messiah) who will rule in the kingdom of God. This has been the central thrust of Jesus’ teaching: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). But except for Mark 1:1, the title “Christ” has not been used until the pivot of the gospel when Peter confesses when pressed by Jesus: “You are the Christ” (8:29). Now the disciples get it! The feedings led us and them to finally see who Jesus is.

The first part of Mark’s gospel, then, hinges on Jesus displaying His messianic identity to all. But everyone is confused about Him — except the demons! (Mark 1:24, 34; 3:11). Mark brings out people’s confused response to Jesus in twenty-nine places through eight different Greek words for their fear, surprise, astonishment, bewilderment, and even stupefaction. Who is this Jesus who is not like their scribes (1:22)? The Pharisees think He’s a demoniac, (3:22–30); Herod thinks He’s John come back to life, while others think He’s Elijah or the great prophet (6:14–16; see Deut. 18:15); Jesus’ family thinks He’s gone mad (Mark 3:20–21), and even His disciples are mystified: “And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even wind and the sea obey him?’” (4:41).

The confused response of people highlights Jesus’ true, royal authority: “They were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority” (Mark 1:22). Jesus, the Son of God (1:9–11) and the one mightier than John (1:7–8), provokes holy fear and awe in powerful words and deeds as He forgives sins (2:1–12), fights victoriously against a legion of demons (5:1–20; compare with the shorter Matt. 8:28–34 and Luke 8:26–39), and ultimately faces conflict with the authorities in Jerusalem over His authority to do these things (Mark 11:27–33). But Jesus’ rule is totally unlike that of Gentile lords in that He came to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy of the Suffering Servant (Mark 10:42–45; see Isaiah 40–66).

With Peter’s confession, then, we now know who Jesus is: the sovereign, divine-human Messiah. Jesus has been working toward this confession of faith in Him in the first half of Mark, so that in the second half He begins to reveal to His disciples His true redemptive mission on the cross. This transition in Mark, in contrast particularly with John’s gospel, is underlined in that the action in the first half of Mark takes place almost exclusively in Galilee, yet in the second half Jesus sets His face toward Jerusalem where He must suffer at the hands of the leaders of Israel as a ransom for His people (for example, Mark 8:31; 9:12; and 10:45).

In conclusion, Mark provides the listener with a dynamic account of the majestic authority of Jesus in word, but especially in powerful deeds that stunned His contemporaries with their supernatural character. These acts were a demonstration that the kingdom of God had indeed drawn near with His arrival. Yet the inauguration of this kingdom was not a political revolution but the King’s own substitutionary sacrifice for His people before His resurrection and ascension to “the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62). Mark has told this story in such a way that the attentive listener will be led to confess, along with the first disciples: “You are the Christ.”

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