The Beginning of the Gospel | Mark 1:1

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Mark 1:1 ESV

Mark is an overlooked book. Consider the book’s companions. John and Matthew were both firsthand witnesses to Jesus. Matthew’s Gospel serves as a perfect bridge from the Old Testament to the New Testament, while showing Jesus to be the promised Messiah. John wrote his account of Jesus’ life with the expressed purpose of showing Jesus’ divinity, making it the most theologically dense of the four. Luke, while not a direct witness to Jesus, was a physician and a scholar who crafted the most historically detailed description of Jesus’ life here on earth.

So, what use does Mark’s Gospel have? With only sixteen chapters, it is by far the shortest of all the Gospels. Nearly all of its content is repeated in Matthew or Luke. Not to mention, Mark is the only Gospel with a questionable ending that may not have been written by Mark at all. Certainly, we do not question the inspiration of the Spirit in Mark, but is it of less value than the other three Gospels?

ON THE FOUR GOSPELS

Let us begin by considering what are the Gospels and why there are four of them.

The four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are each named for their traditionally identified author, and they present to us the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Robert Gundry notes that these four writings are unique to any other genre of literature:

Unlike modern biographies, however, they lack contemporary historical background, analysis of character and personality, and probing of the inner thoughts of the hero. Nor do the Gospels resemble Hellenistic narratives that merely celebrate the real or supposed acts of ancient miracle-workers. There is much more than narration of miracles in the Gospels. Nor do the Gospels present us with simple memoirs; rather, they give us proclamation and instruction written from theological standpoints.[1]

The Gospels, though certainly historical, belong to a category of literature altogether their own because they are not interested in simply presenting history. Instead, there is a didactic component to them. They aim to teach us who Jesus is, what He said, and what He did. And, as their titles suggest, they are certainly proclamations. Gospel, after all, means good news, and it is a word for describing the kind of proclamation that herald who brings news to the city that the invading army has retreated away might shout. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John similarly wrote their accounts of Jesus to proclaim the good news of Himself. This, therefore, brings us to a crucial point that we must make about the four Gospels:

These early titles [i.e. “The Gospel According to Matthew”] capture the important fact that while there are four canonical Gospels, there is only one gospel of Jesus Christ, and, accordingly, the canonical Gospels, properly understood, are not four separate, independent presentations of Jesus Christ. They are four complementary perspectives or versions of the one gospel of Jesus Christ.[2]

We have four Gospels because they each reveal something distinct yet cohesive of who Jesus is. Indeed, having a fourfold presentation of the gospel was historical testament to the truth of Christ. There were, after all, many Gnostic Gospels that were written in the 2nd Century, each claiming to be the true teaching of Jesus. The four Gospels, which we already widely circulated by that time, were a significant reason why the false Gospels never gained traction. For, while none of the Gnostic Gospels seemed to describe the same Jesus, the four canonical Gospels are clearly describing the same person.[3]

Mark’s Gospel is no different. Although, again, it is the shortest of the four and almost all of Mark is repeated in Matthew or Luke, we should note that Mark’s brevity comes from what the author excluded. For example, the only significant blocks of Jesus’ teaching in the Mark are found in chapters 4 and 13. Matthew, however, devoted three lengthy chapters to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and John gave five chapters to His upper room discourse with the disciples before His crucifixion. However, even though Mark does not record many long blocks of Jesus’ teachings, his recording of events is frequently longer and more detailed than the parallel accounts in Matthew or Luke. Overall, Mark’s approach may appear to be simpler and more streamlined than the other Gospels; however, simplicity often heightens profundity rather than negating it.

Many commentators have noted (and I think they are correct) that Mark presents the works of Jesus more than His words. In other words, Mark is the Gospel of action. Timothy Keller says that,

Mark wants us to see that the coming of Jesus calls for decisive action. Jesus is seen as a man of action, moving quickly and decisively from event to event. There is relatively little of Jesus’s teaching in the Gospel of Mark—mainly, we see Jesus doing. Therefore we can’t remain neutral; we need to respond actively.[4]

MARK AT A GLANCE

But what exactly is Mark calling us to do? In order to answer that question, we must first have a basic understanding of the overall structure and purpose of the book. It may also be helpful to think of this portion as a sort of roadmap of our upcoming journey.

Although Mark begins immediately with a declaration of the identity of Jesus as the Christ and the Son of God, he spends the entirety of his Gospel revealing that Jesus is indeed the long-awaited Christ and what the Son of God has come to earth to accomplish. Like our previous books of study, Ephesians and Daniel, Mark can also easily be divided into two halves. Part one focuses upon Jesus’ identity, while part two focuses upon His purpose for coming into the world.

The central passage of the book (both literally and thematically) is Peter’s confession in 8:27-30. In that text, Jesus first asks the disciples who people say that He is, and after giving a number of answers, He asks the disciples who they say that He is. Peter speaks up: “You are the Christ.”

Meaning anointed one, Christ was the Greek version of the Hebrew word Messiah, and during the 400 years of silence after God spoke through the prophet Malachi, God’s people increasingly longed for the coming of a great Anointed One, the great King who would restore the throne of David and subdue all nations under the kingdom of Israel, whom the Scriptures promised would one day arrive. Throughout the years, many arose claiming to be this Christ who would liberate God’s people from their Gentile rulers, and each of them failed and died, scattering their followers and resigning them to the footnotes of history. Thus, Peter’s statement was not made lightly.

The entire first half of Mark leads up to this crucial moment, showing glimpses of Jesus’ divine authority as the Christ, the Son of God. However, Jesus focuses particularly upon revealing Himself to the disciples in chapters 4-8, which is highlighted by the disciples’ question after Jesus calms the sea: “Who then is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him” (4:41)?

The second half of Mark proceeds from Peter’s confession, beginning with Jesus finally revealing to the disciples His messianic mission: “the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:31). Twice more (9:30-32 and 10:32-34) He conveys His grand purpose to His followers, yet their ears and eyes prove to be just as dull as they were throughout the first half of the book.

In the final verses of chapter 11 (and somewhat throughout chapter 12), we find another group of people wrestling over Jesus’ identity[5]: the chief priests, scribes, and elders (aka the ones who were going to kill Jesus). Unlike the disciples, these religious leaders reject Jesus as the Christ and ultimately the ones who orchestrate His crucifixion. That these students of Scripture failed to recognize the Messiah, while fishermen and tax collectors did, is a tragic warning, and it is only heightened further by another confession that comes toward the book’s conclusion. As a centurion, a Roman Gentile, watched Jesus breathe His last breath, he declared: “Truly this man was the Son of God” (15:39). Thus, even a non-Jew was able to see and hear to the truth to which the Jewish leaders were both blind and deaf.

All of this means that Mark carefully and purposefully displays Jesus as the Christ and the Son of God throughout his Gospel account.

THE BEGINNING OF WHAT?

Yet we must also address another defining feature of Mark’s Gospel: the crucifixion.

In 2019, we studied the Apostles’ Creed, which gives a significant portion of itself to describing what we believe about Jesus. It presents His incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and second coming as doctrines essential to the Christian faith. Of course, each of these are presented clearly in the four Gospels together; however, Mark is particularly focused upon the crucifixion. In fact, he completely bypasses the incarnation and ascension. He recounts Jesus briefly predicting His second coming (see 13:26 and 14:62). Even the resurrection (although Jesus predicted it three times, as I mentioned above) is only described in the eight verses of chapter 16, which do not even tell us of anyone interacting with the resurrected Christ!

The crucifixion, on the other hand, dominates Mark’s Gospel, with the entire second half leading up to and then describing it. Gundry is right, therefore, to call Mark “an apology for the cross” (apology here meaning defense as it does in apologetics). Why then does Mark give so much attention to the centrality of the crucifixion, and furthermore why does he call it the gospel, the good news?

Mark’s fixation upon the cross, especially in light of Jesus’ many wonders and signs throughout the Gospel, is meant to reveal the amazement with which we should behold the crucifixion. Such a message is necessary because our amazement tends to go by default to the miracles of Jesus, especially His triumphant resurrection. However, Mark treats these wonders of Christ in a similar manner to John, that is, as signs of His divinity and authority. After all, if Jesus was indeed fully God walking around as also being fully man, should we not expect the leper to be healed at His touch? How could demons find themselves in His holy presence and not cry out in anguish? Yet perhaps most significantly, how could the Author of life Himself stay dead? Indeed, He could not. As Peter told the crowd at Pentecost, “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it” (Acts 2:24). All of Jesus’ many miracles, including the resurrection, are what we would expect to occur if Jesus truly is the Son of God.

The crucifixion is another matter; for in both His deity and humanity, who could have expected that the Christ would die, especially death by crucifixion? Of course, two interrelated attributes of God’s very being are that He is infinite and eternal, which both preclude death. Yet even in Jesus’ humanity, He was without sin and, thus, without death. Death, we should remember, came into the world as a consequence of sin. God forbid Adam and Eve from eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, saying, “for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17).

And die they did, but not right away. In an act of great mercy, God slaughtered an animal in order to clothe Adam and Eve’s nakedness with its skin before He exiled them from Eden. Later, He required an intricate sacrificial system from His people as constant reminder of the death that their sin brought. Of course, the blood of animals, which we created under human dominion, was never sufficient to give atonement for sins, yet God mercifully accepted the never-ending ransom and allowed His people to continue living a while longer. Jesus, however, was outside all of this. He was, as Paul noted, the second Adam, the only human since Adam and Eve not to be born under the curse of sin. Yet unlike Adam, He resisted each temptation throughout His life that came before Him. Therefore, even as a human, death had no claim upon Jesus.

Even though death is as ordinary to humans now as birth, Jesus’ death is easily the most surprise element of His life (with only His birth as runner-up). The very last thing that anyone would expect God incarnate to do was to die. Yet this is exactly what Jesus did. Mark makes it clear that Jesus’ crucifixion was a tragedy that just so happened to befall God’s Son, as will eventually come upon us all. Instead, Jesus resolved to die. Indeed, He could not have died unless He had chosen to do so. Therefore, it makes sense for the Gospel of action to spend so much time focusing upon Christ’s greatest action: dying.

Of course, a question still remains: why would the Messiah, the long-awaited King, come to die? In 10:45, Jesus gives us the answer: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus came to become the once-for-all sacrifice for His people. King came to liberate His own subjects from their captivity to sin at the cost of His own life. The Son of God at whose touch sickness is cleansed and infirmities are restored, in whose presence the demonic host tremble and beg for mercy, and whose voice is obeyed by the wind and sea came into our world for the purpose to dying in our place. This is why the crucifixion of Christ is good news, the good news, the greatest news to ever be proclaimed.

But all of this is dependent upon us first recognizing who Jesus is. Thus, the fundamental question of Mark’s Gospel is: who do you say that Jesus is? In fact, I believe that Mark purposefully ends with a cliffhanger as a final display of how the resurrection testifies to Jesus being the Christ, the Son of God. We will spend much more time discussing this issue at the close of the book, yet in brief, I do not think that the longer ending[6] is original to Mark. 16:8, which tells us that the women who found Jesus’ empty tomb ran away afraid and telling no one, feels purposefully anticlimactic because the climax of the gospel has yet to come. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are, as Mark is saying in this first verse, the beginning. Today, almost two thousand years after these events, the gospel of Jesus Christ is continuing through His body, the church. Luke, after all, made a similar point about his Gospel by describing it in the book of Acts as being about “all that Jesus began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1). Jesus is alive, and the good news that He died to ransom sinners from the eternal condemnation of our sin is still on the move. This Gospel, therefore, is not merely a piece of fascinating ancient history; it is the greatest moment in all of history, which also fundamentally impacts the present because it describes how history’s Author wrote Himself into the story.

Furthermore, Mark’s abrupt ending reminds us that we are same boat as the women were originally: believing another’s testimony that Christ has indeed risen. Therefore, Mark places the ball in our court, asking us to answer the same question that Jesus asked His original disciples: who do you say that I am? Mark’s Gospel presents Jesus to us as He truly is rather than as we would like Him to be and forces us to make a choice of eternal consequence: follow Him or reject Him. May the Spirit give us eyes to see Jesus as He is as we dive into the Gospel According to Mark.


[1] Robert Gundry, A Survey of the New Testament, 150.

[2] Andreas J. Kostenberger, J. Scott Kellum, & Charles L. Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown, 117.

[3] Even most secular textual critics who attempt to highlight differences in the Gospels still admit that they are each clearly speaking of the same Jesus.

[4] Timothy Keller, King’s Cross, xiv.

[5] There also appears to be an overall chiastic structure to Mark’s Gospel, centering around Peter’s confession. Chapters 4-13 seem to focus particularly upon Jesus’ revelation of Himself (4-8) and His purpose (8-13) to His disciples (which are bracketed by the two largest blocks of Jesus’ teaching in the book), while chapters 1-3 and 14-16 present Jesus facing the wider public.

[6] Verses 9-20 of chapter 16 have been called by many the Longer Ending of Mark, and they are often separated from the rest of the text with a message like the one found in the ESV: “Some of the earliest manuscripts do not include 16:8-20.”

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