Background on the Gospel of Mark


Like the other Gospels, Mark is technically anonymous; however, as the title declares, tradition has long held John Mark to be the author.


Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.


John Mark is first spoken of in Acts 13. When Paul set out on his first missionary journey with Barnabas, we are informed that Mark was with them for assistance (v.5); however, for an unknown reason, Mark abandoned the journey and returned to Jerusalem (v. 13). In chapter 15, as Paul was preparing for his second journey, Barnabas wanted to bring along Mark with them again. Because of Mark’s previously abandoning them, Paul opposed bringing him along again, and he and Barnabas got into a sharp disagreement. The result of neither backing down was that Paul and Barnabas split up, with Barnabas taking Mark as his companion and Paul taking Silas with him.

However, we do see from Paul’s later letters that he and Mark were firmly reconciled. Indeed, while awaiting his execution, Paul asked Timothy to bring Mark to him because of his great help in ministry (2 Timothy 4:11). We also know that Barnabas’ display of grace was not in vain because would eventually become a close associate of Peter, such that Peter called Mark his son (1 Peter 5:13). Tradition says that it was from this close relationship with Peter that Mark was able to compose his Gospel.


While we do not know explicitly for whom Mark wrote this book, the author’s editorial comments certainly imply a Gentile audience. For example, verses 3-4 of chapter 7 describe the washing traditions of the Pharisees, which would have been common knowledge to Jews. Also, Mark comments that Bartimaeus was the son of Timaeus, but any Jew would have known that Bartimaeus means son of Timaeus. Bar means son in Hebrew.

The overall purpose of Mark’s Gospel is to set the life of Jesus before the reader’s eyes that we may behold Him as the Christ, the Son of God. Indeed, 1:1 is the thesis of the whole book. In accomplishing that goal, the book divides into two halves. The central passage of the book (both literally and thematically) is Peter’s confession in 8:27-30. The entire first half of Mark leads us to that crucial moment, showing glimpses of Jesus’ divine authority as the Christ along the way. The second half of Mark proceeds from Peter’s confession, beginning with Jesus finally revealing to His disciples the 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). Thus, the first half is about Jesus’ identity as the Christ, while the second half is about Jesus’ mission as the Christ.

I would also argue that there is an overall chiastic structure to Mark’s Gospel, centering again 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.

The Cross

The entire Gospel of Mark builds toward the crucifixion of Jesus. Once Jesus’ authority as the Christ is established in the first half, the second half constantly forces us to wrestle with why the Christ would have come into the world to be killed.

Indeed, 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.

The Longer Ending

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 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.

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