How to read Mark


  • Content: the story of Jesus from his baptism to his resurrection, about two-thirds of which tells of his ministry in Galilee, while the last third narrates his final week in Jerusalem

  • Author: anonymous; attributed (by Papias (ca A.D. 125) to John Mark, a sometime companion of Paul (Col 4:10) and later of Peter (1 Pet 5:13)

  • Date: ca. A.D . 65 (according to Papias, soon after the deaths of Paul and Peter in Rome)

  • Recipients: the church in Rome (according to Papias), which accounts for its preservation along with the longer Matthew and Luke

  • Emphases: the time of God's rule (the kingdom of God) has come with Jesus; Jesus has brought about the new exodus promised in Isaiah; the kingly Messiah came in weakness, his identity a secret except to those to whom it is revealed; the way of the new exodus leads to Jesus' death in Jerusalem; the way of discipleship is to take up a cross and follow him


Although Mark is the earliest of the four Gospels , because it is shorter and has much less teaching than the others, it has often tended to suffer neglect. At one level his story is straightforward. After a prologue, which introduces us to the good news about Jesus Christ (1:1-15), the story unfolds in four parts. In part 1 (1:16-3:6), Jesus goes public with the announcement of the kingdom. With rapid-fire action he calls disciples, drives out demons, heals the sick, and announces that all of this has to do with the coming of God's rule; in the process he draws amazement from the crowds and opposition from the religious and political establishment, who early on plot his death.

Part 2 (3:1-8:21) develops the role of the three significant groups. Jesus' miracles and teaching are sources of constant amazement to the crowds; the disciples receive private instruction (4:13, 34) and join in the proclamation (6:7 -13), but are slow to understand (8: 14-21; cf. 6:52); the opposition continues to mount (7:1-23;8:11-13).

In part 3 (8:22-10:45), Jesus directs his attention primarily to the disciples. Three times he explains the nature of his kingship-and hence of discipleship (8:34-38)-as going the way of the cross (as Isaiah's suffering servant; Mark 10:45), and three times the disciples completely

miss it.

Part 4 (10:46-15:47) brings the story to its climax. The king enters Jerusalem and the crowds go wild with excitement, but in the end the opposition has its day. Jesus is put on trial, found guilty and turned over to the Romans for execution on a cross-as "the king of the Jews" (15:2).

A brief epilogue (16: I -8) reminds Mark's readers that "[Jesus] has risen!"


It was a killing time in Rome. The church was experiencing the Neronian holocaust, in which many believers had been burned alive at Nero's garden parties and two of the church's more important figures (Peter and Paul) had been executed. Soon after, there appeared among

them a small book (Mark's Gospel), written to remind them of the nature of Jesus'own messiahship (as God's suffering servant) and to encourage cross-bearing discipleship.

Mark has been described as one who cannot tell a story badly. In part this is due to his vivid style, which is what also gives his Gospel the sense of being rapid-fire. Almost every sentence begins with "and" (cf. KJV); forty-one times he begins with "and immediately" (which does not always refer to time but to the urgency of the telling), and twenty five times with "and again." But he also includes little details, including the Aramaic words of Jesus on six occasions. All of this reflects both a written form of oral recounting and the memory of an eyewitness.

The prominent place of Peter in the Gospel and the fact that early on so much happens in and around Peter's house in Capernaum suggest that the tradition has it right-that the Gospel in part reflects Peter's own telling of the story. But Peter's role in the Gospel is anything but that of a hero. He who urged others to "clothe yourselves in humility" (1 Pet 5:5) does not forget his own weaknesses while following Jesus; you will want to look for these features as you read. But at the end, after he vehemently denied knowing his Lord (Mark 14:66-72), he also remembers that the angel told the women at the tomb, "Go, tell his disciples and Peter" (16:7, emphasis added).

But brief and breathtaking as Mark'.s Gospel is, it is not at all simple. Indeed, Mark tells the story with profound theological insight. Absolutely crucial to your reading with understanding is to note how he presents Jesus as Messiah. Three things emerge at the beginning that carry all the way through to the end: (1) Jesus is the kingly Messiah, (2) Jesus is God's suffering servant, and (3) Jesus keeps his identity secret.

Mark's telling of the story thus emphasizes the "messianic secret," the "mystery of the kingdom of God,'namely, that the expected coming King knew he was destined to suffer for the sake of the people. The demons, who recognize him, are silenced (1:25, 34; 3:11-12); the crowds to whom the King comes with compassion are told not to tell anyone about his miracles (l:44; 5:43; 7:36; 8:26); when finally confessed as Messiah by the disciples, he tells them to tell no one (8:30). What no one expects is for God's King to be impaled on a cross! But Jesus knows-and he silences all messianic fervor, lest it thwart the divine plan that leads to the cross. When the disciples are clued in to the "mystery," even they fail to get it (8:21-33); they are like the blind man who has to be touched twice (8:22-26; in their case, by Jesus'resurrection).

But in reminding his readers of the nature of Jesus' messiahship, Mark also reminds us that this is the way of discipleship as well. Indeed, the first instruction on discipleship (8:34), which calls for cross bearing, appears only after the first disclosure to the disciples of Jesus' own

impending death (v. 31).

Mark also uses the theme of God's kingly suffering Messiah to show Jesus' connection to the story of Israel, especially Isaiah's (now long-delayed) new exodus. The key moments in the first exodus are deliverance, the journey through the desert, and arrival at the place where the Lord

dwells. Isaiah (chs. 35; 40-55) announces the return from Babylonian exile as a new exodus. Notice how Mark puts us in touch with this theme in his very first sentence: "The beginning of the gospel about Jesus the Messiah, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet." Jesus then steps into the role of Israel (through the water and testing in the desert). The theme carries all the way through. Mark cites Isaiah at key points (the opposition's hardness of heart, "those on the outside" [Mark 4:10-12; 7:6; 9:48]; the inclusion of Gentiles 11:17]). He echoes Isaiah in all kinds of ways: Jesus' ministry is expressed in the language of Isaiah 53 (Mark 10;45); the parable of the tenants (12:l-12) recasts Isaiah's "song of the vineyard" (Isa 5:1-7); the motif of eyes that see but don't perceive and ears that hear but don't understand (Isa 6:9- 10). The long-awaited Deliverer has now come, but contrary to common expectations, he has come to suffer for the people in order to lead them from exile into the final promised land (Mark 13).

A significant part of the new exodus included the gathering of the Gentile nations. Since Mark's Gospel is intended for people who are already a part of that mission, his way of placing them in the story of Jesus is by relating a series of non-Galilean (Gentile) narratives in 6:53-9:29. In this context he places the matter of ceremonial washing, for example, and he comments that Jesus in effect abolished the food laws (7:19b). Moreover, the Gentile mission delays the dropping of the final curtain on history (13:10), and in repossessing the temple as Israel's "king" (17:'17), Jesus cites Isaiah 56:7 ("my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations" [= Gentiles]).

By looking for these various features as you read you may find yourself among those who know Mark's Gospel as one of the rich treasures in the Bible.



The Prologue- introduction to Jesus and the Kingdom (1:1-15)

As you read Mark's very brief introduction, notice how all of his major concerns appear here. The "good news about Jesus" begins with the announcement that Isaiah's new exodus has begun: "Prepare the way for the Lord" (1:3), proclaims John the Baptist-the new Elijah (Mal 4:5-6) -who thus presents Jesus to Israel. Jesus then assumes the role of Israel in the new exodus. At his baptism the voice from heaven defines Jesus' messianic destiny in words from Psalm 2:7 (the Davidic king), Genesis 22:2 (God's beloved Son), and Isaiah 42:1 (God's suffering servant). After his testing in the desert, he comes into Galilee announcing the ..good news of God"; "the time has come" for God's kingdom to appear, which calls for faith and repentance.

Part l: The Kingdom Goes Public-Disciples, Crowds' Opposition (1:16-3:5)

1: 16-45

The Disciples and the Crowds

Note how Mark starts the story with the call of disciples to "come, follow [Jesus]" (1:16-20), a key to much of the Gospel' Even so' the disciples are in the background for most of this section, as Mark focuses first on the crowds (vv.2l-45).They are the "amazed" on whom Jesus has compassion and with whom he has immense popularity (w. 22, 27-28, 32-33, 37-38, 45)-so much so that at the end of the short narrative, Jesus can "no longer enter a town openly'" Note that Mark accomplishes all this with just three short narratives!


The Opposition

Now comes the opposition (2:1-3:6), presented in a series of five narratives. Look for the question "why?" in each of the first four' whereby Mark shows the reasons for opposition: 2:7 (blasphemy=making himself equal with God); 2:16 (eating with sinners); 2:18 (failure to keep the rules); 2:24 (breaking the Sabbath). Note at the end (3:6) the solidifying of the opposition-both religious and political - with the first hint of Jesus' coming death.

Port 2: The Mystery of the Kingdom-Faith, Misunderstanding Hard Hearts (3:7-8:21)


Presenting the Mystery of the Kingdom

The plot thickens. Notice how the three groups are immediately brought back into the picture (crowds, 3:7-12; disciples, vv 13-19; opposition, w. 20-30; even his family is bewildered w 31-34). The disciples are now "appointed" as the Twelve (representing the remnant of Israel), and their role is stepped up considerably.

In 4:1-34 Mark uses Jesus' teaching in parables to introduce the mystery of the kingdom, which will be revealed to them (those on the inside). The opposition (those "on the outside"), in their failure to hear with their ears (4:9), fulfill lsaiah's prophecy (Isa 6:9-10; cf' his scathing rebuke of people be coming like their idols that cannot hear [Isa 42:18 ,20], but as the story proceeds, the disciples fare little better.

4:35-6:6 a

The Kingdom Present in Power: The Blindness of the World

Next you encounter a series of mighty deeds (4:35-5:43). In turn Jesus displays his power over the sea, demons, death, and uncleanness (an "untouchable" [cf. Lev 15:25-27] touches Jesus and is made whole, thus restored to life in the community). Note the emphasis on faith: those to whom the mystery is being revealed lack faith (Mark 4:40); the people across the lake want Jesus to leave (5:17); the woman's faith , makes her whole (5:34); the synagogue leader is encouraged to have i faith (5:36); Jesus' hometown lacks faith (6:6a). wonder and awe come easy; true faith does not.


The Kingdom Extends to Gentiles: The Blindness of the Disciples

Watch for two things in this section: (1) the role of the disciples and (2) Jesus' ministry among Gentiles. It begins with the Twelve joining Jesus in ministry-with such success that Herod gets wind of it (6:6b-30). But note how the two "feeding" stories (6:31-44 8:1- 10) are both followed by the "hardness of heart" motif (6:45-52; 8:11-21).

In between (6:53-7:31), Jesus ministers among the Gentiles, who show both faith (7:.24-30) and amazement (vv. 31 -37). Significantly, Mark brings the Pharisees into this scene as well, as Jesus eliminates the food laws by pronouncing all things clean (7:1-23).

The "hardness of heart" narrative at the end (8:1 1-21) is especially important to Mark's narrative. The Pharisees "test" Jesus about "a sign from heaven"; they are looking for a Messiah of worldly power. When his disciples fail to understand his warning about the Pharisees, note how his questions reflect Isaiah 6:9- 10 (cf. Mark 4:9-12): "Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?" (8:18).

Part 3: The Mystery Unveiled-The Cross and the Way of Discipleship (8:22- 10:45)

You can scarcely miss the central feature of this section, which frames the whole, namely, the three passion predictions and the disciples' hardness of heart. Thus the crowds and opposition recede into the background, while Jesus, on the way to Jerusalem, devotes himself primarily to instructing the disciples.


The First Passion Prediction and its Aftermath

Note how the narrative of the twice-touched blind man (8:22-26) serves to bridge the disciples'"blindness" (vv. 17-21) and their "first touch" at Caesarea Philippi (w.27 -30). But they clearly need a second touch. Peter gives the right answer: Jesus is the Messiah. But when told that the Messiah must die, he is infused with "the yeast of the Pharisees" and vehemently rejects such a wild idea (w. 31-33).

Watch for two things in the crucial teaching on discipleship that follows (8:34-9:l): (1) This is the first instruction on discipleship in the Gospel (coming only after the nature of Jesus' messiahship is disclosed), and (2) here the crowds are (significantly) included.

The Transfiguration (9:2-13), with its affirmation of the Son as the one to hear, is the divine response to Jesus' suffering before it happens; note how both the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah) are witnesses. But it is also set in contrast to the continuing hardness of heart on the part of the disciples (Peter on the mountain, and the rest with the demon possessed boy, 9:14-29).

9:30- 10:3

The Second Passion Prediction and Its Aftermath

Watch how the second foretelling of Jesus' death is now followed by squabbling among the disciples over who is the greatest (9:33-34). Jesus responds by pointing out the nature of discipleship-servanthood and childlikeness (vv. 35-37). Note how this theme is immediately picked up in the instructions that follow-on welcoming Jesus' little ones and not causing them to sin (w. 38*50). When Mark returns to it in 1 0: 13- 16, he sets it in contrast to the rich (10:17 -31 ), for whom it is hard "to enter the kingdom of God"-an obvious shock to the disciples, who assume the rich have God's blessing.


The Third Passion Prediction and Its Aftermath

One more time, but briefly in this case, Mark points to the disciples' hardness of heart. Note that this time it is set in the context of "on their way up to Jerusalem." So while Jesus is heading toward his death as God's suffering servant (v.45), the disciples covet positions of authority!

Parr 4: The King Comes to Jerusalem to Die (10:45-15:47)

In this section you will see the religious opposition coming to the fore, while the disciples and crowds play only supportive roles.

10:46- 13:27

The King Comes to Jerusalem. The House is Divided

Note how the Bartimaeus story (10:46-52) serves as the bridge to this section-a blind man, who "sees" Jesus as "the Son of David," is given sight, while the seeing, who don't recognize David's son (12:35-40), remain blind. You might want to check out how this narrative and the next two (triumphal entry and cleansing/judgment of the temple) echo God's coming to Israel in Isaiah 35.

Thus with three prophetic symbolic actions-the triumphal entry, the cursing of the fig tree, and the cleansing of the temple-Jesus presents himself to Israel as their long-awaited King. The Lord whom they seek comes suddenly to his temple-but in judgment (see Mal 3:1). This is followed by a series of six conflict stories between Jesus and the religious authorities (Mark 11:27-12:40), to which the widow with her two small coins stands in bold relief (12:41-44).

The disciples reappear in chapter 13 to hear the announcement of God's eventual judgment on Jerusalem (vv. 14-23) in the context of final judgment and salvation (vv. 24-27), with emphasis on the disciples' being watchful.

14:1 -15:47

The King ls Crucified

Finally the story reaches its dreadful/marvelous climax. The King is anointed for burial (14:1-11) and has a final meal with his disciples, who are assured they will eat and drink anew with him in the coming kingdom (vv. 12-26)- and this in the context of their present disowning of him (vv.27-31,66-72). He is then led away to be humiliated by the religious opposition, as they spit on the Messiah (vv. 32-65) before turning him over to Rome to be executed by crucifixion (15:1-41), as "the king of the Jews." What Pilate intended as warning-this is what happens to messianic pretenders-Mark sees as the ultimate truth about Jesus as kingly Messiah. Jesus is then buried under the watchful eye of some women who will be the first to hear the good news of his resurrection.


Epilogue: The Story ls Not Over (16:1-8)

The epilogue remains a mystery. Jesus has been raised (but no recorded appearances); the story obviously goes on, but the final word is fear. Did Mark write more that was lost (see the two later endings in the New Revised Standard Version)? Or did he intend his readers to change "fear" into "awe," and follow Jesus along the way that leads lo the cross and the resurrection? We may never know, but the latter is certainly what he intends his Gospel as a whole to do.

This superb telling of the story of Jesus as the fulfillment of the story of Israel is crucial to our understanding the emphasis of much of the rest of the New Testament, especially the letters of Paul and the books of Hebrews and 1 Peter. As Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, in the weakness and folly of a crucified Messiah, God has shown his power and wisdom at work in the world for salvation.