Expository Class: Mark's Portrait of Jesus
My family and I are so excited to be part of your church family. We have really felt all the love you have shown us, and we’re just so grateful for your kindness. I want to thank everyone for receiving Tyrone and his family with our U-Haul truck and getting everything unloaded. We got settled into the Temple’s Airbnb house around 2:00 AM Wednesday morning, and we absolutely love it there. We can’t wait to get to know you and be part of the work God is doing through you all!
So, I’m also really excited to get started. And thank you for joining us this morning as we begin our series through Mark’s gospel.
I want to begin by introducing this series so you’ll know what’s going on.
There are two main features of this morning class:
First, our morning class will cover the same text that I’ll preach during worship, but will focus on the details that we won’t have time to cover then. We’ll “go deeper” and look at difficulties in the text, theological applications, apologetics, and archaeological or historical settings. So I want this class to really challenge and equip all of you to go deeper in your understanding of God’s word.
Second, our morning class will provide an opportunity for you to share your insights, raise questions you might have, and discuss the things the Lord lays on your heart as you’re reading the text throughout the week. To help us immerse ourselves into Jesus’ story, I’ll tell you every week at the beginning of my morning sermon what we’re covering next week so you can read, meditate on, and pray through the text. Put yourself into Jesus’ story. When we come together for morning class, we’ll discuss our insights and ask those questions that we’ve been wrestling through. The discussion portion of the class will is my favorite part of the class because it’s when I get to hear how the Holy Spirit is leading you.
Some weeks we’ll spend more time teaching, and other weeks we’ll spend more time in discussion. But my aim each week is for this class to challenge you to dig deeper and equip you to meet the challenges you face in your faith with the answers of God’s word so that we can all be Christ’s fit witnesses in this area.
This week we’re going to look at the authorship and setting of Mark’s gospel.
Eric did a really good job introducing some of this material on Wednesday night. And I’m really glad he did because this will help us springboard deeper into some of the questions this material helps us meet.
So let’s go ahead and get started.
As we start to look at authorship, I want to ask you a question:
Why does the author of Mark’s gospel matter?
How is Mark’s authorship relevant to the gospel beyond being mere academic knowledge?
Should we even care who wrote Mark’s gospel?
Why does this matter?
Give audience time to answer > > >
Take a moment to imagine that you’re talking with a friend or colleague. They know you’re a Christian. Perhaps you tell them that your preacher is preaching through the gospel of Mark. But when you bring up Mark’s gospel, your friend asks “Why would you bother reading a forgery? We know that the gospel of Mark wasn’t written by Mark?” Your friend continues, “With a few exceptions, the episodes in Mark’s gospel are nothing more than a collection of completely independent and unrelated Christ-myths.” So your friend finishes, “In fact, we see in Mark that these different episodes are attached by nothing more than a one or two-sentence linking passage, proving that they’re really just disorganized, pieced together myths.”
Mark’s authorship matters:
One of the central pillars of the Christian faith is the idea that God’s revelation was given through the prophets and apostles: Scripture isn’t open to include whatever “best sellers” are trending among Christians at the time. Mark is important in the same way that Luke was, because they were the traveling companions of the apostles (Mark with Peter and Luke with Paul). This means that their gospels are apostolic witnesses.
One of the ways skeptics attack the reliability of the Bible is by claiming its writings are really nothing more than a collection of Christ-myths and lore assembled over hundreds of years and finally ratified by the Council of Nicaea under Emperor Constantine’s directive in A.D. 325. This line of attack suggests that Mark’s gospel is really an anonymous gospel with no eye-witness authority. So we need to demonstrate that Mark’s gospel is not an anonymous collection of Christian lore, but reliably provides the apostolic witness.
To begin, the gospel itself doesn’t name its author. So we will approach this by using the internal evidence of this gospel to create an author’s profile, which we can then use to weigh the reliability of who the early Christian writers attributed this gospel’s authorship to.
Let’s first look at the profile of this gospel’s author:
First, the author writes with a Latin audience in mind as he explained Jewish customs and used Latin terms (i.e. “latinisms”) like “census” (Mark 12:14), “centurion” (Mark 15:39, 44, 45), and “denarius” (Mark 12:15). Second, the author identifies the man who carried Jesus’ cross as Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus, who were known to the believers in Rome. Third, this gospel focuses primarily on the life of Simon Peter, with its crescendo being Peter’s declaration that Jesus was the Messiah (Mark 8:27-9:1).
When we take this together, we see the evidence suggests at least three authorial attributes: first, the author knew Peter because he was able to give Peter’s perspective; second, he knew the members of the church in Rome; and, third, he was writing to a Roman audience.
So who wrote Mark’s gospel?
The early Christian writers tell us that “John Mark” wrote the gospel of Mark. And the earliest reference to Mark’s authorship comes from the church historian Papias of Hierapolis (which was in modern day Turkey). And he wrote about Mark’s gospel around A.D. 130.
Look at what he wrote:
The Elder [i.e. the apostle John] said this also: Mark, who became Peter’s interpreter, wrote accurately, though not in order, all that he remembered of the things said or done by the Lord. For he had neither heard the Lord, nor been one of his followers, but afterwards, he followed Peter, who used to compose his discourses with a view to the needs of his hearers, but not as though he were drawing up a connected account of the Lord’s sayings. So Mark made no mistake in thus recording some things just as he remembered them. For he was careful of this one thing, to omit none of the things he had heard and to make no untrue statements therein. (Ecclesiastical History 3.39.15)
Now this is really important: Papias depends on the apostle John’s testimony about Mark’s gospel because Papias himself heard John teach, and he was one of the disciples of Polycarp, who was one of the apostle John’s leading disciples. And this means that the apostle John was aware of Mark’s gospel within his lifetime, and was able to verify its connection to the apostle Peter.
Another important observation to make here is that we see agreement about Mark’s authorship across a wide geographical area. Think about what it would take to fabricate a claim like this: you would need to spread the claim in an area where no one could dispute your authenticity. The result would be exactly what history shows us, that forgeries would succeed in isolated areas until they were eventually exposed for lacking authentic witness. But the entire Church across the Mediterranean world as far as history tells us believed both that Mark wrote this gospel and that his source was the apostle Peter.
To illustrate, Irenaeus, who was from Gaul, comments around A.D. 180:
And after their [Peter’s and Paul’s] death, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, himself also handed down to us in writing the things preached by Peter.
We learn from early Christian writings about the gospel of Mark both that Mark is the author, and that Peter was his source. We also learn that Mark’s gospel is structured thematically rather than chronologically, meaning that it’s primary purpose is not to construct a connected sequence of chronological events, but to tell a specific story.
So, now we should ask “who is Mark?”
We first meet him in Luke’s record of the early Church after Peter's miraculous release from prison:
Don’t read > > >
11 When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I know for certain that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s grasp and from all that the Jewish people expected.” 12 As soon as he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John who was called Mark, where many had assembled and were praying.
So Mark is first seen connected with Peter.
Summarize: don’t read > > >
You know his story: this is the same Mark who then accompanied Paul and Barnabas when they returned to Antioch from Jerusalem after the famine visit and on their first missionary journey (Acts 12:25; 13:5), but, when Mark turned back to Jerusalem, Paul refused to work with him anymore (Acts 13:13), so Barnabas, who was Mark’s cousin, separated from Paul and took Mark with him to Cyprus (Acts 15:36–39). Paul and Mark eventually reconciled, and are seen together in Rome (Col 4:10; 2 Tim 4:11; Philem 24).
And it’s probably through Mark’s connection with Paul in Rome that he eventually begins working with Peter again:
13 She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you greetings, as does Mark, my son.
I want to briefly note something interesting about this signature: Peter says he’s writing from Babylon. Although we don’t have time to trace the full case for this, the short version is that because Peter’s first epistle was written to persecuted Christians in Rome, he used Babylon “in-code”, drawing on the spiritual language we see elsewhere in Scripture to describe the spiritual condition of where he was writing from. So it is probably here in Rome that Mark meets Peter through Paul’s ministry and begins working full time with Peter.
So both Biblical and historical witnesses suggest that Mark was to Peter who Timothy was to Paul: his spiritual son.
Setting and Purpose
Setting and Purpose
The writings of Scripture weren’t written in a vacuum. Their context helps us understand their author’s intent: why were they writing? So let’s take a moment to try and identify the setting into which Mark was writing.
There are two primary primary settings into which Mark’s gospel was written:
a. The emergence of false teachings
b. The persecutions of the Roman church A.D. 65–67
In the first case, Mark’s gospel is meant to recover an accurate picture of Jesus’ identity and mission in order to counter emerging errors about Jesus.
In the second case, Mark’s gospel is meant to encourage Christians who are under immense pressure to remain faithful by remembering who Jesus is and the means by which his victory is won (i.e. upon a cross).
Mark was likely written either in Rome or the regions of Italy sometime between A.D. 64-67, which was after Peter’s death, and possibly also after Paul’s death, so there were likely numerous emerging heresies arising in the vacuum of their leadership. Likewise, the Jewish War was just beginning to get under way around A.D. 66–70. So Christians were beginning to suffer under intensifying persecutions. All of this suggests that Mark was writing to fill a leadership vacuum during a period of persecution to encourage Christians by focusing their attention on Christ and his Kingdom.
So we can see evidence of his gentile audience in the amount of time he devotes to explaining Jewish customs:
42 When it was already evening, because it was the day of preparation (that is, the day before the Sabbath),
And we can see evidence that his audience faced persecution by how central the subject is (8:27-9:2 is the theological center of Mark’s gospel):
34 Calling the crowd along with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me and the gospel will save it. 36 For what does it benefit someone to gain the whole world and yet lose his life? 37 What can anyone give in exchange for his life? 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Action vs. Teaching
Mark’s gospel does not include very much “Jesus teaching”. In fact, by comparison, it has almost no direct teaching from Jesus outside of one short section where Jesus teaches certain key parables. Mark’s gospel prefers to use Jesus’ life and actions to tell us who he is, what he wants, and how we’re supposed to live.
Seeing The Big Picture
One of the challenges Marks’ readers face in really understanding what Mark is saying about Jesus comes from the bold strokes he uses to paint his portrait of Jesus: these scenes are often not much more than two or three verses. And sometimes this leaves readers feeling like these are disorganized collections of isolated stories. But this isn’t the case.
This brevity serves two purposes:
First, it allows us to feel the weight of the questions the characters ask in Jesus’ defining moments: people are left asking “what is this”, “who does he think he is”, and “how can he do such things?” We’re supposed to read ourselves into these characters place.
Second, it allows Mark to write a gospel whose sum is much greater than its individual parts. Mark’s message is understood in how the individual pieces of his story fit together. Okay, so Jesus cast out demons. But what kind of man casts out demons, forgives sins, and dies on a cross? And what could such a man possibly hope to be achieving by all these things?
Alright, with the time we have left in the rest of the class, I want to take some time to hear your thoughts as you read through Mark’s gospel.
What were the most difficult parts of Mark’s gospel for you to understand?
Which character in Jesus’ story did you most identify with yourself?
What most strikes you about how Mark portrays Jesus?
What impact would Mark’s gospel have on people facing persecution and political instability?
What other themes besides “the Kingdom” stood out to you Mark’s gospel?
How would you summarize the message of Mark’s gospel?
See You Next Week!
See You Next Week!