The most unexpected gospel.
This article was originally written for Christ Hold Fast.
The Scriptures contain four Gospels that convey the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The records of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John comprise some of the most cogent examples of literature in man’s history, notwithstanding their spiritual objective. You would be mistaken, though, to assume that this quadrilogy concerning God’s Son constitutes a biography. The Gospels are not biographical records of Jesus’s life. We are never given a glimpse of Jesus’s teenage years. Instead, the narrative goes straight from his birth to his public ministry — if we’re given a nativity account at all. St. John even goes out of his way to remind us that he hasn’t recorded every single one of Jesus’s acts. (Jn 21:25) In that sense, then, the Gospels function more like literary essays, composed with a specific thesis and purpose in mind. Each account of Jesus’s life acts as treatise to show us something about person and work of the Savior.
The Gospel of Mark is, perhaps, the most mysterious of all the Gospels. There is no mention of the author’s name or the audience’s demographic or location. Authorship has been traditionally given to John Mark — the same John Mark who was a disciple of Peter and Paul. (Acts 12:12, 25) Yes, the same John Mark who sparked a significant schism between Paul and Barnabas in the early days of the church. (Acts 15:37–41) He would later be restored into fellowship with the apostle Paul, however. (Col 4:10; 2 Tm 4:10; Phlm 1:24) John Mark maintained a close relationship with Peter throughout his life. Peter even refers to him as his “son.” (1 Pt 5:13) A possible theory of composition which churches have generally affirmed is that John Mark wrote his Gospel based off sermons or conversations dictated to him by the apostle Peter. This gives Mark’s Gospel an added level of credence and is consistent with first century canonical criteria which prized eye-witness testimony. I often imagine an aged St. Peter sitting fireside, reflecting on what he had seen and experience, with a young Mark furiously and excitedly scribbling down all the details — with the Holy Spirit presiding over it all.
It has traditionally been inferred from textual details that Mark’s Gospel was written for a Gentile congregation in the mid- to late-60s A.D. Debates over dating Mark’s Gospel have persisted for decades among biblical scholarship, but the common consensus is that Mark is the earliest Gospel in written form. It is by a wide margin the simplest and shortest of the Gospels. Editorial comments are scarce, as are extended records of Jesus’s sermons. The authorial framework is, “This is who he is, and this is what he did.” Mark is a Gospel of activity, composed of quick, hard-hitting narrative and urgent language.1 For instance, the opening chapter of Mark covers Jesus’s baptism, temptation, and inauguration into public ministry; the calling of his disciples; the healing of a man with an unclean spirit; the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law; the healing of a man with leprosy along with countless other sick and demon-possessed; and a preaching tour in Galilee. In that sense, then, reading Mark’s Gospel is like watching Jesus’s highlight reel.
It is significant that John Mark uses the word “gospel” right at the opening of his record of Jesus’s life. (Mk 1:1) “Gospel,” of course, comes from the Greek word euangelion literally meaning “glad tidings” or “good news.” Mind you, this is not originally a term that evoked overly religious or Messianic sentiments. A “gospel” is merely an announcement or assertion of some ideal or tenet that was to be sustained by all those who heard it. Kings and dignitaries commissioned messengers to enter public squares to herald royal gospels for entire towns. These announcements were irrevocable and indissoluble.
Such is Mark’s Gospel. It presents to us “the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” as it is — as a fact that is not up for debate or discussion. It reads as though someone is reflecting and recollecting on past events with which they had close, personal contact.2 “It seems,” writes Presbyterian minister Melancthon Jacobus, “as though it was written with the conviction, not that something new had been discovered, but that something new had happened in the history of the world.”3
And something new had happened.
He is the hope of the nations and the Savior of the world precisely because he himself is the “beginning of the gospel.” (Mk 1:1) Redemption begins and ends with him. He is God’s first and last word on the matter of man’s sin and salvation. (Rv 22:13) He is the “Yes and Amen” of the good news of man’s deliverance. (2 Cor 1:20) He comes to overthrow sin, death, and the devil but not in the way that we would naturally expect. Jesus disarms evil and rescues sinners not in a brilliant display of power and glory but in a scandalous exhibition of weakness and death. (Mk 10:45)
“The story of Christ’s work,” Alexander Maclaren maintains, “is the story of God’s rich, unmerited love, bending down to creatures far beneath, and making a radiant pathway from earth to heaven, like the sevenfold rainbow.”4 Such is the good news which informs us that God has come into our realm bent on a mission we would least expect. Not dominance, but deference. Not tyranny, but meekness. Not judgment, but exoneration. The good news is the pronouncement that God himself has come to absolve all our guilt and release us from all our condemnation by taking it upon himself. This is not exactly what comes to mind when you think of the announcement of a king’s arrival. And that is the point: Jesus is the unexpected Lord who comes to serve, the unexpected King who came to die.
In fact, the Gospel of Mark employs synonyms for “immediately” or “straightaway” over 40 times.
Which, by the way, is one of the “reading-between-the-lines” evidences of Peter’s influence on the Gospel itself. (2 Pt 1:12–21)
Melancthon W. Jacobus, A Commentary on the Gospel According to Mark (New York: Macmillan Co., 1915), 3. Emphasis mine.
Alexander Maclaren, The Gospel According to St. Mark: Chapters I to VIII (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1906), 7.