Updated: Jan 6, 2021
[Commentary on Mark 1:9-20 and Introduction to Mark] "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." An introduction to the Gospel of Mark. This is your chance to introduce the Gospel of Mark. You’ll want to point out Mark’s Roman audience (explaining why the Gospels are different) and his overall purpose of demonstrating that Jesus is the Son of God. Then, you can simply use these verses to get the narrative started . . .
And a voice came from heaven: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well-pleased.” Mark 1:11
[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]
Action Movies or Dramas?
If you want to start with something before you introduce Mark, perhaps use this. Ask your class what kind of movie they prefer and why. All four Gospels are different—written to different audiences with a different focus. Mark’s Gospel is the shortest and the most “action-oriented”. Why do you think that might have been? Well, ask yourself about the functional differences between action movies and dramas. How might those differences apply to Mark’s Gospel?
Introducing Mark. And here’s the answer to that question: audience. The story of Jesus is big enough to fill countless books that would connect with any number of audiences. But Mark had one audience in mind: Romans. You’ll see me reference this throughout this handout: Mark ended up with Peter and wrote down many of his sermons, the notes of which became the source for this Gospel. Tradition has it that Peter’s life ended in Rome after a long imprisonment during which Mark tended him. It would make sense that Mark put together a final form of this Gospel during that time. Where am I going with this? To the Romans in Rome. To Romans, “Actions speak louder than words”. Romans were people of great action; they kind of looked down on the “deep thinkers” of Greece (although a strong case can be made that Rome had an inferiority complex to Greeks with respect to culture). And so Mark wrote a Gospel designed to prove, quickly and clearly, to the people of Rome that Jesus Christ was indeed the Son of God in power as proven by His works and deeds. Matthew’s Gospel eventually became more popular (being filled with teachings and prophecies) as Christianity became a learned movement.
Which Mark? We call this the Gospel of “Mark” because an early Christian leader said that a “Mark” wrote down Peter’s teachings and compiled them in the Gospel. There’s only one Mark mentioned in the Bible: “John Mark”, who is mentioned so prominently as to imply that he was well known. His mother Mary owned the home where the believers were praying for Peter’s escape from prison (Acts 12:13). The assumption is that he is the same John Mark who went with Barnabas and Saul to Jerusalem with a report from the First Missionary Journey (Acts 12:25). Paul later mentions that Mark was Barnabas’s relative (Col 4:10), which I believe explains why Mark eventually left Paul, causing a rift between Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13), explaining (to me, at least) why Mark became associated with Peter (1 Pet 5:13) and Luke with Paul. Many people believe that the “young man” mentioned in Mark 14:51 is Mark himself because that detail appears in no other Gospel. Now, we’re basically arguing that the only Mark mentioned in the Bible must be the Mark who wrote the Gospel, which isn’t an overwhelming argument. There were many Marks in that day. However, the earliest written tradition says that the two men were one and the same, and the circumstantial evidence supports it. If it turns out that a different Mark wrote the Gospel, that doesn’t call into question its accuracy. But if it is that Mark, it would make a lot of sense.
This Week's Big Idea: Mark and the Synoptic Gospels
I mentioned this when we studied the Gospel of Matthew a few years ago. There’s no questioning that Matthew, Mark, and Luke are very similar (and John is very different), and that has led to lots of debate over who wrote first, and so on. When we covered Matthew, I said that both Matthew and Mark were written in the 50s; my speculation was that the two authors spent time together in Jerusalem before Mark went back out on mission, and that’s why they had so many similarities. Well, let me now go into more detail.
Here’s the fascinating thing about the Synoptic Gospels: Matthew and Mark regularly agree against Luke (meaning that Luke has different wording/order for a passage that Matthew and Mark have identical); Luke and Mark regularly agree against Matthew; Matthew and Luke rarely agree against Mark. That strongly implies that Mark is a common source for Matthew and Luke, which is why many scholars believe that Mark was written first. As for the parts that Matthew and Luke have different, they used other sources (like a fictional document named “Q”).
In truth, there is no proof for the existence of a “Q” document; it’s simply a tool used to explain why Matthew, Mark, and Luke are so similar. Here’s what I think is going on:
Early church leaders said that Mark followed Peter (some say he was Peter’s interpreter). Mark would write down Peter’s sermons (many of which were simply retellings of what Jesus said and did). Mark kept those notes. Now—early church leaders described Mark’s work as “non-chronological” (meaning it was organized topically). So either he and Matthew crossed paths and worked together on this organization (I think that likely, considering how carefully Matthew put together his Gospel), or Peter helped Mark organize it. Either way, Mark’s Gospel would have served as an easy framework for Matthew to build on—the basic events/actions of Jesus’ life into which Matthew put all of Jesus’ teachings (which Matthew would have known from his time with Jesus). This can almost be proven: about 90% of Mark is found in Matthew, and Matthew actually condenses what is found in Mark (this strongly implies that Matthew used Mark as a source).
What do we do with that information? Critics of the Bible point to the similarities between the Gospels as “proof” that they were written centuries after Jesus by people with big agendas. Why would followers of Jesus need to copy one another (unless they weren’t really followers of Jesus)? I hope that the scenario above presents a very reasonable case for Jesus’ followers consulting one another. Peter was still the foundational Apostle when these were written, and so Mark’s work would have carried much weight. Matthew would not have “needed” to consult Mark, but he would have done so out of respect to Peter and (most importantly) because that version of the events must have been accurate.
More Ideas for Introduction
Another way you might prepare your class for the unique design and structure of Mark is to take them through the opening verses of each Gospel. Matthew starts with a “genealogy of Jesus, the son of David, the son of Abraham”. Why did he do that? Well, one of Matthew’s big purposes is to prove to a Jewish audience that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. Luke starts with two amazing birth announcements. Why is that? Because one of Luke’s big emphases is that God cares about the poor, the weak, and the unwanted. John starts with Jesus’ eternal existence as “the Word”. Why? Because John, who wrote years after the first Gospels, was taking on a new set of theological and philosophical challenges to the story of Jesus, and he wrote in the language and thought that had developed (with decades to reflect on his time with Jesus). Conversely, Mark jumps directly into the ministry of John the Baptist (a man of action), Jesus’ baptism and temptation, and the calling of the first disciples. Why? Because he wants to get right to the action.
Part 1: Affirmed (Mark 1:9-11)
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. As soon as he came up out of the water, he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well-pleased.”
I would actually start with verse 1, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Don’t take for granted that your class members have read and understood the different books of the New Testament. In his opening, Mark is attempting to clarify some key truths:
The Gospel is about a person—a real person
The Gospel is about a very special person—a person who has been promised (“Christ” = “Messiah”)
This person is also God (!)
Whereas Matthew spends multiple chapters explaining the evidence, Mark makes it very concise:
The Old Testament validates Jesus (1:2-3)
John the Baptist validates Jesus (1:4-8)
God Himself validates Jesus (1:9-11)
Lifeway chose to start with Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan by John. The other Gospels went into more detail about the encounter between Jesus and John, in particular how Jesus explained the need to be baptized (it was the symbol He would use to mark His followers). Luke explained that John ministered during the reigns of Tiberias Caesar, Pontius Pilate, and Herod the Tetrarch (~27 AD). Mark skipped all of that; Mark wanted the focus entirely on Jesus (not on John, not on the act/meaning of baptism). We’re going to see a lot of that in comparing the Gospels—Mark doesn’t put in the details he doesn’t think will help his audience come to trust in Jesus. But Mark knew that no one in his audience would know where Nazareth was, so he included “Galilee”, which was a more well-known landmark. Luke explained that Mary and Joseph were from Nazareth, and Matthew explained the movement from Nazareth to Bethlehem to Egypt and back (again—details Mark wasn’t worried about). John’s choice of the Jordan River was both symbolic and practical. John preached repentance, and the Jordan—the location of so many “fresh starts”—was the ideal location to establish this movement. John mentions that John was baptizing at “Bethany on the Jordan”, but no one knows what that means. It was close enough to Jerusalem that many come from there.
Mark’s brief retelling of this event makes it clear that Mark thought the primary purpose for Jesus’ baptism was to receive an affirmation and commissioning from God. Note the phrase “as soon as”; that’s a Greek adverb that means anything from “immediately” to “just then”. Mark uses it more than 40 times in his Gospel to keep the narrative moving and also heighten the sense of tension. Note also the “came up out of the water”; the word “baptize” means “immerse”, which is why we practice baptism by immersion. Finally, note that the image of the heavens and the dove could absolutely be literal (but not everyone saw it; it’s possible that only Jesus and John saw it), but in any case the point was that God in heaven participated in Jesus’ baptism. The dove symbolized peace—God was sending Jesus the peace with Himself that Jesus would make available to the rest of the world. The words from heaven (clearly from God the Father) echo Psalm 2:7 (a coronation psalm) and Isaiah 42:1 (a messianic prophecy). Mark is leaving no doubt as to the identity of Jesus.
Aside: What Is a "Gospel"?
Mark is a favorite book of the Bible to send new believers to because it is so simple, easy to follow, and action-oriented. But it still leaves questions, and those questions are usually related to not understanding Mark’s purpose. First of all, Mark wasn’t writing a biography. If we believe that Mark wrote his Gospel first, then he essentially created a category of literature called a “Gospel”. As we know, “gospel” means “good news”, and so quite simply Mark wrote the “good news about Jesus”. A biography would include the full chronological story of a person’s life. Mark skipped the birth and childhood of Jesus, apparently skipped many events in His ministry, and certainly skipped a bunch of His teachings. So what gives?
Second of all, and the answer to that question, Mark was writing sermon material. In addition to being based on Peter’s sermons, Mark’s Gospel would have been edited so as to be easily preached. And as you might know, sermons should be based on their audiences. Mark likely wrote in Rome to a Roman or Gentile audience (which is why he explained Jewish customs and used relatively many Latin loan words). Romans wouldn’t have cared so much about prophecy, so that’s why Mark skipped the birth narrative. Romans wouldn’t have needed a bunch of repetition of Jesus’ encounters with the Pharisees and Sadducees, so Mark included only the most pertinent/dramatic events that would have helped his audience understand who Jesus was. The simplicity of Mark’s Gospel (i.e. how short it is) has made some people think that it’s a Reader’s Digest biography. Well, it’s not. Mark carefully arranged his material to make the clear and quick declaration that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God”. Just like in a sermon, Mark regularly addresses his audience directly, and he also asks a bunch of rhetorical questions. His purpose is to make his audience respond just like a preacher would—it’s not enough to read the Gospel; Mark wants us all to make a decision about Jesus.
Part 2: Tested (Mark 1:12-13)
Immediately the Spirit drove him into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and the angels were serving him.
“Immediately” is the same word as “as soon as”. Jesus had been commissioned and approved by God, but now Mark wants his audience to know that Jesus enjoyed no privileged status—He had to demonstrate His mettle under extreme adversity. There was a lot of “wilderness” near the Jordan, so Jesus didn’t have to go far. The word “drove” is the same word used of Jesus chasing out the moneychangers (11:15) and casting out demons (1:39)—this clearly was not to be a pleasant test.
You probably noticed that Matthew gave much more detail about the temptation; Matthew took advantage of “teaching moments” where Mark stuck to the action. Matthew and Luke noted that Jesus fasted during the 40 days, and Matthew also said that the angels didn’t start attending to Jesus until after He resisted Satan’s temptations. The detail Mark does include is the “wild animals”, mentioned to raise the tension. If you haven’t done so elsewhere, ask your class how the impact of this event changes from Matthew’s version of Mark’s version. Why might some people prefer Mark’s?
Part 3: Heard (Mark 1:14-15)
After John was arrested, Jesus went to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
As much background as you probably gave to introduce this Gospel, you’re probably flying through these verses. All of the extra events John mentioned fit in between Mark 1:13 and 1:14; Mark sweeps all of that up with a simple note of passage of time: “after John was arrested”. Mark later describes what happened in 6:17-29: John agitated King Herod and so Herod had him imprisoned and later killed. When news of Jesus’ ministry reached Herod, he thought John had come back to life (which is when Matthew and Mark explain what Herod had earlier done to John).
Mark, as we should come to expect, then gave a very simple overview of Jesus’ teachings: listen to the good news. If you read it carefully, it has a clear “your doom is at hand” vibe to it. Indeed, many movies (like Infinity War) have a herald saying things like “your miserable life is about to be over, so rejoice!” But for Jesus, there is an important twist. Yes, the kingdom of God is coming (which does indicate that judgment is coming), but in Jesus there is a chance to be right with God. The end does not have to mean doom. Again, in Mark things get right to the point. Jesus is the fulfillment of every message/messenger of God. And now people have two actions to take: repent and believe. What a simple summary of the gospel! Turn from your previous ways and thoughts and believe the good news that Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation from sin and death and hell. This is a great chance to explain and share the gospel.
Aside: Geography of the Early Chapters of Mark
On the back page, I give you a “harmony” of the early events of Jesus’ life so you can see how Mark 1 fits with what we learn in the other Gospels. Mark starts with Jesus going to be baptized by John (traditionally Aenon, but maybe further south) and then going to be tempted in the wilderness. Well, John tells us that Jesus performed His first miracle at a wedding in Cana, then traveled to Capernaum to teach and gain disciples, then traveled to Jerusalem for Passover (the first cleansing of the Temple and the interview with Nicodemus), then made his way back home through Sychar, encountering the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well before returning to Galilee. Luke and Matthew pick up the action here by describing how Jesus was rejected at Nazareth and moved to Capernaum where all three Synoptic Gospels describe the calling of the first four “Apostles” (Jesus had followers already, which is how the four knew about Him). Mark skipped most of these events (including a number of miracles). Why? That’s a great question. My guess is that Mark wanted to get to the action; he didn’t see the need for “sign miracles” like John (Romans didn’t care about signs). But because Peter was such a figure in Rome, he needed to make sure that all of the major players (which did include John the Baptist) were put into place. Additionally, Mark believed that he gave enough miracles in the rest of his Gospel to “get to the meat” of Jesus’ early ministry.
Part 4: Followed (Mark 1:16-20)
As he passed alongside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew, Simon’s brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. “Follow me,” Jesus told them, “and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. Going on a little farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat putting their nets in order. Immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.
In John’s Gospel, we learn that news of Jesus had been spreading, and specifically that these four men almost certainly knew who Jesus was when He first called them. But when the call came, there was no room for hesitation. Interestingly, the first disciples were two pairs of brothers: Andrew and Peter, and James and John. And they were all four fishermen. Knowing the pressure that would be put on those four in particular, this seems wise. John 1 specifically mentions Andrew and Peter; that may not be describing the same encounter Mark does here. If it is, then that just means that both Mark and John skipped a bunch of events in their narrative (John is the “son of Zebedee” mentioned here, so John skipped his own calling!).
This lesson is all about background and explanation, setting up the rest of the quarter. I would say something to the effect of “Note how Mark says in just a few verses what the other Gospel writers took multiple chapters.” And then ask your class to determine what Mark thought was the critical part of Jesus’ early story from a Roman perspective. Lifeway’s choice of passage makes this clear: Jesus was identified by God, proven under temptation, and then began assembling His followers. Simple; to the point.
Aside: Why Didn't Mark Include . . . [x]?
Many scholars have wondered why Mark didn’t mention anything about Jesus’ first trip to Jerusalem, or the miracle at Cana, or any of that stuff that John included in John 1-4. Some skeptics have even accused John of making those events up or misunderstanding later events and mistakenly putting them here. Here’s the best explanation I can give: the Synoptic Gospels follow a symbolic path from Galilee to Jerusalem. They start with His ministry around the Sea of Galilee (establishing His person and purpose), then they expand to cover more of the region (establishing His power and opposition from Jews), then they turn to Jerusalem where Jesus will suffer and die and rise again. There are plenty of mentions in the Synoptic Gospels that Jesus traveled to Jerusalem and elsewhere during his ministry, but they focus on that main movement from Galilee to Jerusalem.
Closing: A Harmony of the Gospels
In some places of Mark, I find it helpful to see where his events fit into the larger narrative put forward by the other three Gospels. I mentioned some of this on Page 4, particularly that John describes a bunch of events that Mark does not. Here’s the rundown:
Birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1)
The angel and Mary (Luke 1)
The angel and Joseph (Matt 1)
The shepherds (Luke 2)
Simeon and Anna (Luke 2)
The Magi (Matt 2)
Escape to Egypt (Matt 2)
Jesus’ childhood (Luke 2)
—Mark starts here—
Ministry of John the Baptist/Jesus’ baptism by John/Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (Matt 3, Mark 1, Luke 3)
Jesus’ first followers (John 1)
Turning water into wine (John 2)
Cleansing the Temple (John 2)
Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3)
The woman at the well (John 4)
Child healed at Cana (John 4)
All four Gospels mention in some way that Jesus left Judea, ministered in Galilee, and moved to Capernaum
—John mentions little about this:—
Call of the four
Healing a demoniac
Peter’s mother-in-law healed
Cleansing a man with leprosy
Healing a paralyzed man
Call of Matthew
Banquet at Matthew’s house
Parables about healing the sick
The order of those events is slightly different in Matthew and Luke, based on what they thought would make sense to their audience.