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You Might Be Wrong about Jesus -- an introduction to the Gospel of Mark

Updated: Sep 3, 2023

Get to know Jesus, a true Man of action.


Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Mark 1

In this week's introduction to the Gospel of Mark, we see just how much Mark packed into the opening verses -- giving a robust picture of Jesus to an audience who would have known little about Him, about Jews, or about Judaism. Mark offers the observations of people his audience would have immediately respected, pointing to Jesus the Son of God.

“You are my beloved Son; with you I am well-pleased.” (1:11)


Getting Started: Things to Think About

Who Is Jesus?

Below, I'll give you an overview of the Gospel of Mark. To make an awesome story short, Mark the author is driving his readers to a single question:

“But you,” he asked them, “who do you say that I am?” (8:29)

So, as we get started on this journey through Mark's Gospel, I think it would be a good thing to get everybody oriented the same direction.


Disclosure: this blog is mainly read by Baptist Sunday School teachers in eastern Georgia, so we all probably think that everybody in our groups is pretty locked in on "Who Is Jesus?"


Let's not make too many assumptions.


I've mentioned the 2020 Ligonier survey about American religious beliefs multiple times (key data points: 52% of Americans believe that Jesus is not God; 65% of evangelical Christians agreed with the statement that Jesus is the first and greatest created being (uh oh); whether the survey was worded well or not, our takeaway was that Christian churches need to do a better job teaching about Jesus).


Last year, The Episcopal Church did a similar survey (note: they are a "mainline church" as opposed to an "evangelical church"), and I want to use their results as our springboard. Disclosure: I found out about it through a Lifeway article:

Here is the main official chart from the survey -- 76% of Americans believe that Jesus existed. Yay? Lifeway dug into the numbers and found that 4% of (self-professing) evangelical Christians and 12% of mainline Christians do not believe that Jesus existed. (???)


Further, 84% of Americans believe that Jesus was an important spiritual figure. (99% of evangelical Christians and 95% of mainline Christians agree. Again, ???.) (Totally unsolicited aside: to me, all that second question proves is that 16% of Americans are dumb.)

This chart is the one that got all of the attention. The subtext of the original EC article indicated dismay at these results. Only 88% of Christians in America said that Jesus is an important figure in their life. ??? (with a !). But the breakdown is catastrophic -- 98% of evangelical Christians say that's true (who is that 2%?), and only 83% of mainline Christians say that's true. Oh dear.


[If you have questions about mainline vs. evangelical churches, or why people care about that, just email me.]


I start there to say this: don't assume that everybody in your group believes that Jesus is real and/or important. There are people around us who don't. Isn't the perfect place for someone like that a small group Bible study about Jesus?


Now let's finally get to my main starting discussion:

  • What do you know/believe about Jesus?

  • What is true about who Jesus is and what Jesus did?

What attracted my attention to the EC survey is a result that didn't have a fancy chart. They asked people to choose the three most meaningful aspects of Jesus' identity:

  • Savior (53%)

  • Son of God (50%)

  • Messiah (21%)

  • Lord (20%)

  • Healer (17%)

  • Shepherd (14%)

  • Friend (12%)

  • Mediator (7%)

  • Lover (5%)

  • Liberator (3%)

  • Brother (3%)

  • Disruptor (2%)

  • Son (2%)

[That question broke my brain.] Without giving a list of suggestions, ask your group "who is Jesus?" and keep pressing. He is the Son of God. He is the Savior. In fact, He is all of those things on that list (note: the words "lover" and "liberator" and "disruptor" now have political overtones). We want our group members to know well who Jesus is.


When we get done studying the Gospel of Mark, we are going to understand better who Jesus is and what He came to do. Then, we will be able to confidently say that Jesus is fully God. Jesus is the only Savior of the world. And all of the other truths we will learn.


Our desire is to come away from the Gospel of Mark with a clear picture of Jesus.


This Week's Big Idea: The Gospel of Mark!

That makes for an easy segue into the introduction to Mark. We studied the Gospel of Mark in 2019. Yes, the world has changed a lot since then, but that was only 4 years ago. To save space, I will point us back to those posts quite a bit.

So, why are we studying this Gospel again so soon? Lifeway is starting a new cycle of Bible studies this quarter. This will be their 6th time through the Bible with this curriculum, and each time they tweak (in a good way) their scope and sequence. Here is a link to their plan to study the Bible from 2023-2032. They decided that Mark's Gospel would be the best book to introduce the Bible by.


I think that's a great idea!


Mark's Gospel is the shortest of all the Gospels, and it is also the most action-and-answer-focused. So, if you want "just the facts, ma'am", this is a great start.


That is not to suggest that Mark is "simpler" than the other books! Rather, to make a long story short (read my earlier post for the long story long), Mark wrote to a Roman audience. Romans were not interested in Jewish tradition, Greek philosophy, or heady theology. They were "men of action".


Mark simply leaned into Jesus as the ultimate man of action. Which He was.


Date of Writing. There is one topic that trustworthy, conservative scholars don't agree about. The Gospel Project authors (and many biblical scholars) believe that Mark was the first Gospel written. The ancient church fathers believe that Matthew was the first Gospel written, which is why it appears first in the New Testament canon.


So, what gives?


I talked a little about this when we studied Matthew back in 2015:

I believe that both Matthew and Mark were published in the 50s (not the 1950s, kids, the actual 50s) -- Matthew and Mark had spent time together when they were working on their Gospels, but they completed their work on their own. I tend to think that Matthew was published first (I'm a sucker for early Christian oral traditions), but I could still sleep at night if I found out otherwise. In any event, I don't believe in the mythical "Q" document I mention in those posts -- cf. "The Synoptic Problem". Why don't I want to talk about that this year? Because we just covered it when we studied the Gospel of John last year:

I really don't think that most of our church members have a deep-seated desire to learn in depth about the competing textual transmission theories of the New Testament. If you have any questions about "The Synoptics", please refer to any of those posts above. Or just send me an email.


Back to Mark.


Who Is Mark? There is no reference to an author anywhere in this Gospel. The identity of the author is entirely based on early Christian oral tradition (hey!) that has never been really challenged. Early Christian leaders believe that Mark was one of Peter's companions, and he compiled all of Peter's teachings about Jesus into this Gospel. There is enough internal evidence in the Bible to make this conclusion too reasonable to dispute:

  • As soon as [Peter] realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John who was called Mark, where many had assembled and were praying. (Acts 12:12)

  • Barnabas wanted to take along John who was called Mark. (Acts 15:37)

  • Aristarchus, my fellow prisoner, sends you greetings, as does Mark, Barnabas’s cousin (concerning whom you have received instructions: if he comes to you, welcome him) (Col 4:10)

  • She who is in Babylon [Rome], chosen together with you, sends you greetings, as does Mark, my son. (1 Pet 5:13)

Mark was the son of an important early church patron, and he was the cousin to the famous Barnabas. He was the cause of the split between Barnabas and Paul, (Barnabas took Mark, Paul took Luke). After working his way back into everyone's good graces, he became Peter's associate while Peter was in Rome. This explains why Mark had Peter's "memoirs", how Mark could have a personal relationship with someone like Matthew, and also why Mark wrote to a Roman audience.


The Structure of Mark. Matthew wrote to a Jewish audience; Mark wrote to a Roman audience. After they settled on a common tradition, they shaped their Gospels differently.


Mark

  1. Who is Jesus? (1:1-8:21) -- based in Galilee

  2. Who is the Messiah? (8:22-10:52)

  3. How is Jesus the Messiah? (11:1-15:47) -- based in Jerusalem

To appeal to his audience, Mark wrote what we might consider a "linear story". Jesus did stuff near His home where we learn more about Him. Then He tells His disciples that the Messiah must go to Jerusalem and die (causing much confusion). Then He goes to Jerusalem and dies. Mark simplified the action as much as possible to make it easier for his audience -- who knew very little about Israelite geography or Jewish traditions -- to learn the critical truths about Jesus (the man and the mission).


(In other words, it's a great book for modern Americans.)


Mark tries to make things as clear as he can, namely by starting his Gospel with

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

In the first few chapters, Mark demonstrates through things said about Jesus as well as Jesus' actions (lots of miracles) that Jesus is the Messiah. But in doing so, Mark also makes it clear that many people had a very wrong understanding of who/what the Messiah would be. In the highpoint of the book, namely the question I mentioned at the beginning ("who do you say that I am?"), Mark establishes that the Messiah came to suffer and die on behalf of the world. And in the final section of the book, Mark reveals how that came about, with an emphasis on the Last Supper, the crucifixion, and the resurrection.


The Bible Project video brilliantly captures the ambiguity Mark leaves us with.

[The Bible Project has two videos about the Gospel of Mark. Here's the main one. I'm going to show the other one next week in our Sunday School breakfast, so let me keep it until then. Here's a link to it if you just can't wait that long 😊]


The identity of Jesus is the most challenging conundrum in human history. Even His own people (the Jews) didn't not understand or embrace who He was. Now that you have read all the facts, how will you respond to the question of Jesus?


Again, I think that makes Mark the perfect book for America right now. A lot of people have a wrong understanding of who Jesus is. Even more people don't really know anything about Him at all. Mark is here for that.


John had a fully dramatized video that I shared last year as we went along. The visual Bible version of Mark is very different -- it is essentially an audio Bible with video clips behind it. (That statement will make sense when you watch it.)

Here's the cool thing -- the entire dramatized book is two hours. In the time it would take you to watch a movie on tv, you can intake the entire Gospel of Mark.

 

Part 1: Isaiah, a Man of Action (Mark 1:1-3)

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2 As it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way. 3 A voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight!

Activity: Compare the Gospels

Start here -- how do the other Gospels begin? [Matthew begins with a genealogy; Luke begins with a detailed birth narrative; John starts with a prologue about "the Word".] Why would each author choose that particular opening?


You'll hopefully chuckle at me at this point -- "you just said that Mark wrote for a Roman audience who didn't know Jewish anything, and he's the only one who starts with an Old Testament prophecy!" Yes, but read closely. This is it for "Old Testament prophecy" until we get to chapter 4. (Mark quotes 10 Old Testament passages in his entire Gospel, most from the lips of Jesus. Matthew quotes 10 Old Testament passages in his first few chapters! Technically, Mark cites Ex 23:20, Mal 3:1, and Isa 40:3.) And that particular prophecy immediately points to John the Baptist, a real "man's man".


Catch that. After 11 verses of introduction, we are confronting Satan, calling disciples, and casting out evil spirits. Mark is getting right down to it.


I summarize the opening of Mark like this:

  1. The Old Testament validates Jesus (1:2-3)

  2. John the Baptist validates Jesus (1:4-8)

  3. God Himself validates Jesus (1:9-11)

That's accomplishing a lot in just a little space. Romans would have known just enough about Judaism to be dangerous. (They probably didn't know anything about Isaiah, but if they were able to do some research about him, do you think they would have liked Isaiah's book? I do.) They knew that Jews had their own religious texts and history. They might have even known that the book of Genesis started with the words "In the beginning". Mark gives his audience enough to satiate their expectations without bogging them down in religious explanation they would not have appreciated.


Imagine reading the Gospel of Mark for the first time as an adult:

  • This guy Jesus is the "Son of God"

  • We have some ancient religious text and a prophet

  • And there's a herald

I can follow that, can't you? But it's not some dry, confusing prophecy. It's a prophecy about someone getting things done.


The idea of a herald would have made a lot more sense to readers in that day than to us today. Why?


Your primary discussion: what is everything we learn about Jesus from the first three verses? (Don't overlook what's in Isaiah's prophecy.)


You might say, "I don't understand exactly what those things mean." Great! Neither did Mark's audience. (Neither did the Jews, for that matter.) Mark is going to tell us what all of this means in the rest of his book.


[Aside: The "beginning" of what? Of Jesus' ministry? Of Mark's book? Of John the Baptist's message? Well, this gets to the question of "What is a Gospel?" You might have noticed that I capitalize the word "gospel" when I'm referring to one of the four books in the Bible called Gospels, and I leave it lowercase when referring to the message itself.


By the time the Gospels were published, the word "Gospel" had taken on a technical meaning -- teaching/preaching about Jesus Christ and His saving work on the cross. So, this is the beginning of the story of Jesus -- who He is and what He came to do.]

 

Part 2: John, a Man of Action (Mark 1:4-8)

4 John came baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins. 6 John wore a camel-hair garment with a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey.
7 He proclaimed, “One who is more powerful than I am is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the strap of his sandals. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

In a world where Rome was not occupying Israel, lower-class Romans would probably have liked John the Baptist. A John Wayne man's man. I mean, just look at this guy! (Okay, maybe I jest a little.) He walks in out of the wilderness and starts telling people what's what. Yes, please.


The upper class in Rome didn't like reformers at all. Kinda like today. Reformers stir things up and redistribute wealth. But the common man often got behind a man with a message. Remember this exchange in Luke 3: "14 Some soldiers also questioned him, “What should we do?” He said to them, “Don’t take money from anyone by force or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”


In other words, Mark's audience would probably have been drawn to a man like John the Baptist. And John the Baptist pointed people to Jesus.


Baptism. You might wonder, "Isn't 'baptism' a religious thing? Why would Mark start with that?" Well, two things about that. First, Romans who were interested in Judaism would have known about their ritual washings, yes. But second and more importantly, the word for baptism (baptizo) just meant "to submerge" ("dunk"). The audience knew what the word meant. And by adding the descriptor "of repentance for forgiveness" (both of which were common concepts), Mark's audience would have had a pretty good idea what John the Baptist was doing.

This was some sort of ceremonial/ritual dunking which symbolized "cleansing from sin". Yes, Mark's audience would have immediately gotten that from this description. Baptism-by-sprinkling, baptism-as-sacrament, those deviant ideas came in much much later.


With this introduction of John the Baptist, Mark the author also immediately clues the audience in as to where there are (Judea/Jerusalem), who's involved (the common people of the countryside), and what the attractor is (confession and repentance).


This is an incredibly effective first five verses, don't you think?


We, of course, have the advantage of the internet and maps. So let's take advantage of that. John the author tells us that John the Baptist was baptizing close to the Dead Sea. That's as close to the Jordan River as Jerusalem got, so he picked a spot that many Jews could get to.


Why do you think all of these Jews were going out to be baptized by John? (And the related question is -- what are people attracted to today in a religious leader? And what kinds of people are attracted to what kinds of religious leaders?)


The Jews (and the modern readers who have the advantage of centuries of biblical studies) would have known that John the Baptist was a modern Elijah. He was the forerunner/herald/messenger par excellence. The Roman audience would still have been fascinated by John's appearance and diet, even if they didn't fully get the significance.


For our purposes, John immediately points to someone else (Mark has cleverly written in such a way that our own brains make that identification as Jesus). [Aside: we're going to see the word "immediately" a lot in Mark's actual text. Mark has a mission, and he is dragging us along. We have places to go and miracles to witness.]


Read verses 7 and 8 carefully -- what do those verses tell us about Jesus?


(I'm telling you -- Mark is accomplishing a lot in these opening verses.]


[Aside: "baptism with the Holy Spirit"? "I thought you said Mark was avoiding deep theological topics!" Okay, yes, work with me here. We know that this is an incredibly deep and rich (and controversial) concept that Christians have studied their entire lives. Take a step back -- read verse 8 as if you knew nothing about the rest of the Bible. From context alone, and realizing that the words "holy" and "spirit" were normal words, what would you think "baptism with the Holy Spirit" meant?


If you were an average Roman, you probably wouldn't know. But you would know that it must be "better" than baptism in water. It sounds rather dramatic and important. At the very least, you would be intrigued. That's what Mark wants.]


[Aside on the Aside: Baptism in the Holy Spirit. Forgive me for not wanting to get into this larger debate this week. There is too much to talk about with respect to Mark's Gospel. We covered the topic of "baptism in the Holy Spirit" in detail when we studied Acts:

Long story short: "baptism in the Holy Spirit" is salvation. Not something else.]

 

Part 3: Jesus, Man of Action (Mark 1:9-13)

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. 10 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. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well-pleased.”
12 Immediately the Spirit drove him into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and the angels were serving him.

Mark introduced Jesus in the first verse, and now we see Him coming to John. Mark says nothing about their personal relationship (they were cousins). He says nothing about John's hesitation. Why not? We can't know for sure, but it seems like Mark is getting "to the point" as quickly as possible.


[In other words, if you have the question, "Why did Jesus need to be baptized?", you're not going to find that answer in Mark's Gospel. To Mark, that question misses the point. Jesus' baptism was more than anything an opportunity for God to validate Jesus verbally.]


As I mentioned above, Mark likes the word for "as soon as" (which can also be translated "immediately" or "suddenly"). Everything has a sense of urgency to Mark. And a sense of drama! Why say "the Holy Spirit descended from heaven" when you can say "the sky was torn open and the Holy Spirit descended from heaven"? It's beside the point, but this detail helps us know that heaven is not "in the sky". Heaven is not in this physical universe at all. But again, that's beside the point.


[Warning: if I push this any further, I'll start talking about multiverses and parallel universes and alternate realities and wormholes and space-time continuum. Nothing could be more irrelevant to Mark. When the Holy Spirit came to Jesus, He tore the sky open to do it. That's cool. That's powerful. That speaks to a much deeper reality that we will never be able to understand.]


"Dove" was a common symbol of peace in the Roman world. You know what, I'm still not giving Mark enough credit here. Based on these few verses in Mark, what do we know about the Spirit? It's more than I realized.


Note that the voice from heaven is distinct from the Spirit. There's a lot of trinitarian subtext here. When the voice calls Jesus "My Son", that obviously means that the voice comes from "the Father". Here we have distinct identities for "God the Father", "Jesus the Son", and "the Holy Spirit". Lots of questions yet, but that's a lot of heavy information.


The word for "beloved" ("beloved Son") specifically calls attention to uniqueness. In other words, God the Father is saying, "You are My one and only beloved Son."


"Well-pleased" has the connotation of "You are My chosen one".


So, in rapid succession, we have

  • Mark identifies Jesus

  • John the Baptist identifies Jesus

  • God the Father identifies Jesus

Any doubts as to Mark's intentions as an author?


And then "immediately" Jesus goes out and does something incredible. (Let me set this up for future reference: "immediately" doesn't have to mean "immediately" as we use it today; "soon after" can also be a proper translation.) Jesus goes out and spends 40 days in the wilderness combating Satan. Wild animals are no concern to him. Goodness, the mighty angels are His servants! (That's so incredible that Mark doesn't even bother to mention that Jesus is fasting this whole time.)


Did the average Roman know who Satan was? Well, that's an interesting question. Whereas Matthew and Luke call Satan "the devil" -- a concept that was familiar in Roman thinking -- Mark transliterates the Hebrew word "Satan" ("the accuser") as satana.


Here's what I think -- Mark didn't want his audience to get trapped by their paganistic understanding of "good and evil". He has already personified the "power of good" in the Holy Spirit. Likewise, he personifies the "power that opposes good" as Satan. Satan is a devil (the chief devil), but he is also an individual, not just some impersonal force of evil.


Note that Mark doesn't say whether or not Jesus "won". First, that lets us know that there were more than the three archetypical temptations Matthew tells us about -- Jesus was in combat with Satan. Second, this gives us the big hint that this struggle isn't over. Satan is going to be Jesus' adversary on an ongoing basis. It's the duh-duh-duhn cliffhanger that a modern tv watcher would immediately see -- "let's keep our eyes out for that one".


So there you go! Mark has not yet told us what Jesus' mission is, but that will come soon enough.


Try to write down all of the things we have learned in the first verses (as if you've never read the Bible before).

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