It is good to be back on the air with you. Today, and in the coming months, we are going to be studying the first chapters of the gospel according to Mark, beginning today with an introduction to this gospel account. It is my prayer that these messages from God’s Word will be edifying and fruitful for you.
There is nothing in all the Scriptures so rich as the gospel itself. In fact, this is what the Bible is all about, the gospel of Jesus Christ. And so, Mark opens his account, in chapter 1:1, with the words, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
I want you to hear those words, as they were perhaps heard the first time that they were read publicly. So, imagine yourself to be Gentile Christians in first century. You live in Rome. Nero is the emperor. He hates the Christians and he is blaming them for the recent fire in Rome which destroyed 80% of the city. His military are active, rounding up Christians, who are given no fair trial, but with cruelty are clothed in animals’ skins and attacked by wild dogs, or are dipped in tar and tied to posts and set on fire to give light in Nero’s gardens, or are brought into the Colosseum and fed to the lions as half-time entertainment.
On a Sunday morning, you gather for worship, not in a church or even in a member’s home, but as a very small group in the catacombs, something like the sewer system under the city of Rome, a place where the dead are brought. And today, as you gather for worship, you notice that this person is missing because he has been arrested, and we hear that another has been executed. And now on this Sunday morning, the pastor stands up and says, “I have a new manuscript to read, from brother Mark.” You are about to hear the Word of God in the first reading of this gospel account.
That is very likely the setting for the first audience of this book. Mark wrote this account for the Christians in Rome, to teach them what Jesus had endured for them, to teach them especially about His suffering and sacrifice in the cause of the gospel. So that they would know their salvation and be encouraged in their faith.
However, the audience intended by God is much larger. And the good news of Jesus Christ, on the pages of this book, will go forward throughout the world and throughout history. And so we have in our hands this book, and we receive it, not as man’s word, but as it is in truth the inspired Word of God.
The writer is Mark, and on account of that there are some unique qualities and characteristics in this book, but the source and the author is God Himself by the Holy Spirit. And the message is the message of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, come into our world and our flesh as the suffering Savior.
We know that there are four gospel accounts, each of them beginning in a unique way, a way that reflects their main theme or purpose.
Matthew begins by tracing the genealogy of Jesus back to David and to Abraham. He is writing to a Jewish audience and he wants to demonstrate that Jesus is the promised Messiah, and that Jesus is the Seed of Abraham, and so also his account is filled with references to the Old Testament prophecies.
Luke also begins with genealogies, but since his purpose is to emphasize the humanity of Jesus, he traces the genealogy of Jesus all the way back to Adam.
Then John, because he writes to demonstrate the divinity of Jesus, begins in eternity. “In the beginning,” he says, “was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
So, where does Mark begin? And what does that tell us about this gospel account?
Well, Mark jumps right into the ministry of Jesus. There is nothing of His childhood and origin, except what is before us in this first verse, “the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” It is really an introduction that is a theme statement, a summary, of all that this book will contain.
Those first two words, “the gospel,” tell us that there is only one gospel, the gospel. Often we use the word gospel in the plural to refer to the four gospels, but really there is one gospel, and these four are four accounts of that one gospel, and so not four contradictory accounts, but four accounts with one harmonious message: “the gospel” of Jesus Christ.
The word “gospel” means literally “good news” or “glad tidings.” That tells us that the gospel is an announcement of something that has happened. The gospel is not first instruction on what we must do, but it tells us what God has done in Jesus Christ. Those are the names given here. He is Jesus, which means Savior, and He is Christ, which means Messiah. And the gospel is the announcement to man of God’s work in Jesus Christ, which is good news for the sinner.
One other thing that we should not miss in this first verse is the last phrase, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. With those words Mark identifies who Jesus is, right up front. He is the Son of God, God Himself in the flesh. That will be a recurring theme in this book, essential to Jesus’ saving work and to the good news of His suffering on the cross. The one who dies for sinners is God Himself in the flesh, strong enough to carry the great weight of the guilt of our sin.
One more thing that we should note about the content of this gospel account is this, that Mark focuses not so much on Jesus’ teaching as on what He did. If you have a Bible that has red ink for the words of Jesus, you will see far less “red” in this book than in the other gospel accounts. That is because Mark presents the intensity and the busyness of the ministry of Jesus. There are more miracles recorded in this short gospel account than in the others. He uses the present tense—ongoing action is described—and throughout the book the actions of Jesus are connected with the words “and” and “straightway.” There is a rapid pace—a rush of activity in the ministry of Jesus. We see Jesus tired and hungry and needing a rest, a break, from His work at different points in this gospel account.
The Gospel of Mark takes a slow reader only about two hours to read through. If you have paid attention while you did that, you felt surrounded by crowds, wearied by the demands that come to Jesus, and attacked by the opponents of Jesus. The point of this gospel account is to demonstrate the absolute commitment of Jesus to His ministry. In chapter 10:45 it is put this way: “for even the son of man came, not to be ministered unto, but to minister and to give his life a ransom for many.” The word “minister” means “servant.” Jesus came not to be served but to serve, in the laying down of His life as a ransom. When the gospel comes to us, it will make of us servants who are busy in the Lord’s work. That is the encouragement for the persecuted Christians in Rome.
So that is the content of this book, as summarized in the first verse, the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
But now, who was Mark, the writer? I say the writer, because the Bible has its origin in God. God is the source and the author of Scripture. In II Timothy 3:15, we read, “all scripture is given by inspiration of God.” That means it is God-breathed, it comes from the mouth of God. How that happens is explained in II Peter 1:21: “Holy men of God spake [or wrote] as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” What that means about the content of this gospel account is that we take everything in this book, word for word, as God-breathed and without error. The gospel account may not be subjected to our criticism or evaluation as to whether it can be trusted, or whether it belongs in the Scriptures. It must not be viewed simply as Mark’s perspective as an individual, but it is God’s Word, the good news announced to us from God of what He did in Jesus Christ on our account.
I make that point because of what is sometimes called the “synoptic problem.” The synoptic gospels are Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and critics and unbelievers love to point to and to exaggerate the apparent differences in these three accounts. And where there are similarities, they like to say that they were copied either from each other, or from another document or record. It is important that we never take such an approach to the Bible, because if we do, we will soon whittle it away as man’s word, and be left with almost nothing. No, by faith we must take what is written as God’s own word.
Now concerning Mark. Who was he, and how did he come to write this book to the Gentile Christians in Rome?
Well, this is really a fascinating character study in Scripture, and the story of Mark in Scripture is especially a story of the restoration of one who had faltered as a Christian. He is called both John and Mark in Acts 12 and 15, because John was his Greek name, and Mark his Latin name. As to his family, Colossians 4:10 tells us that Mark was a nephew of Barnabas, and in the book of Acts we find that Mark’s mother’s home was a known gathering place for the New Testament church. So, when Peter was imprisoned, then released in the night by an angel, he came to the house of John Mark’s mother and knocked at the door where they were praying for him. A maid comes to the door, and she thinks it is a ghost. Peter, when released, knew where they would be. The fact that there was a maid indicates that Mark was probably from a relatively wealthy family. His mother was generous and hospitable. It is possible, even, that this was the house with the upper room where the disciples gathered with Jesus to eat the Last Supper, and where the Spirit was poured out on the day of Pentecost. And, if that is the case, then Mark, perhaps as a boy, even witnessed and heard the teaching of Jesus.
Mark appears several times in the book of Acts. In chapters 12 and 13, he accompanies Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey, until when they come to Pergamos, where he abandons and deserts them and returns to Jerusalem because the work was too difficult. Because of this inexcusable failure, when Paul and Barnabas are ready to go on a second missionary journey, Paul refuses to take Mark along. On the first missionary journey, Mark had been tested, and he had failed. The result of Paul’s refusal to take him was a sharp disagreement between the two missionaries, and they go their separate ways, Paul with Silas, and Barnabas with his nephew Mark.
But the beautiful part of this story is that, later on in Paul’s ministry Mark proves himself to be a faithful and reliable helper to Paul. So, in Colossians 4 Paul tells the believers in Colossae to receive Mark, whom he calls his “fellow worker in the kingdom” and one, Paul says, who “had been a comfort to me” during his first imprisonment. And then, at the very end of his life, when Paul is in prison a second time and everyone has deserted him, he writes to Timothy in II Timothy 4:11, “take Mark, and bring him with you to me, for he is profitable to me for the ministry.” The point here is that when we fail as Christians, there is forgiveness, there is restoration in Jesus Christ and, despite our failures, we can be restored to usefulness in the kingdom of God.
That is what happens here. And Barnabas, who is called the son of consolation, is right there with Mark to bring him back into the fold and to restore him. And not only Barnabas, but also the apostle Peter, who himself had failed (in his denial of Christ) and needed to be restored.
In I Peter 5:13, we see that there is a very close relationship between Peter and Mark, when Peter calls Mark “my son,” similar to the way Paul refers to Timothy. We can surmise that it is through Peter’s influence that Mark is helped to overcome the wavering of his youth and to become a faithful and diligent servant and leader in the church. And through this, Mark is not only returned to useful service in the church as a missionary, but he becomes the hand that writes the record of the ministry of Jesus, from the mouth of Peter.
Why do I say, from the mouth of Peter? Well, because the gospel accounts are eyewitness accounts. The early church fathers tell us that Peter and Mark spent much time together, and that Mark recorded and wrote down much of Peter’s preaching. And you can see the similarity in this gospel to Peter’s preaching at the house of Cornelius, the Roman centurion. But what is most intriguing about this gospel account is the prominence of Peter over the other disciples. The gospel accounts are not mere biographies, but you do see personal and biographical information in them. In Matthew and in John, who were disciples of Jesus, you catch that. John refers to himself in the third person as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” or “that other disciple.” And in Mark, we have something similar to that with respect to Peter. There are more than sixteen events that include Peter. Five of those are unique to this gospel account. These are written in very vivid, firsthand ways. And then, in the last chapter, Mark 16:7, in one of my favorite phrases in the Bible, after Jesus is risen, the angel tells the women who came to the tomb, “Go, tell his disciples, and Peter, that he goeth before them into Galilee.” This is the only gospel account that records those words, “and Peter.” The angel wants Peter, who has denied his Lord, to know that Jesus still loves him and forgives him and seeks his restoration.
That is it, that is the good news. Jesus came to seek and save the lost, to forgive sinners, to restore those who have fallen. That is what I want to emphasize in closing.
Like Mark, like Peter, we need to be restored. We are failures and we are sinners. And the beauty of looking at the ministry of Jesus Christ is to see, not just His power and His miracles, not just His authority and His teaching, but also His compassion in His ministry. That He came, not to be ministered unto, but to minister (to serve) and to give His life a ransom for many.
In preparing this message, I read a number of biblical commentaries, and I want to conclude this message by quoting from one of them. The summary of the Gospel according to Mark that this commentator gives is that it is the gospel of the glory of Jesus Christ in His humiliation. And he uses a beautiful story as an illustration. That is what I want to read in conclusion. This commentator is obviously an Englishman. He describes the Gospel of Mark this way, and now I quote:
It is the gospel of the Lord as the servant, the gospel of the Lord of glory who showed his glory by becoming little for us. He descends, he condescends, he stoops, he serves, he dies; this is his glory.
I remember seeing pictures of George VI at his coronation, with his enormous, jeweled crown, his ermine robes, all the pomp that marked the occasion. I was very impressed.
But I saw another picture of King George where I truly knew him as king. The photograph showed the East end of London after it had been bombed by the Nazis into a pile of rubble. George VI was there with Winston Churchill to inspect the damage. He wore no crown or robe, just a suit and a derby hat. He looked totally unremarkable, except for one thing. As he walked through the debris, he cried. As he saw the damage, his suffering people, the union jack, which his subjects had draped over the wreckage of their homes, he wept. Churchill’s memoirs record that, as the people watched their king weeping in the midst of their ruin, they said, again and again, “He loves us. He loves us.”
That, to my mind, is the noblest picture of the king of England that I ever saw. And when I want to see the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ, I look at him on the cross, dying for me. That is the glory of the gospel. It is what Mark saw when he looked at Jesus, and it is the vision that we must receive for ourselves, that we might be transformed by it and in newness of life bear our own testimony to the glory of grace.
There I end the quotation. Is that not a beautiful picture? Jesus on the cross, suffering for us. This is His glory; this is His greatness. And this is the gospel we need, and this is what we will be shown, as we make our way into this great book, the Gospel according to Mark.
Let us pray.
Lord, we are so thankful for the good news of Jesus Christ, Thy Son. Without that good news, we would be lost in the hopelessness of our sin, and in the darkness of our unbelief. Lord, we pray, that the good news of Jesus Christ will come to us like water to a thirsty soul, refreshing and satisfying. Hear us we pray, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.