Wineskins Archive

February 4, 2014

Getting Started Reading the Gospel of Mark (Jul-Aug 2005)

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by Allen Black
July – August, 2005

Damien DeVeuster was born in Belgium in 1840. As a young man, he became interested in the island of Molakai, Hawaii. At that time Molokai was the home of a leper colony, a place where lepers were isolated from the rest of society, where they died in the most horrible conditions.

DeVeuster became convinced that Jesus’ commands to go into all the world included Molokai. Others tried to persuade the talented young man that he should not throw away his potential in such a place, that he should preach in Europe, but they failed to prevent him from going, and he moved to Molokai to work among the lepers.

He arrived and became acquainted with the horror of the conditions under which these unfortunate people lived. He later said it was all he could do to make himself stay. Nevertheless, he did stay, helped to build a place to worship and began to preach there. He spoke in the church every Sunday and always began his sermon with the same words: “You lepers know that God the Father loves you.”

Years passed as DeVeuster helped the colony develop a better water supply, build better houses, and start a small clinic. Now he entered the pulpit and began his sermon with a slightly different statement: “We lepers know that God the Father loves us.” In this way he let the lepers know that he was now one of them.

DeVeuster continued his work at Molokai until he died in 1889 at the age of forty-nine, a leper among lepers.

Damien DeVeuster is an outstanding example of the spirit of sacrifice that is at the heart of the Gospel of Mark. Those who read the Gospel carefully and take its message seriously will find that the course of their lives is altered forever. Mark is a simple and straightforward book about who Jesus is and what it means to follow him. It intends to lead those who read it into a deeper and more service-oriented journey of discipleship.

The best introduction to Mark is to take an hour or two and read the whole book. The next few pages are meant to be a background for such a reading.

Introducing Mark
The few comments about John Mark found in the New Testament (Acts 12:12, 25; 15:37-39; Colossians 4:10; 2 Timothy 4:11 Philemon 24; 1 Peter 5:13) do not give us much background for reading his book. They do, however, provide some support for early Christian writers (beginning in the second century) who tell us Mark’s Gospel was written in Rome and was closely connected with Peter’s preaching about Jesus. Peter calls him “my son Mark” and indicates that he was with him in “Babylon,” commonly understood (as in Revelation) as a symbolic reference to Rome.

We do not know when Mark wrote. Our earliest sources differ on whether he wrote before or after Peter’s death (which occurred in the mid-sixties). Many would date the book in the late sixties or early seventies.

By far the most important features of Mark to keep in mind while reading the book are its two prominent themes and the way they are developed in the two halves of the book. Mark is primarily concerned with portraying who Jesus was and what it means to follow him. Both of these themes reach a turning point in the middle of the book, Mark 8:27-38.

With respect to the identity of Jesus, the key word in the first half of Mark is “authority.” Jesus’ authority is repeatedly exhibited in his teaching, his miracles, and in the testimony of others. The question underlying this half of the book surfaces plainly in 4:41: “Who is this? Even the wind and the seas obey him.” The answer has already been given to the reader beginning at 1:1 (Jesus Christ, the Son of God), but is finally clear to the disciples in 8:29 when Peter declares Jesus to be the Christ.

At this point a new stage is opened with respect to Jesus’ identity: “He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again” (8:31).

The key word in the second half of the book is “service.” The authoritative Christ who commanded nature, disease, demons, and death, submitted to death in suffering service to others; this is a key concept found repeatedly after 8:31. “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (10:45).

Jesus’ authority and then his suffering service are closely connected to the theme of discipleship, which also takes a turn in the middle of the book. From chapter 1 discipleship is defined in terms of following Jesus and submitting to his authority, but beginning with 8:34 following Jesus is clearly defined as following him through servanthood. Whoever would be a disciple must realize that “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all” (10:43-44).

Mark’s Gospel should be read with both of these themes constantly in mind. Through Mark, God wants to lead us to a deeper understanding of who Jesus is and what it means to follow him. Virtually every paragraph has something to say about these two subjects and the way they are intertwined.

Mark’s Introduction (1:1-15)
The first fifteen verses of Mark are his way of introducing the book to us–just as the opening lines of virtually every writing serve to orient us to its content.

“The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1). The opening words indicate the focus of the book. Whether “beginning” has reference to the work of John the Baptist, the first few paragraphs of Mark, or Mark’s whole story, the unmistakable focus is on Jesus. Here, in the opening line, He is identified as the Christ (that is, the Messiah) and the Son of God.

When Mark uses the term “gospel,” he makes it clear that his story is meant to have a major impact on our lives. It is “good news.” In Mark’s day “gospel” was a common term used to describe such events as the birth or enthronement of emperors, or military or political victories. These events were described as “good news.” More importantly, the word “gospel” was used in the Greek translation of Isaiah (e.g., 40:9 and 41:27) to speak of the coming of God’s rule or salvation. Mark’s opening verse declares that the message about Jesus is the good news of God’s salvation. It’s not just a story; it’s the story of our salvation. The opening line of Mark is like having someone call us up on the phone and say, “I’ve got some good news for you.” We are anxious to hear what comes next.

In the next few lines (vv. 2-3) the blended quotation from Malachi 3:1, Exodus 23:20, and Isaiah 40:3 not only identifies John’s role as preparatory for Jesus, but is also important because, coming at the beginning of the book, it establishes a fulfillment setting for the book as a whole. The Old Testament points forward to a great work God has planned for the future. The opening verses of Mark say: “This is it. This is what God was talking about and what we have been waiting for.”

The way Mark portrays John the Baptist (vv. 2-8) keeps the focus on Jesus. John is the one who prepares the way. He calls the people back to God (through a baptism of repentance) and tells them of one who is to come. Dressed as a prophet (see 2 Kings 1:8; Zechariah 13:4) and based in the wilderness, his role is to prepare the people for the Lord, who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.

Jesus’ own baptism (vv. 9-11) marks the climax of the verses about John and underscores Jesus’ identity in an unmistakable fashion. The heavens are opened (see Isaiah 64:1; Ezekiel 1 1), the Spirit descends like a dove, and God himself speaks. “You are my son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” apparently echoes Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1. Jesus is identified with the messiah (Psalm 2) and with Isaiah’s servant (Isaiah 42) in a way that lifts both ideas to a new level. This is one of several key points where Jesus is identified as God’s unique son (see also 9:7 in the middle of the book and 15:39 at the end).

Mark’s account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (vv. 12-13) is brief. However, it does indicate that Jesus was tested and tried, but overcame. It is not the only, nor the last, test Jesus faces. Mark closes his introduction with a summary of Jesus’ own preaching of the gospel (vv. 14-15). In harmony with the emphasis of the first few verses of the Gospel, Jesus emphasizes the time of fulfillment. The Jews had been waiting for the coming kingdom of God. Although the nature of God’s coming rule was commonly misunderstood, Jesus agrees that the Jews were right to expect a great intervention by God and announces that it has come upon them. That is the good news that summons men to belief and repentance.

By the end of these fifteen verses we have heard what Mark’s Gospel is about. It is about the fulfillment of God’s prophetic plan of salvation. It is about Jesus Christ the Son of God in whom God has fulfilled his plan. It is about believing this good news and changing our lives in light of it. In short, it is about who Jesus was and what it means to follow him.

In view of Mark’s purpose, we must realize that his book cannot be read passively. It wants to change the course of our lives. To read it correctly we must keep asking, “Who was this Jesus and what does that mean for my life?”

Damien DeVeuster got the point. The Gospel story got a grip on his life. Reading Mark opens our hearts to the power of the good news about Christ.New Wineskins


Allen Black, Mark, The College Press NIV Commentary. Joplin, MO: College Press, 1995.

Chris Altrock, Mark: A Call to Service. Streams of Mercy Study Series. Abilene, TX: Hillcrest, 2000.

Rhoads, David, Joanna Dewey, and Donald Michie. Mark As Story: An Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel. 2nd ed. Minneapolis, MI: Fortress, 1999.

Who are you? Preaching Mark’s Unsettling Messiah, edited by David Fleer and Dave Bland, an upcoming Chalice Press book.

Allen BlackAllen Black is a graduate of Freed-Hardeman, Harding, Harding Graduate School, and Emory University. He is Professor of New Testament at Harding’s Graduate School of Religion where he has been since 1983. He has written two commentaries for the College Press NIV New Testament Commentary series: one on the Gospel of Mark and one on 1 Peter. Allen also works for the Highland St. church in Memphis. Allen and his wife Nancy have two daughters: Amy and Stacey.

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