Of the three gospels that look most like siblings (John looks more like a cousin), Mark is the one that gets the least attention. This is somewhat understandable, because Mark doesn’t include the Christmas story (see the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke for that). Instead, when Mark begins his narrative, Jesus is already an adult, ready to embark on his public ministry. Maybe you’ve read a biography of a famous public figure, and found yourself slowed down at the beginning by stories of the subject’s grandparents and aunts and uncles. Maybe you’ve even found the childhood stories a bit of a slog, and wished that you could just start with the stuff that really pops and zings, instead of easing into it. Well, in a way that’s Mark’s approach. He jumps right into the story and never lets up from there.

A 17th century painting of Mark (who may not have been quite this old looking when he wrote!) taking dictation from a fairly fearsome Peter.

Mark’s was the first gospel to be written, and some of the people who lived a generation or two later say that he based his story of Jesus’ life on the preaching of the apostle Peter. When we read Mark, it’s possible to see how this is the case. He doesn’t tell everything in a precise chronological order, but seems to group his stories by their themes. He shows us Jesus’ powerful ministry over the evil spirits. He gives us a chapter on the parables. He spends some time dealing with controversies with the religious leaders of his day. And so on.

These snapshots all lead up to a kind of crisis moment, when Jesus asks his followers who they understand him to be. Peter’s answer—“you are the Messiah” (8:29)—is almost at the very centre of the book. Everything from that point on is the road toward his death on the cross, as Jesus teaches about what it means to follow him (8:34-36), as the disciples learn more about his significance (9:2-8), and as everything comes to the final crisis in the last six chapters of the book. Mark ends, somewhat oddly, with the announcement that Jesus has been raised from the dead but without any of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, which are prominent in the other three gospels. Instead, Mark’s final words are about the women who have heard the news of his resurrection: “they were afraid” (16:8).

(Note: Scholars are agreed that Mark 16 ends at verse 8. The verses that follow in our Bible editions are from later manuscripts, and seem to reflect words that were written quite a long time after Mark. New Bible translations usually set Mark 16:9-20 off in brackets or in italics to make this distinction.)

Mark, like the other gospels, deliberately places Jesus in the context of the story of Israel as we read it in the Old Testament. Jesus has come as the expected deliverer to lead the people out of oppression—by both their earthly oppressors in the Roman empire and by the power of sin and the devil—and into God’s promises. But he is doing this in unexpected ways: not through the powerful ways of an earthly king but by the power of the cross. Following Jesus is always going to mean walking in the way of the cross.

How do we go about reading Mark?

  • First, we read Mark to be amazed by who Jesus is. Whether you are reading a parable, a healing story, a nature miracle, or something else, let yourself notice with gratitude what Jesus is powerful to do. See how his ways—his power, to be sure, but also his willingness to suffer in service for others—differ from those of other leaders. He is a different kind of king than the Roman emperor. He is a different kind of king than the dynasties of Israel’s past. Jesus is unique, and uniquely wonderful. Whatever passage you are reading, you will see and hear aspects of Jesus’ character. He is our Lord, and knowing him is central to our life. Pray for a heart that values Jesus above all else.
  • Second, we read Mark to let Jesus shape our vision of God’s kingdom. Pains and sicknesses done away with, sins forgiven, true faith affirmed, death giving way to life—this is the life of God’s kingdom, which has broken in on us with Jesus. But this kingdom comes about in surprising places and in surprising ways. We see this especially in the parables Jesus tells in Mark 4. We often have our own idea of what God wants for us or how it will come about. Jesus leads us not to trust surface appearances. Whatever passage you are reading, see how it challenges your view of the world and what really matters. Pray for God’s kingdom to come, and pray that you won’t be discouraged when it doesn’t seem to be happening the way you expect.
  • Third, we read Mark to be challenged to follow Jesus. Jesus invites people to follow him, and makes it plain that the way will be hard. But in following Jesus, we will reverse the world’s ideas of what is most important. Following Jesus will be a continual transformation. We will be like the blind man whose eyes have to be touched multiple times by Jesus before he is completely healed. But he is touching us, and he calls us to walk after him as disciples. Whatever passage you are reading, see how you it leads you to take up the challenge of the cross in your current situation. Pray for the courage to carry your cross today.

Words to consider:

“[Mark] invites his audience to ponder the significance of these astonishing events by comparing the behaviors of Jesus, his disciples, his opponents, various minor characters, and the crowds…In this, Mark’s Gospel functions as did Jesus’ parables: revealing the condition of his hearers’ hearts and opening up the secret of God’s kingdom to those who gather around Jesus.” (Rikk E. Watts, NIV Zondervan Study Bible, p. 2000).