September 13, 2015
The believers had gathered in Mary’s house in Jerusalem to pray. You see, King Herod Agrippa had begun persecuting the church. He was having believers arrested and in some cases, killed. James, the brother of John, had been put to death by the sword. And when Herod saw that action pleased the Jews who opposed this new sect called The Way, he had Peter, another leader, arrested and imprisoned. No doubt, Peter was up next for execution. So the church gathered in Mary’s house to pray.
And God answered their prayers. On that very night, Herod was about to bring Peter out for trial and death. Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with chains, and there were even guards standing outside the door. Suddenly an angel appeared, and light shone in his cell. The angel smacked Peter and said, hurry get up. And Peter’s chains fell off.
The angel said, put on your cloak and your sandals, and follow me. Peter thought he was having a vision. The guards didn’t stir as they passed by. When they came to an iron gate, it opened by itself. They went out, walked down this street, and the angel disappeared. It was at that moment Peter realized it wasn’t a dream – so he hurried to the house of Mary where he knew the church would be gathered. When he knocked, a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer the door. But when she heard Peter’s voice, she was so excited, she forgot to open the door, ran and told the believers – you know, the ones praying for Peter. Hey, you’re not going to believe this, but Peter’s at the door. They thought she was nuts – can’t be Peter, he’s in jail. Did they forget they were praying for his release? Well, Rhoda kept insisting, someone went and opened the door – and there stood Peter, in the flesh.
By the way, it seems there were some people at the prayer meeting that night – names you know – Saul and Barnabas. You see, Saul and Barnabas had been sent by the church in Antioch to the church in Jerusalem with some famine relief. It was while they were there that Peter was arrested, so they were likely at the prayer meeting. Another name you know was likely there – Mary, the owner of the house where they were praying – her son was no doubt there. His name was John, who was also called Mark. We sometimes call him John Mark. Oh, and Barnabas and John Mark were cousins.
John Mark was a young man – a believer – who had surely witnessed this event with Peter. Apparently he showed some promise, so when Saul and Barnabas returned to Antioch, they took John Mark with them. A little while later, the Holy Spirit said to the church at Antioch – send out Barnabas and Saul on a missions trip. They decided to take John Mark with them on this first missionary journey. They traveled from Antioch to Cyprus – to the cities of Salamis and Paphos on the island, where they shared the gospel. Then they left and sailed north to a city called Perga in the region of Pamphylia. There, something happened – we don’t know what, but John Mark left and returned to Jerusalem. Some have suggested he didn’t have the mettle to be a missionary, others have said he just missed mommy.
Saul, who by this time started going by his other name, Paul and Barnabas finished that first trip and returned to Antioch. A little later, some men from Jerusalem showed up in Antioch and began teaching the believers there – among whom were Gentiles – they had to be circumcised in order to be saved. This was a big deal – is keeping the Law with faith in Christ necessary for salvation? So they all traveled to Jerusalem to the first Church Council to discuss the issue. It was, of course, decided that salvation is by grace through faith in Christ alone – adding circumcision or anything else was not only unnecessary, but even harmful.
At the end of that Jerusalem Council, Paul said to Barnabas, hey, let’s go back to the churches from that first missionary journey and see how they’re doing. Barnabas, whose name means Son of Encouragement, said, great – look, cousin John Mark is here – let’s take him. Paul said no way – he deserted us the first time, we’re not taking him again. Paul and Barnabas couldn’t agree, so they split up. Paul took Silas and went on his second missionary journey, and Barnabas took John Mark and went on his second missionary journey. Let me put up a chart to help you follow a timeline – the items in bold are what we’re talking about today. Paul and Silas headed by land over to those first churches in Galatia and beyond, planting new churches.
But Barnabas and John Mark set sail for Cyprus again. You see, Barnabas was born in Cyprus, so he returned there. And that’s the last we hear of Barnabas until Paul writes his first letter to the Galatian churches – the ones that he and Barnabas had started. There, Paul mentions Barnabas a couple of times – and that’s it. He disappears from the pages of the New Testament.
As for John Mark – he, too, disappeared, until after Paul’s third missionary journey and his first imprisonment in Rome. When Paul wrote two of his four prison epistles – Colossians and Philemon, we find that Mark was there with Paul in Rome. Later, at the end of his life, when Paul is facing certain execution at the end of his second Roman imprisonment, he wrote a final letter to Timothy, his son in the faith. And he asked that Timothy come to him before winter, and bring Mark with him. Apparently, at some point, Paul and Mark had mended fences.
But what happened to Mark between that trip with Barnabas to Cyprus until he shows up with Paul in Rome? That’s a period of about ten years. We don’t really know for sure – but we have a couple of hints – one from the NT, and one from the early church fathers.
If you look at I Peter, which Peter wrote in the early 60’s, at the end of the letter, he mentions his son, Mark was with him. By the way, there’s only one Mark mentioned in the NT, and that’s John Mark. Much like Timothy was Paul’s son in the faith, so also Mark was Peter’s son in the faith. It’s very possible that, as Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles and Peter the apostle to the Jews that Mark came to faith in Christ through Peter’s ministry. It’s possible, living in Jerusalem, he was even discipled by Peter.
Not only that, if you look at the early church fathers, church leaders right after the apostles, there is a unanimous understanding that Mark hung out with Peter. He heard Peter’s preaching and his personal testimony and stories of being one of the Twelve with Jesus. In fact, one early church father named Papias, who lived from 60-130 AD, wrote this:
“This also the presbyter [John the Elder, perhaps the Apostle John himself] used to say: Mark indeed, who became the interpreter of Peter, wrote accurately, as far as he remembered them, the things said or done by the Lord, but not however in order. For he had neither heard the Lord nor been his personal follower, but at a later stage, as I said, he had followed Peter…so that Mark committed no error in writing certain matters just as he remembered them. For he had one object only in view, that is to leave out nothing of the things which he had heard, and to include no false statement among them.”
So Papias, an early church father who lived right after the time of Jesus, tells us that Mark followed Peter – that he learned from Peter, and even wrote down what Peter said about his time with Jesus. Where did Mark write those things down? It is the unanimous testimony of the early church and early church fathers that John Mark is none other than the author of the Gospel According to Mark – which I guess could really be called the Gospel According to Peter.
Now, the Gospel of Mark is technically anonymous – as are all four Gospels. Some have suggested the young man who ran away naked from the Garden of Gethsemane in Mark 14 was John Mark – we’ll talk about that when we get there, but it’s pure conjecture. Let me be clear on this – the early church and early church fathers all accepted that Mark was the author of the second gospel. Here are some names you might recognize: Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Jerome all attribute the writing of Mark to Mark.
By the way, it was in the early second century that the gospels were circulated with titles – you see, four had been written by then and you needed to be able to distinguish them – and every title of the second gospel has it, the Gospel According to Mark. There never really has been much question as to authorship the second gospel.
But when did John Mark write it? Again, with some minor discrepancies, most agree he likely wrote the gospel sometime in the early to mid-60s. The only issue is, did he write the gospel before Peter died, or after he died – some say before, insisting that Peter even authorized the gospel. We’re only talking about a year or two difference – Peter died around 64-65 AD under the Neronian Persecutions, just like Paul would around 66 AD. Think about it, when Paul asked for Timothy to bring John Mark with him – it’s likely Peter had already died, and Mark had already written this gospel.
Here’s the point I don’t want you to miss – Mark wrote this gospel during the Neronian persecutions – likely as an encouragement to his readers to suffer for the gospel story, just like Jesus suffered, just like Peter and Paul suffered. You see, the suffering Savior is a major theme in the book – the opposition against Jesus arises as early as Mark 3. Jesus had healed on a man on the Sabbath, and we read the Pharisees and Herodians began conspiring together how they might destroy Jesus. As we’ve seen, suffering and persecution have always been a way of life for followers of Jesus. As his readers were facing opposition, Mark writes to encourage them – so did Jesus.
Now, if Mark wrote to encourage his readers to endure in the face of suffering – look at the life of Jesus – who were his readers? This is another very important question. You see, the Neronian persecutions were largely centered right there in Rome. And as we read Mark’s gospel, we’ll find he explains some Jewish customs, which he wouldn’t do if he was writing to Jews. Meaning, he must be writing to Gentiles. In fact, we find that he translates some Aramaic expressions – the language of the Jews at this time – again, which he wouldn’t do if his readers were Jews. He also explains Jewish customs, and quotes infrequently from the OT. Not only that, he uses several Latinisms – that is, Latin terms that would be understood by Latin readers. Add to that the fact that some early church fathers said he wrote to believers in Italy, and most agree that Mark was writing to Roman Christians, the church at Rome, while he was in Rome.
Now, I know most of you have noticed there are four gospel accounts – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Matthew and John were disciples – two of the Twelve. Mark got his story from Peter, one of the Twelve. And Luke, the physician, was a meticulous historian and researched carefully his gospel. But as you read the gospels, you notice some things. The first three – Matthew, Mark and Luke, are quite similar – which is why they are called the Synoptic Gospels – they are seen together. Now, a full ninety percent of John’s Gospel is not found in the Synoptic Gospels.
But again, Matthew, Mark and Luke are quite similar. In fact, it’s been noted that only 3 stories in Mark are not found in Matthew and Luke. This begs a couple more important questions. First, why three similar gospels? Isn’t that overkill? Well, while they are similar, it has been noted there is a different focus to be found in each one:
- Matthew was clearly written to the Jews to present Jesus as the King of the Jews.
- Mark was clearly written to Gentiles, Roman believers to present Jesus as the Suffering Son of God.
- Luke was clearly written to present Jesus as the perfect Son of Man – to declare His perfect humanity.
- John was clearly written to present Jesus as God in the flesh – to declare His perfect deity.
So, each gospel, to include Mark, provides a different focus. By the way, in the early church, they often referred to the Gospel – singular – hardly ever, the gospels. What’s the point? They say one gospel recorded by four authors in four versions – but again – only one gospel.
But in addition to why three similar gospel accounts, it begs the further question as to which gospel came first? You see, some of the wording is exactly the same. Which means, they had same sources, or one gospel was available to the others. In fact, it was the position of scholars through the centuries, really until the nineteenth century, that Matthew and Luke preceded Mark – that Mark was really just a poor copy of the other two Synoptic Gospels. As such, it largely ignored, often criticized, and seldom valued. One German author said that Mark was “neither a historian nor an author. He assembled his material in the simplest manner thinkable.” A French commentator wrote, “It is settled: the author of Mark was a clumsy writer unworthy of mention in any history of literature.” In the early days of the church, Matthew was most often quoted, then John, then Luke a distant third – and Mark only rarely. Even Augustine said, “Mark imitated Matthew like a lackey and is regarded as his abbreviator.” (Mark has fewer stories, but much more detail – like an eyewitness.)
Matthew had the priority for use in discipleship in the early days. Luke served as a great companion to Matthew – John had all that material Matthew and Luke didn’t have – and Mark – well, who really needs it. It was actually seen as a poorly written work – Mark was a clumsy and artless writer.
But then, something happened as scholars continued to study. It became actually quite clear that Mark was written first – it had the priority – Mark was written first, and then suddenly Mark stood on its own. That doesn’t devalue Matthew and Luke who probably had copies of Mark. But it certainly raised the value of Mark – and all of a sudden, people began reading and studying and appreciating the marvelous literary value of Mark. It went from a seemingly unnecessary, poorly written copy of the gospels to a beautiful jewel in the Canon of Scripture.
It is a great book. Mark writes with certain intentionality. It’s quite vivid and keeps you at the edge of your seats. For example, he uses the word immediately some 40 times to carry the action along. He starts many sentences with the word, and – hardly giving you time to catch your breath. Actually, it would be seen as more an action book than a dragging drama – who doesn’t like action over drama? You see, there’s actually less teaching of Jesus in Mark than in Matthew, Luke or John – although, Mark has teaching as well (most notably in chapters 4 and 13). But you are carried along with the fast-paced nature of the book. We learn more about Jesus from what He does than what He says. And make no mistake about it – the central character is Jesus. Every story is about Jesus except two – two about John the Baptist, who was the forerunner of Jesus. While it took us four years to get through Matthew, we should finish Mark in two years – that’s quick!
Let me give you an outline of the book before we look briefly as just the first verse today:
- Mark 1:1-13 – Prologue
- Mark 1:14-8:26 – The Galilean Ministry
- Mark 8:27-10:52 – The Journey to Jerusalem
- Mark 11:1-13:37 – The Jerusalem Ministry
- Mark 14:1-16:8 – The Passion Narrative
So, let’s take a look at verse 1 as it serves as the title to either the Prologue, the whole book, or both. It’s interesting to note, verse 1 does not have a verb – it really is a title. The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Let’s look at each of the main terms:
The beginning – both Genesis and John use that word in the first verse of their works, but in different ways. In Genesis, Moses writes, In the beginning God created. John writes, In the beginning was the Word. Meaning, back at the beginning of all created things – when God created – the Word was there. So, in the beginning, the Word was there, and God created. In fact, we find from other passages that God used the Word, who is Jesus, to do the creating. Jesus was intimately involved in the creation of the world.
But now, Mark refers to a different beginning – the beginning of the gospel. It doesn’t take much imagination to see Mark referring to a New Creation – a New Beginning – brought about by the work of Christ. In the Beginning, God created. Now, in this new beginning, through the Gospel of Jesus Christ, God recreates.
Next term, the beginning of the gospel. Most of us know well by now the word gospel is literally good news. (Caesar Augustus) The beginning of the good news. Now, it wasn’t till some time later the word gospel came to refer to the first four books of the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – all of which tell the story of the life and death of Jesus – the gospel – the good news of Jesus’ incarnation and cross work for us. But even here, Mark gives his work the title of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
And notice, it is the gospel of Jesus Christ. When we say, the gospel of Matthew or the gospel of Mark, that’s not really quite right. But actually, those early second century titles were “The Gospel According to Matthew” and “The Gospel According to Mark.” You see, while they tell the story, it is the story of the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ.
Now, this gospel of Jesus Christ could be referring to the gospel Jesus preached – after all, in verse 14, Jesus shows up saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel.” But the gospel of Jesus Christ is more likely the good news about Jesus – the life He lived, the death He died, for sinners. Culminating in His resurrection. That’s probably what Mark means by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is the good news about Jesus.
Jesus, of course, is the name given to the son of Mary and Joseph – as instructed by the angel – you will call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins. You see, the name Jesus was the Greek derivation of the OT Joshua, which literally means, Yahweh Saves, or the Lord saves. So, Jesus was a common name, but an appropriate name for the One who would come to save. Further, Christ is a title referring to the truth that Jesus was the long-awaited and promised Messiah – the anointed One to come, sent from God to accomplish His redemptive plan.
But notice, He’s not just the Christ, He is the Son of God. Mark uses a number of titles for Jesus – four most notably – Son of God, Son of Man, Christ and Lord. But his favorite is Son of God. Don’t miss this is a clear declaration of His deity. He is the very Son of God. This is a thread that runs through the gospel according to Mark:
Mark calls Him the Son of God in the title. Before we get through the first chapter, at the baptism of Jesus, God the Father calls Jesus His beloved Son in verse 11. In Mark 3 and Mark 5, the demons are falling before Him, saying, You are the Son of God. In Mark 9 at the Transfiguration, God calls Jesus His beloved Son again. In Mark 14, the High Priest asks Him, tell us, are you the Son of the Blessed, that is, God? And Jesus answers, I am. Finally, in Mark 15, the centurion standing at the foot of the cross looks up and says, Surely, this man was the Son of God.
Mark clearly wants us to understand, Jesus is the Son of God. He also wants us to catch His deity in what He does – He does things only God can do, life forgive sins, cure the most of serious of illnesses, exercise supremacy over nature and the forces of evil. Jesus truly is the Son of God, God in the flesh.
Again, there are many other titles we’ll see through the book – in fact, Jesus’ favorite title for Himself is Son of Man, which speaks of His humanity. Because, He suffers in the flesh as the Son of Man. You see, in addition to His deity, Mark writes more about the humanness of Jesus than anyone else.
There are some other important things we’re going to see through the book – like the disciples’ consistent lack of understanding, the so-called Messianic secret, and great of the faith of the Gentiles – as opposed to those who should know who He is (insiders like His family, His disciples, the Jewish religious leadership – they’re all confused. Outsiders like the centurion, the Syro-phoenician woman, lepers know who He is and exercise great faith). Through all this, we’ll see a clear Christology and a strong call to discipleship – believers must be followers. Jesus is portrayed as one who challenges, confounds and sometimes breaks conventional stereotypes – whether religious, social or political. He is not what readers expect.
This is a great book. I know this morning has been a bit of a lecture – but it’s important we do the necessary background and foundation work as we jump into a new book. Here’s what I want you to consider as we close this morning. There is no more important book we study as a church than a gospel – it tells us the story of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. I want us to be encouraged again by the life, death, burial and resurrection of our Savior Jesus Christ.