This article is part of the Distinctive Theology series.
What Makes Mark Different?
There is a sense in which Mark’s portrayal of Jesus’s life shares so many similarities with those of the other Gospels (particularly Matthew and Luke) that we can say that there is nothing distinct about it! All four Gospels give us accounts of Jesus’s life, his teaching, his journey towards Jerusalem, and his death and his resurrection. Nevertheless, as we read the Gospels alongside each other, distinctives (not contradictions!) do appear. This is most obvious in reading John’s Gospel, which contains much of Jesus’s teaching and activity that is not included in the other Gospels.
For example, Matthew has the Great Commission and Luke has the ascension, and they both have extensive accounts of the events around Jesus’s birth that are not in the other Gospels. In some ways, Mark is the least distinct Gospel since it seems very likely that Luke and Matthew (and possibly even John) used Mark as the basis for their own Gospels. Certainly, Mark is the Gospel that has most in common with the other Gospels. But even Mark has some distinctives that are worth noting and that help us to read Mark as Mark.
Mark’s Reason for Writing
First, Mark tells us what he is writing. He starts his work with these words: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” What does Mark mean by this? He is not saying, This is the beginning of my book, i.e. my Gospel. No, at this point when readers heard the word “gospel” they would not think of a book to be read (Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John), but a message that was proclaimed. The gospel was the message about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that could be summarized as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 15:1–11. So, what does Mark mean when he starts his work with “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”? I think he means something like, The gospel you have heard preached and believed, this is how it started. If we take Mark 1:1 as something like a title for the work, then Mark is directing us to view his work as something like the “back-story” of the preached gospel. If you were a first Christian, you might have heard a brief outline of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. You might have heard a preacher (perhaps even an apostle like Paul or Peter) proclaim the gospel where he would have shown how Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament, how he rose from the dead, how his death paid for your sins, etc. But what Mark does is fill that out by showing us the life and teaching of Jesus himself. So, Mark gives us the back-story, or the origin story, of the preached gospel that early Christians heard. Understanding this invites us to read Mark in conversation with the rest of the New Testament—particularly the letters of Peter and Paul.1
Mark’s Style of Writing
Of all the Gospels, it is the most fast-paced Gospel. The action moves quickly. One of his favorite words (not always brought across in the translation) is “immediately,” which occurs forty-one times in Mark (cf. 6 times in Matthew, 3 times in Luke, 3 times in John). Mark also uses the Greek word for “and” very frequently to introduce sentences. While this might not be good English (and so does not always come across in translation), together with the use of “immediately” it does propel the narrative forward at pace. Mark is the shortest and most fast-paced Gospel.
The “secret of the kingdom” is given—given by Jesus in his teaching of those who approach him, and given by the Spirit who opens our eyes to understand who Jesus is.
Another feature of Mark which, again, although not missing in the other Gospels is somewhat highlighted in Mark is the arrangement of material to highlight a teaching point. We can illustrate this with two examples. The first is Peter’s confession of Jesus (Mark 8:29). This is somewhat expected since throughout the Gospel the disciples have failed to grasp who Jesus is (e.g. Mark 8:18). In fact, Peter’s confession is immediately followed by his failure to grasp that Jesus must go to the cross to achieve his mission, earning him the most severe rebuke from Jesus (Mark 8:31–33). So Peter only half “gets it.” Just before Peter’s confession, Mark narrates a healing of a blind man by Jesus which happens in two stages. This is very unusual (unique in the Gospels). After the first stage, he can partially see but to him people look like “trees walking” (Mark 8:24). Jesus touches him again and this time “he saw everything clearly” (Mark 8:25). There are many things that Mark has not chosen to include in his Gospel, but he has included this account just before Peter’s confession. He does it to help us to understand what is happening with Peter. To recognize that Jesus is the Christ, he needs his eyes to be opened. However, at this point just like the blind man after the first touch by Jesus, his spiritual sight is not fully restored. Peter only partially sees who Jesus is—he recognizes him as the Christ but not as the Christ who has to suffer and die. For him to fully understand who Jesus is, he needs to have his eyes opened. This leads on to one of Mark’s distinct themes.
Mark's Emphasis of Secrecy and Revelation
Many people have noticed that Jesus frequently commands people to be silent in Mark. We see this twice in the first chapter. In Mark 1:34 we read of Jesus casting out many demons, and Mark tells us that Jesus “would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him” (Mark 1:34). He then heals a man with a serious skin disease and “sternly charged him and sent him away at once,” telling him to “say nothing to anyone” but only make the offering that Moses commanded (Mark 1:43–44). Perhaps most strikingly, after Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ (Mark 8:29), he commands Peter and the other disciples “to tell no one about him” (Mark 8:30). Surely it is a good thing for people to recognize that Jesus is he Messiah?
It is a good thing—if people correctly understand who Jesus is! This understanding is not open to all. Mark actually offers a sophisticated theology of revelation. On one level, revelation is open to all. The gospel is publicly proclaimed. Jesus freely teaches all who will listen. However, it is only those who approach Jesus and remain with him who receive the “secret of the kingdom” (Mark 4:11). As readers of Mark’s Gospel, we are in the privileged position of the insider. So, for example, we can read the explanation of the parable of the sower (Mark 4:13–20) and so be readers who are in the same position as those (the Twelve and “those around him” Mark 4:10) who receive the “secret of the kingdom”. However, this does not allow us to remain in a neutral stance towards the words written in the Gospel. Jesus’s words following the parable of the sower were an invitation for people to listen carefully. The secrets are meant to come to light (Mark 4:22), and so this means that “if anyone has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:23). A generous listening to Jesus will be rewarded (Mark 4:24–25).
Mark shows us that Jesus is not someone who can be controlled or even understood by natural human intellect. The “secret of the kingdom” is given—given by Jesus in his teaching of those who approach him, and given by the Spirit who opens our eyes to understand who Jesus is. Without revelation we are simply fumbling around in the dark!
Mark, then, shares much in common with the other Gospels, but as “the beginning of the gospel” it invites us to encounter Jesus, to have our eyes opened to who he really is, and to follow him with our whole lives!
- This is something I explore more in The Beginning of the Gospel.
Peter Orr is the author of The Beginning of the Gospel: A Theology of Mark.
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