1. The Message of Mark
The Message of Mark (Mark 10: 45 & Acts 12: 24; 13: 13; 15: 36-41)*
When you read a book, and before you start reading it, it’s good to get to now the writer of the book, the background, purpose or the reasons behind the book, and all these questions are important for us to better understand the book. That’s exactly what we want to do today, as an introduction to the message of the Gospel of Mark.
It’s a common understanding that the writer of the Gospel of Mark is none other than John Mark – the evangelist. Yet, we need to ask: Who is John Mark? Over 2000 years of Christian history, there has been a debate over the identity of the writer. Various traditions have developed concerning him. Some of those traditions appear to be quite reasonable because they don't seem to contradict any obvious Scriptures. Others traditions concerning him are less reliable.
Some traditions have nicknamed him 'stump finger', probably because they believed he had some disability. That may or may not be the case but it doesn't really matter.
Others believe he was the founder of Christianity in Alexandria in Egypt. There are reasons for that, but we're not sure about it. According to the Roman Catholic source, they believed Mark suffered a martyr's death in Alexandria, and then his body was taken from there to Venice and buried in a church called ‘San Marco’ built in the 10th century.
Now we cannot be sure of any of those things, in fact some of them are highly dubious. What we must always maintain is that we need to look to the Scriptures to construct a reliable picture of the writer. So let's look at the Scriptures and find out what we know about writer. I will refer to some traditions when they're helpful and reliable but we want to look primarily at the Scriptures to find a portrait of the John Mark – the Evangelist.
Mark’s Background (PPT)
Let us first of all see what we can find out about his background. John Mark is a combination of Jewish and Roman’s name. 'John' was his Jewish name, which means 'the grace of God, and ‘Mark” is his Roman surname, which means 'the hammer'. According to the Book of Acts, chapter 12: 12, he was the son of Mary of Jerusalem. Mary was a common name but this one was a wealthy woman. She owned a house in Jerusalem and her house was a meeting place for early Christians. It was in Mary’s house where believers gathered together to pray for the miraculous release of Peter from prison. There you see, the early Christian see their homes a place for ministry.
We also know from Colossians 4: 10, John Mark was a cousin of Barnabas the encourager. We also know from Acts 12, both Barnabas and Mark accompanied Paul on his first missionary journey. But later on, we read in Acts 13 and 15 it becomes clear that this young man, John Mark, had a shaky beginning in Christian ministry.
We read in Acts 13: 13, he abandoned the apostle Paul, and decided that he had had enough and was returning home. Now, for what reason we are not sure because it's not given. One thing we are sure is that Paul the apostle was so unhappy with Mark that he refused to take him on his second missionary journey, even though his cousin Barnabas had recommended him.
This started a bitter quarrel between the apostle Paul and Barnabas, two good friends and partners in the Lord’s ministry. The quarrel resulted with Paul and Silas going one way, and Barnabas and John Mark going another. Then for some years, we didn’t hear of John Mark. Whatever had happened to him, we do know. All that we know is that those years may have been wasted in a spiritual sense.
But then years later, we know Paul & Mark reconciled although we do not know the details, or how it happens. Something did happen in the life of John Mark. When the apostle Paul was in prison in Rome, we read in Philemon 24 & Colossians 4: 10, there was some kind of reconciliation. Mark actually served as the apostle Paul's helper and then he became a delegate to him in Rome in service, from Rome to Asia Minor.
Later we find in 2Timothy 4: 9-11, Paul asked Timothy to bring John Mark back with him to Rome, because he was useful to him in the service of the Lord. Listen to what Paul says in verse 11 as he speaks to Timothy, “Pick up Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for service”.
Putting all this together, what can we know about this young man John Mark? First of all, he is a man who had a serious spiritual malfunction, backsliding Christian. He was also the cause for division between Paul and Barnabas, two spiritual leaders. But the surprising thing is that this was the same man that the Holy Spirit turned around and to write an account of the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as verse 1 tells us.
Here we see God’s amazing grace is at work here. That means you may have been a failed Christian, you may have been a cause for dissension in the church, you may have felt discouraged, but like Mark, if you would submit to God’s grace, if you would let Him, He can turn you around, and you can do greater things for Him. The question is: would you let Him?
Even Paul had to recognized God’s grace was at work in Mark’s life. Paul had been so hard and critical of Mark, but now he accepts Mark’s restoration because the grace of God had restored him. Therefore, Paul ready to reinstate John Mark as an invaluable servant of Christ. He saw God’s grace at work in the life of John Mark. Now, don’t you think this is a tremendous reminder for us all?
Most people, including Christians, cannot take failure because it implies shame or in Hokkien, “Bo Bin”. Failure to some is almost like the end of the world, and so they give up. One writer (Erwin T. Lutzer) wrote a book entitled 'Failure Is the Back Door to Success', and that’s indeed the case when we submit to God’s grace working in us.
If you read the book of Acts, and when you read till the middle parts of the book, John Mark’s Christian service is over. However, God turned him around. The Spirit of God renewed and refined and transformed him and enabled him to write the 16 chapters of Mark.
Now of course, we all familiar with Apostle Peter, and he was no stranger to failure himself. In fact in 1 Peter 5: 13, he called John Mark, “my son”. So, it appears that Peter could've been a great influence on this young man John Mark. Peter could have been instrumental in helping John Mark out of his spiritual instability. Peter could have been his pillar to provide him the strength and maturity that he would need to serve the Lord in the work that He had called him to. It was Mark's close relationship with the apostle Peter which motivated him to write a portrait of Christ
Most scholars agreed that in the later years, both Peter and Mark were found together in the City of Rome as 1 Peter 5:13 indicates. We also know that before his own death Peter was intending to make a permanent record of his memories of Christ. You read that in 2 Peter 1:15-16, “and I will also be diligent that at any time after my departure you will be able to call these things to mind…” This seems to indicate that Peter wanted to put down in writing of his reminiscences of the Lord Jesus Christ. Put it simply, Peter wants to write a “memoir” of our Lord Jesus Christ.
(PPT) Most of the early Church fathers in the Second Century believed that what we have in Mark's Gospel is really the memory of the apostle Peter concerning our Lord. The earliest statement about the Gospel of Mark was written by a man called Papius, the Bishop of Hierapolis in AD 140. He said this: 'Mark became Peter's interpreter and wrote accurately all that he remembered'.
Justin Martyr, an early church father writing in AD 150, referred to Mark - that is, the Gospel of Mark - as the memoirs of Peter. Ireaneus, writing in AD 185, called Mark 'the disciple and interpreter of Peter' - and he recorded what Peter actually preached in his sermons about Christ.
If you care to turn to 14: 51, there you read about a “young man” wearing a linen cloth who ran away naked, and most scholars believed that this was John Mark! Of course, John Mark is not one of the twelve disciples but rather this was his way of saying to his listeners that he wrote the account. He was the one who penned down Peter’s “memoir” of the Lord Jesus Christ.
What I want us to see is that this young man had recovered! As young man, he had a failure in his spiritual experience – he went into backslidden. Then he caused dissension among believers, but the Spirit reaches him, turns him around and prepares him for work that God still wants him to do. Like one person says, “those who stand where first comes down are those who stumbled, but went on”. Certainly Mark stumbled, but he went on.
Mark’s Message (PPT)
Now consider Mark’s central message, which is found in 10: 45, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve”. So, in a nutshell, Mark's Gospel is the Gospel that portrays the perfect Servant of God in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now think about this: Mark, he himself a failed servant, a failure in Christian service, but here he is giving us the perfect Servant. Really, Mark is the man who had experienced “failure is the backdoor to success”. He had both failed and succeeded as a Christian and a servant of Christ, and now he was the right man for the job in sharing with us the ideal Servant, Jesus Christ.
In fact, that is Mark’s theme or message – Jesus Christ, the Servant, our Model for Christian Service. There are many name titles and representations given to Jesus. He’s been called the Prophet, the King, the Priest, the Son of God, Lion of Judah, but Mark describes Him as the Servant. Christ came as the Servant of the Lord. This is the distinctive feature of Mark’s Gospel I like us to grasp.
As we shall see later, Mark presents Christ as the Servant. He emphasises the deeds and works of the Lord Jesus. If you read through Mark (I encourage you to read in your personal time), there are 19 miracles but there are only four parables – and all four of these parables have to do with service as their theme.
As I compare Mark with Matthew & Luke, Mark omits many things that you find in Mathew and Luke. For example, one parable he leaves out is the parable of the household who hires the labourers. The reason is that because the Lord Jesus Christ in Mark's Gospel is seen as a servant. He is not in the place of hiring anyone, but He Himself is a labourer – a worker – a servant.
In Matthew, you find the Sermon on the Mount consist of three chapters 5, 6 & 7. This Sermon on the Mount is understood as the King's Manifesto, the laws of the kingdom. It describes the character and life of those who come under the kingship of Christ in His kingdom. However, Mark is not presenting Christ as a King, he is presenting Christ as the servant or workman of God. As a servant, He has no kingdom and He frames no laws.
Then we see that there is an omission of divine titles within Mark's Gospel. For instance, Mark did not mention, “You shall call His name Immanuel – God with us”. That does not mean Mark didn’t believe it. It simply means that Mark is conveying to us the servanthood of Christ.
If you compare Matthew 8: 25 and Mark 4: 38, you will notice a difference. Matthew says, “and they came to Him and woke Him saying, ‘Save us, Lord, we are perishing!” However, in Mark’s account, he says, “Teacher (or Master), do you not care that we are perishing?” In Matthew He is 'Lord', in Mark He is 'Teacher/Master'.
Mark omits things concerning the Lord Jesus that speak of His royalty, or of His Lordship, or of His deity - not because he doesn't believe in it, but he wants to bring to us the message that Christ as the Servant of God.
Now let’s move on to Mark’s purpose in writing this Gospel. The first purpose I believe he had was (PPT) to make the good news accessible to Gentiles. Or, if you like, Mark’s Gospel is a missionary or evangelistic book. In the Greek text, there are expressions of Roman language because Mark is writing to gentile people in a Roman world. Sometimes he uses Aramaic words, the language spoken by the Jews in his days, but Mark would explain them because the Gentiles wouldn’t understand it.
Unlike Matthew or Luke, Mark made no reference to Old Testament in his Gospel because Gentiles would not have been familiar with Old Testament Scriptures. Mark’s Gospel is an evangelistic book to be made known to those who never heard. So, if you want to have an evangelistic Bible Study group as a means to reach out to non-Christians, use Mark.
Secondly, his purpose was (PPT) to be the defender of the faith, especially regarding the cross of Jesus. He wants to explain the significance of Jesus' death. He wants to make clear that the death of Jesus was not a tragic accident, but it was part of God's plan from the very beginning. Jesus knew He was going to die. He told His disciples that He was going to die, even though they misunderstood Him.
Marks wants to show his readers that God chose to bring His kingdom by bearing through the shameful death of His chosen Servant. Of course, that was a great stumbling block, not only to the Jews but to the Gentiles. They find it difficult to accept Messiah should die in shame and that He should not only come as a Servant, but die on a cross as a criminal.
The Greek mind and the Roman mind could not conceive of how a Saviour could die for others in such shameful and disgraceful manner, and then arise again. The preaching of the cross was a stumbling block, and so Mark wants to give an explanation of why He was to die.
Now, I find it's interesting that today the cross is still a stumbling block to those who do not believe. The M, for instance, see Jesus as a great man, a good prophet or teacher, and that’s all they see Him. But they just cannot accept or even understand that God would have allowed a great man like Jesus to die in such a terrible way. Even in their theology, they teach that He didn't die. Some say He revived again while others say that He was replaced by a substitute before He died.
However, Mark points our clearly that Jesus was not merely a good man, He wasn't even a great prophet, but He was the Son of God, and He must die, He must be delivered into the hands of wicked sinners, He must be slain if we are to be saved!
Now, Mark’s third purpose was (PPT) to encourage Christians who were facing persecution. Most conservative Scholars believe that Mark’s Gospel is the earliest gospel written. If that is the case, Mark would have gotten his data primary from the Apostle Peter, and was written in Rome.
At the time of the Roman Empire, Rome was a city of with population of several millions. At the same time, Rome was also the city where that great persecution of Christians occurred during the reign of Emperor Nero in AD 64. Many Christians, probably including Paul and Peter, died for their faith during Nero's reign. In this backdrop of Rome, Mark wrote his Gospel aimed at Christians who were not just facing persecution, but going to face even worse persecution in the days that lie ahead.
So what Mark is doing here is preparing them for it. He is telling them of the Christ who suffered and how He suffered, and how it was predicted that He would suffer. He comes as a suffering Servant of God and through this suffering our redemption would come. Not only He suffered, but His followers would suffer.
So what Mark is doing here is to write to encourage a minority church in a hostile environment to keep the faith. The One whom we worship suffered, He was ordained to suffer, He came to suffer, but through His suffering our redemption has been bought. As Christians, whether we like it or not, we will suffer in this world because of who we are, but our suffering is in the line with our Saviour.
Don’t you find this is relevant to you and me today? Are we not a minority church today? Do we not live in a hostile and unfriendly environment? How many times we hear or read, whether here or abroad, about certain individuals or groups of believers being harassed, oppressed or suppressed, facing some hardships or restrictions, because of their faith? Should we not look to the Lord Jesus Christ and see the suffering Servant Saviour, and follow His example?
That’s why John Mark is arranging his material the way he does. One preacher puts it, (PPT) “he wants to show us Christ as the One who speaks, the One who acts and delivers in the midst of crises”. That is Mark’s method of presenting the gospel.
Whether we live under Nero’s persecution, whether we live during the time of Reformation where Christians have been burned at the stake, whether we live in this 21st-century of affluence and pleasure crazed society, whether we live a restricted practice of our faith - in every age, in every circumstance, you and I as Christians need to get a fresh focus on Christ. If you and I lose focus on Him, we shall not able to stand firm on our ground to overcome any trial or trouble. If everything we do in the church is not Christ-centered, it will be fruitless and vain for Christ says, to quote the Apostle John, “without me, you can do nothing”.
That’s my reason for embarking upon this exposition of Mark's Gospel. My hope and prayer is that, as we listen to the Mark’s Gospel week after week, as a community of faith, we will again get taken up by seeing Jesus. As we fix our eyes on Him, through His Word and Spirit, He would again “touch our hearts, and transform our lives”.
That’s why in Mark's Gospel, he uses what Greek language experts called “historical present tense” 15 times altogether. That is to say, Jesus comes, not 'came'; Jesus says, not 'said'; Jesus heals, not 'healed' - all in the present tense
(PPT) This tells us that in the crisis of His life and the life of His disciples, He was active, He was busy, He was instrument, He was moving and He was doing. In all circumstances of life of the church, He is all presence, active and doing. That’s the message of Mark.
As one preacher summarises, “Christ is not only the Christ of the crisis, but He's all action in the crisis”. In the same way, today in our crisis, in our persecution, in our difficulties, in our burdens, in our struggle to live a godly life, our prayer is that Christ is still being our Servant.
That’s why in every scene, Mark’s gospel is brilliant and vivid and fast-moving. If you’ve read through Mark, or you plan to read, please take notice the word 'immediately'. This word in the Greek word is mentioned 42 times: immediately, immediately, immediately. The conjunction 'and' is repeated quite frequently: and, and, and.
So, Christ's life is portrayed as super-busy – always on the move – rushing. Indeed, as Mark 3: 20 says that He has trouble finding time to eat, and you find it again in Mark 6: 31. What's Mark showing us? He is showing us that this is the Servant of the Lord, and He's come to serve men at great cost, at great price, at great suffering. He's still serving those in crisis. Christ came to serve and not to be served. The big question is: what does it mean to us?
Now, as I lead us into this journey of the Gospel of Mark, as you read, meditate, study and listen and reflect, as you see this Servant Christ in these 16 chapters, what do you hope will Mark's gospel make of you? I'll tell you what it will make of us if we respond to it: it will make us servants like the Master. It will make us servants who don't just run on theory, but on action. I believe that if we respond rightly, the freshness and the vigour of Mark will grip us and make us long to serve according to the example of our Lord Jesus Christ.
As doctor was asked the question: “What advice would you give to someone who is depressed?” He said: “The main thing I would tell them to do is go away and help someone else”.
That is what Mark is showing us. You might be in some difficulties, some suffering for your faith, some day to day hardships, or for whatever reason, the best way to cope in the midst of that is to get a glimpse of our suffering Servant Christ, and then to go away and forget about yourself for a little while and serve others.
The problem with many of us is this, many of us want to serve Christ, but we just don't want to be treated as a servant. We want to be treated like manager or treated with some dignity or recognition.
One thing for sure, John Mark learned about perfect service through the perfect Servant, the Lord Jesus Christ, the One who stooped to serve in spite of inconvenience.
As Paul says of Christ in Philippians: “although He existed in the form of God…but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant…”(2: 5-7). That is Christ’s humiliation – His condescension. But what about my humiliation? Are we willing to “empty ourselves” and become servants to serve others? What about we becoming poor that we might make others rich? Are we willing to endure the inconveniences in our service?
In 1878 when William Booth's Salvation Army had just been named, a man came over from the United States to enlist. He once dreamed of himself as a bishop in the church, and he crossed the Atlantic from America to England to become a member of the Salvation Army. His name was Samuel Logan Brengle, and he ended up being the head man, the First Commissioner in America. But when he first came and introduced himself to Booth, Booth accepted his services reluctantly and grudgingly. Booth said to Brengle: 'You've been your own boss too long', and in order to instil some humility into Brengle, he set him to work cleaning the boots of the other trainees. Brengle said to himself: 'Have I followed my own fancy across the Atlantic in order to black boots?' Then, as if in a vision, he saw Jesus bending over the feet of rough unlettered fishermen, and he said: 'Lord, You washed their feet, I will black their boots'.
He came not to be served, but to serve - the question is: as we encounter God's Servant King, will we serve Him and serve others?
Father, help us in these coming weeks as we see through Mark or Peter's eyes to see the garden of tears, to see His hands and His feet, and let us learn how to serve, and in our lives enthrone Him, each other's needs to prefer - for it is Christ we are serving. Lord, we thank You for the Lord Jesus, and we pray that through these studies we will not only be taken up with Him, but we will become more like Him in our service of Him and of one another. Amen.