On Your Mark
For the past couple of years, in the month of April, Heralds of Hope has sponsored a 5-kilometer race as a fundraiser for the ministry. My wife and I aren’t runners, but we joined in to show our support. We’ve served as the “sweepers” a couple of times now; we make sure that all the runners have cleared the course and we pick up any trash that’s left behind. That means we always finish last, but that’s ok, we still get some exercise, and we get to encourage the runners.
Like most races, this one begins with the familiar words, “On your mark, get set, GO!” This sentence has been used to start races since the 1800s. The mark is the starting line. All runners start from the same place. This prevents any runner from having an unfair advantage. Getting set means being prepared because the beginning of the race is imminent. The command to “Go” is usually signaled by a shout, a shot from a starting pistol, a whistle, or some other loud noise.
As I promised you last week, on this episode of The Voice of Hope we’re beginning a study of the Gospel of Mark. That’s why I’ve titled today’s teaching, “On Your Mark.”
If you’re a regular listener, then you know by now how much I stress the importance of understanding the background and context of the Scripture. Many errors and much false teachings result from a careless handling of the Bible. One of the challenges we face in our understanding is that the Bible was written in a culture that’s significantly different from our own.
That doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant because the Bible is universal. It just means we need to work harder to understand what the writer meant to communicate to his original audience. Once we understand the message, then, we can make applications to our time and place. So, this episode will explore some of the background material that will help to enhance our understanding of Mark’s Gospel.
If you’re a Bible reader, you know that Mark’s version of the gospel story is very different from the accounts of Matthew and Luke. These three are referred to as the Synoptic Gospels. In the word, synoptic, syn, means together, and optic means seeing. Seeing the gospels together. Laying these different accounts side-by-side and comparing them highlights their differences, but it also shows many points of agreement. It’s like interviewing witnesses to the same event; depending on their perspective or vantage point, they highlight different observations.
Aside from the apostle John, we know more about Mark than any other of the gospel writers. We know that he was sometimes referred to as John Mark or just John, as in Acts 13:5. He was the son of Mary, a woman who must’ve had significant wealth because she hosted the budding Jerusalem church in her house. Some scholars believe this was the location of the Last Supper. You may recall that when Peter was miraculously released from prison by an angel he went to Mary’s house (Acts 12). The church was gathered there praying for Peter’s deliverance.
We learn from that same account that one of the servants recognized Peter’s voice in the darkness when he showed up at the gate. Evidently, Peter was well known in Mark’s house and it’s very possible that Mark was converted under Peter’s preaching. Later, in his first epistle, Peter refers to Mark as “my son.” This close connection suggests that Peter was the source of much of what Mark wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It also seems like Mark was present at the arrest of Jesus. He makes a rather cryptic reference to this in Mark 15:51, 52.
According to Acts 13, John Mark accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey. For some unknown reason, John Mark didn’t finish this journey but returned to Jerusalem. Later, this incident caused a division between Paul and Barnabas when Paul refused to have John Mark on his mission team because he thought him to be unreliable. So, Paul chose Silas for his second journey and Barnabas chose Mark according to Acts 15. We do know that over time, this rift was healed because Paul wrote highly of John Mark in his final letter to Timothy.
The consensus of the early church fathers was that Mark wrote the gospel that bears his name. Justin Martyr referred to the Gospel of Mark as “the memoirs of Peter” and early church tradition accepted Rome as the place of writing. In chapter 15, Mark mentions that Simon of Cyrene was the father of Rufus and according to Romans 16:13, Rufus was a prominent member of the church in Rome.
Mark’s writing was designed primarily for a Gentile audience, so he doesn’t quote the Old Testament nearly as much as Matthew and Luke and there’s no record of Jesus’ genealogy. In some places, Mark used Latin terms rather than Greek equivalents and when he used Aramaic terms, he translated them for his readers. He also reckoned time according to the Roman system and carefully explained Jewish customs that may have been unfamiliar to his readers.
It’s hard to pin down a definitive date for the time of writing, but it was most surely written before the destruction of the Temple in AD70. This difficulty doesn’t affect the legitimacy of the text or its place in the biblical canon.
Another distinctive of Mark’s Gospel is its style. The word immediately, or straightway, depending on the version you use, along with its synonyms, is found about 40 times in this book! Mark’s goal seems to be conciseness and brevity. He omits the long discourses found in the other Gospels. He also highlights more of what Jesus did than what He taught and also expresses more clearly the humanity of Christ, His emotions, and the limitations of His physical body.
Matthew’s Gospel presents Jesus as the King, but Mark reveals Him as “Jesus, the Suffering Servant.” That is the title I’ve chosen for this series of teaching. In Mark 10:45 we have what I believe is the key verse of the entire book. There, Jesus said, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” Over a third of the book, chapters 11 to 16 deal with a small fraction of Jesus’ earthly life: the last week.
Three times in three consecutive chapters – 8, 9, and 10 – Mark pictured Jesus informing His disciples of His great sacrifice and ultimate victory. His disciples either rejected the teaching altogether or they showed themselves concerned with other matters. As Jesus prepared to perform the greatest service in the history of the human race, His disciples could only think about themselves – their position or safety.
Because we too are human, we find ourselves struggling with the same things they did. We are more focused on self-preservation and comfort than sacrificial service. The challenge Jesus presents to us in the book of Mark is to break out of those patterns of self-absorption and to give ourselves in service and love to others.
Mark records many miracles that Jesus performed to illustrate both His power and His compassion. In a case of supreme irony, that power and compassion culminated in His suffering, death, and resurrection. What looked like total defeat from a human perspective became the pathway to eternal life for all who place their faith in Him.
By God’s grace and the enabling of the Holy Spirit, my goal in this series of studies will be to bring us face-to-face with our own reactions to Jesus and His ministry. I believe Jesus calls you and me as His followers to break out of our patterns of self-centeredness and to give ourselves in love and service to those around us. Let’s yield ourselves to the work of the Holy Spirit as He conforms us more fully to the image of Christ.