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The gospel of Mark

Mark is the shortest of the four gospels. Some people believe that it is a shortened version of Matthew. Other people think that Matthew took Mark and made it longer. Others have different ideas still. Each of the four gospels contain some events that are shared with the other three, and some that are unique to it. It does not matter particularly how the writers of the gospels wrote them. What matters is that they are the Word of God, and that we study what they say! They reveal to us the good news of Jesus Christ, for us to believe, love and obey him.

Mark’s purpose

Mark tells us his purpose, at the very beginning of his book (1:1). He tells us that he is writing “the gospel”, or “good news”, about “Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. The word “Christ” means the same as “Messiah” – the anointed one; God’s chosen king. Mark’s purpose is to tell us that Jesus is the one who was sent from heaven to bring salvation to the world. He is the promised one who has come from the Father’s side to rescue us from sin and rule over all things forever. During the book, Mark shows us many examples of people responding to Jesus. Some of them respond well. Others do badly. At the end, Mark tells us what we need to do. “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (16:16). Mark wants us to believe the good news, so that we can be saved. Now we want to look at Mark’s good news more closely.

Mark’s good news – in two parts

The gospel of Mark is in two main parts. These are from 1:1-8:30, and then from 8:31-16:20. These two parts are easy to understand. In the first, Mark concentrates on showing us who Jesus is; in the second, he concentrates on what Jesus came to do. In other words, he tells us about Jesus’ person, and then about his work.

Who is Jesus?

“Who is Jesus” is the major question in the first half of Mark. Mark has already told us the answer at the beginning – he is the Christ, the Son of God (1:1). After that, Mark shows us how Jesus revealed this great truth to his disciples. Along the way, we meet many people with different ideas. Some of those ideas were completely wrong. His family, who were worried about the excitement that his ministry was causing, said that he was mad (3.21). The Pharisees, who hated Jesus, said that he was working on behalf of Beelzebub (the devil, 3.22). He was rejected in his home town (6:1-6). Some peoples’ ideas were good, but nowhere near enough. Some said that he was a good teacher, a new prophet, or even one of the old prophets who had been raised from the dead. It was normally quite unlikely people who saw and believed the truth about Jesus. The leaders of the Jews are shown as Jesus’ enemies. In pagan Gennesaret, crowds flocked to him. An unclean Jewish woman dared to touch him for healing (5:25-34). A Gentile woman living in her own land believed that he was the Saviour promised first to the Jews and then for all the nations (7:24ff). Demons also saw these truths, and trembled with fear, knowing that the time of their power over men was ending.

The question that keeps coming is, “Who is this man?” The disciples and others keep seeing clear signs of Jesus’ divine identity. He teaches truth from heaven, with all authority. He exercises all power over demons. He creates bread from nowhere to feed the hungry. He has power over disease and paralysis, over wind and waves, and even over death (1:21-22, 5.1-15; 4.35-39; 5.35-42; 6.35-44).

Each time Mark records someone’s words about who Jesus is, he is challenging us. He has already told us that Jesus is God’s Son, sent from heaven to save the world. Do we believe this? Have we seen what other people have not yet seen? Surprisingly, the apostles were slower than others to see the truth. Various others – Gentiles, outsiders to Israel – had seen and spoken the truth before they did. But at the climax of the first half of the book, Peter at last confesses the truth. Jesus asks him directly, “But who do you say that I am?” (8:29), and Peter answers “You are the Christ”. Peter testified to this, even after he had seen that Israel’s leaders and even Jesus’ family did not believe in him.

The slowness of Peter (and the other apostles whom Peter led) is an encouragement and a challenge to us. It is an encouragement, because we see that Jesus does not punish or reject his followers when they are slow and dull. Rather, he is very patient and keeps on going with them. It shows us that Christian progress takes time, but that Jesus will not abandon us. If we keep trusting him even when we do not really understand, he will in time reveal more to us. It is also a challenge, because Mark shows us clearly that the disciples should have understood and trusted quicker than they did. They had clear evidence of who Jesus was, and failed to really take it to heart. Many believers fail to fulfil their potential in serving Jesus. Many others take much too long to achieve it. We only have one short life, and this is our time to bring honour and glory to the Son of God. What is stopping us from going much further in the kingdom of God than we have? Is there some sin, or some mistaken belief, or simple spiritual laziness, which is holding us back?

What has Jesus come to do?

Mark’s story is never slow! Again and again we read words like “immediately” or “and straight away”. He shows us that Jesus never wasted time, but was always quick to do his Father’s will. As soon as Peter has confessed “You are the Christ”, things move forward again. Jesus then begins to explain what kind of Messiah he was. Yes, he was God’s chosen king – but he was not the kind of king that the Jews, even the apostles, were expecting.

The Jews were expecting a political and military Saviour. They saw their enemies as the Romans. They believed that their bondage was the foreign rule and taxes they endured. They were looking for an earthly deliverer, who would give bring their nation earthly glory. They expected a repeat of King David, who would drive out and kill the outsiders from the land, set up his throne in Jerusalem and bring a new age of peace and riches for Israel.

Jesus was not this kind of Saviour. In fact, he had come to suffer and die. He showed no interest in opposing the Romans at all. He told his disciples this plainly, and often. He did travel as a King up to Jerusalem, but in a humble and lowly manner. Just as the apostles were slow to understand who Jesus was, they were now even slower to understand what he had come to do.

Mark shows us what kind of Saviour we really need. Our true bondage is the bondage of sin. Because of sin, there can be no glory now. Following Jesus is not about getting earthly success, power or fame. Because of sin, those things have become impossible in this life as the normal way for God’s people. Jesus had to go to the cross to die for our sins, before he could rise again in glory. If we are his followers, then that is the only path for us also. The way of true greatness in Jesus’ kingdom is the way of humble service. The greatest are those who serve. The way to rise up is to lower ourselves down; the way to glory is through self-denial, suffering, taking up our cross and dying to all earthly plans and giving our all to obey and follow Jesus.

These are teachings which are vital for Kenya today. It is a tragedy that most “Christian” preachers are preaching the very ideas which Jesus rejected. They have the same ideas as Jesus’ apostles, even after Mark has shown us how wrong they were! They are looking for glory now; they do not want to hear about the “way of the cross”. They believe that great ministers are rich and powerful. They have not believed that the true servants are those who go the lowest in humbly serving. The message of Mark is greatly needed by us. It will revolutionise our understanding of real Christian service and “success” in our churches. Learning those lessons can and will be painful, but it is the only way. That is Mark’s testimony. There is no resurrection to glory without the death of the cross.

The two parts above, when placed together, actually give us a third piece to Mark’s message to us. He not only shows us Jesus – his person and work – but also speaks to us about our response. It is not enough to believe who Jesus is – even the demons know that. It is not even enough to understand the truth about his salvation, through his painful self-giving death on the cross. We must also follow him. We cannot earn our salvation by following him – salvation is his free gift, received through faith. If we have true faith, then it will show itself. We will be the people who are willing to forget about earthly glory, and to go the way of the cross too. Is that what you are doing?

Preaching Mark today

It is a great privilege and challenge to preach Mark in Kenya today. Jesus comes to us in Mark as the friend of the poor and lowly, when the rich and powerful rejected him. He shows us that the humble service of people who are “nobody” in the society and culture was welcomed and encouraged by him. He shows us how “nobodies” – fishermen like Peter, James and John – were his chosen friends, whilst corrupt religious leaders were rejected.

We must also preach Mark’s great challenge. It is not easy to reject what our society and culture believes about greatness. The call to come to Jesus is a call to come and die. It is a call to leave behind our own desires, and serve. Jesus came down from heaven to be the friend of the poor. He wants us to do the same. Amidst the race for money, power, degrees, titles and honours, true Kenyan leaders need to be ready to become “nobody” for the sake of the good news. Who will reach the un-reached tribes who live in the remote places? It will be those who listen to Mark. Those who do follow Mark’s teaching will be those who “die” as far as this world is concerned. But, Mark tells us, they will also rise in glory and honour, and be sons and daughters of God in his glorious kingdom.