The silence for the Jewish nation was becoming unbearable. For 400 years the heavens had been closed, and the wait among the faithful for the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy brought its own tensions. The problem was that the last prophetic words of the Old Testament had been so uncompromising. They wrote (Malachi 4:1 – 5):-
Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble and that day that is coming will set them on fire. —– But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. —- I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will strike the land with a curse.
These were the very words of God himself. But, what did it all mean? When would this thing happen? And, what had become of Elijah? Then, after this long delay, when the nation least expected it, and apparently out of the blue, yet, “just at the right time”, a book which is arguably the most important, momentous, and influential ever written appeared in the Christian world of 64AD, 30 years after the death of the Messiah and the establishment of the Christian Church. Now, I grant you that before this time, a number of letters attributed to a man called Paul had circulated through the early Christian churches. But these in the main were personal, specific and targeted to individual problems in the Christian world. What Christians were really crying out for was a permanent record describing the life, works and words of Jesus of Nazareth, the man who had had such an influence on their lives and had made such a change to their outlook. The Apostles Doctrine, the oral wisdom of the close followers of Jesus, which described His words and deeds, was slowly fading as, one by one, the apostles died, and soon there would be none left who shared the ups and downs of daily life with Him, who had seen Him in all His glory. What was required was a first hand written account of these momentous events, an indelible and permanent record that would carry the message of Jesus forward into the 21st century. That’s how significant was the publication of the first gospel, the Gospel of Mark.
Who was John Mark?
John Mark, when we first meet him, was a young man, a Jew, a native of the City of Jerusalem. He grew up there with his mother Miriam (or Mary), a well-to-do citizen of the town who owned her own substantial house and employed at least one servant or slave (see Acts 12:12). Miriam was a relative of Barnabas, a Levite from Cyprus, and so Barnabas was a cousin of Mark (Col 4:10). As an aside, you will remember that Barnabas and Paul, at the beginning of their second missionary journey, fell out over John Mark. Barnabas wanted Mark to go with them on the trip, but Paul objected because he said that Mark had deserted them in Pamphylia on their first expedition; and, in the end they all split up, Barnabas and Mark heading off together to Cyprus while Paul chose another companion, Silas, and eventually Timothy, and took the gospel for the first time to Europe and the city of Philippi.
Now, back to Mark and his house in Jerusalem. The building seems to have been a well-known venue in the city for early believers, and may even, according to some, have contained the “upper room” in which the last supper took place. At any rate, it was a magnet for the apostle Peter when he made his miraculous escape from Jerusalem jail (Acts 12); and there is no doubt that while Mark was never an apostle, and probably began his experiences on the fringes of this new movement, he became well acquainted with Peter on his visits to Miriam’s home. In fact, in his first letter (1 Peter 5:13), Peter refers to Mark affectionately as his “son”, leading some to the conclusion that it was Peter who introduced Mark to the Christian faith. So, perhaps Peter, a generation older than Mark, was also Mark’s spiritual father. At any rate, history and tradition tell us that it was Peter who sent Mark on a mission to Egypt where he established the important Christian church in Alexandria and there eventually was martyred for his faith in the eighth year of the reign of the Emperor Nero.
What did John Mark do?
Mark’s eternal legacy is that he was the first to turn what was the oral tradition of the Apostles’ Doctrine into the first written record of the life and times of Jesus. The first sentence of his gospel tells us that this story is:-
Mark 1:1 The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Now, from what we have already said, you will realize that Mark was not a member of the original circle of the original 12 close followers of Jesus, and in fact, as we shall see, may never have had any personal dealings with Him. Some, however, do believe that he might have been the young man, recorded only in Mark’s gospel (Mark 14:51 – 52), who had followed at a distance dressed only in a flimsy linen garment or sheet when, on that last fateful night, Jesus and the eleven had made their way from the upper room, which may well have been in Mark’s home, to Gethsemane where He was betrayed and arrested at the hands if the temple guards. Whether that is the case or not, we do not know, but one thing is clear, Mark himself could never have had enough experience of Jesus to have written the first and all important account of the earthly life of the Messiah. So, who then was the source of his material?
What is the history of Mark’s gospel?
To answer that, we need to review those occasions in the New Testament when Mark makes an appearance. When we do that it is clear is that he is always introduced as an assistant or “lieutenant” to someone else. He is never the prime mover.
We meet him first (Col 4:10) as the cousin of and companion to Barnabas of Cyprus, and we have already seen that he did accompany Barnabas to his island home. But, Barnabas could, for obvious reasons, never have been the source of Mark’s information. Barnabas was not closely linked to the life of Jesus.
Secondly, Mark became assistant to the apostle Paul when he accompanied Barnabas and Paul on their first missionary trip (Acts 13:13). But Paul had never met Jesus in the flesh; and, as we have already seen the relationship between Paul and Mark turned sour when Mark, for whatever reason, broke away from the expedition (Acts 15:37 – 38) in the city of Perga in Pamphylia. So, Paul was not his source even although in the end they settled their differences and became reconciled to each other (see 2 Tim 4:11; Philemon 24).
Finally, we discover from a number of historical writings that Mark became the amanuensis, the personal secretary to the apostle Peter at the end of his eventful life, having known him from his youth. Most would agree, and it is logical to conclude from other historical writings, as we shall see, that Peter, then living out the last days of his life in Rome, was Mark’s source. If that is true, it certainly would explain the blunt honesty of Mark’s narrative with regard to Peter’s shortcomings. The text pulls no punches in describing Peter’s sins and deficiencies (get thee behind me Satan), elements which do not appear in the other gospels; and, in distinction to Matthew, Luke and John, Mark’s gospel plays down Peter’s prowess and spiritual insights (Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God). This kind of self-effacement bears all the classic features of the honestly blunt man called Peter. So, the gospel of Mark, in the minds of many, is also known as the gospel of Peter.
Confirmation of this suggestion comes from the writings of a man called Papias. Papias rose to prominence in Christian circles in about 100AD in the city of Hierapolis, a near neighbour to Ephesus. Papias seems to have been influenced by the teachings of Paul in Ephesus, and eventually he became the leading elder in the church at Hierapolis. He wrote “The exposition of the sayings of the Lord” in five volumes, based on the oral traditions of Christians alive in that day. Papias, a friend of Polycarp of Smyrna, learned at the feet of the apostle John and recorded that John used to say:-
“Mark, in his capacity as Peter’s interpreter, wrote down accurately as many things as he recalled from memory — things which had been said or done by the Lord. For Mark neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. He followed Peter who provided anecdotes without attempting to produce a systematic account of the Lord’s words”. So, how does this gospel of Mark or of Peter relate to the other gospels?
The Gospels Compared
The gospels were written long before the invention of the printing press, at a time when every book had to be compiled and written by hand. Consequently, only a few copies of each precious document were in existence. That is why, then, that volumes like the book of Kells are so highly cherished and why the production of a single new work was so laborious and time-consuming. I have already tried to persuade you that Mark produced the first of all the gospels. But, how can we be so sure about that? When we compare the three synoptic gospels (ie Matthew, Mark and Luke — works that are readily compared or share the same common features) they are obviously remarkably similar. They contain the same events, often described in the same way, in the same order, and using the same turn of phrase. It is logical, then, to conclude that either they were based on the same common source or that two of the three copied the basic pattern of the first.
Closer examination shows that Mark, the shortest of the three (an important point), is divisible into 105 sections or cameos. Ninety three of these occur in Matthew and 81 in Luke. Only four are unique to Mark. Even more significant is the order in which events are recorded. Both Matthew and Luke follow Mark’s order, and where there are small differences in chronology, Matthew and Luke never agree with each other against Mark. The implication of this, then, is that when Matthew and Luke sat down to write, they were using a copy of Mark’s biography as their template. So, when we open Mark’s gospel, we are reading the first recorded history of the life of Jesus. Mark’s gospel is therefore truly the first among equals and is thought to be based on the observations and recollections of Peter himself.
The Content of Mark’s Gospel
What are the highlights of this book? As we might expect, Peter the action man concentrates primarily on what Jesus did. No mention is made of His birth, but instead the narrative launches straight into the appearance of the messenger promised 400 years before, not Elijah in this case, but rather his New Testament reincarnation, John the Baptist.
Mark 1:3 “A voice of one calling in the desert, prepare the way for the Lord”
Then, in a few sentences, the narrative describes the life and work of the Baptist before leaving him behind and giving way to the substance of the whole book.
Mark 1: 9 – 11 “Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. As He was coming up out of the water, He saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on Him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven
“You are My Son, whom I love. With You I am well pleased””
From that point on, the focus is entirely on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Just under two thirds of the book (from Chap 1 to 9) outlines His life in Galilee and presents His credentials of humanity to the world. The last third (chaps 11 – 16) focuses entirely on His death and resurrection at Jerusalem in Judea and confirms His acceptability and pre-eminence as the perfect Lamb of God. Linking these two key elements (chap 10) is the privileged role that all those who accept His claims and place their future in His hands will play in the family of God. These three elements, uncomplicated yet penetrating and appealing to the mind, are based on the nearest thing we could ever get to an unvarnished biography of Jesus. He was one of us; He felt our pain and sympathized with our need; He produced a solution to our basic problem; and He responds, even today, uncompromisingly and unquestioningly, to every demonstration of faith on our part.