John Mark, the writer of Mark’s Gospel, was the young man who set out with Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey (Acts 12:25; 13:5).
Later he worked closely with Peter, so closely in fact that Peter called Mark his son (1 Peter 5:13; see MARK). There is good evidence that Peter and Mark visited Rome about AD 60 (just before Paul arrived in Rome as a prisoner; Acts 28:16) and taught the church there for a time. Over the next few years Mark spent some time in Rome, while Peter revisited churches elsewhere. The Roman Christians asked Mark to preserve Peter’s teaching for them, and the result was Mark’s Gospel.
Mark, Peter and the Romans
Many features of Mark’s Gospel reflect the interests and character of Peter. Apart from the events in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection, most of Jesus’ ministry recorded in Mark took place in Galilee in the north. Peter’s home town of Capernaum seems to have been Jesus’ base (Mark 1:21,29; 2:1; 9:33). The account in Mark shows the characteristic haste of Peter in the way it rushes on from one story to the next. On the whole the language is more clearcut than in the parallels of the other Gospels, and reported statements are more direct. There is vivid detail, particularly in the record of Jesus’ actions and emotions (Mark 1:41; 3:5; 4:38; 6:6; 10:14,16,21,32). Peter’s genuineness is seen in that his mistakes are recorded (Mark 9:5-6; 14:66-72), whereas incidents that might be to his credit are omitted (cf. Matt 14:29; 16:17). During the decade of the sixties, the Roman persecution of Christians increased, particularly after Nero blamed Christians for the great fire of Rome in AD 64. Just before this, Peter had written from Rome (code-named Babylon; 1 Peter 5:13) to encourage Christians who were being persecuted (1 Peter 1:6; 2:20-23; 3:14-17; 4:12-16).
Not long after this he himself was executed (2 Peter 1:14; cf. John 21:18-19). Mark’s Gospel reminded the Roman Christians (by quoting from Peter’s experience of the life and teaching of Jesus) that they would need strength and patience to endure misunderstandings, persecution, false accusations and even betrayal (Mark 3:21,30; 4:17; 8:34-38; 10:30; 13:9,13; 14:41,72; 15:19,32). Since the story of Jesus was set in Palestine, the Gentiles in Rome needed explanations of some matters. Mark therefore helped them by translating Hebrew or Aramaic expressions (Mark 3:17; 5:41; 7:11,34; 15:22,34) and explaining Jewish beliefs and practices (Mark 7:3-4; 12:18,42; 14:12; 15:42).
Mark’s view of Jesus
Mark’s Gospel records more action than the other Gospels, but less of Jesus’ teaching. Nevertheless, the book has a basic teaching purpose. Though Mark wrote in different circumstances from John and for different people, his basic purpose was the same, namely, to show that Jesus was the Son of God (cf. John 20:31). Mark makes this clear in his opening statement (Mark 1:1). According to Mark, the ministry of Jesus from beginning to end showed that he was a divine person in human form, the God-sent Messiah. At Jesus’ baptism, the starting point for his public ministry, a statement from God showed what this unique ministry would involve. The statement, combining Old Testament quotations concerning the Davidic Messiah and the Servant of Yahweh, showed that Jesus’ way to kingly glory was to be that of the suffering servant (Mark 1:11; cf. Ps 2:7; Isa 42:1; see MESSIAH).
The heavenly Son of man, to whom God promised a worldwide and everlasting kingdom (Dan 7:13-14), would receive that kingdom only by way of crucifixion (Mark 8:29-31,38; 9:31; 10:45; see SON OF MAN). The death of Jesus is therefore the climax of Mark’s Gospel. That death came about through Jesus’ open confession to Caiaphas that he was both messianic Son of God and heavenly Son of man, and he was on the way to his kingly and heavenly glory (Mark 14:61-64). Demons knew Jesus to be the Son of God (Mark 3:11; 5:7), his disciples recognized it (Mark 8:29), his Father confirmed it on the Mount of Transfiguration (Mark 9:7), Jesus declared it to disciples and enemies (Mark 13:32; 14:61-62) and even a Roman centurion at the cross was forced to admit it (Mark 15:39).
Summary of contents
An introductory section deals with Jesus’ baptism and his subsequent temptation by Satan (1:1-13). The story then quickly moves on to deal with Jesus’ ministry in Galilee and other northern regions. After gathering together his first few disciples (1:14-20), Jesus carried out a variety of healings (1:21- 2:12) and added Matthew (Levi) to his group of disciples (2:13-17). Through several incidents he showed that the true religion he proclaimed was not concerned simply with the legal requirements of the Jewish law (2:18-3:6). From Galilee Jesus appointed twelve apostles whom he could send out to spread the message of his kingdom (3:7-19). He illustrated the nature of that kingdom by dealing with critics (3:20-35), telling parables (4:1-34), overcoming storms, evil spirits, sickness, hunger and death (4:35-6:56), demanding moral rather than ceremonial cleanliness (7:1-23), and demonstrating by teachings and miracles the importance of faith (7:24-8:26).
The record of this part of Jesus’ ministry concludes with Peter’s acknowledgment of his messiahship (8:27-33), Jesus’ reminder of the cost of discipleship (8:34-9:1), the Father’s declaration at Jesus’ transfiguration (9:2-8), the disciples’ inability to heal a demon-possessed boy (9:9-29), and Jesus’ teaching on the necessity for humble submission in his kingdom (9:30-50). Jesus’ ministry from his departure from Galilee to his arrival in Jerusalem dealt with such matters as divorce (10:1-12), children (10:13-16), wealth (10:17-31) and ambition (10:32-45). Near Jericho he healed a blind man (10:46-52). On the Sunday before his crucifixion, Jesus entered Jerusalem as Israel’s God-sent Messiah (11:1- 11). In the days that followed, he cleansed the temple and warned of the terrible judgment that was to fall on the Jewish nation because of its rejection of the Messiah (11:12-12:12). On many occasions the Jews disputed with him publicly (12:13-44), but privately he told his disciples of coming judgments and warned them to keep alert (13:1-37). After his anointing at Bethany (14:1-11), Jesus prepared for the Passover, instituted the Lord’s Supper, then went and prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane (14:12-42). He was arrested (14:43-52), taken to the high priest’s house (14:53-72), brought before Pilate (15:1-20), taken away and crucified (15:21- 47). On the third day he rose from the dead (16:1-8), after which he appeared a number of times to his disciples and gave them final teaching (16:9-20). (These last twelve verses are not in the oldest and best manuscripts.)
It was not unusual for Jews in the Roman Empire to have both Jewish and Roman names. In the case of John Mark, his two names reflect respectively this Jewish and Roman background.
Mark was a Jew brought up in Jerusalem. His parents were reasonably wealthy, as they owned a large house and had servants (Acts 12:12-13). (Also, at least one of Mark’s close relatives was wealthy enough to own land; Acts 4:36-37; Col 4:10.) Mark’s house must have been a regular meeting place for the apostles and other Christians in Jerusalem, as Peter, on escaping from prison, knew that he would find the Christians there (Acts 12:12). If this was the house usually used by the apostles as a meeting place, it was the house of ‘the upper room’ where Jesus had earlier gathered with his disciples (Luke 22:11-13; Acts 1:13; cf. also John 20:19,26). There is a further point in favour of the suggestion that Mark’s house was the house of the upper room. This is the reference Mark himself makes to a certain young man who had followed Jesus and the disciples from the house to the Garden of Gethsemane, clothed only in his nightwear (Mark 14:51-52). It was a common practice for an author to include a brief personal detail or story but not to mention his own name directly (cf. John 13:23; 2 Cor 12:2).
With Paul and Barnabas
Whether the house of the upper room was Mark’s home or not, Mark certainly would have known Peter and the other leading Christians who often visited his home (Acts 12:12-14). When Paul and Barnabas visited Jerusalem with an offering from the church at Antioch, they met Mark. They were so impressed with him that they took him back to Antioch, and later took him with them on what has become known as Paul’s first missionary journey (Acts 12:25; 13:5). After only a short time, Mark left Paul and Barnabas and returned to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13). To Paul this showed that Mark was not reliable, and he refused to allow Mark to go with him and Barnabas on their next missionary journey. Paul and Barnabas quarrelled over the matter and parted. Paul went ahead with his planned journey, but with a new partner, while Mark went with Barnabas to Cyprus (Acts 15:36- 41).
In Rome and Asia
Minor The Bible has no record of Mark’s activities over the next ten years or so. But there is evidence in other early records that he spent some time with Peter, helping Peter to evangelize the provinces of northern Asia Minor where God had not allowed Paul to preach (1 Peter 1:1; cf. Acts 16:6-8). Peter and Mark then visited Rome and taught the Christians there. When Peter left Rome, the Roman Christians asked Mark (who had stayed behind) to preserve the story of Jesus as they had heard it from Peter. In due course Mark produced the book known as Mark’s Gospel, a book that strongly carries the flavour of Peter (see MARK, GOSPEL OF). Mark was still in Rome when Paul arrived as a prisoner the first time (Philem 23-24). Mark had matured over the years, and Paul readily acknowledged this. He bore no grudges, and recommended Mark to the Colossian church as one who could be of help to it (Col 4:10).
On leaving Rome, Mark most likely went to Colossae as planned. He was probably still there when Paul later wrote to Timothy (who was in Ephesus, not far away), asking him to get Mark and bring him to Rome. Paul was back in prison after a brief time of freedom and travel, and he wanted to see Timothy and Mark before he was executed (2 Tim 4:11). Whether the two reached Rome before Paul’s execution is uncertain, but Mark was certainly in Rome at the time of Peter’s visit soon after. Over their years of working together, Mark and Peter had become so close that Peter called Mark his son. Mark may even have been converted through Peter, back in the days when Peter frequented Mark’s house in Jerusalem. Now, as Peter neared the end of his life, he linked Mark’s name with his own in writing a letter to the churches of Asia Minor that together they had helped to establish (1 Peter 1:1; 5:13).