Record of the servant of GOD
By Mark, a follower of Jesus
This Gospel is probably the first written account of the life of Jesus. It focuses on Jesus as the Servant of God who works miracles, makes disciples, and suffers on the way to bring salvation to the world. Tradition has it that Mark accompanied Paul on some of his missionary journeys and later became Peter’s associate in his ministry, hearing and writing down his eyewitness accounts.
Apparently Mark was a Jewish Christian who grew up in Jerusalem with his mother, Mary. His intended audience was likely Roman Christians who were not Jews; so his Gospel explains Jewish words, phrases, and customs. That may also be why it does not often appeal to the Hebrew Scriptures to explain Jesus’ words and deeds.
For Mark, the life of Jesus—from His ritual cleansing by John in the Jordan River to His resurrection in Jerusalem—is the beginning of the good news. It is “the mustard seed stage” of the kingdom of God. Ultimately God’s kingdom is destined to fill the world and become a place where the nations come to find shelter and salvation.
So Mark invites his readers to understand that, in following Jesus, their lives make up the next part of the story. As the people of the Kingdom, they are the next step in preparing the way for God’s salvation. So when Jesus invites His disciples to “follow Me,” Mark takes that as an invitation to imitate His life and follow His teachings.
From Suffering To Glory
Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the New Testament Gospels. It is especially fast-paced and action-oriented. It moves quickly from episode to episode as Jesus demonstrates that He has authority over nature, disease, death, and evil. For Mark, Jesus’ miracles are more than powerful acts done by a good man; they are manifestations of God’s coming reign. They show us what the world will be like when God’s kingdom comes finally and completely.
But until then, Jesus and His followers are locked in conflict with powerful forces—spiritual, religious, and political. Ultimately these forces join together to oppose and crucify Him, but even this is God’s plan; His torturous death is not the last word. Instead, the last word is God’s, and it is a word of life and resurrection. Implicitly Mark’s story of Jesus is a promise that those who suffer on their journey as His disciples will one day share in the resurrection. While the way of Jesus may well lead to suffering, it will ultimately lead to glory.
When Mark writes in the first chapter about a mysterious man entering the scene, instantly the reader recognizes there’s something very different about Jesus. He comes into the picture not as a rock star but rather as someone humble, kind, and yet, still kingly. Mark describes the people who are drawn toward this man as regular people who have become affected by the character, passion, and light of this strange Galilean.
Maybe that’s why Mark jumps right into the action of Jesus’ story. He offers little by way of introduction. He writes nothing about Jesus’ family tree. Unlike Matthew and Luke, he doesn’t mention His birth. Mark’s retelling begins with Scripture and the preaching of John the Baptist who calls people to repent. Like all the greats of history, Jesus doesn’t just arrive — He is announced — and who better than John to do that? Right before Jesus makes His entrance into Mark’s narrative, John says, “I’ve washed you here with water, but when He gets here, He will wash you in the Spirit of God.”
The Jordan River is the setting of some of the most memorable miracles in the Old Testament. On their journey through the wilderness to the promised land, the Israelites walked across the Jordan River on dry ground because God parted its waters. Elisha, one of the prophets of God, healed Naaman by telling him to bathe seven times in its waters.
Partly because of miracles like these and partly because of a growing wilderness spirituality, many of the Jews in John’s day are out to hear him and be ritually baptized in the Jordan’s cool, cleansing waters. They are looking for God to intervene miraculously in their lives as He has done in the past. What they don’t know is that God is about to intervene, for at that time Jesus leaves Nazareth and heads south.
Whenever possible, Jesus seeks out solitude so He can pray and meditate. Jesus reveals His humanity. In these silent and reflective moments, He seems to refuel mentally, physically, and spiritually because Jesus hears His Father speak during His time alone. Throughout Jesus’ ministry on earth, hearing from His Father seems to help Him focus on the mission at hand: redemption.
To some who believe wholeheartedly in God’s laws, Jesus is a troublemaker, a mere man who has a bad habit of making statements that take away from the honor due to the one true God.
The “scribes” who make these kinds of accusations against Jesus are usually connected to the Pharisees (a Jewish sect popular with the people, mostly middle class, and religiously strict when it comes to following God’s laws) or the Sadducees (a smaller Jewish sect made up of priests and aristocrats from Jerusalem).
While the two groups often clash with each other politically and theologically, they do find common ground — and sometimes even work together — in opposing Jesus.
Jesus’ invitation to follow Him, like His invitations to all the disciples, involves a lot more than joining the caravan; Jesus’ invitation is for sinners to change their ways of life.
Jesus makes it clear, despite the criticisms of some observers, that this invitation is indeed open to all — especially to the sinners who need it most. Jesus grants to those who choose Him not just companionship and forgiveness but the ability to truly receive a new identity and live a new life.
Given the Pharisees’ and the Sadducees’ differing view of Scripture, it’s no surprise that they argued over certain doctrines. The Sadducees rejected a belief in the resurrection of the dead (Matthew 22:23; Mark 12:18–27; Acts 23:8), but the Pharisees did believe in the resurrection. The Sadducees denied the afterlife, holding that the soul perished at death, but the Pharisees believed in an afterlife and in an appropriate reward and punishment for individuals. The Sadducees rejected the idea of an unseen, spiritual world, but the Pharisees taught the existence of angels and demons in a spiritual realm.
The apostle Paul shrewdly used the theological differences between the Pharisees and the Sadducees to escape their clutches. Paul had been arrested in Jerusalem and was making his defense before the Sanhedrin. Knowing that some of the court were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, Paul called out, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead” (Acts 23:6). Paul’s mention of the resurrection precipitated a dispute between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, dividing the assembly, and causing “a great uproar” (verse 9). The Roman commander who watched the proceedings sent troops into the melee to rescue Paul from their violence (verse 10).
Socially, the Sadducees were more elitist and aristocratic than the Pharisees. Sadducees tended to be wealthy and to hold more powerful positions. The chief priests and high priest were Sadducees, and they held the majority of seats in the Sanhedrin. The Pharisees were more representative of the common working people and had the respect of the masses. The Sadducees’ locus of power was the temple in Jerusalem; the Pharisees controlled the synagogues. The Sadducees were friendlier with Rome and more accommodating to the Roman laws than the Pharisees were. The Pharisees often resisted Hellenization, but the Sadducees welcomed it.
Popularity is often a dangerous thing, particularly in a land occupied by Roman soldiers. As Jesus’ ministry grows, some of His friends and family start to get nervous: they wonder if He has “lost His mind” entirely. They just can’t understand what is happening and why He is so important. It doesn’t seem right — the boy next door from Nazareth receiving so much attention. In fact, they are so uncomfortable with it that they decide to intervene and take Him home. But Jesus’ family isn’t the only group concerned about Him. The Pharisees are doing their best to spread doubt about His authority with the worst accusations possible: His power to heal comes from the devil himself. They are attacking Him publicly and questioning His identity as the Anointed One.
Jesus’ teaching often includes parables: stories that explain the truth about the Kingdom with examples from everyday life. Considering that most of His listeners know about farming, it’s no wonder most of Jesus’ parables are based on agricultural realities.
Parables like this force Jesus’ listeners to think about the kingdom of God differently. He challenges their ideas, and He also knows they are unlikely to forget it. When they see farmers broadcasting their seeds, they will remember this parable and ponder the mysteries of the Kingdom.
It never seems to bother Him that people are confused by His teaching. He doesn’t expect them to understand everything; He wants them to wrestle with His teachings so His words will sit in their hearts and germinate — much like the seed sitting in good soil that eventually grows to bear fruit.
For most of Jesus’ miracles, the disciples are observers: they watch Him healing the sick, raising dead bodies, and casting demons out of strangers. This time, however, it is the disciples — and even Jesus Himself — who are in danger. Maybe that’s why they are having such a hard time trusting that His power is greater than their situation.
They have seen Him cast out demons. They know He has powers that are not of natural origin. But they have never seen — or even heard of — anything like this. It’s one thing to heal human sickness or even to order demons around. But to order the waves and the wind? To command the sea and the storm? That’s a miracle of an entirely different order.
This is the only time in the Gospels when Jesus seems to listen to the pleading of a demon or a demon-possessed person. The demons immediately acknowledge Jesus as all-powerful; the possessed man’s first reaction on seeing Jesus is to fall at His feet and call Him the “Son of the Most High.”
Although we can’t know why Jesus listens to their pleading, the effect is clear: the people in that region see firsthand the power of evil and its ultimate destiny, namely, destruction. Instead of being pleased that they are now free from the terror of the demon-possessed man, the people in the town ask Jesus to leave. After all, the local economy takes a pretty big hit when 2,000 of their choicest pigs rush into the sea.
Jesus occasionally instigates His own miracles: He goes up to someone, such as a paralyzed man, and offers to heal him. More often, as in the case of Jairus’s daughter, people come to Jesus and ask for healings. But the woman in this story is unique because she receives her healing without asking for it — simply by touching Jesus in faith.
He is surrounded by crowds pressing in on every side, but Jesus feels that one person’s touch is different, in a way that only He can perceive: one woman is touching Him deliberately, in hope and faith, knowing He has the power to heal her.
Jesus at last arrives at the miracle He was asked to perform: the healing of Jairus’s daughter. But He is too late — the girl is already dead. Although Jesus later raises other dead people back to life, up to this point He has not yet performed such a powerful miracle.
No one has an inkling of His power over the forces of life and death. He allows only His closest disciples to see this first miracle of resurrection, and He urges everyone who sees it to keep it quiet. Nevertheless, it is this miracle that first demonstrates to those who see it that He does indeed have power over death itself.
The disciples pull Jesus aside to point out the obvious: everyone needs to go and eat something. But Jesus, as usual, isn’t about to be distracted by the obvious. His answer must irritate them even further: “Why don’t you give them something to eat?” Jesus is seeing a much bigger reality. He is deliberately creating a turning point in His ministry:
He wants to make them a part of His miracles. From recorders and observers, they will become participants. And so the disciples, not Jesus, tell the people to sit down, pass out the food, and collect the leftovers after everyone has eaten until they are stuffed. The disciples must feel pretty sheepish as they experience how Jesus is making them a part of the miracle — despite their mundane concerns and their frustrations with Him.
How can the disciples still be in doubt about Jesus after having been part of so many miracles? Like the Israelites in the Old Testament, the disciples are discovering the truth that miracles don’t produce faith. As Jesus so often points out, the process works the other way around: it’s faith that produces miracles.
Miracles are only signs — evidence of truth that you have to know before the miracle. As long as the disciples are still in doubt about who Jesus is, they find their faith constantly challenged and frequently wavering. It will not be until after the resurrection, the greatest miracle of all, that they will come to recognize and believe in Jesus for who He is; and then their hearts will at last open.
Although Mark specifically states that Jesus is overriding the Old Testament dietary laws and declaring all foods pure, it will be a long time before the disciples are willing to act on that message.
One of the biggest controversies in the early church will be the question of dietary restrictions and how the Old Testament laws ought to be observed by Jewish and non-Jewish Christian believers.
However, Jesus makes it clear in this passage that His main concern has nothing to do with what people eat. Instead, He is concerned about the hearts of His followers.
Although Jesus at first answers the Greek woman harshly, He ultimately responds to her request. By healing her daughter, He demonstrates that God’s loving presence has come to all people and not just to Jews. It’s one of the first glimpses in this Gospel of the truth that will become clearer later — the truth that, through Jesus, God is making all people, and not just one chosen nation, clean and whole.
Bethsaida is the hometown of at least three of Jesus’ emissaries — Peter, Andrew, and Philip — and possibly James and John as well. Jesus performs many miracles there, most notably the feeding of the 5,000.
However, this miracle — the healing of the blind man — is the only miracle in all the Gospels that is done in stages instead of instantly. Of course, there’s no way to know for sure why Jesus chooses to heal this man partly before He heals him entirely.
Jesus frequently links faith, or lack of faith, with the healings. Bethsaida is a town He criticizes for its lack of faith (Matthew 11:21–22). So it’s likely He wants to demonstrate to His disciples that their inability to see His purpose can be healed, too, even if it takes time.
Peter represents the best and worst in humanity. One day, Peter drops everything to become a follower of Jesus; the next, he’s busy putting his foot in his mouth. Peter is always responding to Jesus, frequently making mistakes, but never drifting far from Jesus’ side. In this passage, Peter verbalizes God’s word and Satan’s temptation — almost in the same breath. Peter thinks he understands who Jesus is, but he still has a lot to learn about what Jesus has come to do.
Mark doesn’t usually record events with much attention to chronology; but in this case, he mentions that the transfiguration took place six days after Peter’s confession of Jesus’ identity. In a dramatic confirmation of the truth Peter has spoken, the three disciples see that Jesus is indeed the Anointed One of God.
The veil of Jesus’ human nature is pulled away, and the glory of His divinity shines through. The appearance of Moses and Elijah shows that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and the answer to all the promises of the prophets. The disciples hear God’s own voice commanding them to listen to Jesus as His beloved Son. What an incredible confirmation of the truth that Peter spoke in faith only six days before!
The father has enough faith to bring his son to Jesus for healing, but he asks hesitantly whether there is anything Jesus can do. In his desperation, the father recognizes the limits of his faith. Perhaps that very desperation is enough because Jesus immediately heals his son.
Having successfully healed many demon-possessed people when Jesus sent them out earlier, the disciples are at a loss to know why they are completely unable to heal this little boy. Jesus’ reply is cryptic and surprising: “That sort of powerful spirit is only conquered with much prayer [and fasting].” It seems that although the disciples have faith that they can heal the boy, they are spiritually unprepared for the depth of evil residing in the world. They need to be saturated in the presence of God to face the challenge.
It is only natural for the disciples to wonder which of them will be His right-hand man. Even the three disciples who have just seen Jesus’ glory revealed in the transfiguration cannot resist the attraction of honor. After all, who has a better claim than they do to being the greatest of Jesus’ disciples?
Fortunately Jesus overhears what is said and is quick to respond in mercy to correct their mistake. Greatness in His eyes doesn’t consist of seeing wonders or performing miracles or even fasting and praying. Instead, greatness is about humility and service. These are the heart of the kingdom of heaven.
This young man, like many wealthy people, is confident in his own abilities. He wants to make sure he will live well in the coming world, but he is not convinced he will not fall short of the mark. And without humbly recognizing his own sinfulness and need in the face of God’s goodness and perfection, it is indeed very hard for him to find the Kingdom. This is the only person in the Gospels outside of the twelve whom Jesus personally invites to follow Him. He is also the only person in the Gospels to walk away from that invitation.
None of the disciples understand what Jesus is telling them, and none of His predictions will become clear to them until after His resurrection. In the meantime, several of His disciples are not only failing to understand His warnings about the things to come but are missing His message on things right before their eyes. Jesus has already told them that to be great among His followers means to become humble like a child; but James and John still think that as two of His closest disciples, they can win worldly fame and power.
Few people in the Gospels show as much persistence and eagerness in their desire to be healed as blind Bartimaeus. He is not about to be swayed from his efforts to attract Jesus’ attention. The discouragement from everyone around him only makes him shout louder, determined to get the attention of the healer he has heard about.
The blind man’s actions demonstrate his faith. Beggars in first-century Palestine would spread a cloak on the ground in front of them to collect donations from compassionate passersby. It probably isn’t much, but for Bartimaeus, his cloak is all he has. He throws it aside without a thought — probably along with the coins he collected that day — because he is certain that once he meets Jesus, he will not need to be a beggar anymore.
Jesus enters Jerusalem, but this time He radically redefines the people’s every expectation. His descriptions to His disciples of where they will find the colt He is to ride and how they shall get it has an air of prophecy and supernatural knowledge. He rides a donkey instead of being carried into town on the backs of servants (in a litter as a conquering king would do), fulfilling the prophecy that the King will come riding a donkey (Zechariah 9:9).
After all, donkeys are a poor man’s mount, and even in this triumphal entry, Jesus makes it clear He does not intend to conquer and rule in a worldly way. Now, for the first time, He allows the crowds to voice their excitement about who He is and all that He has been doing.
This is the only time recorded in the Gospels when Jesus uses His supernatural power to destroy. The tree is “fully leafed out” — a stage that usually comes after figs are ripe and not before.
Because the tree looks as though it ought to have fruit but doesn’t, it is a perfect illustration of people who believe they have the good fruit of righteousness even though their actions are void of true compassion and love, as empty and useless as leaves.
And so Jesus curses the fig tree, not out of anger with the tree itself, but as a warning to hypocrites who think their appearance is more important than the fruit of their actions.
At the temple, Jesus responds in shock to the scene before Him. He acts decisively and with great emotion against those who have turned God’s house into a place where pilgrims are exploited. He has a message and, like the prophets of old, this message is better seen than heard.
Because the temple leadership has allowed profiteers and merchants to set up shop in the court of the Gentiles, they are making ridiculous profits. For the people who come long distances to worship, it is a normal practice to have merchants selling animals for the pilgrims to sacrifice. What is not normal and what is immoral is where and how they transact business. Jesus takes issue with robbers profiteering in His Father’s house.
The religious leaders ask Jesus where His authority comes from. What gives Him the right to heal people on the Sabbath, teach about God, do miracles, and cast out demons? Who exactly does He think He is — and where does His authority come from?
This question is a trap: if He claims His authority is from God, then they can argue that God does not endorse someone who breaks His laws; but if He says His authority is His own, then He will be in trouble with the crowds and perhaps even with the Roman governor. Jesus, however, issues a challenge: I’ll tell you what you want to know if you’ll answer My question first.
But He asks them an impossible question — impossible not because they don’t know the answer, but because they cannot say the answer.
Although Jesus is asked for only the single most important commandment, He answers by naming two commands: love God and love others. He includes both because these two teachings can never be really separated from each other. Some people think they can love God and ignore the people around them, but Jesus frequently makes it clear that loving God apart from loving His people is impossible.
The disciples can’t help but notice that something is in the air during this week between His entry into Jerusalem and His crucifixion. Surely the moment when Jesus is to reveal Himself as the Anointed can’t be far off. By repeatedly calling Himself the Son of Man, Jesus has told people His kingdom will be divinely instituted like the one described in Daniel 7.
They are also thinking of promises about the coming Anointed One. But for Jesus, everything now is connected to His imminent death and resurrection. Even as He predicts the temple’s fall — an event that will occur about 40 years later — and speaks of His second coming, He is still thinking about His death. After all, resurrection can’t happen without death. And the old world must die before the world is made new.
Later Christians will try to use this chapter to predict exactly when Jesus will come and how the world will end. But to do that is to do exactly the opposite of what Jesus intends as He speaks these words.
He makes it very clear that He doesn’t want anyone to use this description of signs to predict an exact time and date for His coming; even He Himself doesn’t know that time and date, and no one else needs to know either. Instead, the purpose is to warn them to stay ready and alert.
The disciples can’t see any value in pouring so much perfume on Jesus. It is obviously a waste. The woman is demonstrating her love for Him with an abandon and an emotional commitment that few people have ever shown, and He appreciates her love and her faith.
To Him, it is more than a gesture; it is a practical preparation for His imminent death and burial. No one else there can see what use her action is; but to Jesus, it is incredibly precious — so much so that He promises to make sure her action is never forgotten.
This moment has been commemorated for two thousand years. Exactly what Jesus meant by calling the bread and wine His body and blood has been debated for centuries. By eating the bread and drinking the wine, believers participate not only in this supper but also in His death and resurrection because the bread is torn and the wine is poured, just as His body was torn and His blood poured out.
Just as Jesus’ physical body housed the Spirit of God, the physicality of the bread and wine has a spiritual significance. Otherwise, we wouldn’t need to eat the bread and drink the wine to celebrate this moment — it would be enough for us to read the story and remember what happened. But we, too, are physical as well as spiritual; and our physical actions can have spiritual importance.
In the moments before Jesus’ death, He really knows what it feels like to be human and afraid. Jesus knows exactly what is about to happen to Him and exactly how bad it will be.
Now that the time has come, He feels all the natural human emotions. Most amazing of all is the prayer Jesus says in that moment: “Please take this cup away so I don’t have to drink from it.” Even though He divinely knows what is going to happen — what must happen — He still asks for a reprieve.
At the same time, He submits His human desires and will to the plan of His Father: in order to experience fully what it means to be human, He has to go through even this — denying Himself and what He wants — to face certain torture and death.
Jesus, God’s Anointed, the Liberating King, has come not as a conquering king but as a sacrificial lamb who will die without defending Himself. He is accused of setting Himself in the place of God, but He is innocent of that accusation because He is God. He does not defend Himself because His death protects from punishment the sinners who have made themselves like God ever since Adam ate the fruit in the garden.
Barabbas is an active and a militant Jewish leader. In one sense, the choice that the crowd is offered — to have either Jesus or Barabbas released — can be seen as a choice between two types of revolutions. Do they want a revolution of power, a revolution that is easily visible, a revolution that will conquer their enemies in a way they can understand?
Or do they want a revolution of healing, a revolution of love, a revolution that will bring the kingdom of God to earth in a mystical, transcendental way? It’s no wonder they make the choice they do. Who wants a gentle revolution in a time of war?
The tearing of the temple veil is a picture of what Jesus’ death has accomplished. The temple sanctuary is divided into two sections: the holy place and the most holy place. The most holy place is a chamber so sanctified that only the high priest can enter — and then only once a year.
There God’s presence is manifest on earth. A long curtain divides the two areas, and at the moment of Jesus’ death it is torn in two. The veil that serves as a means to protect everyone but the high priest from the power of God’s presence is no longer needed because Jesus, on account of His sacrificial death, gives everyone access to God.
Only God Himself can rip the curtain in two “from top to bottom,” opening the way for people to come into His presence.
Mark finishes his Gospel in the same way he begins it — quickly, without commentary or explanation. He also finishes it in a humble way: it is the lowly women who take center stage in this greatest miracle of Jesus.
The heavenly messenger sends the women with a commission to tell the disciples what has happened, making them the first preachers of the resurrection.
The remaining eleven disciples take this command as their life’s mission. According to tradition, all but one of them (John) will be killed for their refusals to stop proclaiming the truth that Jesus is the Anointed One who has been crucified and who has arisen from the dead.
They dedicate their lives — and their deaths — to the proclamation of this reality. If they are not absolutely certain of the truth of Jesus’ resurrection, then why dedicate their lives to announcing it to the world?