Our reading of the New Testament begins with Mark, the shortest and probably earliest of the four gospels. This gospel doesn’t open with familiar Christmas stories. It sets off at a rapid pace which will continue through the whole gospel – one of Mark’s favourite words is a Greek word often translated “at once” or “immediately”. By verse 14 we’ve met John the Baptist (1.4-8) and been told that he prepares the way for Jesus who then appears and is quickly baptised and tempted (1.9-13). Soon we start to meet for the first time some of the other key players in Mark’s narrative – the disciples (1.16-20).
The danger with so much happening so fast is that we might miss the way in which Mark has – very briefly – already told us so much of importance. His opening verses describe what follows as gospel – good news – and connect the story he is about to tell us to Israel’s Scriptures, our Old Testament. This reminds us that we can only understand what follows in the light of what God has been doing in the history of his people. In particular Mark looks to Isaiah: the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 40-55 and, as in verses 2-3, the promise of a coming new Exodus when God would act again to dramatically redeem Israel as he did in the liberation from slavery in Egypt. The focus of this new action – Jesus – is also described here as God’s anointed one (the Messiah or Christ) and as God’s Son (a key term in the gospel reappearing at crucial moments: the baptism (1.11), transfiguration (9.7) and the centurion’s confession at the end (15.39). These are all themes embedded in the opening verses which will be unpacked as Mark tells his story: What does it mean for Jesus to be Messiah and Son of God? How is Jesus fulfilling Israel’s hopes?
Then, in verse 15, Mark provides the summary of Jesus’ good news announcement and a key theme of the gospel: the Kingdom of God, God’s rule or reign, is now – but in what sense? – “at hand”. And it tells us of the need to respond to this good news with repentance and faith.
Although on hearing this the disciples respond “immediately” (that word again), the rest of the gospel will show us how slow and confused Jesus’ disciples often are. They join Jesus as he begins his ministry which Mark describes as one of authority in word and deed. This authority contrasts with the official Jewish leadership with whom Jesus will soon be often in conflict.
In 1.21-3.6, during the early stages of his ministry in Galilee, Mark gives us a series of snapshots, carefully organised, which show Jesus as a teacher, a healer, and an exorcist in and around Capernaum.
First there are 5 healings and deliverances. These also highlight the importance of the response of faith in Mark’s gospel.
- Synagogue exorcism (1.21-28)
- Healing Simon’s mother-in-law (1.29-31)
- Mass healings and deliverances (1.32-34)
- Teaching and exorcisms across Galilee (1.35-39)
- Healing man with leprosy (1.40-45)
This last demonstration of Jesus’ power also introduces what will become another recurring theme – Jesus’ intriguing instruction not to tell others (which scholars have described as Mark’s “Messianic Secret”).
The conflict with the authorities then comes to the fore in chapters 2 and 3 with Mark recounting 5 more incidents, now focussed more on Jesus’ teaching:
- Healing the paralytic and debate about authority to forgive sin (2.1-12, introducing Jesus as the “Son of Man”, an allusion to Daniel 7)
- The call of Levi and questions about who one eats with (2.13-17)
- Questions about fasting and the old and the new (2.18-22)
- Disputes about the Sabbath (2.23-28, also referring to the “Son of Man”)
- A Sabbath healing leading to further controversy and the first threat to kill Jesus (3.1-6)
Mark next gives us three further glimpses of Jesus at work in Galilee from 3.7 through to 3.22:
- Jesus’ withdrawal and Mark’s summary of what he is up to, highlighting again his identity as Son of God and his apparent desire for secrecy (3.7-12)
- Jesus appointing twelve (recalling the 12 tribes of Israel) and commissioning them to act (3.13-19)
- Opposition to Jesus from his family and from teachers of the law based in Jerusalem (3.20-22)
The teachers opposing Jesus accuse him of being in league with the devil and this leads to the introduction of a new important feature in Jesus’ teaching – his speaking in parables (3.23). This begins in his response to the accusation of Satanic power which ends with the serious warning about an unforgivable sin (3.23-30). When his relatives then re-appear, Jesus’ shocking response redefines family in relation to obeying God (3.31-35).
Mark then explains how Jesus taught the crowd in parables (4.1-2) and begins with a parable about a sower (4.3-9). Signalling a distinction between insiders (the Twelve) and outsiders (the crowd), Mark has Jesus explaining the perplexing purpose of parables related to the kingdom, again quoting from Isaiah, this time Isaiah 6.9 (4.10-12, see also the summary at 4.34).
After expressing his exasperation with the disciples’ slowness (4.13), Jesus then explains the parable to them (4.14-20) before giving more parabolic teaching about hiddenness and revelation, giving and taking away (4.21-25). This, the only collection of parable teaching in Mark, is brought to a close with two parables to show what the kingdom of God is like (4.26-32) and a summary about the importance of parables in Jesus’ teaching and the insider/outsider division (4.33-34).
The rest of chapter 4 and all of chapter 5 then provide four more examples of Jesus’ power:
- The stilling of the storm (4.35-41) with a reference to the disciples’ faith and echoes of Psalms 65.7, 89.9 or 107.29
- The entry into an unclean place from a Jewish perspective leading to encounter with and deliverance of the Gadarene demoniac who points to Roman occupation (5.1-20) and another reference (again from a demon) to Jesus as God’s Son
- The healing/raising of Jairus’ daughter (5.21-24, 35-43)
- The healing of the woman with a history of years of bleeding (5.25-34)
These last two stories are the first example of another feature of the gospel (there are eight other examples): the “sandwiching” together of two different incidents in order that the “meat” in the sandwich will provide a theological insight – in this case on the nature and importance of faith – that illuminates the other story.
To listen to or download a reading of each chapter from Tom Wright’s New Testament for Everyone (SPCK), click here.
To read Mk 1-5 online at STEP follow the links below (the right hand box gives some help and can be closed to give text on full screen, the site is worth exploring for more detailed study of any text):
ESV & Greek side by side (with various highlighting (when you hover the mouse over words and references) and search tools that don’t require knowledge of Greek to use)
Other resources on these chapters:
Transcript of this lecture here