Leaders training on Mark
Investigating the particular passages
The 7 recommended readings go right to the heart of Mark’s message about Jesus. They often address the question, ‘Who is this man?’
Below are a few notes on each reading.
Background: The literary context is really the whole Old Testament, also known as the Hebrew Scriptures. For a brief summary see ‘The Story So Far…’ on pp3-4.
The first 8 verses in particular are tricky because they’re introducing the story. V1 is the simple summary of Mark’s big claim about Jesus, vv2-4 refer to Jesus’ Old Testament context, and vv5-8 introduce us to John – a kind of bridge-character between the Old Testament and Jesus (see for example Matthew 11:11, Luke 7:28). John acts to prepare the people for and to point us to Jesus.
Covering so much ground in just 8 verses inevitably means there’s some jargon and that other bits may seem quite odd. That’s ok. Rather than doing the 5Rs on this section it may be simplest to explain that it’s the long backstory to the appearance of Jesus. This also allows you a little more time for chit chat, which is especially valuable in your first week.
Tricky bits: Several terms – such as Messiah and Son of God – are explained in the glossary on pp7-8. Of course just as important in V1 is the idea that the appearing of Jesus means good news.
- V2-3 - This verses immediately taps into the connection between Jesus (or, more precisely John the Baptist) and the Old Testament prophets. Isaiah (quoting 40:3) was the most prolific OT prophet and Malachi (quoting 3:1) the final one.
- V4-8 - John the Baptist is a kind of bridge character between the Old Testament prophets and Jesus (see for example Matthew 11:11, Luke 7:28). John was calling upon the people to acknowledge their wrongdoing and turn back to God – they did this publicly by getting baptised, a kind of ritual washing. Clearly John was a big deal, but at the heart of his message he’s simply getting the people ready for someone far greater.
Possibly worth asking: The events and claims surrounding Jesus in this opening episode are certainly remarkable, some would say fanciful. Do you rule them in or out as possibilities? Why / not?
Background: Jesus has quickly attracted a large following, thanks largely to his extraordinary healings. All the same Jesus is concerned to preach from town to town, since ‘that is why I have come’ (1:38).
Tricky bits: ‘Son of Man’ is Jesus’ enigmatic way of referring to himself. Does it merely refer to his humanity or perhaps to something more (in your own time see also Daniel 7:13-14 and Mark 14:62)?
‘The teachers of the law who were Pharisees’ refers to a particularly zealous group of Jews (see also the glossary on p7).
This reading features Jesus performing a remarkable miracle. Here are some brief remarks for those who are trying to make sense of these astonishing deeds:
- Miracles may be impossible in the absence of God, but if God is possible then so too are miracles;
- For those who believe in God, miracles are not so much proofs of his existence – since there’s a variety of other proofs – but pointers to something or someone noteworthy;
- Even in the Bible miracles are remarkable – indeed the miracles of the Bible are very much concentrated around Moses, Elijah, Elisha and – especially – Jesus;
- Not even Jesus’ enemies doubted his miracles, rather they doubted the source of his power (Mark 3:22);
- Jesus had mixed feelings about miracles – he used them to help the needy, and he hoped that they might draw people to trust in him, but he also realised that many were more attracted to the ‘gift’ than to the ‘giver’ (eg Mark 1:44, Luke 11:29).
Possibly worth asking: How would you answer Jesus’ question in verse 9?
Did you notice how these friends brought their friend to Jesus? Be encouraged to do likewise!
Background: Jesus has well and truly become a controversial figure – his numerous conflicts with the Pharisees have resulted in them plotting to kill him (3:6). Even his family questions his sanity (3:21). But Jesus expects a mixed reaction (4:1-20) and continues to preach about God’s kingdom (4:26, 30).
Tricky bits: In chapter 5 Jesus crosses over to a non-Jewish or Gentile area. A sure sign of this is the presence of a large herd of pigs – according to the Jewish Scriptures pigs are unclean. Jews rarely sort out relationships with non-Jews.
Possibly worth asking: What impresses you most about Jesus’ power? In what ways is Jesus still a divisive character today? What does this say about Jesus / what does this say about us?
Background: Jesus continues to teach and to act with incredible authority. Nevertheless his closest followers still struggle to understand what’s going on all around them (6:51, 8:17-21). The partially healed blind man in 8:22-26 is a symbol of the disciples, who only see and understand Jesus in part.
Tricky bits: ‘To take up one’s cross’ is an expression that has come to mean ‘to endure a personal hardship’. This however is not what Jesus meant. Jesus means that his followers must be willing to ‘die’ to our old lifestyle and priorities and to live for God. In so doing we are of course following in the footsteps of the one (and only) who lived for God, even to the point of dying on a cross.
Possibly worth asking: How might you answer Jesus’ questions? Are you confident that you’ve understood or accepted him as he really is?
Background: In this wonderful chapter Jesus offers a contrast between those who are humble and dependent – such as the little children (10:13-16) and Bartimaeus (10:46-52) – and those who seek power and fame (10:17-31; see also 10:35-45).
Tricky bits: Jesus lists 6 commandments in verse 19 – but he’s missed the commandment on coveting and the commandments about putting God first. His request that the man sell everything proves that the man has broken the sin of coveting and that – sadly – his riches are the chief way in which he understands himself.
Possibly worth asking: Are you as good as the rich man? If we’re not to rely on our own goodness, on whom or what should we depend? What things do we rely on or find hardest to give up?
Background: After three explicit predictions (8:31-32 , 9:30-32, 10:32-34) and several obvious allusions (12:1-12, 14:8, 14:22-25, 14:27-28, 14:36) Jesus is at last arrested and – in the middle of the night – put on trial before the Jewish governing body (14:41f). Jesus is increasingly alone: first his disciples (14:50) and then even Peter (14:66-72) abandon him. Will Jesus obey God in suffering on the cross when God himself appears to forsake him (15:34)?
Tricky bits: The Sanhedrin was the Jewish ruling body; Pilate was the Roman Governor (15:1) – Jews and Romans, the religious and the secular authorities – both conspire against Jesus.
Elijah (15:35-36) is a figure from the Old Testament associated with the coming of the Christ. (see for example Malachi 4:5-6 and Mark 9:2-13)
The curtain (15:38) was a significant feature of the temple, separating the people from a holy – and therefore deadly – God. Note that the curtain was torn ‘from top to bottom’ – it was not the action of a mere person but of God.
Possibly worth asking: Many in the crowd mocked Jesus and challenged him to save himself (15:27-32). According to Jesus, what would have happened if he did so? Why is the centurion’s verdict so surprising (15:39)?
Background: See the previous reading!
Tricky bits: On the face of it verse 8 is a very unusual way to finish. It’s possible that verses 9-20 were a part of the original document – in which case it ends more smoothly – however the earliest manuscripts do not include this section. It may be that a later scribe, feeling that Mark ended too abruptly, consulted the other Gospels then added verses 9-20. It’s worth noting that Christian scholars are upfront about these uncertainties – it’s also worth noting that there are very few such incidences (John 7:53-8:11 is the only other notable example, though the exclusion or inclusion of either passage has no real bearing on our understanding of Jesus).
Note that women are the first and – to begin with – the only (human) eyewitnesses to Jesus’ empty tomb. At the time, this was considered a major weakness for the believability of the resurrection.
Possibly worth asking: What do you make of the women’s initial response? Will you be the same or different?
Having completed Mark’s Gospel the question must be asked ‘Who is this man?’ Of course this is not simply a matter of how we ‘judge’ Jesus – for if Jesus is who he claims to be, how we judge him will determine how he judges us: ‘… whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it… [but] If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels’ (8:38).
If you’ve formed the belief that Jesus really is who he claims to be – God’s Son, the promised King and Saviour, then it’s time to ‘repent and believe the good news’ (1:15). Like poor blind Bartimaeus (10:46-52) you’ll want to cry out, ‘Jesus, have mercy on me!’. Jesus’ response is ever ‘your faith has healed you’
If you’re still wanting to investigate Jesus it may be worth reading another Gospel, such as John.
If you’ve decided to follow Christ reading a New Testament letter, such as Colossians, might be ideal. ‘Just For Starters’ is also an excellent resource for new Christians – see http://www.matthiasmedia.com.au/just-for-starters.
Either way we’d love to know what you thought of MARK 1:1 – please email us at [email protected].
Below are a few more resources that are worth considering:
- You can watch a brief but beautifully illustrated overview of Mark’s Gospel here.
- An excellent one hour, spoken overview can also be found here.
- The Christ Files, by local author John Dickson, is a terrific little book on the nature of historical research in general and on Jesus in particular.
- The Reason for God, by Tim Keller, is a brilliant and very engaging book. It responds to a whole host of contemporary questions with some very thought-provoking answers.
- publicchristianity.org is an excellent local website featuring a stack of interesting interviews with many different experts. We especially recommend the interviews with Professor Darrell Bock regarding the historical reliability of the Bible.
- uncover.org.au/questions features some great clips by and for uni students on questions we might have after reading a Gospel.
- bethinking.org has a huge number of articles on many different topics. It’s hosted by our equivalent movement in the UK.