The Gospel According to Mark


The Gospel we study this morning is the Gospel of Mark. John, whose surname was Mark, is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles; and he is said to be the son of Mary, who had a house in Jerusalem which was a sort of rallying-point for the disciples in the early days of the church. It is just possible that this very house may have contained the " upper chamber" in which Jesus instituted the Lord's Supper. However that may be, it is certain that John Mark was a Jew. His first name would indicate this. Possibly he was a native of Jerusalem; and yet, being a native of Jerusalem, he would seem to have had some Latin connections; the name Mark, or Marcus, might possibly indicate that; and some other allusions in his Gospel seem to indicate the same thing. It would seem as if the name Mark came to be used more frequently by him than the other Jewish name, just in proportion as his activity transcended the bounds of Palestine, and he devoted himself to preaching to the Gentiles.

It is possible that this passing from the name John to the name Mark, which we perceive in the Acts and in the Epistles, was significant of an inward change in the man himself, or in the purpose of his life; just as Levi, when he entered the service of Christ, became Matthew; just as Saul, when he entered the service of Christ, became Paul.

Peter, in his first Epistle, speaks of Marcus, his son. Now, this may intimate that, during Peter's visits to the house of Mary, Marcus' mother, the young and active lad became inspired by Peter's words, and was converted to Christ. It would seem as if Mark were a convert of Peter; and you remember that, near the close of Mark's Gospel, there is a peculiar incident narrated in regard to a certain young man who, when Jesus was apprehended and the apostles forsook him and fled, still followed after Christ, was laid hold of by the armed men who were taking Jesus away to the judgment-hall, and in his fright and haste fled away naked, leaving his garments in their hands. No name is attached to this incident; but it is perhaps something more than a mere conjecture that this young man may have been Mark himself, and that this incident, in which he seems to be throwing in his lot with the disciples of Christ, was an early indication of his conversion to the Saviour and his purpose to devote himself to his Lord.

It seems that Barnabas was a cousin of Mark. If you will read the chapter in the Acts of the Apostles which tells of Peter's rescue from prison and of his coming back to that house, knocking, and being at first taken for Peter's spirit or Peter's angel, you will find that the chapter is preceded by the account of the visit of Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem, as messengers of the church at Antioch, and is followed by the departure of Paul and Barnabas, taking with them John Mark. Now, it is just possible that, at that very meeting of the church, where they were praying for Peter and for his release, Paul and Barnabas were them


selves present; and it is just possible that, as the result of that great incident, Mark may have been especially impressed with the obligation of devoting himself permanently and exclusively to the work of the ministry. At any rate, we find that he went with Paul and Barnabas to Antioch; that, when they started out on their first missionary journey, he went with them to Perga; and that it was only when Paul undertook a larger circuit and concluded to go into Pamphylia, in Asia Minor, that Mark seems to have been seized with some change of purpose. It would almost seem as if the impetuous and restless spirit of Peter had found its like in Mark, and that we have in this case some proof or indication of vacillation on Mark's part. He departed from Paul, and went back to Antioch; and the result was that Paul gained, for a time at least, an unfavorable impression with regard to Mark's stability, and censured him. However, we find it was the cause of quite a severe contention between Paul and Barnabas. Barnabas took Mark with him, and held to him; but afterward we find that Paul seems to have received Mark again into his fellowship. We find Mark serving with Paul at Rome as his cherished helper; we find Mark with Peter at the very east of the Roman Empire, in Babylon; and afterward we find him with Timothy at Ephesus, where, in one of his last letters, Paul urged Mark to come to him again at Rome; so that Mark seems to have recovered whatever ground he had lost both with Peter and Paul. The only thing which can be added to these incidents in the life of Mark is the tradition that he founded the church at Alexandria, that he became bishop of that church, and that he suffered martyrdom there. It is evident that Mark was a great traveler. He went from one end of the Roman Empire to another. He was the familiar companion both of Peter and Paul, with something of the restless and active mind that belonged to the first, preaching both to the Jews and to the Gentiles.

Papias, one of the very earliest of the apostolic Fathers, tells us that Mark was the interpreter of Peter. Now precisely what these words "interpreter of Peter" mean has been a question among church historians. It may mean that Mark was the translator of Peter's oral address; that he was interpreter in that narrow sense; that, while Peter uttered his words either in Aramaic or Greek, Mark interpreted them into the Latin. Or it may mean (and the most are inclined to take the words in this sense) that Mark was the writer in Greek of what Peter spoke in Aramaic, that Mark put down on paper the things which Peter orally preached. The idea, I suppose, is not that Peter dictated, and that Mark took down from his dictation his oral gospel; nor do I think it probable that Peter himself wrote a sort of diary and that Mark expanded it. It would rather seem as if Peter had suggested to Mark the putting down in Greek, as a matter of permanent record, things which were the subject of his preaching, and which Mark probably had heard him detail over and over again, in their somewhat stereotyped form, until at last they had impressed themselves deeply upon his memory.

As Eusebius, under the authority of Clement of Alexandria, tells us, Peter had the Gospel which Mark wrote out in Greek submitted to him for his approval and sanction; and, therefore, the Gospel as we have it now is practically the Gospel of Peter. There are some indications in the Gospel itself that it is, indirectly at least, the work of Peter, or that it has the sanction of Peter, and practically represents the gospel as Peter preached it. For example, we have all incidents in which Peter was expressly praised omitted; and we have other incidents, in which Peter was blamed, retained. The praise which Christ gave to Peter, "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock will I build my church," is significantly omitted; but the words, "Get thee behind me, Satan," which were spoken to Peter by Christ in the way of reproof, are retained; and we have two cock-crowings in Mark, adding to the guilt of Peter in his denial, while in Matthew we have only one. All these are evidences that Peter had something to do with its authorship.

Many things are narrated to us by Mark in the third person singular, which seem to be reports of what Peter had told to Mark in the first person. As, for example, we have such a sentence as this, " Peter and those with him followed after "; the singular number used in the verb. The best explanation is that Peter narrated this incident to Mark in the first person singular, and that Mark simply put down what he had heard from Peter in the third person; but it is impossible to enlarge upon this. It is only one of many indications that Mark had heard from Peter a narration of his personal experience; that he had become minutely acquainted with Peter's oral gospel; and that he had put down what he had heard from Peter in a more general form, a form which was capable of more general use.

How can we claim that the Gospel of Mark is inspired, when Mark was not an apostle of the Lord? I suppose that a true answer to that question is just this, that the promise which our Saviour gave to those who should speak and teach in his name was a promise, not simply to the individuals before him, but to those who should stand in their place. It was a promise to apostles and apostolic men. It was a promise to those who should be the first pillars and teachers of his church; so that it was practically a promise to Paul, as well as those eleven apostles that were before him at the time; and it was a promise to Mark, if Mark should be the representative of Peter, the scribe of Peter, the interpreter of Peter. It was a promise to Luke, if Luke should stand in the place of Paul; it was a promise to James, the brother of our Lord. It was a promise to any such as should be chosen in God's providence to be the original proclaimers of the gospel, the putters of that gospel into permanent and written form.

Where this Gospel was written, I do not certainly know; and I do not think that any one can certainly tell. It may have been written in Babylon, with Peter; and it may have been written in Rome, if Peter ever was in Rome; but even about this residence of Peter in Rome, and still more in regard to the fact that Peter was bishop of Rome, I do not think we can say we have any certainty at all. At any rate, it is true that the Gospel was written some time before the destruction of Jerusalem—probably before the year 60; and if we were to put the date definitely at all, conjecturally, it is more likely to be the year 56, or the year 55, perhaps, than any other. There are certain indications in the Epistles which give some reason for assigning the date within these limits. Some of the Epistles were written as late as the year 62; in the Epistle to the Colossians, in which Mark is mentioned, we have no mention whatever of the Gospels; in the First Epistle of Peter there is an indication that Peter intended to see that the disciples were put permanently in possession of the substance of the gospel: "He would see to it that they had the means of keeping in remembrance these things which they had heard "; and this would indicate that the Gospels were yet to be written. Luke, however, refers to accounts of Christ's life earlier than his own, and we cannot put his Gospel later than the year 59. Matthew must have preceded Luke by at least a single year, and so must be dated as early as 58. Since Mark is the simplest and earliest of the Gospels, we seem compelled to assign the year 56 or 55 for its composition.

Now, the description of Christ which is given in the Gospel corresponds quite well with what I have said with regard to the character of Mark, and with regard to the character of Peter, of whom Mark was the interpreter. The Gospel seems to have been written for Roman hearers, or for Roman readers. It is the Gospel of miracles, we might say; or, to put it in another form, the Gospel according to Mark represents Christ as the mighty Wonder-worker. It is a Gospel intended for the Roman world, for the Romans who were masters of the world, for the Romans among whom energy and will were almost deified. The Gospel according to Mark is a Gospel of deeds rather than of words. It is a Gospel in which the Saviour is set before us as restlessly active, as full of energy, as full of power. We find, for example, that the portions of our Saviour's life which have not to do with his public activity are wholly omitted. Matthew tells us very much in regard to the infancy of Christ, or at least gives us many incidents connected with his birth and childhood; but, in Mark, the whole story begins with the baptism by John the Baptist. We have described to us only the activity of our Lord; and the long discourses which are given to us in Matthew are either omitted in Mark, or they are so curtailed that but the germ of them remains. We have no subjective sentences or reflections. We have only the merest allusions to that long Sermon on the Mount which is recorded in the early part of Matthew's Gospel, important as that sermon was. The whole method of Mark is the method of an annalist rather than the method of a philosophical historian.

Mark is a man of affairs; Mark is a man who follows chronological order; Mark gives us but very little grouping. In Mark, there seems to be the attempt to follow, from day to day and almost from hour to hour, the incidents of the Saviour's life; and so we find that the element of discourse plays an exceedingly small part in Mark, compared with Matthew and Luke. A single illustration, perhaps, may set this before you better than anything else that I can say. A statistical account of the miracles and the parables, and the proportionate space they occupy in Matthew, Mark, and Luke is exceedingly instructive. Now Matthew gives us twenty miracles of Christ, and Luke gives us twenty miracles of Christ; and, although Mark's Gospel is not more than one-half as long as the Gospel according to Matthew, Mark gives us nineteen. Yet, when you come to the parables, Matthew gives us fifteen, Luke gives us twenty-three, and Mark only four. This is a simple illustration of Mark's Gospel. He is occupied with events; he is not occupied so much with discourses. It is not so much the teaching of Christ, as it is the life of Christ, that interests him. Moreover, you will find that, in Mark, you have no reference whatever to the fulfilment of prophecy. I speak somewhat hyperbolically here. There are certain sayings of Christ in which Christ's words have to be quoted, one might say; and, therefore, there is here and there an allusion to prophecy; but that everlasting, "That thus it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets," that you have continually recurring in Matthew, you have nothing of in Mark at all. You have no genealogies of Christ in Mark, no connecting of Christ with the old dispensation. You have nothing with regard to the fulfilment in Christ of the predictions of the Old Testament. Mark narrates the life of Christ only as it is a matter of present interest, without reference to the past; and so, while Matthew's great object is to connect great epochs of history with one another, connect the new with the old, and build upon the foundation of the Old Testament prophets, Mark has no such concern. Mark's idea is to set before us the Wonder-worker, the individual personality of the Son of God, and to show how continuously active he was. Matthew, moreover, is the Gospel of rejection: in Matthew you have a continual undertone of sorrow; Christ is represented there as the sacrifice; he is the fulfilment of the Old Testament predictions of a High Priest of Israel; and so the symbol of the Gospel according to Matthew is the sacrificial bullock; but for Mark, you have as a proper symbol the lion; Christ is the lion of the tribe of Judah; he is the Saviour full of energy, full of power, working wonders among men. Mark's Gospel is the Gospel of activity; it is the Gospel of victory; it is the Gospel of triumph, as compared with the Gospel of Matthew. It is another aspect of the Saviour's life; it is another aspect of the Saviour's work. The Gospel according to Mark is crowded with action.

It is worth while to read over each one of these Gospels in the light of this general characterization. After getting the general idea of each one, if we read it through with an eye to that particular idea, a great many things assume a new significance. For example, you have in Mark a spirit of restless activity; he recognizes in Christ just that which satisfies the demand of his particular nature. There is no word in the whole Gospel according to Mark that is more characteristic and significant than the word eu#uc, the word " immediately," or "straightway." You find that word two or three times in Matthew; two or three times in Luke; but in Mark it is perpetually recurring. In Mark it occurs forty-one times. In Mark, whatever is done is done "straightway," "immediately," and there is rapid passage from one event to another. As soon as Christ works a miracle, straightway something else happens. Mark seems to be bent upon passing rapidly from one thing to another, and recognizing the continual activity of the Saviour's life. It is Mark that tells us that the room where they were was so full they could not stand. It is Mark that tells us that our Saviour was so busy with the disciples that they had no time to eat. It is Mark that tells us that Jesus was so restlessly active that the people thought he was beside himself. All these things are given to us by Mark alone.

Mark describes the awe-stricken impression of the disciples that Jesus was more than mortal man when he started to go from the Mount of Transfiguration to Jerusalem to suffer. He went forward with so majestic a mien of determination and sacrifice that the disciples were amazed and afraid. No Evangelist but Mark gives us this aspect of the Saviour's countenance. Mark represents Jesus as the Saviour of achievement. Jesus, in entering into a town, finds that they are all ready to receive him. The whole town rises up to meet him. They run on foot out of their cities to come to him; and, when they bring to him their sick, all that even touched him were made perfectly whole. This incident, which Mark, and Mark alone, gives to us, presents a peculiar impression of the energy, the will, the activity of the Saviour's life.

Thus Mark sets before us our Saviour in the peculiar light of a miracle-worker, a wonder-worker, one who makes majestic and unique impressions, not only upon his disciples but upon all men. The literary characteristics of Mark's Gospel are just such as befit its subject on one hand—the peculiar aspect in which it regards the person of the Lord Jesus—and just such as befit the nature of Mark, as we are inclined to interpret it, and just such as befit Peter himself, of whom Mark is the representative and interpreter.

Mark's Gospel is the briefest of all the Gospels. It is not only brief in its general compass, but it is exceedingly terse in its style. No other of the Gospels bears comparison with it. Everything is "touch and go," in Mark's Gospel. There is no amplification in Mark; everything is sharp and incisive. And, while everything is brief, there is also the other element of picturesqueness, of a graphic quality. The pictorial element is better represented in Mark than in any other of the Gospels. Mark is a man of affairs; Mark evidently was a man of keen eye; Mark had his wits about him, and was observing and jotted down in memory, if not upon paper, everything he saw; and the result is that, although Mark's Gospel is the briefest of the Gospels, there is more of detail in Mark's Gospel than in either one of the others; i. e., there is more of picturesque detail, more evidence that it is a picture from real life. There is more in the Gospel according to Mark than in the other Gospels that no forger could have counterfeited. It is a healthy, breezy narrative, that takes you right into the midst of affairs. If the Gospel according to John is written for the contemplative life of earlier days than ours, the Gospel according to Mark is written for this wide-awake, moving, pressing, rushing twentieth century.

The Gospel according to Mark is not only brief, terse, vivid, pictorial, graphic in its whole style, but there is also a minuteness of detail, a picking out of little things that give interest and vividness to the narrative, such as are very difficult to describe in general and can be illustrated only by certain particulars.

Let me try to instance a very few of the things which Mark tells, and which we get from no other Evangelist. At the baptism, when Christ comes up from the water, after prayer, there is one incident which only Mark gives us. Our Lord, with a deep sense of his responsibility as he is entering upon the ministry, to which now pictorially he has devoted himself by submersion under the waters of death, thus, at the beginning of his ministry, symbolically indicating that baptism of death with which his ministry is to close, and feeling his need of the strength and help of God, opens his great heart to heaven and prays to the Father; and then what is the result? Why, Mark tells us that the heavens were rent, and that the Holy Spirit came down like a dove upon him. "Were rent!" No other Evangelist gives us that temporary rending of the heavens; as if God, in answer to Jesus' prayer, has parted the very heavens to come down. It is only Mark who tells us that, immediately after the baptism, the Saviour was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness: driven by the Spirit, overmastered by the tremendous energy of the divine power within, was driven into the wilderness, in order that there he might contemplate the plan of his work; and then, in that wilderness, it is only Mark that tells us that he was among the wild beasts in the lone solitudes of nature, with no other than irrational creatures about him to give him help and sympathy. Yet all these graphic touches are in the first chapter, and they indicate what we find in every single chapter of the Gospel to the end.

Our Saviour, when he comes up into Galilee, is asleep in the hinder part of the vessel, and is lying upon the rower's cushion, fatigued and exhausted. Only Mark tells of this. When Jesus performs the miracle of casting out the evil spirit from the boy that was possessed, Mark alone tells us that the boy wallowed upon the ground, foaming. Jesus feeds the five thousand; gathers the multitude about him; but only Mark tells us that they all sat down on the green grass. The imaginative, the pictorial element comes in there. Mark saw the green. No other Evangelist apparently did. These are mere illustrations of what occurs many, many times over; and even what I have given will be sufficient to show that we are under a special debt to the author of the Gospel according to Mark, for this peculiar, this beautiful, this pictorial way of setting forth before us the life of the Lord Jesus.

It is not only true that the literary characteristics of the Gospel according to Mark embrace brevity, the graphic quality, exceeding minuteness of detail, but there is also in this Gospel a singular adaptation to the purpose of the author, and to the readers for whom it was designed. It was probably designed for Roman readers. You have, for example, the coins that were used in that day designated, not by their Greek or their Aramaic names, but by their Latin names. The words that would be perfectly intelligible to the Latin readers are the words that Mark uses. You have centurio and speculator, both of them simple Latin words; though there were Greek equivalents for the words "centurion " and " executioner," Mark uses the words which would be most intelligible to the circle of readers for whom he wrote.

Many things that are common in Palestine, so common as to need no explanation, Mark sets himself to explain. He does not say " the Jordan," but the " river Jordan," as if there might be some of his readers that did not know that Jordan was a river. He tells us that the Mount of Olives was over against Jerusalem, while only one that knew nothing about Palestine at all, and was very unfamiliar with the topography of the Scriptures, would have needed that explanation that the "Mount of Olives was over against the temple of Jerusalem." Mark has in mind a peculiar set of readers, and he is continually explaining to them the things of which those who were familiar with Palestine would need no explanation. For example, wherever Aramaic words are used, you find that Mark invariably translates them. You do not find that Matthew translates them at all. He has another set of readers and hearers, and does not need to translate.

So we have indications that there was not only design in this Gospel, but that the design was very carefully and regularly followed out; and the literary characteristics of the Gospel are just such as set forth Christ as the great Wonder-worker upon the earth.

It has been said, you know, that the people of the first century were very imaginative, very credulous; that they expected miracles at every turn, and that, therefore, any narrative with regard to the great Prophet and Teacher would have lacked its essential interest unless miracles had been interwoven with it. But that is all a mistake; for the ruling class among the Jews, the wealthy class, and the most educated class, were the Sadducees; and they surely did not believe in miracle, nor spirit, nor the resurrection. John the Baptist was the great teacher, and had the greatest following that the Jews had ever known. John the Baptist wrought no miracles. Why did he not work miracles, if miracles were natural and necessarily attributed to every great Jewish teacher? There was enough of the critical spirit to distinguish between superstition and reality, and to scrutinize the evidence upon which these narratives of our Saviour's life rested. We have reason to believe that such scrutiny was exercised, and that these narratives were accepted because they conform to the testimony of witnesses who were yet living at the time the Gospels were written.

All we need to do is to compare this vivid, this bright, this healthy, this exceedingly vigorous, and yet this exceedingly calm and clear narrative of the Saviour's life, with the medieval stories of miracles, or the stories of miracles in the Apocryphal New Testament; and we find that we are in an entirely different atmosphere. In Mark the miracles are natural and necessary to the presence of him who is the greatest miracle, who is in himself the incarnate Son of God. If Jesus Christ, God made flesh, did not signalize his coming by a miracle, that would itself, we might say, be the greatest of miracles. If Jesus, the Son of God, became incarnate, then miracles were the natural and necessary accompaniment of his incarnation; and so we claim that this Gospel of Mark needs only to be read and studied to assure him who reads and studies it that this narrative is a perfectly credible narrative of historical facts.

The argument for miracles in general, of course, does not belong to my present purpose. I have only aimed thus far to show you that the Gospel according to Mark is unique and peculiar in its character; that it sets forth Jesus Christ in his aspect of the Wonderworker; that it sets forth Jesus Christ so naturally, so simply, with so many indications of the testimony of an eye-witness, so many things that could not possibly have been forged, or merely imagined, that we have in this Gospel one of the very best testimonies that Jesus Christ lived and that he wrought the wonders that were attributed to him.