The Gospel of Mark teaches about the person and Acts of God as revealed in the words and works of his Son, Jesus Christ. Mark's theology is a record of history written in narrative style.
Structure. Jesus' ministry is introduced in the actions of John the Baptist who, as God's promised messenger, is to "prepare the way for the Lord" ( 1:2-3 ). In this ministry, defined as good news (gospel), Jesus as the Christ fulfills the promises of the Old Testament concerning the Davidic Messiah-King in a unique way as the Son of God ( Mark 1:1 Mark 1:11 ).
Mark presents Jesus as the one God empowers with his Spirit ( 1:8-10 ), and as the proclaimer of God's good news ( 1:14 ). Jesus announces the special action of God in relation to the coming of the kingdom of God and calls for responses of repentance and belief in that good news ( 1:15 ).
The messianic ministry of Jesus is focused first in Galilee (1:16-8:26), where Jesus calls disciples, teaches with authority, heals, and casts out unclean spirits, while identifying himself as the Son of Man. The focus then shifts to Jerusalem (8:27-16:8), where he suffers, dies, and is raised by God from the dead, as "a ransom for many" ( 10:45 ).
Old Testament Promises. When compared with the Gospel of Matthew where the person and ministry of Jesus, from his birth until his death, are presented as a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, the Gospel of Mark interprets the relationship between Jesus and the Old Testament more broadly.
The coming of John the Baptist and his prophetic role are linked directly in Mark 1:2-3 to the eschatological promises of Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3. Similarly, the scattering of the sheep in Mark 14:27, as a result of the arrest, trial, and death of Jesus, is traced to the eschatological promise of Zechariah 13:7.
Jesus' use of the title "Son of Man" is the clearest indication in Mark of a radical reinterpretation of the Old Testament eschatological promises. In the "little apocalypse" of Mark 13 the figure of the Son of Man of Daniel 7:13 appears after great suffering ( 13:19 ; cf. Dan 12:1 ) and the destruction of the created order ( 13:24 ; cf. Isa 13:9-10 ; Joel 2:10 Joel 2:31 ). In the biblical history of salvation the time of the gospel is the time of fulfillment. Jesus reveals himself as the Son of Man to counter the false messianic interpretations of the Pharisees, to prepare his disciples for how he will ransom many, and to show the faithful how they can rightly follow him.
The basic theology is clear. The Sonship of Jesus and the coming of the Spirit in Mark 1:9-11 (cf. 12:35-37 ) are allusions to the promise of God's in-breaking kingdom in Psalm 2:7, 110:1, and Isaiah 42:1. As a rabbi Jesus boldly reinterprets and applies the law in relation to this in-breaking kingdom ( 10:1-12 ; Mark 12:13-17 Mark 12:28-34 ), and on the basis of Old Testament authority declares that his hearers are either insiders or outsiders ( 4:10-12 ; cf. Isa 6:9-10 ) according to how they respond to his teachings.
The meaning of the many miracles of Jesus is summarized in Mark 7:37, which reflects the hopes of the redeemed in Isaiah 35:5-6 when God is present. While the crowds who welcome Jesus as he entered Jerusalem rightly proclaim him as the Davidic Messiah-King ( 11:9-10 ; cf. Psalm 118:25-26 ), Jesus' redefinition of the role of the Son of Man of Daniel 7:13 as God's suffering servant is the most essential part of the disciples' learning experience ( 8:31 ; 9:31 ; 10:33-34 ). It is also his final word to the high priest who asks him if he is "the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One" ( 14:61 ).
Christology. By beginning the story of Jesus with his baptism, divine empowerment, and temptation by Satan, Mark emphasizes that Jesus is a divine being who is the Son of God. However, a paradox develops in the continuing story when Jesus is shown to be a person who has emotions, hopes, and responses similar to our own. The third element in the christological puzzle arises from Jesus' insistence on secrecy about his messianic indentity along with his persistent use of the title "Son of Man."
The narrative interpretation of what it means to be the Son of God is contained in those stories where the authority of Jesus as a teacher evokes the amazement of the crowd or the anger and unbelief of the religious authorities. These stories are often linked to his power to heal and to forgive sins ( 1:21-28 ; 2:1-12 ; 5:21-43 ; 6:1-6 ). Jesus' assertion of power over the unclean spirits in the healing process calls forth the preventative counterclaim from them that he is the Son of God. As they heed his call for silence they validate his claim to be the Son of God ( 1:24-26 ; 3:11 ; 5:7-13 ).
The association of the title "Son of God" with the messianic idea seems to suggest a purely functional use ( 1:1 ; 14:61 ); however, the qualifying adjective "beloved" with Jesus' Sonship describes the divinely certified relationship between Jesus and his Father ( 1:11 ; 9:7 ; cf. 13:32 ; 14:36 ). That this relationship is also humanly recognized at the time of seeming defeat, when the centurion sees the dying Jesus and confesses him as the Son of God ( 15:39 ; cf. 12:6 ), focuses on the meaning of the cross for persons of faith as a revelation of the power and wisdom of God.
The later Jewish objection that Jesus' death indicated defeat and a denial of his earlier claims is countered in Mark's Christology. Jesus, the Son of God, is also a person from Nazareth ( Mark 1:9 Mark 1:24 ; 10:47 ; 14:67 ; 16:6 ) who reacts with anger ( 3:5 ; 8:33 ; 10:14 ; 11:15-16 ), is disappointed ( 6:5-6 ; 9:19 ; 11:12-14 ), and not only dies ( 15:45 ) but is deeply disturbed at the inevitability of death ( 14:33-34 ) and its meaning ( 15:34 ). In the face of this paradox only the eye of faith can recognize that as the Son of God Jesus obeyed and suffered freely ( 10:45 ) and rose from the dead as he promised ( 8:31 ; 9:31 ; 10:34 ; 14:28 ; 16:6 ).
The words and works of Jesus during his public ministry in and around Galilee prompt persons to wonder who he is. The failure to conclude that he is the Messiah is shared by the crowds ( 1:27 ), the religious leaders ( 2:7 ), the disciples ( 4:41 ), and his acquaintances ( 6:3 ). Could it be that the secret of his true identity can only be resolved when it is clear what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah? Jesus' order to his disciples not to tell others about his Messiahship ( 8:29-30 ) supports this conclusion.
If Jesus' Messiahship is minimally identified by the usual title, it is clear that the kingdom of God is one of the major topics of Jesus' teaching, and that his Davidic ancestry and subsequent claim to kingship are stated by friend and foe alike. Whatever else miracles mean in the Gospel of Mark they too are proof of Jesus' Messiahship. Jesus performs "deeds of power" by the Spirit ( 6:1-6 ; cf. 1:32-34 ; 3:7-12 ; 6:53-56 ; 7:37 ) in contrast to the false messiahs who perform signs and miracles ( 13:22 ).
The frequent use of the title "Son of Man" with its narrative interpretations indicates its singular significance for Mark's Christology. As a public title, in contrast to the use of Messiah as a confessional title, it is related to three key aspects of Jesus' ministry. First, his earthly ministry is characterized by divine authority ( Mark 2:10 Mark 2:28 ). Second, it is as a suffering servant who rises from the dead that Jesus is obedient to God and redeems us ( 8:31 ; Mark 9:9 Mark 9:12 Mark 9:31 ; Mark 10:33 Mark 10:45 ; Mark 14:21 Mark 14:41 ). Third, he promises to return at the end as one exalted to universal rule for judgment ( 8:38 ; 13:26 ; 14:62 ). If Jesus' other titles are interpreted in different ways by his audience, the title "Son of Man" uniquely defines Jesus' ministry in terms of both majesty and humility.
Salvation. The story of Jesus in Mark is bracketed between the beginning of his ministry in Galilee where he calls for people to "repent and believe the good news" ( 1:15 ), and the end of his ministry in Jerusalem where the centurion at the cross confesses that he is "the Son of God" ( 15:39 ). Salvation is defined by the responses of Jesus' audiences to his miracles, sayings, and parables within a variety of settings between these two events, and Jesus' interpretation of his actions.
The faith responses in Mark come from those who are catalysts for the exercise of Jesus' mighty power ( 2:5 ; Mark 5:34 Mark 5:36 ; 9:23-24 ; 10:52 ; cf. 7:29 ). The spectacular character of Jesus' deeds makes it clear that a new age is dawning, and their responses assert that God in Jesus can supply all human need.
The crowds that are amazed at Jesus' teachings and mighty works ( Mark 1:22 Mark 1:27 ; 2:12 ; Mark 5:20 Mark 5:42 ; 6:2 ; 7:37 ; 9:15 ; 10:32 ; 11:18 ; 12:17 ) are located almost entirely in Galilee and symbolize the universal character of salvation. On the other hand, Jesus' enemies in Jerusalem exhibit a fear of the approving crowds as they seek to kill him ( 11:18-32 ; 12:12 ), and so reject the change that Jesus' offer of salvation entails, while unwittingly making it possible through his death on the cross.
The disciples' mixed fear and amazement responses indicate the struggle to bring together Jesus' claims to meet all human need and his outspoken acceptance of the way of suffering and death as the way to life. So when the stormy seas and the disciples' fears are stilled on two occasions their lack of faith is duly noted ( 4:40-41 ; 6:50-52 ); and when Jesus speaks plainly about his passion the disciples' fear and lack of understanding prompt them first to rebuke Jesus ( 8:32 ), then to remain quiet ( 9:32 ), and finally to follow him in fear to Jerusalem ( 10:32 ). The fear and amazement of the women who visit Jesus' tomb, with their subsequent silence about Jesus' promise to meet his disciples in Galilee ( 16:5-8 ; cf. 14:28 ), serve to warn disciples how these responses can hinder a faith response to the offer of salvation in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Discipleship. The disciples' role in the ministry of Jesus is a starting point for an understanding of discipleship in Mark. As a revelatory record of events the disciples' story reflects a historical reality and speaks to the needs of Mark's time and our own. It also gives evidence of the same tension present in the christological paradox (Jesus is both the Son of God and man), and in the interpretation of salvation as life coming from death. The disciples willingly follow Jesus but lack understanding and are afraid.
The development of the meaning of discipleship follows the structure of the Gospel of Mark with its division between Jesus' ministry in Galilee (1:16-8:26), Jerusalem (8:27-13:37), and his passion and resurrection (14:1-16:8). The Galilean ministry begins with the disciples heeding the call of Jesus, and leaving all to follow him and to be trained by him ( 1:16-20 ; 2:13-14 ; cf. 10:28 ).
For the extended ministry in Galilee Jesus commissions twelve as apostles who are to be with him, to be sent out to proclaim the good news, and to have the same authority Jesus has over demons ( 3:13-19 ). To do the will of God as realized in Jesus is to be a member of his family ( 3:35 ), but seemingly does not guarantee understanding of Jesus' teaching ( 4:10-12 ) or his actions ( 4:35-41 ).
As a preparation for the extension of Jesus' ministry beyond Galilee into the Gentile world the twelve are sent out as before, except this time they are to go in pairs and to live dependently among the people ( 6:7-12 ). Their immediate success ( Mark 6:13 Mark 6:30 ) stands in contrast to their later failure to understand how to meet need ( 6:35-37 ; cf. 8:4 ) or to recognize Jesus when he comes to them in their hour of need ( 6:49-52 ).
The three explicit teaching sections on discipleship following Peter's confession of Jesus as the Messiah ( 8:29 ) occur as Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem and the cross. The model for discipleship is Jesus' life of obedience and service, even unto death ( 10:45 ). First, he rejects the desire to rule by power (8:34-9:1), then the compulsion to grasp for prestige ( 9:33-37 ), and finally the need to occupy a position ( 10:35-45 ). He calls his followers to learn the meaning of life by the way of the cross, to set aside status as a means for achieving rights, and to accept the role of the servant by being humble, willing to suffer and even die for others.
Eschatology. The abruptness of the ending of Mark at 16:8 was solved by the early church with shorter or longer ( 16:9-20 ) textual additions. This means that there is no clear statement after Jesus' resurrection of his intention to return as in Matthew 28:18-20 or Luke 24:50-53 (cf. Acts 1:11 ). The references in Mark to a return and its results, outside of an explicit eschatological context, may be taken as either an interpretation of events related to Jesus' resurrection, or the end of the age.
The transfiguration story ( 9:2-13 ), with its emphasis on the presence of Elijah and Moses and the uniqueness of Jesus as God's beloved Son, also stresses the passion and resurrection of the Son of Man. The story makes it clear that Jesus is not just another great figure like Elijah and Moses who will not die. Jesus is to suffer the same fate as John the Baptist, the new Elijah, but will rise from the dead. With the disciples we ask, "What does rising from the dead' mean"? ( 9:10 ).
The Olivet Discourse or "little apocalypse" in Mark 13 provides the answer. Jesus relates Jewish apocalyptic descriptions of events that are to precede the end of history, including false messiahs (vv. 6, 21-23), wars, earthquakes, famines (vv. 7-8), persecution (vv. 9-13), and the abomination of desolation (v. 14), to the impending destruction of the temple (vv. 2-4). Jesus also urges his disciples to see this time as an opportunity to be active and faithful in preaching the gospel to all nations (v. 10), as well as patient and faithful whatever the circumstances (vv. 11-13, 35-37).
Finally, Jesus warns that the destruction of the temple will be followed by the end of the age. The cosmic signs predicted by the prophets (vv. 24-25) will announce the return of the Son of Man whose power and glory will be seen by all as he gathers his chosen ones (vv. 26-27). It is these chosen ones who are warned about the certainty of Jesus' return and the need to be ready (vv. 28-31), even though the timing of the event is known only to the Father (v. 32).
In this way Mark presents Jesus as the Lord of history who knows the future and promises to be with his disciples as they follow him in the way of the cross and spread the good news of what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ.
Herbert L. Swartz
Bibliography. J. D. Kingsbury, The Christology of Mark's Gospel; W. J. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark; R. P. Martin, Mark: Evangelist and Theologian; R. P. Meye, Jesus and the Twelve; W. M. Swartley, Mark: The Way for All Nations.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Mark, Theology of'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".