The nature and purpose of Mark’s Gospel

It is worth thinking a little bit more about the nature and purpose of the book by considering its style and structure as well as comparing it to other examples of literature both ancient and moder. This will help us consider how we should approach it in terms of preaching and teaching.

One recent obsession has been with so called “Gnostic Gospels.” These were a collection of manuscripts found at a place called Nag Hammadi in the 20th century written in Coptic rather than Greek and Hebrew. There have been attempts to give these “gospels” equal footing with the four we find in the Bible (The canonical Gospels).  However, they stand out as different both in terms of style and theology. Stylistically rather than offering detailed narrative, they present loosely connected lists of saying and snippets of supposed conversations between Jesus and his disciples. Theologically they are rooted in a tradition (Gnosticism) that sees nature and physical humanity as evil and only spirit as good. The result is a shadowy, ethereal Jesus who offers wisdom but fails to act to deliver and save.

By contrast, the Gospels including Mark offer us a solid narrative of a real, physical Jesus. Instead of shadowy 2 D at a distance we get 3D up close.  This first of all creates familiarity for us as it makes the Gospels similar to modern biographies and indeed to sim ilar genres circulating in the Greco-Roman world of Mark’s day. But they also are rooted in the Jewish Old Testament approach where even the prophetic books interweave narrative with prophecy.  The Jews were not just interested in knowledge and wisdom, they wanted to hear what God said but they also wanted to know what God had done. The God of Old and New Testament is not just one who offers wisdom from on high but who gets involved in creation. In Genesis 2, God gets his hands dirt by stooping into the soil to mould dust into humans.  In the Gospels, God again willingly gets his hands dirty by stepping into time and space, by reaching down into the dust and taking on human nature.

You will also notice that the Gospels give disproportionate attention to different aspects of Jesus’ life. In that sense they are not straight forward biographies. The second half of the Gospel focuses us in on the last weeks of Jesus earthly life as he heads to Jerusalem.  Six chapters out of 16 are about one week in Christ’s life, 3 are given over to a couple of days as we zoom in on his death and resurrection.  This lop-sidedness is true of all 4 Gospels but this point is made even more starkly in Mark where we are not even given a birth account. 

Additionally, it seems that the Gospel writers are not primarily concerned with strict chronology so much as with order material around themes.

This reminds us that our primary concern when reading the Gospels is The Gospel. Our focus should be on the Cross which casts a shadow across the book.  We are not looking to Jesus as first and foremost a good teacher or as a great example but through the book we are getting to know our saviour.  This doesn’t mean that we cannot learn from his example and teaching but that isn’t the primary purpose.  For example, to be sure there are things to learn about healing from Jesus’ methods but Mark isn’t giving us a handbook on how to heal but rather we are meant to learn more about the Gospel and the greatest work of healing from what Jesus does.

To take one example, have a look at Mark 8:22-26. Jesus heals a blindman but it happens in two stages. The man begins to see but without focus and clarity.  Now clearly, Jesus’ ability to heal wasn’t defective, he didn’t make a mistake first time round and furthermore, we wouldn’t follow this as a pattern when praying for someone now.  This event happens though at a significant point as Jesus begins to prepare his disciples to go to Jerusalem and for Mark it is right in the middle of his account. This is the turning point.  Jesus begins to teach increasingly about the Cross and his disciples who are starting to get that he is special, a prophet, a healer, maybe even the Messiah still cannot grasp exactly who he is and what he has come to do (Mark 8:27-38).    They need their eyes to be fully opened and it will take the actual crucifixion and resurrection for this.

Does this mean that Marks’ Gospel can only be used evangelistically? Well it certainly has been used fantastically in that way, for example through the Christianity Explored course.  However, this book is for believers.  You see, we can slip into legalism when trying to live the Christian life but actually the Gospel is for the whole of our life. It is the Cross and resurrection that will give us the power to live new lives in Christ. As we teach through the Gospel we should apply each passage to our lives through the lens of calvary.

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