How do we approach studying Mark’s Gospel?

It is possible to work through the Gospel in one of a few ways. This might include 

  1. Picking up a number of themes and tracing them through the Gospel as a series of sermons on The Kingdom of God, The Son of Man, Suffering and the Cross etc.
  2. A longer and detailed series might have a look at  each small pericope or paragraph in detail with each sermon focusing on a specific event or saying.
  3. Between these two options is an approach that teaches on large sections.  This might follow the breaks I’ve suggested below in the overview which divides the Gospel up into about 16 sections, roughly though not entirely following the chapter breaks.[1]

My preference is the third option. There are good reasons for approaching the book this way. It enables us to focus in on the detail without getting lost in it so that we cannot see the wood for the trees. It also helps us to see how Mark has crafted his Gospel to confront us with crucial points.

Our normal tendence is to take up one small passage such as a healing, saying or parable and divide it up drawing three or four applications from it.  However, there is a strong case for seeing how three or four short passages including perhaps a miracle and a couple of parables offer us different perspectives on one primary point. A benefit of this is that the church do not become overloaded with lots of applications to attempt to put into practice in the week ahead.

So when preparing to preach or teach on Mark, I would first of all read the whole book. As mentioned, this is achievable in a single one hour sitting. I’d then focus on the particular passage in question and read it through several times using different Bible translations.  I then find it helpful to copy the text either into an editable document such as word or even to print it off.   Then with the online tools or some highlighters I start to annotate the passage.

Here are some things to look out for:

  1. Identify the types of discourse.  When are events being reported? When are fictional stories being used? Is there any poetry?  When is speech reported? 
  2. When looking at narrative -whether fictional or historical identify who the main characters are and how they are represented in the passage
  3. Who is talking and what are they saying? Who is silent? Silence can be as important as comment!
  4. Does the author simply report events and speech or does he comment and offer evaluation.

With narrative, I then tend to look at three other things. First of all, I look at much space and attention is given to each event. Sometimes you may spot that an event is given what seems like disproportionate space relative to the time it would have taken and to other events.  This indicates that the author is either slowing down or speeding up the story to draw our attention to something.  Secondly, I look for any unusual incidents that seem to jar with the flow of the text and don’t seem to fit nicely. Why are they there?  An obvious example would be when Mark introduces himself in the account recounting the young man fleeing from Gethsemane. I also wonder whether the discussion on divorce feels a little unusual as a very specific technical focus on one law.  Then there’s the point when the Sadducees turn up for a debate when primarily the focus in the Gospels is on the Scribes and Pharisees (similarly the mention of Herodians).

The third thing I do is start to highlight words and phrases which seem to be repeated.  It’s helpful to use a Bible version like the ESV for this which is a more formal word for word translation than the NIV and NLT.  Repeated words and phrases will indicate emphasis. They also show us how passages link. Notice for example the link between the widows who are devoured (Mark 12:40) and the widow’s offering (12:42). 

As we spot the detail of words and phrases, we will also pick up on the appearance of big theme words and phrases such as “Kingdom of God.” and “Cross”. Notice too the repetition of “three days” at certain points.  We will also identify quotes and allusions to the Old Testament such as “coming on the clouds” and “Son of Man.” We are meant to read the story of Jesus in the light of Old Testament fulfilment.

Finally, it is worth comparing the passage with its appearance in other Gospels. Beware the temptation to speak about the other passage instead because it seems to offer more obvious fruit.  Rather, if Mark has included certain elements not present in the other passages or excluded other parts then there is intentionality. He wants us to focus in on certain things which may offer a different teaching perspective to Matthew and Luke. Ask why he does this.

Our aim them is to identify the big theme that holds the passage together. What is the primary point that Mark wants to highlight? Try and summarise this in one sentence. And what is the consequence of this? As a result of knowing this thing, how are our lives changed through the grace of the Gospel and in the power of the Holy Spirit? This will provide the primary application we want to share.

[1] Remember that the chapter and verse breaks were not in the original text and should not be treated as infallible!

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