An Introduction to the Gospel of Mark (pt. 1)

[Sermon Audio]

I. Authorship

As is the case with all four of the Gospel accounts, the author of this Gospel does not identify himself. Thus, any attempt to determine who wrote this Gospel must look to the testimony of the early church for help.  Looking back at the writings of the early church, we find that uniformly the early church recognized Mark as the author of this gospel. The earliest statement that we have on the authorship of Mark comes from an author named Eusebius (at the latest A.D. 140). According to Eusebius, a teacher named Papias said that, “The elder used to say this: Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately… whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ.” From this quote we gain three important pieces of information. First, Papias said that this view went all the way back to the “the elder.” Most likely this elder refers to none other than the apostle John. If this is the case, then we have evidence going all the way back to the New Testament authors that Mark wrote this Gospel. Second, Papias specifically names Mark as the author of this Gospel. Third, Papias tells us that this Mark was an interpreter of Peter. In other words, he studied under Peter and he was familiar with Peter’s preaching ministry. This is not the only quote from church history that indicates that Mark wrote this gospel, but it is the earliest and best example of what the early church believed. Specifically, that Mark the student of Peter wrote this Gospel.
Now that we have established Mark as the author of this Gospel we must now determine which Mark wrote this Gospel. Mark was not an uncommon name; there could have hundreds of men named Mark in the church at that time. However, as we look at the Scriptural evidence it will become clear that Mark who wrote this letter was the “John Mark” referred to with some frequency in the New Testament.

The first appearance of “John Mark” in the Scriptures may come as early at Mark 14:51-52. Jesus and his disciples had left the upper room to go down into the garden where Jesus was betrayed by Judas, and arrested by “a crowd with clubs and swords.” In 14:51-52 we read of this young man getting caught up in the actions:

A young man was following Him, wearing nothing but a linen sheet over his naked body; and they seized him. But he pulled free of the linen sheet and escaped naked.

Apparently this young man was sleeping when he was awakened by the commotion. In haste he ran outside to see what was going on only to find Jesus being arrested and his disciples running away. About that time someone from the crowd grabbed this young man. He struggled to get free and ran away naked leaving his sheet behind. Many have speculated that this young man was Mark for a couple of reasons. First, his mother Mary owned a home in Jerusalem that may have been used by Jesus on that night. Second, Mark is the only Gospel writer to include this detail. Thus, it would make sense for him to be this unidentified “young man.”
The next appearance of John Mark comes in Acts 12:12. In this account Peter is miraculously freed from prison and flees “to the house of Mary the mother of John who was also called Mark.” After this, John Mark left Jerusalem with Paul and Barnabas for Antioch (Acts 12:25). From there Mark remained with Paul and Barnabas assisting them in their missionary work (Acts 13:5). This was a natural fit for Mark. His mother had already proven to be a useful servant to the church; he was Barnabas’ own cousin (Colossians 4:10); he was even bilingual. Everything was going according to plan for Mark as he served under to world’s foremost missionaries until one day when everything changed for Mark. As the missionary team moved on to their next stop in Perga in Pamphylia Mark abruptly deserted his missionary team and returned home to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13). Luke does not tell us why Mark deserted his companions, but it seems as if Mark was no longer willing to face the dangers and hardship that lay ahead of the missionary team.
Mark’s desertion was not well received by Paul. In fact, as Paul and Barnabas prepared to leave for their second missionary journey a major dispute arose over whether Mark should be allowed to accompany them or not. Paul said no, and Barnabas said yes. Unable to reconcile their opinions the team split up over this incident (Acts 15:36ff). At this point in Mark’s story we see a man who failed to live up to his commitments and let down the apostle Paul himself. However, this is not the end of Mark’s story.

Around eight years after Paul and Barnabas split up over Mark, Paul was in prison writing the epistles to the Colossians and Philemon. In the conclusions to both of these letters we once again find John Mark. This time the once rejected John Mark is now commended by the apostle Paul as a co-worker (Colossian 4:10; Philemon 24). In 2 Timothy 4:11 Paul added to his commendation of Mark when he wrote: “Pick up Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for service.”
The final mention of Mark in the New Testament comes from the pen of Peter in 1 Peter 5:13. Here Peter writes, “She [the Church] who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you greetings, and so does my son, Mark.” From this we learn that John Mark was in Rome ministering with Peter. We are not sure exactly what role Mark played in the ministry of Peter, but it is clear that Peter had a major role in Mark’s development. As Hendricksen has pointed out, “It would appear, then, that sovereign grace, making use of the kindly tutelage of Barnabas, the stern discipline of Paul, and the potent influence of Peter, had triumphed in the life of Mark.” And of the three of these it was the “potent influence of Peter” that had the greatest impact on Mark’s Gospel. Peter was a man who knew what is was to deal with immaturity, and failure. He had personally experienced both as a disciple of Christ. And because of these experiences, Peter was the perfect man to take Mark under his wing and help him to grow in the Lord.

Peter’s relationship with Mark is not only interesting to reflect upon, but it is also a key element in understanding Mark’s gospel. As Heibert has pointed out, “Peter’s preaching indeed was the main source upon which [Mark] drew….” This influence of Peter upon Mark’s Gospel is seen in several ways.

i. First of all, Peter’s influence upon Mark gives this Gospel credibility. Peter was one of the twelve; an eye witness to the earthly ministry of Christ. On the other hand, Mark was at best an interested bystander to the Christ’s arrest. Mark surely did not have the credibility on his own to record the events of Christ’s life, but through Peter he did.

ii. Peter’s influence upon Mark’s gives it a vivid quality. Many of Mark’s episodes are recorded with a vividness that could only be recounted by an eyewitness (i.e. the addition of the “and Peter” found only in Mark 16:7). If one were to replace the word “they” with “we” one could easily imagine Peter telling the story rather than Mark (1:21, 29; 5:1, 38; 6:53-54; 8:22; 9:14, 30, 33; 10:32, 46; 11:1, 12, 15, 20, 27; 14:18, 22, 26, 32). Quite literally, the Gospel is revealed to Mark’s readers through the eyes of Peter. Consequently, Mark’s Gospel portrays the disciples—especially Peter—in a very candid light. Mark does not protect the image of the disciples, but rather he reveals them in all of their humanity (4:13; 6:52; 8:17, 21; 9:10, 32). Undoubtedly, this reflects the influence of Peter.

iii. Finally, Mark’s reliance upon Peter reflects the continuance of the apostolic teaching of Peter.