Lesson 4 of 6
In Progress

Introductory Issues in Mark

Revised by Kristofer Phan Coffman, 6/23

The ending of Mark

The Gospel of Mark ends on the enigmatic note of the three women who witness the empty tomb and say nothing to anyone “for they were afraid” (16:8). Early in the history of the church, others appended additional stories to the Gospel; these come in the longer ending of Mark (16:9-20) and another ending sometimes called “the shorter ending.” The most reliable manuscript evidence for the ending of Mark, however, supports the suggestion that the Gospel concludes at 16:8. Since this is the case, we are called to see the evangelist’s purpose and the Gospel’s conclusion as a theophany, a vision of God. The empty tomb and the trembling and ecstasy of the women who remain silent are what the evangelist would have us readers see and experience as well. God’s reign and rule has broken into the world in the crucified and risen Christ. The promise is that he is not in the tomb but is going ahead of the disciples to Galilee. This is the same crucified and risen Christ who goes ahead of us, just as he promised the disciples, leading us into the gift of a new beginning in which we are a new creation where death no longer has hold.

Failure of the disciples

A theme runs through the three major sections of Mark’s Gospel, centering on the disciples’ failure to respond to Jesus’ ministry. In the first section of the Gospel, which recounts Jesus’ ministry in Galilee and the surrounding regions (1:16-8:21), the disciples consistently fail to understand that the reign and rule of God is breaking in through Jesus’ ministry of exorcism, healing, feeding, and teaching. The final verse in this section is Jesus’ question to them: “Do you not yet understand?” (8:21). In the second section of the Gospel, which narrates Jesus giving insight to see the suffering, death, and resurrection of the “Son of Man” (8:22-10:52), three times the disciples are unable to perceive the way of the cross in Jesus’ announcement of his passion and resurrection (8:31; 9:30-31; 10:32-34). The disciples consistently misunderstand (8:32-33; 9:32; 10:35-40). In the third section of the Gospel, which reveals Jesus as the temple, the true and living presence of God (11:1-15:47), the disciples fail to watch with Jesus as he agonizes in the garden over the cup of suffering he must drink. Three times Jesus calls them to watch (13:33, 35, 37) as the events of the passion unfold, and three times he comes to them after praying, only to find them sleeping and unable to watch (14:37, 40-41).

Mark’s Passion Narrative

In the late 19th century, the theologian Martin Kähler characterized the Gospels according to Mark, Matthew, and Luke as “passion narratives with extended introductions.” The Gospel of Mark leads us to the foot of the cross, where we hear the reality that Jesus is the Son of God on the lips of a human witness for the first time: “Truly this man was God’s Son” (15:39). Prior to this in the Gospel, the demons and unclean spirits know Jesus to be “the Holy One of God” (1:24), “the Son of God” (3:11), and the “Son of the Most High God” (5:7). Because the cross is so central in the theology of the evangelist, the Passion Narrative constitutes one-third of Mark, marking the significance of Jesus’ passion, which expresses the truth of Jesus’ identity: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (10:45).

Messianic secret

One of Mark’s unique literary and theological characteristics is the secrecy of Jesus’ messiahship. Readers know from the beginning that Jesus is the Christ, “the Son of God” (1:1). In the first public act of Jesus’ ministry an unclean spirit cries out, “I know who you are, the Holy One of God” (1:24), and Jesus silences and exorcizes the unclean spirit. Peter, representing a human witness, confesses, “You are the Messiah,” and is ordered by Jesus “not to tell anyone about him” (8:29-30). Peter rejects Jesus’ messiahship of suffering, rejection, death, and rising, and Jesus rebukes Peter as a satanic foe who is not disposed to the way of God (8:31-33). The Gospel’s purpose is to contrast those who understand Jesus’ messiahship, including the reader, with those who do not understand, including Jesus’ opponents and disciples. We as readers know Jesus’ identity throughout the Gospel, but Mark leads us to his death on the cross as the key to his messiahship. Mark confirms this through an unlikely witness, a soldier near the cross, who ironically confesses the truth of the gospel, “Truly this man was God’s Son” (15:39), despite how it may otherwise appear.

Recognition of Jesus by unclean spirits and demons

The first public event of ministry in the Gospel, which happens in the synagogue at Capernaum, is an exorcism (1:21-28). This is significant because it reveals that a cosmic battle is taking place between demonic spirits and the ministry of Jesus. Their consistent recognition of Jesus throughout the Gospel indicates that they know that Jesus’ presence spells the end of their power. The exorcism and healing stories in the first chapters of Mark identify the immediacy of the dramatic unfolding of the cosmic battle that Jesus wages with the demonic powers.

Tearing apart of the heavens and temple curtain

The verb “tearing apart” is present in the story of Jesus’ baptism (1:10-11). God’s voice does not remain high above in the heavens but breaks into the world, confirming the Beloved Son. The only other place the verb “tear apart” appears in Mark is at the crucifixion, when the curtain of the temple is torn in two (15:37-39). The two occurrences of this verb provide a beginning and concluding framework for the Gospel. The baptism event is the sign of God’s rule and reign breaking into the world in Jesus of Nazareth. The rending of the temple curtain from top to bottom is also a breaking in of God’s reign and rule. The curtain that separated the innermost sanctuary of the temple is now open, and God cannot be contained there. God is not hidden in the heavens, and God is not hidden in the temple; the living presence of God is manifested in Jesus, the Beloved Son in whom God is pleased and the Son who gives his life for all on the cross.

Watches of the night

The ancient Greeks and Romans divided the night into four watches, from dusk until dawn and these four watches function as an important motif for the ending of Mark. The thirteenth chapter of Mark, known as the “little apocalypse” (referring to the revelation of last things), concludes with Jesus’ words on the imminence of the return of the master of the house. Jesus’ last words of teaching to the disciples point the way into the apocalyptic, revelatory events of the Passion Narrative (14:1-15:47). The unexpected return of the master or lord during the four watches of the night in 13:35-37 ushers us into the Passion Narrative and its events that unfold in the four watches. First, Jesus shares a final meal and teaching with the disciples in the evening (14:17-31). Next, Jesus brings the disciples with him to the garden, resulting in their failure to watch during the midnight hours (14:32-52). Third, Jesus had warned Peter of his betrayal and now, after Peter denies Jesus three times in the courtyard of the high priest, he hears the cock crow (14:53-72). Finally, after his interrogation during the night by the Jewish religious leaders, Jesus is turned over to Pilate at dawn (15:1-20).

Mark and Paul

More than any of the other Gospels, Mark shares key theological commitments with the letters of Paul. These commitments include emphasizing the paradox that God shows strength in weakness on the cross, making clear the inclusion of those beyond the Jewish people, and pointing out the disciples’ misunderstanding of Jesus’ messiahship. In addition, Mark makes the point that those who did not know Jesus personally can still legitimately preach the Gospel (9:30-32). In contrast to Matthew, Luke, and John, both Mark and Paul focus their attention on Jesus’ death without a corresponding emphasis on retelling his teaching.