Mark 1:1-10. Mark’s Gospel.

This is the first in a series which will probably be  considerably longer than Abraham’s beard.

It begins at the beginning, which is generally accepted as the right place to start…

Mark 1:1-9. 

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,“Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'”

John appeared, baptising in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptised by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptised you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.”

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

(Mark 1:1-15).

 General questions on Mark’s Gospel: 

Into which literary genre do we place this Gospel? Is it basically a biography of Jesus? If not, how is it different?

Assuming Markan authorship (the author does not explicitly tell us his identity in the text), why did Mark write his Gospel? To whom did he write it?

Who was Mark, anyway? How did he know what happened during Jesus’ life? Was he an eyewitness?

Is Mark’s Gospel a chronological account? If not, what could dictate its structure other than the actual order of events as they happened? Why would Mark want his readers to connect events in the order he records them? How does this link to Mark’s purpose in writing?

Is it helpful to draw comparisons between Mark’s Gospel and Peter’s preaching, which Luke summarises in Acts?


The Gospel is not a biography. If you go into Waterstones and pull a biography of, say, Winston Churchill off the shelves, what do you expect to read? A couple of chapters on the England of Churchill’s parents, a couple on his parents themselves, a chapter on his birth, one on his childhood, his early life, influences and so on –all before coming to his political career and his role as a war leader. The book is meant to introduce you to Churchill as a person, to help you understand the man. Mark’s Gospel starts with the public life of John, the fore-runner to Jesus, and then jumps straight into the inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry. Mark is presenting Jesus to his readers as Messiah. Most scholars hold that Mark is the earliest Gospel written. If this is the case, then Mark was writing the first example of a new literary genre (a Christian Gospel). Gospels were published in Roman culture to announce the accession to power of emperors. The essential import is that of the announcement of an historical event which brings about a new situation. Mark’s Gospel is a structured composition, not just a bundle of reminisces splurged onto the page. The Gospel is more like a manifesto than a biography. And more than a manifesto, it is not meant merely to inform. It is meant to inspire to action.

Mark is thought to have been writing from Rome, primarily for the believers there. We can see from the way that Mark translates Aramaic terms when he uses them (Talitha Koum, which, being translated, is…) that he is not writing for Hebraic readers. And then we can see from the way that he explains Jewish customs and the beliefs of different Jewish groups that he is not writing to Jewish people at all. Even Jews of the diaspora would be aware that the Pharisees used to wash ritually, and that the Sadducees did not believe in a resurrection of the dead; things which Mark feels the need to explain.

It seems likely that as the apostles grew fewer, and those remaining grew old, that it was felt necessary to permanently record their memories of their time with Jesus in the flesh. There would be churches springing up which had no direct apostolic teaching for any length of time.

Maybe Mark was an eyewitness of some of the events in his Gospel. Mark alone, of all the Gospel writers, records that a young man followed Jesus out of the house after the last supper, wearing only a loincloth, and that soldiers seized him, and he fled naked. Many have guessed that this youth was the young Mark. We gather from Acts that Mark’s mother lived in a sizeable house in Jerusalem, and that this house was commonly used by a group or groups in the Jerusalem church as a meeting place. It would fit nicely if this were the house used for the last Supper.

But even if Mark did witness some of the events in Jerusalem during the last week of Jesus’ life, much of his Gospel recounts events he could not have witnessed. We read of things happening when only Jesus, Peter, James & John were present. Mark must have spoken to others, gathered material from those who were with Jesus from the beginning.

We know that Mark was related to Barnabas, and that he accompanied Barnabas and Paul on their first missionary journey- but that he turned back early on, and was then the cause of an argument between the two men when they came to plan a return trip. Paul didn’t want to take the lad, thinking he’d deserted them. Barnabas was in favour of giving Mark another chance. But by the end of Paul’s life, he has seen Mark’s value. As he sits imprisoned at Rome, waiting for trial and execution, he writes to Timothy- asking him to send Mark, who Paul finds useful for ministry.

And more then that, Mark’s relation to Peter seems to have been something akin to Timothy’s relation to Paul. Peter refers to him as his “son”. So we can assume that Mark has spoken extensively to Peter, who was an eyewitness of more or less everything. And he also knows other men in the Jerusalem church, and he also knows Paul rather well. He is ideally placed to write a Gospel.

The Gospel is orderly, but not strictly chronological. A brief comparison with John’s Gospel shows that Mark has chosen to omit several events. From John, it is quite clear that Jesus made several trips to Jerusalem, for feasts and festivals and so on, before his final visit and crucifixion. But Mark’s material is arranged such that the first half of the book- after the introduction and Jesus’ baptism- involves ministry in and around Galilee, and the second half is set in and around Jerusalem. The book falls clearly into 2 halves geographically. On top of that geographical structure is a thematic one, a two-fold revelation of Jesus as Messiah. In the first half of the book, Jesus gradually reveals to his disciples who he is; the Messiah and the Son of God. They fail to grasp the fact, despite numerous signs. Then half-way through the book, Peter does see it. He confesses Jesus to be the Son of the Living God- not because he has worked it out, but because God has revealed it to him. Others of the disciples then also see Jesus as the Son of God on the mount of transfiguration. Immediately after this had been understood, Jesus begins to teach not about who he is, but about what he has come to do. It is here that he predicts his death repeatedly- and again even his own disciples fail to understand. They can’t see how Jesus could be the Messiah, and yet suffer, and die.

Jesus is portrayed as a very isolated figure in the Gospel. Although he is a man of the people, and has crowds following him everywhere right up to the end, he is still alone. Nobody actually understands him. He has all the trials of popularity, and constant companionship, but with nobody who really understands the load he has to bear.

Looking at the preaching of Peter (and Paul) in Acts shows that they follow a similar pattern. They also divide Jesus ministry into a Galilean early half, and a Judean/ Jerusalem-centric latter half, closing with Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. It can be useful to refer to the content and purpose of the sermon outlines Luke has recorded, to shed light on the Gospel- and also vice versa. Mark can be seen as a record of the apostolic preaching and teaching. Right at the start, Mark makes it plain what the book is about- it is the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.

 John and his baptism: 

What was radical about John’s baptism?

Which Old Testament figure is John like? How? Why is this important?

What sort of picture does Mark paint for us of the spiritual state of Israel when John appeared?

Where was John baptising? Which end of the Jordan? Why?

Mark evidently sees John as fulfilling the prophecies he quotes from Isaiah (and Malachi). What is the context of these prophecies? How are they fulfilled in John?

Would it be accurate to describe John as the last of the Old Testament prophets?

Many of our churches (perhaps especially those of us who are Baptists) would teach from this passage, using John’s baptism as an “obvious” example of what Christian baptism is. Are we right to do so?

Was John’s baptism different from baptism as practised in the churches of the New Testament? If not, how do we understand Acts 19:1-7. If so, what are the differences?

Does this shed any light on the relation of the Old and New covenants?


Most Israelites would probably only have encountered the practise of baptism in connection with proselytes (non-Israelites) being brought into the Israelite community.  It would be something for Gentiles, not for true-born Jews. Proper Jews, descended from Abraham and circumcised on the 8th day, already were God’s people. Why would they want to undergo an initiation ritual?

John is performing a baptism of repentance. There is a group within Israel who recognise that they are a disobedient people- that they are sinful, and need somehow to change or to be changed. John is calling together these people, and baptising them, forming a new group. Effectively, he is forming a new people of God, calling out the Israel within Israel to identify themselves coherently around his ministry.

The description of John calls to mind Elijah. Elijah comes to a nation in crisis, appearing out of nowhere, a rough hard-bitten weathered figure, standing alone, apart from the religious and even the social structures of the rest of the nation. He calls the Israel to a thoroughgoing reformation. Baalism has become the all-but-official religion of the people of the one true God. Elijah has the job of stopping the downward trajectory and forcing repentance upon the people. John and Elijah are both very much wilderness figures. John is a prophet of Yahweh, but is separate from the temple cultus, and separate from the synagogue. He lives alone, in the wilderness, eating and wearing only what he can find out there. He is free to point out the failings of what Judaism had become. John and Elijah both stand on their own for truth, calling the people to repentance, back to the God they have all but abandoned. (here maybe digress into similarities between Elijah/Ahab/Jezebel and John/Herod/Herodias, maybe leave for ch.6). The people flock to hear him. They have waited for 400 years since hearing any word from God. John does no miracles, but he has no trouble drawing a crowd. The people again can hear the word of the Lord. And as in the days of Elijah (in fact, more than in the days of Elijah), there is this sense of a new beginning.

John baptises at the Jordan, in the south (it is the people of Judea and Jerusalem who go out to him in the wilderness, notice). There is plenty of water in Jerusalem- enough to baptise thousands in a day- but John is not preaching from the temple. Instead, he baptises in the waters of the entry point to the land. Even if he isn’t baptising where Joshua’s twelve stones stood (perhaps he is, or perhaps they no longer stood in John’s day- I don’t know), the point again is that these repentant people are a new nation, going to populate the land again as it were.

The prophecies quoted also back up the concept of a new exodus. They are from Isaiah and Malachi, Malachi being given to supplement Isaiah. Isaiah speaks to a people in exile, looking forward to the day when they will re-enter the land given to their forefathers, but denied them- a second exodus.  God speaks, saying that he himself will lead them out, and that he will send his messenger before them to make a path for them through the wilderness, to raise up the valleys and flatten the mountains, making a straight way for Yahweh the king to march triumphantly into the land of promise at the head of his people. John is not laying down tarmac. But he is definitely preparing the way. Mark is portraying Jesus as the Yahweh figure here. John is preparing Jesus’ way. It says a lot about the character of the kingdom Jehovah-Jesus has come to inaugurate. It is prepared not by building a road to its borders, but by building a repentant people. John is making the way smoother for Jesus by getting people ready to follow him. He is indeed the messenger sent before the Lord.

John is in a strange position. On the one hand, he is very much an Old Testament prophet, speaking before Messiah comes to take the throne. Jesus brings in the New covenant, and Jesus is not yet on the scene, ergo, John is OT.

But we also have good reasons to associate John with the New Testament- 400 good reasons to be precise. There are 4 centuries between John and Malachi. John is the fore-runner, the one going ahead of Messiah. He has not the authority of the king, cannot bring the kingdom to come, but he baptises, forming a people ready for the king.

Since John is still an Old Testament prophet in essence, his baptism cannot be considered to be Christian baptism. And this is not just theologising- this is the way the apostles saw John’s baptism too, and for them it was a practical issue. Those baptised by John would need to be baptised again. John himself said that they would need to be baptised with the Spirit, but they would also undergo another water baptism. Luke records in Acts, the occasion when Paul came to Ephesus and met some Jews who had been baptised by John, and then had disappeared from the scene altogether for a while, and had obviously remained in the dark as to the developments in Jesus’ ministry, and then with the early church. They have “not heard that the Holy Spirit is yet”, and when Paul tells them, they are baptised. John’s baptism was for those who identified fully with John’s teaching- which means that they knew that they were sinners, they wanted to change, and looked to Messiah to bring about the change they needed. The baptism into membership of the church was for those who were becoming followers of the Messiah, taking his name upon themselves, for he had finally come.

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11 Comments on “Mark 1:1-10. Mark’s Gospel.”

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  9. Ferris Lindsay Says:

    Thank you for what is a clear, lively and compellingly informative piece.

  10. Great post, thanks very much.

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