Do words or actions establish a person’s credibility more? Most of us would say that a person’s actions speak louder than their words. Thus, the saying goes, “if you’re going to talk the talk, you must walk the walk”. Has anyone ever said that to you? “Practice what you preach” is another way of saying the same thing.
When it comes to establishing the credibility of Jesus, who claimed to be the Christ, both His words and works matter. J. Dwight Pentecost wrote a monumental book titled, A Harmony of the Words and Works of Jesus Christ. Long ago, Mark, the Evangelist, did the same by writing a summary of Jesus’s ministry. The Gospel According to Mark focuses primarily on Jesus’s works to validate His Messianic claim, not His major discourses, which is why Mark’s gospel is shorter than Matthew’s.[i] For Mark and his Gentile audience, actions speak louder than words.
Mark’s gospel paces like an action-thriller, quickly moving the reader from one scene in Jesus’s life and ministry to the next. By using the word “immediately” (euthus) more than forty times in the book, Mark gives the sense that Jesus was always on the move, though never hurried—serving, healing, preaching, and making disciples, while always focused on His goal of fulfilling the Father’s redemptive purposes through His atoning sacrifice on the cross. In the original language, twelve of sixteen chapters begin with the word “and,” giving the same forward-moving sense.
Who was Mark?
The Gospel According to Mark first raises questions about the author himself. Who was Mark, and what gave him the authority to write one of the four gospels? Mark was not even one of the original twelve disciples that Jesus called to follow Him. However, Peter called Mark “my son” (1 Peter 5:13), which gave birth to the tradition that Peter led Mark to faith in Jesus Christ and discipled him. If that is true, and if Peter was Mark’s primary source, as some suggest, then Mark’s gospel could be called The Gospel According to Peter or Peter’s memoirs, giving sufficient apostolic authority to the text.
Mark never refers to himself in his gospel.[ii] Rather, he appears for the first time in Acts 12:12, following Peter’s miraculous escape from prison at night. Peter retreats to the house of Mary, Mark’s mother, where the early Christians had gathered for prayer. Furthermore, Mark and Barnabas were cousins (Colossians 4:10), which is why Mark, whose other name is John, accompanied Barnabas and Paul on their first missionary journey (Acts 10:25, 13:5). However, Mark infamously quit in the middle of the journey and went home, infuriating the apostle Paul. Mark, a Jewish believer, might have disagreed with Paul’s emphasis on reaching the Gentiles with the gospel.
Whatever the reason for Mark’s departure, Paul and Barnabas “had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company” when Barnabas suggested Mark should assist them on their second missionary journey (Acts 15:39). Years later, it appears Paul and Mark reconciled, assuming the Mark that Paul refers to as a “fellow worker” and “very useful to my ministry” is John Mark (Philemon 24; 2 Timothy 4:11). Ironically, and perhaps to the point, Mark writes his gospel to the Gentiles, which is why he does not link Jesus to the Old Testament Messianic prophecies as much as Matthew does, who writes to the Jews.
Furthermore, if the John Mark we read about in Acts is Mark, the Evangelist, who penned The Gospel According to Mark, then, according to tradition, he also founded the church in Alexandria, Egypt, one of the most prominent churches in early Christianity, and served as its first bishop (49 A.D.).[iii] At the time, the three cities with the largest Jewish populations were Babylon, Alexandria, and Jerusalem.
It was this Mark who presented Jesus to the Gentile world as the Son of Man who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). According to Mark, Jesus was a Spirit-filled servant (1:1-14), serving servant (1:15-10:52), suffering servant (11:1-15:47), and special servant of God (16:1-20). Let’s take a closer look.
The Spirit-filled Servant
Mark skips over Jesus’s early years and starts at “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1), linking Isaiah’s prophecy about Messiah’s forerunner to John the Baptist’s ministry. The Evangelist follows with Jesus’s baptism by John and His temptation in the wilderness (1:1-14). The baptism of Jesus is such a monumental event that all four gospel writers record it.
Jesus identified with lost sinners through water baptism; He also portrayed His future death, burial, and resurrection as He “came up out of the water,” even as the Father publicly affirmed His one and only Son. Mark writes, “And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased’” (1:11). The Holy Spirit also descended on Jesus like a dove. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all present, making New Testament baptism trinitarian.[iv]
This was not the time when Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit. Rather, the Holy Spirit rested upon Jesus when He was in Mary’s womb and never departed from Him, something the prophets predicted would accompany Messiah’s arrival (Isaiah 11:2, 42:1, 8:16, 61:1). Reflecting upon Jesus’s baptism, Peter pointed out “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power” (Acts 10:36-38). Throughout His life and ministry, Jesus demonstrated what it looks like to walk by the Spirit without interruption (Galatians 5:23). Surely, Jesus came to serve, but He served lost sinners and the Father’s purposes in the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Serving Servant
In the long narrative that follows (1:15-10:52), Mark supports the beginning notion that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God by showing us the way He served. Mark records twenty of Jesus’s miracles and eight of His parables. The Evangelist also provides unique insight into how Jesus prepared to serve by observing His spiritual disciplines, “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed (1:35).
Matthew, Mark, and Luke record the Transfiguration of Jesus, a time when Jesus becomes radiant in glory before Peter, James, and John on a mountaintop. The purpose of the Transfiguration was for Jesus to show His inner circle of disciples more of His identity. Through Jesus’s dramatic change in appearance, His disciples became eyewitnesses of His majesty and deity, something they never forgot. Peter also mentions the stunning event, and John possibly alludes to it (1 Peter 1:16-18; John 1:14).
The most significant way Jesus served was by offering His life as an atoning sacrifice, which is perhaps why Mark records Jesus telling His disciples about His death and resurrection three times (8:31-33, 9:30-32, 10:33-34). The first time, Peter took Jesus aside and rebuked Him, to which Jesus replied, “Get behind me, Satan!” The second time, Mark says of the disciples, “But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.” From 8:31 forward, Mark’s focus is the cross.
Following each revelation about His future, Jesus teaches His followers about the demands of discipleship, starting with, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (8:34). Next, in response to a self-aggrandizing discussion the disciples had among themselves, Jesus says, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (9:35). Finally, in contrast to Gentile rulers who lord it over people, Jesus says to His disciples, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (10:43-45)
The Suffering Servant
Mark uses forty percent of his book to describe what happened during the last eight days of Jesus’s life and ministry. In fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9, chapter 11 begins with Mark’s account of Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the first time Jesus publicly presents Himself as Israel’s Messiah. Until then, Jesus seems reluctant for the crowds to know who He is, which scholars refer to as Mark’s “messianic secret.” For example, Jesus silences demons who try to identify Him (1:25, 34, 3:11-12, 5:7) and censors the people He heals (1:44, 5:43, 7:36, 8:26). He also instructs His disciples not to tell anyone that He is the Messiah (8:30, 9:9). Why is Jesus so buttoned-up about His identity?
The Jews expected a warrior Messiah who would overthrow the Romans, establish God’s kingdom on earth, and usher in Israel’s golden age. However, Jesus came first as the Suffering Servant who defeats sin, Satan, and death through His atoning sacrifice on the cross and resurrection. By squashing the messianic expectations of the Jews early in His ministry, Jesus sidesteps their inclination to make Him king on their terms and in their time.
Following His entrance into the Holy City days before Passover, Jesus vexes the religious leaders by cursing a fig tree (11:12-14), cleansing the temple of moneychangers (11:15-19), and challenging the teaching and authority of the Pharisees (11:27-33, 12:13-37). He also tells a parable that suggests the religious leaders are like evil farmers who mismanage God’s vineyard (12:1-11). None of this helps Jesus win friends and influence people. The chief priests and scribes respond by plotting His execution (11:18, 12:12, 14:1).
What follows could be explained as a good man landing on the wrong side of religious politics. However, the eyes of faith see Jesus yielding His will to the Father’s eternal plan to redeem lost sinners through the blood sacrifice of His one and only Son.
After Jesus prays “not what I will, but what you will” in the Garden of Gethsemane, Judas betrays Him with a kiss; the rest of the disciples abandon Him, running scared into the night (14:10-52). The Roman soldiers who arrest Jesus lead him to the high priest. Peter appears in Caiaphas’s courtyard and denies Jesus three times as various strangers identify Him as one of Jesus’s disciples.
Early in the morning, the religious leaders gather to discuss the situation and then take Jesus to Pilate, who oversees a trial that mocks justice and orders “the King of the Jews” crucified. Jesus is so alone on the cross that He even cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (15:34), in fulfillment of Psalm 22:1. Darkness covers the land from noon to three o’clock in the afternoon, at which time Jesus dies.
The Special Servant
If Mark’s gospel is the first, then 16:1-8 is the earliest record of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. With an economy of words, Mark places three women—Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome—at Jesus’s tomb early in the morning on the first day of the week. He shares their emotions and the quandary they face as they bring spices to anoint Jesus’s body. “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb” (16:3). As they get closer, they see that someone has already rolled the large stone away. They step inside, and alarm grips them when they see a man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side.
And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” 16:6-7
The divine messenger, probably an angel, invites the women to come and see. He was not afraid of full transparency. Christianity has always invited inquiry and investigation, as opposed to cults that often shroud their beliefs in mystery behind closed doors. Then, the angel of the Lord told the women to go and tell Jesus’s disciples what happened. Mark adds “and Peter,” a detail that suggests Peter, who had betrayed the Lord, received His grace.[v]
Mark’s gospel ends abruptly, leaving verses 9-20 in question. However, there is no doubt that Jesus came to serve, and His service ultimately validates His Messianic claim.
[i] Unlike Matthew, Mark does not include Jesus’s major discourses like the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) or the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24-25). He also omits other things that would not be meaningful to his Gentile audiences, like the genealogy of Jesus plus other aspects of Old Testament law and theology.
[ii] Mark might have been referring to himself in 14:51-52 when he mentions “a young man” in Gethsemane who ran away naked.
[iii] Many Early Church Fathers, including Papias, Eusebius, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen, affirm that Mark the Evangelist and John Mark of Acts are the same person and, and he was heavily influenced by Peter.
[iv] Jesus also commissioned His disciples by saying, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).
[v] It is not impossible to imagine Peter, by the Holy Spirit, instructing Mark to add this detail. The Gospel According to John (21:15-19) adds the full story of Peter’s restoration by Jesus after an unsuccessful, all-night fishing trip.