Intro for Bible Study on the Book of Mark (April 5th)

Posted: April 11, 2009 in Bible Study

The Gospel according to Mark/notes taken in study with Dr. Bill Lane from Jan. ’99


The Life Situation that Explains the Gospel

         The early church consistently associated Mark’s Gospel with Peter and with Rome. Mark was considered the interpreter of Peter as he wrote his Gospel in the region of Italy. So behind Mark’s Gospel account stands the preaching of Peter (For more details regarding this matter see The Gospel According to Mark, by William L. Lane pp. 7-10).

         In the summer of 64 A.D. a great fire destroyed much of the great city of Rome which held a population of 1.5 million people. The fire burned for two weeks damaging 10 of the 14 districts of the city. Three districts were leveled to the ground, and in seven other districts many of the oldest buildings and monuments were either seriously damaged or completely destroyed. Rumors persisted that the fire was started by order of Nero himself. The fire started among the shops near the Circus Maximus where the emperor wanted to build a grand palace. Another persistent rumor was that while the city was burning Nero had gone on his private stage and celebrated the disaster by singing about the destruction of ancient Troy by fire.

         In the aftermath Nero instituted various programs to relieve the impact of the fire’s destruction, but this was not successful to alleviate popular suspicion or resentment of him. He sought a scapegoat to blame for the fire and he chose the Christians. The Roman historian Tacitus writes: “Neither human resources, nor imperial munificence, nor appeasement of the gods, eliminated sinister suspicions that the fire had been instigated. To suppress this rumor, Nero fabricated scapegoats – and punished with every refinement the notoriously depraved Christians (as they were popularly called)…. First, Nero had self-acknowledged Christians arrested. Then, on their information, large numbers of others were condemned …. Their deaths were made farcical. Dressed in wild animals’ skins, they were torn to pieces by dogs, or crucified, or made into torches to be ignited after dark as substitute for daylight. Nero provided his Gardens for the spectacle, and exhibited displays in the Circus, at which he mingled in the crowd – or stood in a chariot, dressed as a charioteer. Despite their guilt as Christians, and the ruthless punishment it deserved, the victims were pitied. For it was felt that they were being sacrificed to one man’s brutality rather than to the national interest” (Tacitus Annals of Rome 15.44).

         Because of the persecution the Christians and the church in Rome went underground into the catacombs which consisted of narrow underground tunnels and tomb-chambers cut in the soft rock seeking a place of sanctuary. Christian commitment could result in a martyr’s death! Peter speaks of the church in Rome (note the “she”) and of Mark as he closes his first letter with greetings “She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you her greetings, and so does my son Mark” (1 Pet. 5:13). Babylon is a cryptogram or code word for Rome where the church, the new Israel, found itself in exile and captivity.

         Mark is writing a pamphlet for hard times. The Christians needed encouragement at a time when confession of Jesus as Lord might mean their death. He wanted to strengthen Christians and prepare them to be faithful to Jesus in such a hostile environment as Rome under imperial persecution. He wanted to show Christians that the pain or humiliation they were suffering or might suffer was endured already by Jesus. Notice the things Mark includes in his account:

         Driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, Jesus was “with the wild beasts” (1:13)

         Jesus was “betrayed” by one within the inner circle (3:19; see 14:17-21)

         His family misunderstood him and thought he was “out of his mind” (3:21)

         Jesus foresaw some would fall away as “persecution comes because of the word” (4:17)

         The call to discipleship is a call to martyrdom: “…take up his cross and follow me” (8:34)

         Jesus said everyone would be “salted with fire” (9:49)

         Jesus promised those who followed him a hundred fold return “with persecution” (10:30)

         Jesus warned that his disciples would be betrayed by those in their inner circles (13:9-13)

         Jesus stood before a Roman magistrate (15:1-15)

         Jesus was condemned to be scourged and crucified (15:16-20)

         A Roman centurion seeing the manner of Jesus’ death said “Surely this man was Son of God” (15:39)

         Jesus was vindicated by God after his death through the resurrection (16:6f)


Mark’s Response to the Crisis

         Mark gave his Gospel a confessional structure. He starts with the confessional statement: “The beginning of the gospel concerning Jesus the Messiah the Son of God” (1:1)


              1:1                 Jesus the Messiah                         The Son of God

              1:11                                                                          [“You are me Son, whom I love…”]

              4:35-41        “Who is this?” (4:41)

              7:31-37        “He has done all things well” (7:37)

              8:29               “You are the Messiah” (Peter a Jew)

              9:7                                                                           [“This is my Son, whom I love…”]

            15:39                                                                         “Surely this man was the Son of God”

                                                                                                      (The centurion – a Gentile)

            Mark uses structure to call Christians to true discipleship. Note the pattern of prophecy, misunderstanding, and call to true discipleship:

            Prophecy of Suffering             8:31-32a      9:31                 10:32-34

            Misunderstanding                  8:32b-33        9:32                 10:35-41

            Call to True Discipleship            8:34-38        9:33-37        10:42-45

Identification with the suffering Servant-Messiah will expose Christians to suffering as well. Just as Jesus had to trust God for vindication, so Christians will have to trust God for vindication!

         Mark gave his Gospel an abrupt beginning (Prologue – 1:1-13). Jesus is introduced on the scene as an adult at his baptism (1:9-13). He concludes with an abrupt ending as well (Epilogue – 16:1-8). There was an attempt in the early 2nd century to conform Mark’s Gospel account to the pattern of the other canonical Gospels (see 16:9-20).



         Occasion: Nero’s persecution of the Christians following the great fire of Rome

         Life-Situation: “Mark is a pamphlet for hard times” (Bill Lane). It addresses a church that was the object of imperial persecution following the great fire of Rome.

         Purpose:  To strengthen Christians and to prepare them to be faithful to Jesus at a time when Christian confession could lead to a humiliating death in the arena. And to show that Christians can suffer no form of humiliation that has not been endured already by Jesus the Messiah the Son of God.


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