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The Bible & Theology Toward Christian Maturity

Living With Mystery

Mark's Gospel Draws a Complex Portrait of Jesus and His Followers

By Laura Sweat, Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies 

Fra Angelico, Christ Glorified in the Court of Heaven
In traditional Christian iconography, Mark the evangelist is often accompanied by a lion, one of the four living creatures in Revelation 4:7. ("St. Mark Writing His Gospel," Detail From the Crypt, Fresco, French School, 15th Century, Collegiale Saint-Bonnet-le-Chateau, France).

Asking a New Testament scholar to choose a favorite gospel is similar to asking a parent to choose a favorite child. However, if pressed, I would say that the Gospel of Mark is indeed my favorite gospel. At the same time, I understand why some people might be skeptical of my claim. In the New Testament canon, Mark follows on the heels of Matthew. This placement has made it challenging to appreciate Mark, since 90 percent of Mark's narrative is included in Matthew.

This overlap between the first two canonical gospels, in particular, poses the question: Why do we need Mark, if Matthew includes much of the same information?

As I hope you'll see as we journey through this gospel together in the Winter Quarter Lectio: Guided Bible Reading, the Gospel of Mark serves as an important witness to Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. And it is a call to disciples who follow him.

The Gospel of Mark is historically important because it was likely the first gospel written. If so, it served as a framework for others, especially Matthew and Luke. Its placement second in the New Testament canon has a historical rationale: For many years, the church saw Mark as an abridgement of Matthew. In another sense, though, a theological purpose may be behind this arrangement.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus' disciples are competent remarkable obtuseness from the beginning to the end of Jesus' ministry (compare Mark 4:13 and Matthew 13:16, 51).

Readers of the Gospel of Mark may oscillate between judgmental surprise that the disciples cannot seem to grasp what Jesus is proclaiming, and compassion as they identify with the struggling disciples in understanding and living the life of discipleship. Reading the Gospel of Mark after the Gospel of Matthew can produce a healthy unsettling of our knowledge. While Mark presents the good news of Jesus Christ (1:1) succinctly, this gospel is not easy, and does not pretend that answers to profound questions are straightforward. There are secure foundations, but there are many mysteries obscuring the depths of those foundations.

Based on these secure foundations, however, the Gospel of Mark tells three interrelated stories. First, Mark reveals Jesus' story, in his life, death, and resurrection. Second, Mark discloses the story of God's kingdom that Jesus proclaims, describing a kingdom that is both coming now and not yet here. Third, Mark tells us about the story Jesus' disciples are supposed to be living, as they follow Jesus by taking up their cross. Reading these intertwined stories of Jesus, God's kingdom, and the role of the disciples strengthens the work of the Spirit in our lives, so that we may become more faithful disciples.

Journeying through the Gospel of Mark will take us on some surprising twists and turns to reach this destination. I hope you'll join us!

Join Laura Sweat, assistant professor of biblical studies, she guides readers through the Gospel of Mark in Lectio: Guided Bible Reading.