10 Things You Should Know about the Book of Mark

10 Things You Should Know about the Book of Mark

This article is part of the 10 Things You Should Know series.

1. Mark is readable and intended to be read aloud.

When I lived in Australia, my church invited an actor to come and perform, in one sitting, the whole Gospel of Mark—word-for-word, using only the direct words of the Gospel itself. Of course, he acted out the various scenes and gave different voices to different characters. But he didn’t add or subtract from a single verse. Remarkable! What this man demonstrated to our church was that the Gospel was shorter than expected (it only took about three hours) and that it has a distinct oral quality. Scholars have noticed this quality too; many believe Mark wrote his Gospel to be read aloud, or even acted out. Certainly, Mark is meant to be preached!

2. Mark is the first Gospel.

Of the Four Gospels, Mark was written first. Matthew and Luke (e.g., “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us,” Luke 1:1) used Mark as one of their primary sources. We call Matthew, Mark, and Luke the Synoptic Gospels because they “see” (optic) “together” (syn-). It is more difficult to see what is unique about Mark because so many of the stories and sayings in Mark were used or adapted in the other Gospels.

3. Mark focuses on the gospel of Jesus the Son.

Mark’s Gospel is the only Gospel to use the word “gospel” in the opening verse: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). Here Mark tells us that he has some good news to share about Jesus, whom he calls both the “Christ” and the “Son of God.” The title “Christ” signals that Jesus is the promised king from the line of David (2 Sam. 7:11–16).1 The title “Son of God” signals that “Jesus is eternally Son of the Father, sharing his divine nature”2—his “beloved Son” (Mark 9:7; cf. Mark 1:11). Over the course of his book, Mark will use two other “Son of . . .” phrases to refer to Jesus: “Son of David” and “Son of Man.” Conceptually, “Son of David” corresponds to the title “Christ,” and “Son of Man” to “Son of God.” Jesus is the Son of Man in his humble human state and in his humiliation—his rejection and sufferings (Mark 8:31; Mark 10:45; Mark 14:21, 36); this title also alludes to the figure of “one like a son of man” in Daniel 7:13–14. Jesus is the exalted figure who is worshiped alongside the Ancient of Days. In Mark, Jesus as the Son of Man does what only God can do: he forgives sins (Mark 2:10), rules over the Sabbath (Mark 2:28), and promises that he will judge the world (Mark 8:38; Mark 13:26). Jesus Christ is the Son of David, the Son of God, and the Son of Man.

4. Mark accentuates the theme of secrecy.

Throughout Mark, Jesus commands silence (often called the “messianic secret”). Many times after casting out demons, Jesus “would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him” (Mark 1:34); that is, they knew that he was “the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24), but Jesus didn’t want anyone hearing that from them. Jesus said something similar to his disciples (“And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him,” Mark 8:30) after they first articulated their belief that he was the Christ (Mark 8:29). Jesus wanted his true and full identity under wraps until he entered Jerusalem for his final week. So when Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey and the people declare that Jesus is the one “who comes in the name of the Lord” and shout, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” (Mark 11:9–10), he doesn’t quiet them. They say this because by that point Jesus is making his identity publicly known. Prior to this day, he has asked people who have rightly perceived his identity to keep quiet.3 But now, as Jesus enters the holy city, the secret is out! Now people can learn who he is and witness why he has come.

5. Mark moves quickly to the cross.

Mark uses a word translated “immediately” (euthys) forty-one times. It is used only ten other times in the whole of the New Testament. He employs this word to get the reader’s attention (“Hey, take a look what is happening next!”) but also to move the story along at a fast clip. He does the same with the word “and”—starting many sentences with “And” (too many to count!) and even the phrase “And immediately” (fourteen times). Of interest and import, the last time we read the phrase “and immediately” is after Peter’s denials (Mark 14:72). The very next verse (Mark 15:1) begins the passion narrative, where Mark intentionally slows down so we might ponder the sacrifice of the Son for our salvation.

6. Mark connects Christ crucified with Christian cruciformity.

Mark 10:45 is often considered the book’s key verse: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” As pointed out above, the cross of Christ is clearly front of mind for Mark. After Peter answers Jesus’s question “But who do you say that I am?” by confessing, “You are the Christ” (Mark 8:29), Jesus points them to his mission: “The Son of Man must [it is of divine necessity] suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:30). Then, after Jesus teaches that he must be crucified, he proceeds to teach that Christians are to be cruciformed (Mark 8:34–9:1). I like how Frederick Dale Bruner (reflecting on this text) answers the question “What makes a Christian a Christian?” by saying that there are two qualifications:

  1. Confessing Jesus as Christ (Christo-centricity)
  2. Following Jesus as the suffering Christ (Crucio-christocentricity)4

Jesus put the second point this way: “If anyone [not just the would-be monk or martyr] would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Note that cross-carrying centers on self-denial. Again and again, Mark forces us to ask ourselves, Have I renounced self-love and self-rule? Is Jesus my only king? Do I know and follow his commands?

In Mark, Jesus as the Son of Man does what only God can do: he forgives sins, rules over the Sabbath, and promises that he will judge the world.

7. Mark sandwiches stories.

Mark often employs a literary technique known as “sandwiching” or interpolation, wherein he inserts a story between two other sections of text. The point is to prompt the audience to interpret the central narrative (the “meat”) in the context of its surrounding material (the “bread”). Identifying this recurring structure is crucial for grasping the purpose and message of Mark’s narratives. For example, Jesus’s trial is sandwiched between Peter’s actions, and, as Jesus stands strong against the most powerful Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem (Mark 14:55–65), Peter denies Jesus before two servant girls (Mark 14:54, 66–72).5

8. Mark asks lots of questions.

Mark features over a hundred questions. Jesus asks questions such as, “Who do you say I am?” The twelve ask questions such as, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” The demons ask questions such as, “Have you come to destroy us?” And the religious powers of the day ask Jesus questions such as, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” These questions engage the reader, get us to think, and showcase the brilliance of Jesus’s answers!

9. Mark features only one hero.

At the Last Supper, Jesus predicts that all twelve will fall away after he is arrested: “You will all fall away, for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered’” (Mark 14:27). Sure enough, Judas betrays him, the eleven flee, and, even though Peter returns and stands outside Jesus’s trial, during his own informal trial he denies Jesus three times. In fact, Peter’s last line in Mark is “I do not know this man of whom you speak” (Mark 14:71). Throughout the passion narrative, Mark provides a stark contrast. We are to compare what all the fallen humans are doing—be it the high priest or the chief apostle—to what the perfect human—God’s Son, Jesus—does for them. Where we have failed, Jesus does not. The great Shepherd is stricken, smitten, and afflicted for his sheep. Jesus goes to Calvary to atone for apostate apostles, blasphemous bystanders, taunting thieves, and even hate-spitting, flesh-whipping Roman soldiers. Perhaps Peter came that night to try to save Jesus; he quickly learns what the reader should also learn: he and we all need a Savior.

10. Mark offers an apparently incomplete ending.

In contrast to the other Gospels, Mark recounts the events after Jesus’s crucifixion in just eight verses. These verses include the women’s angelic encounter at the tomb and the angel’s announcement (“Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here,” Mark 16:6), but they relate no resurrection appearances. Moreover, the final line might strike us, at first glance, as anti-climactic. The three women run, scared, from the tomb: “And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8). What are we to make of this abrupt, unexpected, and seemingly incomplete ending? I surmise that Mark had three reasons for ending the way that he did. One reason is that Mark’s ending calls us to bear witness to Jesus. In these final verses, God is calling us, even those disciples who are “confused and uncertain,”6 to move past the confusion and uncertainty, along with the doubt and fear, and to join the victory march by raising high the banner of God’s victory over death. As we stand at the end of the story and Mark suddenly stops the narrative, he leaves us with a decision to make. But that decision should be obvious enough. Do we close the book and “say nothing to anyone” (Mark 16:8), or will we obey the angelic command and “go” and “tell” others (Mark 16:7)? Mark’s ending is not an incomplete ending but an “open ending” whereby he invites us to “finish the story.”7


  1. Mark uses this title eight times. For example, at the structural center and theological hinge of the Gospel (Mark 8:27–29), Peter answers Jesus’ question “Who do you say that I am?” with “You are the Christ” (v. 29).
  2. Hans F. Bayer, A Theology of Mark: The Dynamic between Christology and Authentic Discipleship, EBT (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2012), 51.
  3. Mark 1:25, 34, 44; 3:11–12; 5:43; 7:36; 8:26, 30; 9:9.
  4. Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, Volume 2: The Churchbook, Matthew 13–28, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 119, 138.
  5. Other examples include Mark 2:6–10 in 2:1–12; 3:22–30 in 3:20–35; 4:10–12 in 4:3–20; 5:25–34 in 5:21–43; 6:14–29 in 6:7–31; 9:2–8 in 9:1–13; 11:15–19 in 11:12–14, 20–25; 14:3–9 in 14:1–11.
  6. Mark L. Strauss, Mark, ZECNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 724.
  7. Elizabeth E. Shively, “Recognizing Penguins: Audience Expectation, Cognitive Genre Theory, and the Ending of Mark’s Gospel,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 80 (2018): 273–92 (at 276).

Douglas Sean O’Donnell is the author of Expository Reflections on the Gospels, Volume 3: Mark.

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Author: Douglas Sean O’Donnell

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