“Basic Gospel” is an oxymoron. The “good news” that God sent His Son to both reveal Himself to us and redeem us from our sins is not and never can be properly “basic”. Rather, it is, always has been, and always will be profound and glorious.
Nonetheless, “basic Gospel” is a fairly good way to describe the Gospel of Mark. Here’s why:
- Mark looks like a basic Gospel because it is shorter and has less content than the others.
- It feels like a basic Gospel because it moves at such a brisk pace.
- And, more than anything, it is a basic Gospel because its message is simpler and less nuanced than the messages of the other Gospels.
Compare Mark’s message with the others’ messages. Matthew is saying Jesus is the promised and prophesied Messiah King. Luke is Jesus is the Savior of the world. John is saying Jesus is the incarnate Word of God. But Mark…well, Mark is just saying Jesus is the Son of God. He says that right up front, in fact. The book starts with the statement: The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God…(1:1).
And I know saying Jesus is “just” the Son of God is another oxymoron; there is nothing “just” about that truth. But I do think it is fair to say that truth is more straightforward and fundamental than the others.
That does not mean, though, that Mark is unimportant or uninteresting. It is very much both. There are many important and interesting things both in Mark and about Mark. I want to share a few of those with you.
The Gospel of Peter
One thing I find incredibly interesting about Mark is its origin, that is, the reason it was written in the first place. According to tradition, Mark was written in Rome by John Mark, a young man who helped Paul, Barnabus, and Peter at various times in their ministries (and who was probably also the young man who ran away naked from Jesus’ arrest; Mark 14:51 & 52). The tradition says the Roman Christians were afraid that Peter’s eyewitness testimony, that is, all that he had seem of Jesus and had been telling them, was going to die when he died. That being a legitimate concern, they asked Mark to write down this eyewitness testimony before Peter died and it was lost forever. After a little persuading, Mark finally did so, giving us the Gospel we have today.
Not that is tradition and not Scripture; it is something told us by the early Christians, not the Apostles. But my philosophy is that we should not reject tradition unless there is a good reason. And I don’t see a good reason to reject this one. I think this is likely how and why Mark was written. This means that this Gospel is not only a reflection of the heart the early Roman Christians had for preserving the message of Jesus as preached by the Apostles, but also that Mark is at least in part “The Gospel of Peter”. While Mark was indeed an eyewitness in his own right, having personally experienced some of the things he records, the bulk of the stories of this Gospel come to us via Peter’s eyes and ears.
Mark’s beginning and ending are also interesting. We’ve already covered that beginning in verse 1, where he states he is writing about Jesus the Son of God. While that is interesting in and of itself, what is also interesting is that he describes what he is writing as “the beginning of”. Now that phase “the beginning of” could refer to the content of the first chapter: the arrival of John the Baptist and Jesus’ baptism. Some, though, think it applies to the entire Gospel itself, that Mark was saying the entire 16 chapters, everything from Jesus’ teachings to His death and resurrection, were “the beginning” of His “good news”. These folks further say this indicates the good news is continuing to be told and to expand in the way that the followers of Jesus (including us) continue to share His message and live His lifestyle.
Being the “show me” kind of guy I am, I hold on to this notion loosely. I can see how this would be a “spiritualizing” of the text, that is, forcing a nice spiritual application into the text even though the text isn’t actually making that application. But I can also see how this could be absolutely true. And so I still hold onto the notion. I hold onto it loosely, but I hold on nonetheless.
A Missing Ending
The ending is what we find in Mark 16. Or rather, it is what we don’t find in Mark 16. As you might now, Mark 16 contains one of the greatest textual mysteries of the New Testament, a mystery we call “the missing ending of Mark”. As the NIV tells us in its version of Mark, verse 16:9-20 are not found in the most reliable manuscripts. This is quite a problem as these verses contain an appearance of the resurrected Jesus and His instructions for spreading His message.
But that problem is not really as great as it seems. Remember, Mark not only recorded Peter’s accounts of Jesus but he recorded those accounts for people who already knew them very well. Mark probably thought he was only writing his Gospel for those people; he probably didn’t think he was also writing it for people living 2000 years later on continents he didn’t know existed. That being the case, his ending his Gospel at the empty tomb makes complete sense. That is probably where Peter’s preaching ending; you can easily imagine Peter taking his hearers to the empty tomb and then stopping the story to make applications to his hearers lives. And that is probably why Mark stops there; it was the preaching, not the applications, that he needed to preserve, and there was no need to record information about Jesus’ resurrection appearances that the Roman Christians knew by heart.
In fact, that ending is a pretty great ending, particularly for a book that calls itself “the beginning”. It’s an ending which forces the reader to ask themselves, “What does the empty tomb mean and what am I going to do about it?”
The Redemption of a Failed Worker
One more interesting thing about Mark is Mark himself. My guess is that we know more about John Mark than Matthew or Luke. This is because he is mentioned so many times in Acts and in both Paul’s and Peter’s epistles.
And one thing we know about John Mark is that he failed Paul at a pretty critical moment. He abandoned Paul on the mission field. For that reason, Paul refused to trust Mark to make a second missionary journey. In short, Mark failed both Paul and God.
But that failure wasn’t the end of his spiritual career. Paul may have made Mark sit on the bench for a while, but he eventually brought Mark back into the game (see Colossians 4:10 and 2 Timothy 4:11). So did Barnabus and Peter. And so did God. I think it is incredibly encouraging that this guy who failed in his youth was allowed to mature, return to Christian work, and even write one of the four Gospels. I think, in fact, that it is a gospel in and of itself.
Basic But Beautiful
So is Mark basic? Yes, in comparison to others it is effectively basic. But it is also beautiful. It is beautiful in its own right, being a great starting Gospel and great starting book for those who have never read the Bible. It is beautiful in the unique things it records (there aren’t that many things in Mark that aren’t in the others, but there are a few and they are good). And it is beautiful in its beginning and ending as well as its origin and authorship.