Preaching and Teaching Mark: Challenges and Opportunities

We made it: Nineteen months and fifty-three sermons later, our congregation completed a Sunday morning series on the Gospel of Mark. As I said in an earlier post, we regularly study through entire books of the Bible as part of the pulpit ministry. We don’t always do this, but we often do. And seldom do we proceed through an extended study without several planned breaks (usually due to holidays, guest speakers, or other series). This study was unique, though, as it’s the first Gospel we’ve gone through together, and it constitutes the longest sermon series during my years at Grace Church.

I’d like to invite readers to revisit this journey with us, even if only from afar. I’ll offer some summary remarks about Mark’s Gospel, describe a few of its key themes, and discuss some of the challenges it presents.

In a Nutshell

Preaching and teaching through Mark is, in many ways, just like preaching and teaching through any other book of the Bible. If you pay close attention, you’ll find that God has included an array of topics that He knew in advance His people would need. A careful walk through Mark provides the church with wisdom on heaven, divorce, Sabbath observance, demonic activity, paying taxes, the temptation of greatness, and the nature of suffering, to name a few. Yet all of these themes are ultimately coalesce around the central theme of Jesus the suffering servant. He is, as Mark 10:45 puts it, One Who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”[1]

That being said, Mark is unique among the Gospels for at least three other reasons. First, most modern scholars agree that it was the earliest Gospel written. Depending on whether you agree with this, it won’t likely affect your preaching much in a practical sense.

Second, Mark is the shortest among the four Gospels. Its brevity likely won’t make a huge difference, but it may help your listeners (and you as a preacher) psychologically if you find yourself getting weary mid-way through. Keep reminding yourself: It’s the shortest!

Third, and more practically, Mark is organized largely around events rather than discourse. For this reason some have called Mark the gospel of action. As indicative of this quality, the Greek word euthus (“immediately” or “straightway,” depending on the translation) appears well over thirty times. Some Christians have even adapted Mark to a stage production due to its dramatic shape. Accordingly, preachers and teachers should let this lively drama play itself out in their messages. The many uses of irony in Mark also can facilitate the storytelling aspect of a sermon.

Key Themes

Because Mark constitutes part of the overall apostolic record of the life and ministry of Jesus, we expect to encounter many of the same themes that we encounter in the other Gospels. However, I’ll mention a few that often arose as I studied these texts.

Jesus’ Humanity

The humanity of Christ is connected to the discussions that people have about His identity. The question, “Who do men say that I am?” indicates that Jesus is indeed interested in what people believe. Before men, though, He consistently referred to Himself as the “Son of Man.” Apart from demons using “Son of God,” this alternate title appears only twice in Mark (at the beginning and at the end). Thus, in a sense, the story is truly leading to a grand realization about Jesus. We could argue that this finally occurs whenever the centurion looks upon Jesus’ lifeless body and says, “Truly this was the Son of God” (15:39).[2]

The Messianic Secret

An emphasis on secrecy is quite pronounced in Mark. Commentaries debate the theological significance of this, but I offer a few tentative conclusions. First, this notion of secrecy occurs against the backdrop of people seeing but not believing or hearing but not believing. This is the root of Jesus’ confrontation with the Jews who have heard and seen but still don’t believe. On the one hand, if He claims to be the Messiah publicly and prematurely, then they’ll seek to execute Him before His time. On the other hand, even when He makes such claims following a ministry of signs and wonders, they still don’t believe and move to crucify the so-called “King of the Jews.”

Second, this idea of secrecy can be preached in view of the larger New Testament backdrop of the Gospel as the message of the mystery of God in ages past now being revealed in Christ. Jesus’ identity was not fully grasped even by His own disciples (despite their professions to the contrary), but following His resurrection they began to see in more than one way.

The Way of Discipleship

Jesus is not only portrayed as a suffering servant in Mark, but He also calls all of His disciples to become suffering servants as they take up their crosses and follow Him. The manner in which Mark records the calling of the apostles, their short-term successes, and their profound failures certainly emphasize God’s calling for His church. Servanthood, suffering, stewardship, and sacrifice permeate all sixteen chapters.

Challenges

No book of the Bible is free from interpretative challenges. Whether we’re dealing with words, phrases, verses, or topics, we must prayerfully seek understanding. This is no less true of Mark.

Some of the challenges in Mark are common to the genre. For instance, we must grapple with the perceived discrepancies among the Synoptic Gospels. Though I myself didn’t have church members inquire about these, a careful reader will see these over time. It’s important to have a working knowledge of some of the more disputed cases, as well as a thoughtful position on how inerrancy holds up in the face of apparent discrepancies.

I would caution preachers, however, not to get bogged down during the week of study seeking to harmonize every perceived discrepancy. There is some legitimacy to harmonization, but there are also limits to it. Dr. Robert Picirilli often makes reference to this fact in his commentary, and I think it’s worth mentioning here also. I myself find little benefit in introducing such examples into messages more than occasionally. Remember: God inspired Mark to record his account in the way that he wrote it. Make it your priority to let the form and substance of the text speak on its own terms, and then if questions arise be prepared to address them.

The biggest potential challenge of preaching through Mark is dealing with the ending. Some believers will be unaware of the fact that Mark 16:9-20 is one of the two most significant textual variants in the Bible. Most modern Bibles (regardless of translation or paraphrase) will denote this in the margins or at the bottom of the page. I urge preachers and teachers to use great care in handling this issue. Pastors should consult with other pastors and the best scholarly resources before discussing this topic publicly. Associate pastors, youth pastors, and Sunday school teachers should consult with their pastor before dealing with this issue. Don’t wade into these waters alone.

I took a separate Sunday night service to discuss the ending of Mark with my church family, and I think that has saved us from some misunderstanding. Though my congregation hasn’t wrestled with this as some congregations might, much of this depends on how much teaching has previously been done on textual transmission. I’d advise pastors to teach on this issue before diving into Mark, since you know that this is ahead. Even if you choose not to pursue Mark anytime soon, an enterprising member may eventually ask about that pesky footnote, and you’ll have to explain it then. You may as well be proactive.

Opportunities

Each time we open God’s Word is an opportunity for God to do great things. However, I realized about two years ago that I had done little extensive preaching from the Gospels. Prompted by the leadership of the Spirit, as well as some helpful insight from Jonathan Pennington’s great book on the Gospels, I prayerfully undertook preaching through Mark.

God has richly rewarded my own soul in this; I think that He has rewarded our church with a closer look at the life and ministry of the One Who saved us. And I’m sure He’ll reward your church, too, if you choose to travel the Markan road.

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Resources Consulted in the Study of Mark

John Broadus, Commentary on the Gospel of Mark

John Calvin, Harmony of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Calvin’s Commentaries

R. Alan Cole, Mark, Tyndale New Testament Commentary

David Garland, Mark, The NIV Application Commentary

Larry Hurtado, Mark, The New International Biblical Commentary

Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament

Robert Picirilli, Mark, The Randall House Bible Commentary

J. C. Ryle, Matthew-Mark, Ryle’s Expository Thoughts on the Gospels

Thomas Oden, Christopher Hall, eds. Mark, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture

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[1] All Bible quotations in this article, unless otherwise noted, are from the English Standard Version (esv).

[2] Some variant readings suggest that the centurion said Jesus was “a Son of God.” As all the commentaries will note, even potential ambiguity in the centurion’s mind or wording doesn’t negate the significance Mark has in mind as these words are recorded just as Jesus’ identity is on fullest display.

Author: Jackson Watts

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2 Comments

  1. Excellent, practical article, Jackson. You gave some very helpful information about the expositional preaching of biblical books. You alerted us to some of the ways exposition gets bogged down, into the weeds and ultimately a bad reputation.

    I have noticed with interest a number of ministries such as Christianity Explored (evangelism) have chosen Mark’s (Peter’s) gospel as their foundational text because of it’s brevity and more steady pace.

    No doubt you have whetted some preachers’ appetites to consider a gospel, maybe Mark’s, for an extended and engaging sermon series. The suggested bibliography of commentaries you chose will be helpful in searching for good resources.

    Post a Reply
    • Thanks brother for the kind words and for reading!

      JW

      Post a Reply

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