24 January 2007

What is remarkable about Mark

by Dan Phillips

Don't miss the prayer request at the end of this post.

"Conventional wisdom" often flies so under the radar of one's mind that one often does not even pull it out for re-examination. Sometimes it's true, sometimes it's false. The Gospels have their own conventional wisdom among expositors: Matthew is the Gospel of the King, Luke the Gospel of the Son of Man, John the Gospel of the Son of God. And Mark is the Gospel of the Servant of God.

But what really is distinctive about Mark? What particular truth did the Holy Spirit bring to light in moving him to put Jesus' words and deeds in writing?

One oft-noted characteristic of Mark is how his narrative moves along at a brisk pace. The Go Gospel was the name of a book of meditations on Mark written a few decades back, and though I didn't read the book, the title stayed in my mind as quite apropos. Mark is very fond of the word euthus, "immediately," "at once," "straightaway." The longer gospel of Matthew uses it in about five verses, John in three, and for all his rich vocabulary, Dr. Luke in but one. Our man Mark uses it in about forty verses. That's not including rarer synonyms such as exapina and exaiphnes.

But I've noticed another stress of Mark's Gospel: teaching. While we first run into "immediately" in the tenth verse, a form of didasko (I teach) comes shortly after, in v. 21. In fact, we see three forms of it in two verses:
"And He enters into Capernaum; and immediately on the Sabbath, after entering into the synagogue, He began teaching. And they were astonished at His teaching, for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as the scribes" (vv. 20-21, my literal translation)
Twice the verb, once the noun. The first occurrence of the verb ("began teaching") is an ingressive imperfect, meaning that Jesus entered into and continued the activity of teaching. It interests me that Mark uses this very form (edidasken) six times in his Gospel (1:21; 2:13; 4:2; 9:31; 10:1; 11:17), while the other three Evangelists use it only twice apiece.

Or then again there is the explicit phrase erxato didaskein, "He began to teach." That expression occurs four times in Mark (4:1; 6:2, 34; 8:31). No other Evangelist has the exact phrase.

Teaching, verbal communication of God's truth, is stressed in other ways, by Mark's use of related terms. The contents of the book itself are styled in the first verse as euaggelion, a glad report of news. The next verse refers to written revelation (gegraptai, it stands written), and features the sending of one whose task is verbally to communicate news, information (aggelos). In verse four, John the Immerser proclaims, heralds (kerusso) the Word of God. In 2:2, Jesus Himself is seen continually or characteristically speaking (elalei, again imperfect) "the word."

But let's focus back on the did- group, the words that communicate teaching. The verb didasko (I teach) occurs in seventeen verses in Mark (as opposed to thirteen in Matthew, fifteen in Luke, and ten in John); the noun didache (teaching) in five verses (three each in Matthew and John, once in Luke), and the synonym didaskalia in one verse (as in Matthew; none in Luke nor John).

And then there is the substantive didaskalos, teacher. Only in the use of this noun is Mark "topped" by a fellow-evangelist. Luke uses it sixteen times, while Mark and Matthew each use it twelve times, and John eight times.

As if to heighten his emphasis on Jesus as teacher, Mark says that "crowds converged on Him again and, as He usually did, He began teaching them once more" (10:1). To break that down a bit, Mark says (A) "again," (B) "as He usually did," (C) "He began teaching them" (another ingressive imperfect). Mark wants us to know that this is what Jesus was accustomed to do, it was His practice; He started up the teaching "as usual," as many English versions have it.

Jesus, then, was preeminently a teacher. Mark also wants to be sure that we understand that He was a teacher like no other. The people who heard Him in the first chapter were gobsmacked at His teaching, because He taught with authority, and not like their parrotlike scribes (Mark 1:22). Further, He backed His teaching up with power (1:27). But while there are a number of places where teaching is emphasized, and miracles are not (cf. 4:1-33; 10:1ff.), I don't think you could say that the reverse ever obtains.

It can't be a surprise, then, that the apostles so practiced and emphasized teaching, doctrine, telling the truth. The Great Shepherd's undersheperds share character-traits with all other Christian men, except in one area: each must be able to teach (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:9). God prizes aptitude in this area above all other activities. He explicitly places a premium on hard work in the Word and teaching (1 Timothy 5:17). Clearly, if our Lord so embodied, so prizes, so exalts the activity of teaching, we who follow and are enjoined to do the same (Matthew 2818-20) should hold no other attitude.

As we cherish the unique portrait of our Lord in Mark's Gospel, many facets can justly be singled out and meditated upon. The doer, the actor, the leader, the healer, the redeemer — all these are valid characterizations of the Lord Jesus as Mark depicts Him.

But let us not forget Mark's own emphasis: Jesus, the Teacher.

Dan Phillips's signature

An urgent prayer Request: Please pray for our good friend Libbie, who has already suffered crippling pain for several months because of complications in her pregnancy. She had to be hospitalized yesterday after she fell. An e-mail update from Libbie's husband (Antony) informs us:

...They have transferred her to [a hospital about 30 miles away] since if she was to have the baby now it would need to be in a special baby care unit which we do not have in [our town]. Today I will be travelling to see her and I will update you and the blog later.

Libbie was having contractions as a result of the fall but they seem to have resided and so the likelihood of the little one coming in the next few days is slim I would guess. Please continue in your prayers for Libbie, the baby and [our three daughters, ages 5, 2, and 1]—and also me! I need God's help too.

Be thankful that I was at home yesterday when this happened. I have no other explanation as to why I was there other than He was directing my steps (I was intending to be at work but did not go in).

We have been holding on to the promises of scripture that His grace is sufficient all the way through this pregnancy and if God has no other purpose for me than to show me that through all this, then I have received a rich and wonderful teaching from the Word.

Watch the comment-thread at Libbie's blog for updates on her condition.


Allan Him said...

It is interesting that Mark records little of the actual content of Jesus' teaching. He includes no Sermon on the Mount, or on the plain; no upper room discourse etc. The only big chunks are the parables in Galilee, the teaching in the temple, and the little apocalypse.

Do you think that perhaps Mark is compensating? Is it possible that he has this emphasis on teaching- insistently telling us that Jesus taught- because he doesn't find space for the actual teaching per se.
Or to put it another way, maybe the other evangelists don't need to point out that Jesus taught, because they record the things he said, and it is then patently obvious that he is saying them.

Or do you think there is more to it?

Colin Adams said...

Thanks for this helpful post. I look forward to your follow up: Jesus "the preacher." Seriously: it would be a really interesting study - especially considering how Jesus' preaching and teaching go together, and what the relationship is between them.

James Scott Bell said...

I love Mark, Dan. I'm preaching a 5 week series right now from Mark 1, which has a 5 beat pattern from Jesus that is a model for us now. Amazing.

Another reason it's the "go Gospel" is, I think, that it was written for the Roman mind (the action guys, the "Why am I listening to you" guys) We have Matthew for the Hebrew mind, Luke for the Greeks, and John...well, he's got his own deal going on and it's a window the others don't have. Put 'em all together and you have the complete picture of Jesus.

And you are absolutely right that the show of power was to confirm the euaggelion, the true euaggelion. The Romans associated euaggelion with something big, like the naming of a new emperor, marked with festivals and the like to mark the occasion. Now Jesus is presenting the true Kingdom news.

Thanks for the note on Mark's Gospel, Dan.

DJP said...

JSB—the fresh phrasing of your insights gave me a needed chuckle. Thanks for offering them. I bet it's a fun series, as well as a helpful one.

Colin—it's interesting that you'd suggest that second post on preaching. I think the reason I gave that only a passing mention in this post (apart from its intended emphasis) is that, in my mind, real preaching is inseparable from teaching, and vice-versa. Christian preaching teaches; and Christian teaching preaches. But that tersely-phrased thought could stand some expansion, so I may well take your invitation.

Allan—thanks for your thought. There's no denial that other evangelists include discourses that Mark did not. I don't have the tools at hand to respond just now, but I think I've seen statistical studies that point in another direction than to say that Mark is downplaying the content of Jesus' teaching. Perhaps others can give you a better response.

Lee Shelton said...

Okay, so teaching is important. But what about packaging and marketing? We have to focus on those in order to get bodies through the church doors. Only then can we teach them.

Of course, we have to be careful how we teach them. We don't want to give them too much at once and risk scaring them away. We need to follow the examples of great expositors like Joel Osteen and Rick Warren. Let's use the gospel to satisfy people's immediate needs - self-esteem, financial propsperity, a good career, etc. - and then, maybe in 10 or 15 years, they'll be ready for things like "doctrine" and "truth."

donsands said...

To be a genuine disciple of Christ, we need to be taught.

What it must have been like to hear Him teach! The pure teachings of our Lord was such a honor to hear.

But even now it's such an honor to be taught His Word, through His pastor/teachers, who are filled with His Spirit.

Thanks for the good teaching.

Martin Downes said...

As a church we use Mark's gospel extensively in evangelism. In fact we were doing so this afternoon.

Interesting that in Mark 6 Jesus shows compassion on the shepherdless crowd by teaching them. Mark makes a point of telling us that this was how Jesus had compassion before telling us about the miraculous feeding of that great crowd.

Dan you should preach sometime on the three "I have come to..." statements in Mark (to preach, to call sinners, to give my life as a ransom for many). And do it all in the same sermon.

David Mohler said...

Great post!

Catez said...

Thanks for the update on Libbie.

Ebeth said...

This out me in mind of the time the Bible study we were part of was going to spend the next several months just in the book by MARK. Sadly, we never finished that, but now I will attempt to go back to where we lest off (Have to rewind so to speak) and finish myself.