Chapter 1. Mark and His Message

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

(Mark 8:34)

Mark’s is the Gospel for disciples. He shares with the other evangelists the concern to enable his readers to understand the person of “Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1). But he goes further than merely presenting Jesus. Jesus is the principal character in Mark’s drama, but the disciples come a close second.

Throughout the story, Mark is concerned with discipleship— its privileges, hindrances, dangers, challenges, and perplexities. This is the distinctive emphasis of Mark’s Gospel. In a very human and encouraging way he reveals how difficult it was for Jesus’ first followers to take their initial steps in discipleship, and how patiently Jesus persevered with them even though their understanding was so limited and their obedience so fragile. As we shall see, this emphasis probably grew out of Mark’s own experience as a Christian.

A Ground-Breaking Production

Mark’s Gospel was probably the first of the four to be written, and thus broke new ground and paved the way for the others to follow his pattern. His contribution was enormous, for nothing quite like this had ever been written before. In several striking respects, Mark’s record of Jesus differs from other ancient biographies of the famous:

All these features make Mark’s record of Jesus unique among biographies of the time. The other evangelists make up some of these omissions. Both Matthew and Luke actually reproduce most of the content of Mark’s Gospel in their own, combining it with additional material, particularly adding birth-stories and longer records of Jesus’ teaching. As a result, they are both considerably longer—in Luke’s case, almost twice as long. But they do not help us to understand why Mark paved the way with such an extraordinary work.

The answers to some of these questions may lie in the experience of Mark himself. Who was he?

Mark the Man

Like the other evangelists, Mark was not anxious to advertise his own identity in his Gospel. He does not mention himself by name. But others were keen to record the name of its author, and “According to Mark” was attached to it from the earliest years. If there had been widespread doubt about the ascription, tradition would undoubtedly have fixed on a figure of greater prominence in the early church. So we can be confident that this book was written by a “Mark.” Fortunately we can identify him with ease, and the New Testament evidence allows us to paint a fascinating portrait of him.

1. Mark Belonged to a Founding Family of the Christian Church

Undoubtedly he is the “John, also called Mark” mentioned in Acts 12:12 and 25. He is not unusual in having two names reflecting a bilingual background, and in his case the fact that one of them is Latin (Mark) may point to family connections with the Roman forces in Palestine. Mark’s Latin background is indicated also by the presence of some Latin words in his Gospel.

In Acts 12 we find the church gathered in the house of Mark’s mother, Mary, to pray for Peter in prison. This house was obviously an important center in the life of the early Jerusalem church, for Peter went straight there when he was miraculously released, obviously assuming that he would find the church there. It must have been a large house, and Mark’s family was wealthy enough to afford at least one servant-girl, the excitable Rhoda, who left Peter on the doorstep. Some scholars have speculated that this house contained the famous “large upper room” in which the Last Supper was held (Mark 14:15), and in which the church gathered after Jesus’ ascension (Acts 1:13).

2. Mark Was an Eyewitness of Jesus’ Death and Resurrection

Mark may have traveled to see and hear Jesus elsewhere, but if he lived in Jerusalem then he must have witnessed the final events in Jesus’ ministry. We can imagine the impact these had on the young Mark. He meditated on the meaning of Jesus’ death. And when he came to write his Gospel, it became the focus of the whole story, foreshadowed as early as Mark 3:6, predicted frequently by Jesus who traveled to Jerusalem deliberately in order to die, and interpreted as a sacrificial death, a “ransom for many” (10:45). We will survey this central aspect of his message below.

It is likely that he went through a painful development similar to that which Peter underwent (see chapter 8): starting with a traditional belief in a conquering, victorious Messiah who would re-establish the Jews as the sovereign people of God, he came to see the Messiah as a suffering figure, dying for his people to save them from their sins. This was the “Christ, the Son of God” whose story was “good news” for all who would hear it (1:1).

3. Mark Experienced Failure in His Own Discipleship

This is most important for our understanding of the way in which his experience equipped Mark to write his Gospel.

Paul and Barnabas were present in Mark’s home for that famous prayer meeting when Peter was released from prison. Now Barnabas was actually Mark’s cousin (Colossians 4:10); and when they left to return to Antioch, he and Paul took Mark with them (Acts 12:25). Shortly after this, the Holy Spirit prompted the church in Antioch to send Paul and Barnabas out on a daring new missionary venture (Acts 13:2f.). They took Mark along as their “helper” (13:5) as they preached the gospel through Cyprus and then crossed the sea to Pamphylia in the Roman province of Galatia.

At that point, however, Mark decided not to continue, and left Paul and Barnabas in order to “return to Jerusalem” (Acts 13:13). This upset Paul deeply, for later he refused to take Mark with him again “because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work” (Acts 15:38). The word “desert” here is the same as that used in the parable of the sower concerning the seed on stony ground: “Those on the rock are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away” (Luke 8:13). That is how Paul thought of Mark. When facing the test, he had “fallen away” and shown himself to be a disciple without roots, unwilling to obey the Spirit’s calling.

We do not know why Mark gave up. Pamphylia was a low-lying, fever-infested area, and they were facing a hard journey up into Pisidia. Mark had just witnessed an emotionally draining confrontation with Elymas the sorcerer in Paphos (Acts 13:6-12). And maybe he had some inkling of what lay ahead. If he had traveled on with Paul and Barnabas, he would have faced physical persecution at Lystra, where Paul was nearly stoned to death (Acts 14:19). It seems as though the stress and danger became too much for him to cope with, and he fled back home to Jerusalem. We can speculate that he was a rather timid, home-loving young man!

History has a way of repeating itself. Was Mark himself the young man described in Mark 14:51f., who follows Jesus to Gethsemane wearing only a coat, and then flees naked when the Sanhedrin police try to arrest him along with Jesus? Tradition has long maintained that he was. If so, it is not hard to imagine the sense of failure Mark must have felt in Pamphylia, when he found himself unable for the second time to cope with the challenge of discipleship. But we can also see how, through this experience, he was equipped to give his Gospel its distinctive message of encouragement to those who find discipleship hard. We will survey Mark’s teaching about discipleship below, but it is worth noting two features of it here, because they fit so clearly with Mark’s own experience:

A. Mark Uniquely Emphasizes the Fear Felt by the Disciples as They Follow Jesus

Matthew and Luke tone down his language, or even omit it altogether, at three points where he mentions this fear.

From the earliest years, copyists felt that this was a most inappropriate ending for the Gospel, and provided alternatives. It is certainly possible that Mark’s original ending has been lost in transmission. But it is clear from the ancient Greek manuscripts of Mark that none of the alternatives provided is original. And in fact it fits with Mark’s overall portrait of the human weakness of Jesus’ followers that he should end his Gospel in this most striking fashion.

B. Mark Uniquely Emphasizes the Willingness of Jesus to Rely on Disciples Who Are Still Very Insecure in Their Faith

In Mark 6:7-13 Jesus sends out the Twelve equipped with authority to preach and heal in his name. We read that “they went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them” (6:12f.), and then “gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught” (6:30). At first sight these disciples seem like spiritual giants, but the story immediately goes on to paint their true colors: their hearts are hardened (6:52), their understanding is dull (7:18), and their memory is obtuse (8:2-5; compare 6:35-38), so that Jesus has to plead with them, “Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember?” (8:17f.).

And even when the disciples eventually decide that Jesus is “the Christ” (8:29), they have made only a bare start. They need to learn hard lessons about prayer (9:28f.; 11:21-25), about humility (10:13-16), about self-sacrifice (10:26-31), and about status (9:38f.; 10:35-45). And Mark gives little indication of progress. Peter, James and John fall asleep instead of praying in Gethsemane (14:37-42), and when Jesus is arrested “everyone deserted him and fled” (14:50). The one disciple who turns back and follows Jesus then denies him vociferously (14:71).

Behind all this we may see the experience of Mark himself. He too had experienced the conflicting impulses he portrays in Jesus’ first disciples. On the one hand they feel immensely drawn to Jesus (1:16-20), directly experience his extraordinary powers (6:13), identify him as “the Christ” (8:29), give up everything to follow him (10:28), and feel ready to die for him (14:31). But on the other hand they are constantly puzzled or amazed by Jesus, so much so that Mark makes little distinction between them and the Pharisees, so far as their understanding of him is concerned (8:11-21). As we have seen, they are frequently very fearful, and finally fall away completely.

Mark thus speaks sympathetically to all who feel the sheer difficulty of following this Christ. But is he finally hopeless about the possibility of real, victorious discipleship? It is vital that we move to a fourth feature of “Mark the man” which sheds further light on his Gospel:

4. Mark Became the Companion Both of Peter and of Paul

Failure was not the end of the story for Mark. We do not know how long he stayed in Jerusalem after returning there. But after the apostolic Council in Acts 15, we find him back in Antioch again with Barnabas and Paul. Paul refused to take Mark with them on a return visit to the same churches. But at the cost of his partnership with Paul, Barnabas graciously helped Mark back into missionary work, taking him again to Cyprus, the scene of his failure (Acts 15:38f.).

We do not hear of Mark again until we meet him in four of the later New Testament letters. At the time of writing Colossians and Philemon (some ten or twelve years later), Mark is with Paul, who even calls him “my fellow worker” (Philemon 24; compare Colossians 4:10). And then Mark receives a glowing testimonial in Paul’s last letter, written probably just before his death: Paul tells Timothy to “get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful [or ‘useful’] to me in my ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11). Obviously the breach with Paul has been completely healed!

Finally Mark appears in 1 Peter 5:13, where Peter calls him warmly “my son” as he passes on greetings from Mark, who is with him, to the Christians in “Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia,” to whom the letter is addressed (1 Peter 1:1).

All these letters were probably written from Rome, where clearly Mark ministered both to Peter and to Paul, and became a trusted and much loved companion of both. Clearly, too, he was by this time known to the churches in Galatia and Asia Minor, the very area from which he had fled when his faith failed. So Barnabas’ care for his cousin had been amply vindicated. Mark had faced and conquered his fears, and had become thoroughly “useful” in Christian service.

And not only Mark. Peter, too, had come back from failure to be the “Rock” on which the church was being built. Mark emphasizes Peter’s failure more than that of the other disciples. “Even if all fall away, I will not... Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you” (14:29, 31). Then, with dreadful pathos and irony, Mark tells the story of each of the three denials predicted by Jesus (14:66-72). The denials become more emphatic, until “he began to call down curses on himself, and he swore to them, 'I don’t know this man you’re talking about’” (14:71).

Perhaps the friendship between Peter and Mark was cemented by their shared experience of failure and restoration. Quite possibly the Gospel itself was born out of this shared experience. From an early date it was believed that Mark based his Gospel on the preaching of Peter. The earliest statement of this view comes from Papias, the Bishop of Hierapolis around ad 130. It is supported later in the second century by Irenaeus (Bishop of Lyons c. ad 178-195), who adds the thought that Mark wrote down his record of Peter’s preaching in Rome, after the latter’s death. Then Clement of Alexandria (c. ad 200) contributes the suggestion that Mark was pressed to do this by the people who had heard Peter preach.

We do not know the exact sequence of events. But we can say for sure that:

These observations have led the American scholar William Lane to take seriously the tradition that Mark based his Gospel on the substance of Peter’s preaching, and to suggest that Mark wrote it especially for the church in Rome when it was called to face persecution under Nero in ad 65, during which quite possibly Peter himself was martyred.

If Mark based his Gospel on the preaching of Peter, then some of its surprising features are explained.

Mark the Writer

We can tell more about Mark simply from his writing. Here, too, he displays the particular qualities and gifts which matched him to the task of being the first Gospel-writer. Three things in particular stand out.

1. Mark Was a Gifted Stylist

He writes in a vivid, direct and racy style. The little Greek word euthus is a favorite of his, used forty-one times. Translated “immediately,” “just then,” “straightaway,” “without delay,” “at once,” this word adds a sense of pace and movement. Mark underlines this by using short sentences and vivid, punchy vocabulary. The story moves along rapidly from incident to incident.

Mark has a gift for visual detail which brings a scene to life. Often he includes a detail which Matthew and Luke omit. For instance, only he records that Jesus “took a little child ... in his arms” as he said, “whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me” (Mark 9:36f.). Only he records that the rich young man “ran up” to Jesus and “fell on his knees” before asking, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (10:17). And only he describes how Jesus “looked at him and loved him” (10:21), and how the man’s “face fell” (10:22).

Examples could be multiplied. This love of graphic detail often means that Mark’s stories are fuller than their equivalents in Matthew and Luke. For instance, we may compare the statistics of the double story of Jairus’ daughter and the woman with the hemorrhage:

Some of the details which Mark alone includes add the “human touch” to this story:

Another technique employed by Mark the stylist to make his narrative come alive is the so-called “historic present.” This is the sudden use of the present tense in a story set in the past. In the story of Jairus and his daughter, this happens when Jairus appears: he “comes” and seeing Jesus “falls at his feet and urges him” to come. Similarly Mark uses the present tense at the climax of the story. When Jesus arrives at Jairus’ house, he “sees a commotion,” “speaks” to the mourners, “goes in” with the parents, and “says” to the girl...

Altogether Mark is a powerful stylist.

2. Mark Was a Compelling Story-Teller

This is the complementary quality on a larger scale. Just as Mark tells his individual stories with great vividness and power, so he composes his whole Gospel with equal skill.

The early Christian writer Papias certainly got this wrong. In the passage where he testifies that Mark based his Gospel on Peter’s preaching, Papias also says that Mark “wrote down accurately whatever he remembered of the things said or done by the Lord, but not however in order.” This lack of “order” he attributes to Peter, who did not draw up “a connected account of the Lord’s oracles.” So Mark copied Peter, simply aiming not to leave anything out.

But Mark’s Gospel is anything but a jumble of disconnected reminiscences. Recently scholars have come to appreciate Mark’s story more clearly than ever. It is beautifully composed, and its riches are still being explored. Through such careful composition, Mark lent force to the message he sought to communicate. Here just a few features can be mentioned:

A. Overall Structure

After the introduction in 1:1-15, the Gospel clearly falls into two parts, with 8:27-30 forming the “hinge” in the middle. Peter’s confession of Jesus as “the Christ” is the climax of the narrative so far. But it introduces a dramatic change: “He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected... and that he must be killed” (8:31). This note of coming suffering has been part of the story before, but not predicted by Jesus. Now the cross begins to loom large, as we will see below.

On either side of this “hinge,” each half falls into three sections. In the first half, each of these sections begins with a story about the disciples (1:16-20, 3:13-19, 6:6-13), and ends with a little summary incident that encapsulates the message of that section:

The second half of the Gospel likewise falls into three sections: 8:31-10:52 (ending with the healing of a blind man, like the section it follows); 11:1-13:37 (focusing on opposition and conflict, like the middle section of the first half); and 14:1-16:8 (which tells the story of the death of Jesus, reaching a climax with the centurion’s confession, which takes us right back to the beginning, 1:1, 11).

B. Repetition and Reminiscence

Frequently Mark makes the narrative repeat itself, and these repetitions are vital to his message.

But one is delivered, the other not. And what makes the difference between them is the faith and prayer of the father: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (9:24).

C. Creative Juxtapositions

The connection between these two “boys” in adjacent chapters is also an illustration of “creative juxtaposition.” Mark combines stories, or tells them alongside each other, without making any explicit comment, but allowing them to interpret each other.

One example is the combination of the cleansing of the Temple and the cursing of the fig tree in 11:11-25. Mark tells the stories together, wrapping one story around the other—a technique he employs also in 5:21-43 and 6:7-31. Each story fills out the message of the other. The “fig tree” was one of several trees which were often used as an image for Israel. Inspecting the Temple in 11:11 is followed by examining the fig tree in 11:12-14—and cursing it as fruitless. Then the cursing is followed by what we usually call the “cleansing” of the Temple, though it is more like an act of judgment. The one whose “house” it is (11:17) has examined it and found it wanting.

The next day the disciples notice that the fig tree has withered. An ominous sign! And then Jesus gives them radical new teaching on prayer which completely bypasses the Temple, the “house of prayer for all nations” (11:22-25). We are not at all surprised when, later that day, Jesus predicts the total destruction of the Temple (13:2).

No parts of this combined story would have the same meaning if the other parts were not there. Examples of this technique could be multiplied from other parts of Mark’s Gospel.

3. Mark Was a Persuasive Spokesman

The purpose of all this careful writing was to persuade. Whom did Mark have in mind? Scholars are not agreed. It is possible that Mark had several purposes, both evangelistic and pastoral. His overall aim is not hard to define: he wanted to persuade his readers to believe in “the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1), and to follow him.

He actually gives his book the title, “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ” (1:1). Opinions differ about the significance of the word “beginning” here. Does it refer just to his introduction (1:1-15), or to the whole book? Since this is the opening sentence, it seems more likely that Mark is describing his whole book as “the beginning of the gospel.” So he is assuming that his readers are already aware of the preaching of “the gospel,” and of the community of believers who have committed themselves to it. He wants to tell them how it all started.

There are other indications that he knows he is not telling the whole story of “the gospel,” and assumes knowledge of the later story among his readers:

Mark’s strategy, then, is to show “the beginning,” the foundations, so that readers may understand why the message of Jesus Christ is “good news,” and what in essence it means to follow him. We turn finally to a brief summary of his message.

Mark’s Message

There are many facets to the message of such a brilliant book. However, we may summarize its main thrusts as follows:

1. The Kingdom of God

Mark summarizes Jesus’ preaching as a message about the Kingdom of God: “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”’ (Mark 1:14f.). Here “good news” is of course the word “gospel.” Mark thus connects the “gospel” with a message about the nearness of the Kingdom of God, announced by Jesus.

We will consider the meaning of “the Kingdom of God” in the chapter on Matthew, because Matthew makes it more prominent a feature of Jesus’ teaching than Mark. Whereas Matthew refers to “the Kingdom of heaven” some fifty times, Mark mentions it only fifteen times.

“The Kingdom of God” was a glowing future expectation for Jews (compare Mark 15:43). Whenever the Kingdom should come, it would mean the overthrow of God’s enemies and the vindication of Israel as God’s people. Against this background, we can summarize the message in Mark as follows:

2. The Death of Jesus

As we noted above, Mark’s emphasis on the death of Jesus is one of the most striking features of his ground-breaking Gospel. What does he teach about it?

The Gospel begins with conflict. The conflict between Jesus and the religious establishment is signalled as early as Mark 1:22: “The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.” It quickly becomes clear that this note of authority will be regarded as blasphemous by the Pharisees (2:6). And when Jesus claims independent authority to associate with “sinners” (2:15-17), and to rewrite the rules governing fasting (2:18-22), Sabbath observance (2:23-28), and healing (3:1-5), the result is immediate and ominous: “Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus” (3:6). By mentioning the collaboration of Pharisees and Herodians in the plot (normally at daggers drawn with each other), Mark underlines the strength of the opposition to Jesus.

The conflict is further underlined by the incident in 3:20-30, where “the teachers of the law” accuse Jesus of being demon-possessed, and he in turn accuses them of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. In effect, they were accusing him of being a false prophet, the penalty for which was death (Deuteronomy 13:1-5), while he was accusing them of highhanded rebellion against the Lord like that of the sons of Eli, for which no atonement was possible (1 Samuel 2:25; 3:13f.). We wonder how long a final showdown can be delayed.

But in fact no attempt is made to kill Jesus, so long as he is in Galilee. Mark lets us know that the opposition to Jesus comes from Jerusalem (3:22), and reminds us of this again in chapter 7, when “the Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem” (7:1) accuse Jesus of teaching impurity, and he replies that they teach disobedience (7:5-9).

With this conflict lurking in the background, we are not surprised at the reaction of the disciples when Jesus decides to travel to Jerusalem: they “were astonished, while those who followed were afraid” (10:32).

By this time, however, two further developments have taken place. Firstly, the opposition to Jesus has spread. His family think he is mad (3:21). The Gerasenes want Jesus to go away (5:17). His home town takes offence at him (6:3). Even the disciples are in danger of being infected by “the yeast of the Pharisees” (8:15), and Peter tries to do Satan’s work against Jesus (8:33). The trouble is that this is an “adulterous and sinful generation” (8:38), and all who belong to it—even Jesus’ disciples—will ultimately oppose him.

The second development takes place suddenly and unexpectedly when Peter, speaking for all the disciples, calls Jesus “the Christ” (8:29). Jesus immediately announces his forthcoming death: “He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again” (8:31). So what the Pharisees and Herodians are plotting for reasons of their own must happen, because it is “written that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected” (9:12).

The action of the drama thus converges on Jerusalem with a tremendous sense of the inevitable. For altogether human and political reasons, the authorities want to kill Jesus, while he willingly moves into their trap for altogether heavenly and scriptural reasons. He repeats his prediction of his coming suffering, death, and resurrection on three further occasions before actually arriving in Jerusalem (9:31; 10:32-34; 10:45).

The last of these is particularly significant: “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (10:43-45). Only here does Mark give us insight into the Scriptures in which it was written that the Christ must die. In this saying, Jesus draws on the language of Isaiah 53, and clearly identifies himself as the “servant of the Lord” who bears the sins of God’s people as he is “despised and rejected” and brought to a violent death (53:3ff.).

Sure enough, the conflict with the authorities reaches a new intensity when Jesus starts to minister in Jerusalem (chapters 11-12). But the story takes a new, dramatic twist in 14:18-21, when Jesus suddenly announces that his death will not be caused just by the opposition of the religious authorities: one of the Twelve is going to betray him. The identity of the betrayer is not revealed, and all the disciples protest total loyalty. But in the end there is not much difference between Judas, who deserts him and joins the opposition, and the rest, who desert him and flee. And so, in the long run, there is not much difference between the disciples who acquiesce in his death, and his outright opponents who engineer it.

The point is that all, whether disciples or enemies, are equally in need of someone to die for them, someone to “give his life as a ransom” for their forgiveness. For Mark it is supremely his death which validates the claim that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of God” (1:1). As soon as he dies, the centurion standing by the cross realizes the truth: “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (15:39).

3. The Cost of Discipleship

We have already considered Mark’s interest in the difficulties and challenges of discipleship, and his sympathy for the weaknesses of the first apostles. But this sympathy does not lead him to lessen the demand laid on the disciples of Jesus. This may have been a temptation for him, in those earlier days when he fled from Pamphylia back to Jerusalem. Does Christian faith really demand such sacrifice?

But by the time he wrote his Gospel, Mark had faced and overcome his fear; and, perhaps as a result of this battle, he presents more sharply than the other evangelists the sheer cost demanded of the followers of Jesus:

“Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it’” (8:34f.).

Jesus issues this call immediately after announcing his own death for the first time. His disciples must go the same way, bearing their own cross, ready to lose their lives for him and for the gospel. The title of the autobiography of Frank Chikane, the General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches, will be the motto over their lives also: No Life of My Own!

What is meant by this self-denial is explained more clearly in Mark 10:17ff. The rich young man is challenged to “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (10:21). But he is unwilling. Peter protests, “We have left everything to follow you!” (10:28), and then hears Jesus’ promise that “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life” (10:29f.).

The disciples lived in a culture in which home and family roots were very important. Indeed, Jews believed that their family land had been given to them by God, and so ultimately must not be given away or sold. Yet Jesus invites them to turn their backs on it all, for his sake. True, he promises that they will receive as much in return. But what they receive will not be the same as what they give up. They give up their human families; they receive the family of God (3:34f.). And they will also receive “persecutions,” for they will be challenging an “adulterous and sinful generation” which still puts total store by what they renounce.

Not every Christian is called to leave home and family for Jesus’ sake. But Mark was. He had to leave the security and wealth of his family home in Jerusalem and travel, first with Barnabas to Cyprus, and thereafter we know not where, except that it included Asia Minor, and that he ended up in Rome with Peter and with Paul. He became “a fisher of men” with them, reaching out, like his Lord, to the needy and the lost, forgetful of himself, giving up everything that he might gain far more. And he draws people to Christ still, through his superb Gospel which speaks as vividly today as it did to Matthew and Luke when they were seeking inspiration for their own work.