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So What is Mark's Gospel All About?

Ashford Number 1 Home Group recently worked its way through Mark's Gospel. Being a discerning group, they were not just interested in row upon row of miracles and parables. They were interested in the big themes and the important messages.

Mark's Gospel is characterised by the way that the author introduces one or two themes at a time and then pursues them for a while. Table 1 below shows how nine different themes are introduced and then continued through to the end of the book.

Such an approach identifies interesting and important design in the book. For example, the theme of Jesus' death only appears towards the end of Chapter 8, but then continues to the end of the book. Thus, the themes represent the 'vertical' dimension to Mark's Gospel.

Equally important are the 'horizontal' divisions in the book. These are not usually fixed partitions. Instead, Mark gradually slides from one gear into the next. Nevertheless, there are definite changes of subject matter as the book progresses. This is shown as the groups of rows in Table 1.

From Table 1, it can be seen that either a vertical or a horizontal analysis of the book is inadequate: A full two dimensional model is needed in order to ensure that each paragraph is interpreted within its immediate context.

William Hendriksen, in his big fat commentary (Banner of Truth Trust, 1975) appears to see no such structure in Mark. So, although he is very helpful when he deals with the original language, translation, cultural considerations, it is not clear how each paragraph contributes to the vertical threads through the book; nor is it obvious how each paragraph fits into its horizontal section.


Thinner books, such as the Good Book Company's study guide (called 'News of the Hour') by Peter Bolt and Tony Payne do a much better job of dividing Mark into sections. It is weaker on the vertical themes, but then it is only a sixth of the weight of Hendriksen.

One of the strengths of 'News of the Hour' is that it forces Bible-students to read large chunks of Mark and to understand their purpose – something that is usually missed when preachers single out just parable to preach on. However, the sections are far too long for normal group Bible studies. They each need to be chopped into two or three pieces for the size of each study to be manageable.

The challenge for the leader of Bible studies in Mark is to carve the book into the right sized mouthfuls for the group to ingest, whilst at the same time developing the themes of the book and not losing sight of which section each study belongs to. This is the aim of Table 1.


Chapter and Verses

Jesus and the Old Test-ament

Jesus' Identity

Jesus' Auth-ority

Training the Disc-iples

Faith and Un-belief

Conflict with the Old Kingdom

The New King-dom

Jesus' Death

Disciples' Fear, Confusion

Why We Must Take Notice of Jesus

1:

1-8

X

X









9-15

X

X





X



The Authority of Jesus


16-20



X

X







21-28


X

X








29-34



X


X






35-39



X








40-45



X


X





2:

1-12


X

X


X

X





13-17



X



X





18-22

X

X

X



X





23-3:6


X

X



X




3:

7-12


X

X








13-19



X

X







20-30


X



X

X

X




31-35


X



X

X

X


X

What is the New Kingdom of God like?

4:

1-20

X



X

X


X


X


21-25







X




26-29







X




30-34




X



X



Faith, Unbelief, and the Disciples' Training


35-41


X


X

X




X

5:

1-20


X



X






21-43





X





6:

1-6





X






7-13



X

X

X






14-29

X




X






30-44





X






45-52




X

X






53-56





X




X

7:

1-23





X

X



X


24-30





X






31-37





X





8:

1-13




X

X

X





14-21




X

X





Jesus Reveals his Glory as Peter Half Understands


22-26




X

X




X


27-30

X

X

X


X




X


31-9:1


X


X

X


X

X

X

9:

2-13

X

X


X




X

X

How then Must We Live?


14-32


X


X

X


X

X

X


33-37




X



X


X


38-41




X



X


X


42-50







X



10:

1-12







X


X


13-16







X


X


17-31







X


X


32-34


X






X

X


35-45


X


X

X



X

X

The Son of David, His Wisdom, His Enemies


46-52


X








11:

1-11

X

X





X




12-19

X


X



X





20-25





X

X





27-33

X


X



X




12:

1-12

X

X




X


X



13-17






X





18-27






X





28-34





X


X




35-40

X

X



X

X





41-44










The End of the Old Kingdom: Be Alert!

13:

1-30


X

X

X

X

X

X


X


31-36


X


X



X



Jesus: Our Passover Lamb

14:

1-11






X

X

X



12-26

X

X





X

X



27-31

X



X







32-42


X


X




X



43-52

X





X



X


53-65


X




X





66-72


X


X





X

15:

1-15


X




X


X



16-20


X




X





21-32

X

X



X



X



33-39

X

X






X


Various Witnesses to Jesus' Death, Burial and Empty Tomb


40-47





X


X

X


16:

1-8

X

X

X






X



18

32

17

21

31

21

22

13

21

Table 1 – Major Themes and Sections within Mark's Gospel

The crude count of the number of Xs in each column provides some basis for saying which of the nine themes are the most important to the writer. The clear leaders are “Jesus' Identity” and “Faith and Unbelief”. Surprisingly, perhaps, “Jesus' Death” comes in at 9th out of 9. This shows that we should be more interested in the Living Christ than in how he exactly he died, in contrast with certain recent films. We should be interested in why he died, and in what he achieved by dying, but less interested in the gruesome details.

Another interesting structural feature of Mark, which is hidden by Table 1 above, is the fascinating juxtaposition of unbelief and faith that happens from Chapter 4:35 all the way till Chapter 8:21. Had Table 1 shown faith and unbelief in separate adjacent columns, the Xs would have zig-zagged their way down the table. The exact nature of the unbelief varies from fear, through lack of understanding, to outright hypocrisy. Table 2 below shows the alternation of faith and unbelief.

Passage

What happens?

Showing?

4:35 – 4:31

Lake Crossing #1

Fear x 2

5:1-20

Legion and the Gadareans

5:21-42

A Dead Girl and a Sick Woman

Faith x2

6:1-6a

A Prophet without Honour

Contempt

6:6b-13

The Twelve's First Practical Session

Faith

6:14-29

Herod's Phobia

Fear

6:30-44

The Feeding of the 5,000

Faith

6:31-52

Lake Crossing #2

Lack of understanding

6:53-56

People frantic to be healed

Faith?

7:1-23

The Pharisees' Hypocrisy

Hypocrisy

7:24-30

The (Gentile) Syro-Phoenician Woman

Faith

7:31-36

The Deaf-Mute Man: A Picture of the Disciples or Jews?

Stubbornness?

8:1-13

The Feeding of the 4,000

Faith

8:14-21

Lake Crossing #3

Lack of understanding

Table 2 – Alternation of Faith and Unbelief in Mark 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8

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