Tomorrow we begin both the Christmas fast and our New Testament Challenge of reading through the Gospel according to St. Mark.

The following passage from N.T. Wright’s book The Original Jesus (pp. 142-144) provides an excellent introduction into the context and purpose of this Gospel.

Why Mark?

Mark is the shortest, the darkest, the strangest of the Gospels. It’s the Gospel for the cynic-in-a-hurry. It tells you the story (Who is Jesus? Why did he die?), sharpened to a point. And it leaves you with the challenge: follow him.

…Mark’s Gospel, however, seems to have quite a different sort of purpose from Matthew’s. Matthew presumes that the reader has enough leisure to take in the lengthy discourses, to work out the subtle structure of the book. Mark takes you by the scruff of the neck and tells you, breathlessly, that this is urgent and important and you’d better listen carefully.

He structures his work quite carefully, but, unlike Matthew, quite obviously. The first half of the book leads the reader to ask, long before Jesus puts the question to the disciples explicitly: who is this? By the time Peer faces the question (8:29) the reader is ready to hear the answer: “You are the Messiah.” You are the king we’ve been waiting for. You are the one we will follow, the one through whom our God will redeem us at last.

But the second half, which begins at that moment, shows that Peter’s grasp of messiahship and what it would mean was only half of the truth. The second half is all about the fact that this Messiah will get to his kingdom through suffering and dying. This is simply not on Peter’s (or the other disciples’) map of serious options. But for Mark it’s the main thing to grasp. What Jesus does in dying on the cross is to establish his kingdom.

Who was Mark written for? It’s difficult to be precise. But it’s quite possible, even likely, that his first audience was a little group of Christians undergoing, or facing the possibility of, persecution and suffering. They needed to know for sure that Jesus really was the Messiah, the true king; they shouldn’t look for another Jewish messiah, and they shouldn’t regard Caesar as the true Lord of the world. They were bound to be rejected by non-Christian Jews, and by Caesar’s henchmen. They must hold fast to Jesus, and to him alone.

Jesus, the true king, however, had gone to his enthronement ceremony on the cross. It was quite on the cards that they would be summoned to follow him. This is the most deeply subversive message the world can face, because it looks at the ultimate sanction that the world can hold over people who refuse to toe the line and, instead of submitting to such blackmail, embraces even suffering and death as falling within the saving purposes of God.

John’s Gospel is designed to bring you to your knees in wonder, love and praise. Luke’s is meant to make you sit up and think hard about Jesus as Lord of the whole world. Matthew’s is like a beautifully bound book which the Christian must study and ponder at leisure, steadily reordering one’s life in the process. Mark’s is like a hastily printed revolutionary tract, stuffed into a back pocket, and frequently pulled out, read by torchlight, and whispered to one’s co-conspirators. You need all four. You never know when you are going to have to call on them.