What is Discipleship?
Discipleship is the process of following Jesus. The word disciple comes from the Greek word mathetes meaning “a learner or student who follow's a teacher's instruction.” Jesus is different in that he chose his own Twelve disciples when usually it is the student who seeks out the relationship with the teacher. Discipleship is important in the Gospel of Mark because the the second thing Jesus says in the gospel is “Follow me” (Mark 1:17). This involves “repentance” and “belief”, which Jesus had been preaching about (Mark 1:15).
People Who Encounter Jesus
There are two ways we can learn about discipleship in the Gospel of Mark. One of these are the people who decide to follow Jesus. This is especially true of the Twelve Disciples who notably left their nets and went out when Jesus sent them (Mark 1:18; 6:12–13). They were initially successful because they trusted in Jesus and believed in the work he was doing. Later on the disciples would struggle to understand. They became arrogant, selfish, and worldly. They were afraid and uncertain (6:52). They even rejected the necessity of Jesus's death and were chastised for it (8:31ff).
Interestingly, it is actually the minor characters in Mark who are found to be better disciples of Jesus. Many of these were not important in the world (fishermen, tax collectors, undesirables, sinners, blind men) yet they were faithful followers and understood things that even the Twelve did not. Formerly blind Bartimaeus followed Jesus on the road (Mark 10:32), the women were around while the men had fled (15:40–41), and many others.
With the exception of Joseph of Arimathea, most of the Jewish leaders (Pharisees, scribes, priests, Sadducees) rejected Jesus. They were the “clergy” of that time and should have been the first to accept Jesus Christ, the Son of God. They were instead hostile to him and wanted to maintain their control over the people instead of submit to the authority of God.
How to Follow Jesus (in Mark)
Jesus himself taught how to follow him in a number of places. First and foremost is his “cost of discipleship” statement:
If anyone desires to follow after me, they should deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. For whoever might wish to save their life will destroy it, but whoever loses their life for the sake of me and the good news will save it. For what benefit is it if a person gains the whole world and suffers the loss of their life? For what might a person give in exchange for their life? (Mark 8:34-37)
In following Jesus there are demands and expectations. We must:
- Seek the Lost (Mark 1:17) — what would a lack of evangelism, on our part, suggest?
- Deny Yourself (8:34–37) — not just about giving up possessions but also about sacrificing dreams and goals (Stein, 32).
- Give Up Wealth (10:23) — it is nearly impossible to enter the kingdom of God tied down with wealth and possessions. Spending must be redirected from self towards Christ.
- Face Persecutions (10:30) — we will face oppression or harassment as followers of Christ. Some will try to compromise to avoid persecution and please men. Our goal is to please God.
Jesus also encourages his disciples to understand the parables (Mark 4:13). We, likewise, should see to understand the parables because of their implications for following Christ and understanding him.
Fear must be rejected and belief should instead replace it (5:36). We are to set our mind on God (8:33) and not on the things of this world. Humility is necessary: to place ourselves last and be servants of others (9:35; 10:31).
While Jesus does not entirely explain the whole salvation process in Mark's account of the gospel, many of the above demonstrate the nature and character of our basic faith. Following Jesus is not simply about “do good not bad,” it involves transformation of our mind, heart, worldviews, and lifestyles. If our life does not say “Jesus is Lord” then perhaps we need to adjust who we are.
Son of God
The title “Son of God” is both a description of who Jesus is and a slap in the face of Roman Emperors who also considered themselves “sons of the divine” or divi filius. (Strauss, 61). At the beginning of Mark, he writes “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). In the Old Testament “sons of God” seem to refer to God's people (Gen 6:2–4) or angelic beings (Job 1:6; Dan 3:25) but not a divine Son like with Jesus.
In Mark's Gospel, Jesus is most notably called “my beloved son” by a voice from heaven (God himself) at Jesus's baptism (Mark 1:1) and at his Transfiguration (Mark 9:7). It is hard not to think of Abraham's sacrifice in Gen 22:2 of his beloved son Isaac.
While the disciples struggle to realize who Jesus really is, ironically the demons are often the first ones to identify Jesus correctly as the Son of God (Mark 1:24; 3:11; 5:7). After Jesus dies, a nearby Roman Centurion is able to see that Jesus is indeed the son of God (Mark 15:39) — this moment would have resonated with Roman audiences: a Roman officer thinks Jesus is the Son?! Wow?!
Jesus himself only alludes to the fact that he is the Son (Mark 12:6; 13:32) and then finally admits it before the High Priest at his trial (Mark 14:61–62).
Christ and Messiah
The word Christ (Grk. Christos) and Messiah (Heb. māšiaḥ) are the same word in different languages. They both mean “anointed one” and not necessarily “savior.” In the Old Testament, “Messiah” actually designated any one of God's anointed / chosen kings such as Saul (1 Sam 24:6), or David (1 Chron 16:22; 2 Chron 6:42; Psalm 132:10; 1 Sam 2:10) or even Cyrus the Great (Isa 45:1). All of these are called “Christ” in the Greek Old Testament.
So when Jesus is called “Christ” in the Gospel of Mark it carries the sense of being “God's Chosen or Anointed King.” It is good to call him Jesus Christ, but it is better to call him Jesus Christ the Son of God. It takes Peter half the Gospel to recognize Jesus as the Christ (Mark 8:29) but even then he still fails to accept Jesus as God's suffering Son. The High Priest asks if Jesus is the Christ and Jesus says “I Am” (Mark 14:61). As Jesus hung on the cross the mockers jokingly called him the Christ (Mark 15:32).
The Son of Man
Perhaps most important for Jesus's self-identification is the title “Son of Man.” The first time it appears is in Mark 2:10 when Jesus says “The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” This is a title that only Jesus used to refer to himself in the third person. So who or what is the son of man?
Our clues once again take us to the Old Testament. A “son of man” can simply refer to a human being (Num 23:19; 2 Sam 7:14). The word “man” in Hebrew (adam) is closely related to the word for “earth/ground” and, of course, the man Adam. Ezekiel is called “son of man” by God and his messengers over 93x (Ezek 2:1) etc. However, the most significant reference is found in Daniel 7:13 and is the “son of man” Jesus wants us to think of:
I saw in the night visions and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom is one that shall not be destroyed (Dan 7:13–14 ESV)
When Jesus says “the Son of Man” he means Daniel's son of man who can come into the presence of God (Ancient of Days) and is given the authority to rule over all the earth and have an everlasting kingdom. This is who Jesus means when he says “Son of Man” and he intends us to recognize that Jesus is the Son of Man.
In Mark, the Son of Man is said to have the authority to forgive sins (Mark 2:10), he will suffer and die at the hands of men but rise on the third day (Mark 9:12, 31; 10:33, 45), and he will return with judgement on the clouds of heaven (Mark 13:26; 14:62).
- Mark Strauss, Mark, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament 2 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014).
What is a “Gospel”?
The word “Gospel” comes from the Greek word euangelion meaning “good news. Mark 1:1 says he is writing, “the beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ.” Gospel is a new kind of genre. It's a biography with the purpose to tell and challenge people with the life of Jesus.
Believe it or not, the word “gospel” actually appears in the Old Testament. In Isa 52:7, it mentions a person who “brings good news” (an evangelist). If you were a Roman or a Greek person you thought of “good news” (gospel) as news about a victory in battle or the birth of a king's heir.
Early Christians considered “gospel” to be the message about Jesus's life and death (1 Thess 1:5). Peter, John, Phillip, and Paul all preached a message called “gospel” (Acts 8:25, 40; 14:7; 15:7; 16:10; Rom 1:9). Later the word came to mean the books themselves in which the gospel message was written.
How Did We Get the Gospels?
After some time the preaching about Jesus's life was written down by the apostles and other followers of Jesus. Each of the four authors had different approaches and emphases giving us four gospels instead of one monochromatic message. As the end of the apostolic age approached, Christians were confronted with the challenges of persecution and the impending deaths of eyewitnesses who walked and talked with Jesus. The message was then written down to preserve it for many generations to come and to put the authoritative message into a portable form to send to other churches and peoples who would never be able to hear the apostles themselves preach.
Two of the Gospel writers were eyewitnesses to Jesus himself: Matthew and John. The other two, Mark and Luke, were secondary witnesses but knew and traveled among the apostles Paul, Peter, and others (1 Pet 5:13; Acts 12:12; Col 4:14; 2 Tim 4:11). But they did not write without the influence of the Holy Spirit who “brought to remembrance” all the teachings of Jesus at the appropriate time (John 14:26).
It is very likely that Mark was the first Gospel written because of it's short length and the fact that most of Mark is also found in Matthew and Luke. Luke himself even mentions “others who wrote before me” (Luke 1:1–2) which may have included Mark.
Over the course of time, Christians began to collect the Gospels into four-book volumes often containing the Gospels and Acts and a second volume containing Paul and other writings. These books were eventually assembled into complete New Testament books not unlike what we have today. They were copied in Greek and then in Latin until about the time of Martin Luther when he and several other Reformers sought out the original Greek manuscripts that had been so long neglected. Today most modern Bibles rely on the oldest Greek manuscripts available. While we don't have the “original autographs” that Paul or Mark themselves wrote, we do have very good copies that date to as early as AD 100s. These oldest manuscripts are then compiled and translated into modern-language editions we have with us.
Who Was Mark?
Mark never mentions himself by name in the Gospel (but neither do the others). John Mark's family was from Judea near Jerusalem. His mother's house was a gathering place in the early days of the Jerusalem church (Acts 12:12). He was the cousin of Barnabas (Col 4:10) and his inclusion in Paul's work caused a rift between Barnabas and the Apostle. Later Mark was restored to Paul and shared a close relationship with him in his last days (Col 4:10; Phlm 24; 2 Tim 4:11). He also seems to have been a close associate with Peter while in Rome / “Babylon” (1 Pet 3:15).
One of Paul's earliest epistles written to the churches of Galatia in response to the efforts of Judaizers upon the new Christians. These Judaizers convinced Gentile believers that tenants of Judaism (esp. circumcision) were necessary for salvation and inclusion in God's people. The book touches on many important Pauline themes such as justification by faith, the Spirit, and essential faith in Christ.
The Epistle of James was written by James, the brother of Jesus to churches in Jerusalem and perhaps Judea. It could be described as a sermon in letter form and contains many themes such as wisdom for everyday life.
Two volumes written by Luke, the traveling companion of Paul. The Gospel of Luke is Luke's inspired telling of the life and death of Jesus Christ. The Acts of the Apostles is an account of the early church from Jesus's Acension, Pentecost to Paul's Imprisonment in Rome.