St. Mark, Evangelist and Apologist

Wednesday was the feast day of St. Mark. His Gospel is often symbolized as the winged lion for the Lion of the Tribe of Judah whom he proclaims. He lives up to his title, evangelist. He is the good news bearer. But there are (at least) three reasons we should call Mark an apologist in addition to being an evangelist.

We know a few things about Mark: he was from a wealthy family (Acts 12:12); he was brought from Jerusalem by Paul and Barnabas where they set out on the first missionary journey (Acts 12:25ff); he went to Cyprus with Barnabas later on (Acts 15:37ff); after reconciling with Paul, they worked together again (Colossians 4:10; Philemon 24; 2 Timothy 4:11); and he was an associate of Peter in Rome (1 Peter 5:13). And though we’d like to know more about him for historical purposes, it’s not the gospel about Mark, but the gospel according to Mark. You see, a good apologist doesn’t waste time talking about himself. There’s far more important things to talk about. An apologist can learn a lot from Mark who spends his entire time talking about Jesus. Almost half of his gospel focuses on holy week alone. That should tell you something. Thus, the apologetic task is to point incessantly to Christ Crucified. Evangelism and Apologetics are a blessed union. In fact, apologetics is evangelism. Rabbit trails must skillfully and swiftly be diverted back to the main point: Christ Crucified and Risen in history for you. It’s both proclamation and defense. Mark is like an Oscar award-winning director: every scene, movement and line plotted carefully, dramatically and climatically, leading to the important conclusion. Immediately. Straightway! To the Jordan. To the wilderness. To the sick, poor and demon possessed. To Jerusalem. To the cross. Because if you only know Jesus the miracle-worker, the healer, the wise-guy teacher, then you don’t know Jesus at all. Not until Jesus is hanging dead on the cross that he is truly known as the Savior. The Roman centurion gets it: “Truly this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39). Mark would’ve also made a great lawyer, always pointing the jury back to the main point of the case: Christ is Crucified for you and that’s how you know God and his love. And these, ladies and gentlemen, are the facts.

Although Mark was neither one of the twelve nor an eyewitness, he did his homework. He was an associate of Peter. And Peter did not follow cleverly devised myths, but was an eyewitness from the beginning (2 Peter 1:16-21). In his recent book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Richard Bauckham thoroughly researches the names in the gospels as records of their being eyewitnesses, Peter in particular. That’s why they mention names so often and so specifically. Extra-biblical evidence also links Mark and Peter. Papias the Bishop of Heiropolis (c. A.D. 130), records the following:“And the presbyter said this. Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatever he remembered. It was not, however in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterward, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the needs [of his listeners], but with no intention of giving an irregular narrative of the Lord’s sayings. That is why Mark made no mistake when he wrote these things as he remembered them. Above all else, he took special care not to omit anything he had heard and not to put anything fictitious into what he wrote” (Fragments of Papias). This also explains why Peter plays such a significant role in the gospel of Mark. Notice in particular the attention to detail in the betrayal (Mark 14:66ff) and in Mark 16:7 after the resurrection.

This leads us to the third point. Mark tells it like it is, even when it’s awkward, uncomfortable and embarrassing. There’s no sugar-coating the history, massaging the disciples’ actions and no foam, only good news on tap. Just the facts. C.S. Lewis makes note of this in The World’s Last Night, namely,

“The evangelists have the first great characteristic of honest witnesses: they mention facts which are at first sight, damaging to their main contention” (C.S. Lewis, The World’s Last Night. p.98-99).

They also mention facts which are horribly embarrassing and damaging reflections on their own character, their failure to understand Jesus’ teaching, and their repeated miscues. Take Peter for example. In Mark 14:71 he invokes a curse upon himself. And don’t forget Mark 8 where Jesus calls Peter Satan for rebuking his clear teaching on the cross. If you’re going to fabricate a story such as the one told in the gospels, the last thing you would do is mention all the faults and foibles, all blunders and buffoonery that befalls the disciples. And yet that’s exactly what they do, they give the account of the events as they happened, warts and all. The gospels are not autobiographies written during election years, carefully crafted to maximize the disciples’ popularity. Rather, they reveal the men as they were: sinners in need of a savior. The gospels, and Mark in particular, are very earthy in that way. Our Lord uses foolish humans, horribly embarrassing disciples – man in all his sinful weakness – as his servants to seek and save the lost, to declare and defend the faith once and for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3). Because, as one of Mark’s other companions, Paul says, it’s not about the way we dress, the sound of our voice, the way our hair is slicked back or anything else that might be attractive to men and pleasing to the eyes; it’s about Christ Crucified (1 Corinthians 2). The fact that the gospels include a rather unflattering picture of the disciples is not a sign of weakness but strength in the case for Christianity; it does not detract from its authenticity but lends to its veracity. The same must also be said of the inclusion of the women in the gospels along the way and especially in the resurrection accounts. More on that another day.

So, thank God for the eyewitness. Thank God for Mark and his “True Grit” gospel. For through him we have access to the eyewitnesses and the testimony of history, the true story of salvation. When we hear Mark’s gospel we hear the historical, veracious and reliable record of Jesus’ salvation for us men and for our salvation. Mark is part of a magnificently trustworthy paper trail that leads us right to the cross of Christ.


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