The 3 Acts of Mark: Understanding the Literature

February 26, 2021
5 min read
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The book of Mark is a fascinating work of literature in its very design. Its author, believed to be the scribe John Mark, is said to have recorded all of the close eyewitness accounts of the apostle Peter. He then took these writings and shaped them into a carefully and intentionally designed story of the life of Jesus.

The gospel itself can be divided into three acts, similar to a drama or play. It’s prologue (Mark 1:1-13) has a setting “in the wilderness”. It is here, and only here, that the author shares his personal opinion.

Mark 1:1 says,

"The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the son of God."

It is clear by this initial statement that John Mark believed that Jesus is in fact the son of God and the chosen messianic king. In the rest of his gospel account, Mark only records events and facts from the actions of Jesus, as well as the reactions of those around him.

Act 1

The first act of the book of Mark starts with Mark 1:14,

"After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God."

First we are given the setting: a region of Israel called Galilee. Located within this region are the cities of Nazareth – where Jesus grew up, Capernaum – where Jesus did much of his teaching, and Cana – where Jesus performed his first miracle. Jesus’ core message was to proclaim the good news of God. He spends much of his time in this act fulfilling the Old Testament scriptures about God’s rescue operation for the world.

Jesus truly brought God’s kingdom to earth – performing miraculous healings, forgiving sins, and setting people free from bondage and spiritual oppression. His actions, however, brought about a variety of responses. Jesus exposes and summarizes these responses in Mark, Chapter 4, through a collection of parables. Some of these include the parable of the mustard seed and that of the four types of soil. In these stories Jesus lets us know he is aware of the fact that his coming into the world is not the way people expected. The big question in this act is: Who is Jesus… really?

Act 2

The second act of this gospel account starts in Mark 8:22,

"They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him."

Jesus has left Galilee and is now on the way to Jerusalem. The setting in this act could be titled “On the Road.” As Jesus is traveling with his disciples, we begin to see their process of coming to understand what it truly means for Jesus to be the Messiah. This is also a turning point in the book – a climactic moment. At the end of Mark 8, Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah. However, it becomes clear in this act that the disciples don’t fully understand what that really means.

Peter, as most Jews at that time, was anticipating the coming of a victorious military king from the line of David who would rescue their people from the oppression of the Roman Empire. Jesus, however, knew that being the Messiah meant being the suffering servant from the prophecies of Isaiah. His role would be to establish God’s kingdom on earth by giving up his own life on behalf of his people. All throughout this second act, from Mark 8b - 10, we see Jesus consistently demonstrating and explaining this truth to his followers.

Act 3

We come to the third act: Mark 11-16. The setting in this act is Jerusalem. It begins with Jesus’ triumphal entrance into the city as people hail him the Messiah. Jesus then spends the week confronting and debating religious leaders in a clash of two kingdoms: the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of this world. This leads to the religious leaders having Jesus arrested and crucified.

A key moment in this act takes place immediately after Jesus’ death. A Roman soldier watches Jesus die and announces, “This man was the son of God.” He is the first person in the story to recognize the reality of Jesus’ shocking claim about his identity. It is this crucified son of God who is the true Messianic King. His enthronement took place on that cross as he gave his life for his friends and even for his enemies.

Finally, the book comes to a close with an abrupt ending. Verses 9-20 in Chapter 16 were actually added to later manuscripts and help to tie it up. However, in the original ending which is rather abrupt, the women who discover Jesus’ tomb to be empty are met by an angelic being who tells them the risen Jesus will meet them in Galilee, bringing the story full circle, as that is where act 1 of Mark began.

Learning to view the gospel according to Mark as a literary drama designed in three acts allows the reader to notice patterns between each of these parts and to connect the dots in particular details. It truly opens one's eyes to view the text in a new light and perhaps gain deeper understanding to the content itself. It also has led me personally to appreciate the intentionality of the author and to recognize the divine intervention in the design patterns of the text. May we never grow weary of studying and learning from this brilliant scripture that is truly God-breathed in every way.

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