How's Your Mark's Gospel Study?

Have you been taught Mark’s Gospel? Has Mark’s Gospel been preached to you from the pulpit? Have you taught Mark’s Gospel to others? From your recollection, what was the main theme or the main point of Mark’s Gospel? Was it to be a servant? Was it to give your life as Jesus gave his life (Mark 10:45)? I ask these questions because I have taught Mark’s Gospel countless times to countless people (one to one, and in groups) for more than two decades with servantship as the main theme and the main point. Of course, we Christians should be humble servants. But no matter how humble we are, or how much we sacrifice for others and serve others, are we really humble servants?

I open with these questions as I review King’s Cross (Feb 2011), which is Tim Keller’s new book. The book is adapted from sermons he preached from Mark’s Gospel. (Keller is the senior pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York.) I was quite impressed and moved by Keller’s presentation and emphasis in his study of Mark’s Gospel, especially in that what he taught as central was not what I had emphasized in my own Bible teaching of Mark’s Gospel. Very briefly, Keller’s emphasis of his Mark’s Gospel study is “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” while my emphasis was “You better be like Jesus and SERVE and GIVE YOUR LIFE, you lazy selfish sinner!” Of course, I never said that, but that was my point. Let me explain.

King’s Cross is neatly organized into two parts, corresponding to Mark’s two symmetrical halves or acts:

  1. The King (Mark chap 1-8): The identity of Jesus (King over all things)
  2. The Cross (Mark chap 9-16): The purpose of Jesus (dying on the cross)

Hence the catchy title from its two parts (“The King” and “The Cross”), each part consisting of 9 chapters, with each chapter focusing on a particular theme by exploring a selective key part of the story told in Mark’s Gospel, explaining the background, illustrating the main point, and applying it for readers. So the book retains the essential elements of good preaching. (But a handful of well-known passages aren’t addressed in detail in the book.) I will not review each chapter of the book, but only selectively address a few points:

The Dance of the Trinity (Mark 1:9-11)

Chap 1, The Dance, identifies the Trinity during the baptism of Jesus: the Father, who is the voice; the Son, who is the Word; and the Spirit, who is the dove (Mark 1:10,11). Keller makes an analogy to the Trinity being present at creation (Gen 1:1-3; John 1:1-3). He ties the story of redemption through Christ with the story of creation in the beginning to show God’s overarching orchestration of God’s plan and purpose in the Bible, as being both a project of the triune God.

Keller titles this chapter The Dance, which is the description of the Trinity used by C.S. Lewis who wrote in Mere Christianity: “In Christianity God is not a static thing…but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama…a kind of dance.” It is a continual never ending dance of perfect love, submission, deference, humility and service toward the other Persons of the Trinity. Being made in the image of the Trinity, we were created to “dance” around God/others. But our sin causes us to expect others to dance around us, thus breaking relationships. Even among holy Christians in the church (1 Cor 1:2), a leader may expect his members to dance around his directives, while the members may expect the leader to dance around their needs and expectations. Keller’s point is this: If this world was made by a triune God, relationships of love are what life is really all about.”

Food for thought: Do we preach and teach the Bible by focusing on relationships, or on making sure that I and others carry out our “mission”? Do I “dance” around others in love, or do I expect others to dance to my tune and expectations?

The Gospel (Mark 1:14-15)

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ opening words of declaration to the world concerns “the gospel” (ESV) or “the good news” (NIV) (Mark 1:15). Keller’s repeated emphasis in his previous books, Counterfeit Gods and The Prodigal God, including King’s Cross, is this: “The essence of other religions is advice; Christianity is essentially news.” Do we primarily see the Bible as what God has done for me in Christ (1 Cor 15:3,4) and communicate it to others as such (good news), or do I present the Bible as what I must do and how I should live and what I must believe (advice for right living)?

I acknowledge that it’s not easy, in fact it’s downright difficult, to teach the Bible simply as “good news.” Why? I think it is because when you ask, “What I must do?” in response to the gospel, the answer is basically, “Nothing! Absolutely nothing!” But we’re afraid to say, “Nothing,” thinking that we will be teaching “cheap grace.” But isn’t it true that I can really do nothing for God, for Jesus, and for the Holy Spirit? Yes, God loves me for sure, and yes, he does have stuff for me to do. But God doesn’t really need me to complete Himself (or His mission), as the cute romantic movie line goes, “You complete me.” So, if I succeed in teaching the Bible as good news, not good advice, and my “sheep” realizes by the work of the Holy Spirit that they don’t have to do anything at all, then I have succeeded in proclaiming the gospel as good news. If not, I would have taught them to save themselves through religion by doing good works as their righteousness before God and people. But when one truly realizes that they don’t have to do anything (because Jesus has already done it through the Cross), it is only then that they will WANT to do all things with all their heart (Deut 6:5), for the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31). In the gospel of grace, there is no “I have to,” but “I want to.”

The Call (Mark 1:16-20)

In Jesus’ time, students sought out rabbis whom they wanted to learn from. But Jesus sought out and took the initiative to call his disciples. When teaching Jesus’ calling of his disciples (Mark 1:16-20), I usually press others in some way to respond to God’s calling. But the truth of the matter is that no one can really respond to God’s call unless God himself calls that person (John 6:44, 65). My application is that I should teach the Bible not by pressing others for a response (or for repentance or obedience), but to depend on the Holy Spirit to work in that person’s heart (John 16:8). Then their decision to follow Jesus is not because of my human pressure and “push,” but because of God working in their hearts through his word, and by his Spirit. Then they will understand that God’s call is not primarily up to their response or repentance or obedience, but that it is nothing but sheer grace that God called them.

Authority (Mark 1:21-22)

Perhaps, we throw around phases like “spiritual authority,” as though the one who has it has some kind of advantage, or superiority, or an elevated elite status over others. I never thought of this before, but “authority” comes from the word “author,” where the authority does not come from the man, but from the Source. Thus, Jesus taught with original rather than derived authority.

Therefore, my authority as a Christian should not draw attention to myself as having authority that others in the church should acknowledge or submit to. This causes an unhealthy fear of man (Prov 29:25), rather than a healthy fear of God (Prov 1:7; 9:10). Also, if I do come across as the “head honcho” (God forbid!), it functionally becomes as though a man is the head of the church, and obscures the truth that Jesus is the Head of the church (Col 1:18; Eph 1:22). But my sin is to always default to myself and to expect others to submit to my “spiritual authority” in the church, thus clouding God’s glory. Ultimately, only the Holy Spirit can glorify God and enable man to glorify God (John 17:2).

The Ransom (Mark 10:45)

Whenever I taught Mark 10:45, my emphasis was on Jesus who came to serve, and on Jesus who gave his life. Therefore, you and I, if we are Christians, must likewise serve and give our lives, just as Jesus did. But Keller spent 15 pages of this chapter focusing almost entirely on Jesus as the ransom, the substitutionary sacrifice, the debt that had to be paid, either by us sinners, or by God himself. (David Lovi has written on this in 2 parts: The Necessity of Penal Substitution.)

Practically and functionally, we humans think that the route to gaining influence is to have power and control. We hold the power and control whenever we try to ensure that others work hard, serve, live for their mission, and give their lives for the church and for world mission. It then becomes as though our own power and control is the determining factor that makes the church prosper and grow. But keeping the power and controls is really self-centered leadership, and not trinitarian. Moreover, holding and communicating such power and control really doesn’t change sinner’s hearts. Only Jesus who died as a ransom changes hearts. When Jesus died on the cross, he gave up all power and control; he became the symbol of utter weakness, helplessness and vulnerability. But in this way, and only in this way, are we empowered (Rom 1:16), and our hearts transformed by the Spirit (2 Cor 3:18) with gratitude, love, joy and peace (Gal 5:22,23).

Keller closed King’s Cross with these words: “God made you to love him supremely, but he lost you. He returned to get you back, but it took the cross to do it. He absorbed your darkness so that one day you can finally and dazzlingly become your true self and take your seat at his eternal feast.”

By all means, read the book. If not, check out my summary of each chapter:

Chap 1: The Dance (Trinity) (Mark 1:9-11): Do you expect others to dance around you?
Chap 2: The Gospel, The Call (Mark 1:14-20): Is your gospel good news or good advice?
Chap 3: The Healing (Mark 2:1-5): Are your sins against God or people (Ps 51:4)?
Chap 4: The Rest (Mark 2:23-3:6): Are you desperately seeking significance?
Chap 5: The Power (Mark 4:35-41): Do you enjoy goodness and calm in a storm?
Chap 6: The Waiting (Mark 5:21-43): Do you have peace when God delays?
Chap 7: The Stain (Mark 7:1-23): Do you feel unclean, insignificant?
Chap 8: The Approach (Mark 7:24-37): Do you know you’re a dog, yet loved?
Chap 9: The Turn (Mark 8:27-9:1): Why is forgiveness so hard?
Chap 10: The Mountain (Mark 9:2-29): What if you are filled with doubt?
Chap 11: The Trap (Mark 10:17-27): Is money just money to you?
Chap 12: The Ransom (Mark 10:45): Is Jesus all you want and need?
Chap 13: The Temple (Mark 11:1-18): Are you both a lion and a lamb?
Chap 14: The Feast (Mark 14:12-26): Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

Keller might be a contemporary champion of the church in regards to presuppositional apologetics (especially Reason For God), which perhaps we might be weak at as a church. King’s Cross is similarly presented presuppositionally and rationally and persuasively (while assuming nothing or very little). It has countless gems in every chapter, which I have not addressed. I’ve only quite randomly and selectively high lighted a very few points.

Perhaps, through reading this post, might you consider reassessing or tweaking how you have personally understood Mark’s Gospel and taught Mark’s Gospel to others?


  1. david bychkov

    I’m now reassessing and tweaking how do I understand the whole Bible, Christian Doctrine and life. :). thank you, Dr. Ben. I’m following Mark’s Gospel right now and I will take a look on your notes.

  2. Thank you for this post as it had plenty of things for me to think about. In particular, I found myself  challenged by “The Gospel” section of your post. As I read this part,I find it difficult to wrap my head around the concept that I don’t have to do anything/ I can do nothing for God or  the gospel, especially when it’s been ingrained in my head, from church and family members, that I need to DO SOMETHING lest I be a bad Christian.

    • Thanks, John. Jesus said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Thus, for my salvation, I don’t have to do anything. Further more, I can’t do anything for my salvation. Jesus did it all.
      It’s like if I love my wife I don’t have to be forced to do something for her, but I want to do something, anything to please her. Likewise, if the gospel is presented as “good news,” indeed the best news ever, then I will want to do all things because of all that Jesus has done for me. But if the gospel is presented as “advice,” then, as you said, “I need to DO SOMETHING lest I be a bad Christian.”

  3. Great article. I just read a book called “The Naked Gospel.” In it the author said he started off with the mindset that he was saved so he had to work hard to help others and preach the gospel. He ended exhausted and feeling far from God. Anyway, his message is very similar, “Jesus plus nothing.” As he says, and as I’ve heard others say as well, our works are a response to Grace. I like how you said “You better be like Jesus and SERVE and GIVE YOUR LIFE, you lazy selfish sinner!” Of course it’s never said, but it sure is implied, and that is very off-putting to me. It’s great that I don’t have to do anything, but at the same time I don’t want to do nothing. It gives me great peace to know that God loves me so much and gives me this freedom in Christ. Of course, it’s my job not to indulge in sinful stuff. Being in a ministry that emphasises works I sometimes feel bad that I don’t work the way others do. But then again we are each given different gifts and talents. In response to your question: though I haven’t taught the bible yet (if I will at all I don’t know, I don’t particulary feel called towards it) I think I’d take an approach similar to what Keller and others I’ve read are proposing. Thank you for a great book review. I think I might just pick it up. If I can find it at a closing Borders that would be an even sweeter deal!

    • Thanks, Oscar. When the gospel is presented as “advice” instead of “good news,” it can be quite “off-putting,” as you said.
      I like this statement of yours: ” It’s great that I don’t have to do anything, but at the same time I don’t want to do nothing.” When I realized that Jesus did it all for me, then like you, “I don’t want to do nothing.”
      But when I am pushed to do something, then it is no longer the “gospel,” or “good news,” or what Jesus has done for us. When I am pushed to do anything, then it becomes “advice.” The gospel is not advice, but news–the most wonderful news in the world, as you implied that the gospel is “Jesus plus nothing.”

  4. Thanks for sharing this review Dr. Ben. I have also been in a “works-oriented” church. And when I am not going about busily doing “works” for God or even just participating heavily in church activities I feel sorry about my Christian life.

    One thing I do you wish you could talk about more is the area when you mentioned our works are a response to grace. Is this area personal to each individual’s grace in their lives? Can you talk more about the response to grace aspect and how it relates to our works.

  5. Thanks, Mike. Regarding “works oriented,” Martin Luther said that every man’s default, including every Christian’s default, is toward religion, which is what man must do, or “works righteousness.” Then our work in church and for the church becomes our identity, or our center. We equate Christ with our Christian work which then becomes our righteousness. As someone said, “We do the work of the Lord, forgetting the Lord of the work.” Our Christian work functionally becomes our idol, as John Calvin said that our hearts are idol factories.
    If our work is a response to the grace of Jesus, then our right hand won’t know what our left hand is doing (Matt 6:3). But if our work is not really a response to grace, we’ll get upset if our work is not praised, or recognized, or appreciated, etc.

  6. I read this neat list of Discipleship in Mark’s Gospel:

    1. Surrender
    2. Obedient trust
    3. Prayer
    4. Watching over our hearts
    5. Humility
    6. Forgiveness
    7. Perseverance in temptation and persecution
    8. Courageous confession of Christ

    A major problem in the church is an overemphasis on power, rather than weakness: