The Gospel of Mark is often seen as the least important of the four Gospels. Primarily, this is due to its brevity and general lack of distinctive features. However, understanding Mark’s intended audience for his Gospel is vital to understanding why it is so powerful, even in comparison to the other Gospels. This audience was composed of persecuted Roman Christians, who were violently being put to death for their faith in Christ. As Paul discovered in his preaching, confusing theology is not often as effective in inspiring love and faithfulness to God as proclaiming Christ crucified: “I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:1-2). Thus, Mark did not write with the sophistication of John’s Gospel, but rather in simple, brief language which emphasizes the role of suffering in the life of a Christian. The Gospel according to Mark may best be understood through the lens of his audience, those struggling in their faith because of hardships.
In order to aid these persecuted Christians, Mark spent the first half of his Gospel showing the readers that Jesus is truly divine. This is absolutely essential for the persecuted Christians to understand; if Jesus were a mere man and not God, then it would be folly for them to die for love of him. To inspire them to love Him, therefore, Mark had to show that Jesus is Lord and that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor 1:25). To affect this, he portrayed Jesus as a healer of sicknesses, but above all, as one who has the authority of God. The crowds were amazed and shocked by this, saying, “with authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him” (Mk 1:27). Indeed, Jesus repeatedly asserted his authority over all things, from viruses to the Old Law to sin and death itself. Thus Mark shows us, even if he does not explicitly tell us, that Jesus Christ is truly God.
The first half of Mark’s Gospel culminates in Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Christ. At this point, Mark has made it abundantly clear for those who have eyes to see that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Holy One of God. Immediately after this, the second part of the Gospel begins and a new pattern emerges. The Gospel begins to relate an alternating series of great, majestic moments, and painful, humiliating moments. The first thing Jesus does after Peter’s declaration is tell His apostles, “the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mk 8:31). Shortly afterwards, Jesus is transfigured into His previously unseen glory. However, after this great moment, He reminds his apostles of what happened to His forerunner, John the Baptist. Again, Jesus enters Jerusalem amid cries of worship and joy. Yet it is a mere five days later that He is killed in this same city: “they crucified him, and…reviled him” (Mk 15:24, 32). In spite of this seeming finality of death, Mark concludes his Gospel, like the rest, with an account of the resurrection. Jesus Christ rose from the dead, thus reconciling us with God and destroying the dominion slavery to sin and death possessed over us.
It is this message that Mark strove to communicate to his persecuted audience. Although there is great suffering in this world, it will be succeeded by eternal beatitude. For faithful Christians, there is no real distinction between the high and low moments. Our suffering intimately unites us with Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Because of the great promises of Christianity, enduring suffering and persecution is not what one would initially expect to be met with. However, Mark reminds all of us that this is exactly what Christianity promises. Jesus tells us that “if any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mk 8:31). It is the irony of the crown of thorns that Mark reminds us of; although it is sharp and given in mockery, it is the most real crown. It is the folly of the cross that Mark tells us to live out.
Mark’s intended audience is what makes his Gospel so special. He wrote for those who were already carrying their cross, and it was Mark’s job to ensure they did not abandon the way. Amidst the great tribulation of persecution, he reminded them of why and for whom they were suffering. Like the angel at the empty tomb, seeing their shock at their suffering, he proclaimed, “do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen” (Mk 16:6). Ultimately, Mark gave strength to the persecuted by reminding them that suffering was promised to them, but eternal life will be their reward.