Book Review: Mark

MarkTitle: Mark

Author: RC Sproul

Publisher: Reformation Trust Publishing

Date: December 12, 2011

Pages: (e-pub version): 434

[The FCC has made it perfectly clear that if I do not abide by their rules, then someone may end up in trouble one way or another. So I am advised to tell you that I received this copy of Mark (e-book) for free from Ligonier Ministries in exchange for my unbiased review. I was in no way instructed to write a favorable review, just a fair one. There you go.]

 I haven't read through a commentary for fun for a long time. Back when I was preaching full-time, I devoured commentaries the way some folks devour the daily paper. Thus it took me a little longer to get through this book than I had originally intended.

I read through this commentary at the same time I have been working my way back into a daily habit of Scripture reading. So in the course of reading this commentary, I read the Psalms twice and Proverbs once. They were a nice complement to one another and I found that hearing the voice of the Psalmists echoed in Mark was a wonderful addition to my daily reading regimen.

This commentary was a good read for me as I work my way slowly back into theological reading. It was not a terribly complicated book to read. It was not overly-scholarly. Sproul focused on a more-or-less verse by verse commentary while offering the occasional theological excursus when he felt it necessary–most memorable was the excursus on Jesus' temptation in Gethsamane. It is not difficult to discern Sproul's theological bent towards Reformed theology in the commentary and this, at times, made the book terribly frustrating to read.

These things noted, this is actually my main gripe with the book. There was a time when the verse by verse commentary was especially useful, but I'm not inclined to think that way any longer. In my opinion, the verse by verse format in this commentary caused Sproul to miss what I think is the main point of Mark's Gospel as literature, as gospel, precisely because he had already committed himself to a theological perspective that guided his exegesis: Mark is writing to make a point, a point that Sproul believes is, in one way or another, to 'prove' the divinity of Jesus. So there are times when Jesus is referred to as the 'Son of God' (notably Mark 1:1 & 15:39 which form a rather nice 'sandwich' to the book as a whole), but it is important to ask what this might mean. What does 'son of God' mean in the Bible and how does that inform our understanding of Mark's theological point?

Surely Jesus is the God of Israel in the sense of being somehow divine–whatever that might mean–and there are times when I think Sproul did an absolutely masterful job of connecting the text with the Hebrew Scriptures in order to show the reader how Mark makes this clear (I'm think in particular of the walking on water episode in Mark 6:45-52 & the scene where Jesus enters Jerusalem in Mark 11:1-11). So I'm not disputing that for a minute; however, I do not think that is necessarily the point that Mark is trying to make in the Gospel as a whole. [Sproul wrote, "Remember, Mark has been at pains to demonstrate to Gentiles that Jesus is the divine Son of God" (214). I just do not think that Mark is at pains about this at all as much as he is at pains to do something different.]

It seems to me that Mark's point is made clearly in 1:1 & 15:39: Jesus is the Son of God. The question is, however, one of how we understand that phrase. In the Hebrew Scriptures, 'son of God' is a phrase that is given to the King of Israel (see especially Psalm 2). So what Mark does is this: he tells us in verse 1 that Jesus is Messiah (the anointed one, the King), the Son of God. Then he goes about showing us all throughout his Gospel what that means, how people do not get it (even his own family 3:20-34), how they misunderstand it, how they try to misappropriate his power, and what being King really means–what it means for God's power to be unleashed on earth (see Mark 3:23-29). Jesus in turn, goes into hiding, tells demons to be quiet, tells people not to say anything about his power, and is crucified after refusing to defend himself against charges brought against him. Yet it is here, after he dies death on a cross, that one person says something about Jesus that he is not rebuked for: "Surely this man was the Son of God."

The one place where we are truly allowed to hear a confession of who Jesus is, is while he is on the cross. It is there he was enthroned. And there he does not tell the centurion to keep quiet. It is this point which I wish Dr Sproul had made more clear to his readers because I think this is Mark's point: Here is our King! Here is our God! Here is the one who came to bring us back to life! He is the One! He is Jesus! (that's a David Crowder Band lyric). Sproul touches on this periodically, but in no way sustains this throughout his commentary which is unfortunate. (Note the heavy iron in chapter 15 verses 2, 9, 12, 17-20, 26, 32, 43.)

I have a couple other complaints which are minor by comparison with what preceded. First, I dislike that there were any footnotes or end notes of any kind. Sproul frequently says things like 'a commentator' or 'an author' or 'I once heard a speaker' and fails to give us any point of reference. This is bothersome. I get that the book is not a commentary for scholars, but there are some who read it who would like more information about who is it that he is interacting with on various pages.

Second, he tells too many stories about himself. I'll leave it at that. I make this complaint in nearly every book I review because if I have learned anything about being in ministry it is this: don't make yourself look good and nearly every story Sproul tells in this book makes himself look good. Third, there's way too much Reformed Theology. Mark certainly didn't write his commentary to explain the finer points of Drs Calvin and Luther and seeing such theological perspectives in Mark seems far more imposed than exposed.

Finally, I wish he had spent less time taking us to the other Gospels to make a point. Mark is sufficient in an of itself and sometimes, frankly, Mark's point is obscured when we bring in material from other Gospels (Matthew, Luke, and John). It's not that such a practice is wrong or evil, it's just that Mark has plenty to say on his own and he says it well on his own. Tying Mark together as one piece of literature, written to it's own audience, for its own sake seems to me a far better way to understand the book than trying create a bigger picture by bringing in other facts that Mark left out of his work. Maybe he left them out for a reason.

What I enjoyed most about this book was that Sproul makes some rather brilliant observations about the text that are easily overlooked if one is not careful. I will note just a few that I found especially wonderful.

I very much like how Sproul drew from the Old Testament to make points about such passages in Mark, such as the parable of the sower (Mark 4). I think his point about compassion when Jesus exercised demons from a man named Legion is brilliant, "…Jesus was not displaying a lack of compassion; he was exercising proper compassion. He was willing to sacrifice two thousand pigs, as valuable as they were, to rescue the demon-possessed man" (105). Well, of course! Folks often accuse Christians of being anything but compassionate–probably because we too often align ourselves politically with those who wish to exploit and terrorize the poor, but here Jesus gives us a fine example of compassion and forces us to ask the question of ourselves: just what are we willing to sacrifice in order to save one life? (Which was a nice question asked in the film Schindler's List.) And of course Jesus did what no one else could do or wanted to do: he saved the man!

I have already mentioned the brilliant points he makes when Jesus walks on the water and 'is about to pass them by' being an echo of the story of Moses who was hidden in the rocks when God passed by and the story of Jesus entering the temple being an echo of the Ezekiel story where the Spirit of God left the temple by stages. He also makes observations about the text that I find brilliant. For example, a young man runs up to Jesus with an important question (10:17-31) and Sproul notes how, at the end of the story, the man slowly walks away. Finally, his interpretation of the Bartimaeus story (10:35-52) and its juxtaposition with the request of James and John to sit right and left of Jesus is spot on (274).

Another valuable aspect of this commentary is the historical background Sproul provides for his readers at various points in the text. This historical background is necessary and vital for understanding such things as the Triumphal Entry, Gehenna, and the character of Pharisees and Saducees and Scribes among others. I am especially fond of the point that he made on page 310: "First, the Pharisees stressed the sovereignty of God. They were the Augustinians and Calvinists of their day." It made me smile, just a bit, when Dr Sproul, almost certainly inadvertently, announced that the Calvinists of our day were the Pharisees of Jesus' day. Who would have guessed. 🙂

Still, it took until page 423 for Sproul to rightly direct our attention to the point Mark had been making all along and even then it is made from a portion of Mark that is disputed as original to the text. Nevertheless, I agree with Sproul

Second, we see the session of Jesus. His reign in power at the right hand of the Father….This ministry flows out of his ascension and coronation. He is reigning as King of kings and Lord of lords, governing every event in this world, so that there are no maverick molecules (423).

There's nothing in this book that is so dangerous it will cause anyone to wobble in faith and, on the contrary, I think if an unbeliever reads it they might be persuaded to have faith in Jesus. Believers alike will be edified, as I was, and probably be even hungrier for more of the Scripture after reading it.

It's not a weighty book, but that is no insult. It is a book helpful for getting people involved in the Scripture and giving them a rudimentary understanding of what was happening. It is excellent devotional reading and perhaps for sermon preparation as much of the time it reads like short sermons that were written and preached, and that's fine too. I'm glad there were times at the end of chapters when Sproul challenged my faith and, in light of what Scripture said, forced me to come to grips with aspects of my life that were in contradiction to the Word of God.

4/5 Stars

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