Most likely, the earliest Gospel was written by John Mark of Jerusalem, helper to both Peter and Paul. The time was probably A.D. 65-67 and the purpose was to inspire believers in Rome against whom Emperor Nero had unleashed a wave of horrific persecution after having executed the two apostles mentioned above (see Acts 12:12; 2 Tim. 4:11; 1 Pet. 5:13). Mark’s is the only canonical Gospel with a title: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). Early church tradition says that Mark wrote what Peter preached. Peter himself hints at plans for something like that (2 Pet. 1:12-15) and Peter’s recitation of the story of Jesus to the Italian household of Cornelius in Acts 10:34-43 turns out to be an excellent outline for the Gospel of Mark.
Mark tells no Christmas story, gives no birth narratives, offers no genealogical details. He begins with John, the wilderness prophet. John announces that while he baptizes with water, Jesus, who is greater than him, will baptize with the Holy Spirit. John then baptizes Jesus. As Jesus comes up from the water, the Spirit of God comes down from heaven upon him as predicted in Isaiah 61:1ff and the divine voice proclaims Jesus to be God’s beloved and well-pleasing Son — conjuring memories of Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1 (Mark 1:4-11). Mark literally says the heavens were ripped open (1:10, fulfilling Isaiah 64:1). Near the end of this story, Mark will report the Temple curtain also being ripped open from top to bottom (15:38). God is at work in Jesus’ story from start to finish.
Like us, first-century Jews had their own ideas about what God’s Son and messianic Servant should do, but Mark’s story will form a definition of its own. Immediately after his baptism the Spirit expels Jesus into the Judean wilderness where he faces 40 days of satanic temptation. Not a word about the content of the temptations, just the bleak and foreboding scenes of wilderness, Satan and wild beasts, and angelic ministry (1:12-13). For Jesus, commission means conflict — a sign of things to come. Through the first half of Mark’s Gospel, we follow Jesus around Galilee where his family doubts him, his disciples misunderstand him and Jesus predicts his impending suffering and death (8:33-38). The second half of this Gospel focuses on Jesus’ final week in and around Jerusalem, a dramatic imbalance that causes some to refer to Mark as “a passion story with an introduction.”
Early in the story, Jesus begins to recruit apprentices. Not with an offer but a command. He sees Levi in the tax office and says “Follow me.” Levi gets up and follows Jesus (1:14). The next verse has Jesus socializing at table with “many tax-gatherers and sinners . . . for there were many of them and they were following him” (1:15). The Pharisaic scribes see this and are offended (1:16), just as Jesus intended. “I did not come to call the righteous but sinners,” he says (1:17). The first half of this Gospel ends with Jesus telling the crowds: “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (8:34).