Book Reviews

Book Review: The Beginning of the Gospel: A Theology of Mark (NTT), Peter Orr

Growing up I thought Mark’s Gospel was just a summary of Matthew and Luke. If you want the Reader’s Digest of Jesus’ life, read Mark. However, after being introduced to Rikk Watt’s work on Mark, I began seeing that Mark is very careful in what he writes, why he writes it, and in how he presents Jesus as fulfilling the OT.

The general consensus among scholars is that Mark’s Gospel was written first. Peter Orr, New Testament lecturer at Moore Theological College, remarks about how, according to church tradition, particularly Eusebius and Irenaeus, Peter was Mark’s “historical source” (12). But one thing that I haven’t read before—although it’s right there in Acts 12-13 and 15, Philemon 1:24, and 2 Timothy 4:11—is Mark’s connection with Paul. Often times I believe scholars don’t want to pull this thread because while Paul may have known the historical John Mark, it can’t be proved that that same John Mark wrote the Gospel of Mark. Perhaps. (Rikk Watts has an excellent discussion on this in his lectures on Mark’s Gospel.) But Orr dives in and looks at similarities between Mark and Paul’s theology. If they spent time together, certainly Paul’s theology and lifestyle would have rubbed off on Mark. Paul was, then, Mark’s “theological partner” (12).

For Mark, Jesus death brings salvation, but it is also an “’apocalyptic event’—that is, one that reveals what could not otherwise be known” (22). Paul speaks of the cross in the same way in 1 Corinthians 1–2 (such as the cross being the “secret and hidden wisdom of God,” 1 Cor. 2:7). Mark highlights apocalyptic features surrounding Jesus’s death like the darkness (15:33) and the torn curtain (15:38). And of all people, as Jesus dies a Roman centurion understands Jesus for who he really—the Son of God (15:39).

Mark begins his Gospel with a title, “The beginning of the gospel,” and the first-century believer would have understood “gospel” as something to be heard, not read (17). The gospel was “only known as a preached message” (17). What Mark is doing, then, is fleshing out a “detailed backstory to the gospel [his readers] had heard preached” (17). Paul presents the theology that results from Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Mark gives us the theo-historical background. 

Orr covers Mark’s theology over seven chapters. Important matters such as Jesus’ divine identity (ch 1), revelation that is written, proclaimed, and received (ch 2), the kingdom of God and new creation (ch 3), repentance and salvation (ch 4), following Jesus and discipleship (ch 5), Jesus, the law, and God’s people (ch 6), and the death and resurrection of Jesus (ch 7) are covered.

Divine Identity

One of the key titles used of Jesus is “Son of God.” If you’ve followed me for any extended amount of time, hopefully you’ve seen me point to some of Michael Heiser’s works. The Old Testament uses the term “Son of God” in different ways. It is used about spiritual beings (“sons of God,” Gen 6:1–3; Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7), about the Davidic king (2 Sam 7:14; Ps 2:7; 89:27, used with “firstborn”), and of Israel (Ex 4:22-23; Hos 11:1; Ps 80:15). Orr writes, “In Jewish contexts, a human being could be designated ‘son of God’ in an unremarkable way—meaning they belonged to God” (33). So calling Jesus the “Son of God” could be significant, or not.

God calls Jesus his Son at Jesus’ baptism (1:11) and his transfiguration (9:7). Demons address Jesus as the “Son of God” (3:11; 5:7). And as Orr points out, “the placement of this title at the beginning (1:1, 11), middle (9:7), and end (15:39) of the Gospel points to its significance for Mark” (32). Only once is Jesus referred to as the “Son of God” by a human, and that is by the centurion at the end of the Gospel. For Gentiles, the term “Son of God” had a “more supernatural flavor, in that kings and rulers were understood to be sons of the gods in a more particular sense” (33). This gives irony to the centurion’s statement about the crucified Jesus—“Surely this man was the Son of God!”—because this term was reserved only for the Roman emperor.

Orr argues that Jesus did not become the Son of God nor was he adopted as the Son at his baptism. Jesus didn’t perform any miracles prior to his baptism. He hadn’t done anything to merit his adoption as Son. That is to say, “the declaration of his sonship at the beginning of the narrative suggests that Jesus is recognized rather than made Son of God” (33). Not only that, but “the fact that Jesus is recognized as Son of God by God himself and other supernatural beings (Mark 3:11) suggests that he is not merely a ‘temporary’ (i.e., recent) ‘visitor to the heavenly council, like the prophets, but rather a permanent member'” (34).

Orr also argues against J. R. Daniel Kirk and his volume A Man Attested by God. Kirk argues that Mark presents Jesus an an idealized human, but still only a human. He was not ontologically divine. Rather, he was given authority by God to teach and perform the miracles he did. Kirk is partially correct. Jesus is the perfect picture of what a human should be—”the human being par excellence” (40). But Was Jesus not also divine? Orr easily (IMHO) refutes Kirk here, noting how Jesus is both the Davidic shepherd and “the Lord” (Ezek 34:15), how Jesus’ passing by the disciples on the water was meant to reveal his divinity (Exod 34:6; 1 Kgs 19:11), and how “Jesus assumes the position of deity” when he forgives the paralytic’s sins (48). (I may write more about this later.)

The Kingdom is at Hand

I won’t delve so deeply here, but “the kingdom being at hand” means that the King has come so the kingdom and its effects are now here, to a degree. God’s eschatological salvation arrives in the coming of Jesus. Jesus teaches about the kingdom through parables and people experience the kingdom through his ministry and miracles. The kingdom is dynamic—it draws near (1:15) and grows (4:26–30); it can be received (10:15) and waited for (15:43). But it is also spatial. It can be entered (9:47; 10:23). One can be “in” the kingdom (14:25) or “outside” of it (4:11). 


Both John the Baptist (1:4) and Jesus (1:15) speak about repentance. though this particular word isn’t stressed or mentioned much in Mark, the discipleship that is later stressed in the Gospel comes only from tis turning. And with the radically new values (Mark 10:31) the kingdom brings, “a lifetime of repentance is appropriate” (93). Jesus is the Christ, the King, and already his baptism in the beginning of the book highlights the role that both his death and the Spirit will play in our salvation.

Isaiah plays a major role in Mark’s Gospel, through subtle allusions. According to Isaiah, “God’s saving presence means the presence of forgiveness” (96). Orr observes how Mark’s structure highlights the importance of forgiveness. Noting Peter Bolt’s work here, Mark 1:16–4:34 can be divided into four subsections “each marked by Jesus’s location next to the sea (1:16; 2:13; 3:7; 4:1)” (96). Each subsection contains a call to follow or listen to Jesus, and within each subsection, forgiveness of sins plays a central role. Within Mark, though faith isn’t a major theme, saving faith is directed towards Jesus.

The Mosaic Law

This is a helpful chapter, for what does the law have to do with us today? Briefly, in regards to Mark 7 and what Jesus says about clean and unclean food, Orr gives a helpful perspective on how Jesus “declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19), when Peter had a hard time trusting and obeying God about all foods being clean later in Acts 10. Orr points out three levels in the text: Jesus speaking to the Pharisees, Jesus later speaking privately to his disciples, and Mark’s comment in 7:19 comes even later with this “beginning of the gospel” letter. I won’t spoil too much for you (unless you ask in the comments). Through the different texts here (food, marriage, Sabbath, etc.), Mark shows how Jesus is (1) the authoritative teacher of Israel, (2) the new Moses, and (3) the true lawgiver.


This is a careful volume (in a great series) that hones in and a few of Mark’s themes. Orr gives an excellent overview of what is important in Mark without burdening you with too many details. He teases out the interlocking themes that weave their way through Mark’s Gospel. There is plenty here both to whet your appetite for more of Mark’s Gospel and enough here to give you plenty to study as you seek to shape your sermon series, Bible study, or lesson plans on Mark’s Gospel. Highly recommended.


  • Series: New Testament Theology
  • Author: Peter C. Orr
  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Crossway (January 10, 2023)
  • Read the Intro + Chapter 1

Buy it from Amazon or Crossway!

Disclosure: I received this book free from Crossway. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255

Amazon Affiliate Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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