I recently finished reading through Witness Lee’s Life-Study of Mark. Here is my limited review.
Witness Lee’s magnum opus is his Life-Study of the Bible, a verse-by-verse commentary on every book in the Protestant canon. Obviously, this includes all four gospels. Having read his study on Matthew, I was interested to see how he treated Mark.
Lee deals with each Gospel in a strikingly unique and fresh way. In other words, even though much of the basic material—stories, parables, teachings—overlaps in the Synoptics (90% of Mark is contained in Matthew, 50% in Luke), Lee doesn’t simply rehash old exegesis or echo old lessons in a way that would mean reading the Life-Study of Matthew leaves you with the same takeaway as reading the Life-Study of Mark. Although each mountain of revelation shares similar contours, the overall vista seen in each gospel is site-specific. The reason the Spirit inspired four Gospels is not for the sake of penetration through repetition (although this is certainly a benefit), as though God was worried about dense, unperceptive readers.
Most Americans are too predisposed to Christianity or too familiar with the Jesus story to be impacted like this, but imagine how striking it would be to read, for the first time and in order, the New Testament with zero previous exposure. Finishing Matthew with a feeling of triumphant amazement embodied in a quiet ‘wow’, you move on to Mark. All of a sudden you are perplexed, “Didn’t I just read this?” You immediately forge ahead and make it to Luke. “Again?” Then John translocates and adds substantial mystical depth to the whole thing. What would you make of the fact that the first four books of the New Testament are all biographies of the same person? Certainly you would ask yourself what it all means.
Each Gospel, for all their similarities, is a unique product of the Spirit’s inspiration and makes a distinctive contribution to our understanding of God’s operation on and in Christ for the divine economy. Each Gospel enlarges our view of who Christ is and what the divine economy is (Lee’s example is viewing a face or house from four different sides). While much of the basic interpretation of an individual pericope may apply to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, what it means in the grand scheme of each gospel and why it’s placed in a certain order may differ among the three (or four). Turns out the “according to” (κατα) in the full “title” of each Gospel is rich with implications. This is one of the most exciting aspects of Lee’s treatment of each Gospel—the composite revelation that a bird’s-eye view of the Gospel affords (pp. 233, 302, 318).
Witness Lee’s treatment of Mark is inspiring, but it requires a full reading to appreciate it for what it is. The overall view presented builds gradually and eventually circles back on itself in new ways in later chapters (conspicuously starting at ch 52, but earlier too). It’s not until you get a few chapters under your belt that you begin to really get what Lee is trying to convey. And that is, a vision of the meaning of Mark as a whole in relation to the Bible as a whole understood from the vantage point of God’s economy (pp. 445, 581-590). It’s a very spiritual-experiential, Christocentric approach, although one not negating the literal sense of the text in any way.
While reading Lee is very different from reading Barth, this description of reading Barth is analogous:
Commentators often note the musical structure of his writings: the announcement of a theme, and its further extension in a long series of developments and recapitulations, through which the reader is invited to consider the theme from a number of different angles and in a number of different relations. No one stage of the argument is definitive; rather, it is the whole which conveys the substance of what he has to say.
The broad theme Lee introduces and pursues in Mark is that Jesus Christ is the Slave-Savior come to serve sinners. Mark 10:45 is the theme verse and Mark 1:1 the fitting point of departure.
For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:45)
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. (Mark 1:1)
This gospel begins immediately (a conspicuous word in Mark, occurring at least 42 times) with His service, not with a royal genealogy, childhood experience, or eternal preexistence. The gospel IS His service to sinners, a service that results in His reproduction, enlargement, and continuation in a corporate new man. He comes to heal sinners and raise them up through His death and resurrection so that they can serve Him. We can only serve Him and others to the extent that He has served us. In this light, the case of Peter’s mother-in-law is a summary of this entire gospel.
Jesus came to her and raised her up, holding her hand, and the fever left her, and she served them. (Mark 1:31)
The result of this service is the reproduction, enlargement, and continuation of Christ in a corporate new man. Mark begins with Jesus coming out to proclaim the gospel and calling the disciples to be with Him. Mark ends with the disciples going out into all the world to proclaim the gospel and now the Lord is with them. This is Mark’s way of indicating the incorporation of the apostolic ministry with Christ’s heavenly ministry in ascension for the producing of the new man.
The Gospel of Mark ends like it began:
Lee’s treatment of Mark, like all his commentaries in general, has a somewhat patristic character in two primary ways:
1. The Divine Economy
Lee is more interested in discerning what the text means in terms of the revelation and experience of Christ for the accomplishment of God’s economy, than he is in historical-criticism or overly technical analysis. This does not mean his interpretation is arbitrary or fanciful. It simply means he is guided by other concerns.
R. R. Reno describes the patristic tradition’s concern this way:
For… the patristic tradition as a whole, scripture is the semiotic medium in which God encodes the pattern of the divine economy.
While Lee’s understanding of the economy may differ in certain ways from the early church’s (it’s not in conflict, it just expands and sharpens it), this view of scripture prevails in the Life-Study of Mark. In fact, the last nineteen chapters are entitled, “A Life Fully According to and For God’s New Testament Economy.” Lee views the entire Gospel of Mark not as a collection of stories or a set of doctrines, but as a vision of what God’s economy is and how Christ achieves it (p. 452). The central point of God’s economy according to Lee as presented in the Gospel of Mark is “the producing of the new man through Christ’s death and resurrection” (p. 360).
2. Author’s Intent
With Augustine, Lee believes the intent of the Spirit in inspiring a text often transcends the intention of the human author in writing it. So Lee in no way feels bound to what Mark may have exactly had in mind in composing and ordering his gospel account. Numerous times throughout his commentary, Lee says that the sequence of Mark’s record, while according to historical order, was sovereignly inspired by God to convey a theological point.
Lee makes this point especially clear in 1:14-45, which he believes portrays the contents of the gospel, and 2:1-3:6, which portrays the ways of carrying out the gospel. Lee says, the sequence of Mark 1 shows us “the nature, substance, essence, element, contents, and reality of the gospel” (p. 61). And then, that the incidents in 2:1-3:6, “are presented according to historical fact and sequence… These five events took place under the Lord’s sovereignty according to the actual sequence of the enjoyment of His salvation” (p. 82). Similar points are made in the relation between chapters 4 and 5. Chapter 4 shows Jesus teaching what the kingdom of God is in relation to God’s plan and chapter 5 shows Jesus demonstrating what the kingdom of God is in relation to Satan and human society (pp. 151-153). So for Lee, the narrative sequence in Mark, while according to historical order of Jesus’ life, is under God’s sovereign arrangement to portray God’s economy in a way that Mark could not have grasped.
Overall View Presented
Lee’s overall view of the Gospel of Mark is that Jesus is the Son of God who became a slave (10:45) to serve sinners with the gospel (1:1, 14) to progressively heal them and become their all-inclusive replacement (8:29-9:9) for the producing of the new man as the full growth and development of the kingdom of God (4:1-29) in its two main aspects—the subduing of rebellion (4:35-41) and the transfiguration of the Lord Jesus (9:1-13). By serving His people with His life and by bringing His followers with Him into His death and resurrection, His biography becomes their history (p. 519) and they become His corporate reproduction and continuation (p. 394, 521) for the universal spreading of the gospel (16:20) until the Son of Man comes again with power and glory to set up the manifestation of the kingdom on earth (13:26).
It’s an inspiring vision and all throughout it is radically Christocentric in revelation and experience (pp. 335, 497). More than any other commentary on Mark (I checked out the best 10 commentaries at the same time, and fully read M Eugene Boring’s commentary concurrently), this one has helped me to know Christ more, love Christ more, experience His gospel-service more, and see more what God’s economy is in the Bible. I hope you check it out!
1. C.E.B. Cranfield, The Gospel According to St Mark (The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary), p. 6
2. Witness Lee, Christ Being the Burden of the Gospel, Ch. 20
3. Witness Lee, Life-Study of Matthew, pp. 545, 311; The Fulfillment of the Tabernacle and the Offerings in the Writings of John, pp. 36, 49, 62, 238. According to Lee, Matthew’s order is doctrinal, Mark’s historical, Luke’s moral, and John’s historical but with a semiotic-theological purpose.
4. John Webster, Barth, p. 13
5. Not the Savior of slaves, but the Savior who is a slave, a slave to God.
6. Witness Lee, The Crystallization-Study of the Gospel of John, pp. 87-88, 127-128; Life-Study of Mark, pp. 346, 358-359
7. R.R. Reno, Christian Theologies of Scripture, p. 24
8. Augustine, Confessions, 12.18.27