During the Christmas season, we reflect upon the mystery of the incarnation – God Himself becoming a man. In these next few blog posts, I would like you to reflect with me upon that mystery through the eyes of Mark, the writer of the second Gospel. We will walk together through a few of the early passages of Mark’s gospel, and see how Mark reveals the nature of who Jesus is through his unfolding story of actions and power.
Mark begins his gospel with a dramatic opening line: “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk. 1:1). The Jews had long awaited a Messiah who would deliver them. Mark begins his gospel by announcing that the long awaited Messiah has come! The name Jesus means savior or deliverer; the word Christ is not a name, but a title. It means messiah or anointed one. However, Mark wastes no time in declaring that Jesus is not just a human Messiah, or an earthly deliverer. He declares that this Messiah is also the Son of God!
Mark will spend his entire gospel demonstrating that this Jesus is God Himself who has come among us. The eternal God, the author of all history, has stepped into our history. I have heard that William Shakespeare occasionally liked to play a small part in one of his own masterpiece plays. He enjoyed entering into the play which he himself had written. The Apostle Paul tells us that it was through Jesus that God the Father created the world (Col. 1:16). Yet, now – through the incarnation – Jesus steps into human history. The author of all history becomes part of our history. Rather than stepping into a small minor role, however, Jesus’ entrance into the human race becomes the central most important fact in the history of the entire world. The world will never be the same now that God has stepped into our history. Jesus is God’s sermon to the world. There has never been a sermon like this one!
Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark does not tell us about Jesus’ miraculous birth in Bethlehem. And unlike John, Mark does not reflect theologically about the preexistent nature of “the Word made flesh” (John 1:14). Instead, Mark dives immediately into the action of Jesus’ public ministry, demonstrating by the unfolding acts and deeds of Jesus that He is the very Son of God. The early church for whom Mark is writing was in the midst of intense persecution under the reign of Emperor Nero. Peter had been crucified upside down and Paul had been beheaded. Mark (often called John Mark) had traveled with Paul, and had been a close companion and helper to Peter, especially near the end of Peter’s life. His gospel very likely reflects Peter’s eye witness account of Jesus which he handed down to Mark. This gospel was written to encourage the persecuted church to remain faithful in the midst of trials. It is concise, direct, to the point, and full of action – and it is through that action that Mark reveals the true identity of Jesus Christ.
To draw you into the drama of Mark’s presentation of Jesus, I would like you to think about three pictures. First, picture a wild, crazy looking preacher. He is wearing clothes made of camel skins, he is eating locusts and honey, and he has a big leather belt around his waist! This is no polished speaker with a fancy suit on. He has long hair, he hasn’t shaved, and he comes in the spirit and power of Elijah, announcing a message from God which fulfills the great prophet Isaiah. His message and manner must have struck those first hearers as very radical and strange!
His message was about baptism. Baptism speaks of an entrance into something. To be baptized means to enter into a new community of some kind. Mark begins his account with this wild preacher named John the Baptist proclaiming that everyone needs to be baptized. The Jews were accustomed to being on the inside of whatever God was doing. Now, John is declaring that God is doing a new thing, and the whole of humanity is on the outside of it, but are being summoned to this new thing. John the Baptist isn’t just announcing “good news.” He is announcing the need for baptism – a baptism of repentance which is the only way to gain entrance into this new community. It is as if he were saying, “Something new is coming! Something very dramatic is about to be revealed! And the way to be a part of it is to come by faith and repentance, for the Messiah is about to arrive, and He is far greater than I am!”
The second picture which Mark gives us is of a dry and uninhabited place, a desert. Think of a place which is hot and dry and devoid of all life. We hear a voice crying out in the wilderness. Jews associated the desert with their forty years of wilderness wanderings or the 70 years of Babylonian exile. It was a place that they wanted to avoid. But, we must recognize the desolation of our lives apart from God’s divine presence. We also discover Jesus coming up out of the wilderness, having fasted for forty days. Jesus symbolically re-enacted the forty years of wilderness wanderings, and entered our place of desolation prior to beginning His public ministry.
This brings us to the third and final picture which Mark gives us as he opens his gospel: the emergence of Jesus Christ on the stage of human history. Jesus comes and is baptized by John the Baptist. As Jesus emerged from the waters of baptism something dramatic happened. First, the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove. Then, God the Father spoke from heaven and declared, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Thus, the entire Trinity is already present in the first chapter of Mark. In fact, John has now given us a three-fold testimony to the authority and authenticity of Jesus: The testimony of the prophets (vs. 2, 3), the testimony of the Holy Spirit (vs. 10) and the testimony of God the Father (vs. 11). This is dramatic! This Jesus really is the promised Messiah. Jesus re-enacted Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness through His 40 days of fasting and temptation, remaining faithful and sinless in every trial in which humanity had failed. Now, He is ready to begin his public ministry. Up to this point, despite all the drama, we have not heard a single word from the lips of Jesus. It is in verse 14 that we first hear Jesus’ words, which mark the formal beginning of his public ministry: “The time has come! The kingdom of God is near! Repent and believe the good news!”
In the flesh, God Himself has come – the Messiah is here at long last! And Mark will show through powerful actions and words and deeds that Jesus speaks as God speaks, and sees as God sees, and touches as God touches, and acts as God acts – for this is “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God!”