The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
What is the best good news that you have ever heard, read, or received? Was it a wedding announcement? An anniversary announcement? A birth announcement? When I still looked regularly at printed newspapers, I would look in the Sunday edition for those types of announcements. I vaguely remember when Jessica and I had our wedding announcement in the paper, and I’m sure that we still have that announcement of good news tucked away somewhere in a dusty, old box.
Those announcements of good news are important to the people whom they are about and can be interesting for others, but they are not ground breaking or life changing for those not actually getting married or having the anniversary. It is much more likely that the best news that you ever heard was less formal and more personal. Perhaps it was when your wife told you that she was expecting. Perhaps it was when your doctor called and told you that your test results were negative. Perhaps it was when your new employer called to tell you that you got the job. Or, maybe it came in the form of an admission letter to a certain college. I’m sure there have been a few instances in our lives when we have all received good news of that nature, and we were never the same again.
Well, Mark’s gospel announces good news too. In fact, whether you realize it or not, or acknowledge it or not, Mark’s gospel announces the best good news that this world has ever received. It is a good news that demands more than our attention and acknowledgment. What Mark’s gospel announces is this: a whole new world and a new way of being human has commenced through Jesus the Christ, the Son of God.
Mark’s gospel announces the good news that the restoration of Israel and the nations and God’s saving reign has begun through Jesus, God’s King. Mark’s gospel is the surprising story of how the greatest man who ever lived accomplished more than any other person who has ever lived, not through coercion, oppression, or violence, but through service and sacrificial love. And, what we all must realize is that the good news that Mark delivers demands a response. As the old hymn goes, it demands our souls, our lives, and our all.
THE GOOD NEWS THAT DEMANDS A RESPONSE
That is the first point to recognize as we begin to look at Mark’s good news. Mark’s gospel is a unique ancient biography that demands a response. As an early biography, it is not a biography like we would read today but the type of biography that was written and read in the ancient world about great men who lived, died, and made a lasting impact on their communities.
Mark’s gospel is a biography that was meant to be read aloud. Literacy in Mark’s day was perhaps as low as 10%, so for a man to receive the good news that it provides, he would more than likely have to have had it read to him in a gathering of believers or a gathering of those who were interested in the content of Christianity. For that reason, a good exercise as we make our way through Mark would be for you to read Mark at home on your own time. But, I would encourage you, if you could, not to read it silently, but to read it aloud as Mark intended.
Another way that Mark’s gospel is an ancient biography different from modern biographies is that it is much shorter and to the point. I like to read modern biographies from time to time about historical figures, particularly those from church history. However, those biographies are usually long and detailed. Some can be as many as 700 to 800 pages. However, Mark’s gospel is comparatively shorter and more to the point than our modern biographies.
Mark’s gospel, then, is an ancient rather than a modern biography. However, there is something distinctively different—determinedly other—about Mark’s gospel as well—something which separated it from all other ancient biographies of its kind. I share all this with you because Mark’s original audience would have recognized this. Mark was convinced that Jesus was unlike any other man who had ever lived. For that reason, Mark’s gospel is a biography set apart from other ancient biographies. Mark presents us with a portrait of a person, who, unlike anyone else, emulates more than just admiration.
Several others had their lives recorded and read about in the ancient world, but Jesus was different. His life—his otherness—demands more than our respect, it demands our devotion, worship, and discipleship. Through his gospel, Mark wants us to see that Jesus is unlike any other person who has ever lived, and that his story is more captivating, more life changing than any other story. Mark wants us to see in the life and in the story of Jesus a life and a story so compelling that they capture us so that we find our lives and our stories within his.
Mark is convinced that, unlike any other man, death was not Jesus’ end but his victory over the devil, the forces of evil, and the disorder that remains in this world. Also, unlike any other man whose life merited a biography in the ancient world, Jesus’ greatness was displayed in humility, gentleness, kindness, compassion, and even suffering rather than in the power of coercion, human wisdom, or physical or political force.
Jesus’ power lay instead in steadfast love and faithfulness, love and faithfulness to his father’s will and love and faithfulness toward the people whom he came to save. So, the first thing that I want us to realize and to take away from this introduction to Mark is that Mark’s biography of Jesus is not meant as mere pleasure reading as pleasurable as a read as it may be. It’s not merely meant to inspire you with stories of a great life, as inspiring a life as Jesus may have led. Rather, it demands something more from us. It demands a choice, similar to life changing announcements that we receive today but even more so. When a young husband or a young woman first receives the good news that they will have a child, they are presented with a choice, aren’t they? Will they go on living as they did before, when their time was largely their own and they did not have to worry or feel responsible for anyone but themselves? Or, will they grow up and invest themselves in this new person that is theirs to love, cherish, nourish, and introduce to a harsh world? That’s the choice that the good news of parenthood presents to us, and how we respond to that choice determines what kind of parents we will be.
Similarly, but even more so, Mark’s gospel presents good news that requires from us a choice. Mark’s gospel shows us who our God is, who we were meant to be as his creatures, and how we can be restored to God and his purpose for us. Mark’s gospel presents to us a choice. Now that we have this good news, will we go on living half-human lives entrapped by the enslaving powers of this world? Or, will we turn from our own paths, look to Jesus, and live the lives that we were created to live as people who bear God’s image?
Mark’s biography of Jesus also demands from us worship, not worship of Mark or his writing abilities, but of the extraordinary subject of his story. It demands the kind of worship ascribed in Isaac Watt’s hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”:
“When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died, my richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride. . . . See, from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down, Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown? Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small. Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”
Mark’s good news is a unique ancient biography that demands from us a response. Will we go on living the same when we’ve been presented a life-changing message? Or, will we turn to Jesus and find our lives in his?
THE GOOD NEWS OF NEW CREATION
Lastly, we need to consider the content of Mark’s gospel about Jesus. Mark’s gospel is the good news of new creation in that it describes restoration for Israel, the nations, and the world. We will talk more about this in the weeks to come, but first I want to talk with you about what we find in this opening verse of Mark’s gospel.
Mark opens his book with the title of his gospel: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” His book is the beginning of the gospel about Jesus. Gospel, as many of you may know, is a word that means good news. This was good news about Jesus. Now, it is important for us to recognize what Mark and his audience would have had in their minds when they used, saw, and read the word gospel.
Gospel could communicate two ideas for Mark and his audience. In its Roman context, a gospel announced the good news that a great ruler, such as an emperor, had arrived or had done something of note in the world. In its Jewish context (and this was by far the most important to Mark and his audience), the gospel was the good news announced by the Prophets, particularly Isaiah.
We often assume that the word gospel is first used in Matthew, the first gospel that is presented in the New Testament. However, the first Christians knew the term gospel before Mark used it, and before Matthew, Luke, or John. They knew it because it was used several times by Isaiah. In fact, for the early Christians, Isaiah was the first gospel. When Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John announced that they were writing a gospel, they were announcing that what Isaiah wrote about had come true in Jesus.
The gospel that Isaiah spoke about was this. Isaiah prophesied that Israel’s story, and by extension the world’s story (since the world was to receive renewal through Israel), would not end in judgment. Israel found herself in exile for falling short of reflecting God’s glory to the nations. However, the good news was that this was not the end. Rather, the time was coming when the LORD God would return and restore Israel, the nations, and the world itself, and the LORD’s servant David—the Messiah—would rule over the new and perfectly ordered world with justice and righteousness. To put it another way, the gospel according to Isaiah, and what Mark would have had in mind when he used the term, was the good news that new creation and salvation were coming to life in this world.
Mark shows that this is what was going on in several ways in this opening verse. The first way is by using the word “gospel.” Again, that term would have reminded Mark’s audience of the promises of God in the prophecy of Isaiah. The words “the beginning” echo the opening words of Genesis where Moses describes God’s original creation. By connecting his gospel to Genesis 1:1, Mark wants us to see that through Jesus there was coming a new creation. God was doing a new creative work in the world on par to his ordering the heavens and the earth.
Mark also calls Jesus “the Christ.” Many people today just assume that Christ was a part of Jesus’ name, sort of like a last name, but that is not the case. Christ was not a name, but a title. Christ is the Greek term for the Hebrew word Messiah, which means Anointed One, or King. For many Jews, the Messiah came to refer to the promised son of David who would defeat God’s enemies and rule over God’s people and this world forever with justice and in righteousness. So, by giving Jesus the title “Christ,” Mark is declaring that Jesus is God’s long promised king, who would crush the head of the serpent, save his people from their enslavement to sin and to death, and bring order, rest, and blessing to his people and this world.
Finally, Mark calls Jesus the “son of God.” Once again, the term “son of God” was a royal, messianic term loaded with meaning for Mark and his audience. However, it was also a term that referred to those with whom the LORD had made his covenants and his plans to bless the world. Adam was called the son of God, and it was intended that he bring God’s blessing to bear in the world. However, he failed through unbelief and disobedience. Collectively, the people of Israel were also God’s chosen son, but Israel, as a nation, broke God’s covenant time and again and also failed to bring the blessing of new creation to the world. In contrast with those who came before, Mark wants us to recognize that Jesus was uniquely God’s son, who would succeed in bringing God’s rest and blessing to the nations. Through him, all God’s plans and promises for human beings and for this world would be accomplished.
Jesus is also God’s unique son. He is both God and man, the incarnate One, who visited this world for us and our salvation. As Mark will show in this gospel, Jesus won our salvation and saved the world not through force or coercion, but through service, love, sacrifice, suffering, and even death. My friend, this is the best good news that has been given or that will ever be given. This is news of new creation, restoration, and salvation. It is news of an eventual end to war, broken hearts, abuse, isolation, oppression, suffering, and death. It is news of canceled sin and peace with God. It is news of a new world and hope. It’s news of a new way of being human.
Do you know what this good news means for us and the world right now? Do you know what it will mean when Jesus appears again from heaven?
Right now, this good news means that we can be forgiven our sins and made right with God. Right now, we can receive the promised Holy Spirit, who will work in us to live in obedience and service to God. My friend, this is the purpose for which we were created and that most fulfills us as human beings. Right now, we can be freed from our slavery to sin and the fear of death. Right now, we can have a foretaste of the rest and blessing of the world to come. Right now, we can share in the life of Christ’s new community. All those things are offered to us right now if we would respond to this news the way that we ought, with repentance toward God and faith in Christ.
When Jesus returns, this good news promises that we will enter that rest for which we have a sample now through life in the Spirit. This good news promises that we will inherit a renewed world and reign with Christ forever. That, after all, is the way Isaiah described the good news of the coming age. He said that it would be a day in which the wolf would dwell with the lamb, the serpent would be the plaything of children, and nothing would harm or hurt in all God’s holy mountain (Is. 11:1-10).
What better news is there than that? That’s a good question, isn’t it? But, an even better question is this: how will you respond?
If you’re in the Paducah area and want to talk more about King Jesus and what it means to live in his new world, I would love to sit down with you over a cup of coffee (my treat!). Contact me, and let’s meet! I also invite you to come and worship the King with me at Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church. We meet for worship weekly at 10:30 on Sunday mornings.
For the tricky question of genre, I found Garland helpful and follow his thinking. David E. Garland, A Theology of Mark’s Gospel: Biblical Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 85-89. See also R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark, in NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 9-11.