The Beginning of the Gospel
A sermon on Mark 1:1-8 by Coty Pinckney, Community Bible Church, Williamstown, MA 4/25/99
The time: Tuesday, this week, around midday. Cassie Bernall is studying in her high school library, the Bible she brings to school every day on the desk in front of her. Suddenly she hears shouting, screaming, and the sound of something like firecrackers. She stands and turns toward the door. Two of her schoolmates, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, run into the room, shooting guns, yelling. One of them approaches her. "Do you believe in Jesus?" he sneers. Cassie -- who accepted Jesus as Savior about two years ago, and is active in her church youth group -- replies: "Yes." Her schoolmate shoots her dead.
The killings at Columbine High School show with startling clarity the ever-present reality of sin in this world. These grisly murders join the well-publicized suffering of hundreds of thousands of Kosovar refugees, and the hardly-publicized suffering of millions of Sudanese Christians, driven from their homes, tens of thousands sold into slavery. Yes, in 1999, slavery.
If anyone of us needed further evidence that this world is not improving, decade after decade, this week we received it. The truth that we live in a fallen world should be obvious to all.
Why such hatred? Why such inhumanity? Why?
My friends, that Bible that Cassie Bernall had on her desk holds the answer. But the answer is not a pleasant one, for any of us. In such situations we all want to separate people into the bad ones -- those who do such terrible deeds -- and the good ones: and of course we all want to include ourselves among the good.
But the Bible's message is that, left to our own devices, there are no good people. I am not good, you are not good. Every one of us is filled with sin; were it not for God's grace, every one of us would be capable of the most horrid sin that we can imagine.
So is there no hope? If even the best of men is so terrible, where can we find hope?
Turn with me, please to the book of Mark. The first verse reads:
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
"Gospel" means "good news." The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. There is good news for this hurting, suffering world; there is good news for those of us trapped in sin and its effects. That good news is found in this little book, which we will begin to study today.
This morning we will look first at the uniqueness of this book: What distinguishes the gospel of Mark from Matthew, Luke, and John? Then we will look at the author, John Mark: What does the Bible tell us about him? Finally, we will examine the beginning of the gospel, the first eight verses of chapter one, where Mark tells us of John the Baptist's call to repentance.
Unique Characteristics of the Gospel of Mark
Most of you know that the Bible has been translated into more languages than any other book in the world. You may not know that of all the books in the Bible, Mark has been translated into the most languages. Surely the fact that it is the briefest of the 4 gospels is part of the reason. But its other unique characteristics lead translators to choose to work on this book first. We'll note five of these characteristics:
(1) Mark is written from a Jewish perspective, but for non-Jews. Since translators are working with non-Jews, this attribute makes Mark an appealing choice.
Mark's intended audience is most apparent in two ways. First, there are few quotations from the Old Testament in this gospel. The contrast with Matthew, who brings out Jesus' fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy again and again, is most striking.
Second, Mark offers explanations for Hebrew or Aramaic words that he uses, and for Jewish practices that he cites. For example, consider Mark 7:1-4:
1 ¶ And the Pharisees and some of the scribes gathered together around Him when they had come from Jerusalem, 2 and had seen that some of His disciples were eating their bread with impure hands, that is, unwashed. 3 (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; 4 and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they cleanse themselves; and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots.)
Mark ensures that his readers know that the Pharisees are not worried about the disciples' hygiene, but about their living up to a ceremonial standard. Such comments make this gospel understandable even to those who have little or no knowledge of the Old Testament.
(2) Mark writes a strong, eyewitness narrative
More than the other gospel writers, Mark notes details of position, of number of people present, of gestures, of emotion. He helps us to picture the scene, not only to hear the words spoken. All this suggests that the author or a close associate was physically present when these events occurred.
One example of this type of detail: in several places, Mark quotes the actual Aramaic words spoken. (Recall that Mark and the other New Testament books were written in Greek, but Jesus spoke Aramaic.) For example, consider Mark 5:39-42:
39 And entering in, He said to them, "Why make a commotion and weep? The child has not died, but is asleep." 40 And they began laughing at Him. But putting them all out, He took along the child's father and mother and His own companions, and entered the room where the child was. 41 And taking the child by the hand, He said to her, "Talitha kum!" (which translated means, "Little girl, I say to you, arise!"). 42 And immediately the girl rose and began to walk. (NASB)
Mark alone provides us with these Aramaic words. It seems that someone who was there recorded these words, someone who heard them, someone to whom they were as vivid in memory as if they had just been spoken.
(3) Mark writes a brief account, focusing on action: Reading through this book, one can't help but notice the use of word translated "immediately" in the New American Standard. "Immediately" appears 39 times in the NAS translation; Mark actually uses the corresponding Greek word 40 times. In a much longer book, Luke only uses this word 7 times. In chapter 1 alone, Mark uses this word in verses 10, 18, 20, 21, 29, 30, 31, 42, 43:
immediatelyhe saw the heavens opening. . .
immediately the Spirit impelled him . . .
immediately they left their nets . . .
immediately he called them . . .
they went to Caperneum and immediately he entered the synagogue.
Action. Action. Action. One event happens -- Boom! The next event happens.
Corresponding to this emphasis on action, Mark provides considerably less of Jesus' teaching than the other gospels. Now, Jesus is unquestionably portrayed as a teacher -- but the content of that teaching is summarized much more briefly in Mark.
Indeed, Matthew and Luke to a large extent simply elaborate on Mark's accounts of the events in Jesus' life. Only a few dozen verses are unique to Mark.
These three characteristics of Mark are frequently highlighted by others. As I was reading through this gospel several times, however, two additional characteristics struck me: The emphasis on Jesus' problems with crowds and Jesus' emotions.
(4) Mark emphasizes Jesus' problems with crowds. Time and again, crowds are seen as a hindrance to Jesus' ministry: Jesus needs to get into a boat to get some distance between himself and the crowds; he leaves one area because so many sick are coming for healing he can't preach his message; Jesus and his disciples can't even eat because of the crowds gathering at their house. So Jesus tells those who are healed not to tell others -- but they do anyway, and the crowds increase more and more.
This is the story again and again in the first 3/4 of Mark; Jesus is popular, and crowds mob him. But then something interesting happens: the crowd turns on him. In chapters 14 and 15, the crowd comes to arrest him; the crowd demands his crucifixion before Pilate. Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate agrees.
As we make our way through the gospel, we will explore why Jesus instructs those who are healed not to tell others. But for now, note that both the friendly crowds and the hateful crowds cause problems for Jesus.
(5) Finally, Mark brings out Jesus' feelings. When we picture Jesus in our minds, we usually think of him as calm and serene (unfortunately, famous paintings have led us to picture him as a serene Italian instead of a serene Jew . . .). But Jesus was not always calm and serene; furthermore, Jesus does not always anticipate correctly what is going to happen. Mark brings this out clearly. At least nine times, Jesus is shown as:
A good example is found in the opening verses of Mark 3. Let's read:
1 Another time he went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. 2 Some of [the Pharisees] were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. 3 Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, "Stand up in front of everyone." 4 Then Jesus asked them, "Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?" But they remained silent. 5 He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. (Mark 3:1-5 NIV)
This story appears in other gospels, but only Mark records Jesus' emotions.
The Author of the Gospel
So we have seen the characteristics of the text; but who produced this text? Who wrote the gospel of Mark?
From the earliest days of the Christian era, this gospel has been attributed to John Mark, who is mentioned in Acts and several epistles. Let's consider first what we know about this man, and then speculate a bit on other possibilities.
John Mark is an interesting name: "John" is Jewish while "Mark" is Roman. Perhaps Mark's father was Roman -- there is no mention of his father in the Bible -- or perhaps he just picked up this name from the Romans.
We do know that Mark's mother Mary was a widowed believer. She must have been reasonably wealthy, for she owned a large house in Jerusalem where many Christians gathered for prayer at the time of Peter's arrest (Acts 12). Colossians 4:10 tells us that Mark is the cousin (or, possibly, the nephew) of Barnabas; we know from Acts 4 that Barnabas was a man of at least some means, having sold a field and given the proceeds to the apostles.
So Mark was living in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus resurrection. We don't know if he lived there his entire life; Barnabas is said to be from Cyprus.
Mark first appears in person in Acts 12:25, when he accompanies Paul and Barnabas upon their return to Antioch, after they have brought gifts to the poor Christians in Jerusalem. He then accompanies these same two on their first missionary journey to Cyprus, but leaves them, going home to Jerusalem (note: not Antioch), when the journey is far from complete. Acts 13:13 reads this way:
Now Paul and his companions put out to sea from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia; and John left them and returned to Jerusalem.
There is no note of censure in this account, but later we find that Paul feels betrayed. This comes out when Paul and Barnabas are discussing returning to the cities they have visited. Read with me Acts 15:36-40:
36 And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, "Let us return and visit the brethren in every city in which we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are." 37 And Barnabas was desirous of taking John, called Mark, along with them also. 38 But Paul kept insisting that they should not take him along who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. 39 And there arose such a sharp disagreement that they separated from one another, and Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. 40 But Paul chose Silas and departed, being committed by the brethren to the grace of the Lord. (NASB)
We hear nothing of Barnabas' journey with Mark; indeed, we hear nothing more of Mark in the book of Acts.
The epistles, however, give us important insights into his life. Paul mentions Mark three times. Writing during his first imprisonment, Paul calls Mark his "fellow worker" in Philemon 24. In the letter to the Colossians, written at the same time, Paul states his appreciation for Mark, one of the few fellow Jews who was working with him. Several years later, during his second imprisonment, when he knows he is about to die, Paul asks Timothy to "get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry." (2 Timothy 4:11). Mark deserted Paul once, but decades later Paul appreciates him as a valuable fellow servant of his Master.
Finally, Peter mentions Mark in 1 Peter 5:13. Mark is with Peter at this time, and Peter refers to him as a son -- perhaps meaning that Mark came to know the Lord through Peter's ministry. The church father Papias, writing about 140AD, says that Peter and Mark worked closely together, with Peter supplying Mark with his accounts of the life of Jesus. This would account for the eyewitness nature of the narrative, the quotations from Aramaic such as talitha cum, and the absence of stories that might glorify Peter himself, such as his walking on the water.
We have now considered all the direct references to Mark in Scripture. But there are two other passages in Mark's gospel that might possibly refer to the author. Consider first Mark 14:51-52. Jesus has been arrested by the angry mob; the disciples are fleeing. Mark alone of the gospel writers records these words:
51 And a certain young man was following Him, wearing nothing but a linen sheet over his naked body; and they seized him. 52 But he left the linen sheet behind, and escaped naked. (NASB)
Why is this in Mark's gospel? Luke and Matthew almost certainly had access to this account when they compiled their gospels, and they chose not to use these verses. Why is this event important to Mark, but not to the others?
Perhaps this young man was Mark himself. Attracted to Jesus, he follows him into the garden, but like Peter and the others he fears the crowd, and runs away, ignominiously stripped of his clothing.
Many commentators believe that the young man in Mark 14 is the author. This second possibility is more speculative, but intriguing. All three gospels include the story of the rich young ruler. But Mark's account is distinct in a number of ways. Let's read this story, beginning at Mark 10:17:
17 And as He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and began asking Him, "Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" 18 And Jesus said to him, "Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. 19 "You know the commandments, 'DO NOT MURDER, DO NOT COMMIT ADULTERY, DO NOT STEAL, DO NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS, Do not defraud, HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER.'" 20 And he said to Him, "Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up." 21 And looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him, and said to him, "One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me." 22 But at these words his face fell, and he went away grieved, for he was one who owned much property. (Mark 10:17-22 NASB)
Matthew begins his account: "One came to him and said:" Luke simply states: "A certain ruler questioned him:" Mark, however, gives many more details: "As he was setting out . . . a man ran up to him and knelt before him." Whoever wrote this saw it happen, and remembered these details.
Verse 21 provides another detail: "looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him." Only Mark tells us this.
Now, this attention to detail and description of Jesus' emotions is characteristic of Mark as a whole, as we have noted; perhaps verses 17 and 21 are simply examples Mark's usual distinctions vis-a-vis Matthew and Luke, and the eyewitness character of the story. But, just possibly, Mark himself was that rich young ruler. He remembered the details of his running up to Jesus; he remembered the excitement he felt waiting for Jesus' expected statement of approval; and most clearly, he remembered Jesus' look of love before he asked Mark to do what, at that point, he could not.
If this is the case, then Mark's following Jesus begins with three failures: The failure to obey Jesus' command to sell his goods; the failure in the Garden of Gethsemane; and the failure on the first missionary journey.
But God did not give up on Mark! This very man, the man who failed, becomes a dear fellow-worker to Paul, becomes the dear son and amanuensis to Peter, and authors the most-translated book in the world. His ministry has now had an impact for 2000 years, and will continue to have an impact until Jesus comes again.
The Beginning of the Gospel
Let us now turn our attention to the first eight verses of this wonderful gospel:
1 ¶ The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2 As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, "BEHOLD, I SEND MY MESSENGER BEFORE YOUR FACE, WHO WILL PREPARE YOUR WAY; 3 THE VOICE OF ONE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS, 'MAKE READY THE WAY OF THE LORD, MAKE HIS PATHS STRAIGHT.'" 4 John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And all the country of Judea was going out to him, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins. 6 And John was clothed with camel's hair and wore a leather belt around his waist, and his diet was locusts and wild honey. 7 And he was preaching, and saying, "After me One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to stoop down and untie the thong of His sandals. 8 "I baptized you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." (Mark 1:1-8 NASB)
We will examine briefly four questions pertaining to these verses: Why does the preparation for the gospel begin in the wilderness? How does John prepare the way? In what sense is John's preaching good news? And why is this only the beginning of the gospel?
Why does the preparation for the gospel begin in the wilderness?
The Judean wilderness is not a thick, dense forest -- instead, the area west of the Jordan is a dry, hot, desolate place. More than 20 miles from and 3000 feet below Jerusalem, this area was remote. At this time period it was also unsafe, populated primarily with thieves and wild animals, including lions. The cities could be comfortable, safe, and secure; the wilderness was uncomfortable, dangerous, and insecure.
If you and I want to proclaim good news to lots of people, we probably wouldn't pick the middle of the Adirondacks as our venue. A PR consultant probably would have told John to stay in Jerusalem, to meet the people where they are at, to speak to the largest crowd possible, at the place where it was easiest to find them.
But God instead instructed John to preach in the wilderness -- and the people all came out to him! Why did God choose the wilderness?
I believe God uses the wilderness as a picture of our spiritual state. The beginning of the gospel comes to us not in our protected cities, not where we feel comfortable, not where we feel safe and secure. If we think we are fine on our own, we do not hear the message. But God uses difficulties in our lives to awaken us to our need for Him. So God sends the message of hope to us in the wilderness, in the midst of troubles and trials.
How does John prepare the way?
John prepares the way for the coming of the Messiah by "preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." (v. 4). Repentance means turning away from the old way of life, acknowledging that that is worthless, and turning to a new way of life. John prepares the hearts of the people for the coming Savior, as they must acknowledge their need of a Savior before they can respond to a Savior.
Jesus brings out this point in Mark 2:17:
It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners. (NIV)
If we think we are healthy, we will not listen to a doctor's advice; if we think we are righteous, we see no need for a savior. John prepares the way by calling people to repentance.
In what sense is John's preaching good news?
At first glance, John's preaching may not sound like good news. He is calling them to repentance, after all, bringing them to acknowledge that they themselves are in a spiritual wilderness. Why is this the beginning of the gospel, the beginning of good news?
Verse 4 contains the answer: John was "preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." He tells people to repent, yes: but then they are forgiven! How contrary to the preaching they had been receiving from the Pharisees and teachers of the law! These false guides would have said that a series of formalistic, legalistic steps was necessary to receive God's forgiveness for even the most trivial, unintentional sin. As for those serious sinners -- the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the intentional Sabbath breakers -- there was no hope for them. They deserve death!
These teachers of the law prided themselves on their understanding of the Law, but they completely misread the Old Testament. As Jesus says to a Pharisee, "Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not understand these things?" (John 3:10). As we discussed in our series on Leviticus, the Old Testament is the story of God's grace! God provides for the weakness of the people, he provides a way to receive forgiveness, foreshadowing the death of this very Savior John proclaims.
So John's message comes with startling freshness to these poor Jews burdened with a legalistic interpretation of the Old Testament. There is hope! Repent, and be forgiven! Grace is abundant! I know I am in the wilderness, I know I deserve judgment, I know I cannot live up to the law as the Pharisees say I must -- but John tells me to repent, and I will be clean! To turn my back on sin, and God will forgive!
This is why "all Jerusalem" travels that long, dangerous road to hear John. He offers something they have never heard before: God's grace.
Isn't this message of God's grace the complete gospel? Why is this only the beginning?
John's message is one of hope for a desperate people. But John makes clear in the last two verses of our passage that he is only preparing the way; there is even better news to come. Let's look again at verses 7 and 8:
After me One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to stoop down and untie the thong of His sandals. 8 I baptized you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. (NASB)
Repentance is necessary. Forgiveness is wonderful. But God is doing much more than offering forgiveness: God is offering these people new life! New power! God offers Himself! The indwelling of the Holy Spirit!
The gospel of Jesus Christ is not only about the forgiveness of sins. That's the beginning of the gospel. The full gospel is the hope of being God's precious bride: perfect, spotless, Christlike. The full gospel promises that we will be transformed completely into His image through the power of the Holy Spirit within us.
This offer -- of power over sin, of the ruler of the universe being our God, of our being His people -- this offer still stands. My friends, repent. Believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord. You too can have the power to overcome sin; you too can become the perfect, spotless bride of Christ.
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God, comes to us in the wilderness of April, 1999. The wilderness of shooting deaths at a surburban high school; the wilderness of ethnic hatred in the Balkans; the wilderness of slavery and oppression in Sudan; the wilderness of our own hardened and self-righteous hearts. This gospel proclaims not that you're OK and I'm OK, not that the problems of the world lie with all those other bad people; but the gospel proclaims that God has dealt with sin and death. You can be free.
The first step is repentance. Will you?
Cassie Bernall took that step when she received Jesus as Savior two years ago. She turned her back on the false gods she had been serving, and placed her faith in the Lord of the universe. She knew this good news.
Then she went to school last Tuesday, thinking it would be like any other day -- and five hours later she was dead. She knew the Lord; she believed this gospel. She made the good confession on her day of trial. Jesus accepts her now into his heavenly kingdom.
What about you? If some random act of violence affects you today: Are you ready? Have you repented? Are you keeping short accounts with God?
Mark himself had much to repent of: If our speculation is correct, he initially rejected Jesus' call to follow Him. He ran in the garden. He deserted Paul and Barnabas.
But he did repent. And he received God's grace. And God turned this failure into the author of the most widely-translated book in the world.
No matter how large your failures, no matter how short of a perfect life you fall, God is ready to accept you, by the blood of our Lord and Savior. Won't you repent? Turn to the God of mercy! This is the beginning of the gospel.
Repent! The kingdom of God is at hand!
This sermon was preached at Community Bible Church in Williamstown, MA on 4/25/99. Ray Stedman's sermon on these verses, which is available at thePBC web site, was particularly helpful; in particular, he suggests that Mark was the rich young ruler. In addition, I draw substantially from a memorable sermon I heard on Mark's failures preached by Tom Houston at Nairobi Baptist Church in February 1984.
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