The Gospel According to Mark
the beginning (mark 1.1-8)
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” There’s no doubt that many of you are familiar with the opening line of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. It is one of many great opening lines in the history of literature. Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick opens with the words, “Call me Ishmael.” One of my all time favorites comes from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which is a part of CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. The work begins, “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” I think if you were to compile a list of some of the greatest opening lines in all of literature, you’d have to put the Gospel of Mark on that list, The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
But before we begin we have to understand a few big picture points about this book. The Gospel of Mark was written some times in the 50s-60’s AD by Mark. It’s fair to ask what qualifies Mark to write a biography about Jesus? We know Luke did a ton of research; he was basically a PhD in Christology. Matthew and John were both with Jesus for three years, but what about Mark? Church history informs us that Mark was basically Peter’s ghostwriter. Mark is telling the story of Jesus from Peter’s perspective. You’ll notice as we move through the book that Peter is almost always in every scene, and also that no book in the NT speaks so frequently of Peter’s failures.
The second preliminary point is that Mark was written to suffering Christians in the first century. The church was beginning to experience persecution that would escalate. The first 300 years of church history still stands as the worst persecution that the church has ever experienced. The gospel of Mark was written to reveal to them that they have been called to take up their cross and follow Jesus. Suffering wasn’t unforeseen, in fact, it was Jesus who suffered for them, and so we can suffer for him.
Which leads to our final preliminary point, and this speaks to the structure of the book. Tim Keller notes that the book of Mark can be divided into 2 acts. Bethany and I have been to a few plays. About a month ago we went and saw Aladdin at the Detroit Opera House for her birthday. When you go to a play where you enjoy the first act, take an intermission, and then watch the second. Keller says the best way to think about the structure of Mark is to think of the train station in London called King’s Cross. Those are the two acts of Mark. The first half of the book (chapters 1-8) reveals to us that Jesus is the King, and the second half (8-16) points us to why Jesus came, to go to the cross.
And so we find ourselves at The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Matthew and Luke ease us in to the story of Jesus with events happening around his birth. John explodes with a cosmic declaration of the Word made flesh. Mark hits the ground running and doesn’t look back. He’s not concerned with anything that happens before Jesus’ ministry. You’ll notice as we move through the book of Mark it’s a lot like an Aaron Sorkin script, or an Ocean’s 11 movie. It moves quickly. Mark uses the Greek word εὐθὺς a lot, which is translated “immediately, or at once.”
This is indeed the beginning of the gospel – good news – about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Mark’s objective will be to tell us the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The word εὐαγγέλιον appears seven times (also 1:14–15; 8:35; 10:29; 13:10; & 14:9. Cf. also 16:15) versus only four times in Matthew and none in Luke and John. One scholar has noted that all 4 gospels are in essence Passion narratives with extended introductions; Mark is no different. As we move through this book together it is imperative that we always remember that the point is that Jesus will die for sinners and resurrect on the 3rd day.
And you’ll notice right away that Mark gives us clues that this isn’t the beginning after all. By opening with the word “beginning,” he, like John, is calling us back to the book of Genesis. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Just as that was the beginning of creation, so now this is the beginning of a new creation.
Jesus isn’t just connected to Moses though; he’s also a fulfillment of what the prophets said. Verse 2 says, As it is written in Isaiah the prophet. Some manuscripts say “the prophets,” which is fitting because Mark is about to quote Isaiah and Malachi. Verses 2-3 introduce us to two characters: (1) the messenger, and (2) the Lord. The messenger you see in verse 4 is John the baptizer. He has come to prepare the way like a herald would come into a town before the king to announce his arrival. NT Wright says there’s a joke in Britain that everywhere the Queen goes she smells fresh paint. Why? Because someone announces that royalty is coming and people get right. This is John’s calling; he’s the messenger.
But he’s not simply a messenger for any king; he’s the messenger for the Lord. This is where Mark has already made a radical statement. He’s quoting Isaiah 40.3 and the word Lord in the Hebrew is יְהוָ֑ה. Mark is encouraging and condemning here. He’s condemning those who reject Jesus because they’re not merely rejecting a guy; they’re rejecting the creator of heaven and earth. And this is a comfort to those suffering Christians that Jesus who suffered is not just some guy, but the creator of heaven and earth and the covenant God of Israel.
And that’s why Mark also points us to the seminole covenantal event in the history of Israel. Verse 4, John appeared baptizing in the wilderness. Verse 5, they were baptized by him in the river Jordan. Mark is cluing us in that what’s about to happen isn’t only a new creation, but it’s also a new exodus. Like Israel went through the water into the wilderness, so also John comes from the wilderness and beckons them into the water.
But this exodus isn’t from the physical slavery they experienced in Egypt. This is the spiritual slavery that they’ve battled ever since. That’s why John’s baptism is of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This morning we witnessed 4 baptisms. As we mentioned baptism is a sacrament given as the entryway into the covenant community. These brothers and sisters have publically declared that they have died with Christ and resurrected with Christ. Another element of their profession is also that they have repented of their sin and been washed clean. Do you need to repent this morning? Are you still in your sin? Repentance means to turn and walk the other way. That’s the message that John preached then, and he’s preaching it to you right now. Repent and believe the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. If you do, your sins will be forgiven. And after that, be baptized. Obey Jesus, confess your faith, and join the church.
John himself was a fulfillment of prophecy that points to Christ. The book of Malachi says
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. 6 And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” (Mal 4.5-6)
Mark reveals to us that John the baptizer was the Elijah Israel was waiting for. He does so by quoting Malachi in verse 2, but also by how he describes John. Verses 6-7, Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And he preached. Mark isn’t telling us that John was the original hipster; dressing strange and eating gross food. No, he’s describing Elijah. John dressed like him, ate like him, preached like him. John is the Elijah promised in the OT. In Matthew 11.14-15 Jesus himself says, “[John] is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
And John’s actions didn’t just point people to Christ, he preached Christ.
“After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
John is the messenger for a mightier man with a mightier baptism. John, who is commanding the attention of these crowds, is not worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals. You know untying shoes, washing feet, these actions were the duties of slaves and would’ve been degrading to Jewish men. John says, “I’m not worthy.” John baptized them with water, but Jesus will baptize them in the Holy Spirit. This too is the fulfillment of OT promises from Ezekiel and Jeremiah. What Mark, through John, is telling us is that everything promised in the OT is about to be fulfilled in the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. All of the promises of God find their “yes” in Christ (2 Cor 1.20).
The most important of these promises is the promise found in Genesis 3.15. The OT is the story of God’s people waiting for the seed of God to crush the seed of the serpent. Every prophet, priest, and king didn’t fulfill that promise, but pointed forward to one who would. John says that he’s unworthy to stoop down and untie the sandals of Jesus. That’s because those sandals are on a bruised heel that has come to crush the head of the serpent.