[November 29, 2009] Matthew’s gospel began with the words, “The scroll of the genesis of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” It was written in 52 AD to be read as Scripture in Christian synagogues and in the gatherings of Jewish Christians in the region of Cilicia, Syria and Judea, thus providing the Christian mission with the eyewitness testimonies of the Twelve in a permanent and stable form so that they could “remember” Jesus the Messiah. It also acted as a kind of manual for the churches. And it justified their mission to the Gentiles.
Luke’s gospel began with the words, “It seemed good to me, having carefully investigated all things from the first, to write them out for you in an orderly fashion so that you may fully know the certainty of the things concerning which you were instructed.” It was written in 56 AD to also be read as Scripture in the Christian gatherings of mixed Jews and Gentiles throughout the area of Paul’s missionary work: Asia Minor, Macedonia, Achaia, Crete and beyond. It contained many stories not recorded in Matthew while not taking for granted the worldview Palestinian Jewry. It thus provided the Christian mission with a gospel more suitable for churches established within Gentile regions sharing the Gentile culture of their neighbors. It also prepared its hearers for the continuation of the story in the Acts of the Apostles (finished in 62 AD).
Mark’s gospel begins with the words, “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” and it starts, not like Matthew with the royal genealogy of Joseph and his adoption of Jesus, or like Luke with the stories of his birth, but with the preaching of John the Baptist when Jesus was about thirty years old. Yet it says that this is the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Mark’s gospel was written in the city of Rome (and possibly finished in Alexandria of Egypt). This is possibly what happened: Both the gospels of Matthew and Luke ended up in Rome around the time of Paul’s arrival under arrest (60-62 AD). In Rome both the Jewish and Gentile Christian communities were strong and united, but there was a contention about which gospel they should use: the Jewish Christians preferred Matthew and the Gentile Christians preferred Luke. When Peter arrived (64-66 AD) he was asked to arbitrate between them. In a series of lectures on the life of Jesus, Peter, armed with a scroll of Matthew and a scroll of Luke, went through both scrolls, having open before him first one and then the other, related only those stories found in both gospels that he could personally vouch for, because he was there. As he retold these stories he mixed in his own reminiscences. Mark was his secretary at the time and among the audience were some of the most influential Christians in Rome, including members of the Roman Praetorium (the headquarters of the Roman army). As it was the custom for public men to have their speeches recorded by shorthand writers, Mark had arranged for shorthand writers to take down Peter’s words just as he uttered them. Peter never intended for these talks to become a third gospel that would replace Matthew and Luke. Rather, it was his intention in this way to put his stamp of approval on both gospels. Mark later edited these notes and prepared them for publication (circa 68-70 AD), adding his own ending later. By the fact of their publication, they became a third gospel, a gospel that bridged the gospels of Matthew and Luke and thus acted, not as their replacement, but rather as their capstone.
At the time Peter gave these talks, the persecution of Christians under Nero had already begun, during which both Peter and Paul were executed. At the time when Mark published the manuscript, the Roman siege of Jerusalem was already under way. The sense of urgency that we feel in the gospel has to do with the air of expectancy that Christ was about to return at any moment.
This explains where the gospel of Mark comes from but we still have to explain the opening words. Even though Peter may have begun his account with John the Baptist, why does he, or Mark, say that this is the “beginning of the Gospel”?
“The Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1)
These words come immediately to our attention. Do we know what “the Gospel” is? Paul wrote to the Romans, “I am ready to announce the Gospel to you also who are in Rome because the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes, both to Jew first and to Greek” (Romans 1:15-16). If the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation, you would think that it would be pretty important for us to know what the Gospel is.
The English word, “Gospel,” was originally g?d spell, or “good story,” a translation of the Greek word eu-angelion, but in England, Iceland and Germany good became god (g?d > god, g?ð > guð and guot > got), so the word, now godspell, came to mean “God story,” referring to the life of Christ.
We are interested in what this word means when it is used in the Bible, especially the New Testament. It means glad tidings, or good news. Literally it means the good or joyous message. The noun is used 76 times and the verb 54 times in the New Testament.
But what is the message? It is the content of the apostolic preaching (kerygma). Which was what? In the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 1:21-22; 2:22-36; 10:37-42; 13:24-41) we can see what they preached. They preached the story of Jesus “beginning from the baptism of John until the day on which He was taken up from us.” This is the Gospel. It is not a particular doctrine. It is the story of Jesus. There is no other Gospel (Galatians 1:6-9).
When we hear this story we need to respond to it. If “we are pricked in our heart” (Acts 2:37), we will believe in the One whom the story is about, we will believe in “Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” and if we believe, we will have life in His name (John 20:31). This awakening is the work of God’s grace, or the Holy Spirit working within us.
Interestingly, of the three, Matthew, Luke, and Mark, only Mark uses the word to refer to his own work (Luke’s gospel never uses the noun and Matthew speaks only of the “Gospel of the kingdom”). He is the first one (by referring to his own) to call these writings the Gospel. Later, this name was used to refer to all four gospels: “The Gospel according to …” Let us not think that there are four Gospels. There is only one Gospel though we may hear it according to Matthew, Luke, Mark and John.
The Gospel is the story of Jesus. He is the Messiah according to the words of hope spoken by the prophets of Israel. And He is the Son of God, a title pronounced by the Father at His baptism in the Jordan and on the mountain when He was transfigured. Both of these titles are very important.
Mark skips over the overriding concerns of Matthew and Luke and gets right to the point. He immediately puts Jesus in front of us. Jesus is like a crossroads or a fork in the road. When confronted with Him, we must decide how we are going to respond. The Gospel challenges us to consider what we will do with Jesus. Will we ignore Him and let the words go in one ear and out the other? Or will we treat these words like all the other words we hear, just more information to store away until we can use it? Or will we hear and respond to the One who comes before us, the Promised One and the Son of God?
“Prepare the Way of the Lord” (1:2-6)
What do we mean by the Promised One? The prophets in the Old Testament were “seriously into” the harsh reality of God’s judgment, but they were just as seriously into hope. They spoke words of hope. As dark as our existence in this world, our historical existence, may be, as bad as things are—because it exposes that we are under the judgment of God—God does not leave us in this quagmire of our own doing. God will send a Messiah, a Savior, who will make us and the whole world new.
But “is He the God of the Jews only? Is He not of the Gentiles also? Yes, of the Gentiles also” (Romans 3:29). Israel and the prophets, through the movement of God’s Spirit within them, crystallized the arrogance, frustrations, fears, hopes and dreams of the whole world. The hope they expressed is hope for everyone. Do these words touch your own sense of frustration and fear? Is it possible for you to discover hope in Christ?
John came baptizing in the wilderness just as it was written in Isaiah. Actually, Mark quotes Malachi 3:1 and possibly Exodus 23:20, as well as Isaiah 40:3. God speaks in verse 2, but in verse 3 Isaiah is predicting what John would preach. When John preaches, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” the word Lord is YHWH, the unique and covenantal name of God. Like the Psalms, Isaiah speaks of the coming of God to save, not just the coming of a human savior.
The exiles in Babylon were separated from the land of Israel by a great wilderness. In Isaiah the “voice” calls the people to go out into the wilderness to prepare a road for the coming of God. In the days of Moses Israel met God in the wilderness of Sinai. The “good news” in Isaiah 40:9 is that God is coming to save them.
So John calls the people to come out into the wilderness to be baptized. In the Bible there are two typological cities, the city of man represented by Babel or Babylon, and the city of God, the New Jerusalem, represented by Zion or Jerusalem. Sometimes the earthly Jerusalem misrepresents the city of God and comes under God’s judgment. John, by his literal actions, calls people to metaphorically turn their backs on the city of man and enter the wilderness to meet God.
When Israel crossed the Red Sea in the days of Moses (Exodus 14), it separated them from Egypt, and when they crossed the Jordan in the days of Joshua (Joshua 3-4), it marked their entry into the new land. So the people coming to John were to encounter God in the wilderness and confess their sins (come to a state of profound self-awareness in the presence of God). And then by baptism, they were to turn their backs on their slavery in the world-system of Babel and enter into the freedom and blessing of the spiritual space of God’s Jubilee (in Christ).
Confession is more than telling God all the things we did wrong. It might help relieve our sense of guilt and shame to confess these things, but do we think God cares? (God cares about the harm we cause ourselves and others.) Simply to confess wrongful acts does not release us from that which compels us to act that way. Confession is opening ourselves before God and coming into a state of profound self-awareness in the presence of God. In the light of God we see our awful alienation from God and the falseness of our self, of that self with which we identify, that it is not only at odds with reality but at war with reality, at war with the reality of God and creation. When we see our condition clearly, we are able to let it go. But we cannot let it go if we do not see it.
Likewise, repentance (metanoia: meta means “to change,” noia means the faculty of attention and understanding) is more than just having a negative attitude about ourselves and feeling sorry for what we have done. In the Old Testament the equivalent of repentance is “to turn.” Repentance means to change how we look at life, to change our perspective. If we change that, it will change how we value and evaluate everything. This will consequently change how we act. Our life might get easier if we change our outward behavior, but the only way to prepare for the coming of God is to change our inner condition, our mentality, our perspective, and our values. This is the “way,” the “highway” and path that we must prepare, for God to come.
John dressed like Elijah (2 Kings 1:8). Malachi 4:5-6 says that Elijah will be sent “before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes, and he will turn the heart” of the people, that is, he will cause them to repent. (See Matthew 11:14; 17:12-13.)
John preached a baptism of repentance “for forgiveness of sins.” Sins have consequences for our relationship with God. This is not because God is a tyrant. This is the case with any and all relationships. Certain things can ruin a relationship. Whatever ruins or threatens to ruin our relationship with God is called sin. Before we “confess our sins” and “repent,” our relationship with God is already ruined. This is a fact that we see evidenced in the world all around us. The world, as a shared mental field, has certain illusions to which people attach great importance, and these illusions alienate us from God. The way in which we attach to them makes us hostile to God even though we are unaware of this (we usually think the opposite is the case). In other words, the alienation is caused by us, not by God.
But when we confess and repent, which is what baptism is supposed to signify, God removes the barrier between us. The alienation is gone and the relationship is healed. God forgives us. This means that God treats us as if that barrier were never there. No obstacles stand between us and God. If we have a clean slate, then we are prepared for God to come.
“The One Who Comes after Me” (Mark 1:6-8)
John did not want people to focus on him. He always pointed elsewhere, at the coming One. The preacher is never the answer; he or she is not the light; at best she or he can only be a witness to the light (see John 1:8). Only Jesus is the Savior. This is one point.
The other is that the baptism of repentance is only the beginning. The forgiveness of sins is only the beginning. Through forgiveness we prepare for the coming of God into our lives. We open the door for God to come in. There is more. There is the actual coming of God! “I have baptized you in water, but He Himself will baptize you in the Holy Spirit.”
Jesus is the Son of God, which we understand to mean that God is One and Jesus shares His identity with the One God. In other words, as the Son of God, as the Image and Word of God face-to-face with God, He is God. His “I,” His Person, is God, and His personal essence is the divine essence and nature. He shares the perfections of God. As God, He also became human and so shares our human nature. He hides His divine perfections under His human nature, and so unless the Holy Spirit opens our eyes we can only see His human nature.
But this One also baptizes in the Holy Spirit. Unlike water, the Holy Spirit is also the One God. When we believe in Jesus, He baptizes us with the Holy Spirit so that the Holy Spirit comes to dwell inside us and immerses us in Her outer activity. Through the Holy Spirit we begin to participate in all that Jesus as the Son of God is: His divine and human natures, His divine perfections and human virtues, His spirit, soul and body, and His death, resurrection and ascension.
The story of Jesus, the Gospel, makes all this available to us by making Jesus available to us, if we would believe. It also shows us how it comes about—through the living, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus—that Jesus becomes the One who baptizes us in the Holy Spirit. By the Holy Spirit we participate in divinity.
Let us prepare ourselves for God to come.