(Note: A few months ago I began an in-depth study of the Gospel of Mark. For the next several blog posts, I plan to share some of my ongoing reflections on a chapter-by-chapter basis. Nothing fancy. But I hope you can gain something in each entry. For space reasons, I will only include a small portion of my actual notes & reflections. Unless otherwise noted, I will be using the New Revised Standard Version. For theo-nerds like me, my primary commentary sources are Ben Witherington and N.T. Wright).
A Few Notes From Mark 1
1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
While Mark’s opening statement may sound fairly benign to our ears, this would have been highly subversive language in the first Century Roman world.
The term “good news” or “gospel” (Greek: euangélion) was a term almost exclusively used for imperial announcements on Caesar’s behalf. Caesar himself was regarded as the “Son of God.” “Christ” was a Jewish messianic term associated with the expectation of a coming King in the line of David who would restore the glory of Israel.
Writing from Rome, Caesar’s hometown, Mark is not-so-subtly announcing the inauguration of a new era. The world has a new ruler, a new emperor, a new President. And it’s not Caesar. It’s King Jesus.
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
The voice from heaven speaks directly to Jesus. This is, of course, prior to any actual ministry activity on Jesus’ part. He has not preached a single sermon or performed any miracles. At this time, he’s a relatively anonymous carpenter’s son from a no-name village. And yet, the Father gives him this astonishing affirmation of his love.
And immediately after his baptism, Jesus is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan.
When we are fueled by the Father’s loving presence on a daily basis, we are enabled to resist the urge to feed off of any other source. And we are fully empowered to speak as the Father wants us to speak and do as the Father wants us to do.
12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Much has been made of the unpleasantness of “wilderness experiences,” however one might define the term. But I find it interesting that Jesus was in the wilderness because the Spirit drove him there. N.T. Wright translates it this way: “The Spirit pushed him out into the desert.” Like Moses, David, & Elijah before him there was something essential to be gained in the wilderness for Jesus.
Aside from other reasons, Mark wants us to see Jesus as the true Israel. Centuries earlier, Israel passed through the waters of the Red Sea and wandered in the desert for 40 years, succumbing to the pressures of the journey and to the temptation of worshipping false gods.
Likewise, Jesus passed through the waters of baptism and endured temptation in the wilderness for forty days, and yet successfully conquered Satan’s tactics.
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
While “the gospel” finds its apex in the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection, these events are part of a much larger story. If “the gospel” (or alternately “good news”) is simply that Jesus died and rose for our sins, then why does Mark repeatedly state that Jesus “proclaimed the good news,” considering that he hadn’t yet reached the cross?
Because the “gospel” is a larger story about God’s redemption of humankind. That a new kingdom has been inaugurated under the reign of King Jesus. And the cross is where he receives his coronation.
21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
Notice the reaction of the unclean spirit is in response to the teaching of Jesus. At this point, Jesus still hadn’t performed any miracles (as recorded by Mark). There was something about Jesus’ teaching itself that terrified the satanic presence.
One of the consistent themes that I find throughout Mark is the primary emphasis Jesus gave his teaching ministry. Yes, healings and miracles were also a significant aspect. But the miraculous acts of Jesus served the purpose of vindicating his teaching. In other words, the miracles were present in order to confirm that what he was teaching was indeed from God.
It is quite interesting how often Jesus resisted the impulse to make his ministry a spectacle. Numerous times throughout Mark, when Jesus performs a miracle, he breaks away from the public eye, pulls the individual aside, and heals the person in private. It is quite evident that he did not want his teaching ministry to get sidetracked. For example, after a night of performing healings and miracles, look at what Jesus does:
35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37 When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38 He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”
Again, miracles and healings had their place during his ministry. They were always swirling around him like debris swirls around a tornado. But for Jesus, miraculous acts were not “the eye of the storm.” Not once in Mark do I find Jesus purposefully seeking out opportunities to perform miracles. Those opportunities always sought him out. His miracles were always in response to a pressing need. But they were not part of a program that Jesus set out to follow.
However, throughout Mark’s gospel, Jesus frequently and intentionally sought opportunities to teach and explain what the Kingdom is all about. Teaching was the centerpiece of his ministry. Miraculous acts were a necessary component that served to vindicate his teaching.
(The painting is “Baptism of Jesus” by Dan Bonell)