Mark as Gospel: The Beginning of the Story (1:1-20)

Mark opens with a statement of identity. This is the good news concerning Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God. These may be titles we are over-familiar with, names that we toss about without a real sense of their meaning. They may be titles we think we have rightly understood when in fact our assumptions are misguiding us. Or they may be al- together new to us. In any case, if we are capable of reading Mark’s first sentence without a sense of shock, of joy, and even of anxiety, we must read them again in context. For the opening salvo from Mark asserts that Jesus’ Messiahship is a message of unequivocally good, reality-altering news. The king has come! 

And, of course, the reality into which the news comes is a political one. We cannot expect to talk about a newly arrived king without some political ramifications. For the people of God, who await the king within a social, economic, political reality, the goodness of his arrival has everything to do with the promise of change. His rule will bring justice, peace, and well-being. We need him, because his arrival means salvation. The first-century Jews, under the dominion of the Roman Empire, heard Mark’s words in these terms. So should we. Jesus is the Messiah, and his kingship is not a metaphor. It is the new order of things. 

It is no small matter that a citation from Isaiah follows this proclamation. Much more than simply introducing John the baptizer as the voice that prepares the way, it is a bold claim of fulfillment. The coming of the king is about promises kept, about God’s faithfulness, about desperately held hope and heart wrenching relief. For those who have waited on God to do what he was supposed to do, the message of fulfillment is pure joy. 

For those who have wondered why God is so quiet, where all the prophets have gone, and what is taking so long, John the baptizer appears like a long-lost friend. People who fear that perhaps God has given up on them finally receive a message from God: Get ready! Change the direction of your life! Come into the water and emerge to make covenant with God and be his people, just like the Israelites leaving Egypt through the Red Sea. Brace yourselves! But the news just keeps getting better. Not only is the coming one to be the king,but he is to bring the fulfillment of another promise made through the prophet Joel. 

Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on
all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
— Joel 2:28-29 (NRSV)

God had exiled his stubborn, rebellious people to Babylon, the temple had been destroyed, and no prophet had spoken for hundreds of years. Unfulfilled promises aside, the more disturbing question was whether God had abandoned them. King Herod had built a second temple, but the silence and the seeming distance were keenly felt nonetheless. Perhaps we can relate. In this silence, John proclaims that not only has God not abandoned his people, but he will draw nearer than ever. He will immerse them in his very presence. Naturally, presence and nearness mean reconciled relationship for those who have felt estranged. Who is Jesus? He is the promised king and reconciliation with God all rolled into one. 

Jesus shows up, quite suddenly, in an act of obedience. John is an authentic prophet, speaking a true message from God, and Jesus therefore obeys. In that moment, God is the first within the narrative to identify Jesus directly: “You are my beloved son.” Perhaps we have a long way to go in order to understand all of what this statement means, but there can now be no doubt that the man Jesus is the coming king. And, John’s prophecy is confirmed as well. The one who is the Son of God is also the one on whom the Spirit visibly manifests, indicating his special relation to the prophecy of Joel. We know little more of Jesus at this point. He is from provincial Galilee, which hardly befits a king. Yet, he is in the presence of God in an unbelievable way, and God himself speaks from heaven in approval of him. While we may be prone to think that the Bible presents God speaking and the Spirit descend- ing as normal sorts of occurrences, the truth is just the opposite. The onlookers standing on the banks of the Jordan were just as astounded as we would be today. God has spoken in our hearing! It must not escape our notice that in that spectacular moment he was interested in communicating only one thing: the identity of the man from Nazareth, Jesus. 

Just like the Israelites leaving Egypt, Jesus finds himself in the wilderness after passing through the waters. The echo of the exodus story, if it is familiar to us, is ringing loudly. Jesus spends forty days in temptation; Israel spent forty years. The symbolism is clear. But what is the point? It seems that Mark wants us to see Jesus as a representative of all Israel. In very few words, he introduces a vital and powerful idea. Jesus is assuming the vocation of the people of God. He is living out their story and destiny. He is the true Israelite. Amazingly, with even fewer words Mark also conjures a second level of representation. The phrase “and he was with the wild animals” calls to mind only one character in the Hebrew scriptures: Adam. He is the true human. So, while he represents Israel on one level, he represents all of humanity on another. The Jewishness and the humanness of Jesus (including his experience of temptation are basic aspects of his identity, and we must hold these in tension with God’s own claim of special relationship to him and the angels’ special concern for him. The question becomes a little more perplexing at this point. Who is this man?! 

With only a tantalizing reference to John’s arrest, Mark hurries on to a poignant summary of Jesus’ proclamation of “the good news of God.” He does not give us the Sermon on the Mount. Instead, he sums up Jesus’ teaching with two simple phrases: The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has drawn near. Again, fulfillment is the essence of what is happening in Jesus. But it is very important to see what Mark took to be Jesus’ fundamental message. The kingdom of God. Christianity has proclaimed many messages through the centuries, but we may return with confidence to Jesus’ own preaching and say that the good news of God is the kingdom of God. With the coming of the king, the kingdom has arrived. Clearly, the kingdom or reign is a dynamic. It is a reality in which we are called to participate. That is why the message requires a call to change. We must decide to fit into this new reality. “Repent” is a churchy word that doesn’t mean a lot to most people. I like the way one of my paraphrase versions puts it: Change your way of thinking and living. It’s a total reorientation, a matter of heart, soul, mind, and strength. The kingdom is here, but you’re going to have to change in order to live in it. 

Then what am I supposed to think and how am I supposed to live? These are the questions that the introduction of Mark’s story raises. The verses following the summary of Jesus’ message are an implicit invitation to find out the answers, for Jesus calls followers. In following, they will learn from the king how to live in the kingdom. In following, they will not just learn teachings, but they will witness a lifestyle to imitate. The road that they walk is the same one the reader is called to walk. If we choose, we may share the disciples’ journey and find a way to live in the kingdom of God.