We’re beginning a new series today on the Gospel of Mark. A few things about Mark to begin with. It was most likely the first gospel written. And it likely contains the stories and teachings of Jesus that the apostle Peter passed down (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses) and John Mark later wrote out. These thing are likely, I think, but they’re not from Scripture.
With regard to the Gospel itself, a few observations:
- It’s fast paced. “Immediately” seems to be one of Mark’s favorite words.
- Its stories are usually longer with more vivid details than Matthew or Luke.
- And yet it’s the shortest Gospel, because it has less teaching material in it than either Matthew or Luke.
We begin with Mark’s introduction 1:1-15. Notice that it is bracketed by the phrase “good news” (or Gospel) in v. 1 and vs. 14-15 (2x).
It doesn’t get nearly as much attention as the other Gospel beginnings, like Matthew and Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus or John’s exalted presentation of the pre-existent Word made flesh in Jesus. But it has its own point of view and points to make.
It turns on two prophetic words, one from a set of passages in the Old Testament in vs. 2-3, and the other from John the Baptist in vs. 7-8. In the first, which we will focus on today, the messenger is to come “before” the Lord; and in the second, the mighty Spirit-giver is to come “after” the messenger. This is how the passage is put together.
Alright, let’s jump in.
The opening line
1The beginning of the good news of Jesus, the anointed one, the Son of God –
When Mark says, “the beginning,” this has to do with the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, following John the Baptist’s work of preparation (see Acts 10:37). But it can also refer to the whole Gospel. Mark is saying, this is how the Christian movement began.
We learn several things here about who Jesus is. 1) He is the “Christ.” This is the Greek version of the Hebrew word which means “Messiah” or more literally “the anointed one,” which is what I’m going with. This refers back to the Old Testament practice of anointing someone with oil when they are commissioned by God to do something. It was especially connected to the expected son of David who would come as the anointed one, to save God’s people.
2) Jesus is the “son of God.” This phrase is most often associated with the kings of Israel (2 Samuel 7:13-14; Psalm 2:7; Psalm 89:26-27), and sometimes Israel itself (Exodus 4:22-23; Hosea 11:1; Jeremiah 31:9, 20). It can also refer to divine beings or angels (e.g. the sons of God in Job). Basically it means one who rules, although we will see that Jesus is God’s son in unique and special way (Mark 14:61-62).
3) Finally the phrase “good news” tells us something about Jesus. In Isaiah it refers to the coming of God to save Israel and to establish his rule or kingdom (Isaiah 40:9; 52:7; 61:1). In the Roman world it was used to announce the success of an Emperor or the birth of a new Emperor. In both contexts it is a royal announcement. And so this tells us that Jesus is a king.
2as it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, 3the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
Although Mark says, “as it is written in Isaiah,” he is actually quoting two or more passages. This is just how they sometimes did things back in the day, combining passages like this and just using one name.
Let’s look at the two key quotes here in reverse order. Isaiah 40:3 says in part, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘prepare the way of the Lord, make straight the paths of our God.’” (LXX). In context this refers to the announcement of the end of exile in Babylon and God’s promise to bring Israel back to its land. This is framed by Isaiah as a second Exodus from Babylon to the land of Israel. (The path here is God’s, but like with the original Exodus, it is God and his people who journey together to the land. The Isaiah Targum speaks of the way of God and the congregation of our God.) (Mark’s quote here can also be translated to match the parallelism of the Hebrew version – “A voice cries ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Witheringon)
And then we have Malachi 3:1 which says in part, “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me.” (Mark’s version is a little different. See note below). This person is further identified in Malachi 4:5-6 as Elijah, who is commissioned to bring about repentance in Israel before God comes to visit them.
(Some include here Exodus 23:20. The language is close and has in it Mark’s phrase, “before your face.” In some Jewish interpretation Malachi 1:3 and Exodus 23:20 are connected (Exodus Raba 32:9; Deuteronomy Raba 11:9.) (And some see Malachi 3:1 as a reflection on Exodus 23:20 (Beth Glazier-McDonald.) But it doesn’t line up with what Mark is saying. God sent an angel/messenger before Israel in Exodus 23. If anything the messenger is greater than Israel, the “you” here. Whereas the opposite is the case in Mark. Mark seems to be only interested in the Malachi context.)
The background of these prophecies. Now, by quoting these passages we get Mark’s insight into what’s going on with the coming of John the Baptist and then Jesus. As I said, Isaiah speaks of a second Exodus out of exile back to the land. And several prophets spoke of how things would radically change; how God would reign in glory in a splendid temple and Israel would be established in the land and at peace. Well, the people came back, but they struggled, still under Gentile rule, the Persians, and still with no sense that anything had really changed. So there was disillusionment.
Well, the book of Malachi picks up in this context. He tells the people that the holdup on the fulfillment of the promises is due to their sin. And so he predicts that God will send a messenger, Elijah to prepare Israel for his coming in power to reign. And he is to prepare them by calling them to repentance so that when God comes, it won’t end in further judgment. (I am indebted to Rikk Watts for this construal of Malachi’s role.)
So Mark is saying – this is what’s going on with the coming of John and then Jesus. God is working to bring about his kingdom; to fulfill his promises to his people of salvation and blessing.
Now, before we get to how John the Baptist fulfills his role as the prophesied messenger, let’s take a moment to look at the incredible claims that Mark is making about who Jesus is in these verses.
In Malachi the messenger prepares for the coming of God. In Mark Jesus is the one who comes. So he is closely identifying God and Jesus, but still they are different. Jesus is the Son of God.
(And in the form that Mark uses, God says to a third part – applied to Jesus here, that the messenger will prepare “your way.” So where does the phrase “before your face” come from? The Hebrew and Greek versions of Malachi both literally say, “before my face.” Early Jewish Christians read “face” as an extension of God – much like the son of man is in Daniel 7:13-14 or the second lord in the phrase “the Lord said to my Lord . . .” Mark 12:36. This is a human embodiment of Yahweh, or to put it another way, the pre-existent Son of God come in human form. (I am indebted to Richard Bauckham – Markan Christology). (This also means that Malachi himself is referring to a conversation between the Lord and his face, also identified as the “Lord” spoken of in the third person in this verse. In other words this speaks to the preexistence of the Son of God – Matthew Bates.)
In Isaiah the voice that cries out prepares for the coming of the Lord. In Mark Jesus is the one who comes. So again he is closely identifying God and Jesus, but the word “Lord” in this Gospel applies to Jesus and to God. (We will see this same kind of pattern in other places in Mark’s Gospel.) They are the same in some way, but still different. One is the Father, one is the Son.
(Mark changes the Isaiah quote at the end from “the paths of our God” to “his paths.” This allows the Lord in the verse to refer to Jesus. In early Christian practice, “Lord” in the Old Testament was sometimes taken as a reference to Jesus, but not usually “God.”)
After the prediction of the messenger who will first prepare the way, John shows up doing just this.
4John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
Now, not everyone came of course, but Mark is emphasizing his success.
The connection between the messenger and John is clear. The messenger is to prepare the way, which includes calling for repentance on the part of Israel (Malachi 4:15-16). John calls the people to repentance.
Also, the messenger is associated with the wilderness as is Elijah. Well, John is in the wilderness and he is telling people to prepare the way.
And then we have v. 6.
6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey.
The messenger is identified as Elijah in some sense and John looks just like Elijah. In 2 Kings 1:8 someone describes Elijah in this way: “He wore a garment of hair with a belt of leather around his waist.” As Jesus says later in Mark 9:13, “Elijah has come” and he is referring to John the Baptist. (See also Luke 1:17).
Notice how what John is doing fits with Isaiah and Malachi’s vision of the need to prepare the people for the coming of God. In the first exodus, Israel crossed through the Red Sea. And then with Joshua the Jordan river. John is symbolically having Israelites go through the waters again (here the Jordan river.) So John is calling Israel to be reconstituted as a new people, ready for the coming of God. And since the leaders in Jerusalem rejected him, he is calling out a remnant to make them ready for the Lord. All of this points to the fulfillment of the promise of the prophets about Israel’s salvation. It all fits together.
The final way that John prepared the way is his witness to the coming one, the Lord.
7And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
We will look at this in more detail next time, but notice his deference. The coming one is mightier; I am not worthy to even be his slave. I baptize with water, but his baptism is the real thing, the giving of the Spirit. He’s saying, I’m just the messenger, the Savior is still to come.
In all this he reiterates what the previous prophets taught: the messenger come first, before the Lord; and as the messenger he says, after me comes the promised one.
What do we learn?
Jesus is exalted. He is the anointed one; the Messiah. He is the Son of God. And, he is the coming of God himself in human form, in fulfillment of the promises.
We are privileged to know this before the story begins, while the people in the story struggle to understand who Jesus is, to the end.
This teaches us about God’s plans. They are from of old. This was all pointed to by the prophets, Isaiah and Malachi and repeated by John. God’s plans are orderly. The messenger come first to prepare and after this comes the Lord to bring salvation. God’s plans are sure and true. It came to pass just as it was supposed to, which is the story Mark is telling us about. This should lead us to trust in God’s full outworking of his plan to bring it all to completion, as we wait our Lord’s second coming.
And speaking of his coming, we need to continue to be prepared for God’s coming to us. Are we single mindedly focused on God and serving him? Or are we off following the world, waiting time, focused on this life and not finishing the mission he gave us to expand his kingdom? Are you prepared? He could come at any time.