The Book of Mark

Today we start a walk with Jesus in the most concise of the four gospels, the book of Mark. There are a lot of things you can focus too much on, but you can never go wrong when you bring it back to Jesus. That’s where we are going for the several weeks, leading up to Easter Sunday.

Mark is the punchiest of the gospels. He gets right to the action. Where Matthew starts with a lengthy genealogy and Luke writes of Joseph and Mary and shepherds and angels, Mark jumps in as 30-year-old Jesus begins to do what he was sent to do. Mark doesn’t even include a lot of what Jesus taught that you see in the other gospels. Instead, with laser intensity Mark locks in on the things that Jesus did, so that there is no mistaking on two things: who Jesus really is, and what it will look like for us to do the kinds of things Jesus did in our day.

The book of Mark has been described as a splash of cold water to the face first thing in the morning. It’s bracing. Mark has zero interest in feeding a know-it-all distortion of Christianity that puffs up with pride. His focus is on Jesus—who he is and what he did—so that we are motivated to follow Jesus ourselves, and engage with people as he did, doing the works of Jesus in our time.

Let’s jump in. Open your Bible or Bible app to Mark chapter one. Verses one through eight divide very cleanly into two main themes that have everything to do with why we would want to throw our lot in with Jesus. Here’s the first:

We can trust God to keep His promises.

No one likes to be lied to. Odds are you’ve been left holding to an empty promise from time to time:

  • You sign on the dotted line for a used car that you were told was in great condition, but you end up pouring several hundred or even thousands of dollars into undisclosed problems. You were lied to.
  • Many grow up in homes where the promise of marriage “till death do us part” crumbled in front of your eyes. One of our members who grew up in a single-parent household sarcastically calls divorce “the gift that keeps on giving.” So for many, there’s a broken promise that may have broken you in deeply hurtful ways.

Mark opens his book on the high note that we can trust God to keep his promises, for two reasons right off the bat. First is that…

God has kept His word to send the Messiah.

God had promised many times and in many ways through many Old Testament prophecies—promises—that he would send the rescuer we most desperately need. We feel a lot of needs: the need for approval, the need for success, the need for significance. Our greatest need…is for someone who can reconcile us with God. And that’s where Mark begins. Chapter one and verse one gives a sneak peek at the whole book:

“The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God…” Mark 1:1

Good news: God has kept his word to send the promised Messiah. We’ll unpack that in a second, what Messiah even means. But Mark’s account is so super-concentrated, every word here matters.

He starts with “the beginning.” That’s an intentional echo of how the Bible itself opens, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” That was then. This is now: in sending Jesus, God is creating a new beginning.

  • Where Adam rebelled, Jesus will restore us.
  • What Adam failed to do, Jesus will fulfill.
  • Where Adam tried to shift the blame, Jesus will take our guilt upon himself.

Call it Genesis 2.0. Because Jesus has come, we can get a whole new start, a new beginning.

Then Mark calls it “good news.” Older translations use the word gospel. The Greek word Mark uses— euangelion—was already familiar to 1st-century readers. It literally means good announcement. But it’s more than announcing, say, what’s for dinner. The word Mark uses here is the same used to announce the birth of the Roman Emperor Augustus. And his readers knew that. A euangellion was a declaration of something big, something bringing significant change, and it’s good.

So the news flash in Jesus coming is the good news that God has kept his promise. Mark’s 1st-century readers would have been floored the first time they heard this, because Mark is making royal claims about Jesus.

And immediately, Mark strings together three extremely powerful titles declaring that in Jesus, God has kept his promise.

The first powerful title is actually Jesus’ given name. Jesus was a common name for Jewish boys in that era, because of the promise it hinted at. His name roughly paraphrased means, “The Lord saves!” The root of the name Jesus means “to rescue; to deliver.” This is why the angel tells Joseph in Matthew 1:21, “You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21) So the first promise fulfilled in Jesus is that he is our long-awaited Savior, our rescuer, our deliverer.

Next, Mark declares that Jesus is the Messiah or Christ, Messiah from Hebrew and Christ from Greek. Both mean the same thing: “anointed one.” Again, Mark’s readers knew about anointing from their history. Kings were the ones who got anointed. To be anointed was to be chosen, and God’s choice was shown by a prophet pouring oil on that king’s head, the oil symbolizing the Holy Spirit coming upon that man for that special calling. We’re just a few words into Mark’s gospel, and already he’s throwing down the gauntlet that Jesus is heaven’s chosen King come in direct fulfillment of God’s promise.

Third title, Mark declares Jesus to be “the Son of God.” We hear “Son of God” and emphasize Son. First-century readers hearing this title emphasized God. To them, the title Son of God conveyed preexistence and deity—characteristics that mark God alone.

When you stack these three titles side by side, you begin to get a sense of how amazingly good the good news is. God has kept his promise to send the One who can save us, heaven’s chosen King, God in person. Adam and Eve hid from God as he walked in the Garden of Eden; in the person of Jesus, God has come down to our level to walk with us once again. He has kept his promise to send the Messiah.

All of that, and we are one verse into Mark’s gospel. If we were at a pool party, Mark is the guy who kicks it all off with a massive cannonball, a huge splash. Let’s get the party started! God is doing a new thing, and it is good news for us. Building on that, Mark celebrates that…

God has kept His word to send His forerunner.

“…as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way’— ‘a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
“Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.”’

And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness…” Mark 1:2-4a

Mark takes a common practice from his time of pulling together more than one Old Testament reference but attributing them to the best-known author of the three, here the prophet Isaiah.

Here’s his point: John the Baptist, like Jesus, came as the direct fulfillment of God’s promise.

The very last verse of the Old Testament is a promise given to the prophet Malachi, that before the day of the Lord comes, God would first send the prophet Elijah. John came in the spirit of Elijah, that is, he looked like Elijah and his message was similar to that of Elijah. He was sent to prepare people for the coming of the Lord.

And again, Mark’s 1st-century Roman readers understood the practice of a forerunner sent out to prepare roads and prepare people. When the Roman Emperor was going to visit your city, a messenger would come beforehand, letting everyone know “He’s coming, get ready. Fix the roads. Fill in the potholes. Smooth out the washboard that makes your teeth rattle when you roll over it. Make this place, and make yourselves, fit for a king!”

Even today in England, the common joke among Brits is that everywhere the Queen goes, she smells fresh paint! They “prepare the way.” If you knew the Queen, or President, or your favorite athlete or singer was coming to visit, you would clean your place up, get it in tip-top shape. You would put on your finest clothes and prepare the finest of foods. John was that advance man sent before Jesus, to prepare people spiritually for Jesus’ arrival.

Notice too where John appears: in the wilderness. If you were going to start something new or announce something big, you would launch a media blitz where people are. Why on earth would he go out into the wilderness to get people ready for Jesus?

Here’s why: because it was at that very place—the Jordan River—that Moses stood before God’s people of old and, through his preaching—the book of Deuteronomy—prepared them to enter the Promised Land.

Keep going with this. In the original Exodus that Moses announced, God miraculously intervened to set people free from a political tyrant. In the new Exodus that John is announcing, Jesus is coming to set us free from the tyranny of sin and judgment. All of this is implied in where John appears.

All of this is wrapped up in the opening four verses of Mark’s gospel. Before we continue through verse 8, let me say a word about doubt. When I headed off to college, my faith was openly attacked in the classroom, without saying a word about being a Christian. There was a strong bias against believing the Bible, and it was pushed on us.

It is normal and good to wrestle with doubt and hard questions. What saved my hide was that I had a part-time job at a Christian bookstore. Well, there aren’t many of them around anymore, but today we have instant access to solid answers online. So if you ever wonder if all of this is all just a bunch of stuff that men made up long ago, one of the greatest places to dig into the evidence is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Let me recommend just two solid sources for now, then we’re going to move on.

The first comes from Jews for Jesus. If that sounds odd, all of the first Christians were Jewish. And a key reason for that is the compelling weight of how Jesus and Jesus alone fulfills Old Testament prophecy.

For those listening online, we have posted a link to this interactive piece on yChurch’s Facebook page. It’s an exploration of 40 of the most compelling prophecies that Jesus fulfilled.

There’s even a live chat feature where you can throw out any questions you have, and an actual person will respond to you in real time. Tremendous resource, totally free.

Second, I highly recommend Lee Strobel’s award-winning book The Case for Christ. The whole book is solid. But one chapter in particular is dedicated to showing how convincing the evidence is that Jesus—and again, Jesus alone—is a 100% match for the identity of the predicted Messiah. When you stack all the Old Testament Messiah prophecies side by side, it’s like a shotgun DNA sequence that brings to light the only one person who has ever lived who fits all the prophecies, Jesus:

  • He would be born of a virgin
  • He would be born in Bethlehem
  • He would be betrayed for 30 pieces of silver
  • His hands and feet would be pierced, a prophecy given hundreds of years before crucifixion was cruelly invented
  • He would be himself what the Passover Lamb symbolized
  • He would be killed but then be raised from the dead
  • His body would not decay

On and on, prophecy after prophecy, let your faith be strengthened by the evidence. We have nothing to fear by asking hard questions. We can trust God to keep his promises. Second…

We can trust God to send His messengers.

God has always had a message to communicate, and he has always sent messengers to communicate it. God’s normal way of speaking into people’s lives…is through ordinary people whose hearts he has won over. That was John in his day. It’s you and me today.

This is the same point our guest speakers made last week—that from our communion with God, we move toward community with fellow believers, and we move out into ministry together: communion, community, ministry.

Mark doesn’t live in the conceptual; he’s all about the practical. So let’s get right to two practical implications of trusting God to send us as his messengers. First is that:

  • Like John, we want to be faithful with God’s message.
    We read in verses 4-5…

“John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.” Mark 1:4-5

John had a hard message, but he stuck with it. He recognized himself as just the messenger, but the message as God’s. And here it is: Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sin.

This is God’s message for everyone—whether someone is religious or they are a “none of the above,” the message God entrusted to John—that he entrusts to us—is for everyone. Because Jesus has come…for everyone, for anyone who will turn away from sin and be baptized.

Owning up to one’s own sin has never been a popular thing to do. Never will be, because it requires humbling ourselves. The comedy actor Bill Murray offered a surprising admission in an interview when he was talking about not feeling ready to give himself to someone in marriage because he needs to work on his own junk.

When the interviewer asked him what he thinks keeps us from taking a good hard look at the dark stuff inside of us, Murray answered with this: “What stops [any of] us is we’re kind of really ugly if we look really hard. We’re not who we think we are. We’re not as wonderful as we think we are. It’s a little bit of a shock … it’s hard.”

Adapted from Julie Miller, “Bill Murray Explains Why He Doesn’t Have a Girlfriend,” Vanity Fair (10-8-14)

John the Baptist’s message was hard. But people responded to the call to get ready and get right with God. Call your sin what it is, and turn to God.

Sophisticated urbanites heard the message and humbled themselves, accepting baptism in the brown waters of the Jordan. Country folks came out to hear and humble themselves before God and their peers. When they heard God’s message faithfully brought by God’s messenger, they did three things:

  • They acknowledged their sin—that’s confession.
  • They turned away from sin—that’s repentance.
  • And they got baptized in the muddy Jordan River. Just like today, their baptism was a visible way of showing they were humbling themselves before God. They showed outwardly the change of heart that was taking place inwardly.

I want to give you a heads up that the response piece today is, if you believe in Jesus but haven’t been baptized, decide today to do it, to go public with your faith. Turn in your communication card with I want to be baptized on it, and we’ll set a date. Or tell me directly.

Like John, we want to be faithful with God’s message—both in responding to it by faith and baptism, and by bringing this into conversations when people are ready. Like John, we want to prepare people for Christ coming, this time for his return. We do that by being faithful with God’s message.

The second practical implication of trusting God to send us as his messengers is that…

Like John, we want to keep the focus on God’s Son.

We don’t want the focus to be on us. We want to point people to Jesus, who will never disappoint them. Verses 6-8 Mark writes…

“John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: ‘After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’” Mark 1:6-8

Picture this scene with me: imagine you take a day trip to Turkey Run State Park some Saturday this spring. You’re enjoying a leisurely hike along Sugar Creek, when all of a sudden, coming out of the woods you spy a guy with extremely long hair. His beard looks like it’s never been cut. He’s wearing deerskins that look like he cut them himself and stitched them together with rawhide. That’s what it would have been like to encounter John. Very strange.

John is unusual not only to us, but also to people back then. In addition to his odd clothing, he bore no  credible title like rabbi, that he should claim to speak for God. He had no credentials to brag about, unlike Paul who was schooled by one of the greatest rabbis of that era. John appeared as strange then as he does to us today. So what’s this oddness about?

In a word, humility. In every way without being weak, John was humble.

  • John was humble in appearance. His clothing was just like the prophet Elijah from 8 centuries earlier. Jews would have recognized that.
  • John was humble in home. He lived in the harsh discomforts of the wilderness, like a man waiting for his eternal home rather than for the world as it presently is.
  • John was humble in diet. Locusts were considered clean by Jewish dietary law, and you can buy locust flour today—but who wants to? He ate a humble diet instead of living lavishly.
  • And John was humble in his message. Hear it again from verse 7:

“After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Everything about John was humble, for one great purpose: to highlight how great Jesus is. His message was that…

  • Jesus is so great, I’m not worthy to do what even a Gentile slave would do, loosening the dirty straps on his sandals. Even that would be above my pay grade, given who he is.
  • Jesus is so great, John says, that while the baptisms that I do are merely outward and symbolic, what he is bringing will be an inside job and deeply real.
  • John insists Jesus is more deserving of attention than I am.
  • He says Jesus is vastly more powerful than I am.
  • John shows and tells that he knows who he is in God’s great plan. But far more important is recognizing who Jesus is in God’s great plan to save sinful humanity.

And on that note, John passes from the scene. We never hear from him again in Mark’s gospel. But from what we know about John, that was just fine with him. He wanted the focus to be on Jesus, not him. We want to do the same.

Let’s end where we began. For the first 400 years of the Christian faith, there was no such thing as a church building. And during seasons of persecution, Christians had to find a way to indicate where they were meeting. They very quickly realized there was a symbol they could use, that only believers in Jesus would understand. That symbol was the outline of a fish, and here’s why: the Greek word for fish is ichthus. Even today, the branch of zoology that deals with all kinds of fish is ichthyology.

So here’s where the early Christians got clever. They realized that each letter in the Greek word for fish, in English ichthus, could represent the first letters in the confession of faith that Mark begins his gospel with:

ICTHUS = Iēsous Christos, Theou Yios, Sōtēr

Which means, Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior

So an ancient story tells that if you as a Christian met a stranger and it seemed like the other person might also be a Christian, you would draw one arc of a simple fish outline in the dirt with your sandal, just the top or bottom half, a harmless little pattern in the dirt. But if the stranger drew the other arc to complete the fish symbol, you immediately knew you were both believers in Jesus. You shared the same faith that Jesus Christ is God’s Son, and our Savior. Good news! – Christianity Today, Elesha Coffman, “Ask The Expert”

God has kept his promises. And still today, he sends his messengers. May we be found faithful with his message, and may we keep the focus on his Son!