READ : Mark 1:1
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Mark 1:1 rsv
It was in the Rome of the Caesars when the infamous Nero was emperor that it appeared – the first written gospel. This was a new form of popular literature. Nothing like it had ever been composed before.
We’ve all heard about epic poetry. In that connection, the name of Homer is the first that comes to mind. His Greek Iliad and Odyssey introduced the world to what we call the epic poem. It was the ancient Romans who first developed the form of literature called satire, a commentary in verse on some prevailing vice or folly. But it was a Jewish Christian named John Mark, also in Rome, who first produced about a.d. 65 a “gospel.”
Here are the first words he wrote: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Think with me now about what that means: “the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
WHAT THE GOSPEL IS
The word itself, gospel or “good message” or “good news” was well known in the ancient Roman world. When a mighty ruler began his reign, or when a son was born in the royal house, this was called “gospel,” good tidings. It meant some historical event which introduced a new situation for the world, some happening charged with special significance for the future. Our modern world, remember, has had an experience like that quite recently. Think of what happened in November, 1989, in the German city of Berlin. Suddenly an event of enormous meaning for the whole world took place. The Berlin Wall came down! That for all of us was gospel, big news. It altered the human situation. It quickened joy and hope.
When John Mark wrote this book that we call a gospel, he was celebrating something like that, something even more grand and world- transforming. And for him the word gospel had an added significance. It spoke of a hope that his little nation of Israel had cherished for centuries. Throughout her sacred Scriptures, what we call today the Old Testament, there throbbed a thrilling kind of expectation. The God whom Israel worshiped as Creator and Lord over all, the One who had entered into covenant with them at Mt. Sinai, had promised a great future for His people. His salvation was coming to the world. That would mean both rescue from danger and distress and also a marvelous restoration. God would come to set His people free and give them new life. That, to Hebrew believers, was “gospel.” God would visit them as a gracious Deliverer.
Put together those meanings and you have a glimpse of what John Mark meant by “the gospel.” For him it was a new state of affairs for mankind, precisely because God’s promises were being fulfilled and His salvation was at hand.
Who was the gospel about? Mark makes that plain in the very first sentence. It’s about Jesus. Perhaps that name is familiar to you, perhaps not. Jesus was born in the year 4 b.c., probably in the Judean village of Bethlehem. He came into a poor family and spent His years of childhood and youth in the tiny Galilean town of Nazareth. In some ways His life seems quite ordinary. It was relatively brief. He lived only about 33 years. He never traveled outside the borders of His own little country. He held no public office, commanded no armies, wrote no books. When He died, He possessed nothing but the clothes on His body. He never went to school and, apart from the Hebrew Scriptures, never read widely. Though He was immensely popular at one point in His career, He saw most of this following turn away. Some of them eventually even clamored for His death. At the end He was rejected by His own nation and put to death by the Roman authorities. After going through the cruelest torture imaginable, He died a death reserved for the vilest of criminals. He was crucified – at the time of the Jewish Passover, perhaps in a.d. 30.
Still, the gospel, as Mark relates it, has everything to do with this person Jesus. Though not as much as is the case in the later gospels, we read a good deal in Mark about Jesus’ teaching. In this swiftly moving drama, we also witness His mighty works, the expressions of remarkable power in His ministry. But most of all, strangely, we are told about His sufferings.
Someone has called Mark’s gospel “a passion narrative with an extended introduction.” In other words, everything seems to lead up to the events surrounding Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. Almost one- half of the sixteen chapters of the book describe this final period of Jesus’ ministry. Apparently, it is in His cross and Easter victory that the gospel is most clearly seen. Here the ancient promises are fulfilled. Here the world-changing events occur. The gospel is all about Jesus and especially about His final days on earth.
One thing Mark wants to tell us about Jesus is that He is the Christ. That’s from a Greek word for “the anointed One.” It corresponds to the Hebrew word “Messiah.” It describes someone chosen, set apart, and equipped by God for a mission. In the Old Testament, kings were anointed with oil as they began their reign. Priests were anointed as they entered upon their religious service. Prophets were anointed to speak God’s truth. This anointing with oil was a sign that God’s Spirit was coming upon these persons, enduing them with gifts and power to fulfill God’s mission.
But all those anointings were partial and temporary. The Old Testament witness pointed consistently forward to the greatest of all kings yet to come in David’s line, to a great high priest, to a prophet like to Moses. When He came, the One in whom all the promises were to be fulfilled, He would be the anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ.
Mark wants us to see that this long-awaited person is none other than Jesus. Jesus didn’t begin His ministry with a claim to be the Messiah. In fact, when people began to believe this about Him, He urged them not to tell anyone. Apparently there were misconceptions abroad about what kind of Messiah was coming. Jesus didn’t want to encourage those distorted ideas. But He never denied that He was the Messiah, the Christ. And, when one of His disciples, Simon Peter, blurted out this confession in Caesarea Philippi, “You are the Christ,” Jesus accepted his witness, acknowledged it as true. But, for the time being, He told His disciples “to tell no one about him.”
The disciples, at this point in their lives, had a very limited understanding of what it meant that Jesus was the Christ. He had to teach them over and over again that suffering lay ahead for Him, that He was headed for rejection and death. He accepted their witness to Himself, but then helped them to understand more fully what that meant.
But maybe it didn’t seem significant to people in largely Gentile Rome that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, the Christ. What did they know about the Hebrew Scriptures? Of what interest to them were these ancient prophecies? They were citizens of imperial Rome, the greatest power in the world. Maybe you feel as they did today. You’re not sure about this business of Jesus being the Christ. But even if it’s true, you can’t see that it has anything to do with your life. You aren’t Jewish. You don’t live in Palestine. What does Jesus have to do with you? In what sense is His life, death and resurrection a gospel for you?
THE SON OF GOD
John Mark makes yet another claim in these opening words of his gospel. He says not only that Jesus is Israel’s Messiah but also that He is God’s own Son.
God to Mark was the majestic Creator of the heavens and the earth, the One who preserves and rules over all that He has made. He was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the One who had entered into covenant with His people and bound Himself with solemn promises. He was the holy Lord who loves what is right and hates what is evil. He was the God who had revealed His will to Israel in the Ten Commandments, and His saving purpose through the words of His prophets. God to John Mark was the holy One, infinitely high above and separate from all the works of His hands. He was the Almighty, the Eternal, so exalted that He could look “far down” upon the heavens and the earth.
Now for the truly staggering claim. According to Mark, this Jesus who was born in Bethlehem and died in Jerusalem has always been the Son of the Most High God. He shares God’s being from the beginning. He reveals in a full and final way God’s nature and purpose. He is the everlasting, almighty God become a human being like ourselves. That, for Mark, is the gospel.
John the Baptist bears witness that Jesus is infinitely worthy. God the Father speaks from heaven at His baptism, “You are my beloved Son.” The demons of hell recognize that Jesus is the Son of the Most High. And finally, at the end of Mark’s Gospel, it is a soldier, a Roman at that, who after watching Jesus die, says with trembling awe, “Truly, this man was the Son of God.”
WHY THE GOSPEL WAS WRITTEN
Do you know why this gospel was written? It isn’t meant to be a biography of Jesus, although He is its central figure. It isn’t designed as a history book, although it includes a wealth of historical data. The gospel is a gathering into written form of what the apostles of Jesus had been preaching throughout the Roman empire for over 30 years. The aim of that preaching, and of this gospel was to create faith. The early apostles always preached for a verdict. When they had told their story and borne their witness, they would invite their hearers to respond. More than anything else in the world, they wanted them to believe in this Jesus.
There’s a sense in which this gospel of Christ is good news even before you hear about it, and whether you believe it or not. Mark is announcing what God has done, how God’s saving rule has broken into our history. He’s telling how in the ministry, suffering, death and rising of Jesus God has done something new and wonderful that transforms the world. It’s great good news for everyone that God so loved the world that He came in the person of His Son to dwell among us. It’s good news that He went about doing good, healing and helping, forgiving and transforming people. It’s supremely good news that in His death, He somehow suffered what we deserve, bearing our sins, dying in our place. And it is good news beyond imagining, friends, that on the third day God raised Him from the dead, and offers now to all who will believe in Him, forgiveness and everlasting life.
But it’s something like the experience of hearing read a deceased person’s will. You may hear about what disposition he or she has made of the property involved. You may learn the names of those who are beneficiaries of the estate. But that may remain rather dull and tedious for you unless you happen to hear your own name mentioned. Then you perk up your ears. Then the reading quickens interest – because you know it’s meant for you.
Well, friends, the gospel of Jesus Christ becomes your good news in this vital, personal sense when you realize that it’s meant for you. It’s when you see Jesus coming into the world as an event that makes everything different for you. It’s when you name Him as the Christ, the long-awaited Messiah of God. And it’s when you worship Him as the Son of the Most High God that the Gospel according to Mark has become the Gospel according to you, the most wonderful news that you have ever heard. Will you say it today with me? Something like this: “Yes. I see it. In Jesus of Nazareth, God has acted for the salvation of the world and to save me. Praise God! I now believe.”