Tuesday, June 18, 2019

According to Mark: The Groundwork of the Gospel

Following the introduction from last week, we are ready to move into the actual text of the Gospel of Mark. Technically, this is going to be more introduction, but I’m ok with it since it is Mark’s own. He starts out with a plan that he wants us to know, and we are quickly going to see some of those themes we talked about last time.

Mark's Purpose

The passage for today is Mark 1:1–15. That citation is a link, which I suggest you keep open in another tab. We’ll likely be referring back to it frequently. One of the first things to notice is how quickly the account moves. Mark covers in 15 short verses what Matthew and Luke discuss in three fairly long chapters. A big reason for that is Matthew and Luke were concerned with establishing the credentials of Jesus. They tell the story of His miraculous birth, and of his legal and physical lineage as the descendant of David.

Those things are important, but Mark sees them as secondary to the story he is trying to tell. Or rather, there is a sense in which he is not trying to “tell” anything. He is trying to “show.” He wants his readers to be able to see Jesus by painting a vivid mental picture. And that is precisely what he accomplishes.

That is the purpose of the first verse. Mark has what is known as a “secrecy motif.” There are a number of places in it where people are confused about the identity of Jesus. The truth about Him is hidden from them until the end of the story. That is true for the participants, but not for the readers. We have a bird’s eye view from the very start. It frames everything else we are going to see. That’s important to keep in mind here. Whatever you come across in this book, always look at it through the lens that Jesus is the “Christ, the Son of God.”

Mark does not explain what that means, though. He assumed his audience would know it. I can’t, necessarily. A lot of the Quest Forums ministry is dedicated to explaining it, so I will not go too deep into it here. But briefly stated, Jesus is the Christ because He is the Chosen One (literally, “the anointed one,”) who fulfills God’s plan for the salvation of mankind. He is also the Son of God because He is eternally one with the Father. Jesus is human, but also more than human. That is what makes Him the acceptable sacrifice for all our sins.

The Preparatory Ministry of John the Baptist

Moving on from there, Mark gives us at least some detail by describing the ministry of John the Baptist. He begins with a bit of scriptural provenance. The quote in vv. 2–3 is an amalgamation of Ex. 23:20, Mal. 3:1, and Is. 40:3. That begs the question, why say it is “written in Isaiah?” Why not say, “in the prophets” (which is exactly what some other texts do)? Let’s be honest enough to know that Mark is not making a mistake. He knows to quote three passages, so he certainly knows where to find them. The point is not to suggest that Isaiah wrote all these things. Rather, it is to show that Isaiah predicted them. Isaiah is arguably the great prophet of messianic expectation. He had the most to say about the coming of the Lord’s Anointed Servant. Mark is saying that what Isaiah waited for, has now been fulfilled.

And that fulfillment begins with John. As with Jesus, Mark tells us next to nothing about where this new prophet comes from. He just suddenly appears on the scene. Suddenly, but not unprecedented. Along with the verses that spoke of a messenger to prepare God’s way, there is the nature of John’s dress. It is an oblique reference, but Mark is pointing out that John wore the same clothes as the great prophet Elijah (2 Kings 1:8). This ties together with the earlier quotation from Mal. 3:1, because Mal. 4:5–6 identifies Elijah as the messenger who will appear before the day of the Lord. In other words, John the Baptist came in the authority of Elijah to herald the arrival of the Messiah.

Which, of course, is exactly what he does in vv. 7–8. While he taught the people of Judea to repent of their sins, he also told them that he was not the source of their redemption. His baptism was just a symbol, sufficient for nothing on its own. His ministry, in fact, is the last symbol.

That is an important point we don’t want to miss. Much of the Old Testament, especially in its prophetic teachings, is symbolic. That does not mean it is inaccurate or tells falsehoods. Rather, it means the prophets unveiled the hidden purposes of God through imagery that represented the reality before it arrived. Sometimes the time in between a prophecy and its fulfillment was short. Other times, it was very long. But for the most part, it was not a straightforward statement of, “This precise thing is going to happen in this precise way.”

That was John’s purpose. He was the first of the New Testament prophets, but also the last of the Old Testament prophets. He used the symbolism of baptism to declare that symbols were about to pass away as the higher reality at last took hold.

The Baptism of Jesus

This raises a question, though. If John’s baptism were just a symbol, and Jesus brings in the reality of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, then why would Jesus be baptized? Why would He submit to John’s authority and receive a sign of repentance? Jesus, after all, had no sins to repent. This is a difficult one. In fact, as we can see in Matt. 3:14, John struggled with it himself.

I won’t pretend to have it all figured out, either. There are a few possibilities that make sense, though. One has to do with the purpose of baptism itself. John’s point with it seems to have been one of purification. Just as the water washed the body, so repentance cleanses the soul that anticipates the coming Messiah. But baptism takes on an additional meaning in Christianity. Along with purification, it also symbolizes death, burial, and resurrection (Rom. 6:3–5). So Jesus may have undergone this baptism as a prefigure of His ministry. It was not for His own sin, but that He took all sin upon Himself in death and then rose to new life.

This other idea is actually not mutually exclusive of the first one, it is possible they go together. But the thought is that Jesus took John’s baptism in order to be his successor. Remember, John is the transitional figure, the last of the old prophets and the first of the new. This might have been a way for John to pass the torch. It was Jesus’ way of validating all John and the rest of the OT had done, while moving forward from there to complete it.

Those are just some ideas, but Mark does not really seem to care. He offers no justification. He just states that it happened and moves on. The baptism does not matter as much as what happened there.

The wonder of v. 10 is not something we should allow ourselves to miss. It gives a powerfully Trinitarian picture. The Spirit descends to denote the Son’s empowerment and authority to do the work of God, and the Father speaks His approval. We know from Matt. 3:17 and John 1:32 that Jesus was not the only witness to these things. John, at the very least, also saw the descent of the Spirit, and Matthew suggests that others heard the voice of the Father. But Mark does not present it that way. For him, it is an intimate moment between the members of the Godhead. It exemplifies the perfect unity of Father, Son, and Spirit.

This is a good time to mention that we should not get caught up in the differences between the gospels. They are not inaccuracies. They are perspectives. Mark does not explicitly say no one else saw all this. He is simply focused on what it means for Jesus. The Son knows He is loved by the Father. And as Mark’s audience, with that bird’s eye view, we can know it, too.

The Temptation of Jesus

Once again, Mark moves quickly from here. The temptation of Jesus, which is such a powerful scene in Matthew and Luke, is discussed in a mere two verses. Even so, they carry a lot of weight. It starts with the setting. There is a good bit of conjecture as to the location and makeup of Mark’s original audience. I lean towards the argument that says they were made up of Roman Gentiles, so some details may have initially gone over their heads just as they can for us. For a Jewish person reading, though, the connection would be hard to miss. The forty days Jesus spends in the wilderness instantly draws comparison to the 40 days of Moses on Mt. Sinai, the 40 days of Elijah’s journey to Mt. Horeb, and the 40 years of the Israelites wandering in the desert.

The first two are once again about continuity, just as I think the baptism of Jesus was. He is the successor of not only John, but also Moses and Elijah. This is a way of sharing their experiences and proving the connection. But the connection to Israel is probably even more important because of what Jesus went into the wilderness to do.

Mark does not give any of the dialogue, but he does tell us that Jesus was tempted by Satan. In the same way, the children of Israel had been tested in the wilderness. The books of Exodus and Numbers illustrate the constant failure of the Israelites to resist temptation. But what they could not do, Jesus does. He refused to give in to the devil’s twisted offers and remained faithful to the Father. In so doing, He proved His identity and His power over evil.

That is the primary point here, but we do get an odd little detail in v. 13, as well. Why does the evangelist mention that Jesus was “with the wild beasts?” Matthew and Luke don’t say anything about it. What does it mean?

Maybe nothing. Honestly, that’s an option. It might merely be descriptive rather than having any special significance. Jesus was in the wilderness, so yes, there were animals around. In that case, it is at most a way for Mark to point out Jesus’ isolation. There is Satan to attack Him, animals around Him, and angels to serve Him, but no other human souls around. It fits the context.

We may as well get a bit more creative, though. As I mentioned earlier, one of the likeliest locations for Mark’s audience was Rome. One theory of the writing of the gospel was that it was composed after the beginning of Nero’s persecution of the church. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, one of the ways that Nero tormented Christians was to have them dressed in furs and then torn apart by wild animals. If Mark wrote into that context, then perhaps he was attempting to offer a comfort. Jesus was with the animals, but they did not attack Him because He had power over them. And if the Lord was in control, then there was ultimately nothing to fear.

That, too, is possible, but I am not convinced by it. There is certainly a great lesson in it. We do not have to be afraid of what Jesus has overcome. My problem is that I do not think Mark was written late enough for this to be the case. As I mentioned in the introductory article, I believe this book had to have been written sometime in the late A.D. ’50s. The Neronian persecution did not begin until A.D. 64. This comment in v. 13 probably would have been useful to the Roman Christians at that time, but I do not think that was why Mark wrote it down 5 or 10 years earlier.

My preferred idea is that it has to do with Is. 9:1–9, and especially vv. 6–8. Isaiah, as we already discussed, was the preeminent prophet of messianic expectations. This passage is one of the reasons for that, as it discusses the holiness of the coming Messiah and the peace that He would bring. It is so total a reformation of the order of the world that even wolves will live with sheep and bears will eat grass with cows. No more violence of any type will occur.

To me, then, this comment in Mark is another reference to Isaiah and to Jesus’ identity as the Messiah. Nature was under His control, rather than being a cause for alarm. This is not a total fulfillment, of course. That awaits the return of Jesus at the end of this age. But it is another sign along the way pointing to who He is.

The Value of Knowing Jesus

Which is really what everything is about. I did not sit down with the thought of writing a verse-by-verse commentary on Mark. This study is supposed to be broader than that. For one thing, if I continue to go at this pace once a week, then I have to wonder if I will ever finish this gospel in my lifetime. For another, I want it to be more devotional than factual. But that is why I wanted to at least do this one this way.

There is not much here that has been practical, in the sense that you can take it and practice it in your own life. A few things are, perhaps. I’m sure the locust and honey diet will be the fad at some point. But in general, the information here is not something you can use. That is, unless knowledge is itself practical. This is what I believe. We are not told these things so we can put them into effect. We are told them because they happened. 

Think about what we have in these verses. The fulfillment of prophecy, the end of the Old Testament, the descent of the Spirit, the voice of God, the defeat of the devil, the peace of nature, and the worship of angels. All these things center around the person of Jesus Christ. He is the point of everything. What matters is not what we do, but that we know Him. When we know Him for who He is, then we can respond to Him with trust.

And that is precisely how we conclude. Mark 1:15 is where things do get practical. The evangelist is going to be continually about the business of establishing who Jesus is, but we are privy to that from the beginning. The Lord offers us grace, and He has the authority to offer it. If we turn from pursuing self-destruction and instead rely on Him, we will enter the kingdom of heaven. We do not have to depend on ourselves. That is the good news, the gospel. There is still a long way to go. But if you have this established, then you have what you need most.

Just as I said near the start, this is the jumping off point for the rest of the book of Mark. Jesus is the gospel. As Messiah and Son of God, He is the most important thing we are going to see in these pages. I’ll make an effort to be briefer and cover more ground from now on, but there really was a need to set this down as clearly as possible. We’ll keep it in the forefront as we forge ahead.

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