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  • Ben Emery

Chapter by Chapter - Mark 1

Updated: Sep 26, 2018


The Good News

By introducing his account as the, “beginning of the gospel (good news) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”, Mark was using language and terminology that carried with it a tremendous amount of meaning. First, Mark was challenging his contemporary pagan culture’s use of the term “gospel”. Consider this well-known inscription, speaking of Caesar Augustus, “This is the birthday of the god, which was for the world the beginning of good news (gospel), which has been proclaimed on his account.”

This was common language during this time when describing the wondrous deeds of the Roman emperors. When a conquering emperor would return from defeating an enemy his heralds would declare in the streets the gospel, or the good news, that the king has defeated his enemies and taken up his throne. The implication being that if you want peace, safety, security, joy and yes, even salvation, then look no further. But if you dare defy the king, then the good news of the king is not so good for you as you will likely end up as his next defeated foe.

There is little doubt that Mark is making this connection. He uses the identical language used to describe Augustus, the supposed god, who was going to bring the good news of salvation to world, and places it upon Jesus Christ, the true Son of God. That’s what the Gospel of Mark is. Mark is the herald, declaring to the people and telling them the story of the good news that Jesus Christ, true God, true King, has defeated his enemies and has taken up his place on the throne. Therefore, find your safety in him, find your security in him, find your joy in him, and find your salvation in him and no other.

Second, Mark is also calling his readers to recall the writings of the Old Testament prophets regarding the good news of the Messiah. We must remember there is only one Gospel, that which the apostle John calls in Revelation the “eternal gospel”. That which the apostle Paul, in Galatians, calls the “only gospel”. But this singular, eternal gospel unquestionably has its roots in the ancient history of God’s people, Israel and their long-foretold expectation that one day there would be one, a Messiah, a Christ, who would bring good news salvation. Listen to one example from the Jewish prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 52:7 about the coming Messiah,

How beautiful upon the mountains,

are the feet of him who brings good news,

who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,

who publishes salvation.

Mark is immediately declaring Jesus to be the fulfilment of all the Old Testament prophecies concerning the “good news”. All this good news spoken of previously has now been revealed to be, not just generic good news, but in particular, “the good news of Jesus Christ.”

The Situation

Mark then goes on to cite a number of Old Testament writings to help set the stage for us. He loosely quotes passages from three different prophets (Isaiah, Malachi and Moses) and combines them into a single quotation. By doing this he’s telling us that there is a unity in purpose in what all three of those prophets were saying. Taken all together then, Mark is explaining to us the situation that Jesus is coming into. Like the people in Isaiah’s day, the people are in exile, conquered by a foreign power. They need a highway constructed for them that will lead them back to God. Like the people in Moses’ day, God has promised to bring his people into the land of his presence; and like the people in Malachi’s day, their exile is not in terms of literal geography, but in terms of the covenant blessing that goes along with God’s presence.

The prophets made it clear: The Lord’s way was to be prepared, and he was on his way soon. The immediate question then is, who will prepare his way? Mark, in his typical fashion, wastes no time whatsoever in letting us know: “John appeared”. It was John the Baptizer who was to come as the messenger preparing the way of the Lord.

The Messenger

Immediately we are confronted by this strange looking, strange sounding, character whose name is John, and without the help of the other gospels we would know very little of him. But what is the significance of the details given to us by Mark? Well, if we were as familiar with the Older Testament texts as the original readers were, we’d know that in Malachi chapter 4, verse 4, God promises the people and says, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.”

So, with this expectation in mind, Mark tells us these things about John the Baptizer: He’s wearing desert clothes (camel hair and a leather belt), eating desert food (locusts and honey) and staying in the desert (wilderness) regions. In 2 Kings 1:8, King Ahaziah hears a description of a man in the wilderness that sounds very similar, “He wore a garment of hair with a belt of leather around his waist.” The king’s immediate response is, “It’s Elijah the Tishbite!” So just like the king, when we hear this description of John, our thoughts should immediately be, “That sounds like Elijah”.

And not only his appearance, and his location in the wilderness, but his message also was very similar to Elijah’s. John came preaching a message of repentance. In both men’s cases, the people had broken covenant with God and were under judgement. Only by repenting and turning from their sins would they be ready for the coming “good news”, that is the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Because remember, Malachi tells us that the flip side to the good news is, “but who can endure the day of his coming.

Now, the method and symbol by which John uses to present his message of repentance is definitely worth noting. John didn’t just appear, he appeared, “baptizing”.

The Greek word for “baptism” is a word that speaks generally of ceremonial cleansings or washings. Mark will use it to describe the washing of dishes before a meal (Mark 7:4) and the author of Hebrews uses the same word to describe the ceremonial sprinkling done under the Mosaic Law.

But if a symbolic application of water was the only significance to John’s baptism then the location, the wilderness region around the Jordan, makes no sense. He would have been able to reach far more people had he gone into Jerusalem and preached there. So why did John feel compelled to perform his baptism in the Jordan?

I think the Apostle Paul gives us a clue. In 1 Corinthians 10:1-2 he refers to the Israelites crossing of the Red Sea as a “baptism”. If we understand why Paul associates the people crossing a body of water on dry ground with baptism we may understand why John is Baptizing in the Jordan because the crossing of the Red Sea and the crossing of the Jordan and crossing of the brook, Zered, which marked the transition between the condemned generation and the new generation who were promised the land, bear some obvious similarities.

The common factor is that in all three, water marked the boundary between the old and the new. The cursed and the blessed. And there is an interesting connection between these water crossings and the layout of the tabernacle and temple. After the crossing of the Red Sea the people met with God at Sinai. Once they built the tabernacle, God’s presence dwelt inside and the priests could only approach after having passed through a “laver of cleansing”, which in Solomon’s Temple becomes the “bronze ocean” (Exodus 30:17, 1 Kings 7:23). The common theme is not hard to see: passing through water in baptism symbolizes moving closer to where God is and involves repentance and abandonment of or deliverance from the old in order to gain the new.

Being aware of this connection, the many Judeans who left their homes and traveled the long road to where John was in order to be baptized in the Jordan were symbolically re-entering the Promised Land. As we mentioned before, like those in Malachi’s day, they were confessing that even though they were geographically located in Israel, covenantally, they were still in the wilderness and once again needed God’s presence to come and lead them out of exile and into a place of rest.

The Anointed One

Mark will now take 5 short verses to describe for us three incredibly important events in the life of Jesus that the other gospel writers will spend entire chapters on: His baptism, his anointing, and his temptation. So, in keeping with Mark’s pacing, I will attempt to convey their significance as briefly as possible as well.

The other gospel writers spend time explaining the argument between Jesus and John concerning whether or not he should be baptized. John knew that Jesus was the spotless lamb in whom no sin was found and therefore was in no need of repentance. Instead, Mark lets the contradiction stand because it is through His baptism that the very heart of Jesus’ mission is revealed.

It is His water baptism that inaugurates him into his priestly role as the one who stands where sinners should stand, receives what they should receive and in return gives them forgiveness and fellowship with God. The ultimate fulfilment of this priestly ministry will be another baptism, not in water, but a baptism in blood upon the cross.

Immediately after Jesus comes up out of the water we see the heavens being torn open, reminiscent of the veil in the temple being torn open after his death. And out of heaven comes the spirit descending on Him like a dove.

With John the Baptist having been identified with Elijah, I believe that there is little doubt that we should also identify Jesus with Elisha. The one who comes after Elijah who is anointed with a double portion of the spirit and accomplishes far more than his predecessor (2 Kings 2:9); legitimizing Him in His prophetic ministry.

There are two elements to this anointing. A visual one and a verbal one. The visual one being the dove. The dove reminds us of the way in which God’s judgement during the time of Noah came to an end. When the dove flew from the ark and brought back the first-fruits of a new-creation. In Jesus we are to see the beginning of a new-creation. A restoration of all things. The one in whom we can begin again; be born again.

We have seen already Jesus taking on Himself his role as the great priest, and as the greater Elisha taking on himself the role of the great prophet. But Jesus’ ministry can’t be summed up with His priestly and prophetic ministry only. Therefore, with the verbal element of Jesus’ anointing, the very voice of God, confirms Him as the Christ, the coming Davidic King. And throughout the Gospel of Mark, this will be the theme that comes up more than any other. Jesus is the king.

So, what did God say? He said “He is My Son”, “He is Beloved”, and “I am well pleased with Him”. Three more Old Testament passages are alluded to by these words. There is a clear echo of the voice Abraham heard when he is told to sacrifice his only, beloved son in Genesis 22. There is the proclamation of the Son as King from Psalm 2 and lastly there is an echo of the words which introduce the Suffering Servant from Isaiah 42.

The voice from heaven reveals then that Jesus is the beloved Son of God, the King of God’s Kingdom and the one who must come to suffer the sins of the people. The entirety of Jesus life and ministry are effectively summarized with these three little statements.

Mark’s account will now take an abrupt and unexpected turn. The Spirit who has just descended on Jesus and anointed him as the king, the Son of God, the Beloved Son, now sends him out into the desert to face an onslaught of temptation from the hands of Satan himself.

I think the biggest question here is, why does Mark, the man who has no time for frivolous words, include this statement of Jesus being “with the wild animals”? The idea that we’re supposed to catch onto is the idea of Christ being a parallel to Adam. Or a second and last Adam (1 Cor. 15:45-47; Romans 5).

The idea being that Jesus had come into the world to reverse what Adam had accomplished in the fall. But to reverse what Adam had done, he needed to enter into the world not as Adam found it but as Adam left it. So, when Jesus is tempted by the serpent it’s not in a garden but in a desert. And he wasn’t surrounded by animals over whom he exercised dominion, instead he was surrounded by wild beasts. And so, he faced and defeated the temptation of the serpent and in doing so, proved that he was the one who was deciding the course of history, which is to lead his people back to the tree of life which Adam had removed them from.

Mark points out to us the kingship and authority of Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God repeatedly in this Gospel. He has come to conquer but His war is not waged against flesh and blood. It is waged against principality and powers in heavenly places and spiritual forces of wickedness. And ultimately, he will win by fighting in a way that was unknown to the priests of old or to Elijah and Elisha or to David or Adam. He would conquer his enemies by letting them destroy Him. He would defeat the result of Adam’s disobedience at a tree by being obedient unto death at a tree of His own.

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