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Mark 1:1-15

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This morning I am beginning a new series of sermons on “the Gospel.” It would be hard to imagine a more important subject. The gospel is the heartbeat of the Christian faith. But, as so often with the teaching of the Bible, even with the vocabulary of the Bible, there is more than meets the eye. I’m looking forward to examining the gospel from a variety of different perspectives and constructing, sermon by sermon, the anatomy of the gospel, its parts formed together in a single structure. We will, of course, in the nature of the case, cover familiar ground, but I think we will find it valuable to see the parts and the whole together. We begin with Mark chapter 1 for the simple reason that it introduces the subject in a historically significant and revealing way.

Text Comment

There is far too much in these verses that deserves comment, but this morning simply hear the Word of God and take note of the two uses of the term “gospel.”

Now we all know what the word “gospel” means. It means “good news.” The terminology occurs in the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, often as reports of victory on the battlefield. The Israelites used it that way; so did the Philistines! A runner would come from the battle and declare, “Good news! We won!” [cf. 1 Sam. 31:9] But the word is also found in such famous passages as Isaiah 52:7 and 61:1:

“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, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’”

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.”

There are a number of such passages and they are the background of the use of the term in the New Testament. An important demonstration of that fact is that on the occasion of the Lord’s return to Nazareth after his temptation in the wilderness, so at the very beginning of his public ministry, on the Sabbath he went to the synagogue and there he read out Isaiah 61:1, with its report that the Servant of the Lord would bring good news, and after reading it, he sat down and began his sermon with the words: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing!” [Luke 4:16-21] As the Gospel makes clear from beginning to end, Jesus not only proclaimed good news, he is the good news!

In the Greco-Roman world, the same term “good news” (the Greek word is εὐαγγέλιον, “eu” means good; “angelion” means “news” or “report”) was also a feature of emperor worship. For example, the emperor’s birthday was heralded as good news. So was his enthronement. There may be something of this usage as well in the New Testament’s use of the term, as if the Gospel writers were saying, “Let me tell you about the birth and the enthronement not of a king or an emperor, but of the King, the King of Kings and the maker of emperors, the righteous king, the king of love! His coming into the world is good news indeed. Interestingly, in Greco-Roman usage the term always appeared in the plural. Whatever was being proclaimed as good news was one glad tiding among others. But in the New Testament the word always appears in the singular. This is good news beside which there is no other. [Edwards, Mark PNTC, 24]

The English word “gospel,” now a staple of Bible translations, as here twice in the verses we just read, is so old that it is no longer obviously an equivalent of “good news.” But actually, that is precisely what it means. Originally it was two words not one: “god” and “spel.” Then, as so often happened, two words became one. It was then spelled “godspel.” But because it is hard to pronounce both the “d” and the “s” when one follows immediately after the other, the “d” was elided or lost over time. “Godspel” became “gospel” in the same way that the “k” in “k-night” became silent and in the way that eventually “laboratory” will be spelled the way it is now pronounced: “labratory.” In Old English “god” meant “good” and “spel” meant tale or report or news. In other words it was originally, in its time, a literal translation of the NT Greek word “good news.”

So the gospel is “good news.” That is something to consider. No other religion proclaims good news as its message to the world. No other human philosophy that I am aware of could be described, much less trumpeted from the housetops, as “good news.” No other world view is the announcement of surprising, wonderful, life-changing news! This is one of the many fundamental uniquenesses of our Christian faith. It is good news, wonderful news, news to be spread, news to lift the heart even of the most broken-hearted of people. Everyone on earth needs good news, sometimes more than others. And everyone, every single human being, needs good news in regard to the meaning of his or her life, his or her moral failure, his or her inevitable death, and the prospect of divine judgment. And that is precisely what the gospel is: good news, impossibly good news concerning the most pressing concerns of human life.

But, now the important question, whether people know it or not the most important question in the world: what precisely is this good news? I think we all assume that we know the answer to that question and I have no doubt that our answer would be correct to a point. But actually the gospel is harder to define than you might think. The term, in fact, is never given a proper definition in the Bible.

Take, as a starting point, the fact that Mark begins with the words “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” In other words, what follows in that opening paragraph or in those opening paragraphs is the first act of the gospel. The rest of the book then completes the story that makes up this good news. The first thing we learn about the gospel then is that the gospel is, at least in some substantial way, a story that can be told, history, a record of things that happened. That is what Mark is, after all, and so Matthew, Luke, and John. Add to that the fact that the book itself, along with Matthew, Luke, and John are called “Gospels.” The titles, we assume, were added later, though for all anyone knows they may have been attached to those four books from the very beginning. But the title, for example, “The Gospel of Mark,” as you see it on the page in your Bible, is not part of the text of any of those four books. The first documentary evidence that the word “Gospel” was used of these written records of the life and work of Jesus is provided by Justin Martyr in the middle of the 2nd century, about the year 150. How long before Justin that title had been attached to those four books no one can say. However, Mark 1:1 provides some evidence that the title was virtually inevitable if it was not attached to the four books from the very beginning. The four books were, in other words, the record of the good news.

But if Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are the Gospels of Jesus Christ, then presumably everything in those four books are part of the gospel, the good news. And since Jesus made a point of saying that the good news he proclaimed was first proclaimed by Moses and the prophets and was based on God’s redemptive work in the ancient epoch recorded in the ancient scriptures, then it would appear that the whole Bible is the gospel. When you think of what the four Gospels contain – the history they relate, the teaching they record – the gospel becomes suddenly good news of a more complex kind.

The gospels, as we all know, include much besides the message of God’s grace and Christ’s cross and resurrection. They contain much more than the offer of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ, though that is a key emphasis of those books. In those four books we find, for example, a number of the hard sayings of the Lord – think, for example, of his remark that unless a man deny himself and take up his cross he cannot enter the kingdom of God. We also find frequently the summons to repentance and to obedience. Indeed, here in Mark 1:15 that summons announces the proclamation of the gospel. The Lord speaks frequently of the judgment of the unbelieving, even among those who belong to his church; the reality of hell, the certainty that his disciples will suffer persecution, and so on. There is a great deal of commandment in the teaching of Jesus, searching demands. Consider, for example, his Sermon on the Mount. In those three chapters of Matthew we hear nothing of the cross or of God’s love for sinners. What we hear is Christ’s description of the life that disciples, his followers must live, a life of faithfulness to him in heart, in speech, and behavior. Is that too the gospel? All of that is found in the Gospel.

As we read this morning, the ministry of John the Baptist was the beginning of the gospel, but that ministry as we know from all four Gospels was full of warning and the threat of judgment as well as the offer of salvation through repentance and confession of sin. Is the warning part of the good news? We can understand why it would be. We are being told both that we need peace with God and how to find it. To learn both things is essential to our eventual happiness. And, as we just said, when Jesus began his preaching of the gospel his proclamation was: “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.” Honest reckoning with moral failure is required. It is good news to discover both what God requires and how to meet that requirement. Even more striking, in Revelation 14:6-7 we read this.

“Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. And he said with a loud voice, ‘Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come…”

There the announcement of God’s judgment is called the eternal gospel, good news! Why? Well certainly part of the reason why divine judgment would be good news is that by that judgment the enemies of God and of his people are conquered and the kingdom of God is established over all. There can be no final victory without the defeat of our enemies!

But take the point. The fact that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are called “Gospels” teaches us that the gospel is the entire story of salvation, not one part of it only. It is supremely the story of the incarnation, the birth, the life, the death, the resurrection, and the ascension of the Lord, the primary subjects of the four Gospels. But it includes all his teaching and all the implications of his work as our Lord and Savior both for those who believe and for those who do not. It is an account of how sinful human life will be transformed into pure and holy human life. The Gospels tell a story but only in order to preach a message. [cf. M. Hooker, Beginnings, 1-2]

The Gospel is not simply the happiest part of the news, it is the whole story, the entire proclamation, the history of God’s great work of salvation with all of its implications and with all of its demands and requirements. The first thing the gospel does, here in the Gospel of Mark and everywhere else, is to make a man or a woman take a serious view of life. C.S. Lewis once wrote that he liked to take his Christianity the same way he took his whiskey – straight. Well, welcome to the four Gospels! There is great joy here, to be sure; but there is also hard-edged realism about sin, about judgment, about the transformation of our lives and what that will entail, and about the cataclysm that will mark the end of the history of this world and the final triumph of the people of God.

Sometime ago a very interesting thing happened. A German scholar of the classical world, its languages, history, and culture, by the name of Günther Zuntz, read the Gospel of Mark for the first time. Now Zuntz was a man thoroughly at home in the language and culture of the Greco-Roman world of Mark’s time. He spoke the Greek of that day probably as well as Mark spoke Greek, and perhaps better. I’ve met and studied with men like him. They could actually speak and think classical Greek and Latin and if you could somehow have dropped them into first century Antioch or Athens or Rome, they would not only have been able immediately to enter into conversations but would have understood and appreciated what they saw and heard. They would have felt at home.

But Zuntz’ scholarship was of the classical world, its language and culture, not that of early Christianity. Perhaps surprisingly for a modern scholar of that era of history, he had never read the Gospel of Mark. He was not familiar with the Bible. And so when Günther Zuntz came to read Mark for the first time, it was almost as if he were reading it with the mind of someone from that long ago time when Mark was first written and read and heard by large numbers of people for the very first time. He understood its Greek just as a first century hearer would have. But, also like them, he did not have the “Christian conditioning” that most people have nowadays who come to the Bible. He had no preconceived opinions about the contents of the book. This is as near to discovering how the Gospel of Mark at first reading would have struck a citizen of the world of that time as we are ever likely to get at this distance. Mark came to Günther Zuntz as something entirely new. In other words, his response represents how the book may very well have struck a person of the first century when he or she heard it read for the first time. In those days there were a great many people who heard this Gospel read, probably at a single sitting, having never heard it before. Zuntz said, after reading Mark, that he had a strong impression that

            “…something very important was being put forward here with a superior purpose and concentration throughout the book…. The style and content of the story arouse a feeling of otherness, a feeling that this is not a history like other histories, not a biography like other biographies, but a development of the actions, sayings, and suffering of a higher being on his way through this anxious world of human beings and demons.” [Cited in France, Mark NIGTC 6-7]

Not a biography like other biographies, not a history like other histories. Of course not! It is an utterly unprecedented account of someone utterly unique in the history of mankind. But if not a biography or a history like others, what was it? It was a proclamation that God himself had entered history for the sake of the salvation of his people, to rescue them from themselves, to deliver them from sin and death, and to raise them to a new and far better life.

It is important for us to remember that Mark is proclamation. It may help us to remember that the good news was intended to be heard not read. Literacy in the ancient world was very low; perhaps only 10% of the people could read, perhaps somewhat more in the cities. [France, 9] And books were very scarce; few people had them or could afford them.  Each book had to be copied by hand, of course, which made them both rare and expensive. The Gospel of Mark, to its original audience, was therefore, in our terms, more like the preaching that you hear in church on Sunday than a book you pick up to read.

And what they heard, as the reader began to read, was: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And in that first sentence we have the great themes of the book: the identity of Jesus and the fact that in him, with him, by him, and because of him, came wonderful news to the world!  Every paragraph, every incident in the Gospel of Mark except for two concerning John the Baptist, his predecessor, is about Jesus.  He “is the uncontested subject of the Gospel…” [Edwards, 13]

In Isaiah 40, a few verses after the verses Mark cites here in vv. 2 and 3, we read this:

“Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, you herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news, say to the cities of Judah, ’Behold your God!’”

In Isaiah 40 the good news is that the Lord is drawing near to deliver his people, even to pay for her sins, which is how that whole section begins (Isa. 40:1). And that obviously is the burden of Mark’s good news as well. To the whole world he is saying “Behold your God who has drawn near to save you!”

Mark 1:1 would strike the Greek ear as a bold beginning because the very first word of the Gospel is the noun “beginning,” perhaps harking back to the first verse of the Bible, the very first word of the Bible which in a sense is two words but in Hebrew they are squished together into one “In the beginning…” Mark may even be suggesting, by making that word the first in his book that a new creation, a new beginning for the human race, a new life was inaugurated by Jesus of Nazareth.

But what would have arrested their attention all the more, especially Jewish hearers of the Gospel, was that the good news was all about this one individual, Jesus Christ, that is, Jesus the Messiah – for that is what “Christ” means – about Jesus the Messiah, who is the Son of God.  Names meant more in the ancient world than they do today. “Jesus” as you know, means “Savior” or, literally, “Yahweh is salvation.” But, other men of the time would have had that name. There are a lot of people in the Hispanic world and the world of Latin America today who are named Jesus for example. And so it was in the Lord’s own day. It means a great deal to us now, but “Jesus” wouldn’t have distinguished the Lord to Jewish folk of that time.

But “Christ” would have got everyone’s attention.  Mark is saying that this Jesus of Nazareth is no other than the long awaited descendant of David who the prophets said would bring deliverance to Israel and establish God’s Kingdom in the world.

And “Son of God,” would have meant even more to the early hearers of Mark’s Gospel. Throughout the Gospel “Son of God” will be Mark’s favorite title for Jesus. Along the way we will hear Jesus declared to be the Son of God by God the Father, at the time of his baptism, by the demons, by the Jewish high priest, even by the centurion who was responsible to oversee the Lord’s crucifixion. The hearer of Mark came to understand that “Son of God” was a title that marked out Jesus as having a particularly unique and intimate relationship with God the Father and, finally, cannot be explained in any other way but that Jesus Christ is God himself. So Mark announces, with his slam-bang opening, that the good news he has to tell concerns Jesus, who is the Messiah and the Son of God, or, even better, God the Son.

As you know, Mark’s Gospel, is Peter’s Gospel. We have evidence from very early in Christian history that Mark’s Gospel is the record of Peter’s account of Christ’s life, teaching, death, and resurrection. Mark’s Gospel is the way Peter told the story and proclaimed the good news. In his address to Cornelius and the others gathered in the centurion’s house in Caesarea, as we have it in Acts 10:34-41, Peter explained to the gathered assembly who Jesus is and what he did and what happened to him and, as has long been noticed, Peter’s account there is a fair outline of the Gospel of Mark. Peter must have told that story, of which we have only the outline in Acts 10, many, many times. And Mark eventually wrote it down. In other words, he wrote down the full sermon of which we have only a sketch in Acts 10. And after Peter was finished with his account of the Lord Jesus, he said this:

“And he [that is Jesus] commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” [10:42-43]

If the Gospel of Mark is an account of the good news, there is the good news still more succinctly: forgiveness of sins through Jesus’ name. But there is a lot that goes into that short sentence and that too is all part of the good news. Without all the rest we wouldn’t know what “his name” means or, for that matter, what it means to receive “the forgiveness of our sins,” or even what it means that Jesus “is the judge of the living and the dead.”

What the Christian faith proclaims to the world is not an idea, or a theory, or a philosophy, or a system of ethics. In this it is entirely different from every other religion and philosophy of mankind. The good news the Christian faith proclaims to the world is instead history, events, and, in particular, a life, a person, a man: a man who came from heaven to open the way to eternal life.

If you, like Peter, had seen and known him; if you had witnessed the wonderful, the stupendous, the breath-taking things that he did; if you had been astonished, like so many other people who were there, seeing things happen that you could scarcely believe but which were obviously wonderfully if terrifyingly real; if you had heard the marvelous wisdom he taught; if you had witnessed the Truth – capital T – in this single human life; if you had seen what Peter saw and heard what Peter heard, you would have realized that in this man, in touching him and knowing him, you were touching and learning the secret of all reality and of all life. And if so, is this not precisely what you would tell others.

You wouldn’t tell them your theories about Jesus, your mature reflections on the time you spent with him and on the teaching you heard him give. It wouldn’t occur to you to do that. You would tell people what you saw and what you heard! To the end of your life you would tell these stories again and again to as many people as would listen. Everything you could remember about him, everything you saw and heard, and all that happened to him. You would say to people: I was there. I saw it with my own eyes. Amazing as it may seem to you, amazing, breathtaking as it was to me at the time, I witnessed it all. This is what happened. You would say, I can still hear his voice as he said this. I still get chills up and down my spine thinking about what he did that day: how the leper’s skin turned from white to brown, how the crippled man leapt to his feet, how the demon possessed man was immediately restored to a sound mind, how he raised that dead girl to life; I was there when he fed 5,000 people with some scraps of food, when he calmed the storm, and when he walked across the lake. I saw blind men see for the first time. And I saw Jesus on the top of that mountain in Galilee with the glory of God upon him. I saw Moses and Elijah back from the dead and I heard the voice of the living God. My palms still sweat when I recall that first sight of Jesus, alive again, after he had been crucified. I remember how we all marveled at his power, his perfect goodness, his compassion and love.  We were such dolts then. It took us so long to figure out what was happening. But looking back on it now, it is all so perfectly clear: God had come down and made his dwelling with us and we beheld his glory!  We saw the salvation of the world accomplished before our very eyes!

And you would do that and you would say that because you would know that once people knew that, what Jesus had done, what he had said, how he had died, and that he rose again, I say, you would know that once people knew that they would know everything. They would have discovered the secret of all truth and the way to God. And that, my friends, is not simply good news; that is the best news that we could ever hear!