Mark 1:1-20 – The Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ

The life of Christ is revealed to us through the lenses of these four Gospel accounts. Each of these authors brings a different perspective to the table; each one presents a unique angle from which to better understand Christ’s character and mission to this world. And in this way, we are offered four beautifully correlated yet distinct accounts on the life of Jesus. We can get a feel for each Gospel writer’s “agenda” from their respective opening passages. Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus, proving that Jesus is the Son of David – the long-awaited Messiah King of Israel. Luke opens his Gospel by stating his intention to organize Jesus’s life into “an orderly account” for his readers (Luke 1:3). John, of course, poetically takes us to a time before creation ever existed: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (John 1:1). And then we have the account of Mark, which I hope to spend the next several months studying with you. Mark is sudden, abrupt, to the point: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). There’s no frills, no nativity story, no background to Jesus’ earthly family. Nope, Mark simply wants to make two big points up front: 1.) There’s some good news to tell about this guy named Jesus, and 2.) Oh, by the way, He’s the Son of God.

As I read through the Gospel accounts, especially the Gospel of Mark, I like to make a habit of pretending that I am reading the story for the very first time, with no prior knowledge of the events taking place. This reading paradigm helps us place ourselves in the shoes of Mark’s first century audience, who may have known nothing about Jesus. Mark’s target audience was almost certainly Roman, and Mark wastes no time in taking his readers directly to the point. In fact, Mark’s opening line would have struck a familiar note to his audience. Prior to Christianity, the word for “gospel” (euaggelion) was already used among the Romans in connection with emperor worship – particularly with the emperors’ birthdays and other memorial festivities. For example, a calendar inscription from about 9 B.C. proclaims of Augustus Caesar:the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings [euaggelion] for the world…”* Notice the striking similarities with Mark’s opening line? Mark wants us to see that it is, in fact, the good news about Jesus Christ that will truly change the course of history.

After his attention-grabbing introduction, Mark then immediately launches into an account about John the Baptist, the prophet who is to prepare the way before the Lord:

John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. Then all the land of Judea, and those from Jerusalem, went out to him and were all baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.

Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, “There comes One after me who is mightier than I, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to stoop down and loose. I indeed baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:4-8, NKJV)

With so little background information and context provided, we as the “first time reader” can really only hope to pull out three key takeaway points from these verses: 1.) John is a radical man with a radical message. 2.) This radical message based on the precept of “repentance” (more on that later) has caught the attention of an entire nation. 3.) There is Someone Else coming after him with an even more radical message and an even more fanatical mission!

As the reader, we don’t even have time to digest what all of this might mean before Jesus Himself shows up on the scene:

It came to pass in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And immediately, coming up from the water, He saw the heavens parting and the Spirit descending upon Him like a dove. 11 Then a voice came from heaven, “You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

12 Immediately the Spirit drove Him into the wilderness. 13 And He was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan, and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to Him.

14 Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:9-15)

The pace here is almost completely overwhelming! Jesus is baptized, and then immediately a voice speaks to Him from heaven, affirming that He is the Son of God. Then immediately (one of Mark’s favorite words!) the Spirit drives Him into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan, and then He comes back and starts preaching? What’s up with all of that?? As Mark’s “first century audience,” we are basically left in a confused daze as to what’s going on so far, except for one major point: This Jesus guy is most definitely NOT a normal man! No, this is a decidedly non-ordinary Man with an extra-ordinary message and mission of supernatural proportions!

Let’s notice that Jesus’ message has two directives here: Repent, and believe in the gospel. Scholars point out that the English word “repent” (to feel remorse for sins) is far too shallow for the original Greek word metanoeō. They argue that the Greek term denotes a much more radical transformation of thinking – a complete 180 degree turnaround of how life is perceived and lived. So, Jesus isn’t merely saying, “Feel bad about your sins before coming to God.” He’s saying, “Turn around! No matter what direction your life is headed–no matter how well you think things are going for you–this life-transforming good news is going to make you take a 180 degree reversal in your life! So stop right there in your tracks, turn around, and follow Me!”

We see a radical example of this kind of “metanoeō” in the very next passage, in Jesus’ calling of His first disciples. Let’s read:

16 And as He walked by the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. 17 Then Jesus said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” 18 They immediately left their nets and followed Him.

19 When He had gone a little farther from there, He saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who also were in the boat mending their nets. 20 And immediately He called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and went after Him. (Mark 1:16-20)

This is what “metanoeō” looks like! It’s not so much that these fishermen had egregious sins to repent of—it’s that they had just experienced an encounter with the Son of God and, therefore, their lives would not—could not—ever be the same again!

You know, the abruptness and lack of context in this account initially bothered me. Why in the world would these fishermen leave their nets to follow a random guy they have potentially never met before? And then I finally realized that that is the exact question that Mark wants us to ask! You see, the other Gospel writers intentionally give us a more thorough introduction to who Jesus is before He starts calling people to follow Him. Mark, on the other hand, wants to first establish up front that Jesus is a Man who is worth leaving everything behind to follow—even though we don’t know why yet! From this point on, Mark will spend the entire remainder of the book answering this all-important, crucial question which lies at the heart of his gospel message: Why should I metanoeō? Why should I also follow Jesus?

*Cited from: Glen Davis, “Pre-Christian Uses Of ‘Gospel’

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The Compromising Church – Pergamum

This week, we arrive at the third church of Pergamum. We can read Christ’s letter to this church in Revelation 2:12-17. Jesus’ first words are abrupt and startling: “I know your works, and where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is” (Rev. 2:13). Satan’s throne!? What does that mean? Interestingly enough, the city of Pergamum was one of the most concentrated centers of idolatry and pagan religion in the ancient Roman world. The city housed temples for Dionysus and Zeus, as well as the very first temple dedicated to the cult of Roman emperor worship. Sources even suggest that Pergamum can be identified as the seat of Babylonian sun worship. No wonder Jesus refers to Pergamum as the city where Satan’s throne is! The fact that the church has maintained its identity amidst its evil surroundings is something that Jesus affirms them for. However, Jesus’ next words ought to make us sit up straight and pay attention: “But I have a few things against you…”

Here, we find a radical shift in the spiritual condition of Pergamum as compared to the previous two churches. The days of persecution are a thing of the past for the church of Pergamum. Now, the church finds itself safe and comfortable – too comfortable… Compromise has begun to creep in. The Nicolaitans were not tolerated in the first church of Ephesus, but here in Pergamum they spread their heresy within church walls! On top of that, Jesus rebukes the church for allowing the “doctrine of Balaam” to infiltrate the congregation. We, of course, all know the story of Balaam and the donkey and his attempt to curse the children of Israel for a bribe. When that plot wasn’t successful, Balaam had a new idea. “Instead of cursing the children of Israel from the outside, why don’t we get them to compromise and disobey God’s commandments on the inside? That way, they’ll simply bring the curse upon themselves!” Balaam’s new strategy was tragically successful. His tactics were to get the Israelites to compromise in the areas of idolatry and sexual immorality. Ironically, these were the same sins that the Nicolaitans were known for. The ancient doctrine of Balaam and the new teachings of the Nicolaitans were simply two sides of the same coin.

At this point, we may find ourselves sighing with relief. At least we don’t have to worry about those pesky Balaamites and Nicolaitans today! Good thing we don’t have to worry about eating foods sacrificed to idols anymore… But, let’s not jump ahead so fast. The heresy of the Balaamites/Nicolaitans was much more sophisticated than it sounds. We have to remember the cultural setting of the day. The temples were not only the religious centers of the community, but the social centers as well. The pagan temples hosted important social events and community gatherings. If you wanted to “fit in,” you had to attend these temple feasts where meat was publicly sacrificed to the gods and then consumed as a part of the worship ritual. And then, as the night would wear on… with temple male and female prostitutes at every turn, the temptation to compromise sexually was virtually inevitable. This kind of compromise was exactly what Paul warned against in 1 Corinthians 8:9-13 and 10:14-33. Paul was deeply concerned that “stronger” Christians were attending these kinds of events and partaking of these meat sacrifices because they felt “free in Christ” to do anything they wanted. But through their participation, they were actually compromising their own spiritual integrity and causing newer, “weaker” Christians to stumble. This so-called “freedom” to “do whatever you want” because it “seems all right” and “feels okay” was the real heresy of Balaamites and Nicolaitans.

You say, “I am allowed to do anything”–but not everything is good for you. You say, “I am allowed to do anything”–but not everything is beneficial. Don’t be concerned for your own good but for the good of others. (1 Corinthians 10:23-24, NLT)

As I turn this around on myself and attempt to apply these lessons to my own life, I have no other choice but to confront myself with the difficult questions: Is there anything in my life that might be a stumbling block for others? Perhaps in some of my social interactions? Maybe some of my entertainment choices? I don’t want to make the same mistake that Pergamum did, and I don’t believe you do either.

In closing, I would like to offer these questions for personal reflection:

  • How does Christ identify Himself to the church of Pergamum in verse 12? How is that identifying characteristic significant in light of the issue which Pergamum is struggling with?
  • Why is it sometimes easier to hold on to “socially acceptable” sins in our lives? What is Jesus’ solution for this problem?
  • What do you think the significance is to the hidden manna and white stone which Christ promises to those who overcome? Why do you think we will be given a new name?