The oldest of the four canonical New Testament Gospels, the Gospel According to Saint Mark stresses the mighty works of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Thorough, yet quick to the point, its purpose is to present Jesus’s actions as worthy of our recognition of him as our Lord and Savior and of his universal Kingship. As such, Mark conveys to the reader the importance of why following Jesus and being in relationship with him matters. For Mark, to use a term from American and British contract law, “time is of the essence.” He does not want us to miss out on God’s Kingdom. Hence, Mark reinforces again and again the essential point of our need to trust and obey Jesus and how his actions our worthy of our trust.
Theme #1—“The Kingdom of God Has Come Near”: The Beginning of the Good News (Mark 1:1-15)
The Gospel begins by cutting right to the chase and like the blowing of a mighty rushing wind: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1). Mark begins by setting up the preaching of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus as the beginning of a new age. By quoting the prophet Isaiah in verses two and three, Mark presents John the Baptist as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy and performing an important function for the people of Israel. His wilderness preaching signifies that a new age in salvation history is very close at hand. John proclaims Jesus as “the one who is more powerful than I” who “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (1:7-8). His water baptism is the calling of the people to repentance and preparation to receive Jesus and the gospel he will soon proclaim.
Jesus appears in verse 9, having come “from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” As Jesus comes up from the water, Heaven opens, the Holy Spirit descends upon him like a dove, and, from Heaven, God says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (1:10-11).
What we see here are two things. First is the formal transition from the period of preparation to the age of salvation. With Jesus having appeared and submitted himself to John’s baptism, the Lord’s way has been prepared, his paths have been straightened, and the age of salvation has now come. Jesus takes on the form of a lowly penitent, passively receiving the sign of repentance on behalf of all God’s people. Jesus comes to John as the one willing to assume the brunt of the judgment from which the new Israel will emerge (William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark, p. 54).
Second, we are given a picture of baptism as “the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” The outward and visible sign is water, symbolizing one’s choice to renounce evil, repent of their sins, and turn to Jesus as their Lord and Savior. The inward and spiritual grace is union with God, being “sealed by the Holy Spirit…and marked as Christ’s own forever” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 308). Through our own baptism, God’s words to Jesus become his words to us: “You are my son/daughter, my beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Mark then tells of the Spirit driving Jesus into the wilderness for a prophet’s time of trial and testing. “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan” (1:13). Jesus’s battle against Satan has begun. Verses fourteen and fifteen imply Jesus’s triumph over Satan’s temptations. “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (1:14-15). Thus, we can be assured that Jesus is the one more powerful than all of us sent by God to save us from our sins.
Thus, Mark’s “beginning of the good news” puts us in the context of a particular time — the beginning of a new age in salvation history. John the Baptist prepares us for it. By his appearance and baptism, Jesus officially begins it. “The time is now,” Mark is saying. “Salvation has now come!”
Theme #2—Choosing Life: Jesus’s Call to Discipleship (Mark 1:16-20; Mark 2:13-17; Mark 3:13-20)
Interspersed throughout Mark 1–3 are narratives of Jesus’s calling of the disciples: the Zebedee brothers, James and John, in chapter one; Levi (also known as Matthew), Alphaeus’s son, in chapter two; and the appointment of the Twelve, “whom [Jesus] also named apostles” (3:14), in chapter three. Like to the Zebedee Brothers and Levi, Jesus says to all of us, “Follow me.” And like them, we have the choice to either turn down Jesus’s call or to accept it and follow him.
In Jesus’s call to discipleship is the question, “What do you choose: everlasting life and good or eternal death and evil?” As Moses entreated Israel, Jesus entreats us through his call to “obey the commandments of the LORD your God…by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances…Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (Deut. 30:16, 19). We are urged to accept Jesus’s call, thus choosing God, because Jesus is the incarnate image of life and good. In Jesus we see God’s law and life and goodness inextricably bound together.
Jesus’s calling of Levi is especially beautiful and reassuring for all of us. As a tax collector in league with the Roman Empire, the occupying political force, Levi is despised by his fellow Jews. Mark’s description of Jesus and Levi’s interaction conveys the former’s love for the latter and the latter’s regret of his actions against his fellow Jews. Just by looking at him, Jesus can tell that Levi wants out of the tax collecting business and a new start. Through his eyes, Levi seems to say, “Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!” (Ps. 130:2). Jesus senses Levi crying out to him, for when he says, “Follow me,” Levi rises and follows him.
We may sometimes think of ourselves as unworthy of Jesus’s love. We might think that our sins our too numerous for Jesus to ever want to have anything to do with us. We must guard against this thought — it is what Satan would want us to think. We all have done things that have fallen short of God’s glory. Jesus knows with what we come to Him. But as he proves with Levi, for any and all who follow Jesus, there is plenteous redemption, the chance for a new start. As Jesus says to the Pharisee’s at Levi’s house, “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (2:17). All that we sinners must do is accept Jesus’s call, rise, and follow him.
By accepting Jesus’s call to discipleship, we become “chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit to be obedient to Jesus Christ and to be sprinkled with his blood.” (1 Peter 1:2) That is the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As disciples of Jesus, we come to see God not as harsh, extreme, or inconceivable, but beautiful, inviting, and life-giving. The more we see God through Jesus, the more our desire will be to strive to live the Christian way. Jesus “is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 Jn. 2:2)
Theme #3—Jesus: Healer and Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 1:21-34, 40-45; Mark 2:1-12, 23-28; Mark 3:1-12)
Also interspersed throughout Mark 1–3 are narratives of Jesus’s healings: the man with an unclean spirit and many others (1:21-34); the leper (1:40-45); the paralytic (2:1-12); and the man with a withered hand (3:1-6). Jesus’s healings reinforce not only his authority to teach in God’s Name, but that we all “may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” (2:10) Mark’s reference of Jesus as the “Son of Man” comes from Daniel, the title bearing witness to his divine and human nature. Jesus’s healings are meant to answer the question, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (2:7) Jesus can because he is God in the flesh! And because Jesus is God, not only can he perform physical healings, but each healing narrative reinforces his power to perform the invisible miracle of forgiving human sins.
Two aspects of this theme are worth further reflection. In the narrative of Jesus’s healing of the paralytic, Mark notes how the paralytic’s friends, who “could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd…removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’” (2:4-5) Sensing the scribes’ “questioning in their hearts” of his authority to proclaim such statement, Jesus uses the paralytic to show the authority he has been granted. “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” The man “stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them.” (2:11-12) Jesus is not being blasphemous; he is doing the work he was born to do. The people “were all amazed and glorified God, saying ‘We have never seen anything like this!’” (2:12)
The healing of the paralytic reminds us of one of the reasons why God has given us each other — to pray for and support each other. Interceding for others witnesses to God’s love that dwells within “everyone who loves…and knows God.” (1 Jn 4:7) The likely reason the paralytic’s friends lower him down to Jesus from the rooftop is because the paralytic himself has lost all hope of being healed, yet his friends have not given up hope. They display the hope in Jesus that their friend has not the strength to show himself. God knows the purity of the hearts of our family, friends, and colleagues that come before him in prayer on our behalf. And because of their faith, the paralytic was fully healed. So, as Paul says, “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Phil. 4:6) God, in his infinite love and mercy, will take care of those for whom we pray.
This leads us to the second aspect. In 1:21-28 is Mark’s narrative of Jesus healing a man with an unclean spirit on the Sabbath. Mark says this event caused Jesus’s “fame…to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.” (1:28) Word surely got to the Pharisees, for when, in chapter two, Jesus’s disciples “began to pluck heads of grain” in a grainfield on the Sabbath, the Pharisees are right on their tracks with fingers pointed. “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” (2:23-24) Eight verses later, in chapter three, when Mark tells of Jesus healing a man with a withered hand, Jesus asks the Pharisees a question: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” (3:4) What does God say? “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18) If David could do what he did to provide for his famished companions’ need — he “entered the house of God…and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and…gave it to those who were with him” (2:25-26; cf. 1 Sam. 21:1-6) — then Jesus was entitled to provide for his disciples’ and the handicapped man’s needs on the Sabbath (The Interpreter’s Bible—Volume VII, p. 678). “The Lord is my shepherd,” proclaims the Psalmist, “I shall not want.” (Ps. 23:1) Jesus, the Good Shepherd, “is lord even of the sabbath.” (2:28)
Not only is Jesus Lord of the Sabbath, he is the Sabbath. Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matt. 11:28-29) That is the purpose of the Sabbath. Our rest in and worship of the living Christ equips us to go into the world, doing the work he has given us to do. In observing the Sabbath, we become better able to love and serve the Lord as his faithful witnesses.
From these themes come the reminder of our baptismal pledge: “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?” Our answer: “I will, with God’s help.” (The Book of Common Prayer, pp. 304-305) I pray this “beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” will bring the focus away from ourselves and direct it toward the Lord Jesus, pointing others to him as our life, our stay, and our end.
The Rev. Brandt Montgomery is the Chaplain of Saint James School in Hagerstown, Maryland.