THE BEGINNING OF THE GOSPEL
BY GLENN PEASE
The painter Lundwig Richter, tells in his memoirs of how he and three friends set out to paint the same landscape. They each were committed to produce as accurately as possible what they saw. Nevertheless, the result was four different pictures, as different as the four personalities of the artists.
The same thing happened when four well-known artists painted the portrait of the United Nations hostess Maria Lani. Each of them knew her personally and saw her from a different perspective, and the result was four remarkably different pictures.
This helps us understand why there are four Gospels in the New Testament. One Gospel would give us the life of Jesus as seen from only one perspective, and that would mean a very inadequate portrait. Jesus is too complex to be seen from only one perspective. God inspired four men to write the life of Jesus, for each of them gives us unique insight into Jesus that you do not get in the others.
Mark gives us the perspective that is most popular in our modern world. Wycliff Bible Translators have made Mark the most translated book in the world. There is no other book in the world in so many different languages. It is the shortest of the Gospels, and, therefore, the fastest to translate and to read. But that is not the only reason for its selection. It is also the Gospel most appealing to the Gentile world.
Matthew is written for Jews, and it is full of Old Testament quotes, and references to Jewish customs, all of which are of little concern to the Gentiles to whom Mark writes. He writes for the Romans, and they did not care about genealogies and a persons pedigree. They only cared about his deeds, not his decent. The result is, Mark is a Gospel of deeds. Jesus is a man of action-a man on the move. It is a go go go Gospel, and Jesus is involved in one event and miracle after another, with hardly a breath in between. If Jesus ever relaxed, it is not noted by Mark.
Mark does not tell us about birth stories and childhood. He leaves that to Dr. Luke. He is more anxious to get on with the story of the adult action of the Lord. But this does not mean Mark is not interested in details. He gives us graphic details the other Gospels do not share. If you want to know exact names, times, locations, or the numbers and colors, you go to Mark for these details. He is the detail man. His portrait is of Messiah on the run, but he is no blur, but rather, a very concrete personality involved in very specific settings and lives. Mark tells us more about the looks and gestures of Jesus than anyone.
Mark is the only one who tells us that our Savior was a carpenter. Mark tells us more about our Lord's emotions than the other Gospels. He brings Jesus closer to us as a man of like feelings. The other Gospels just tell us of Jesus calling little children to Him, but Mark tells us twice that when they came He took them up into His arms. Mark alone brings out a tenderness in Jesus that nobody else records.
We could go on giving examples, but the point we want to make is, each Gospel writer sees Jesus from a perspective that the others do not see. You cannot know all there is to know about Jesus by reading just one Gospel. There are four of them for a reason, and each is vital to the total picture. Mark is the Gospel that is the first Gospel recommended for reading around the world, and this morning we are going to start a study of Mark in our goal to know our Lord and Savior better.
Mark begins his Gospel with the word, beginning. The Greek has no article, and so it is not in the original, the beginning, but just beginning. Beginning of the Gospel about Jesus. Mark does not waste any time in getting the show on the road. This is the greatest show on earth, and the greatest story ever told, and he does not give us page after page of background and introduction. He lifts the curtain on this drama for act one just as the gun is fired for the race to begin.
Matthew is more like the educational channel with a long introduction of genealogies, exciting to those in the know, but boring to the majority of people who just want to see some action. Mark is the Gospel for them, for he is like one of those action-packed films that starts off with a chase scene, or a few explosions, before they even list the characters. Mark does not even say, "On your marks, get set": He just says, "Go!"
Now we could argue with Mark, and say the Gospel began long before John the Baptist came announcing the coming of Christ. It actually began in the mind and heart of God before the world began. This is, of course, the perspective of John's Gospel. He starts, "In the beginning was the word." He goes back to the eternal pre-incarnate state of the Son with the Father.
Or we could argue that the Gospel began with the birth of Jesus, and this would be Dr. Luke's perspective. You could argue that it started with the promise to Abraham, or go back to the promise to Adam and Eve. This is Matthew's perspective. There are a lot of places you can begin the Gospel, but Mark says, here is where the rubber meets the road: When Jesus actually began His public ministry, and began to demonstrate His deity in power and compassion for people. That is where the good news really became a reality. Before it was potential, but here it becomes actual. All that went before was promise, but here begins the fulfillment. Nobody else has to be wrong for Mark to be right. Where the Gospel begins all depends on your perspective.
Mark's perspective is that it is the action of Jesus that really counts, and, therefore, here is where we begin: Where Jesus steps out of the shadow of His obscure and commonplace life, and begins to play the public role he came into the world to play as the Messiah of Israel, and the Savior of the world.
Every time you give an account of some event in your life, you have to choose where to begin. You can start with what you had for breakfast, or where you went shopping, if these are relevant to the event. Or you can start with the event itself. Where you begin depends on your purpose, and on which details of the day are relevant to your purpose. There was a time when Jesus was not a public figure doing miracles and drawing crowds by His teaching. But then He began His public ministry as a man of action, and Mark shows this as the beginning of the Gospel. This is where the light began to shine and produce new hope and dreams.
I have labored this issue because I believe it is a very important issue that Christians need to get into their thinking. God has given us four perspectives on the life of His Son, and thus teaches us the validity of, and the value of different perspectives. You can argue all you want about the importance of the birth stories of Matthew and Luke, or about the pre-existent Christ of John, but you cannot escape the fact that God inspired a Gospel to begin with the adult life of Jesus and John the Baptist his forerunner. All of them are valid and of great value.
God is aware of the need to adapt the message to the needs of the hearers. Thus, He had Matthew write with a Jewish perspective; Mark with a Roman perspective, and Luke with a Greek perspective. What this means for us is that we need to be aware that we need to present Christ to those who do not know Him in a way that fits their point of view. If you are dealing with an intellectual you will stress that Jesus is the Truth, and that in Him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. If you are dwelling with a person with all sorts of physical needs, you will present Christ as the Great Physician. There are no limits to the ways you can present the Lord, for He has hundreds of names, and plays hundreds of roles depending upon the need.
One of the most important things we need to learn about our Lord is that He is adaptable. Do not limit and stifle your growth in Jesus by locking Him into your culture, and into the framework of your own background and awareness. Be open to the Jesus and multiple perspectives. But this is not to be interpreted to mean that all perspectives about Jesus are correct. There are all kinds of wrong perspectives on Jesus too. History is full of them. The New Testament has plenty of them. People saw Jesus as a wine bibber and a glutton. People saw Jesus as a lawbreaker and a blasphemer. Some even saw Him as one of the prophets returned. This was a positive perspective, but it was still false.
From the earliest centuries there have been fictional accounts of Jesus designed to make Him conform to the current values of the culture. He was portrayed in many apocryphal Gospel as a sensationalist doing the very thing Satan tempted Him to do. He used His divine power to make play birds fly away, and to make boards shorter without cutting them, and other crowd-pleasing miracles. False perspectives on Jesus have been common. The only way to discover what is false is to put it up against the four basic views of Jesus God has revealed in the four Gospels. If any Christ is presented that is not consistent with these four portraits, then you know you are dealing with a false Christ. There is no higher goal for the Christian to aim for then that of knowing Christ as He is revealed in the Gospels.
We are beginning our journey to this end with Mark who begins with the word beginning, and then the word Gospel. Mark is the only one of the four who calls his life of Christ a Gospel. But it caught on, and now we call all four of the lives of Christ, Gospels. It is because of Mark's use of the word here that we do.
Mark's use of this word to cover the beginning of the life of Jesus, is itself an important truth. The good news, or glad tidings about Jesus means more than his death and resurrection. Without these the rest would not matter of course, and so they are the heart of the Gospel. But a heart needs a body, and Mark is telling us the whole body of the life of Jesus is good news. All that Jesus did and said is part of a total package of good news that we call the Gospel. If the cross and resurrection was all that was necessary, there would not be much point in God inspiring four men to record the life of Christ. His life, as well as His death, is a part of the Gospel.
Knowing about Jesus is a vital part of the Christians education, for the Gospels were given to us for this purpose. We can only fully grasp the Gospel by knowing what Jesus did, and what He said. You cannot know that the Jesus you know is the Jesus of the Bible, unless you know this revelation about Him. Here is the good news that gives us objective basis by which we judge the validity of all subjective experience.
The word Gospel was not invented by Mark. It was a word used by the Greeks to convey the joy of victory. If Alexander the Great defeated the Persians, a runner would race from town to town announcing the gospel-that is the good news. "Hey everyone, listen up! We beat the Persians. Alexander has won again!" And then he would be off to spread the good news to the next town.
Mark is saying right off, "Listen up people! Jesus the Son the God has won the victory, and here is how it all began!" Mark is not writing a biography of Jesus. This is a Gospel about Jesus. That is, it is not an orderly account of the full life of Jesus, it is a proclamation of why His life is good news. It is a Gospel. Mark uses the word Gospel eight times. That is twice the total of the other three Gospel writers. Matthew uses it four times, and Luke and John not at all. Mark is the unique Gospel writer. In contrast to so much of the news that we hear, Mark is a communicator of good news.
Mark's good news is about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Jesus was His personal name. Christ is His official name. It is the title of the Messiah. The Christ is the anointed One of God. Just as the official title of the Emperor was Caesar, so the official title of the Messiah was Christ. It is the Gospel of the Son of God. This is no mere man he writes about, though he stresses the humanity of Christ strongly. The deity of Christ is established from the start.
In verse two Mark writes it is written. Mark links the Gospel of Jesus to the Old Testament immediately. Dozens of times the New Testament refers to the Old Testament by saying, it is written. Jesus refuted the Devil in his temptation by saying each time, "it is written, man shall not live by bread alone;" "it is written thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God," "it is written thou shalt worship the Lord thy God and Him only shalt thou serve." Mark does the least quoting of the Old Testament of anyone, but he starts with this quote to establish right from the beginning that the Gospel about Jesus does not appear out of thin air, but is the fulfillment of God's Old Testament promises. There would be no New Testament without an Old Testament foundation.
This phrase, it is written, is used so often in the New Testament that it establishes beyond a shadow of a doubt that true spirituality has to conform to objective revelation or be rejected. It would be a monumental task just to study all that the New Testament has to say about the importance of the written word. You have Greek words like grapho, graphomai, epigrapho, graptos, eggrapho, prographo, and gramma. All these words refer to writings, and make it clear that God is a God of objective truth.
No matter how anyone feels about Jesus, if their feelings cannot be supported by the objective written revelation of God, they have no authority. The bottom line for all Christian convictions is, "it is written." This may sound like legalism, but it is the only protection we have against the subtlety of Satan, and all of the cults who bombard the minds of men with clever deception. Satan even used the power of the written word to tempt Jesus. He said in Matthew 4:6, "It is written: He will command His angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands so that you will not strike your foot against a stone." Jesus responded "It is also written, do not put the Lord your God to the test."
Even the Devil and his angels quote the Bible, so just being written in the Bible is not enough. We need to know how to apply the objective word to life. This is where the guidance of the Holy Spirit comes in. Here is the subjective side of the Christian experience. The objective written word can be so misused, and it can lead to legalism, and many others abuses. So the Christian needs the constant guidance of the Holy Spirit to know how to apply the written word in life's situations. To claim a promise, for example, that is not meant for you, or not meant for the situation you are in, is to court disaster, and to be presumptuous. Jesus was wise enough to see this, but not all Christians are, and they are lead by Scripture even to make foolish choices, because Satan seduces them to take it out of context. It is not enough it is written. It must be the right application of what is written, or Satan can even lead you astray with the Bible, as he tried with Jesus.
In spite of the danger of abuse the written word is still the supreme authority for all our faith and practice, and this is were Mark begins his Gospel, "It is written." Mark quotes the Old Testament promise that the Messiah would be preceded by a messenger who would prepare the way for Him. Only the greatest of dignitaries are so honored.
When the King was to take a journey to a town where the roads were not in the best condition, he would be preceded by one who would go and make sure the path was straight, and the ruts filled in, assuring a pleasant journey. Such preparation was an honor to royalty. We see it in our world yet today. When the King of Sweden came to Minnesota, not only were the roads prepared, but some whole towns were painted and spruced up to look like new for the sake of the King, that he might have a pleasant atmosphere. Many famous people have what they call advance men who go ahead to prepare the way for them. The Pope has them, the President has them, and Billy Graham has them. They make all kinds of arrangements so people are ready to receive the dignitary. This is what John the Baptist was for Jesus. He was the advance man who set the stage for Jesus to appear, and have people ready to receive His message.
John the Baptist is the only person in the New Testament who is the subject of Old Testament prophecy. John was as vital to the fulfillment of the Old Testament hope as Jesus, for Jesus could not come, and His public ministry could not begin until His advance man had prepared the way. Thus, the Gospel about Jesus begins with John the Baptist. It has been 400 years since a prophet has spoken. With John there is a new beginning, for God is about to speak his best Word in Jesus. God does not just leap into history, He prepares the way. God is a God of preparation. He is never in such a hurry that He acts without a plan. God has thought everything out ahead of time. He is not impulsive. He has a long range plan, and so the public ministry of His Son begins with the Preparer. In old English the man who paved the road was called the pavior. John was the one who paved the way for Jesus, and so was the pavior of the Savior.
Jesus was, and is the way. John was the preparer of the way. They had much in common, and yet they were in radical contrast. John was like a surgeon, and with his knife out the cancer of corruption. Then Jesus came as the compassionate nurse to cure and heal the wound. They were partners, but each had a different role to play in God's plan. They were both preachers. They both drew large crowds. They both died young by violent means of execution. They were born close together and they died close together. They were cousins. But they were two totally different personalities. John was an ascetic who lived in the wilderness, and was basically anti-social. Jesus on the other hand was frequently at weddings and banquets eating with publicans and sinners. Their life-styles were as far apart and as contrasted as a funeral and a wedding.
God is not locked into any one kind of personality that He uses for His purposes. Every kind can be useful, for God loves variety. Do not fret that you are not somebody else, for who you are can be just what God needs to prepare someone to receive Christ. Like John, we cannot bring in the kingdom, but we can prepare the way. We may be different from our Lord in a great many ways, but we can be instruments in preparing others to be open to Christ.
Mark's Gospel begins with the preparation of the way, and the Gospel in most lives begins here, for someone is used of God to sow the seed and set the stage for Christ in come into their lives. Very few people receive Jesus as their Savior without first of all being prepared by the influence of someone else who already has. We are all in the people preparation business, and we need to be aware of this. We cannot save, and we cannot solve all of people's problems, but we can help prepare the way for them to turn to Christ, who can. The poet wrote,
In youth, because I could not be a singer,
I did not even try to write a song;
I set no little trees along the roadside,
Because I knew their growth would take so long.
But now from wisdom that the years have brought me,
I know that it may be a blessed thing
To plant a tree for someone else to water,
Or make a song for someone else to sing.
Jesus does not expect us to be the way. He is the only way. But we can be preparers of the way, and that is where the Gospel about Jesus most often begins. Let us pray that God will use us in such a way that someday someone will say, as they point to our lives and influence, "there is the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ."