Kingdom is at Hand
January 11, 2009
Research was recently conducted in Australia and it revealed some interesting things about people’s attitudes toward religion. Now, keep in mind that Australia is a much more secular place than the U.S. and that they don’t have the “Christian” background that our nation has. This survey asked people to give a sense of what they thought of a few key religious ideas and tried to measure how people felt about them. They asked people how they felt about spirituality, God, Jesus, and the church. Not surprisingly, a huge majority of people—well over 90%—viewed spirituality as a good thing. But, surprisingly, when asked about how they felt about God, a huge majority (90%+) also responded favorably. An even greater surprise was that the response regarding Jesus was equally high. Isn’t that amazing? We’d expect people in our pluralistic world to have a high view towards spirituality, but once we narrow the focus, we’d expect people to be really turned off by Jesus. But they weren’t. They thought Jesus was really something. But then, when asked about their feelings toward the church, the positive attitudes tumble.
So, you ask, “Luke are you some kind of moron? You discovered this research and you still decided to start a new church? Don’t you see how stupid that is? People aren’t interested in church.”
Yes, you might be right—there’s a good chance I am a moron. But, let me offer what I think is an explanation. Remember, people’s opposition is not necessarily to Jesus—they’re actually quite fond of him. So, could it be that the reason people view the church so negatively is that the Christians and churches they have experienced are so decidedly unlike Jesus? Could it be that they see a church that is concerned with all kinds of things that Jesus never cared about? Could it be that they see a church that is just as selfish and consumeristic and unloving as the world around them? I think that’s the reason.
Now, let me be very clear—we’re not starting Second Mile Church because we think we’re the answer to all of Christianity’s woes. We aren’t starting Second Mile because we think that there are no other good churches around and we are somehow God’s gift to the Southeast Valley. We also aren’t starting with any kind of unrealistic expectation that we will perfectly resemble Jesus at all times to all people.
Nonetheless, as we begin Second Mile Church, we do want to be a church that accurately and faithfully resembles Jesus and represents him. We want to be a church that is concerned with the things that he’s concerned about. We want to love what Jesus loves and hate what Jesus hates. We want to preach the things that Jesus preached and do the things that Jesus did.
That’s actually the mission of our church, which is printed on the front cover of your bulletin: “To embody Jesus’ message and mission in every place that God sends up.”
This is why, for our first extended study, we are going to examine the person of Jesus as described in the gospel of Mark. We’re going to take from now until Easter to unpack the major themes, ideas, teaching, and message of Mark’s Gospel. As we do, we’ll become more and more acquainted with who Jesus is and what he’s done on our behalf. And, by his grace, he’ll enable us to be individuals and a church who begins to faithfully represent him to the world.
One thing that we’ve done in order to help you dive deeper into the study is created a companion study guide that goes with this series. These are printed in very basic paper form and are free for you to pick up. They are also available online if you go to the “Current Series” link on www.secondmilechurch.com. Each study provides an introduction, some investigation questions, some application questions, and answers to some challenging questions that might come up as you study. It should be a great resource for you and will also help you stay up with what we’re doing during the weeks that you miss.
Before we dive into the text itself, a few background things will help us to correctly understand and interpret the text.
1. Author: The author of the Gospel of Mark was, unsurprisingly, a man named Mark. Mark was a close associate with both Paul and Peter and even some of the early church’s gatherings happened in his home. Mark particularly spent a lot of time with Peter in Rome and most scholars believe that Peter was Mark’s primary source for many of the stories that are recorded.
2. Occasion: As the apostles of the early church (those who had been key eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus) began to get older and die, it became increasingly important for the church to have accurate records of who Jesus was. Thus, Mark was written to preserve the accurate teaching of Jesus and was written within 20 or so years of the events described. This is important because it means that there were still eyewitnesses alive who could give accurate information and also prevent Mark from fabricating anything. (It would be very hard to invent something that everyone was alive for. For example, there’s no way that I could write a book today that said that in the early 1980s there was a huge earthquake in Phoenix that devastated many buildings and killed about 50 people—people would be able to refute my claims).
3. Form: Keep in mind that Mark, like the other Gospels, is not a biography. It describes only a small portion of Jesus’ life. It is written to help us know the key things about Jesus.
4. Original Audience: Mark’s Gospel was written with a Roman audience in mind, which makes sense since he was with Peter for an extended time in Rome. Whenever Jewish customs are described, Mark always explains what their significance was. When using Aramaic terms, he translates them. Additionally, Romans were very action-oriented people—thus, it makes sense that he writes in a very fast-paced, hard-hitting way. For example, he uses the term “immediately” 35 times in the book, four times in the passage we’re studying today.
So, who is Jesus? Let’s dive into the text.
Mk 1:1 - The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Verse 1 serves as a brief introductory statement to the book and gives us some key phrases we need to understand.
• “gospel” – the word literally means “good news.” This is a huge idea. The message about Jesus is news, not advice. Many people think that they gospel of Jesus is advice about how to live your life. But it’s not advice, it’s news. Advice is something that you should go do, but news is something that has happened. Think of it this way. My wife Molly wants to have a workbench in the garage so that she can work on projects and fix stuff. We have a friend named Ben who knows all about how to construct stuff like that. Advice would be having Ben giving us a step-by-step list of instructions about how to build a work bench. But news would be coming home and finding out that Ben had built it. It had happened! It was finished! And, in this case, it was very good. This was great news. So, the “gospel of Jesus Christ” is news about who Jesus is and what he’s done—not advice on how to be a better person.
• “Christ” – This is not Jesus’ last name, as it is commonly thought of today. “Christ” is more of a title than a last name. It is the Greek equivalent for the Hebrew word “Messiah,” which means “anointed one.” It particularly refers to the person that was expected and hoped for by the Jews who would establish God’s kingdom. “In Jewish thought, the Messiah would be the king of the Jews, a political leader who would defeat their enemies and bring in a golden era of peace and prosperity. In Christian thought, the term Messiah refers to Jesus’ role as a spiritual deliverer, setting His people free from sin and death.”
• “Son of God” – this phrase is Mark’s favorite title for Jesus and reveals that Jesus is divine and has an unparalleled relationship with God.
If you put the key phrases of this together, it becomes clear what Mark’s purpose in writing is. He intends to let us in on the good news about Jesus, and this good news is that Jesus is the Messiah—the hope of Israel—and that he is divine. He is God.
Next we’re introduced to an important man who you may have heard of—John the Baptist.
Mk 1:2-8 - As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’” John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Notice a few things about John:
1. His purpose – “to prepare the way of the Lord.” To “make his paths straight.” A common joke in Britain is that everywhere the Queen goes, she smells fresh paint. That’s because when somebody important is about to show up, you get things ready. You do this when you have people coming over to your house or family visiting—you get things straightened up and you try to prepare. That’s John’s role. His ministry is simply designed to get people ready for the Messiah.
2. His message – “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” John’s simple message was one that prophets had been proclaiming for centuries: Repent! To repent means to turn from sin and change. It’s the Greek word metanoia, which means to change your mind and turn away from something. It’s a call to turn from errant thinking and embrace right thinking. As I said, the message of repentance wasn’t new. But the form of John’s ministry was revolutionary. John didn’t just tell people to repent, but he also called them to be baptized as a symbol of their repentance. A major part of Jewish worship involved washings that had to occur constantly (things like washing your hands before you entered the temple, etc.). But the only people who had to wash themselves completely and be immersed in the water were Gentile converts—non-Jews who wanted to become “clean” and follow God. Therefore, John’s baptism is significant. He’s saying that everyone is unclean and needs to be washed. He was calling everyone to repent—not just Gentiles, but Jews too. No wonder his ministry was causing such a stir.
3. His humility – “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.” Those who know something about the times and culture of first century Israel record that untying somebody’s sandals was such a low and humiliating task that even slaves were not asked to do it. And John says that he’s not even worthy to do this lowest-of-low things. This is particularly amazing when you consider that Jesus said that “among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Mt 11:11). According to Jesus, John is the greatest man who’s ever lived and yet he is not worthy to do the very lowest-of-low tasks for Jesus. If that’s the case, then how great is Jesus? How amazing is Jesus? How mighty is Jesus?
4. His promise – “I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Just as John is immersing people in water, Jesus will be the one to immerse people with the Holy Spirit. Through him, they will experience the fullness of God.
John is a fascinating person and definitely worth knowing more about, but remember—he’s just the guy getting the house ready—so Mark quickly moves on to Jesus.
Mk 1:9-11 - In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
Now if you heard what I said about the message of John, baptism, and repentance, you should immediately have some questions about this. “Wait a second! I thought Jesus was sinless! Why then would he get baptized if he didn’t have any sin?” This is a wonderful question and one that has created a lot of discussion and guesses among scholars for years.
Before I give you what I think is the best explanation for why Jesus was baptized, let me make one small point. You’ve probably heard people say that the Bible is filled with silly myths devised by crafty people who had an agenda and didn’t care about what actually happened. Perhaps you’re even a person who thinks that the Bible can’t really be trusted and we can’t be sure of what did or didn’t happen. Well, this passage is proof that the events actually happened. Think about it. Nobody in the early church who believed in the deity and sinlessness of Christ would have made this story up unless it happened. It raises too many difficult theological questions to be made up.
That said, it seems that the best explanation for Jesus’ baptism is that he would someday be the one who would die for the sins of everyone who would ever trust in him for salvation. As such, it is a foreshadowing of the reality that he will someday have the sins of his people placed on him. These sins will drive him into the ground (like he goes into the water) and he will ultimately be resurrected (like he comes out of the water).
Additionally, notice that all three persons of the Trinity are present: The Son being baptized, the Spirit descending, and the Father approving.
Notice what the Father says: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Many people have grown up—maybe even you—having never heard those words. Maybe you never had a parent say these words: “I’m pleased with you. You make me happy.” If so, the good news is that in Jesus you can hear the Heavenly Father say those words to you. For those who trust in Jesus, his experience is counted as their experience. One commentator says it this way:
The whole Christian gospel could be summed up in this point: that when the living God looks at us, at every baptized and believing Christian, he says to us what he said to Jesus on that day. He sees us, not as we are in ourselves, but as we are in Jesus Christ. It sometimes seems impossible, especially to people who have never had this kind of support from earthly parents, but it’s true: God looks at us and says, ‘You are my dear, dear child; I’m delighted with you.’
You’ll recall that I said that this book is fast-paced, so Mark goes quickly from Jesus’ baptism to something even more dramatic.
Mk 1:12-13 - The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.
Wow. That’s a pretty monumental thing to reduce to three sentences. But that’s Mark’s style. And since he doesn’t deal with it in much more detail, we won’t either (You can get a more detailed description of what happened in Matt 4).
For now, just notice two things.
1. The Spirit is the one who drove Jesus into this. It’s amazing how sometimes immediately following something so wonderful and close and amazing (like Jesus’ baptism), we often experience something difficult and lonely and painful. Both of these are things that God controls, and often it’s God using it to test us and grow us.
2. Jesus didn’t fail the test. He didn’t sin. He didn’t fall. He didn’t collapse. Long after you and I would have caved in, Jesus is still standing.
Jesus is now ready for his ministry. He’s been approved and affirmed by the Father and he’s been tested and tried by the enemy. He passed the test. Now he’s ready to get to work.
Mk 1:14-15 - Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
These verses are the key verses of this section, and perhaps the theme verse of the whole book. They summarize Jesus’ message and challenge both to his hearers and to us today. Notice that Jesus makes to declarative statements and two corresponding commands.
1. “The time is fulfilled”—This word “time” here is the idea of “an appointed season.” It specifically refers to the expectation that the Jews had of a coming Messiah. The moment had arrived for God to send his promised deliverer.
2. “the kingdom of God is at hand”—The kingdom of God is a huge concept in the Bible and it has many implications and facets. And Jesus says that it is “at hand,” which literally means that it is near. It’s not the idea that it’s coming soon (not like when I tell Abby “Just hold on. We’re almost ready.”). Instead it’s the idea that it’s close—it’s near by. It’s at hand. It’s here now. What does this mean? Simply put, the kingdom of God refers to the idea of God reigning in the hearts and lives of his people. In other words, God has come as king to reign over his creation.
Now consider the corresponding commands:
1. “repent”—Notice that there’s total continuity between John’s message and Jesus’ message. Jesus’ call is for people to repent. The time is now! God’s reign is here! Quit screwing around! Quit giving yourselves to sin! Turn away from your sin!
The call to repent is a call to turn away from our evil and wicked sins. Now you might say, “Hold on, Luke. I’m not perfect, but I’m definitely not evil. I’m a good person.” Really? Do you think that if you stood before a perfectly righteous God he would have the same conclusion. I don’t.
Listen to God’s verdict in Jeremiah 2:13: “For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.”
You see, God isn’t just concerned with our sins—you know, your list of things that you’ve done wrong. He’s also seen that each of us has a constant proclivity to forsaking him and seeking our satisfaction and life in things other than him.
So Jesus command to “repent” is not just a call to stop doing the specific things on your list but to also turn away from your tendency to look to things other than God for your meaning and satisfaction. Stop your ignoring of God! Stop looking to people and relationships and jobs and circumstances that will satisfy you as if you could ever be satisfied completely without God.
God’s reign is here! Repent!
2. “believe in the gospel”—Don’t just turn away from sinning, but turn towards God. Turn towards the King whose kingdom has come and put your hope in him. Not only has the king come, but he has died as a substitute for sinners. He conquered over sin and death when he rose from the dead. Find meaning from him. Trust in him. Seek forgiveness from him. Here’s the good news: the King and his Kingdom have come! Trust him.
Sadly, the word “believe” has been so overused that we rarely understand what it really means. We think of believing as acknowledging a number of facts intellectually. But don’t you see that Jesus is demanding so much more than that? He’s not just calling for some kind of distant assent. He’s calling for a heartfelt turning from sin and drawing near to the king. He’s calling for a re-orientation of your life around him.
Perhaps you’re here today because you want to make a fresh start in this New Year. Maybe you want to get your life spiritually on track. If that’s the case, let me be as clear as I can be. Jesus is NOT inviting you to stop doing bad stuff and start doing good stuff. That’s religion—thinking that if you do enough good God will accept you. Keep coming back as we study Jesus and you’ll see that he condemns this kind of religion over and over. After all, if the best man who ever lived (John the Baptist) isn’t even worthy to do the lowest thing for Jesus, what makes you think that trying to get a little more morally strong would be enough for you?
What Jesus wants to get your life on track this year is a total overhaul. It’s a total reorientation. He’s asking you to leave your current way of thinking that sees him as a nice concept that you can just fit into your life and instead to reorient your life around him. That’s what it is to repent and believe the gospel. It’s acknowledging that you’ve forsaken God and have been seeking your meaning in things that can’t hold water. It’s seeing Jesus as king and letting him reign in your life.
Now surely Jesus said more than this and, in fact, we will read a good amount of his teaching as we keep studying this book, but Mark is showing us the summary of Jesus’ preaching. This is an important thing for us to remember, and part of why I wanted to begin our weekly services with this message. This is what Jesus’ teaching is about. This is the message. There’s nothing new that comes later. Repent and believe. Repent and believe. Repent and believe.
We must become a church who is constantly repenting of our God-belittling idolatry and believing in the good news of Jesus.
What does this look like? Well, immediately, Mark gives us an example.
Mk 1:16-20 - Passing alongside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on a little farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets. And immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed him.
This is a perfect example of reorienting your life around Jesus. Jesus calls these men to follow him and what do they do? “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” They left their father in the boat. They walked out on the family business. The thing that had driven them and shaped their identity before—being fishermen—was left behind. Instead they had a new identity as followers of Jesus who would fish for men.
This doesn’t mean that following Jesus means you have to leave your job and become a pastor. But it does mean that if you repent and believe in the good news Jesus your life will change. You’ll be on a new mission with a new king and your whole world will revolve around him.
Think about these men who left their identities as fishermen. Was this painful? Yes. Was it scary? Yes. Was it venturing into the unknown? Yes. Would following Jesus eventually lead to their death? Yes.
But it was worth it.
The kingdom has come. Repent and believe the gospel.