The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
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.- Mark 1:1-5
Beginning our study through the Gospel according to Mark
Any serious foray into a book study involves understanding some details about the author and the context in which the book was written. Knowing the conditions and experiences that led the author to take a certain viewpoint on a matter, as well as having some idea about the social and cultural dynamics of that time, are valuable tools for the reader. This is no different with our studying God's Word, and the many books contained within, or any other text, be it secular or otherwise.
Therefore, it would be prudent to learn a bit about this man, Mark, who he was, where he fits into the pantheon of people we read about in Scripture, as well as how his name was attached to this gospel.
Who is Mark?
First off, Mark was not one of the 12 apostles. For years I thought the four gospels were written by four of the apostles. As it turns out, only two, Matthew and John, are written by apostles.
Who was Mark then? Mark (also called John Mark) was a cousin to Barnabas, the man that initially traveled with Paul to Jerusalem, as well as on his first mission trip. Mark traveled with Paul and Barnabas on this trip, however there were apparently some problems among the three men as Mark left the other two during their travels. This seems to be the reason that Paul did not want Mark to join them on their second mission trip (Acts 15:36-40), causing Paul and Barnabas, at this point, to go their separate ways. (Incidentally, this is where Silas joins up with Paul, while Barnabas and Mark go back to Cyprus, Barnabas' home - and most probably Mark's family's home, though his mother lives in Jerusalem (Acts 12).) Mark and Paul later reconciled and Paul even asks Timothy to bring Mark along with him when he comes to Rome.
The Gospel of Mark is sometimes referred to as Peter's memoirs, as it is known that Peter and Mark had a father/son relationship, at least in the spiritual sense, and Mark is noted as being Peter's "interpreter". It is even suggested that Peter led Mark to conversion at his mother's house in Jerusalem, and we know that Peter makes mention of Mark as his "son" in 1 Peter. So, Mark spends some time with Paul in Rome, then upon Paul's death Mark rejoins Peter in Babylon. There is much evidence to suggest that Mark's gospel is written from Peter's viewpoint, and much of that will be addressed as we go through this book. And much of the way passages are phrased and the particular things that Mark includes or omits (in comparison to Matthew's and Luke's gospels) also goes a good way to pointing to the intended audience, overwhelmingly believed to be Gentiles, and Roman's in particular. Again, we will look closer at these elements as we come to them.
One of the first things I notice about the beginning of Mark's gospel is that he omits the genealogies we find in the first chapter of Matthew and third chapter of Luke. The next thing that grabs my attention is that he immediately proclaims Jesus Christ as the "Son of God". This is the first indication of the intended audience. Matthew's audience is obviously Jewish, whereas Mark's is Gentile. Where the Jews would find it interesting to trace Jesus' human genealogy from King David (understanding that the Messiah would be of the house of David), the Gentiles couldn't care less. Mark, instead, chooses to showcase Jesus' divinity. Where the reader may have read other historical accounts of great men, this is set apart as a "proclamation" about the Son of God, suggesting to the reader that this is no mere accounting of the life of just some man, but one of a divine nature, therefore commanding respect.
Mark briefly mentions a reference to Scripture, from "the Prophets" (specifically Malachi and Isaiah), establishing John the Baptist's place in God's plan as the one preparing the way for the Christ, showing the reader how this prophecy was fulfilled by John.
He then jumps right into the story. The scene is "the wilderness" (it is the "wilderness of Judea" (Matthew 3:1), a region between the Dead Sea and the Hebron Mountains). This wilderness, by most accounts, wasn't an "uninhabitable" place, and most likely would have been used by shepherds for pasturing their sheep. It simply means that it was an "unsettled" area, somewhere you wouldn't find permanent settlements or villages, but nomadic peoples might set up camp in this area.
Anyway, down by the Jordan river, we find John preaching a "baptism of repentance" to those that have come out to hear him preach. When I read that he's down by the river preaching, I instantly conjure up the image of some old-time revival tents setup on the outskirts of town. We don't read that there were any tents, but the idea is similar. People heard that John would be preaching out there. Since John is the forerunner for the Christ, he is preaching the same gospel. He preaches of cleansing and repentance. Those that were John's disciples would most likely go on to be Jesus' disciples. And John's message of repentance and baptism (cleansing) wasn't a one-time deal, it was a lifestyle. The idea of baptism didn't start with John, it was a ritual that Jews performed when a Gentile wanted to become a Jew. There was much that they had to do, and one thing was to be baptized. It represented the same idea, the death of the old life and the birth of the new. So it is with John's baptism, in water, symbolizing the person's commitment to turn away from their sin and strive to obey God's law and strive for sanctification.
We dont' want to miss the most important message of John's ministry. He was heralding the coming of the Christ. He was sent to make the paths straight, to prepare the people. Whether some merely saw Christ's coming to be one of a more "secular" nature, one of a king that would sit on the throne and re-establish Israel's kingdom we cannot see from this passage. Yet the passages quoted from the Prophets in the second and third verses are our "decoder ring", if you will. These mention "prepare your way" and "make his paths straight". The "making the paths straight" was something that was done when it was known that a V.I.P. was coming to town. Much work would be done to the approaching roads so as to make the visitors entry safe and smooth. They would take out the "switchbacks" where possible, and generally attempt to make the road as straight and comfortable as possible. This is a picture of John's work to prepare the hearts of the people, to straighten out the crooked and twisted parts of their hearts, so as to make way for Christ to enter.
In the next post, we'll go over Mark 1:6-8.