Over the next four weeks, we will take part in this time-honored activity. Each week, we will examine one of the canonical gospels, asking ourselves what it tells us about Jesus’ arrival on earth. In the process, we strive to better understand how his coming might speak to us today.
The Heading of Mark’s Gospel
The first gospel that we will discuss is the one that was probably written first. Mark’s Gospel is often left out when Advent is discussed. After all, Mark does not have an infancy narrative like the ones found in Matthew and Luke. Moreover, Mark does not have the kind of sustained theological reflection that makes up the prologue of John’s Gospel.
Nevertheless, Mark introduces Jesus to his narrative in ways that communicate his significance for his readers. One way that he does this is through the heading or superscription that opens the Gospel—“The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (There is a significant textual variant here, but for our present purposes, we will assume that “the Son of God” is part of Mark’s original text.) There are three points that Mark seems to be making by crafting his superscription in this way.
- The story of Jesus is “good news.” Jesus’ arrival on earth may not have made headlines in Rome, but it was nevertheless good news for all humanity. This is a theme that Luke will expand upon in his telling of Jesus’ story.
- Jesus is God’s anointed representative and Israel’s promised deliverer. Like John, Mark shows little interest in keeping us in suspense about who Jesus is. Indeed, the content of the good news that Mark wants to communicate is that Jesus is the Messiah.
- Jesus is related to God in a unique and profound way. This, too, is the content of Mark’s good news. As Messiah, Jesus transcends the categories of human existence and the expectations of human authorities. He is uniquely able to accomplish the Messiah’s task because he is uniquely related to the One who sent him.
But is Mark’s good news still good news today? Is it good news to those of us who are separated from the land of Israel by time and space and who have no natural stake in the welfare of its inhabitants? As Mark’s Gospel unfolds, we are invited to participate in the story, to take our place among his disciples, among those who ask for his help, or, perhaps, among those who oppose him. When we do, we find that he is not just the deliverer of a people who groaned under Roman oppression too long ago to comprehend. He is our deliverer. He is our Messiah. He is the Son of God—who made the universe and loves all its creatures. And He has come for us.
Mark’s Description of John the Baptist
Another way that Mark introduces Jesus is by describing the ministry and message of John the Baptizer. This is a technique that the writer of the Fourth Gospel also employs, and it serves to remove John as a competitor for honor with Jesus while at the same time acknowledging that both were sent by God and did God’s work.
Mark begins his discussion of John by quoting Isaiah 40:3. He does so in order to present the Baptizer as a forerunner, a royal envoy sent by God to herald the coming of the Messiah. As such, John’s message was that someone else would come after him, someone who was far greater than he. This unique person would bring with him a unique gift—the very Spirit of God.
When he preached, John called people to repent in preparation for the one who was coming. He urged the people to enact this repentance through baptism, a ritual that was not prescribed in the Law but which was used by a variety of groups within Second Temple Judaism. John anticipated the work of Jesus by connecting repentance-baptism with the forgiveness of sins, but the connection between John’s work and the work of Jesus goes even deeper. By baptizing people with water, John prefigured the way in which Jesus would immerse his followers in God’s Spirit.
The fact that Jesus came into the world is good news, both then and now. Long ago, God revealed himself to an insignificant herdsman (Abraham), and God promised to bless the whole human species through his offspring (Genesis 12:1-3). Jesus is the fulfillment of that promise—and so much more.
Jesus did not simply come to earth to be a living religious artifact. He came to actually accomplish something. What was it that he came to accomplish? He came to call people into the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:14-15). What is the Kingdom of God, and why would anyone want to go there? That is a loaded question, for entering the Kingdom of God will, it turns out, require us to give up far more than we might imagine. But it is also a place where we receive more than we could ever dream—freedom from sin and the presence of God saturating our lives.
We live in a world that is desperate for good news. We need to be set free from the enslaving power of evil, and we need the powerful presence of our Creator to reconcile us to himself and to remake us in the image of His Son. Most of us do not belong to the genetic lineage of Abraham, but, by God’s grace, we all can benefit from the fulfilling of God’s promises to the patriarch.