See the Big Picture. Dig In. Live It Out: A 5-Day Reading Plan in Mark
DAY 1 OF 5
The Big Picture
Mark begins his gospel at “break-neck” speed. In the first thirteen verses, he introduces the main character (Jesus Christ, the Son of God), describes John the Baptist’s ministry as the fulfillment of ancient prophecy, and depicts Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River and temptation in the Judean wilderness (Mark 1:1–13). He then moves from a summary of Jesus’ message (“the kingdom of God”) (1:14–15) to a description of the call of his first four disciples (1:16–20).
The opening verse serves as both an introduction to the book and a Christological confession (1:1). Mark starts at “the beginning.” For Mark, the beginning of the gospel about Jesus is the ministry of John the Baptist. The word gospel means “good news.” The good news is about Jesus Christ and the salvation he secures.
The main character in Mark’s gospel is Jesus Christ. The name Jesus is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Joshua, which means “Yahweh saves.” The Greek term “Christ” is the equivalent of the Hebrew “Messiah.” Both words mean “anointed one.”1 “Son of God” is an important Christological title for Jesus as well. The title is used about Jesus by demons (3:11; 5:7); by God at Jesus’ baptism (1:11) and transfiguration (9:7); and by a Roman centurion at the climactic moment when Jesus dies (15:39). Another reference to Jesus’ Sonship is in the high priest’s question: “Are you the Son of the Blessed One?” (14:61). Strangely enough, the title “Son of God” is never used by the disciples in this gospel.
John the Baptist’s ministry was foretold in the Old Testament (1:2–3). The phrase “as it is written” is a standard expression indicating the authoritative nature of the Old Testament. The reference to Isaiah refers specifically to the second part of the quotation in verse 3; while verse 2 is a reference to Malachi 3:1. Mark refers only to Isaiah because he was the more prominent of the two prophets. John did not appear “out of the blue,” but he was clearly a part of God’s redemptive plan.
Mark applies Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3 to both John the Baptist and Jesus. The Baptist is both “my messenger” and “a voice.” The phrase “prepare your way” in verse 2 is paralleled by “prepare the way” in verse 3. John prepared the way for the coming Messiah by his preaching. The imagery in Isaiah is the return of God’s people from exile. Mark takes a passage in Isaiah that refers to the coming of Israel’s God and applies it to Jesus.
John’s ministry took place in the Judean wilderness. People flocked to him in this barren wasteland (1:4–8). John’s baptism was the most characteristic aspect of his ministry. His baptism symbolized repentance from sin. Repentance refers to a change in one’s thinking that results in a change of lifestyle. John’s preaching created quite a stir as people journeyed to the wilderness to hear him and be baptized by him. His appearance and lifestyle were reminiscent of Elijah (2 Kings 1:8; Mal. 4:5–6). John’s clothing was common to nomadic desert dwellers. His food (“locusts and wild honey”) was not unusual for people living in the desert. The locust was akin to a large grasshopper.
At the heart of his message was a person, the coming Messiah. John recognized his inferior role to the coming one. He acknowledged that the Messiah was mightier than he and that he was “not worthy to stoop down and untie the strap of his sandals.” Untying someone’s sandals was the task of a common slave. John’s baptism was with water, but the coming one would baptize “with the Holy Spirit.”2
Jesus’ baptism marks the inauguration of his messianic ministry (1:9–11). God’s voice at his baptism confirms Mark’s earlier statement about Jesus being the Son of God. Jesus came to the Judean wilderness from Nazareth, which was a small town in Galilee located about half-way between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean Sea. As Jesus came up out of the water, “he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.” Mark emphasizes the immediacy of the events. This is the first of Mark’s forty-one uses of “as soon as.” The term heightens dramatic tension and movement in the narrative.
As Jesus came up out of the water, “he saw the heavens being torn open.” The imagery is of God in heaven tearing open the sky below as he prepares to act. The same word is used at Jesus’ crucifixion in reference to the temple veil being torn (15:38). At the beginning of the gospel, at Jesus’ baptism, God tears the heavens open, and at the end of the gospel, when Jesus dies, God tears the temple veil from top to bottom. Jesus’ messianic ministry begins and ends with these heavenly acts. At his baptism, he identifies with sinners, and at the cross, he dies for them.
Jesus saw the Spirit descending upon him. The probable background is God’s work at creation. Genesis 1:2 says: “And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.” If this imagery is correct, then the thought is that Jesus’ ministry is the beginning of a “new creation.” Furthermore, his ministry will be empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Jesus alone appears to hear God’s voice. The first part of the pronouncement reflects Psalm 2:7, which is a coronation psalm used at the installation of Israel’s kings. Therefore, Jesus is identified as God’s Son and Israel’s true king. The second part of the quotation is a reference to Isaiah 42:1, which is a part of the first of Isaiah’s Servant Songs, identifying Jesus as the true Servant of the Lord. At the inception of Jesus’ messianic ministry, God declares him to be his beloved Son and Israel’s Servant-King.
One should not miss the Trinitarian nature of Jesus’ baptism. God the Father speaks words of affirmation and love; the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus to empower his messianic ministry; and Jesus, the divine Son, is baptized in the Jordan. Jesus’ baptism at the beginning of his public ministry points toward its culmination in his death, burial, and resurrection.
Jesus goes directly from his baptism into conflict with Satan (1:12– 13). Mark’s description of Jesus’ temptation is extremely brief when compared to Matthew 4:1–11 and Luke 4:1–13. The brevity of the description makes it more striking. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark does not describe any of Jesus’ temptations. Mark describes the Spirit driving Jesus into the wilderness. The point is that Jesus was not caught off guard by the encounter, but it was a part of God’s plan for him.
The “forty days” are reminiscent of the forty years Israel wandered in the wilderness (Num. 14:34). Mark highlights the fact that where Israel failed as God’s son, Jesus was obedient and victorious. Mark alone makes reference to the “wild animals.” The thought adds a greater sense of danger to the scene.
Jesus’ ministry begins officially after John the Baptist’s imprisonment (1:14–15). Mark’s comment, “the time is fulfilled,” is reminiscent of Paul’s statement in Galatians 4:4: “When the time came to completion, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law.” Jesus proclaimed “the gospel of God;” which is the good news from God and about God. At the heart of Jesus’ gospel preaching is “the kingdom of God.”3 The kingdom of God refers to God’s rule or reign rather than to a geographical realm, more a power than a location. The kingdom was inaugurated with the coming of Jesus and will be fully manifested and consummated at his return. The requirements for entrance into the kingdom are repentance from sin and faith in the gospel.
Jesus’ method of kingdom expansion is discipleship. The setting of verses 16–18 is the Sea of Galilee, a body of water that is approximately 8 miles wide and 13 miles long at the farthest points. Jesus approaches four fishermen, calls them to follow him, and says he will make them “fish for men.” They immediately leave their profession to follow Jesus.
Living It Out
As significant as John the Baptist is, this passage is about Jesus Christ. Mark’s understanding of Jesus’ identity is stunning: Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, God’s Son. His forerunner was prophesied in Israel’s sacred scriptures. He identified himself with those he came to save at his baptism and was pronounced by a voice from heaven to be God’s beloved Son. His ministry would be empowered by the Spirit, yet the rending of the heavens at the beginning of his ministry and the tearing of the temple veil at the end is often overlooked. These two events bracket Mark’s gospel. At the beginning, God acknowledges Jesus as his Son, the very one who will cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me” (15:34). Truly, this Jesus is to be loved, worshiped, and followed.
About this Plan
The Holy Spirit uses God’s Word to grow believers in their faith and increase their passion for Jesus. Break down the book of Mark into the “Big Picture” of the passage, then “Digging Deeper” into that section and then m...
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