Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Mark: Opening Lines

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God...
Mark 1:1

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."* Chances are that you know exactly what book opens with this famous line. I have never read it but even I know it. That just goes to show you how impactful and important the opening line of a book can be. Not only does it set the scene and the tone of the entire book, but it can very quickly give you an idea of the author's purpose. Unfortunately, we do not always give Scripture the careful reading that we give great works fiction. Let's correct that today as we look at the opening line of Mark's gospel.

First, a little bit about the author and the book. We believe that Mark's gospel was the first of the Biblical gospels to be written and that it was penned roughly thirty years after Christ's death. This dating is important since John, also called Mark, was not one of the disciples or an apostle of Jesus and probably therefore was not a firsthand witness to many of the stories he recounts. This dating establishes that he could have known others who were firsthand witnesses on whose testimony he based his book. Indeed, the Biblical record bears this out. John Mark was a cousin of Barnabas (Col. 4:10) who joined Barnabas and Saul on their first missionary journey (Acts 12:25 & 13:5). Mark also had a relationship with the apostle Peter. When an angel rescued Peter from prison he went directly to a church meeting being held at the house of a Mary who was John Mark's mother (Acts 12:12). We also know that Mark spent some time in Rome with Peter (I Peter 5:13). It is likely that Peter supplied him with the majority of the details he needed for his gospel at that time.**

Now, how does Mark choose to begin his gospel? He says that it is the "beginning of the good news about Jesus." The Greek word for "good news" is where we get our word "gospel," but Lane helpfully points out that this word was not first used by Christians but by the dominant culture of the time. Lane points out that "for the Romans it meant 'joyful tidings' and was associated with their worship of the emperor as a god. The emperor's birthday and accession to power were celebrated by festivals across the empire. The reports of these festivals were called 'gospels'" (Lane, p.42). So the power of Mark's choice to use of this word to speak of Jesus' arrival on the scene would not have been lost on his first century readers. Mark is very clearly saying that a new day has dawned. A new king has come, a king whose coming to power is good news for the world. In fact, Mark says that this is just the beginning of the good news about Jesus. He has much to tell us!

Next, Mark tells his reader that this Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. Some Bibles translate "Jesus the Messiah" as "Jesus Christ." This is fine because Christ was not Jesus' last name. Christ comes from the Greek word which was meant "messiah", so these two translations say essentially the same thing. The Jewish hope had long been that God had promised to send a Messiah, a Savior for the Jewish people. The term Son of God has clear overtones of Jesus' divinity but was also used in the Old Testament in reference to kings so it also, at least in part, points to God's promise that this Messiah would be a king from the line of David. God had promised that the Messiah would be a king over all kings. He would restore God's people to their place of prominence in the world and set the world right by squashing injustice and protecting the innocent.

Mark doesn't pull any punches. He tells us immediately that this is who Jesus is. The rest of his book will endeavor not only to prove this to us but also to unpack all the implications that this "gospel" has for our lives. What impact has Jesus had on your life, and when was the last time you celebrated the good news of Jesus' coming? When was the last time you endeavored, like Mark, to tell someone that good news?

For further reading...
  • Identity Crisis- An interesting post about the opening line of Paul's letter to the Romans.
  • Acts 13:13, Acts 15:36-41, Colossians 4:10, & II Timothy 4:11-Read about how Mark caused a little bit of a controversy among Paul and Barnabas by leaving their missionary trip early. But, Scripture also makes clear that Mark and Paul were later reconciled.  

*The opening line of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.
**The Gospel of Mark by William L. Lane. Eerdman's Publishing Co., 1974. from the New International Commentary on the New Testament. p.21.

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