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Mark 1:1-13: The Beginning of the Gospel Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 July 2007

I want to begin with a simple question.  How many gospels are there?  You probably all have at least one of two different answers in your head.  And both are right.  Paul told the Galatians, “if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.”  That's a strong warning.  In the most important sense of the word, there's only one gospel, and we're not free to tamper with it.

I only asked the question to point out that there are two different ways we use the word "gospel."  Primarily, the gospel refers to the message we preach, the great good news that Jesus came and Jesus died to save sinners.  But in a secondary sense it can be used to describe the four NT books that contain that message.  And that's what we mean when we call this the gospel of Mark.  So the answer to the question can be one or four, depending on how we're using the word.

It doesn't matter whether you turn to Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, the substance of the message is the same, precisely because there is only one gospel; however, there are some differences in style and emphasis, and even in content between the four gospels.  And there is a real benefit to us in that.  When we look at all four of the gospels together, they give us a much richer and fuller description of Jesus than we would have had, with only one of the accounts.  Thank God that we have all four gospels.

Technically, all four of the gospels are anonymous.  What I mean by that is that none of the authors explicitly identify themselves in the text the way Paul does, for instance, in his letters.  In spite of that, the early church unanimously attributed the authorship of this gospel to John Mark.  I'm actually going to talk a little bit tonight, in our study of church history, about what some of the church Fathers had to say about Mark writing this gospel.  But there's never been any serious doubt that Mark is the author of this book.

Here are just a few of the distinguishing features of Mark's gospel.

First, it's well established that Mark's gospel was the earliest, although the exact date isn't certain. It’s also the shortest of the four gospels.  Mark’s writing style is brief and it has a rather fast-paced feel to it.  That's partly because he uses the word “immediately” far more often than all the other NT writers combined.  So there's a constant sense of action in Mark.  Consistent with that, Mark focuses more on what Jesus did than on what he said, especially compared to the other gospel writers.  One other feature of Mark's writing style is that despite his brevity, he includes a small descriptive detail here and there which makes him a good storyteller.

I thought it was interesting that Brother William decided to follow 1 Peter with a study of Mark, because Peter and Mark are very closely associated with each other.  There's a lot of evidence of that, both in Scripture and in church history.  So before we turn to Mark, I want to look quickly at two of the passages of Scripture that shed some light on the relationship between Mark and Peter.

The first is in Acts 12.  Peter had just been arrested and imprisoned by Herod.  He was asleep that night when someone struck him on the side and told him to get up and get dressed and follow him.  Peter was so disoriented at that point that he thought he was seeing a vision.  Eventually, it says in verse 11, Peter "came to himself" and realized that it wasn't a vision.  An angel of the Lord had actually rescued him from prison, which brings us to verse 12, and I want to read that. 

“When he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying.”  So... as soon as Peter realized he was free, he headed straight for the house of a woman named Mary, who, as it turns out, was Mark's mother.  And then later in that same chapter, in verse 25, we find Mark in the company of Paul and Barnabas.  So it would seem, from the 12th chapter of Acts, that both Mark and his family knew Peter, and also some of the other apostles.

The other passage is 1 Peter 5:13.  As Peter concludes his letter, he writes, “She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings; and so does Mark, my son.”  Two things seem apparent there; one, Mark was with Peter, probably in Rome, when he wrote that letter; and Peter affectionately refers to Mark as his son.  I say all of that to say this.  It’s possible that Mark, living in Jerusalem as a young man with his mother, could have known at least a few people who had come in contact with Jesus, and it's possible that Mark or someone in his family had; but it's even more likely, that becasue of their close association, Mark's gospel is actually based on the authority of the Apostle Peter's own eyewitness testimony of Christ.

Now, if you're not already there, open your Bible to Mark 1 and let's stand together and read verses 1-13.

I want to examine this passage from two different perspectives.  First, I want to look at it from the perspective of the key events that make up Mark's introduction to the gospel.  Then I want to look at it from the perspective of the key themes of the gospel that are already evident in those events.


These first 13 verses of Mark form what's known as the prologue, or introduction, to Mark's gospel, and it naturally divides itself into four sections.  There's the heading in v.1, and then the three events that set the stage for Jesus' entire public ministry:  The arrival of John the Baptist (vv. 2-8); Jesus’ baptism (vv. 9-11); and His temptation in the wilderness (vv. 12-13).

The Heading (v.1)
Mark's heading, in verse 1, is very brief, but full.  It not only tells us what this section is about--"the beginning of the gospel;" it also tells us the subject of the rest of the book-- "the gospel of Jesus Christ."  And it tells us in no uncertain terms that the subject of the gospel is a person: "Jesus Christ, the Son of God."  Ultimately, the goal of the gospel is to bring us to a true knowledge of a real person.

Mark leaves absolutely no doubt about who that person is.  "Jesus Christ, the Son of God."  His name, Jesus, means "God is salvation."  The Greek word Christ means the same thing as the Hebrew word Messiah, "the anointed one," someone appointed by God for a special task.  And "Son of God" describes his utterly unique relationship to God, as well as His own divine nature.

First Event - The Arrival of John the Baptist (vv. 2-8)
With just a simple quotation from the OT prophets (vv. 2-3), Mark accomplishes two things.  He shows that John's arrival fulfilled a key prophecy that marked the beginning of a whole new era in human history.  The whole world was about to change.  But he also accomplishes something else with that quotation that's very significant--he roots this new beginning in all the Old Testament promises that God would send a Redeemer who would establish His kingdom on earth.  So in a sense, this unique moment in history was both radically new and radically old.

John's physical appearance (v.6), his message of repentance (v.4), everything about him identified him as a holy man and a prophet, like the prophets who preceded him.  All of Judea came out to hear him (v.5), but John knew His place.  His purpose was simply to prepare the way for One much greater than he.

Second Event - Jesus’ Baptism (vv. 9-11)
Compared to the other gospels, Mark says very little about the baptism or the temptation of Jesus.  He does tell us that when Jesus emerges from the water, several things happened "immediately":  the heavens were torn open and the Spirit descended on Christ in v.10, and God Himself spoke in v.11 and said that this was His beloved Son, in whom He was well pleased.  You can hear the words of Isaiah 42.1, which we read earlier, echoing in verses 10-11.

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit appear simultaneously at Jesus’ baptism, which means that God chose this critical moment in time to reveal Himself as the Triune God.  We may not be able to explain the Trinity.  We may not fully understand how there can be only one God, eternally existing in three persons, but we believe that’s the clear teaching of Scripture.  We sang it in our opening hymn "Holy, Holy, Holy, Merciful and Mighty, God in Three Persons, Blessed Trinity."

Third Event - Jesus’ Temptation in the Wilderness (vv. 12-13)
No sooner had the Spirit descended on Christ, than he “immediately drove him out into the wilderness" to be tempted by Satan (v. 12).  This is already Mark's second use of the word "immediately," and it adds a sense of urgency and necessity to Jesus’ encounter with Satan.  Not only that, the Spirit "drove" Him out into the wilderness.  He was compelled to go and face Satan.  This was an inevitable confrontation.

Satan's name literally means “adversary.”  He’s called many other things in Scripture, but fundamentally, he is the adversary both of Christ and of all who follow Christ.  If you're a follower of Christ, you have an unseen adversary.  I think we've gotten so accustomed to thinking of the world in purely material terms that we forget there's an unseen world of both good and evil beings at work all around us.  There’s much more to this world than meets the eye.

In this passage we're told that these good and evil powers are both present here in the wilderness.  On one hand, Jesus is being tempted by Satan; and here’s an example of the kind of small, intriguing detail Mark sometimes provides--he notes in v.13 that Jesus "was with the wild animals."  Maybe he means that in more than one way, this is a hostile environment.  On the other hand, Jesus isn't alone in this conflict; as we've already seen, the Spirit is with Him, and now we’re told in v.13 that the angels are ministering to him.

Beyond that, Mark is completely silent about the details of the conflict.  He doesn't even say that Christ defeated Satan.  Not a word.  Perhaps Mark’s purpose at this point is much simpler--perhaps, for now, he merely wants us to see that this is just the beginning of a monumental battle.  If that’s the case, all the rest of Mark’s gospel is an extended, vivid portrayal of Christ's power over sin and Satan and death.


Those are the key events, as described by Mark, that form the beginning of the gospel.  The stage is set for Jesus to begin his public ministry.  And even though this is just the beginning of the gospel, I want to spend a few minutes showing you that some of the key themes of the gospel are already embedded in these events.

1) The Centrality of the Gospel
Mark’s whole purpose for writing, stated in verse 1, is to proclaim the truth of the gospel.  I want to broaden that statement and say that the purpose of the whole Bible is to proclaim the truth of the gospel.

It's helpful to understand the background of the word “gospel”.  It was a common word already in use by the Greeks, even before the time of Christ, so it obviously had no connection to Christ originally.  It meant "good news" and for the Greeks, it was normally associated with either some great occasion, or some tremendous announcement.  Knowing that, you can see why the early Christians would have adopted the word and applied it to the incredible news that Christ had come and given His life for sinners, and that God had raised Him again on the third day.  There was never going to be any greater occasion or more wonderful announcement than that.  So the church gave the word "gospel" a whole new meaning.

The gospel is the heart of Scripture, and Jesus is the heart of the gospel.  We desperately need the gospel, and we desperately need Jesus.  No matter how long you've been a Christian you'll never outgrow your need to keep hearing and keep believing the gospel.

Here's a prayer we can all pray for our church as we listen to Brother William preach from the gospel of Mark every week for the next few months.  Lord, make us gospel-centered, gospel-saturated people.  Make us passionate about the gospel, and passionate about spreading it.  That's my prayer for myself.  Most of the time, I’m ashamed of my own lack of passion.

2) The Holy Spirit is Indispensable to the Gospel
The Spirit is mentioned three times in this passage.  We see, in v.8, that John the Baptist preached that when Christ came, He would baptize his followers with the Holy Spirit.  Then we see in v.10 the Spirit descending on Jesus at his baptism.  And in v.11 it was the Spirit that drove Jesus into the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan.

So the Spirit plays a critical role in this passage, both for Christ, and for those who would follow Christ.  That is extremely significant, and I want to try to explain why.  In the OT, there are two strands of prophecy regarding the role of the Holy Spirit in the New Covenant, and those two strands directly correspond to two of the references to the Spirit in our passage.

One strand of prophecy anticipated the coming of a Messiah who would be empowered and anointed by the Spirit, and we see those prophecies at least partially fulfilled in v.10 as the Spirit descends on Jesus at His baptism.  You can find many of those in Isaiah.

The other strand of prophecy anticipated an outpouring of the Spirit on all flesh, and an internal work of the Spirit that would give God's people new hearts.  The Spirit would empower and give God's people the desire to love and obey Him.  Now look at v.8.  John the Baptist says that is exactly what Christ will do when he comes--He will baptize His people with the Spirit.

The meeting of those two strands of prophecy in this passage indicates that this was the beginning of the New Covenant.  The rest of the NT confirms that.  The new birth is a work of the Spirit.  When we're converted, the same powerful Spirit who raised Christ from the dead comes to dwell in our hearts and literally begins to change us from the inside out.  Paul says emphatically in Rom. 8.9 that "Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to Him."  Where there is no Spirit, there is no Christ and no salvation.  The Holy Spirit is indispensable to the gospel.

3) The Gospel Exalts Christ
Christ is highly exalted everywhere you look in our text.  In v.1, Mark himself extols Jesus.  This is "the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God."  He is both the subject and the object of the gospel.  The true gospel always exalts Christ.

John the Baptist also magnifies the greatness of Christ.  John’s preaching does what all good preaching should do.  It humbles the pride of men, and it exalts Christ.  Look at vv. 7-8 again: "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.”  John says, essentially, you’ve come out here to hear me, but I am nothing compared to Him.  We need to learn to do what John does there--humble ourselves, and exalt Christ.

And then, the crowning exaltation of Christ comes in v.11.  God Himself lavishes praise on His son.  “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”  There is no higher exaltation than that!

Jesus deserved all of that praise, and more.  Christ is exalted in the gospel.  He should also be exalted in our lives.  He's infinitely worthy of all the honor and glory and praise we could ever heap on Him!  How is it possible for us to contemplate the glory and beauty and mercy of Christ and not sing and shout His praises?  God help us to open our mouths and exalt Christ!

4) Christ Humbles Himself in the Gospel
One of the great paradoxes of Scripture is that Christ is exalted even in His humiliation.  Philippians 2 describes Jesus' whole earthly life, from his birth to his death, as a pathway of steady descent from His heavenly glory; letting go of His equality with God, making himself nothing, and finally humbling Himself to the point that he willingly died in shame on a cross.

Let me ask you a question.  Why was Jesus baptized?  In order to answer that, let me ask another question.  What was the purpose of John's baptism?  According to v.4, it was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins; and those who came to John for baptism confessed their sins (v.5).

Now compare verse 5 with verse 9.  They're worded almost the same, except the last phrase in verse 5 is missing in verse 9.  When everyone else came to John they confessed their sins (v.5); when Jesus came, there was nothing to confess (v.9).  He had no sin, and no need to repent.  So why would he submit to a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins?  Think about that.

One commentator says that in submitting to the baptism of John, Jesus willingly takes upon himself the sign of repentance. Another goes even further and says, "His baptism proclaimed that he had come to take the sinner's place under God's judgment." 2  Right here, at the very outset of his ministry, Jesus, who had no sin of His own, willingly accepts the humiliation of identifying Himself with us in our sin.

If Jesus' whole earthly life was a pathway of steady descent, then his baptism is one step along that path.  But His path didn't stop there.  It led all the way to the cross.  The Bible says that, “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  God made Him to be sin.  That has to be one of the most staggering statements in all of Scripture.  Brothers and sisters, just let that sink in.  That's what Jesus did willingly--for sinners.  We see the tender mercies of Christ most clearly in his undeserved, but self-chosen humiliation.

It's necessary for me to say something very pointed right now.  I can’t see into your heart, and I don't know what's going on in your mind right now.  But I can tell you that you dare not take the tender mercies of Christ lightly.  If Christ does not bear your sin and judgment, then you will bear it yourself and suffer the unquenchable wrath of God for eternity.  And that brings me to the fifth and final theme I see in this passage.

5) Repentance is the only reasonable or acceptable response to the Gospel
It's hard to miss the emphasis on repentance in our passage this morning.  John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  And no one was exempt from the need to repent, not even God's chosen people.  John preached repentance to the Jews, not to the Gentiles.  All had sinned, and all needed to repent and receive God’s forgiveness.

What is repentance?  It's not simply admitting that you’ve done something wrong. It's a change of mind, hating what you used to love, and loving what you used to hate.  It’s a change of direction, turning away from your sin and our selfishness, and turning to God.

The command to repent is prominent in John the Baptist's ministry, but it isn’t unique to John.  Just next week you'll see Jesus preaching repentance and faith.  When Peter preached on the day of Pentecost, his listeners were cut to the heart, and cried out “What must we do?”  Peter’s response reminds me of John the Baptist's words.  Peter said: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”  And Paul, speaking to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:21, said that he testified “both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Repentance is not the gospel, but it's the only reasonable response to it. We repent and follow Christ, or we perish in our sin.  It's as simple as that.  There is no middle ground.  Every one of us here must repent and believe, or be lost.  We simply cannot be followers of Christ apart from repentance and faith.  For your own good and God's glory, repent and believe.  There is no other reasonable or acceptable response to the gospel.

1 For this and more on the baptism of Jesus, see Kim Riddelbarger
2 The Reformation Study Bible The Baptism of Jesus (Lake Mary: Ligonier Ministries, 2005) p.1415.

~ Barry Wallace ~

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 18 July 2007 )

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