Mark is one of five Biblical books that talks of beginnings in the title sentence. Genesis 1:1 speaks of the beginning of God’s creative activity. John 1:1 says that in that same beginning, Jesus was God the Son. Titus 1:2 says that God had already promised salvation from before the beginning of time and Mark 1:1 records the beginning of this promise becoming reality; the beginning of the Good News about Jesus. I John 1:1ff says the Gospel began with a personal encounter with the living Word.
Matthew and Luke choose different beginning points. Matthew starts with a genealogy of Jesus that connects him to Abraham, the one who received the promise (Gen 12), while Luke begins with a declaration of his intention to write an acceptable historical record of the beginnings of Christianity in Jesus. Both these Gospels record infancy narratives, which Mark completely avoids. Mark’s only mention of Jesus’ family is in the conflicts he has with them in his early days of ministry.
Does Mark not know about the birth stories? It is quite possible he does not. Jesus does not speak of them and Paul does not mention them in his epistles. They appear to come from the inquiries of Matthew and Luke into the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. But Mark sees the beginning in different terms. For him, the beginning is the ending: the announcement of exactly who Jesus is- the Son of God.
Mark’s concern to identify Jesus will be seen throughout our study, but it is significant that he tells us that we begin to understand the story of Jesus not from the point of supposed neutrality, but from the point of faith. In the words of Augustine, we believe in order that we may understand. Mark will show us how the truth about Jesus is hidden from almost everyone, even how Jesus himself will discourage some from announcing it. But the reader of this Gospel is told out front and in loud tones that this is the story of the Son of God, Jesus the Messiah.
This shows us immediately that we cannot have a neutral, historic quest for Jesus. The only Jesus to investigate is the risen and exalted one who is God incarnate. Mark would surely be puzzled at the modern Christian impulse to try and package Jesus for the particular audience we seek to reach. He begins his story with the ending already in hand. He is inviting us to see what this confession of faith means. Most of all, he wants us to know that faith in Jesus is the starting point for any story of Jesus that is going to be true.
Begging the question? True Christianity always does, to a certain extent. It is a basic Christian truth that without the truths Christianity affirms, no truth of any kind can be affirmed. In this sense Mark is a presuppositional apologist and not an evidentialist. It is strong confessional Christianity that has something to say.
The first title Mark uses is the easiest to understand. “Christ” is the greek version of the word for annointed one or Messiah. Jesus was certainly not the only candidate for Messiah in his time or ours, but Mark says he is the real one, the one with the “annointing” of God’s Spirit upon him. The title Son of God is more difficult for modern minds to understand.
Son of God is not a term strictly of relation that applies to everyone, i.e. we are all God’s children. Neither is it a New Age idea of Jesus being a special avatar or appearance of divine consciousness. It is, first of all, an expression of the core fact observed about Jesus: He considered God to be his father in the most literal sense. He spoke of God as Abba or “daddy.” (14:36) He prayed to the Father rather than to the many-titled God of the Judaism of his day. His teaching were premised upon this relationship.(11:25) It was such a clear and unique affirmation that it was the basis for his trial (14:61ff). He experienced God as Father throughout his life in a way that was observable to others.
Son of God is also part of the Christian understanding of God as Trinity. In the baptism (1:9-13) of Jesus, God is present as Father who speaks, Spirit who annoints and Son who is present with human beings. This is the Christian conception of God as revealed by Jesus. God is the Father/Creator, He is the Spirit who we experience and He is the person Jesus whom we see and hear. One God revealed in three persons. The Trinity is not an idea the Bible explains, but rather simply shows us as real.
The beginning is about the Gospel of Jesus, not just the story of Jesus. Mark’s story puts the story of Jesus into a larger story which begins in Genesis and continues into the history of Mark’s own time. It is a story that continues in the lives of Mark’s first century readers, who are facing abundant bad news. And it is a story that intersects in the lives of those of us who read Mark today. As we discover that the Kingdom of God includes us and that faith lets us in, we find the “Good News” for ourselves.
By starting with Isaiah, Mark takes us into the entire Old Covenant. The Good News begins with the promise and expectation of a Kingdom that is the entire Old Testament story. Isaiah is particularly the prophet of the coming Kingdom of God, and Mark locates the begins of Jesus’ story not in birth records or a hometown, but in a prediction that someone would come announcing the “Way” of the Lord. Scholars will point out, of course, that Mark is quoting a combination of Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3. The two prophets touch on two different aspects of the coming Kingdom of God: judgement and restoration. John the Baptist embodies these two parts of the Kingdom message. The Lord is coming to restore his people. But it will be a time of cleansing and refinement, not just celebration.
John the Baptist is the beginning of Mark’s Gospel because he announces the Kingdom’s arrival and insists we must prepare for it. Jesus’ embodies the Kingdom. While both preach and call to repentance, it is Jesus that performs Kingdom miracles and calls for faith in himself. John is also preparing the “way,” the path to Jerusalem that Mark’s Gospel focuses with singular passion. Jesus entire ministry is “straight-away,” done on the way. Those who follow Jesus take up the same way (8:34-36) and it begins with the message of John: turn and prepare for the eternal Kingdom and the one who brings it now.
1. Explain the four passages on “beginnings” mentioned at the start of the study. How are they related?
2. Does Mark’s exclusion of the Virgin birth mean this doctrine is not essential to Christianity?
3. Why would Mark identify Jesus as the Son of God and Messiah in the very first verse? What does this tell us about the Christian approach to communication?
4. Is it possible to have a completely neutral investigation of the identity of Jesus?
5. How might the term “Son of God” be understood by eastern religions? The New Age? A Jew? An atheist?
6. How would you respond to someone who says that only maniacs call themselves the Son of God?
7. How is the Trinity present in the baptism of Jesus?
8. How does the story of Jesus begin in the Old Testament prophets, according to Mark?
RECOMMENDED RESOURCE: The Bible Background Commentary (New Testament), IVP
An entire commentary devoted to background, culture, history, language, customs, etc. Great introductions, easy to understand and very well done. Very useful.