The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God… Now after John was arrested, Jesus dcame into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’ ~Mark 1:1, 14-15
“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.” These are the immortal words with which William Shakespeare beckons us to leave the comfortable present and travel backwards in history. He calls us yonder to the tumultuous time when the Roman Eagle was just beginning to unfold its broad wings that would eventually spread across the entirety of the ancient world.
We are now standing over the mutilated corpse of Julius Caesar. Bloody Brutus is allowing Mark Antony, the one-time friend of Caesar, to offer a few words of tribute. Shakespeare puts these now famous words into the mouth of Antony but not so much so that we can hear but so we can see.
This is necessary because we moderns have a hard time connecting with the ancient past as it actually was. We tend to read everything through our 21st Century, Western eyes. This means that we often miss the nuanced meaning of what has actually taken place in our distant history.
This is exactly what usually happens when we come to read the gospels. We read through tinted lenses that have been colored by our own culture and shaded by our own experiences, rather than reading the Scriptures the way that those in the first century would have read them. This should trouble us because this history is our history and we should want to read it aright.
As we hear the ancient words at the beginning of Mark’s gospel, I ask you to lend me your ears so that perhaps you may see more clearly.
When Mark opens his account of the life and ministry of Jesus He does so in a way that is profoundly simple yet powerfully subversive. Notice verse 1,
“The beginning of the gospel of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
If you read the opening verse through 21st century eyes all you see is an introduction but if you look at it through 1st century eyes what you find are actually the beginning stages of a glorious insurrection. These words were revolutionary words that would have been heard as a veritable shout of defiance against the sovereign rule of Rome.
You say, “I’m looking closely but I just don’t see that.” Lend me your ears.
Come back with me to the first century, to the rise and accession of the man who became the first real emperor of Rome; the man under whose reign Jesus of Nazareth was born.
In point of fact, Julius Caesar who is perhaps the best-known of all of the Roman emperors, was never officially crowned as emperor. Moreover the reason he was killed on March 15th, 44BC was precisely because his enemies didn’t want anyone to become the sole ruler of the republic.
So a plot was hatched. The proto-Judas made preparations to betray his friend. But the plot didn’t thicken so much as curdle. The assassin’s blade plunged the nation into a civil war. Ironically, the murder of Caesar just moved Rome from a republic to an empire at a much more rapid pace.
This war focused initially on the struggle between those who had killed Julius Caesar and those who wanted to avenge his death. To that end, Caesar’s adopted son and heir, a young man by the name of Octavian, teamed up with Caesar’s friend Mark Antony.
But as you might imagine, this alliance too was short-lived. Once Caesar’s assassins, Brutus and Cassius, had been defeated, Antony and Octavian became fierce rivals for ultimate power.
Antony made his way to what we now call the Middle East, drumming up massive support. But Octavian, though young and less experienced, was not going to give up his claims to supreme power without a fight.
On September 2, 31 BC, the crucial battle took place at sea off the coast of Actium in western Greece. The navy of young Octavian overwhelmed and annihilated Antony’s forces. Antony fled to Egypt with his infamous cohort Cleopatra, where they both took their own lives in shame.
Now, suppose you’d been living in Rome during this period—during these thirteen years of civil war. Everyone would be waiting anxiously for new from the front. Suppose you had been a friend of the Caesars. If Octavian won, it would be good news for you. If Antony won, it would be horrible news. You might even have to leave town in a hurry.
Then, finally, Rome hears what has happened: “Good news! Octavian Caesar has won the victory! He is now lord and master of the whole Roman world!”
The word which is rendered in our Bibles as “good news” became a regular slogan for announcing to the world that Octavian, who would soon come to be known by everyone as Caesar Augustus, had brought peace, justice, and prosperity to the world. “Gospel” was an announcement of victory.
What does this have to do with the opening verse of Mark? Everything. Augustus Caesar was upon the throne when a little baby was born to peasant parents in a far off corner of Palestine. Around the same time that this child was entering the world, a stone mason was taking a chisel in his hand and carving these words into a government building in Asia Minor:
“The most divine Caesar . . . we should consider equal to the Beginning of all things . . . for when everything was falling (into disorder) and tending toward dissolution, he restored it once more and gave the whole world new life; All the cities unanimously adopt the birthday of the divine Caesar as the new beginning of the year . . . Whereas the Providence which has regulated our whole existence . . . has brought our life to the climax of perfection in giving to us (the emperor) Augustus . . .who being sent to us and our descendents as Savior, has put an end to war and has set all things in order; and (whereas,) having become (god) manifest to us, Caesar has fulfilled all the hopes of earlier times . . . this day marks the beginning of the good news of Caesar Augustus, son of God”.
So Mark isn’t just sharing divine revelation; he is sparking a divine revolution. He is asserting that every king squatting on every throne is a pretender and a usurper of the crown rights of the One True King.
Mark says to the House of Israel languishing in that Roman world, “This is the beginning of the victory of Jesus Christ, the true Son of God!”
Right away this verse, yea this book, takes on a whole new meaning to us. That word “gospel” comes to us with fresh vigor. We now begin to understand something of what is meant by “good news.”
Not incidentally, we also see the glaring difference between Christianity and all other religions, including irreligion. The essence of all other religions is advice; the essence of Christianity is news. Other religions say, “This is what you must do.” Christianity says, “This is what God has done in Christ.”
This is important at the practical level as well as the theological level. When you give people advice; a list of things that they have to do, you are placing a burden on their backs that will eventually cause them to buckle beneath the load. But when you share news with people there’s no burden to bear. This is especially true if the news is that someone else has borne all of their burdens for them!
So the gospel is not good advice; the gospel is good news! The gospel is the announcement of events in history that have ramifications on the present and implications concerning the future—our future.
When the Jews in the first century heard these words they would have understood immediately that God was about make good on some very old promises.
Those Hebrew historians would recall the words of the prophet Isaiah in the fortieth chapter of his prophecy: “Go up on the mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God! Behold the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.”
Good news! God is coming to deliver His people! Do you know what else Isaiah tells us in that chapter? He tells us how we will know that the day of deliverance has dawned. “There will be a voice crying in the wilderness preparing the way for the Lord,” then the “glory of the Lord shall be revealed.” Look again at Mark chapter 1 and you will see all of this coming together in Jesus the Messiah.
Isaiah gives us another dramatic portrait in the 52nd chapter of his prophecy. He recounts how the people of God went down into bondage in Egypt. Then he reminds them how God came to them in the person of Moses in order to liberate them and bring them into the land of promise.
Mark does a similar but far superior thing. He shows us how Jesus, the greater Moses, passes through the waters and journeys through the wilderness in order to bring about a greater exodus; and full emancipation for the people of God. Mark teaches us, through the imagery of baptism, that Jesus would do this ultimately through His vicarious death and victorious resurrection.
But Isaiah wasn’t finished. Later in chapter 52 he tells us how the people of God will be in captivity; how they will dwell in exile. But the prophet then announces that one day they would hear joyful sound of “good news” once again and the time of their exile would be over. Isaiah foretells this glorious event in these words:
“How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,
who publishes salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
The voice of your watchmen—they lift up their voice;
together they sing for joy;
for eye to eye they see
the return of the Lord to Zion.
Break forth together into singing,
you waste places of Jerusalem,
for the Lord has comforted his people;
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The Lord has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations,
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.”
What was the good news? Namely this: the exile would end and the enthronement of God, their True King, would begin. The Lord Himself would come again to His people. This isn’t just good news; it’s glorious news! This is the gospel.
This enables us to make sense of our Lord’s inaugural sermon in the opening verses of the first chapter of Mark’s gospel. It may be helpful to consider the Master’s message under three headings.
The Prophetic Timing of the Gospel
When God comes to the world, robed in human flesh in the person of Jesus, proclaiming the good news of the victory of God what are the first words that come from His lips? “The time is fulfilled.” The wait is over. The long night of weeping has passed and the morning of joy has finally come.
Everything is right on schedule. Daniel told us that God would come to set up His kingdom in the days of the Roman empire, and that this kingdom would have no end. He said that this kingdom would be like a stone cut out of the mountain without hands that would crush all of the kingdoms of this world.
Daniel also said that the people would would have to wait for 490 years. Then Mark records for us those events that God marked on His calendar some five centuries earlier. The fullness of time has come so God sends forth His Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem those that are under the law. This is good news; the time has come!
The Preeminent Theme of the Gospel
“The kingdom (basileia) of God is at hand,” or “The empire of God has arrived.”
The gospel isn’t primarily about how one gets his sins forgiven, though it certainly includes that. The gospel isn’t primarily personal; the gospel is primarily political. That is, it is fundamentally concerned with who rules; who is the rightful King. It is much bigger than we have ever dared dream. But as I said, it has personal implications because this universal kingdom is composed of individuals. As such, every descendant of Adam’s ruined race must bow the knee to the Last Adam who reigns unto life.
When we speak of the “kingdom” or as those in the first century would have understood it, the “empire of God,” we are speaking of two things in particular. First, “the kingdom” refers to rights or the prerogatives of King Jesus. Second, “the kingdom” refers to the realm or the purview of the King Jesus.
In Christ, the King has come to assert His right to rule His realm. The “Christ Event,” which encompasses everything from the incarnation through the ascension and present session of Jesus would be the drawstring that would pull the two bookends of the Bible back together again. What began in a garden-temple would culminate in a garden-city with the King reigning in the midst.
The Practical Terms of the Gospel
“Repent, and believe the good news.”
This repentance is not merely a change of lifestyle; it’s a change of loyalties. It means that we side with God against ourselves. It means that we have no ambition but His ambition; we have no agenda but His agenda. We love what He loves and we hate what He hates. Kingdom repentance means that we raise the white flag of surrender from the sand castle kingdoms which we have tried to erect on our own.
Repent and believe the the news of the victory of King Jesus over the world. Believe the good news of the victory of King Jesus over sin and death and hell.
What happens when we do this? Our Father in heaven will work in us and through us to do His will on earth, just as it is perfectly done in heaven, until the bookends of the Bible have been drawn together and earth and heaven finally become one. But this time fully; this time eternally, this time personally.
This is the gospel of King Jesus. Nothing could be more political than this.