Sometimes it’s best to dive right into a text and discover what’s been illuminated underneath the ‘water.’ . . .So, let’s do that, beginning with Mark’s gospel.
Mark 1:1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. (ESV.org)
“The beginning…” Mark chooses language that immediately conveys the beginning of something. We understand that Mark has written the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, but have we been taught why Mark chooses to start his gospel like this? Matthew and Luke don’t do this. The word gospel is used later in their gospels and isn’t used at all in John’s.
Mark seems to start his gospel like a movie starts in the middle of a car chase. This is because there is a lot of political upheaval going on in Mark’s world. And, for Mark’s original audience, he is having them dive right into a new beginning. This won’t be a retelling of Israel’s history or the history of creation. Mark immediately creates a setting for a new history of salvation and a ‘new heaven and a new earth,’ a new beginning for followers of Jesus in the midst of a chaotic world.
But how? This seems like quite a stretch for the modern reader of Mark’s gospel. Mark speaks of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This gospel is about Jesus. We already know what gospel means (good news) and who Jesus is (Messiah), but have we connected the two massive dots and created a bridge for understanding what the good news of the Messiah means according to Mark. What does he have to say that we haven’t already heard countless times??
According to the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, the term gospel (literally ‘glad tidings’) was a technical term for “news of victory,” especially in military battles (Meyers, Binding the Strong Man, p. 123). A victorious new ruler in Mark’s era was celebrated and “glad tidings” were mediated throughout the provinces. Meyers goes on to say that the Roman empire associated the term with political propaganda. This propaganda would disseminate throughout the empire promoting the myth that Caesar was a “divine man.” [We see this kind of propaganda produced by coinage in Caesarea-Philippi. This is where Jesus asks the disciples the pivotal question “Who do you say that I am?” in Mark 8.] Wengst has this to say about the emperor:
[Deification of the emperor] gives euangelion (glad tidings) its significance and power. . . .Because the emperor is more than a common man, his ordinances are glad messages and his commands are sacred writings. . . .He proclaims euangelia through his appearance . . . the first euangelium is the news of his birth (TDNT, 2:724).
Mark doesn’t speak of Jesus’s birth like Matthew and Luke. Yet, Mark is mediating a new ruler’s news of victory. The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ is the story that marks the beginning of a kind of war, and also of a warrior who is being given the biggest victory the world will ever see, by the only true Deity. Appropriately, a celebration is in order and Mark is heralding this One’s glad tidings (euangelion).
Augustus, who likely never heard of Jesus’s birth (Everitt), will transfer his emperorship to his stepson, Tiberius in A.D. 14. Augustus would pass away on the paradisiacal island of Capri not knowing that the real emperor of heaven and earth had different plans for the sovereignty of the world. Heaven’s will was being done on earth. This is the plot of Mark’s gospel, and through this plot, Mark will portray discipleship for his readers.
Remember how Mark seems to start his gospel by diving right in, like a movie beginning with opening scenes of a car chase? This is the pace we can expect from Mark as he moves from subplot to subplot. Here are three subplots to consider throughout his gospel:
- Mark’s new “emperor” (Jesus the Messiah) will be seen first developing a Messianic movement with followers who are all too eager to see a transition of power.
- This movement will become wildly popular to, A) those who are poor and being promised liberation from Judea’s oppressing class, and, B) to those who are being healed and to those who become free of demonic control. Many will champion this movement only to abandon it after the would-be Messiah rejects insurrectionist tactics.
- This movement will confront the politicians; the Jerusalem elites, the scribes, Pharisees, and the Herodians.
Does all this sound familiar? Does all this sound like a gospel to us or good news? Mark’s readers lived during these historical episodes. What about today’s readers? Does Mark have anything to say to us? Does Mark have anything to say to the nations of the world about power and authority? What’s so good about Mark’s news? . . .Let’s continue and see what Mark has to say.