Through The Eyes of Mark – Introduction
For time immemorial religious beliefs have been based on faith. It’s just as true today as it was 2000 years ago when the first Christians began proclaiming the Gospel. Perhaps even more so because we’re 2000 years rather than mere decades away from the events that shaped and formed the Christian faith. As we approach Christmas and the celebration of Jesus’ birth, we’ll take a look at what it was like for the first Christians by examining Jesus and His divinity, looking through the eyes of the various writers of the New Testament. We’ll begin by looking Through the Eyes of Mark – the first Gospel writer.
Faith is believing in something when common sense tells you not to.
~From the movie, “Miracle On 34th Street”
When we think of Christmas and Jesus’ birth, we automatically think of a manger, a guiding start, three wise men, and angels singing. Over 2000 years we’ve become so far removed from the actual events that we often lose sight of what it must have been like for the early evangelists trying to spread the Gospel. Not the Gospels, as we have them in Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, but “the Gospel” – which literally means “the Good News.”
The stories of Jesus birth as related in Matthew and Luke are so familiar and have so shaped our thoughts that we forget that others came first. The first Gospel to be written, however, was the Gospel of Mark. But, before we can examine Jesus’ divinity Through the Eyes of Mark, we must start with Paul. Long before the Gospel of Mark was written, the first recorded words we have of Jesus’ message, the “Good News” and His divinity are found in Paul’s letters. Try to imagine what it must have been like for Paul.
Once a persecutor of the Jews, after his conversion experience he because one of the most ardent evangelists. This was before books, newspapers, television, radio, blogs, and websites. Stories, even sacred stories, were passed orally until they were written by scribes. Paul traveled, speaking of his experience, and of his inspiration. The Jews didn’t trust him, the Romans had no particular love for him, and the Gentiles had little or no understanding of Paul’s Jewish background. He needed to get the Jews to understand that Jesus was the messiah they had been waiting for, and he was trying to get the Gentiles to understand the message of love and hope that he had found through his experience with Jesus.
It’s important to remember, though, that Paul never met Jesus. He had no first-hand knowledge of Jesus’ birth, life, ministry, or even Jesus’ death and resurrection. All he had to go on was what he had heard, and what he had experienced on the Damascus Road. That experience with the resurrected Jesus changed his life forever. Now, I know many people say “things like that don’t happen” or “it must have been a dream.” But, many of us have had experiences wherein we can literally see, feel, and hear loved ones who have passed on, or even very real experiences with Jesus. I have no problem believing that Paul’s experience was very, very real.
In his evangelizing, Paul never spoke of Jesus’ birth or early life. This was a subject that he either had no knowledge of or felt insignificant to his message. To Paul, there was no virgin conception, there were no angels singing, no star in the night sky pointing to the place of birth, no wise men. In fact, to our knowledge, the first words written of Jesus’ birth were written somewhere between 49 and 55 CE (Common Era), in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. This was between 19 and 25 years before the first Gospel, the Gospel According to Mark, was written. In Paul’s letter, Galatians 4:4 & 5 tell us, “But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.”* The second and final reference that Paul made was in his letter to the Romans. Chapter 1, verses 1-4 tell us, “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God – the gospel He promised beforehand through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding His Son, who as to His earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by His resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.”*
The words used in these verses are very telling about Paul’s concept of Jesus’ divinity. To Paul, Jesus was born of a woman, just as everyone else. There was nothing special or supernatural about the way Jesus entered the world. He was a descendent of David, though Paul doesn’t relate to us whether that line was through Joseph or Mary. It was through the Holy Spirit that God appointed Jesus His Son by His resurrection.
It seems that in Paul’s mind, Jesus was born human, a descendent of David, and it was at the time of His resurrection that He was made God’s Son. There are other letters in which Paul reiterates God being the one to “elevate” Jesus to the status of His Son*:
- Romans 4:24 – “for us who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.”
- Romans 6:9 – “For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead…”
- Romans 10:9 – “…believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead…”
- 1 Corinthians 15:4 – “…he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”
- 1 Corinthians 15:14 – “And if Christ has not been raised…”
- 1 Corinthians 15:15 – “…for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead…”
- 1 Corinthians 15:20 – “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead…”
- Philippians 2:5-9 – “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to His own advantage; rather, He made Himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted Him to the highest place and gave Him the name that is above every name.”
- Colossians 1:15 – “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.”
Notice that in each of these verses, Paul is plainly stating that it was God who raised Jesus. It was God who exalted Jesus. “At this moment in primitive Christianity, Paul (who died around 64 C.E.) stood as witness to a normal human birth process for Jesus. It must be noted that despite his presumption of a natural birth, he nonetheless developed a profound Christology…
For this first great Christian thinker, a nexus existed in Jesus of Nazareth in which the divine and the human had come together. He saw Jesus as God’s first creation. He found a self-emptying divinity in Jesus…”* And, since God raised and exalted Jesus, the “adoption of Jesus and all the He meant into God was the first and original form in which the sonship for Jesus was claimed by Christian people.”* For Paul, Jesus becomes God’s Son at the time of exaltation and resurrection.
Having Paul’s concept in mind is important because all indications are that the author of the Gospel of Mark was a companion of Peter, who also evangelized with Paul. Mark was most likely a scribe, and a fellow evangelist. It was Paul’s and Peter’s teachings that informed Mark. It is generally assumed that Mark’s Gospel was written somewhere between 65 and 75 C.E. Paul had written of Mark being with him in Rome (Colossians 4:10); and in Philemon 24 Paul states that Mark was one of his fellow workers. Peter also addressed him as “My son mark” in 1 Peter 5:13. So, it’s clear that Mark worked closely, and was informed by, Peter and Paul.
In all likelihood, Mark wrote his Gospel in Rome, to a Gentile audience. It was probably read aloud, as were the Torah and the ancient texts. His purpose was to encourage believers who lived under threat of persecution, and even martyrdom. And, like Paul, Mark never met, traveled with, nor heard Jesus. In a letter written by Papias, the bishop of Hieropolis in Phyrgia wrote, “Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately though not indeed in order, whatever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him, but afterward, as I said, he was in company with Peter, who used to offer teaching as necessity demanded, but with no intention of giving a connected account of the Lord’s discourses. So Mark committed no error in thus writing some single points as he remembered them. For upon one thing he fixed his attention: to leave out nothing of what he had heard and to make no false statements in them.”**
Another early church father, Clement, wrote, “As Peter had preached the Word publicly at Rome, and declared the Gospel by the Spirit, many who were present requested that Mark, who had followed him for a long time and remembered well what he said, should write them out.
And having composed the Gospel he gave it to those who had requested it. When Peter learned of this, he neither directly hindered nor encouraged it.”**
Like us today, Mark’s story is a story of great faith, meant to inspire and encourage believers. The letters clearly indicate that Mark never met Jesus. And, they indicate he recorded everything he had heard and left nothing out. So, it stands to reason that Mark, like Paul, had no concept of Jesus’ birth. His birth was not something discussed, at least not in his presence, and there was nothing special or miraculous about it. Mark 3:21 tells us, “When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”” This would hardly indicate that Mark had heard stories of Mary being a virgin, or that Jesus was the Son of God from the time of the conception.
So, Through the Eyes of Mark, when did Jesus’ divinity come about? It’s clear in Chapter 1, verse 1 that Mark understood Jesus as the Son of God – “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” He goes on to tell the story of John the Baptist, tying him back to ancient Scripture that the Jews would have understood. The way we read our Bibles today, the statement in verse 2 and 3 can sound like one single prophecy from the ancient Scriptures. However, what appears to us as a single statement foretelling John the Baptist is actually two separate texts blended together. Verse 2 tells us, “…Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, Who will prepare Your way before You.” This text was from Malachi 3:1. Verse 3 goes on to say, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; Make His paths straight.'” This text is not from Malachi, but from Isaiah 40:3.
Mark continues to tell of John’s preaching and baptizing and, in verse 9 he tells of Jesus’ baptism. This, it seems to Mark, is the critical point. In verse 10 he writes, “And immediately coming up from the water, He saw the heavens parting and the Spirit descending upon Him like a dove. Then a voice came from heaven, “You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
Keep in mind that this description may be a symbolic, descriptive metaphor used to explain the immense power and experience found through Christ; and to further illustrate the conviction that Jesus was, indeed, the Son of God. The Layman’s Bible Commentary puts it this way, “What had Jesus seen and heard before he announced with authority, “The time is fulfilled”? What had enabled Him to know that the period of preparation had been completed, that God had come to the point of fulfilling the promise which He had earlier given His people? We may not know the complete answers to such questions, but we can see what Mark believed was essential to that answer. God’ pledge, given to Israel in the prophets, had at last been redeemed. He had sent Elijah again to His people (John the Baptizer) with an authority direct from heaven. In the baptism of repentance which this Elijah had preached, in the forgiveness of sins which accompanied the contrition and baptism of Israel, God had given an authentic sign that the time of waiting was over. The work of John the Baptizer, embodied in the contrition, baptism, and forgiveness of God’s Israel, had marked the end of the epoch which God had ordained as preparation. This epoch had now given way to a new epoch in which God had sent His Spirit, baptizing His people with the powers of the coming Kingdom. Jesus had seen and heard the descent of this very Spirit, a sign to Him that had enabled Him to proclaim with confidence: “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” This sign had been disclosed when He had accepted the baptism proclaimed by John with divine authority. Then Jesus had seen the heavens opened. He had been granted a vision of those heights and depths of reality where God’s invisible deeds were already shaping the later course of earthly events. From the opened heavens He had seen God’s Spirit descending – sign of the accomplishment on earth of what God had already initiated in heaven. God’s Kingdom at that very moment had invaded earth’s territory. The Spirit descended on Jesus Himself, a clear token of His own appointment as one through whom the powers of the Kingdom of God operate. Henceforth He must speak and act out of this mysterious authority from heaven communicated by the Spirit and indicative of God’s intention to share His favor and His grace with men. The Kingdom was at hand because God’s Spirit had appeared with power among men.”
This, for Mark, was the essence of Jesus being God’s Son. For him, Jesus was born like any other human being. But, unlike Paul who seemed to believe that God elevated Jesus to the status of Son at the resurrection, Mark seemed to wish to convey the activity of the Holy Spirit and the importance of baptism. Why? And, what does it have to do with us, especially at Christmas?
Christmas is when we celebrate the birth of our Lord. But more than that, we celebrate all that we find in Him and through our relationship with Him. Let me share some excerpts from a sermon by Dr. Keith Wagner:
“…I believe that John the Baptist can help us. He announced to the people of his time that the Christ would be coming soon. “The one who is more powerful than I, is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” John announced that Jesus was coming but he also acknowledged that he was but a servant of God. For the spirit of God to become real to us we must be willing to humble ourselves and accept the fact that Jesus is greater than ourselves.
John was preaching to a people who were powerless because of an oppressive Roman government. His listeners had no hope, no reason to believe that their lives had any meaning. When John announced that the Lord would be coming, he also said that his listeners would be baptized by the Holy Spirit. In other words, their lives would become filled with the Spirit of God and they would be transformed from people without hope to people with hope…
The Spirit of God cannot enter our souls until we are willing to humble ourselves and learn that we are mere mortals, in need of a powerful and eternal God…But we may have to be in a real low point in our lives before God can get through to us.
Secondly, John tells his listeners to get ready. Their lives would change; they would become more faithful, more loving and more hopeful. The opportunity for change was close at hand. To take advantage of that opportunity they had to trust in John’s word. He was God’s messenger, “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.” In addition to humbling themselves they needed to listen…
Third, our lives are open to the Spirit of God when we are willing to change. John’s message was about repentance. Repentance means there is a change of direction. Take for example Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, by Dickens. He was a stingy, grumpy, mean spirited man whose life was changed after being confronted by the ghosts of the past, present and future. When he saw how hopeless his life turned out he was transformed and became generous and filled with a spirit of love.
A more contemporary story would be the story of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, by Dr. Seuss. The Grinch was totally transformed, his heart growing 3 sizes greater. After being baptized by the spirit he became, kind, warm and generous and returned Christmas to the Whos in Whoville.
I believe that everyone wants to change but we are stuck. We are trapped by our sins of the past or we are distant from God pursuing our own personal agenda. As a result we are never fulfilled or satisfied. Life is nothing more than a treadmill with no way of getting off. The key that can unlock the door to newness and guide us from darkness to light is forgiveness. John proclaimed a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Forgiveness enables us to move away from the past and embrace the present.
The transformation of the Grinch and Scrooge are classics. In both stories their worlds became a better place. But in both stories there is one story that doesn’t get as much attention. It’s the fact that the Who’s forgave the Grinch and the townspeople and relatives of Scrooge in London forgave him. Forgiveness, like John the Baptist proclaimed, is at the heart of opening ourselves to God’s spirit. The Christmas spirit can become a reality to you when you accept the forgiveness of God for your past, or you are willing to forgive someone else for theirs.”***
This was Mark’s message – proclaiming Jesus as the Son of God through the power of the Holy Spirit. The prevailing wisdom of the time told the early followers of The Way that they were wrong, that they were crazy. The were persecuted and martyred. Yet, despite this prevailing wisdom, they believed. Like the early Christians, many today call us crazy. But Mark’s words give us hope, and inspire us to change, and encourage us to forgive.
His words were meant to inspire those of his time who faced persecution and martyrdom. But his words also serve to encourage us today. That is the fullness of life that we find in our relationship with Jesus as our Lord. It is through that faith, and through our relationship with Jesus that the Holy Spirit operates in our lives. It is that faith, that hope, that forgiveness, made possible by the work of the Holy Spirit, that we celebrate when we celebrate the birth of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
- Galatians 4:4&5
- Romans 1:1-4, 4:24, 6:9, 10:9
- 1 Corinthians 15:4, 15:14, 15:15, 15:20
- Colossians 4:10
- Philemon 24
- 1 Peter 5:13
- Mark 3:21, 1:1-3
*Retired Bishop John Shelby Spong, Author – Born of a Woman
**Dr. Keith Wagner
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