“Preparing the Way”–A Pastor’s Thoughts on the Gospel of Mark (Matthew Claridge)
For myself, the centrality of the gospel to all of life is the second major theme of Mark. Once again, we are confronted with an opaque term that requires careful definition. Its opaque precisely because it is so common. Everyone’s theology is biblical so everyone believes the gospel is central, right? Usually, the first thing that comes to mind when we talk about the gospel is the “Roman’s Road” salvation message—the set of truths we need to believe or place faith in so that we may be “saved.” Yes, that is the gospel … sort of. Such a narrow definition can be reductionistic. Far too often the gospel is viewed as the entrance ticket to the church or to the Pearly Gates. Once we’re in, we settle down for the main attraction; we move on to the “deeper things of God” whatever that might be (it seems a lot of people think the doctrine of “Last things” fits this category). The gospel becomes, something tacked on to the end of sermons and wielded awkwardly in evangelistic opportunities. It’s something unbelievers need to hear and the church must protect but not something to survive and thrive on daily.
Clearly, this is not the perspective of Mark. For him, the gospel is neither a entrance ticket nor a self-help mantra. The gospel is a political overthrow. The word “gospel” was used in the ancient world primarily with a political connotation when an emperor was born, when a great military victory was achieved, or when a king announced his arrival with clemency, riches, power, and reckoning in his train. The allusion to Isa. 40.3 In Mark’s opening verses confirms this. Following the promise of exile and subjugation in the closing words of Isa. 39, the prophet announces: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.”
The key word is “warfare” or, as the ESV notes, “term of service.” Isaiah suggests Israel is a land under siege, under the threat and reality of subjugation. In the direction of the “wilderness,” a rumor has been heard, someone has carried the whisper of a hope no one dared thought was possible through the siege line: “prepare the way of the LORD!” This isn’t just a letter from home promising “I’ll wait for you” or “We’ll have your favorite pie in the oven when you get back.” This is the announcement that the tide has turned, the guns of the allies can be heard over the mountains, the dark night of the enemy is in its last gasp of rage and ruin: “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” (v. 9-10).
This “good news,” this gospel, can only be fully appreciated in the context of a war hanging by the edge of a knife. Its not a word for Piccadilly circus, but a word for the trenches of the Somme. It’s the announcement of rescue in the darkest hour of need and desperation. And it’s the announcement that the war tribunal is near, the day of reckoning is at hand. In the cities of Babylon where we celebrated our autonomy with blood banners and rallies, in those same cities now inflamed in ruin, the Great Nuremberg Trial will hold sway. The gospel is the announcement of the King’s victory and the King’s imminent wrath.
The gospel, then, is the King’s ultimatum. The gospel is also our first introduction to the King himself. Mark states, “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” The Long anticipated announcement of relief, clemency, and judgment is centered on the arrival of this one Man. Mark indicates that this gospel was anticipated From Exodus, to Isaiah, to Malachi. In effect, the entire OT charter points ahead to this decisive event. If biblical theology is concerned with how the Bible fits together, the gospel of Jesus Christ is the key. This will be one of the most shocking aspects of Jesus ministry in Mark, namely, his declaration that has come to fulfill the entire OT charter. It is precisely this claim to absolute authority that lands Jesus in the bad graces of the “Stewards of Gondor,” i.e., the Pharisees. As such, this Jesus illuminates every page of Scripture. Every text finds its way to Jesus is some way or another; and part of becoming good biblical theologians is learning how Christ fulfills every jot and tiddle of the Bible.
What does this mean for our daily grind? Mark envisions our lives as a losing war of attrition—in the final hours when our strength, resources, and resolve is giving way. It is at that point that we hear the buzz of allied air support, the “Cavalry” arrives (or better, “Calvary”?), the tide turns with the appearance of our Captain on the field. That new dawn breaking, hope is renewed. Though “even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted,” when the Captain of our souls arrives, for whom we’ve longed and waited, we shall “renew our strength; we shall mount up with wings like eagles; we shall run and not be weary; we shall walk and not faint” (Isa. 40.30-31). In other words, despite our wounds and weakness, with the arrival of hope in the person of our Captain, we muster a guttural war cry filled with tears and rage; we “sound our barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world” (Walt Whitman). This forms the pattern, or context, in which the gospel of Jesus Christ brings relief. Tim Keller has said (in his preaching lecture series with Ed Clowney) that his heralding of the gospel often follow this outline: 1) here is what you should be doing; 2) here is why you can’t do it; 3) but I know Someone who can and did; 4) because He can and did, you are enabled and motivated to do it too.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is thus the crux of the Bible, but it is also crux of the Christian life. Mark says this is the “beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” What does Mark mean by “beginning”? Two things. First, he is referring to the first 13 verses of his book, the prologue or ‘set-up’ for Jesus’ ministry. These verses serve as introduction, giving us the back story of the cosmic conflict between good and evil. Second, however, this initial section isn’t simply the introduction, it is the “beginning” of the gospel. In other words, Mark implies that the good news extends over the whole of Jesus’ life, ministry, and mission. The good news was not simply a proposition, or an event datable to one point in time. The gospel is an action-sequence. The gospel of Jesus Christ, then, represents his whole life lived. To augment the illustration of Oscar Cullman, victory is not simply a declaration of war. It is not simply defined by the successful landing of D-Day dated at June 6th, 1941. Victory is defined by the whole sequence beginning with the decrees of Congress, the beach-head of D-Day, and the collapse of the Third Reich on VE day.
The implications for the church are profound. For Christ’s church militant, the gospel defines the beginning, middle, and end of the Christian life. Our justification, sanctification, and glorification is modeled after the pattern of Jesus’ contest of death, resurrection, ascension. This tripartite blueprint is writ large all over NT ethics (Rom. 6; Col. 2.11ff; Eph. 2.4ff.). Paul’s theological reflections simply draw out the implications of the gospel for the “action-sequence” of our lives. He says in 1Cor. 15.1-3: “I would remind you, brothers,of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved…” Paul doesn’t ‘move on” from the gospel, he “draws on” the gospel. He reminds believers of the gospel. The gospel is their justification: “which you received;” their sanctification, “in which you stand;” and their glorification, “by which you are being saved.” The gospel is the whole life lived.
We will see as we move through Mark’s book how the gospel is not just a point of entry but the tipping point, the watershed, that reorients our entire outlook on the world, God, and ourselves. In the context of war, we never take for granted our supply lines. Similarly, in the context of our spiritual war, the gospel is our only supply line on which we rely on, thrive on, survive on daily.
Matthew Claridge is married to Cassandra and has three children, Alec , Nora, and Grace. He is an editor for Credo Magazine and is Senior Pastor of Mt. Idaho Baptist Church in Grangeville, ID. He has earned degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.