With this episode I’d like to do another close reading of a New Testament chapter like I did with the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7. I had a tough time choosing what chapter to do next because there are so many I would like to do. But I finally chose the first chapter of Mark because of a line that’s been repeating in my mind. And that line is, “Repent and believe the Gospel”. This is from verse 15. Why has this been repeating in my mind? That’s something I’ve had to think about. And here’s one reflection I’ve had on it: 2000 years ago something happened, something really important, and it makes demands of us, life-changing demands that will not leave a person the same, but rather completely transforms you into a new creature. That event was the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. I think about the Gospel writer and what he intended to do with this account. It was important to him to spread this message. It had been spread for decades by word of mouth but writing it down preserved it and increased its reach. It was important to know what had happened, who Jesus was, and what he had done. And I believe it’s important. I can appreciate the need and urgency of the Gospel writer to talk about it and give witness to it.
One of the things I love about the Gospel of Mark is his sense of urgency. The pace of the Gospel is exhilarating. I characterize Mark with one Greek word and that is εὐθὺς (euthus), immediately! Everything is εὐθὺς. There’s no relaxing, no taking a moment to catch your breath in Mark. Jesus is constantly on the move and we are on the move with him. This word is used 11 times in chapter 1. I don’t know what the reasons were behind this but the effect it has on me is animating, a feeling of being driven. This is something that the Spirit does. It even does it to Jesus in this chapter: Καὶ εὐθὺς τὸ Πνεῦμα αὐτὸν ἐκβάλλει; And immediately the Spirit drives him out. I feel driven along in the story of Jesus and driven to think about it constantly and to talk about it. I can’t really explain the mechanisms behind that and it makes sense not to be able to. In the Gospel of John Jesus tells Nicodemus that being born of the Spirit is like the wind blowing where it wants to, you hear the sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes (John 3:8). It’s not really explicable but the experience is palpable.
Mark chapter 1 really grabs me and speaks to me in this way. So it’s a text I want to read and talk about.
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
I read this as the opening of a great announcement. Something is coming. Someone is coming and we need to get ready. It’s not only an announcement but a good announcement. The gospel, the εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion), is good news and it is good news about the person Jesus Christ, Χριστός (Christos), the Anointed, the One who is anointed king and Lord. It was practice in Israel to anoint, מָשַׁח (mashach), a king and as such the king was the Anointed, in Hebrew מָשִׁיחַ (meshiach), or Messiah, Χριστός (Christos) in Greek. The king was also a son of God, a title given here to Jesus. But in the case of Jesus we can understand it to have a deeper, more literal meaning, that Jesus is actually divine.
Verses 2 – 3
As it is written in the Prophets:
“Behold, I send My messenger before Your face,
Who will prepare Your way before You.”
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
Make His paths straight.’”
The beginning of the chapter is immediately interrupted by quotations from scripture. But these interruptions also move the story forward. They bolster the importance of what is coming. This has been anticipated for centuries. The quotes are from Malachi, Exodus, and Isaiah. Specifically these are quotes from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the scriptures.
“Behold, I send My messenger (ἄγγελος, angelos), And he will prepare the way before Me.”
“Behold, I send an Angel (ἄγγελος, angelos) before you to keep you in the way.”
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; Make straight in the desert
A highway for our God.’”
In the Septuagint translations of Malachi and Exodus the word used is ἄγγελος (angelos). This is also the word Mark uses in quotation. It means messenger and the cognate “angel” is essentially a divine messenger. Also related to the word gospel, εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion). In Hebrew, מֲלְאָךְ (malach), also has this same double meaning, as either an earthly messenger or a divine messenger. An important message is coming.
And actually, I’d like to quote that Isaiah passage in a fuller context because it’s quite beautiful and, I think, appropriate to the kind of important message that the Gospel brings.
“’Comfort, yes, comfort My people!’ Says your God. ‘Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her, That her warfare is ended, That her iniquity is pardoned; For she has received from the Lord’s hand Double for all her sins.’ The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; Make straight in the desert A highway for our God.”
This is a passage of the LORD turning back in kindness toward the people of Israel. The book of Isaiah has two sections of noticeably different tone. Noticeable at least after it’s pointed out. Some people think the second section was even written by a different person. And that may be the case. But regardless the arc of the book is toward reconciliation. A great summary of this whole theme is in Isaiah 54:7-10.
“’For a mere moment I have forsaken you, But with great mercies I will gather you. With a little wrath I hid My face from you for a moment; But with everlasting kindness I will have mercy on you,’ Says the Lord, your Redeemer. ‘For this is like the waters of Noah to Me; For as I have sworn That the waters of Noah would no longer cover the earth, So have I sworn That I would not be angry with you, nor rebuke you. For the mountains shall depart And the hills be removed, But My kindness shall not depart from you, Nor shall My covenant of peace be removed,’ Says the Lord, who has mercy on you.”
This is an important transition and I don’t think it’s a stretch to see a similar transition on the horizon here at the beginning of Mark.
Verses 4 – 5
John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. Then all the land of Judea, and those from Jerusalem, went out to him and were all baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.
Here we meet the voice of one crying in the wilderness. The messenger, the ἄγγελος of the εὐαγγελίου. This is John the Baptist. And what is his message? A baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. Four major parts I see to this, one problem with three responses.
The problem is sin. This is a problem throughout scripture. Sin is what caused the LORD to hide his face in an outburst of wrath with Israel (Isaiah 54:8). And there are three responses to this problem in John’s message: baptism, repentance, and remission of sins.
This reminds me a little of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths. The First Noble Truth is that dukkha (suffering, pain, what cannot be satisfied) is an innate characteristic of existence in the realm of samsara. The Second Noble Truth is that nirodha (cessation, ending) of this dukkha can be attained. In Buddhism this cessation of suffering is attained through renouncement of taṇhā (“craving, desire or attachment”).
There’s a similar pattern in what John preached. In John’s message the fundamental problem is sin. But the εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion), the good news is that it is possible to overcome sin. A remission of sins is possible. And this comes about through a dramatic transformation that we see in baptism and repentance, or βάπτισμα μετανοίας (baptisma metanoias), baptism of repentance. Scriptures speak of baptism as a new birth, being born again as a new creature. For example, Jesus said, “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3) Paul said:
“Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life (ἐν καινότητι ζωῆς, en kainoteti zoes). For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin.” (Romans 6:3-6)
I quote this passage from the Epistle to the Romans quite frequently and it’s because I think it’s a core principle and one of the most important passages in the Bible. I think it’s instructive of the degree of transformation that occurs in the process of being born again. I also think one of the most important words in the New Testament is καινός (kainos), new. Christ makes all things new. Whatever is stale and bereft of energy that is what Christ is able to enliven and make new. Paul said to the Corinthians: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation (καινὴ κτίσις, kaine ktisis); old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.
John’s clothing and diet were quite severe. And it seems from what we read that John and his followers were quite a bit more strenuous and ascetic in their practices than Jesus and his followers. For one thing John and his followers seemed to have fasted more, to the point that it was a noticeable difference. “And they come and say unto him, Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples fast not?” (Mark 2:18) Jesus also, somewhat humorously and sardonically, comments on the different ways people criticized him and John: “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He has a devil. The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. But wisdom is justified of her children.” (Matthew 11:18-19)
I find these differences between John and Jesus quite interesting and it’s notable that both are esteemed. There is more than one way to live and act in the service of the Kingdom of God. Paul said as much to the Corinthians:
“Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which works all in all.” (1 Corinthians 12:4-6)
John’s strenuous practices are not necessary to emulate. But it is one way live.
Verses 7 – 8
And he preached, saying, “There comes One after me who is mightier than I, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to stoop down and loose. I indeed baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
This is fascinating to me because I already find the baptism with water and the transformation of one’s nature that comes with it to be extremely powerful and inspiring. But there is more. John says this is just the beginning. Jesus comes and will bring a second baptism with the Holy Spirit. Jesus made a point of this before his crucifixion that he was going to send the Paraclete, παράκλητος (parakletos), the comforter, helper, or advocate. This is the Holy Spirit.
John’s words are even more evocative in the Gospel of Matthew where he says:
“I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:11)
I find this evocative because I think many of us can relate to the experience of the Holy Spirit in this way. It feels like a fire lit from within that energizes and enlivens. I think of the words of the people who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus: “Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?” (Luke 24:32)
The most dramatic account of the Holy Spirit is on the Day of Pentecost after Jesus’ resurrection:
“And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them dividing tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” (Acts 2:3-4)
It’s notable I think how the Spirit is emphatically active and driving events and speech. The Spirit was giving them utterance, it enabled them and empowered them to speak.
Verses 9 – 11
It came to pass in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 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.”
Here we actually meet Jesus for the first time and things move very quickly. The author doesn’t dwell or rest for a moment. Everything happens immediately, εὐθὺς (euthus). Baptism is a moment of transition for everyone and it is for Jesus as well. Everything gets moving after this and Jesus’s ministry hits the ground running. The Holy Spirit descends on him and God the Father announces his divine sonship and favored status.
Verses 12 – 13
Immediately the Spirit drove Him into the wilderness. And He was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan, and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to Him.
So things move very quickly here. Jesus is baptized and he’s off, driven into the wilderness by the Spirit. Note again the Spirit’s very active role in things. Jesus is not John. He’s not an ascetic in the same way. But it’s interesting that he does pass through a strenuous period. We don’t hear much about this in Mark. Matthew gives more detail about the kinds of temptations Jesus faced.
Of note here is the fact that Jesus was subjected to temptation. This is not incidental, but rather central to Christ’s saving mission. We read in the Book of Hebrews:
“For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16)
One of the supernal Christian doctrines is that Christ was both fully God and fully human. Both are crucial. Christ experienced all the weakness and trials we experience as humans.
Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God
We must note the detail that John was put in prison. Here we see briefly something that Jesus will also face. Both John and Jesus were controversial and destabilizing preachers. And it’s important to remember that. David Bentley Hart has called Christianity “irrepressibly fissile” and I like that description. This shouldn’t be surprising because Jesus told his disciples that the gospel would invite contestation.
“Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:20)
The gospel goes against the grain of much that is taken for granted in the world. It’s hardly conformist, so resistance shouldn’t be surprising. Nevertheless we should be careful not to justify antisocial behaviors and misanthropic attitudes for their own sake, as if these are essential to gospel faithfulness. Sort of the “You offend everyone so you must be doing something right” attitude. That’s just immature. Christian discipleship is not marked by misanthropy but by love. “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)
It’s precisely this kind of Christian love that makes demands of us in a way that we resist. For example, John taught:
“He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.”
“Collect no more than what is appointed for you.”
“Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages.”
Those aren’t things we always want to hear. John also spoke out against sexual excess, particularly of the local ruler Herod. And this also goes against the grain of culture, both Greco-Roman culture and our modern culture. These aren’t things people really want to hear.
And saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
Here is the main passage that has inspired my interest in this chapter, the summary of Jesus’s preaching.
Now let’s look at Mark’s summary of Jesus’s preaching: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
The kingdom of God, ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ Θεοῦ (he basilea tou theou), is an important theme in the gospel accounts and was clearly central to Jesus’s preaching. It was the subject of many of his most famous parables. For example, in Matthew 13 most of his parables begin with the phrase “the kingdom of heaven is like”:
“The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field”
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed”
“The kingdom of heaven is like leaven”
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field”
“The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls”
“The kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet that was cast into the sea and gathered some of every kind”
The kingdom of God is not like the kingdoms of the world, for many reasons (Mark 10:42-43). And the preaching of this coming kingdom makes demands on us. Jesus preached two things in these verses that people must do: (1) repent and (2) believe in the gospel. What is the gospel? Verse 14 says that Jesus came “preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God”. The subject of the gospel is this kingdom of God. We are supposed to repent and to believe in this announcement of the kingdom of God.
“Repent”, Jesus says, in greek, μετανοεῖτε (metanoiete). Etymology is not always indicative of meaning or use, something to be careful of in Biblical interpretation, but in this case it actually is. Μετάνοια (metanoia) means after-thought or beyond-thought and is commonly understood as “a transformative change of heart” and “a fundamental change in thinking and living”. Like I brought up previously with the idea of being reborn and becoming a new creature in Christ through baptism, transformation is fundamental to the gospel message. Things don’t just stay as they are. They must become new.
Verses 16 – 19
And as He walked by the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. Then Jesus said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” They immediately left their nets and followed Him. When He had gone a little farther from there, He saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who also were in the boat mending their nets. And immediately He called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and went after Him.
It’s possible that Mark’s characteristically brisk account abbreviates events here. Or, as I’m inclined to think, the immediacy may serve a narrative purpose. They immediately left their nets and followed him. Immediately, εὐθὺς (euthus), Mark’s favorite word.
We see here something of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the “cost of discipleship”. And we also see in this one of the apparent paradoxes of Christ’s gospel. Jesus said that his “burden is light” (Matthew 11:30) but it would also seem that the corresponding action of taking on his yoke is total. The demand is total but the reward is also total; all for all. We see this in a gospel account, in Luke, of would-be disciples who were not so totally committed in their discipleship:
“Now it happened as they journeyed on the road, that someone said to Him, ‘Lord, I will follow You wherever You go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.’ Then He said to another, ‘Follow Me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and preach the kingdom of God.’ And another also said, ‘Lord, I will follow You, but let me first go and bid them farewell who are at my house.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.’” (Luke 9:57-62)
This is undeniably astounding. God’s grace, the gift of salvation is glorious and infinite. But still, from the perspective of our immediate circumstances the cost required is jarring. Yet Simon, Andrew, James, and John meet that demand. They immediately leave their nets and follow.
Verses 21 – 22
Then they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath He entered the synagogue and taught. And they were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.
Jesus taught as one having authority, ἐξουσία (exousia). And, being God, he certainly did have authority. I don’t think it’s a fault on the scribes’s part that they didn’t teach in this way. That wouldn’t have been proper. They could only refer to the authority of the scriptures. Jesus certainly quoted scripture as well but he also went beyond the things that scripture said. And this would be quite striking to hear. Imagine:
“‘You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.’” (Matthew 5:21-22)
“‘You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’” (Matthew 5:27-28)
Jesus would quote scripture and then add to it. As he said, he wasn’t destroying the law but fulfilling it (Matthew 5:17). Still, that’s not something that can be done without authority. And Jesus didn’t have to say, “This is according to so and so or to such and such a verse”. He just taught in virtue of his own authority. And it was noticeable, astonishing to those listening to him.
Verses 23 – 26
Now there was a man in their synagogue with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, saying, “Let us alone! What have we to do with You, Jesus of Nazareth? Did You come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God!” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be quiet, and come out of him!” And when the unclean spirit had convulsed him and cried out with a loud voice, he came out of him.
A lot of things going on in these verses. For one thing, the unclean spirit knows who Jesus is. He is called “the Holy One of God”, ὁ Ἅγιος τοῦ Θεοῦ (ho Hagios tou Theou). This is a testimony of a sort, albeit from an unholy source. It’s interesting that Jesus not only commands the spirit to come out of the man but also tells it to be quiet. One theme in the gospel of Mark is that Jesus is often telling people not to reveal who he is. He even does this when Peter makes his confession:
“‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered and said to Him, ‘You are the Christ.’ Then He strictly warned them that they should tell no one about Him.” (Mark 8:29-30) In Biblical criticism this is sometimes called the “Messianic secret”.
Also of note here is that Jesus is an authoritative and successful exorcist. And this was something that caught people’s attention, as we’ll see in the next couple verses.
Then they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? What new doctrine is this? For with authority He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey Him.” And immediately His fame spread throughout all the region around Galilee.
Jesus’s exorcisms and his miracles in general were definitely evidence of his identity and authority. Much as he was able to teach with his own authority, the fact that he was bold enough to (1) command the unclean spirits and (2) that the unclean spirits actually obeyed him got people’s attention. It marked him out as someone different doing something new. So that they would ask, “What is this? What new doctrine is this?” What new teaching, διδαχὴ καινή (didache kaine)?
The word “new”, καινός (kainos), is one that I try to pay attention to whenever it shows up.
In Jeremiah: “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah”. “New covenant” being διαθήκην καινήν (diatheken kainen) in the Septuagint Greek. (Jeremiah 31:31)
“And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; or else the new wine bursts the wineskins, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined. But new wine must be put into new wineskins.” ἀσκοὺς καινούς (askous kainous). (Mark 2:22)
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation (καινὴ κτίσις, kaine ktisis); old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
Christ’s gospel isn’t just novelty for the sake of novelty.
One example of newness in the New Testament that is ambiguous, whether it’s good or bad, is in the account of the Athenians.
“And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, ‘May we know what this new doctrine [ἡ καινὴ (he kaine)] is of which you speak?’ …For all the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing.” τι καινότερον (ti kainoteron). (Acts 17:19,21)
It’s not obvious here but seems to be implied that this perpetual search for novelty among the Athenians was not an unqualified positive attribute. Still, Paul does play into it, in a way that cleverly combines the old and the new. The new teaching that he proclaims is of the God they have been worshipping from ancient times, without understanding.
“I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD [ΑΓΝΩΣΤΩ ΘΕΩ (AGNOSTO THEO)]. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you: God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’” (Acts 17:23-28)
Paul indeed gives them a new teaching. But he grounds this in ancient practice and ancient truth. The Unknown God is the God who has always been there in the background, sustaining all things. This is consistent with Jesus’s new teachings, which do not destroy old teaching but fulfill. The new covenant fulfills and furthers the old covenant. As a point of speculation, this might be a way of taking advantage of the freshness of new teachings while staying grounded in the old. This aspect of newness does seem to be one of the Gospel’s central attributes. And this seems thematically consistent with the gospel as a whole. In Christ, the stale and deteriorating are not the order of things. Things do not end in death. Resurrection brings renewed life and energy to all things.
Verses 29 – 39
Now as soon as they had come out of the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. But Simon’s wife’s mother lay sick with a fever, and they told Him about her at once. So He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and immediately the fever left her. And she served them. At evening, when the sun had set, they brought to Him all who were sick and those who were demon-possessed. And the whole city was gathered together at the door. Then He healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and He did not allow the demons to speak, because they knew Him. Now in the morning, having risen a long while before daylight, He went out and departed to a solitary place; and there He prayed. And Simon and those who were with Him searched for Him. When they found Him, they said to Him, “Everyone is looking for You.” But He said to them, “Let us go into the next towns, that I may preach there also, because for this purpose I have come forth.” And He was preaching in their synagogues throughout all Galilee, and casting out demons.
Jesus healed, cast out demons, and preached the good news of the coming kingdom of God. His ministry was intrinsically itinerant, moving from one town to the next. “Because for this purpose I have come forth”. I quoted earlier where Jesus said “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” (Luke 9:58) In addition to being a comment on the cost of discipleship it also highlights the itinerant nature of his ministry.
We see here again the Messianic secret: “and [he] cast out many demons; and He did not allow the demons to speak, because they knew Him”. It’s also worth noting the importance of the immediate, physical aspect of Jesus’s service. I think it’s certainly true that the universal blessings of Christ’s atonement, our redemption from sin and death, are most important. Still, Jesus was exceptionally compassionate toward those in his immediate presence. And I think this also teaches us something about the nature of God.
Verses 40 – 45
Now a leper came to Him, imploring Him, kneeling down to Him and saying to Him, “If You are willing, You can make me clean.” Then Jesus, moved with compassion, stretched out His hand and touched him, and said to him, “I am willing; be cleansed.” As soon as He had spoken, immediately the leprosy left him, and he was cleansed. And He strictly warned him and sent him away at once, and said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go your way, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing those things which Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” However, he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the matter, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter the city, but was outside in deserted places; and they came to Him from every direction.
I think this is a wonderful account in which we are able to see something of the nature of God in Jesus. The leper says, “If You are willing.” Is Jesus willing to heal? Jesus says Θέλω (Thelo), I will it, I want it. Of course Jesus wants the man to be healed. Furthermore, Jesus is “moved with compassion”, σπλαγχνισθεὶς (splagchnistheis). σπλαγχνίζομαι (splagchnizomai) is one of my favorite greek words, both for the way it sounds and for what it means. It means to have compassion. The roots of this verb, σπλάγχνα (splagchna), are literally the internal organs, and figuratively the visceral seat of emotions. σπλαγχνίζομαι (splagchnizomai) is a kind of full-bodied experience of compassion and I strongly associate it with Jesus in the New Testament writings. Jesus wants to heal and wants to do it because of his overwhelming love for people.
Jesus said that the attributes we see in him are indicative of the attributes of God.
“He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9)
Also in the gospel of John:
“No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.” (John 1:18)
We can look to Jesus to understand the character of God. And what we see is love that surpasses all expectations. God is like the father of the Prodigal Son. All that the prodigal son imagines and hopes to expect is: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.” But the Father rejoices and invites everyone to rejoice at his homecoming.
In conclusion I’d like to revisit a couple passages in this chapter. A couple weeks ago I was reading in the Gospel of John where Jesus talks about the mission of the Holy Spirit. He said: “But the Parclete, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.” (John 14:26) This is one significant way I’ve encountered the Holy Spirit: by being made to remember the words of Jesus. And one of these things impressed on my mind is this call: “Repent and believe the Gospel”.
It’s remarkable to me how Simon and Andrew, James and John just drop everything from their previous life and follow Jesus at his sudden command: “Follow me”. I wonder what they felt. Were they excited? Afraid? Likely both and more?
The Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor often portrayed Gospel ideas through violence. That’s certainly strange and admittedly idiosyncratic. And even though that kind of literary illustration is an exaggeration and a distortion I think there’s wisdom in it. In a way the Gospel is simultaneously destructive and constructive. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.” (John 12:24) We are meant to both die with Christ and rise again with Christ. Even if O’Connor’s use of violence to portray this is literary exaggeration it correctly conveys the idea that Christian conversion comes with an impact and great power.
Now that may or may not sound appealing. Certainly the call of the Spirit has not always been completely welcome. Jeremiah resisted it:
“O Lord, You induced me, and I was persuaded;
You are stronger than I, and have prevailed.
I am in derision daily;
Everyone mocks me.
For when I spoke, I cried out;
I shouted, ‘Violence and plunder!’
Because the word of the Lord was made to me
A reproach and a derision daily.
Then I said, ‘I will not make mention of Him,
Nor speak anymore in His name.’
But His word was in my heart like a burning fire
Shut up in my bones;
I was weary of holding it back,
And I could not.”
So that’s both awesome and frightening. But not all so moved resist in this way.
Paul called himself a slave to Christ, δοῦλος Χριστοῦ (doulos Christou) (Romans 1:1). That may not sound so appealing. Especially as a modern, freedom-loving American it certainly makes me do a double-take. But Paul delighted in this. Paradoxically, he considered this slavery to Christ a kind of liberation and taught that there was liberty ἐλευθερίᾳ (eleutheria) in Christ.
“Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free” (Galatians 5:1)
And what are we freed from? We are freed from sin by submitting to new mastery under Christ.
“Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free [ἐλευθερωθέντες (eleutherothentes)] from sin, you became slaves [ἐδουλώθητε (edoulothete)] of righteousness. I speak in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:15-23)
We can be slaves of sin or slaves of Christ. But the wages of each diverge sharply. The wages of sin is death. But submission to Christ, even though it is all-demanding, is also fully liberating. His yoke is easy and his burden is light. And the gift of God is eternal life.
When I hear, “Repent and believe the Gospel,” I hear it as Paul, Simon and Andrew, James and John. It’s all-demanding, awesome, frightening, and glorious. It is the ultimate “good news”, εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion), that must be announced.