Nov 27, 2005

Beginning of Jesus' Public Ministry

Mark 1:14–20

Whenever Jesus called people to Himself, He called them to repentance. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul observes what Christ required of His first disciples and every disciple since.


This morning, I will be reading from Mark 1:14–20. I will ask the congregation to stand for the reading of the Word of God:

Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

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.

He who has ears to hear the Word of God, let him hear. Please be seated. Let us pray.

Now, God, as we turn our attention to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in Galilee, we pray that, though the account is brief, the power of it may penetrate our minds and hearts for Jesus’ sake and for ours. Amen.

Married to History

I was reading the paper this morning, and an article caught my attention about a course being offered in a school in Kansas. The title of the course was this: “Intelligent Design, Creation, and Other Religious Mythologies.” In that course title, the biblical account of creation and of God was relegated to the category of myth.

Myths have their place in cultural history. Myths can be very effective in communicating a moral truth or spiritual insight. But at the very heart of Judaism in the Old Testament is the rejection of myth as the context for divine revelation. Rather, biblical religion finds real space and time as its context for religious truth.

Christianity is married to history. If it is not historical in its foundational assertions, then it is worth less than any myth. So, as Mark begins to give the history of Jesus’ public ministry, it is important to notice that the context for it is not mythological but historical.

Scholars have been quick to point out that the gospel record comes to us clothed not in the forms of ordinary history, but rather a particular type of record that scholars call “redemptive history.” Because it is redemptive history, some have sought to indicate that it is not really historical. But we are quick to point out that even though it is redemptive history, it is redemptive history. The sphere in which God reveals His work of redemption is real space and time, real history. That is at the heart of this announcement in chapter 1.

The Gospel of God

This is the beginning of Jesus’ Galilean ministry that Mark introduces by putting this comment in advance: “Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.’”

These verses are brief, but they are worthy of far more exposition than I can possibly do justice to in one Sunday morning sermon. In a word, though these words are brief, they are loaded with theological significance.

Let me begin by calling attention to Mark’s statement that when Jesus came to Galilee, He was preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God. If you have your Bibles with you, some of you will have a different reading. Instead of saying, “preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God,” it might say in your Bible, “preaching the gospel of God.” Why is there a difference in different English translations? Why do some translations say, “the gospel of the kingdom of God,” and others say, “the gospel of God”?

I will explain to you why, and this may bother you until you get a deeper understanding of it. We have in this chapter a textual variant. We do not have in our possession today the original gospel that Mark wrote, but rather that gospel was carefully copied in different countries through the ages, so that there may be two thousand extant copies of the gospel of Mark.

The copies do not always read in perfect verbal agreement one to another. As Christians, we do not have any brief for the special inspiration or infallibility of copies or translations. There are various schools of copies. Those who seek to reconstruct the original text, which is a science in and of itself, consider all manner of technical points to determine what was most likely in the original manuscript.

This passage is one of those rare occasions where the textual evidence for the words “gospel of the kingdom of God” or “gospel of God” is almost fifty-fifty in making an intellectual judgment about what was in the original. However, there is no significant difference in the meaning of the text, regardless of which of the two you settle on.

Some translators say, “No, the original simply said that Jesus came preaching ‘the gospel of God,’” while others insert “the gospel of the kingdom of God” because the phase “kingdom of God” appears in the second half of the sentence. So, both are true in the sense that Jesus came preaching the gospel of God, which was the gospel of the kingdom of God. There is no theological difference between those two readings.

Just to point this out, if we look at the option that Jesus came preaching “the gospel of God,” I like that for the simple reason that it is the same way the Apostle Paul begins his letter to the Romans, where Paul sees himself as set apart to the gospel of God. That is significant because the gospel of God is not the good news about God. Rather, the grammar used here is possessive. It means it is the gospel that belongs to God.

God is the gospel’s author. God is its owner. God is the One giving this message, not John the Baptist, and not even Jesus. It is not Jesus’ gospel, as such. It is the Father’s gospel that the Son is now declaring.

The Gospel of the Kingdom

As I mentioned the first week that we looked at this book, Mark developed a literary genre called the gospel, which was a kind of writing. But we also see that the term gospel then refers to the coming of the kingdom of God, and finally in the epistles the term gospel points to the person and work of Jesus. It becomes the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Early on, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, when Jesus came preaching the gospel of God, the content of that announcement of good news was the coming of the kingdom of God. It is the gospel of the kingdom. If there is any motif that runs all through the Old Testament and is fulfilled perfectly in the New Testament, it is that central idea of the coming kingdom of God.

What are we talking about when we talk about the kingdom of God? Did the kingdom of God not always exist? Has God not been the Lord God omnipotent who reigns from all eternity? Of course He has, but when the Old Testament speaks of the coming kingdom of God, it refers to the personal visitation of God, the King of the universe, to this fallen world to manifest the rule of redemption that He brings to pass with the coming Messiah.

So, the people of Israel in the Old Testament looked forward to the day when God’s rule would be manifest here on earth in the coming of His Anointed One. John the Baptist had announced the coming of the kingdom and was now in prison. Jesus followed in his footsteps, coming into Galilee preaching the gospel of God, and Luke tells us that He preaches the kingdom, saying: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

The Time Is Fulfilled

“The time is fulfilled.” Back in the middle of the twentieth century, a Swiss scholar undertook the task of answering existential theologians who were trying to snatch the biblical message out of the context of history and make it basically mythological in a “theology of timelessness.” The Swiss scholar said, “No, you can’t do that and be true to the documents themselves,” because Christianity, as I said earlier, is totally tied to real history.

This Swiss theologian by the name of Oscar Cullmann wrote three books, a trilogy dealing with this subject including salvation in history and Christology. The first of the three volumes was titled simply Christ and Time. It was one of the most important works of the twentieth century, in which Professor Cullmann examined all the timeframe references in the New Testament.

Cullmann noticed, for example, that there are two basic words in the Greek language translated by the English word time. There is the word chronos, which might be familiar. You know what a chronicle is, or a chronology, or a chronometer, which is a wristwatch. Chronos refers to the moment-by-moment passing of time, second by second, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, year by year. Ordinary time is chronos.

In addition to that word for time, there is a special word in the Greek, kairos. The word kairos means a particular moment in time that is so important, so significant, that it defines everything that comes after it.

We do not really have corresponding distinctions in the English language that are exact to chronos and kairos, but the closest thing we have are the terms historic and historical. Notice how many times newscasters miss this distinction. They say that the assassination of John Kennedy was a historical event. Of course it was a historical event—everything that takes place in space and time is historical, but not everything that takes place in history is historic.

Nobody will write a book talking about the significance of R.C. Sproul preaching at Saint Andrew’s Chapel this morning. I am doing it in real time. This is a chronological event. My preaching this morning is historical, but I guarantee you it is not historic. For it to be historic, it must be something so important, so momentous, that it shapes history.

Jesus Defines All History

Of course, the most kairotic event in all of history was the birth of Jesus. In fact, all of history is defined by that moment. We talk about “the year of our Lord.” Between BC and AD, Christ’s birth is the dividing line of history in the Western world. His death on the cross is a kairotic moment. His resurrection is a kairotic moment. In the Old Testament, the exodus of Israel was a kairotic event.

This is what Mark has in view because he uses the word kairos in this text. When Jesus comes preaching the kingdom of God, He makes this announcement: “The kairos is fulfilled.” The word that He uses there is the word plērōma, which means “super-fullness.”

If I give you a glass and say, “Go and fill this glass with water, please,” I hope you do not fill it to the brim, because if you fill it to the brim and try to hand it to me, it will spill out over the top onto the floor and make me, the floor, and everything else wet. When we fill a coffee cup or a glass, we leave some room at the top so we can maneuver it without spilling. That is not plērōma.

When you fill something in the sense of plērōma, it is bursting at the seams. It is spilling out over the edge. There is no margin left that is not totally filled. When Jesus comes into Galilee, He essentially says: “The kairos and the plērōma have come together. All of time and history up until this moment have been prepared by the Lord God omnipotent, the Creator of the universe, who stands over all time and space. God has so prepared history for this moment that has now occurred. The time is right now. The time is fulfilled for the manifestation of the kingdom of God.”

The Crisis Is Here Now

Let us read how Jesus says it: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” The word there, if you look at it carefully, means “near,” and it has a two-fold reference. The kingdom of God is now at hand or near simply in terms of the clock. Remember, the time is fulfilled, and that time is at hand. The kairotic moment is right now, and the kingdom of God is near; not just temporally, but physically at hand.

Jesus is saying the kingdom of God is at hand because the King is here. The King of the kingdom is in your midst. You can reach out and touch Him. The long-awaited Messiah is here. That is what Mark is indicating with Jesus’ words when he says: “The time has been fulfilled. The kingdom of God is at hand.”

The moment in which the King comes brings the most profound crisis to every Jew in Israel that they have ever experienced. The word crisis comes from the Greek krisis, which means judgment. When Jesus comes, the kingdom breaks through, and the Messiah appears, it is the most critical moment in human history. It brings the most profound crisis that any human being can face.

That crisis or judgment comes down to this: those who receive Him receive eternal life; those who do not receive Him pass into the judgment of God. So, Jesus is saying to the Jews, “Your crisis is right now.” He says it to everybody in the world today who hears of Him. It is a crisis.

You cannot hear the gospel and walk away indifferent. When you receive the gospel, it is the greatest moment of your lifetime. When you do not receive the gospel, it is the greatest judgment upon you. The gospel is a two-edged sword. Jesus is saying, “You’re not ready for the coming of the kingdom; therefore, repent and believe.” Those are the two things necessary to receive the Savior. The coming of Christ requires repentance and faith by all who hear of Him.

It bothers me when I see so much of evangelism that happens today, the so-called “gospeling” in this world. People have said, “If you want to have purpose for your life, if you want to have a personal relationship with Jesus, if you want to have a meaningful relationship with God, then come forward to the altar, raise your hand, sign a card, pray the sinner’s prayer.”

We bunch all of that together and call it “cheap grace” because what is noticeably absent from those attempts to evangelize is any serious call to repentance. You cannot enter the kingdom of God without repentance, without fleeing from your sin and putting your trust in Christ alone. This is how our Lord Himself did evangelism. He announced the gospel, and then He said, “Your response must be to repent and believe.”

Jesus Calls the Fishermen

Mark quickly moves on to the calling of Jesus’ first disciples. We read: “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.”

This story takes place by the Sea of Galilee, which is really an inland lake about thirteen miles long and seven miles wide. It was one of the most productive bodies of water in the ancient world for the fishing industry. In AD 68, when the Romans invaded the land of Palestine, the ancient historian Josephus observed that they commandeered around 250 fishing boats from the Sea of Galilee, not including the ones they didn’t commandeer.

There were a lot of fishermen fishing in the Sea of Galilee. It was a huge industry in the ancient world. In fact, there were so many varieties of fish in the Sea of Galilee not found elsewhere that the fish caught in that sea were exported to other countries. We think of the disciples as poverty-stricken fishermen trying to eke out a living, like people standing along Lake Monroe here in Florida trying to catch their dinner in the afternoon. No, these men were businessmen, and they had lucrative businesses with respect to the fishing industry from the Sea of Galilee.

Josephus also remarked about the great beauty surrounding the sea, how fertile was the district watered by the lake and so on, and he said, “It was the pride of nature.” If you have ever been to the Sea of Galilee, you would understand even today what Josephus was saying towards the end of the first century.

By the shores of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus walked along and saw two men: Simon and the patron saint of our church, Andrew. They are casting their nets into the sea. These nets were about fifteen feet in diameter, and on the edges of these circular nets were weights that held them down. The fishermen would throw them in a circular motion onto the surface of the water, and the weights would sink the nets down to the bottom and close them, catching several fish.

There were several kinds of nets, but the two most common had a rope in the middle of the net, so after the net sank to the ground, the fishermen pulled the rope and the outer hems of the nets would close and trap the fish. The men would pull the net to the surface, get their catch of fish, and sell it in the marketplace.

A more primitive form was that the men would throw nets into the water that did not have a rope in the middle. They would have to dive down in the water and scoop up the net and fish to the surface before they ran out of breath. I suspect that Simon and Andrew had the more efficient nets.

Jesus observes them and says to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men,” and they immediately leave their nets and follow Him. Mark goes on to say: “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.” In these verses, Jesus is calling disciples.

Students and Servants

We often hear about the twelve disciples and talk about the twelve Apostles, and so lots of folks think that disciple is just another word for an Apostle, but that is not the case. Jesus had at least seventy disciples, and many of them were never included in the Apostolic band because a disciple was a student, a learner. The word disciple means somebody under the discipline of a tutor or rabbi. Jesus goes out as a rabbi and enrolls disciples into His rabbinic school.

There are a couple of things we need to understand about this. In the first place, in the ancient Jewish world, rabbis never went out and recruited students. Students would apply to study with a rabbi, just as we do in our educational systems today, and they would have to jump through hoops, pass examinations, and make sure they were qualified before they would be accepted to study under Hillel, Akiba, Gamaliel, or whomever.

In this case, this rabbi, who is different from any other rabbi in Israel, goes out and handpicks His students: “I want you, you, and you. You’re fishing for fish. Follow Me, and I’ll have you fishing for men.”

The words “follow Me” are also interesting because there is a literal sense to them. Think back to ancient Greece and the great cultural center of Athens. Plato established his academy there, where students would come through the gates that said, “Let none but geometers enter here.” They would enroll in Plato’s school and study under the master. Of course, his most brilliant and famous student was Aristotle.

Later, Aristotle started his own school in Athens called the Lyceum, but Aristotle was different from his teacher because he was called a peripatetic philosopher. A peripatetic philosopher is somebody who walks around, so Aristotle walked while he was lecturing. His students followed along behind him with their notepads, taking down their notes, trying to consign them to memory, and so on.

Jesus was a peripatetic rabbi. He would go from town to town and lecture on the way, and His disciples would literally follow Him. They would walk behind Him and memorize the terse, pithy aphorisms and parables that Jesus taught. They committed them to memory. That is why so much of the teaching of Jesus survived in oral tradition after His death, before His words were written down, because His disciples were skilled in memorizing His teaching. That was their task.

When He called them to discipleship, He not only called them to learn at His feet, but a disciple of a rabbi was also a servant. He would take care of the shoes of the professor, make sure that the professor had his evening meals prepared for him. Wherever the professor went, the students, the disciples would go and serve their master. That is why Jesus would say, “Is the student above his master, the servant above his master?” No. It was a rigorous pursuit.

Jesus talked to Simon and Andrew, saying: “Follow Me. Come into My school, be My student, be My servant.” Without any further discussion, Simon and Andrew put down the nets and left to follow Jesus. They went down the road a little further, and there were James and John, the sons of Zebedee. They were in their father’s boat with their father and his servant. Jesus said to James and John, “Come, follow Me.”

Can you imagine the astonishment of Zebedee? His sons, for whom he prepared this business, got out of the boat. They left their father Zebedee scratching his head, and all he had left were the servants, the hired hands, not his sons. He watched them walk down the road with two other fellows whom he knew were also fisherman and with a rabbi

Called to Follow Christ

Some of you saw the movie years ago, A Man Called Peter. It was about the Senate chaplain Peter Marshall, who was a famous preacher in the middle of the twentieth century. His sermons were so lyrical that they called him “twittering birds Marshall.” When he died young, his widow, Catherine Marshall, had a book of his sermons published under the title Mr. Jones, Meet the Master. It is one of the first books I read after my conversion in 1957.

There is a sermon in that book I will never forget. Marshall tells a modern-day story that takes place in the waterfront of Baltimore, in the shop of a man by the name of Joe Botts. Joe was a fishmonger. He loved the business. It was a lucrative business. Every morning he went in, unlocked his store, put the open sign on the door, the aroma of fresh fish packed in ice hit him, the brine—all that is part of the trade. It is as though you went to Seattle to watch the fishmongers in the market where they throw the day’s catch to each other.

Joe Botts loved all of this. One morning, he was preparing his shop for business when the bell rang over the door, and he looked up, and a man in a blue serge suit walked in the door. He looked at Joe, and he said, “Joe, close the shop and come with me.”

Marshall said that when Joe Botts saw this man, there was just something about him. He couldn’t ask any questions. He couldn’t proffer an argument. Instead, he took off his apron and set it down on a chair, went over and turned the sign on the door from open to closed, and left his shop forever to follow the man in the blue serge suit.

This was Peter Marshall’s modern parable of what happened by the Sea of Galilee when Jesus said to four men: “From this day forward, you’re Mine. You serve Me. You’re My students.” Every Christian who has come after that is called to be a disciple of Christ, to be a servant of Him, to leave everything to go after the Christ.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.