As persecution raged in Rome, Mark wrote his gospel to remind suffering Christians of the Messiah who had come into the world to redeem them from destruction. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul begins his exposition of Mark by helping us to see this book through the eyes of its first readers.
This morning, we will begin our exposition of the gospel according to Saint Mark. In a few moments, I will read from Mark 1:1–8. Before you stand for the reading of the Word of God, let me ask you for a moment to use your imagination to go back in time and space to first-century Rome.
You are assembled on the Lord’s Day, not in this beautiful sanctuary, but forced to gather underneath the city of Rome as the persecutions of the emperor Nero rage above ground. If it is discovered by the authorities that you are a Christian, you will be arrested and subjected to the death penalty.
So, this morning, instead of gathering here, you are gathering in the catacombs underneath the city of Rome, surrounded by skeletons and cadavers, and someone comes to your meeting to read to you the recently published first gospel written by Saint Mark. So, place yourself in that setting as you hear the opening words of this gospel. I invite you to stand to hear the Word of God:
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 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.’”
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.
Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 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.”
If you have ears to hear the Word of God, hear it. You may be seated. Let us pray.
O God, as we embark afresh on this study of the gospel of Mark, we pray that we will be encouraged, instructed, and edified by every word that comes to us in this gospel. In the name of Jesus, we pray. Amen.
The Background of Mark’s Gospel
One afternoon near dinner time, Douglas MacArthur left his wife to go down the street to the corner grocery store to buy a loaf of bread. As he was walking out the door, he turned to his wife and said, “Don’t worry, honey, I’ll be back.” Those words were hardly momentous in their historical import. I am sure Douglas MacArthur used that expression countless times when he was separated briefly from his wife.
In the darkest moments of the war in the South Pacific in World War II, Douglas MacArthur, the Allied commander, was ordered by the president of the United States to withdraw from the Philippines to regather his forces. As he left in that bleak hour, the people of the Philippines thought their permanent destruction was at hand.
MacArthur looked at those who surrounded him when he boarded the craft that would take him to Australia and said, “I shall return.” Those words echo down the corridors of time with great historic import because of the occasion and audience to which they were spoken.
Beloved, to understand the significance of any message, it is of critical importance to understand who gives the message, to whom the message is delivered, and what circumstances or life situations evoked the message in the first place. With those questions in mind, before we plunge into the content of the gospel of Saint Mark, I want to take a few moments to look at some of the background—the who, what, where, and so on of this gospel.
The author is basically without question—though he is not named in the text itself—John Mark, who was a companion of Paul early with Barnabas on their missionary journeys. The Apostle Paul fired Mark, who then went on with Barnabas while Paul went with Silas. Mark was later reconciled to Paul and became a valuable comrade in the later days of Paul’s Apostolic ministry.
The testimony of church history, particularly from people of great importance in the second century like Papias, Eusebius, and Irenaeus, consistently attests that Mark’s work on this gospel was a labor directed largely by the Apostle Peter. Mark served as Peter’s interpreter. There is some doubt as to whether the actual gospel was written before or after Peter’s death, but that Peter gave his stamp of approval on the content is virtually certain in church history.
The question of when it was written also is significant for our understanding, and to whom it was addressed. It is basically a settled matter of historical investigation that the initial audience for this gospel was the Christians suffering persecution in Rome. When we studied the book of Acts, I mentioned that when Nero came to power, for the first five years of his reign, he reigned in calmness and with some ability. But in AD 59, it seemed as if he went crazy, and he began to engage in all kinds of radically cruel and immoral acts.
In AD 64, the great fire in Rome devastated the city, and many assigned the blame to Nero himself for setting fire to the city. I think it is difficult for us to understand the extent of the destruction in the Eternal City as a result of that fire. When the fire broke out, it spread to seven different wards of the city and raged unquenched for seven days. Finally, the fire was brought under control, but it broke out again and demolished virtually 80 percent of the city.
If you want to get some idea of the extent of damage that the fire caused in Rome, think back to the pictures of the destruction of New Orleans caused by Hurricane Katrina. The devastation that hurricane wrought on New Orleans is not worthy to be compared with the way Rome was devastated by this fire.
What made the calamity so severe is that when things like this happen, everybody looks for a culprit, somebody to blame. Unfortunately for Nero, he did not have another official to blame for the fire of Rome in the first century, so he chose to blame it on Christians. So, the word swept through the city that this ravaging destruction was caused by those antisocial, antireligious fanatics who bore the name of Jesus Christ.
Nero sent his military out to round up every Christian he could find, and when he arrested the Christians, he did a few things. First, he would take Christians and clothe them in the skins of wild animals. Then, in a public display of cruelty, he would let loose feral dogs on them. The dogs thought they were assaulting wild animals. They would attack the Christians garbed in these skins and eat them until they were dead.
Secondly, Nero would arrest Christians, dip them alive in pitch or tar, and ignite their bodies, and then he used their flaming bodies to illumine his private gardens. If that was not enough, to give sport to the city, other Christians were arrested, brought into the Colosseum, and fed to the lions, the wild beasts of the city, for entertainment and sport.
That was the background in AD 64, where the great fire broke out. It was probably in AD 65 that the first gospel appeared in print, the gospel according to Saint Mark, addressed to the people suffering the cruelty of persecution every day, reminding them of their salvation in Christ, the passion Jesus Himself experienced, and that Jesus too was driven into the wilderness under the threat of wild beasts.
One of the marked characteristics of Mark’s gospel is its brevity, the breathtaking pace by which it moves from beginning to end. There are no details around the birth of Jesus. We find those in Luke and Matthew. The gospel of Mark is not a biography. It does not give us a chronological treatment of all the information about Jesus such as we find in Matthew’s gospel. Rather, it was called a “witness document,” almost like a tract that somebody would hand out to give a summary of the significant work of Jesus.
One of the most important Greek words in the gospel of Mark is the word euthys, which is translated “immediately” or “straightway.” It is used forty-two times in Mark’s gospel and only twelve times in the rest of the New Testament.
I had a very good friend, my best friend in college and seminary, who grew up in the mission field in Ethiopia, and he ministered to people deep in the jungle. Their principal mode of transportation was a powerboat that they kept docked at the river and would use when they had to go for supplies. My friend’s boat was christened Euthys.
I asked my friend, “Why in the world would you call a boat Euthys?” He said: “Well, my father was familiar with the Greek New Testament, and he was reading the gospel of Mark one day in the Greek where it said, ‘Euthys the boat,’ or, ‘Straightway the boat left the shores of Galilee.’ And so, there it was, Euthys the boat. So, my father named the boat Euthys.”
In any case, we do not get the details or the full fleshed-out import of events in Mark like we do in the rest of the gospels. Rather, we get the skeletal outline, the major facts designed to demonstrate two things: Jesus is the Messiah, and Jesus is the Son of God. Mark wastes no time with background, as I have already said this morning. Instead, he plunges right into this affirmation at the beginning of his work: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” That is the thematic statement for the entire work that comes from Mark.
The Introduction of the Gospel Genre
By organizing this material and writing in this literary style, Mark introduced a whole new literary genre to the ancient world, the genre that came to be known as gospel. Therefore, we have the gospel of Mark, the gospel of Matthew, the gospel of Luke, and the gospel of John.
If you look in your Greek New Testament, it has the Greek word kata at the top before each gospel. For example, at the beginning of John it says, “kata Iōannēn.” It does not say, “The gospel of John.” It simply says, “according to John.” Then you have “according to Matthew,” “according to Luke,” and “according to Mark.” We have understood this to mean the gospel according to John, the gospel according to Mark, Matthew, Luke, because it is a new literary genre designed to focus attention on the person and work of Christ.
So, Mark says, “The beginning of the gospel—the beginning of the good news—of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Let me pause there. This book will drive us relentlessly to the Caesarea Philippi confession that we will look at much later in the gospel, when Jesus says to His disciples, “Who do men say that I am?” They say, “Well, some say you’re Jeremiah, some say you’re the Prophet, some say you’re John the Baptist.” Jesus says, “Who do you say that I am?”
Peter, the champion of Mark, gives the great confession at Caesarea Philippi when he says, “Thou art the Christ.” In Matthew, it is a two-fold confession: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Mark introduces his gospel affirming that this is the gospel of Jesus Christ, meaning this is the good news of Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God. The two principal statements that Peter will confess later are found in the very first verse of Mark’s gospel.
The Spirit of Elijah
After his opening line, Mark takes us quickly to the Old Testament, which was an important part of the preaching of the early church. When Paul affirms the character of Jesus, he constantly says that Christ is the One born according to the Scriptures. He is the One of whom the Old Testament broadly wrote as the coming Messiah. So, Mark immediately locates the appearance of Jesus in the context of the promised Messiah of the Old Testament, and he says, “As it is written in the prophets.”
Mark gives a summary of three distinct texts found in the Old Testament. One comes from Exodus, one from Malachi, and the final part of the citation comes from the prophet Isaiah. Mark merges them together and shows that these three prophecies all predicted that before the Messiah would come, God would first send a herald, and that herald’s responsibility would be to prepare the way for the coming Messiah. The herald was not the Messiah, but he was the one sent by God to announce the coming of Messiah.
Even today when Jewish people gather for the celebration of the Seder, and they sit at the table to celebrate the Passover, there is an empty chair at the table. If you are a guest in the home when they celebrate Passover, you might ask: “Did somebody not show up that was supposed to be here? Why do we have the empty chair?” They will explain to you that the empty chair is for Elijah, because the Jews remembered that the last prophecy at the close of the Old Testament canon on the last page of Malachi was the promise that before the Messiah would come, God would send Elijah. God would bring Elijah back, who was caught up into heaven and did not die. This prophecy of the Old Testament was that Elijah would come once more before Messiah would appear.
So, when John the Baptist appeared on the scene of Israel, when he came out of the desert and began to preach after over three hundred years of silence of Old Testament prophecy, his appearance stirred more national interest than the appearance of Jesus. In fact, in some of the early literature of the first century, more attention is given to John the Baptist than Jesus because they did not expect prophets anymore. They thought God was done with prophets, and now suddenly a prophet emerges out of the wilderness.
So, the first question the authorities would ask John was, “Are you Elijah who was to come?” What did he say? “No, I’m not.” Yet when they asked Jesus who John was, Jesus said he was Elijah who was to come. How do we reconcile that? John said, “I’m not Elijah.” Jesus said, “Yes, you are.”
If we look at the whole picture, that conundrum is explained. We are told that John came in the spirit and the power of Elijah, and Jesus was saying that the ministry of Elijah was fulfilled in the work of John the Baptist. It was not that Elijah himself came back, so John was speaking the truth: “No, I’m not Elijah.” Jesus said, “No, but you are in the spirit and power of Elijah, and you are the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy.” Mark was clearly aware of that prophecy, and so he gives the citation: “Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, who will prepare Your way before You. The voice of one crying in the wilderness.”
The Wilderness Motif
If there is any motif that goes through the whole gospel of Mark, it is the wilderness motif. In a real sense, the people receiving this gospel were experiencing afresh the shadow of the wilderness. Remember, you are in the catacombs. If you are captured this afternoon, you may go meet the wild beasts in the Circus Maximus or the Colosseum, and you will be exposed as Jesus was exposed to the wilderness of the land.
So, Mark begins by pointing back to the Old Testament prophets—and beloved, this is significant. In the Old Testament, the traditional meeting place between God and His prophets was almost always the wilderness. Moses saw the burning bush in the Midianite wilderness. God called a nation to Himself when He brought them out of Egypt in the wilderness. Elijah was ministered to by the ravens in the wilderness.
The wilderness motif went through the Old Testament, and now the New Testament gospel of Mark begins for Mark with a strange who figure comes out of the desert, out of the wilderness, looking to all the world like Elijah. His description: “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.”
John was clothed with camel hair. He was clothed with the skins of an animal. I wonder how the stream of consciousness went for the Christians who heard that the first time: “You mean, he was clothed just like Nero clothed my brother, in the skins of an animal before he fed him to the wild dogs?”
This God who prepares our salvation is a God who dresses His prophet in the skins of an animal, and it was not a camel hair sport coat. John was clothed with real camel hair and a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey, and he preached: “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.”
The rest of the gospels give us much more information about John the Baptist. Luke even tells us the story of the conception of John the Baptist and the announcement of the angel Gabriel to his father, Zacharias. Great detail is given to explain the mission that John was on, and his introduction of this practice of baptism was something radical. We will look at that more, God willing, next week.
One Comes After John
In the meantime, Mark goes right to the heart of the matter. He links the Old Testament promise of the forerunner, who was coming to make the path straight for the Messiah, and gives a brief description of his appearance and behavior. He comes out of the wilderness, addresses the people from Jerusalem, and all Judea flock around him. He is an instant celebrity.
While they were pushing their TV cameras into the face of this recluse, John said: “Wait a minute. There comes One after me who’s mightier than I am. I’m not even worthy to untie the straps of His sandals, a task given to slaves.” The slave owner would come home, and his feet would be filthy. His sandals would be held on by a strap. It was beneath the dignity of the aristocrat to take off his own shoes, as filthy as they were.
John said: “I’m not even worthy to undo His sandals. I’m way beneath the level of the One who is coming after me. Don’t get excited about me. Get excited about the One I’m pointing you to, the One who is Messiah, the One who is the Son of God. I baptize, yes, and I’m baptizing you with water, but the One who comes after me, who is before me, will baptize you with the Holy Spirit of power. Your Messiah is coming.”
In other gospels, John says: “His fan is in His hand. The axe is laid at the root of the tree. He’s not just coming sometime in the future, but He’s right around the corner. It’s about to happen any moment. The kingdom is going to break through very shortly, and dear people, you’re not ready. You need to take a bath. You need to be cleansed from your sins.”
“Wait a minute,” said the Pharisees: “That kind of thing is reserved for Gentiles. We’re the children of Abraham. We don’t need to be cleansed.” That was a major issue. They were children of Satan, and God could raise up children of Abraham from the stones, but the people of God were not ready for the Son of God.
Those huddled in the labyrinth of the catacombs heard anew the message of the preparation for the Messiah who did come, the Son of God, who made them willing to be there, and if necessary, be eaten by dogs, burned as torches in the gardens of Nero, or thrown to the lions. How they loved to hear the story of the coming of Messiah and of the Son of God.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.