The Beginning of the Gospel
What was the gospel before it was the gospel? That may sound like a strange, even nonsensical question, given our automatic association of the word “gospel” with church, the Bible, and religion. But there was a time, way, way back in the day, when it had an entirely different meaning. Oh, it was a religious term, or had religious connotations, anyway, but it was not Christianity or Jesus it had in mind.
Our English word “gospel” comes from the Greek word euangelion, from which we get the words evangelism and evangelical. It literally means “good message,” and we most often alter that to “good news.” But before Jesus, the content of that good news was very different from what it is today.
The original euangelion was the proclamation of a military victory for the Roman legions or the birth or accession of a new emperor. Heralds would blow trumpets, priests would offer sacrifices, orators would make speeches, poets would write odes, and so forth. It was a time of great celebration. And because in the ancient world nobody had ever dreamed of a separation between religion and politics—there was no such thing as a secular realm—this military or political proclamation had a necessarily religious element to it. This became especially pronounced when the Caesars began believing their own propaganda and declared themselves gods or sons of a god.
So the writer of the book we call Mark—we don’t know for sure who actually wrote it—was making a deliberately subversive statement in the very first verse of his book. Actually, Mark probably meant what is now verse 1 to serve as the title of his work. Long before someone made the decision to call it the Gospel according to Mark, it may well have borne the title, “The Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” He was taking the imperial propaganda—the declaration of the divinity of the emperor and the invincibility of the Roman war machine—and turning it on its head. The euangelion, the good news, is not about Caesar. It’s about Jesus.
Mark was the first to write what has come to be known as a gospel. In effect, he created the genre. But he does not start his story with an account of Jesus’s birth—that would have to wait for Matthew and Luke. No, he starts his story of the beginning of the gospel in the wilderness. Specifically, the wilderness in the environs of the Jordan River, where John preaches and administers a baptism of repentance.
To introduce the wild figure of John, Mark conflates two quotations from the Hebrew Bible. The first is from Malachi, but Mark cites Isaiah for both. He writes, “As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight”’” (vv. 2–3).
John dresses in camel’s hair and a leather belt, and his diet consists of locusts and wild honey. Some odd choices, one would think, but they hold great significance for Mark’s audience, who recognize in this description a reference to the great prophet Elijah, who is described in 2 Kings 1:8 as “a hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.” Elijah is significant not only because he was one of Israel’s greatest prophets, but also because the next-to-last verse of the last book of the Old Testament, Malachi 4:5, says, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” This led to the expectation that Elijah would return and serve as a forerunner to the Messiah at the end of the age. In these first verses of his gospel, Mark tells the people that their waiting is over. Elijah has returned, in the person of John the Baptist, and the Messiah did come after him, in the person of Jesus. John acknowledges his role as a forerunner when he says, “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. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (vv. 7–8).
The setting of this scene is also significant. John appears in the wilderness and baptizes those who come to him in the Jordan River. For a people living under occupation, a conquered people who have not enjoyed self-rule for nearly a century, the wilderness of Jordan holds rich connotations. It was the Jordan that Joshua led the people of Israel across, after God parted the waters for them, in their campaign to claim the land of promise after their exodus from Egypt. John may very well have been performing a symbolic reenactment of that earlier conquest. The repentant sinners would enter the Jordan from the east, undergo baptism in the river, and exit on the west—the precise route Joshua took centuries before. John apparently expected the Messiah who was to come after him to lead this renewed version of God’s people to reclaim the land from Roman rule. More subversive content from Mark, and we’re only eight verses in!
A wilderness setting also lies at the center of our other passage today, from Isaiah 40, and the status of another defeated and subjugated people plays a crucial role. The prophet speaks these words sometime in the late sixth century BCE, around the time that Cyrus the Great, the ruler of Persia, declared that those exiled to Babylon fifty-odd years earlier could now return to their homeland. The prophet envisions God also returning to Jerusalem, and someone from the heavenly court calls on the ancient equivalent of the Army Corps of Engineers to create a level road for God’s passage through the wilderness. He writes, “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain’” (vv. 3–4).
Why, you may ask, does God need to return to Jerusalem? Isn’t God everywhere all the time?
At that time, the people had different notions about God. They lived in a context of religious pluralism. Every nation had its own gods and goddesses, and they were thought to be local deities only; they were somehow restricted to a certain divine jurisdiction, if you will. Monotheism was a new concept at this time, and the people hadn’t fully embraced it yet. Their theology could be better described as henotheism. Like mono-, the prefix heno- means “one,” but instead of believing that only one God exists, as monotheism maintains, henotheists believed that there were many gods, but their loyalty belonged to just one of the many. Remember that one of the Ten Commandments says, “You shall have no other gods before me.” There may be a lot of gods out there, but the Israelites pledged to be loyal to only one, Yahweh.
But they didn’t hold up their end of the bargain. They worshiped some of those other gods, and they failed to abide by the covenant in other ways, too, such as not caring for the poor and vulnerable, and neglecting to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with [their] God,” as Micah puts it (Mic 6:8). The prophets tried and tried to call the people back to obedience, but instead idolatry and corruption became ever more rampant. Many of the theologically minded saw in the Babylonians’ conquest of the kingdom of Judah and destruction of the temple the hand of God, judging and punishing the people for their faithlessness. The prophet Ezekiel actually reported a vision in which he saw the glory of God leaving the temple just before its destruction, and vacating the entire region, leaving the disobedient nation to its fate.
But now, a new prophet says God is ready to return. More than that, he declares that when it comes to judgment, God is over it. The people don’t have to be afraid anymore, for God’s anger has subsided and now peace and restoration, not judgment, are on God’s agenda. The prophet says, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (vv. 1–2).
The promise of the coming of Jesus that we anticipate during Advent is like these verses. God is coming to bring comfort to God’s people, to speak tenderly to us and declare that the time of punishment is over; the time of peace and joy has arrived. Because of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, we have peace with God and joy is possible. Through Jesus’s continuing activity through the Holy Spirit and the faithfulness of his disciples, joy and peace come to the world. We are called to be, in St. Francis’s words, instruments of God’s peace or, as I like to say, agents of shalom. That Hebrew word, shalom, is rich with meaning. It means peace, but more than just peace. It means wholeness. Reconciliation. Equity, justice, and security for all. And joy. It’s the kind of peace Micah talks about when he says, “They shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid” (Mic 4:4). It’s the joy of the psalmist, who says, “You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent” (Ps 30:11–12a).
God came to the exiles in Babylon, speaking to them through the prophet of forgiveness, mercy, comfort, and restoration. None of which had any basis in the people’s worthiness, as the prophet acknowledges when he says, “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass” (vv. 6b–7). No, the mercy and comfort come to the people solely because of the goodness and faithfulness of God: “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever” (v. 8).
This is good news. In fact, the prophet says it explicitly in verse 9: “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’” That word, translated here as “good tidings,” when the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek about two hundred years before Christ, was rendered as euangelizesthai, a form of that word we saw at the beginning of Mark, euangelion. Good news. Gospel.
So why does Mark give his work the title, “The Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” if this prophet already proclaimed the gospel more than five hundred years earlier?
I can think of two possible answers to that question. First, there is the obvious fact of the new content of the gospel. Mark speaks of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and he proclaims that the good news of God’s coming to the people in forgiveness, comfort, and peace has been uniquely embodied by this poor itinerant preacher from the backwater village of Nazareth. It is in Jesus, more than anyone or anything else, that the prophecy of Isaiah 40 is fulfilled. In verse 11, the prophet writes of God, “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” What a tender picture of God’s love for us! And who expresses the good news of that love better than Jesus?
But there is a second answer to the question as well. Mark calls his book the beginning of the gospel because the account of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection are only the first part of the story. Notice what the voice crying in the wilderness says: “Prepare the way of the Lord.” That phrase, “the way,” will appear again and again in Mark’s gospel, and almost always signifies the way Jesus walks to meet his destiny in Jerusalem. It is the way of compassion, as he heals the sick, feeds the hungry, cleanses the lepers, and exorcises the demons. It is the way of challenge, as he defies the religious and political authorities through his subversive actions and his creation of a community based on mutuality, equality, and obedience to God.
And it is the way of the cross, as Jesus’s proclamation of this good news brings him into inevitable conflict with the powers that proclaim allegiance to God but whose actions show them to be more loyal to their own comfort than the comforting of God’s people. The good news is always bad news to somebody. Rome’s good news was bad news to their conquered peoples. Jesus’s good news is bad news to all who stand opposed to God’s liberating, reconciling love. A love that can be tender as the shepherd cradling a lamb in his arms, and as ferocious as a mother bear defending her cubs from a threat. Songwriter Rich Mullins got it right when he referred to it as “the reckless, raging fury that they call the love of God.”
This way is also the way of discipleship, and that gives us the key we need to really understand what Mark means by the beginning of the gospel. Jesus walks the way, but he never gives any inkling that he’s doing it so we won’t have to. Quite the contrary. In Mark 8:34–35, Jesus declares, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel [there’s that word again], will save it.” There is a cost to following Jesus, and he is quite clear about it. There is a possibility—and one might suggest, if we’re doing it right, a probability or even an inevitability—that it will cost us everything. It cost Jesus everything. But it’s worth it. The kingdom of God is worth it. The reckless, raging fury they call the love of God is worth any sacrifice we can make, any price we have to pay.
So the gospel has begun in the story of Jesus. The question each of us must answer is, “How will that story continue to unfold in my life? What can I do—what will I do—to carry the story of the gospel forward?” That is our challenge. That is our privilege. That is our joy. Thanks be to God!