What is a foundation? On construction sites it is the lowest load bearing part of a building, the concrete structure upon which everything else is built. In philosophy, it is the basic premises from which the rest of an argument is formed. And foundations are important. Does anyone remember the pictures from California in the 90’s when the torrential rains were coming down and the multi-million dollar homes were sliding off the hillsides? That happened because the engineers didn’t pay attention to the hillsides they were building on and their foundations were inadequate for the soil conditions.
As we come to a new year, we are going to move back into the New Testament, specifically into the Gospel according to Saint Mark, in order to examine the foundations of the faith. Most of the time, people don’t go into the basement or the crawl and look at the foundation to make sure it is solid; we just assume it is. But it is a wise thing to take note of the foundation upon which one’s life is built. And that is why I have entitled this first sermon on the Gospel of Mark – Gospel Foundations.
As we step into Mark’s Gospel, the first thing to which I would like to draw your attention is the opening phrase, (Mark 1:1) “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” In these opening words some powerful things are declared. First, there is the declaration of the gospel’s beginning. One would expect, and frequently we are led to believe that the gospel began in the New Testament, but Mark is making a surprising statement to people of his day and ours. By quoting from three passages in the Old Testament, one in Malachi 3, one in Exodus 23 and the other in Isaiah 40, Mark is grounding the gospel’s beginning in Old Testament revelation. He is declaring that the gospel message isn’t new or novel; it isn’t a recent or contemporary interpretation; on the contrary he wants his readers to recognize that the Gospel message has been in existence for ages in the Word of God.
We know when the gospel began, long before NT times, but “What is the gospel?” That is the second question we must answer from these opening words. The NIV says, “the gospel about Jesus Christ”, the RSV says “good news of Jesus Christ”, the NASB “the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Those may not seem like big differences but they are. If the gospel is about Jesus, then Jesus’ life becomes the good news – the good news is a biography, if you will. But if it is a gospel of Jesus, then another question arises, “Is the gospel something that Jesus possesses, in the same way one might say, the car of John, meaning John owns the car?” And if it is something he possesses, then what is this something which is good news for the world? It would be very easy to say, well it is both, Jesus is the owner of the gospel message, and Jesus is the object of the gospel message and that is true in the broader context of Scripture, but when Mark speaks about the gospel in his text, he is referring to the message that Jesus brings and declares to people. Let me illustrate:
(Mark 1:14) After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. Jesus isn’t proclaiming himself, rather he is proclaiming God’s reign. In fact, for the first half of the book, Jesus never even speaks about his life and death and resurrection, but he consistently speaks about God’s reign and he illustrates it with miracles. To Mark, the gospel is the message that is spoken to others declaring God’s reign. It is good news proclaimed for all to hear. Now, to understand what kind of good news the gospel is, let’s turn our attention to the quotation that follows:
(Mark 1:2-3) It is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way” — “a voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”
The first thing to note here is that Mark doesn’t quote from just Isaiah in this passage, rather he is quoting from 3 different passage, one in Exodus, one in Isaiah and one in Malachi. (It was common to refer to multiple passages by referencing just one of them, commonly the one they thought was the most important or which should color the interpretation of the other references.) So what are these three passages?
In Ex. 23:20 God is speaking to the Nation of Israel through Moses and he is telling them about the guidance and deliverance he will give them as they journey to the Promised Land: “See, I am sending an angel (messenger – LXX) ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared.” But like many quotations from the Old Testament that are used in the New Testament, one must keep reading to get the full picture. Verse 21 continues, “Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him; he will not forgive your rebellion, since my Name is in him.” Mark wants his listeners to understand that the gospel message is one of God’s messenger coming in God’s Name with the power to forgive and the ability to lead the people into the Promised Land.
In the second reference, though Mark quotes from Isaiah 40:3 (Is. 40:3) A voice of one calling: “In the desert prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.
We need to back up a verse and continue on a little farther. Listen to Is. 40:2-5 “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. A voice of one calling: “In the desert prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Mark is centering the gospel message not only in God leading his people into the Promised Land and forgiving their sin, with forgiveness being repeated again, but he is grounding the message also in God being revealed in his glory to humanity. Consider that for a moment: God’s glory being revealed to humanity. Isn’t that heaven? Isn’t it the picture of Revelation where there is no sun, for God is their light? The Old Testament has been pretty clear that (Ex. 33:20) “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” That is why Moses was hidden in clefts of rock and Elijah only heard the still small voice on Mount Horeb, but now in accordance with Isaiah’s prophecy, the gospel message is that God will be revealed for everyone to see – Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female. All will be able to gaze upon the glory of God. That is part of the gospel message.
The third quotation that Mark strings together here is from Malachi 3:1. “See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me.” This passage is set in the context of the Day of Judgment coming upon the earth, but Mark only quoted a fragment of the first verse of chapter three, the passage continues “Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty.” And if we go on to verses 2-4, we learn even more, “ But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years.”
In Malachi, the appearance of God’s messenger is tied to the purification of the priesthood. It is tied to true worship. It is tied to being acceptable in God’s sight. Mark’s gospel is a message of being guided by God into the Promised Land, it is a message of the forgiveness of sins and the purification of a priesthood who will worship in acceptable ways to God and it is a message of God’s being revealed to all humanity to see in his glory and his splendor. That is the gospel message that is preached in Mark by Jesus and his disciples. And it is imperative that we know this gospel and preach it to others. So if I ask you what the gospel is, what would you say?…
So how does John the Baptist relate to all of this? Mark moves on from the Old Testament foundations of the gospel to his present day and a man of unique character with an equally odd sense of fashion who is hanging out in the desert preaching. We are given a number of details about John. He is dressed in camel’s hair and a leather belt. This is the very dress of Elijah the prophet from the Old days. When King Ahaziah, who was sick, sent some folks to ask of the God of Ekron about his recovery, they are met by a man whom they describe thusly: (2Kings 1:8) “He was a man with a garment of hair and with a leather belt around his waist.” The king said, “That was Elijah the Tishbite.”
Mark wants to stir up memories in his listeners of the great prophets of old as being present among them again and so John the Baptist’s attire is of great importance. A great prophet has again arisen in Judea and Jesus even declares that John was the Elijah who has to come before the Messiah can. (Mark 9:11-13) “Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” Jesus replied, “…Elijah does come first, …But I tell you, Elijah has come, and they have done to him everything they wished, just as it is written about him.”
This was important because of the common theological understanding at the time that Elijah who had gone into heaven on the flaming chariot would return before the Messiah came and restored all things. So John comes and preaches repentance and the entire country turns out. There isn’t a soul without an excuse for being ready for the Messiah. All have heard his preaching and witnessed his call to repent and prepare. But John the Baptist’s presence is even more important than just his allusions to Elijah and his preaching ministry for in his words we learn a number of things about Jesus Christ, the one who is to follow after him.
First, John declares, (Mark 1:7a) “After me will come one more powerful than I…” Most of us would not introduce someone as more powerful than us, normally we would use words like, more important or greater, but John specifically chooses a word that means strength or power. The one to follow John is going to be a Mr. T, a heavy weight body builder or boxer. And as we will find in the story as it is narrated, this Jesus is stronger than the demons. He is stronger than sickness. He is stronger than nature as it crashes in storms on a lake. He is stronger than the legion of demons in the Gadarene man whom no one could bind and restrain with chains. He is even stronger than the strong man, Satan, for he has tied him up and robs his house (Mark 3:27).
Second, John declares, “After me will come more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie…” (Mark 1:7). To understand this fully you need to know that Jews considered it so demeaning to take someone’s shoes off and wash their feet that it was forbidden by the rabbis to force or even allow a Jewish man to perform this work. But John is saying that he isn’t even worthy of such a lowly honor as to touch the Messiah’s sandals. John is declaring that Jesus is Greater than anyone in history, he is more important than the chief priest, or the king. In this statement, Jesus is placed into a league of his own in terms of worth, importance, and significance. There is none like him, nor will there be one like him again. He is one of a kind, in a class by himself, unparalleled, rare, unprecedented and unrivaled. Those are just a few of the words and phrases you could use to understand what John means when I says that he can even take off Jesus’ sandals.
Third, John says, (Mark 1:8) “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Where water was a symbol of cleansing and being able to come into God’s presence, the Holy Spirit is the very presence of God who will be made to flow over you, in you and through you. To be baptized and possess the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament is to be one endowed with special skills and abilities to further the proper worship of God. That is what we find in Bezalel and Oholiab (Ex 31:3). It is to be able to protect and deliver the people of God from troubles and difficulty as in the Judges on whom God’s spirit rested. It is to be able to speak the very words of God to the people as we find in the life of the prophets.
But in order to baptize others with the Spirit, one must possess the Spirit of God and so Jesus comes to John the Baptist and is baptized by him in the Jordan and it is here that we find that Jesus is indeed a possessor of the Spirit of God, for we see it descend upon him in the form of a dove. It is here that we learn that Jesus is God’s beloved Son, the special unique one in God’s eye who follows him and with whom God alone is pleased. It is here that we learn that Jesus must himself live through the national experience of being tested in the desert and standing against the Adversary.
This message is entitled “Gospel Foundations” because in these first 13 verses Mark has carefully crafted the narrative in order to present his listeners with all of the crucial things they need to know about Jesus so that they can understand everything else which happens.
- For the gospel promises of God are old and in them a deliverance from the wilderness of sin and death is promised.
- In them we are told of a Savior who will be strong and great and ensure the hearts of people are once again right before their God and for all this to happen, our savior must himself stand in a unique relationship to God Almighty – He is the beloved Son.
- He must enjoy the favor of God and have full access to all of his power – The Spirit rest on him.
- He must be able to overcome Satan in the wilderness – the Holy Angels attended him.
- And as we will see in the coming weeks, at every juncture where he encounters Satan and his minions, he is always victorious.
As we conclude, let’s return to the very first verse of chapter 1 where we learn that this is the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. We often treat the word Christ as Jesus’ surname, when in fact it is a descriptive title, meaning anointed one. I would like to close with Q&A 31 from the Heidelberg Catechism because it seems to me that Mark’s intention in these opening phrases is that we would understand that the message of God’s desire to bring us to the Promised Land to forgive our sins and to make us true worshippers articulated well in the statement:
Q Why is Jesus called “Christ” meaning “anointed”?
Because he has been ordained by God the Father and has been anointed with the Holy Spirit to be our chief prophet and teacher who perfectly reveals to us the secret counsel and will of god for our deliverance; [he is] our only high priest who has set us free by the one sacrifice of his body, and who continually pleads our cause with the Father; and [he is] our eternal king who governs us by his Word and Spirit, and who guards us and keeps us in the freedom he has won for us.
These are the Gospel foundations. They are foundations which are echoed every time we partake of communion and we proclaim that in Christ the Promised Land has come and deliverance from death and slavery have been achieved by the body and blood of God’s Son. They are foundations echoed every time we partake of communion declaring our utter need for the Spirit of God to continue resting on us. They are foundations which declare his victory every time we hear the words, “as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again.”
So today, if you believe the good news that God reigns, that he is victorious, that in Christ the forgiveness of sins has been attained and in Christ one can truly worship in spirit and in truth, then you are invited to the table.
 For a more extensive introduction:
For some background information from Archeology and Church History, Mark’s gospel is believed to be the first of the four gospels to have been written down. Currently our earliest example of Mark’s Gospel is from a fragment known as P45; and it dates to around 225 AD. But this past February 2012, Daniel Wallace, a preeminent Greek linguist, began speaking about some new papyri, ancient manuscripts, of the bible that were recently found and one of them contains selections from the gospel of Mark that they believe dates to between 75 and 125 AD. That is really exciting. That would be archaeological evidence from within 30-50 years of the time when it is generally believed the first autographs of Mark were written. That would be some archeological evidence of the certainty of the gospels from a historic perspective would it?
Why do we call these words, “The Gospel according to Saint Mark?” For those who are observant, you noticed that, unlike Paul’s letters, mark made no statement about his authorship of this gospel, so why do we attribute it to him? For this, we turn to Eusebius, who became the bishop of Caesarea in 314 AD. In one of his letters, he quotes from a “lost five-volume work of Papas, [who was] the bishop of Hieropolis (Logi÷wn kuriakw◊n e˙xhghvsiß, Interpretation of the Lord’s Sayings, AD 120/30)
“And this is what the Elder said, “Mark, who became Peter’s interpreter, accurately wrote, though not in order (ta¿xei), as many of the things said and done by the Lord as he had noted (e˙mnhmo/neusen). For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterwards, as I said, he followed Peter who composed his teachings in anecdotes (crei÷aß) and not as a complete work (su/ntaxin) of the Lord’s sayings. So Mark made no mistake in writing some things just as he had noted (aÓpemnhmo/neusen) them. For he was careful of this one thing, to leave nothing he had heard out and to say nothing falsely.”
But I don’t want to make this an archeological evidence or a church history sermon, rather I want us to look at the common title of this manuscript and the actual words themselves to see what they tell us about the foundations of the faith.
 For more proof of the way NT Writers used the OT:
This is the common hermeneutic that every New Testament writer employs. Matthew centers the gospel story in the Old Testament with phrases like, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet…” (Matt 1:22). In fact, he has at least 6 of these references in the opening 3 chapters of Matthew. Luke uses less of these references to give us a historical grounding to the story, but he uses a lot more Old Testament Scripture on the lips of Jesus to correct and rebuke the Pharisees’ and the Sadducees’ theology and so he too grounds the gospel in a correct understanding of God’s prior revelation. And John uses the very book of Genesis to ground the Christ as God from the beginning, “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1), and so John roots the gospel in the Old Testament narrative. And this is just the tip, there are the Pauline epistles and the book of Hebrews which all draw out the gospel message in relation to Old Testament stories and symbols. Paul draws on Abraham, Hagar and Sarah (Gal 3) and the writer of Hebrews draws on the sacrifices and the temple imagery.
Why am I making such a big deal about this? I am making a big deal of it, because we must never forget that the gospel isn’t foreign to the Old Testament, nor is it a novel interpretation of it; rather the gospel is at the core of all 66 books of Scripture. The gospel begins in Genesis and concludes in Revelation, and every part is important, every part is needed and every part of the gospel is valuable. Let us not forget this and elevate parts of the Bible over other sections.