Each of the Gospels start a little differently. Matthew and Luke both begin with Jesus’ birth and the nativity story but whilst Luke takes us to the specific day with shepherds and angels, Matthew focuses on the arrival of the wisemen. Luke talks about Gabriel’s appearance to Mary but Matthew focuses on Joseph. John begins with a theological prologue taking us back further still, to the beginning of time. Jesus is the eternal word.
Mark however plunges us right into the middle of the story and the beginning of Jesus’ adult ministry. He does so by taking us to the Jordan river where John has begun his ministry of preaching and baptising for repentance. All of the Gospels pick up on this at some point in their early chapters and it is possible that the other Gospels use Mark’s account as source material to develop their own.
John is described using the words of Isaiah 40:3, he is the voice crying in the wilderness. The imagery is of the king who is arriving. His messenger or ambassador comes first, proclaiming that the king is coming and so that people are to get ready.
In a sense, this would have given the Gospel a deeply political edge, especially if Mark was, as presumed, writing from Rome to Gentile believers. This is highlighted by two things. First, the opening words:
“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.””Mark 1:1
These words echo the way that pronouncements from and about the Roman emperor were introduced. First, they tended to be described as “gospel” or “good news”, secondly they would come with the implicit or explicit claim that the Emperor was able to bring good news because he was himself a deity, a son of the gods. Later, Jesus will announce:
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand;Mark 1:15
So, Jesus offers a rival kingdom, a rival kingship and a rival “gospel” to what this world offers. It is important to emphasise that this is an alternative not just to Rome but to the kingdoms and ideologies of this world generally. When questioned by Pilate, Jesus would insist that his kingdom is not of this world. So, the message has a political feel in that it challenges the powers and structures of the world around us but is not political as we understand it. Jesus was not coming as a mere alternative to Caesar. Our message is not about offering a slightly better manifesto than the Tories or Labour.
The Isaiah prophecy is significant because Isaiah 40 is around about the turning point in that book. Up until that point, the focus has primarily been on immediate judgement but in the second half of his prophecy Isaiah focuses on what is coming after judgement and exile. There will be forgiveness, return and restoration.
Here are the preceding verses in Isaiah 40
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.Isaiah 40:1-2.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that her warfare[a] is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
These are beautiful words. God offers comfort to his people in the time of their distress. Yes, war, famine and plague will come, yes there is going to be judgement but that war will come to an end, the sin will be paid for, forgiveness is offered.
By taking us to Isaiah 40, Mark is showing us not just that the prophecy of the messenger was fulfilled in John but that the prophecy points to Jesus. How can God’s people find comfort? How can their sin be paid for? How can they find forgiveness? Well, the answers are going to be found in Jesus.
But for the time being, the call is for the people to recognise that the king is coming and their first response should be repentance.