(51) You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased – Mark 1:11

Mark’s gospel is the shortest and has a fast pace. His uses the word ‘immediately’ over forty times as he jumps from scene to scene through Jesus’ life. It is traditionally thought that Peter, the leader of Jesus’ twelve disciples and a naturally impatient man, was involved in the writing. You can imagine him standing over Mark’s shoulder remembering events in rapid succession as Mark scribbled them down. Mark wrote especially for the Romans, maybe for the church in Rome, as he describes Jewish customs for the benefit of those who do not have a Jewish background.

Mark’s opening line is, “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). The word good news is sometimes translated by the Old English word ‘gospel’ which is what the four accounts of Jesus’ life are known as. Mark, like the other three gospel writers, is simply recording the good news that Jesus is the promised Messiah, the Son of God.

Mark makes no reference to Jesus’ birth but starts with John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness by the Jordan River. He was a striking character who “wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt round his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey” (Mark 1:6). His message was striking too as he called people to repent, which means to change one’s mind and, by implication, one’s future behaviour, for the better. As a sign of their repentance he baptised them in the river, meaning that they were dipped or submerged in the water as a symbol of leaving their old ways behind them.

John’s message spread like wildfire and Mark tells us that “the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him” (Mark 1:5). John’s preaching clearly had a great impact and all four gospel writers record his work in preparing the way for Jesus as prophesied by Isaiah who talked about a messenger who would be “the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him’” (Isaiah 40:3 quoted in Mark 1:3).

Matthew and John tell us that Pharisees and Sadducees came to see John to check him out. The Pharisees were men who studied and taught the scriptures. During the exile, separated from the temple, they developed a strong belief in the importance of personal righteousness, but unfortunately they made this very prescriptive and set a standard that placed an intolerable burden on people’s lives. They ran the synagogues which had developed as places to worship during the exile, while the Sadducees managed the temple and focused on its rituals. They only accepted the books of Moses and rejected doctrines such as the resurrection – a point of difference from the Pharisees that both Jesus and Paul exploited.

John urged them to repent along with the people but they were too proud to accept John’s message and this made them unable to accept Jesus either. As Luke points out later, the people who had been baptised by John were able to accept his words, while the Pharisees and teachers of the law “rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptised by John” (Luke 7:29-30).

We do not know how long John preached before Jesus appeared but he was always clear that he was preparing them for someone greater than himself. When John saw Jesus join the crowds he pointed him out as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Jesus asked John to baptise him and as he did John saw, “heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased’” (Mark 1:10-11). Here we see the trinity together as God the Father and God the Holy Spirit endorsed Jesus, the Son of God, as he started his public work on earth.

As Jesus started preaching and teaching, John continued to preach and teach by the Jordan. A fearless man, he was not afraid to speak out against wrongdoing at any level and this included denouncing Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, for marrying his brother’s wife. Herod imprisoned him and then, in response to a request from his step daughter, had John beheaded – a tragic end for the man that did most to prepare for the coming of Jesus the Messiah.

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