You have certainly had someone say this to you before: “I have good news and I have bad news.” But the Book of Mark begins with simply, “I have good news.” It is important to note that it is good news. The news about Jesus is not bad news nor is it a tragedy. It is the announcement of a major success. Notice how this book begins: “The beginning of the gospel…” Matthew begins with a genealogy, Luke begins with announcements of John and Jesus’ births, and John begins with Jesus as the eternal Word that was in the beginning. But Mark begins with, “This is the beginning of everything!” “The beginning of the gospel” signals the fulfillment of God’s everlasting word.
The Gospel of Mark is going to explain who Jesus is, why did he come, and what does it mean to follow him. But how Mark does this as he was carried along by the Holy Spirit must not be missed. Too often we can look at the gospels as merely the story of Jesus and one gospel is as good as another. But there are distinct purposes for each of these four gospels that we do not want to miss. Read Mark independently from the other gospels. Mark’s story is complete in itself apart from the other gospels. If we read an episode in Mark in light of details given about the same episode in one of the other gospels, we will have changed Mark’s story. Consider treating Mark’s gospel as if it were the only story we know about Jesus. This will be the lens we will use as we study this gospel. So let us see what this book says about itself and why it is an amazing gospel, though frequently overlooked.
The Beginning of the Gospel
The opening is that this is the beginning of the gospel. This is the start of the gospel. What did that mean to those who heard those words? We hear the word “gospel” so often that it is easy to misunderstand what this word meant to those who first heard it. The term “gospel” is never a reference to the scriptures in the scriptures. Sometimes we might say the gospel is the message of salvation. But the gospel includes much more than salvation only. The good news (gospel) is the message that God reigns.
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” (Isaiah 52:7 ESV)
Isaiah says that the good news is not just a message of salvation but also the declaration, “Your God reigns.” Notice another picture of the good news in the scriptures.
Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. (Isaiah 40:9–10 ESV)
Notice that the good news is the arrival of God. God has come. See him coming with strength to reward those who are with him and recompense to those who are against him. The good news is a message of enthronement and royal exaltation of a king who has come to take his rightful throne.
This is how the Greco-Roman world also used the word, “gospel.” It was a word used to proclaim the news of victory from the battlefield. The gospel was used in the Greco-Roman world to announce an emperor’s accession to the throne. Caesar Augustus declared that he brought good news to the world by making war cease and creating order everywhere. The beginning of the good news was the birth of Augustus, calling him a god and proclaiming a universal impact. So Mark opens with the similar wording, the beginning of the gospel. But the gospel is not about Caesar but about Jesus the Christ, the Son of God. A key theme of Mark’s gospel is God establishing his rule over creation. The rule of God has arrived! This is the inauguration of God’s rule over Israel, over all the nations, over the Roman Empire, over all nature, over all creation, and over all people.
As Is Written By Isaiah
But the sentence does not end, though most English translations indicate such. Like in English so also in Greek, the phrase “as it is written” does not typically begin a sentence. This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus as it is written in Isaiah the prophet. Isaiah is the beginning point that Mark draws our attention to. The Gospel of Mark as a whole can be called the Gospel According to Isaiah. Mark says that this is the beginning of the gospel that Isaiah spoke about. Isaiah is our key to understanding this gospel. Further, this is the only place in the whole gospel where the author tells the reader that scripture is being fulfilled. Therefore, Mark’s gospel must be understood against the backdrop of Isaiah, whose prophecy proclaimed the coming a new exodus, restoration, a new creation, and the return of God to Zion to reign. Isaiah is also the prophet connected to the messianic time. This is the beginning of hope for the end of exile as God will return to restore Israel through Christ. I hope this is exciting to us because we must not read Mark as just another gospel or just another account of Jesus. What you are about to read in Mark’s gospel is the beginning of the good news that Isaiah wrote about now unfolding.
Mark now quotes the prophets to show the audience what is coming because the gospel is now beginning. What is interesting about this quotation, that your Bible likely notes, is that it is the combination of three scriptures: Exodus 23:20, Malachi 3:1, and Isaiah 40:3. The first clause of verse 2 is from Exodus 23:20. The second clause from verse 2 is from Malachi 3:1. Verse 3 is from Isaiah 40:3. Combining prophecies was not uncommon to do when the prophecies were considered interrelated. So let us consider these three texts so that we can see what this gospel is about and what it is going to teach us about Jesus.
Exodus 23:20. Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. (Exodus 23:20 ESV)
In Exodus 23:20 God is making a promise to the people of Israel at Mount Sinai. It is the finale to the book of the covenant. The promise is that God is going to send a messenger to guard his people and bring them into the place prepared for them. If the people will obey God’s voice and not rebel, then God will destroy their enemies, give the land as promised to the people, and bless them richly. This was the hope given to the people of Israel. However, when we study the scriptures we see that the people did not do this. They did not obey God’s voice and they did rebel. Therefore the promises that were given here were not fulfilled. But Malachi shows that those promises did not die with Israel’s failure.
Malachi 3:1. Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years. (Malachi 3:1–4 ESV)
Malachi quotes this prophecy in Exodus and then adds more to show that the promise is still in effect. This time the picture is clearer. Malachi’s message is that the people have failed. However, God is sending a messenger to prepare the way for his own arrival. God is coming. “And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple” (3:1). But when the Lord comes, it is going to be a time of purification and refining. God is going to come to purify the people so that they will now be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old. So a messenger is coming to get the people ready for the arrival of the Lord.
Isaiah 40:3. A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” (Isaiah 40:3 ESV)
Now Mark 1:3 quotes from Isaiah 40:3. Isaiah opens chapter 40 with a picture of hope and comfort. The wrath of God has ended and sins have been paid for. Then Isaiah says that there is a voice crying in the wilderness. Why is the cry from the wilderness? Have you ever thought about that? Why not from the city? Why not from Jerusalem? The wilderness is considered the staging ground for God’s future victory. Think about the meaning of the wilderness in the history of Israel. The wilderness was the precursor to receiving all the promises of the promised land. By reading the prophets, Israel believed there would be a return to the wilderness and a second exodus would herald the messianic age (cf. Isaiah 35:1-2; Isaiah 40:3-5; Hosea 2:14-23). Israel became a nation in the wilderness. Redemption began in the wilderness. They became a new people and a new nation under Moses and Joshua. So a voice is going to cry out in the wilderness, initiating the new exodus, and forming the new people of God. This is a new era of salvation and restoration for God’s people, just as Isaiah prophesied (Isaiah 11:16; 19:23-25; 43:16-21; 51:10-11; cf. Isaiah 49:8-12; 57:14). This time they will become a new people whose identity will be centered on Jesus.
So what is the voice in the wilderness saying? “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight paths for him.” The cry is that the Lord is coming and the roads need to be paved for his coming. Get the roads ready for his arrival. We have a little taste of this idea down here in south Florida when President Trump flies in to stay at his home in Palm Beach. What happens when he comes? All kinds of preparations are made. Roads are blocked, cars are readied, and security is heightened because the president is coming. This is the idea that Isaiah proclaims. The Lord is coming and you need to be ready. Get the roads ready. Be prepared for his arrival. What people typically did at the arrival of the king was to go out to him and follow him on the prepared road back into their city.
So what is the message of the opening lines of Mark’s gospel? The quotation when used in Exodus 23 had a very clear message: “Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him.” (Exodus 23:21 ESV) The message in Malachi 3 was just as clear: “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap.” (Malachi 3:2 ESV) In the same way, Isaiah’s message was just as clear: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” (Isaiah 40:3 ESV)
The opening call is a call for readiness and preparation. The gospel message is God is coming. God reigns and there is something we need to do in response to his coming and enthronement. The message concerning the coming of Jesus is first to prepare our hearts for his arrival. We must be ready to pay careful attention to him. We must be ready to be refined. This study of Mark will challenge our thinking about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and how to walk in the way of the Lord. Are you ready to prepare the way and make straight paths?
To experience all that God has promised is to go out to Jesus, get behind him, and follow him on the road he walked. Jesus is indeed the mighty Anointed One and Son of God. The King of Kings has come in Jesus. His arrival is the beginning of the good news that was written by Isaiah, offering hope to all who will come out to him and follow him. But there is so much more to it than this, which the Gospel of Mark wants to show us.