A book by Philip Pullman : ‘The good man Jesus and the scoundrel Christ’. This reflects the popular distinction between ‘the Jesus of history’ and ‘the Christ of faith’; the simple Galilean teacher, as depicted in the Gospels, and the exalted object of the church’s worship, as found in the Epistles.
How is Jesus actually presented in this, the earliest and shortest of the Gospels; the one that most emphasises his humanness? Let’s call four witnesses.
1. The witness of the prophets, 2f
A composite quotation: Ex 23:20; Mal 3:1; Isa 40:3.
The gospel is a new beginning, v1. But it is rooted in the past.
The gospel does not replace, but fulfils the OT.
‘Prepare the way for the Lord’. What Isaiah says of Jehovah, is now applied to Jesus Christ.
2. The witness of John the Baptist, 4-8
The most important event in Israel’s life for over 300 years. They had longed for God to send a new Moses, or a new Elijah. Now John appears, and he has a huge impact, vv5. (Cf. John’s disciples in Ephesus, Acts 19).
John was great, but he pointed, v7f, to “one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie…I baptise you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.”
3. The witness of the Father and the Holy Spirit, 9-13
Jesus is one of the crowd being baptised by John. But he stands out from the crowd in an utterly unique way.
He sees heaven open (v10; cf. Isa 64:1): a visible connection into another reality, God’s reality.
He sees the Spirit descending on him like a dove.
He hears a voice, v11: “You are my Son (Psa 2:7), whom I love (Gen 22:2 etc.); with you I am well pleased (Isa 42:1).”
This is addressed to Jesus – it is part of his own self-discovery.
4. The witness of the first disciples, 14-20
It’s not a very promising start: Jesus begins with insignificant people, in an insignificant place. How does he begin? He doesn’t say, ‘Here’s a book for you to read’; or, ‘here’s a proposition for you to debate’; or, ‘Here’s an entrance exam for you to sit.’ He says, “Here’s a summons for you to obey: follow me”. They will be learning ‘on the job’. Jesus is not known and then followed; he is known as he is followed.
Of all the disciples who followed Jesus, who is the first-mentioned (1:16), and will also be the last-mentioned (16:7)? When Mark tells his most vivid stories, who was invariably present at the time (v16 ‘casting a net into the lake’)? Whose personality is reflected in the breathless haste with which Mark tells his story (‘at once’, v18, ‘without delay’, v20). Whose confession – “You are the Christ” (8:29) – is the great hinge on which Mark’s Gospel turns? Who, as far as we can tell, led Mark to faith in Jesus Christ (1 Pet 5:13)? Yes, we can feel confident that Mark’s Gospel is based on the eyewitness testimony of Simon Peter.
Peter’s conclusion about who Jesus is has already been placarded in v1.
What about our witness to Jesus? As we work through Mark’s Gospel, let’s look for opportunities to ‘get the gospel from the Gospels’ (Paul Weston).
(a) ‘The story of Jesus is myth and legend’ – It’s based on eyewitness testimony.
(b) ‘Jesus was just a good man’ – v1 confronts us with ‘Jesus Christ the Son of God’.
(c) ‘The church is full of hypocrites’ – It’s not about joining an institution, but following a person.
Still, as of old, Jesus’ voice is sounding: ‘Follow me’. And to heed that summons is to become witnesses ourselves to him, as did the prophets, John the Baptist, the Father and the Spirit, and those first disciples. And it is to begin the greatest adventure in the world.