Friday, August 18, 2006

The Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Mark 1:1)

There are three books of the Bible that begin with the word “beginning.” In the book of Genesis, written many centuries before Mark’s gospel, we read about how, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” In the gospel of John, written several decades after Mark’s gospel, we read about the preexistence of Jesus Christ with the words, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” John goes on to tell us that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us in the person of Jesus Christ. Between these two beginnings, both canonically and chronologically, we have Mark’s gospel, which begins with these words, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

This one verse of Mark’s gospel stands like a title over the entire book. The gospel was not new. It was first announced to Adam and Eve and to the serpent in the garden after they sinned. Genesis 3:15 is called the protoevangelium, or the “first gospel,” because here in the aftermath of their disobedience, God promised salvation to them. They ate from the forbidden tree, which God had said, “In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” Ashamed of their nakedness, they stitched leaves together to cover themselves and attempted to hide from the presence of God. You know that God was not fooled. He called them out and drew a reluctant confession from them. But instead of pronouncing their death, he announced their redemption, saying to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. He (meaning the seed of the woman) shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise Him on the heel.” This promise declared that from the woman, there would come a Redeemer who would suffer, but through His suffering, He would destroy the works of Satan. And there was a death on that day – but Adam and Eve, though they died spiritually because of their sin, did not die physically as had been announced beforehand. Instead a substitute died in their place. In Genesis 3:21, God made for Adam and Eve garments of skin to cover them, indicating that the works of their own hands were not sufficient, but through the slaying of a sacrificial substitute they could be covered. And as a sign of Adam’s faith in God’s promise, he gave to his wife the name “Eve,” saying that she would be the mother of all the living. So the gospel did not begin when Jesus came. Peter declared in 1 Peter 1:20-21, “He was foreknown from the foundation of the world, but has appeared in these last times for the sake of you who through Him are believers in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.”

So Mark, who was putting in writing the details of the life and ministry of Jesus as he learned them from the Apostle Peter, is not saying that this is the beginning of the gospel, but it is the beginning of the fullness of the gospel which is made known through the person of Jesus Christ. Though God had announced it for centuries in His word in the Old Testament, in Jesus Christ, He came to accomplish the redemption which the gospel promises once and for all. And this gospel continues to be the only hope for humanity in our day as well.

But the gospel is not a list of doctrinal facts, it is not a formula, it is not a prayer or a recitation. The gospel is a person. The gospel is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. This threefold description of the Redeemer is not just a title for Mark’s gospel, but is also a concise outline of the entire book. This Jesus whom we meet in Chapter 1 is declared to be the Christ by Peter at the turning point of the book, Mark 8:29-33. And in the culmination of Mark’s gospel, he is declared by a gentile centurion at the foot of the cross to be the Son of God. So in this way, the name Jesus Christ, the Son of God, sets the framework for the entire Gospel of Mark. This is similar to Matthew’s Gospel, which begins by referring to Jesus as “Immanuel: God with us,” (1:23) and ends with His promise “I am with you always even to the end of the age” (28:20). John’s gospel has similar framework, referring to Jesus in 1:1, “The Word was God,” and concluding with the testimony of Thomas who worships Jesus saying, “My Lord and my God” (20:28).[1]

This is the one true and eternal gospel: Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. This gospel is contrasted with a multitude of false gospels that have flooded the pages of human history and continue to abound today. The word means “good news,” and the good news for us is that the waiting is over; God has sent the redeemer to us. He is Jesus. He is the Christ. He is the Son of God. It is my prayer today that as we unpack this threefold title of our Lord, we will come to know Him better, and that perhaps someone will, for the very first time come to believe this gospel.

I. The Gospel is Jesus

The name Jesus was a common one in the first century. It was the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew name “Yehoshua,” which was later shortened to “Yeshua.” The most well-known bearer of this name prior to the first century was Joshua of the Old Testament. Many people named their sons after this biblical hero. Four of the 12 high priests in the first century were named Jesus. First century Jewish historian, Josephus, mentions 20 prominent individuals named Jesus, ten of whom who were contemporary with the Jesus of the Gospels. Ossuaries of Greek and Hebrew individuals bear the name Jesus. So, this is why Jesus began to be referred to as Jesus of Nazareth – to prevent confusion with other Jesuses in his day. But it is interesting to note that by the early part of the second century, this name was rare. The followers of Christ would have avoided the name out reverence, but others would have avoided it out of contempt. For whatever reason, there was something about this Jesus that made the name unsuitable for anyone else to bear.

Indeed, this Jesus was not just one of many others to bear the same name. There was something about this name. It was not chosen for Him by his earthly parents – it was given to Him by God. As Joseph processed the news of Mary’s pregnancy, an angel came to him and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins."

The name Jesus means, “The Lord Saves.” So, when the angel announced the name, he explained to Joseph that this was not just a name to honor a biblical hero or an ancient ancestor. When this name was laid upon this Jesus, it was given fullness of meaning. His name pointed to His purpose – and His purpose was salvation. And salvation from sin is what the Gospel is all about. The Gospel is Jesus.

II. The Gospel is Christ

Our word CHRIST comes to us from Greek, where it was used to render the Hebrew word meshiach, or “messiah.” You understand that this was not the last name of Jesus. It was His title. He was “The Christ.” Messiah and Christ are equivalent terms, and both mean “anointed one.” This refers to God’s anointing a person, commissioning that one for a unique task. In this case, that task is the redemption of all creation from the curse of sin.

In the Old Testament, prophets, priests and kings were all anointed to serve God in specific ways. Faithful believers in God looked forward to the coming of one who would perfectly fulfill all three of these roles. Alfred Edersheim was born into a Jewish family and educated in the Torah and Talmud. When he became a Christian in the early 1840s, he began to use his knowledge of Jewish scripture and tradition to open Christian eyes to how the Bible had been understood by Jewish rabbis for centuries. In his book The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Edersheim compiled an annotated list of Old Testament passages that the rabbis had understood to have Messianic implications. His sources were the works of the rabbinic scholars in the Targums, the Talmud, and the Midrash. From these works, Edersheim counted 456 Old Testament passages which had been attributed to the coming Messiah. It is interesting that 31 of the 39 Old Testament books are cited. The ancient Jewish rabbis could hardly open their scrolls without seeing reference to a coming Messiah who would be the ultimate prophet, priest and king. Edersheim said that the rabbinic commentaries on Messianic prophecies make it clear that “All the prophets prophesied only of the days of the Messiah,” and “The world was created only for the Messiah.”[2]

Many faithful Jews were expecting Him to come (John 1:19-20; 7:31, 41-42; 10:24; Matt 22:42; Luke 2:25, 38; 3:15; 23:39) The Samaritans were looking for the Messiah as well (John 4:24). In fact, many rabbis understood the Scriptures, and Daniel 9 in particular, to teach that the time was right for Messiah to come when Jesus entered the world. In fact, not only did Jesus claim to fulfill the Messianic prophecies, a number of others alive during that period of time did as well. But Jesus actually did what the prophecies said He would do. His teaching and His miracles authenticated His claim to be Messiah. In Luke 4, Jesus entered the synagogue of Nazareth on the Sabbath and stood up to read the Scriptures. That Sabbath reading would have been established long before Jesus ever stepped into the Synagogue, but on that day in God’s foreknowledge and providence, Jesus read from Isaiah 61:1-2: The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.” And when he sat down after that reading, He said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

One wonders why so relatively few people acknowledged Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah? It is because by the first century, the Rabbis had formed an image of the Messiah based on nationalistic hopes rather than biblical promises. According to their teaching, the Messiah would be a Davidic king who would deliver Israel from Roman oppression, restore the kingdom of Israel to its former glory, and raise it above its enemies. There was no room in this line of thinking for a Messiah who was coming into the world to serve humanity, to suffer at the hands of men, and to be crucified. But this is exactly what He did in order to deliver humanity from a greater oppressor than Rome. To be free from Rome was to still be a slave to sin. But to be free from sin was to be free indeed.

Much has been made over the “Messianic Secret” in Mark, that Jesus is only referred to as Christ a handful of times, and usually when He is acknowledged as such, He commands silence about it. Likely the reason for this is because He had not come in the way that the people were expecting, and did not want to deal with the conflicting expectations of this nationalistic deliverer. He was on a mission, and that mission was completed on the Cross, as Jesus cried out “It is finished.” What was finished was the redemption of humanity from sin that He was anointed to accomplish as the Messiah-Christ. And when Jesus was raised from the dead, all His claims were validated. Peter proclaimed in his Pentecost sermon that “this Jesus God raised up again, … Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ--this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:32, 36).

The Gospel is Jesus, and though many people were called by that name in the First Century, only this Jesus can lay claim to the title of Christ. The Gospel is Christ – Jesus is the promised Messiah and Christ of God – the anointed prophet, priest, and king who had come to deliver mankind from sin.

III. The Gospel is the Son of God

T. C. Horton and Charles E. Hurlburt, in their brief book entitled, The Names of Christ, identify 319 names or descriptive titles that refer to Jesus in the Scriptures. Yet none of them have been misunderstood more than this one: The Son of God. This phrase is employed by humanistic thinkers to refer to all of humanity as “the sons and daughters of God.” Therefore, with this understanding, Jesus was just another person. You should know that the Bible NOWHERE speaks of all humanity as the children of God. In fact, in John 8:44, Jesus explicitly states that some very religious people would be more accurately described as the sons and daughters of Satan. So, the humanistic understanding of the phrase “son of God” is bankrupt to define Jesus.

So is what I will call the “religious” understanding. This has several different varieties, but it would classify all religious people, or people of a particular religion, as children of God. Indeed, John 1:12 does say that those who believe in Christ are given the power to become the sons of God. In 1 John 3, that same apostolic writer says that as Christians we are called sons of God, and such we are. Paul said in Romans 8 that we have been given the Spirit of Adoption whereby we cry out “Abba Father.” So there is a sense in which this understanding of the phrase “son of God” is correct. But when we say Jesus is the Son of God, do we mean that He is of no qualitative difference than those who become sons of God by faith? Absolutely not. You and I have the opportunity to be adopted as sons and daughters of God. Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of God. He never became the Son of God. He is the Son of God by nature; we are sons of God by grace. At the age of twelve, He stupefied his parents and everyone in the temple when He claimed that He was in His Father’s house. He knew from the beginning that He is eternally the Son of God. And this brings us to the third misunderstanding.

Many people, including many who claim to be Christians, assume that to be Son of God is to be less than God. The question for us ought to be, when Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, what exactly did He mean, and what do the biblical writers mean when they ascribe the title to Him? Jesus is called Son of God by angels, demons, followers, and twice by God the Father Himself. Do these figures all understand Him to be something less than absolutely God? I submit to you that the Bible is clear about this – when Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, and when others claimed it of Him, the claim was a direct statement of deity – that He is indeed fully God.

When Jesus claimed to be God’s Son, he was not speaking of our human conception of parent and child, whereby the lesser derives his being from the greater, and is subsequent to, subordinate to, and dependent upon the greater. Rather, He is speaking of a sameness of nature and an equality of being. Lorraine Boettner says, “The terms ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ are not at all adequate to express the full relationship which exists between the first and second Persons of the Godhead. But they are the best we have. Moreover, they are the terms used in Scripture, and besides expressing the ideas of sameness of nature they are found to be reciprocal, expressing the ideas of love, affection, trust, honor, unity and harmony, -- ideas of endearment and preciousness.”[3] And though the terminology is not adequate, it does express to us the reality of the incarnation: that God came to us in Jesus Christ to complete the redemption of mankind according to His perfect will. As the Son, Jesus was full God and fully man, and in His humanity, He submitted Himself perfectly to the will and work of the Father.

When Jesus spoke of His divine Sonship, He could say: “He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him” (John 5:23). “If you knew Me, you would know My Father also” (John 8:19). “He who believes in Me does not believe in Me but in Him who sent Me. He who sees Me sees the One who sent Me” (12:44-45). “If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him. … He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:7, 9); “He who hates Me hates My Father also” (John 15:23). “I and the Father are One” (John 10:30). When Jesus said that, those who heard Him understood Him correctly when they sought to stone him for blasphemy, saying in John 10:33, “You being a man, make yourself out to be God.” Similarly, in John 5:17, when Jesus said, “My Father is working until now, and I myself am working,” his hearers “were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He … was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God.” Now, if that is not what Jesus was claiming, then in either case, He could have very simply said, “No, that is not what I meant.” But He didn’t say that, because it was exactly He meant.

He was, and is, the Son of God. We might also phrase it that He an eternally divine member of the Triune Godhead, God the Son, together with God the Father, and God the Holy Spirit. And just as Mark’s gospel begins with this designation of Jesus as Christ, and the Son of God, it climaxes with Peter’s designation of Jesus as the Christ in 8:29, and it culminates at 15:39 in the shadow of the cross with a Roman centurion, perhaps blood on his hands from the hammer and nails, looking upon the crucified Jesus as He died and saying, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”

This is the gospel: The gospel is Jesus. The gospel is Christ. The gospel is the Son of God. Before the crucifixion, Jesus stood before the high priest, who asked Him in Mark 14:61: “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One (a Jewish idiom for “God”)?” Jesus answer was direct and powerful. With the words of the divine name of God revealed to Moses in the Old Testament, Jesus said, “I AM.” He is. He is Jesus. He is Christ. He is the Son of God.

In C. S. Lewis’s classic work, God in the Dock, he asks the question: “What are we to make of Christ?” Lewis says that this is as comical as a fly sitting deciding what it is going to make of an elephant. “‘What are we to make of Christ?’ There is no question of what we can make of Him; it is entirely a question of what He intends to make of us. You must accept or reject the story.”[4] That’s it. The presentation of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, indeed in the entire New Testament, is that of Him as Christ and Son of God. There is no place for our deliberation over what we shall make of Him. The question is what He will make of us as we accept or reject Him on the basis of His claims.

[1] We would refer to this phenomenon of bracketing with the names of Christ as a christological inclusio. See The NET Bible (Biblical Studies Press, 2001), p1791, n2.

[2] Sanh. 99a and 98b, cited in Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, 1.161-162.

[3] Lorraine Boettner, The Person of Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1943), 31.

[4] C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock, “What Are We to Make of Christ?”

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