Bible Study “The End, the Beginning” Week 1

Week 1: READ: Mark 1:1-13

Show Time

The curtain goes up. The house lights drop to a dim. The orchestra stops playing.  The audience quiets to a hush. The narrator announces: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Mark 1:1).  The gospel purpose is clear and straightforward: this is the story of Jesus.  For audiences that have heard the reading of the later recorded gospels of Matthew and Luke, who relied on Mark as a foundation for their story of Jesus, they will notice that the gospel of Mark begins with Jesus as an adult.

The backstory for Mark is that he writes this new form called a Gospel at a time in history when the wheels have come off for the faithful.  Jerusalem has fallen. Following relative years of peaceful coexistence from about 7-26 C.E. (there had been serious Jewish zealot revolts in Palestine following the tax enrollment of Governor Quirinius in 6 CE), turmoil returned in pockets of rebellion until the First Jewish War in 66-70 CE.  The Jewish rebels were driven out of Galilee and the culminating battle was the siege of Jerusalem just prior to Passover in 70.

Filled with Jews inside the walls of Jerusalem for this feast, the historian Josephus tells that over one million people were killed in this siege, the vast majority who were Jews.  An additional nearly 100,000 were enslaved.  The Second Temple (the First Temple begun by King David and completed under the rule of his son Solomon, was destroyed in BCE 587.  The Second Temple was rebuilt ca. BCE 516 {see Ezra 6} after the Jews returned from the Babylonian Captivity) lay in ruins.  Many of the Jews who lived through the siege fled to other parts of the Mediterranean.  Hope lay in a smoldering heap as Jerusalem, the city of God, lay destroyed.

What appears to be a tragic ending, the Gospel of Mark seizes the moment to boldly proclaim a new hope-filled beginning.  No other book of the Bible begins in this way.  The letters of Paul that were written earlier all begin with his name (for example, Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy: To the church of the Thessalonians, 1 Thessalonians 1:1).  The Gospels written after Mark each begin with a different purpose.  Matthew was written for a Jewish-Christian community and to identify Jesus and his Jewish roots it begins with his genealogy. Luke states his case for writing one more orderly account about Jesus at the outset.  Meanwhile, John begins by playing off of Genesis 1: In the beginning…

Immediately the story shifts from Jesus who was just introduced as the main character, to John the baptizer.  As John steps on to the stage, a herald announces the ancient prophesy of Isaiah 40 concerning him.  Isaiah lays down clues about John who appeared from the wilderness of the desert as one sent by God to prepare for the Messiah and issue in an action of repentance through baptism.  By his preaching and ritual washings in the Jordan River, John served like a Roman herald in announcing to the audience that Jesus is the Christ (Messiah in Hebrew).

John reintroduces into the story the more powerful coming One who will baptize people with the Holy Spirit.  A segue is formed as Jesus appears for baptism, traveling from the village of Nazareth in the northern Galilee region to the southern Judean region at the River Jordan. In a final act of service, John baptizes Jesus despite his claim of being “unworthy” (1:7). As Jesus arose out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart.  Coupled together with the anointing of the Spirit and the words spoken from heaven, this was Jesus’ coronation, consecration or Godly manifesto launching the work of Jesus.

Imagine these words!  The heavens were rend, ripped, pried apart, torn open like drapes or a curtain covering the window of God’s domain. In simple words this marks a dynamic action.  God had called and spoke through the Hebrew prophets and after Malachi (ca. 450 B.C.), it appears that the heavens were closed as far as the revelation of God.  There is a strong relationship to this event with the words of Isaiah 64:1: O that you would tear open the heavens and come down. The Hebrew prophet Ezekiel begins with the heavens being opened so he could receive a vision from God (1:1).

The British band Led Zeppelin used the most famous open heaven story to produce one of their greatest hits in 1971, Stairway to Heaven.  The biblical story is of Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, who was on a quest when he stopped for the night and in his dream he has a God encounter seeing a ladder ascending to heaven (Genesis 28:12ff).  The ripping open of heaven at the baptism of Jesus is built upon the foundational understandings laid in these earlier biblical stories.  The opening of heaven…implies that Jesus is the Messiah and His baptism the beginning of eschatological happenings: God (the kingdom of heaven) is here (in Him) at hand. Thus Jesus says in John 1:51 that heaven is always open over Him, and as a commentary on Genesis 28:12 this means that Jesus, as Messiah, is Bethel, the house of God, the gate of heaven (v. 17b) on earth, (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Editors: Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., Vol. V, 1978, pp. 529-530).

Heaven is open for business on earth that begins in this drama in a most powerful way at the baptism of Jesus.  Jesus loves me! he who died heavens gates to open wide; he will wash away my sin, let his little child come in (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006, Hymn 595, verse 2).  The other time in Mark when the Greek word for “torn” is used is when the curtain in the temple was torn that veiled the laity from the appointed priest offering sacrifice to God in the “holy of holies.” Mk. 15:38…regards the incident as an intimation of the end of the temple and hence also of the ancient cultus of Israel (ibid. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. VII, p. 961).  In other words, when the heavens are ripped open at the baptism of Jesus and he is identified as the Son of God, the Gospel of Mark reaches it crescendo at his death when the temple is rend and the church, as a community of Jesus’ followers, emerges.

The forty day test of Jesus by Satan is colorful despite its brevity (1:9-11).  This account describes a conflict in the spirit realm: the Spirit drives Jesus who is tempted by Satan and yet is waited upon by the angels.  Toss in the wilderness (the desert not a forested region in Northern Wisconsin) which causes anxiety for the Jews as represented by the unnamed wild beasts and it makes for a crazy transitional scene from the powerful and revealing baptism of Jesus by clearing John the baptizer off the stage by his arrest. Now the script for Jesus’ ministry is set to be written.

Soul Sower

For the past two-thirds of my life, my wife Jody has been the most consistent witness to Christ in my life.  First of all, she is my prayer champion.  Jody bathes me in prayer.  She created this wonderful tradition of praying for my senses while my head lays on my pillow at the close of the day.  As she prays for me, she lays her hand on my eyes and ears, my mouth and my mind.  It fills me with incredible peace.  I am blessed to be Jody’s husband.

Secondly, Jody demonstrates the love and integrity of Jesus with her life.  She is honest to a fault.  Like salt, Jody brings out the best in me.  She encourages me in my faith.  The consistency of her Christian life is a powerful witness for Jesus.

Finally, my wife serves as my mirror.  She helps me to see when I get off track or tunnel focused.  This is not always received initially well by me.  I have learned the value of trusting her insights despite the fact it can hurt. I thank God for our great partnership.

Discussion Questions

  1. God called a most curious man with an odd diet (see 1 Kings 1:8) to an important work of preparing people for the coming of Jesus.  What surprises you as you read 1:2-8 and John’s preaching for people to change their ways (repent) and the response of the people from that region?
  2. What did you notice as you reread the story of the baptism of Jesus?  What is the possible connection between the witness of God at Jesus’ baptism (calling Jesus God’s beloved son) and the spiritual conflict that followed in the wilderness in 1:12-13?
  3. The story of the first four followers of Jesus said that they left their vocation and family and joined Jesus in his work. What does the call of Jesus to follow him look like in your mind today?  What is the cost of following Jesus?
  4. How is God calling you to respond to today’s reading?  What are you going to do?  Who is on your “fishing list?”