I started to read Unbroken: A WWII Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. On the front cover is the title, the subtitle, and the author's name, Laura Hillenbrand, as well as marketing stuff like, "From the #1 New York Times Bestselling author." Then on the inside, there are pages and pages of information before you ever get to the book. There's info on the publisher and printer, a table of contents, and a preface, because in the modern world, paper is cheap and easy to come by.
Now Mark was written on papyrus, a form of paper made from a reed found on the banks of the Nile River. In the first century, it was astronomically expensive. Because of that, the author had to make every sentence, every word count. There was no cover or table of contents. Instead, the first line or paragraph was called the "incipit." The incipit was a literary device where the author would put a summary of the entire book in the opening line. This means all of Mark is crammed, packed, and shoved into the first sentence. If you can wrap your head around Mark 1:1, you can get the entire book.
Let's unpack the incipit, word-by-word, and then let's think about implications for Easter, and then let's think about implications for you and me.
The first thing you need to understand is the word "gospel," or as my Bible says, "good news." The word "gospel" is euangelion in Greek. It's where we get the word "evangelistic." Now we think of "gospel" as a religious word, but in Mark's day, it was a political word, used by the Roman government. A euangelion was a royal announcement that would go out with a herald or a preacher all over the Roman Empire, and it was usually about one of two things: a new king was born or in power, or a strategic, decisive battle had been won. It would sound something like, "Caesar Augustus is king. He defeated Octavian in the civil war. He brought peace. He brought salvation. He is lord!" That was the "gospel" of Mark's day. It would be like if every four years, in November, at the end of Election Day, there was a "gospel announcement" on MSNBC and FOX and online, saying, "Hillary Clinton is President" or "Donald Trump is President." That's the idea.
But Mark's euangelion is about Jesus, not Caesar. In an essence, he's saying Jesus is king, not Caesar. Now over the years, we've turned the word euangelion into more of a religious formula. We've made it about how you can or can't get saved. That's not all bad. But in doing so, we've truncated the gospel down to a manageable, easy-to-package formula that essentially says, "Jesus Christ died on the Cross to forgive your sins, and if you believe in him, you will be saved by faith, not by good works, and go to heaven when you die." It's missing gigantic, strategic pieces of information—other than that, it's all true. But there's so much more to the gospel.
Notice that the title of the book is "The Gospel of Mark." This whole thing, from cover to cover, is the gospel. One scholar, David Garland, writes: "'Gospel' refers to the story about Jesus narrated in the text … [I]t comprises Jesus' words, deeds, death, and resurrection as God's direct intervention into history; it challenges an imperial cult propaganda that promotes a message of good tidings and a new age of peace through the Roman Emperor." Another scholar, Scott McKnight, writes: "In this opening line Mark titles his book 'the gospel' because he is 'gospeling' in this book. What does that mean? That Mark is narrating the saving, forgiving story of Jesus."
That means whenever you tell somebody anything about the story about Jesus, you're "gospeling." If you tell somebody, "There's this story about Jesus, where he goes up to a leper who was unclean, and you weren't allowed to go within 50 feet of them, but Jesus goes up, touches the man, and heals the man. And guess what? That's what Jesus does. He goes to people on the margins of society—he goes after those people, and he touches those people, and he does a healing work." That's gospeling. "Oh, there was this time where Jesus was on trial with the chief priests and religious leaders of the day, and they said, 'Are you the Messiah, the Son of God?' Guess what he said? 'Yes!' And they killed him for it, because that was treason and that was blasphemy." That's gospeling—all you have to do is talk about Jesus. Tell the story of Jesus, because this whole thing is the gospel.
Now there's a whole lot going on in Mark's gospel. It's kind of like the end of The Return of the Jedi, when three parallel storylines converge in one dramatic climax. You have Han Solo and the Ewoks on the forest moon of Endor; you have Lando and the Rebel fleet fighting the Death Star; and then you have Luke fighting his father, Darth Vader. But all three storylines overlap and imbricate at one time.
The same is true of the Gospel of Mark. There are three parallel storylines that all converge on Jesus, and all three reach a dramatic climax in Jesus' death and resurrection. The three storylines are Eden, Israel, and Rome. Let's take each one in turn.
The opening phrase of the Gospel of Mark is "the beginning." That's interesting, because the opening phrase of the Bible is what? "In the beginning." In the original language, it's actually the exact same phrase. Mark, right from the beginning, is saying, "Hey, listen up. Whatever this story of Jesus is about, this story has to do with creation."
Mark is filled with creation imagery—even in chapter one alone. In verse 10, Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan and "he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove." Like a dove? What does that mean? Does that mean the Spirit is nice? Well, I'm sure the Spirit is nice, but there's a whole lot more going on there. Mark was Jewish, writing in Greek to a Roman audience, but his first language was Aramaic. He read from the Aramaic Targums, which were translations of the Hebrew Bible into Aramaic—Hebrew was no longer spoken in Mark's day. In one of the Targums, Genesis 1:1 reads, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was uninhabitable and like a wasteland, and the Spirit of God flapped his wings over the waters like a dove." This is a hint from Mark: "Hey, think about creation."
In Mark 1:12-13, "the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan." In Genesis, what happened right after the creation story? Adam and Eve were tempted by Satan.
Mark is laced with creation language—hints, allusions, echoes, quotes—all through the book. The scholar James R. Edwards puts it this way: "For Mark the introduction of Jesus is no less momentous than the creation of the world, for in Jesus a new creation is at hand."
You can break the story of the Bible—and in doing so, human history—down into three stages: creation, de-creation, and re-creation. In stage one, creation, God made the world and called it good. Everything was right—in sync and in harmony with the Creator God. In Eden, man and God were locked together in relationship. We see the echoes of the Garden of Eden everywhere: in the smell of spring, the taste of coffee in your mouth, a meal with friends, the sound of music, the natural beauty around us. This is God's world. In the story of the Bible, humans—Adam and Eve—were put in the Garden of Eden to rule over God's world, to gather up all the raw potentiality that is planet Earth and make something.
But creation was followed by de-creation. Adam and Eve turned away from God in the Fall and turn instead to sin. Creation spiraled out of control. Now it is self-evident that something is wrong with God's world. The world is no longer humming or in sync. It's not what it was supposed to be. Something is off, out of whack: evil, injustice, war, genocide, abject poverty, etc. It's not just the world. Something is wrong with me, with you, with the human condition. We are born bent away from what is right and toward what is evil.
But the Good News—the gospel—is that de-creation was followed by re-creation in and through Jesus of Nazareth. Mark is saying that in Jesus, a new world is coming to birth. The children's Bible I read to my kids at night says, "In Jesus, God is going to make all the sad things come untrue."
Jesus is the beginning of the re-creation of Eden. That's storyline one. Storyline two is Israel. Mark goes on to say, in 1:1, "of the good news about Jesus the … " Some of your Bibles then say, "Christ." Mine says, "Messiah." In Greek, it's the word christos, which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word for "messiah."
I prefer the word "messiah," because lots of people think "Christ" sounds like Jesus' last name. "Mr. Jesus Christ." It's actually a title. The word literally means "anointed one." It was a word used all through the Jewish Scriptures (or the first part of the Bible) for a coming king who was going to put the world to rights, fix everything, put a stop to evil and injustice, and usher in an age of peace. Jews around the time of Jesus were waiting on pins and needles for this coming, anointed king.
Jesus does not drop out of nowhere into a vacuum. You could put it this way: Jesus is the climax of the story of Israel. That's why, after the incipit, the first thing Mark does is quote two Jewish prophets. First he quotes the prophet Isaiah, then he quotes the prophet Malachi, as if to say: "All of this is leading up to Jesus." Mark, from chapter one all the way to the end, is filled with stuff from what you and I call the Old Testament.
Mark is saying this whole story—from Genesis to Malachi; from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to Moses, David and the kings; through the exile, to the Prophets, all the way to Malachi, the last prophet in the Old Testament—has all been leading up Jesus. Jesus is the Messiah, and in doing so, he is the apex of Israel's story. That's storyline two.
Mark then goes on to say, "the Son of God." That language is used a little bit in the Old Testament for the Messiah, but in Mark's day, it was much better known as a title that was used for the Caesars. Starting with Augustus, who claimed to be the son of god, the Caesars claimed to be divine. A typical Roman coin from Mark's time would have Caesar's face on one side, and the Latin inscription divius filius on the other, meaning "son of god."
Caesar claimed to be the mediator between the gods and humanity: the go-between, the bridge between heaven and Earth. He was called "savior" and "lord," because he brought "peace" and "salvation."
Here's an inscription from a Roman temple of a well-known edict a few years before Jesus: "Since the Emperor through his epiphany has exceeded the hopes of former good news, surpassing not only the benefactors who came before him, but also leaving no hope that anyone in the future will surpass him, and since the birthday of the god was for the world the beginning of his good news, may it therefore be decreed that … " Sound familiar? "The beginning of his good news"? Mark's language is almost verbatim. Mark is saying, in essence, that Jesus is the Son of God: Caesar is not.
This was a dangerous euangelion. To believe this in quiet, much less to preach this in the open, was tantamount to treason. Is it any wonder Jesus was executed by the Roman government as a criminal? All of the apostles (minus one) were executed, and millions of Jesus' followers were put to death in the arena for saying, "Jesus is the Son of God." This euangelion is not a religious cliché or trite—this is dangerous. You're saying that the real, true bridge between heaven and Earth—the mediator between God and man—does not go by the name of Caesar. Caesar is the parody to which Jesus is the reality.
This means that Jesus is a teacher, but he's more than that. He is a prophet, but he's more than that. He is the Messiah, but he's more than that. He's the Son of God.
A climax in Christ
Eden, Israel, Rome. These three storylines run all the way through Mark. But what does any of this have to do with Easter? Everything. In Mark 16, it's at Easter that all three storylines reach a dramatic climax.
Notice the tone of the first Easter, how different it is from today. Notice the language: "alarmed," "trembling," "bewildered," "afraid." Those are the four words used to talk about Mary and the women. The women are scared to death on the first Easter. Jesus is alive—why are the women afraid?
The short answer is because Jews in the first century were expecting resurrection. They believed that one day the Creator God was going to fix the world. They believed in what Isaiah called "the new heavens and the new earth." They believed in re-creation. But here's what was shocking: they were expecting the resurrection of all people at the end of history. At Easter, it was the resurrection of one person right in the middle of history. Nobody was expecting that.
You could put it this way: the Resurrection means that Jesus dragged the future into the present and opened up a whole new world right in the middle of this one. N.T. Wright writes, "When Jesus rose from the dead on Easter morning, he rose as the beginning of the new world that Israel's God had always intended to make. That is the first and most important thing to know about the meaning of Easter."
That's why in the other gospels—which were written later, after the authors had time to think about Mark's gospel for a while—all point out that Jesus' tomb was in a garden. In John, the last Gospel, Mary thinks Jesus is the gardener when she sees him in the garden. It's all Eden imagery. The Gospels are saying that in Jesus, re-creation is at hand, and the Resurrection is inaugurating the return to Eden for the whole world.
I love Mark's honesty. Jesus' own disciples did not believe until after the Resurrection. The Resurrection is evidence—it's proof—that Jesus was who he claimed to be. He really was the Messiah, the climax of the story of Israel.
That makes perfect sense. When a teacher comes on the scene and makes crazy, outlandish, far-reaching claims to be the Messiah, and then he's denounced by the pastors of the day and executed by the government, you would say he's crazy, or worse, he's a liar. But if three days later the tomb is empty, and the word is out on the street, and people who know Jesus well are saying "I saw him," and hundreds of witnesses are saying, "I saw him and he's alive," and those witnesses will not recant even when they are pushed to death, and a movement explodes all over the world: you would say he really is the Messiah.
That's why the gospel isn't just good advice on how to live; it's Good News. It's an announcement that Jesus is king. It's based on history: on cold, hard data. Jesus died, and three days later, he rose from the grave.
That means Jesus really was who he claimed to be. He really was the Messiah of Israel and the world.
Notice, at the very end, he's called "the Lord Jesus." "Lord" was the word used for Yahweh—the proper name for God—in the Scriptures.
Jesus is now, after the Resurrection, at the right hand of God. Don't misunderstand the right hand of God thing. The point isn't that Jesus is far away from the earth; it's the exact opposite. Verse 20 says "the Lord worked with them." The point of the right hand of God is that Jesus is Lord now. He's ruling and reigning over the earth, and he is with you everywhere you go. He is right at your side. If you're a follower of Christ, then you are filled with the spirit of the resurrected Lord. Jesus is the Son of God: not Caesar, not Rome. Jesus is the ultimate power in the universe.
Paul and the Resurrection's implications
Eden, Israel, and Rome come to a head on the first Easter. What does this mean for you and me? It's thousands of years later, we speak a different language, we wear very different clothing—this is a very ancient story. What does this have to do with you and me?
Well, everything. The Gospel of Mark ends with the Resurrection, but is that the ending? This whole thing is the beginning of the Good News about Jesus. The funny thing about Mark—and the same is true for Matthew, Luke, and John—is he doesn't really get into the implications of Easter. All Mark says is, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation" (16:15). Jesus is back from the dead—go tell people about it. He doesn't say anything about how Jesus rose from the dead, and therefore we can too. All that comes later, in Paul's writings.
I love Paul's honesty here, too. If this story is not true, if Jesus is not actually alive, we are a whole bunch of idiots. Not only are we idiots, but everybody who's died in Christ is lost, gone. But Paul goes on.
"Firstfruits" is a farming analogy: the firstfruits of a crop. Jesus was the firstfruits, the first out of the ground, but Jesus is not the only person who is going to be resurrected. Jesus is the beginning of what's coming. Paul is saying that one day, what happened to Jesus—death, followed by burial, followed by resurrection—will happen to all the followers of Jesus. You will die, but if you "belong to him," you will rise. You will stand up in a body, re-made, and stand in front of the Creator God at judgment. If you have been made right with God, by faith in Jesus' life and deeds and death and resurrection, and if you trust Jesus' death to make you right with God—and if you trust Jesus' resurrection to make you live forever—then you will step into God's world, re-made and new and all right in the sight of God. That's the gospel, that's the Good News, that's the euangelion of Jesus.
Do you belong to Jesus? If so, then whatever you're up against right now, that is your future. You're in Christ—that's one of Paul's favorite ways to speak about you.
Notice that resurrection is not for everybody. It's for "those who belong." Right before that, Paul says "in Christ all will be made alive." That's Paul's way of saying "all those who trust Jesus' death to make them right with God, and trust Jesus' resurrection to make them live forever."
Are you "in Christ"? If not, you can be. The Easter story can be your story. How? Baptism. In another place, Paul writes that we are baptized into Jesus. He says that baptism is a metaphor for death. You die to your sin, your past, your shame. Then comes burial—you go under the waters—and resurrection: you rise to new life in God.
You can do that. You can step into the waters, repent of your sins, put your faith in Jesus, believe he is the Messiah—and more than that, the Son of God—and you can live forever.
But for those of you who are "in Christ," you need to understand the gravity of resurrection: the gravity of this story, of all of human history, from creation through Israel to Rome, all the way to you and me.
Some of you are here, and you're doing well. You're happy, you have brunch with the family after this, spring is in the air, you're wearing pastel, and tomorrow candy is half-off. But others of you are here, and no matter what you're wearing, you're not doing well. You're suffering. Life is brutal right now. You're not "chipper" right now. We're still living between de-creation and re-creation.
Maybe you're here and you need re-creation: not in the future, when you die, but in the present. You need God's Spirit to hover over you like a dove, to work in you with healing, hope, and new life.
If that's you, I want you to worship right now. Not just sing and go through the motions, but really engage with God. Get down on your knees. Stand and put your hands in the air. Cry. Sing. Pray. Beg. Plead. Get after God. Because you know what you need? You need re-creation. You need the exact same God who hovered over the waters in Genesis 1, the exact same Spirit who hovered over Jesus in Mark 1—you need the exact same thing to happen to you.
And guess what? I have good news for you: the resurrection of Jesus is power and life and healing, not only for the future when you die, but for right here and right now. Jesus can make all the sad things come untrue. Jesus can do what the cynic in you and the cynic in me says is impossible. Jesus is here, and Jesus is waiting to engage with you and touch you in the Holy Spirit.
The tomb is empty. Jesus is alive. God's new world is bursting at the seams.