Christmas According to Mark
December 13, 2014 | Brian Bill
I understand you met my friend Matthew last Sunday – He would have really liked that song because he wrote about the birth of Jesus under Bethlehem’s skies. My name is John Mark and I focused on one of the lines that we just sang – Jesus was born to give His life away.
Like one of your pastors, I have two first names. John is my Hebrew name, which means “grace of God” and Marcus is my Roman name, which means, “the hammer.” I guess I was the Holy Hammer. Since there are so many “Johns” in the Bible, people just started calling me Mark.
Like Matthew and Luke and John, I had the privilege of writing a narrative about Jesus, which has come to be known as the “Gospel According to Mark.” Actually, I’m with Matthew on this – it’s not my gospel but the gospel of Jesus Christ. I simply had the privilege of painting a portrait of Christ from my perspective. Actually, the Holy Spirit moved me to write what I did, breathing out the very words of God so that you can be confident that what’s recorded in the Bible is what God Himself revealed.
I’ve taken some grief because people say that I skipped Christmas. It’s not that I didn’t think that Immanuel’s birth was important; I just let Matthew and Luke handle those details. I decided to emphasize some other elements, like how Jesus was a conqueror – of disasters, demons, disease, and even death.
I didn’t really know my father but I was very close to my mother. Her name was Mary, as if there weren’t enough Mary’s in the Bible! We lived in one of the largest homes in Jerusalem and had a lot of people over all the time.
Peter and I were really close because he’s the one who led me to faith in Christ. In fact, in 1 Peter 5:13, he calls me his spiritual son. After my conversion I spent a lot of time with him, taking notes from his sermons and listening to all the stories about the Savior. Since I wasn’t one of the original 12 disciples, I had to learn about my Lord from someone who was.
One of my purposes in writing was to encourage the Christians in Rome who were being persecuted for their faith.
I understand that some think there is a “War on Christmas” in your culture today. From what I hear, I believe it. But it is nothing like what was happening in Rome in the first century when Christians were being tortured and killed for their confession of Christ under the rule of nasty Nero. I really wanted Christians to stay strong in the face of these trials so I hoped my book would build them up. People need to be reminded to persevere and not lose heart when they’re hurting. Following Christ is costly but totally worth it.
Let me give you a few highlights:
1. I focused more on the works of Jesus, and less on His words.
My account has more miracles than message. I was interested in showing both His strength and His servanthood. I wanted people to be wowed by what He did, not just moved by the words He declared. A child can understand what I wrote and yet there’s plenty of depth for those who want to dive deep. My style is succinct, perhaps even blunt and abrupt, yet vivid and dramatic.
2. I loved that Jesus Christ moved quickly to meet needs.
One of my favorite words is translated in your Bibles as “immediately” or “straightway.” I used this word forty-two times! The Gospel of Luke, which is much longer, only uses “immediately” seven times. My book has been called “a moving picture of the ministry of Jesus.”
I wanted my readers to know that Jesus moved swiftly in response to needs. He was purposeful and determined to act according to His Father’s will at all times. He was a man of action who responded immediately to minister to hurting people. He is still doing that today, isn’t He? I was also trying to create the sense that the Savior was moving rapidly to the Cross.
By the way, if you have a hard time sitting still or you struggle with ADD, then my book is for you! Speaking of reading the Bible, can I encourage you to follow a plan to read through the entire Bible in 2015? Edgewood will be helping you do that through a new emphasis called, “Take 15 in 2015.”
3. I used vivid language to show that Jesus is our substitute.
While I emphasized His serving, I also focused on his suffering and sacrificial death. Early on in the book, in 3:6 I described a plot to kill Jesus. Of all that Jesus said, what I recorded in 10:45 sums it up well: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus was born in order to die. This is really the dividing line of the book. Up to this verse the emphasis is on Jesus as the Selfless Servant. From this point forward, the focus is on Him as our Suffering Substitute.
It might help to remember what the Savior did by spelling it out this way:
- SERVANTHOOD. Jesus came to serve. He is the supreme example of selfless serving.
- SUBSTITUTION. The phrase “to give his life” means “for you” or “in your place.” He stood in for you…and for me. He took our sins to the cross and then took the punishment you and I deserved.
- SATISFACTION. Jesus satisfied the payment for sin. In the ancient world, slaves were routinely bought and sold and the only way to be freed from slavery was for someone to pay the ransom price. Ransom brings release and new ownership. He bought us, took us off the market of sin and made us His very own.
Listen. If I ignored Christmas it’s because I wanted to emphasize the Crucifixion. If I could meddle for just a moment, the Bible puts the focus not on His birth, but on His death.
Listen. We’re told to remember his death but nowhere are we told to remember his birth, as important as that is. My fear for you, 2,000 years later, is that while you give some attention to the baby in the cradle, in general, your culture has forgotten the cross and the fact that He’s coming again. The cradle must move us to the cross and the cross must move us to the crown. The Incarnation moves to the Crucifixion to the Resurrection to the Ascension and now we await the final Consummation. He came to die as Savior and He’s coming again as King.
That’s why I took about five chapters to cover Jesus’ two-year ministry in Galilee and five chapters at the end of the book to cover his final two months in Jerusalem. I don’t apologize for giving so much attention to His betrayal, His trial, His death and His resurrection because that was what was, and is, most important.
Some of you think that since I took a pass on Christmas that you can just skip my book. I know that I’ll have a hard time convincing you to read it before Christmas because you’ll want to focus on Matthew and Luke, so allow me to quote the very first verse. Perhaps it will whet your appetite for more: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” I know this is a pretty abrupt way to begin a book but at least I didn’t start with a bunch of hard-to-pronounce names like Matthew!
The word “beginning” can refer to the cause, or head of something. Jesus is before all things as John 1:1 says: “In the beginning was the word…” Beginning can also refer to the start of something, like a road. The “gospel” is the good news about Jesus. My words mark the start of this good news, acknowledging that Jesus is also the head of all things.
Let’s break this down a bit more.
- His Person – His name is Jesus, which is the Hebrew word Yeshua, or “One who Saves.”
- His Position – His title is Christ, which means, “The anointed One” or Messiah.
- His Power – He is no ordinary man; He is the Son of God.
Matthew thinks I didn’t use enough of the Old Testament but I did quote from both Isaiah and Malachi in the very first chapter as a way to introduce John the Baptist. At the height of his ministry, he was the most popular guy in town and everybody flocked to him. But when Jesus came on the scene everything changed. John stepped down so Jesus could be lifted up. I recorded his message in verse 7: “There comes One after me who is mightier than I, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to stoop down and loose.” That’s a good model for all of us, isn’t it?
Before we go much further, allow me to share some of my story. Perhaps you think that since I wrote a book that made it into your Bible that I must be a super saint. Nothing could be further from the truth. I failed big time…twice. Let me explain.
1. I fled from Jesus.
On the night before Jesus was crucified, I watched Jesus make his way to the Mount of Olives. I followed from a distance and saw Him pray in agony while the disciples snoozed. When Judas and the soldiers appeared I hid behind a tree. I’m embarrassed to tell you what happened next so I’ll just read these autobiographical words from 14:51-52: “Now a certain young man followed Him, having a linen cloth thrown around his naked body. And the young men laid hold of him, and he left the linen cloth and fled from them naked.”
That was me! While Peter denied Jesus, I ditched Him. As I slithered through the darkness with nothing on, my soul was more exposed than my body for I knew that my fear had caused me to flee.
2. I folded on Paul.
Later on, after coming to faith in Christ through the preaching of Peter, I was able to put this behind me. Amazingly, the Apostle Paul and my cousin Barnabas (I also called him “uncle” because I looked up to him) wanted to take me along on a short-term missions trip. It’s like my past didn’t matter to them. In Acts 13:5 I’m referred to as an assistant or helper. I was eager to go at first but then things got tough.
During our first stop on the island of Paphos we encountered a sorcerer. That really unsettled me. Paul called him out as “a son of the devil” and told him he would go blind for not believing in Jesus. I wasn’t ready for ministry to be so messy and so dangerous. When we arrived in Perga, I couldn’t take it anymore. I missed my mom and our nice house and my comfortable Christianity and folded in front of them.
I told them I had enough and then Paul blew up at me. Acts 13:13 says that, “I departed from them…” Actually, I fell apart and then bolted. Paul told me that I was good for nothing and that I would never amount to anything. I should have been mad at him but that’s how I felt anyway so I just left. I moved back home, feeling like a failure and a flop, knowing I had fled from the Master and folded when Paul and Barnabas needed me most.
Later on, I heard that Paul wanted to take another missionary trip with Barnabas. I could barely believe this but Barnabas wanted me to join his team but Paul wanted nothing to do with me. Acts 15:39 says that Paul and Barnabas became embittered with each other: “Then the contention became so sharp that they parted from one another.” I felt badly that I had caused these two great men to be in conflict. Barnabas really wanted me to go with him so we went one direction while Paul settled on Silas and took a different route.
I’ll never forget how Barnabas was willing to go against Paul in order to forgive and restore a failure like me. Paul had labeled me a loser but because Barnabas was a lover he never gave up on me. I’m here to tell you that because my relative gave me a third chance, this discouraged and defeated man became a contributing member of the kingdom team once again. Is there anyone you know who needs another chance?
Even though it took him awhile to admit it, Paul eventually realized that I mattered to his own ministry. Listen to his words of life in 2 Timothy 4:11, penned right before he died: “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministry.”
Jesus came in order to conquer my sins and to give me a whole new life.
Wow, I was restored once again. That’s really the story of Christmas. Jesus came in order to conquer my sins and to give me a whole new life. I am so glad that the Christian life is a series of new beginnings!
By the way, there’s a unique aspect of my account that you might miss if you read it too quickly. I used the historical present tense over 150 times to show that Jesus is present now and will work in your life now. Let me explain. Instead of writing, “Jesus came” I wrote, “Jesus comes.” I stated, “Jesus says,” not “Jesus said” and “Jesus heals” instead of “Jesus healed.” Jesus did all those things in the past but He’s still doing them in the present! He saved and He still saves today!
It’s also been pointed out that I don’t put the disciples in the best light. I did this for two reasons. First, I wanted to show how amazing Christ is compared to them. And secondly, I wanted to show that no matter how dense they are (one time they argue about who’s the greatest right after Jesus talks about serving), they are not disqualified from being His disciples. We’re the same way, right? I love that He chooses to use losers like us.
Do you feel like a failure today? Have you fled because you were afraid or have you folded in the face of adversity? Do you need a fresh start? The good news of the gospel is that you can begin all over again, provided you follow Christ with everything you have.
And that’s really the point. Since God has done everything for us, how can we not but give ourselves completely to Him? Jesus certainly did not espouse easy believism. Check out what He said in 8:34-35: “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.”
Responding to the Redeemer
Matthew loved to tell us how he got up and followed when Christ called him. Did you know that in my book I listed over 15 people who specifically decided to follow Him? I also described over 20 different reactions that people had to Jesus. You see, the key question is not whether you may have failed Him, the real question is this: Will you follow Him now?
Check this out. People were never passive about Jesus. I never saw anyone bored with Him. There’s no way to just ignore Immanuel. He either made you angry or you were astonished or you were amazed or you were in awe. You fought against Him or you put your faith in Him. You will reject Him or you will receive Him. There’s no middle ground. Here are some of those reactions. I’ll list them quickly in order to paint a composite picture.
- They were all amazed and questioned among themselves (1:27)
- They were amazed and glorified God (2:12)
- They feared exceedingly (4:41)
- He ran and worshipped (5:6)
- When he saw Him, he fell at His feet (5:22-23)
- They were overcome with great amazement (5:42-43)
- Astonished (6:2)
- Offended (6:3)
- All saw and were troubled (6:49-50)
- Afraid (6:50)
- They were greatly amazed in themselves beyond measure, and marveled (6:51)
- The people ran (6:54-55)
- Astonished beyond measure (7:37)
- He was sad…went away sorrowful (10:22)
- The disciples were astonished (10:23)
- They were greatly astonished (10:26)
- They were amazed…and afraid (10:32)
- The scribes feared Him because all the people were astonished (11:18)
- And they marveled at Him (12:17)
- No one dared to question Him (12:34)
So here are some questions for you. What’s your response to Jesus? Have you made the decision to follow Him? What’s your reaction to what He has done for you? What’s Christmas according to you?
When I went back and reread my account this week I was struck by a response that Jesus had when He traveled back to His own community. Those who were the most familiar with Him were the furthest away spiritually. Perhaps they were so accustomed to Him that they just took Him for granted. I suspect that happens in your country as well. In Mark 6:6 it says that Jesus “marveled at their unbelief.” The Savior was struck with astonishment when He looked at those who chose to stay in their unbelief. It doesn’t make sense to shut down spiritually when Christ is so close.
My approach in writing was to interact with the readers because I wanted a response from them. At times I was pretty direct like when I quoted Jesus saying in 2:10, “That you may know the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins.”
God’s Word must enter our heads and then our hearts and then out through our hands and feet.
My bottom line is that I long for those who read my account to be participants, not just observers. Or as James 1:22 puts it: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” Because Jesus was a man of action we must be men and women of action. It’s good to listen but it’s better to listen and live it out. God’s Word must enter our heads and then our hearts and then out through our hands and feet.
I also used rhetorical questions to invoke a response. An example of this took place after Jesus stilled the storm and the seas. In 4:40, He said to the disciples, “Why are you so fearful? How is it that you have no faith?” This kind of freaked the disciples out. Check out how they responded in verse 41: “And they feared exceedingly, and said to one another, ‘Who can this be, that even the wind and the sea obey Him!’”
I also wrote with a sense of urgency because I don’t want anyone to think that they can just put off a decision to follow Christ. Check out Mark 1:14 – “Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.’”\
Jesus came at the exact time and the kingdom of God is at hand right now. How will you respond? Jesus makes it very clear in this verse.
- Repent. This means to change your mind and go in a different direction.
- Believe. To believe actually means, “To cling to, rely in, to trust.” Almost 500 women heard this message at the Ladies Christmas Party on Monday and Tuesday.
What about you? How will you respond? What’s the gospel according to you?
It’s time right now to repent and receive. When you do, He will rescue you.
You are the source of life
And I can’t be left behind
No one else will do
And I will take hold of You
I need You Jesus to come to my rescue
Where else can I go?
There’s no other name by which I am saved
Capture me with grace, I will follow You