The Beginning of the Gospel (Mark 1:1-13)
The accounts of John’s preaching and of Jesus’ baptism and temptation say nothing directly about work. Nevertheless, as the narrative gateway to the Gospel, they provide the basic thematic context for all that follows and cannot be bypassed as we move to passages more obviously applicable to our concerns. An interesting point is that Mark’s title (Mark 1:1) describes the book as “the beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ.” From a narrative point of view, drawing attention to the beginning is striking, because the Gospel seems to lack an ending. The earliest manuscripts suggest that the Gospel ends suddenly with Mark 16:8, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” The text ends so abruptly that scribes added the material now found in Mark 16:9-20, which is composed from passages found elsewhere in the New Testament. But perhaps Mark intended his Gospel to have no ending. It is only “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ,” and we who read it are participants in the continuing Gospel. If this is so, then our lives are a direct continuation of the events in Mark, and we have every reason to expect concrete applications to our work.
We will see in greater detail that Mark always portrays human followers of Jesus as beginners who fall far short of perfection. This is true even of the twelve apostles. Mark, more than any of the other Gospels, presents the apostles as unperceptive, ignorant, and repeatedly failing Jesus. This is highly encouraging, for many Christians who try to follow Christ in their work feel inadequate in doing so. Take heart, Mark exhorts, for in this we are like the apostles themselves!
John the Baptist (Mark 1:2-11) is presented as the messenger of Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3. He announces the coming of “the Lord.” Combined with the designation of Jesus as “Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1), this language makes clear to the reader that Mark’s central theme is “the kingdom of God,” even though he waits until Mark 1:15 to use that phrase and to connect it to the gospel (“good news”). “The kingdom of God” is not a geographical concept in Mark. It is the reign of the Lord observed as people and peoples come under God’s rule, through the transforming work of the Spirit. That work is highlighted by Mark’s brief description of the baptism and temptation of Jesus (Mark 1:9-13), which by its brevity emphasizes the descent of the Spirit onto Jesus and his role in driving him into (and presumably through) the temptation by Satan.
This passage cuts across two opposite, yet popular, conceptions of the kingdom of God. On the one hand is the idea that the kingdom of God does not yet exist, and will not until Christ returns to rule the world in person. Under this view, the workplace, like the rest of the world, is enemy territory. The Christian’s duty is to survive in the enemy territory of this world long enough to evangelize, and profitably enough to meet personal needs and give money to the church. The other is the idea that the kingdom of God is an inner, spiritual domain, having nothing to do with the world around us. Under this view, what the Christian does at work, or anywhere else aside from church and individual prayer time, is no concern of God’s at all.
Against both of these ideas, Mark makes it clear that Jesus’ coming inaugurates the kingdom of God as a present reality on earth. Jesus says plainly, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). The kingdom is not fulfilled at present, of course. It does not yet govern the earth, and will not do so until Christ returns. But it is here now, and it is real.
Therefore, to submit to the reign of God and to proclaim his kingdom has very real consequences in the world around us. It may well bring us into social disrepute, conflict, and, indeed, suffering. Mark 1:14, like Matthew 4:12, draws attention to John’s imprisonment and links this to the commencement of Jesus’ own proclamation that “the kingdom has come near” (Mark 1:15). The kingdom is thus set over against the powers of the world, and as readers we are forcefully shown that to serve the gospel and to honour God will not necessarily bring success in this life. Yet at the same time, by the Spirit’s power, Christians are called to serve God for the benefit of those around them, as the healings Jesus performs demonstrate (Mark 1:23-34, 40-45).
The radical significance of the Holy Spirit’s coming into the world is made clearer later in the Gospel through the Beelzeboul controversy (Mark 3:20-30). This is a difficult section, and we have to be quite careful in how we deal with it, but it is certainly not unimportant to the theology of the kingdom that undergirds our theology of work. The logic of the passage seems to be that by casting out demons, Jesus is effectively liberating the world from Satan, depicted as a strong man now bound. Like their Lord, Christians are meant to employ the Spirit’s power to transform the world, not to escape the world or to accommodate to it.
J. David Hester, “Dramatic Inconclusion: Irony and the Narrative Rhetoric of the Ending of Mark.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 17 (1995), 61-86.