The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God;
I. THE BEGINNING OF ST. MARK'S MEMOIR.
1. The commencement. It is a remarkable circumstance and a curious coincidence that the first words of this Gospel are an echo of Peter's confession, in that confession, as recorded by St. Matthew, Peter expresses his belief in the very remarkable words, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. In nearly the same words St. Mark commences his narrative: The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2. Difference of construction. The words of this first verse may be taken
(1) as the title of the entire book; or
(2) in construction with the following verse, "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was as it is written in the prophets;" or
(3) even in connection with the fourth verse, the second and third being parenthetic; that is, "The beginning of the gospel... was John baptizing."
3. Omissions. After a brief but indispensable introduction, touching the ministry of the Baptist, the evangelist hurries on to his concise but clear and comprehensive narrative of our Lord's public life, beginning with his baptism by John. He passes over the four events of the Saviour's childhood - the circumcision and presentation in the temple, which are recorded by St. Luke, as also the visit of the Magi and the flight into Egypt, mentioned by St. Matthew. He passes over the only recorded incident of his early days - the one event which constituted the dividing line between his childhood and youth, when, at his second appearance in the temple, he disputed with the doctors, and in connection with which we have his first recorded utterances, "How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business?" St. Mark also omits the lineage of our Lord, by which St. Matthew connects him with the seed of Abraham according to the flesh, and likewise that other genealogy, which St. Luke traces still higher up, connecting him with Adam and so with humanity itself, including Gentile as well as Jew. In the whole four Gospels there is only one single verse descriptive of our Lord's childhood, which reads as follows: - "The child grew and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom [or rather, 'waxed strong, becoming filled with wisdom']: and the grace of God was upon him;" while one other verse contains the record of his youth, "Jesus increased [rather, 'advanced'] in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man." All we know for certain of our Lord's life, up to the time of his manifestation to Israel, may be summed up in the few following facts: - Dutifulness to his earthly parents in childhood; diligence in business as a carpenter, like his fellow-men, in youth and early manhood; devotion to his heavenly Father all through his childhood, youth, and man-hood - from his earliest to his latest breath. St. Mark overleaps all the preceding period, and makes our Lord's entrance on ministerial life the starting-point of his Gospel. It is as though, impatient of delay, he hastened onward to the mighty issue, and acted on the well-known principle -
"But to the grand event he speeds his course,
And bears his readers with resistless force
Into the midst of things."
4. Practical observations.
(1) Long, labourious preparation is needed for the life-work, when that work is to be a noble one, and that life a real success. It was thus with Moses; it was thus with Jesus; it was so with Luther and Other reformers; it has been so all down the centuries with the men who have blessed the world and benefited their race.
(2) The example of our Lord dignifies honest industry and ennobles daily toil.
(3) A spurious sentimentalism, like the apocryphal Gospels, is apt to busy itself more with the childhood and youth than with the manhood and ministry of the Saviour.
II. THE GOSPEL.
1. Meaning of the term. The original word rendered "gospel," or "good news," meant in Homeric times a reward given to the bearer of good news, or a sacrifice offered on account of good news; but in gospel days it signified the good news itself.
2. Its embodiment. This good news centres in a Saviour whose proper name is "Jesus" - indicating the nature of his work, "for he will save his people from their sins;" his official title is "Christ" - the Messiah, or Anointed One, promised to the fathers, and thus solemnly inaugurated in the high functions, prophetical, priestly, and kingly, which he was called to discharge; while his designation of "Son of God" implies his two - fold qualification, namely, dignity of nature and possession of power for the accomplishment of the great redemption, God's remedy for sin. The good news is inseparable from the person of the Saviour - at once human and Divine, from the works he did, from the truths he taught, and from the sufferings he endured; and thus it is embodied in him.
3. Its extent. Its range is most extensive, including salvation for the lost, life for the dead, grace for the guilty, pardon for the penitent, bread of life for the hungry, and living water for the thirsty soul. Good news! no wonder the evangelist is in a hurry to make known such good news.
4. Its essence. The essence of the gospel may be expressed in a few sentences; its sum and substance may be compressed into the compass of a few short statements of Scripture; yea, the whole is contained in that single Scripture, "It is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners;" or in that other Scripture, "The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin;" or in that third Scripture, "The gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord."
5. Its epithets. The epithets applied to it are instructive, as indicating some of its many features. It is "the gospel of peace," for its contents proclaim "peace on earth and good will towards men," as well as "glory to God in the highest." It is called "the gospel of salvation," because it saves as well as sanctifies. It is styled "the glorious gospel," from its glorious influences - enlightening the understanding, purifying the heart, renewing the will, regenerating the soul, sanctifying the whole man - body, soul, and spirit; while at the same time it elevates the mind to God and heaven and eternal things. It is "the everlasting gospel," for it is still the same, though change and alteration are the very essence of this world; it remains the same amid all the ups and downs of time; and its blessed results are durable as eternity itself. It is "the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God," for he is the Alpha and Omega of it; he is the Source from which all its benefits and blessings flow; he is the Guide to the ways and means by which we become partakers of the same. Whether, therefore, we consider it as the gospel of God, or the gospel of his grace, or the gospel of peace, or the gospel of salvation, or the glorious gospel, or the everlasting gospel, or the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, it justifies its claim to be the "godspell," or glad message, or good news, which the name implies.
6. Its effects. Good news, then, is the subject to which the evangelist, at the very outset, calls our attention. Good news! Oh, how the heart beats in the prospect of good news! How the pulse throbs in expectation of good news! How many a heart beats wildly when the postman's knock comes to the door! How many a bright eye becomes still brighter when the precious little letter, which brings good news from friends abroad or friends at home, is put into the hand! Now, the best news that ever fell on the ear, or met the eye, or gladdened the heart, of mortal man, is this gospel of the Son of God. It has quickened many a dead soul; it has gladdened many a sad heart; it has filled many a drooping spirit with joy unspeakable; it has led many a pilgrim of earth onward and upward to the glories of heaven.
III. UNION OF THE OLD AND NEW TESTAMENT SCRIPTURES. In vers. 2, 3, the evangelist binds together as in one volume, and unites with better than clasps of gold, the Old Testament and the New. He brings into closest connection the canon of the former with that of the latter. They are, indeed, the twin lips of one and the same Divine oracle. Accordingly, he bridges over the chasm of four hundred years between the last prophet of the Old Testament and the first prophet, or rather precursor of the Saviour, in the New. The ministry of John and the mission of the Saviour had been expressly foretold by the prophets Isaiah and Malachi - the prediction of the former was primary, that of the latter secondary and subordinate. Consequently, treating Malachi's as prefatory and introductory, announcing the messenger and his function, he fixes attention mainly on that of Isaiah, as containing the message itself, and the actual ministry with which the forerunner was charged. The name of Malachi is therefore omitted, for the correct reading, as given by the critical editors is, no doubt, "in Isaiah the prophet."
IV. THE VOICE THE PROPHET HEARD. The prophet Isaiah, as we may picture his position, is looking away, with straining eyes, into the distant future of his people; he is listening, with outstretched neck and ears eagerly attentive, for any intimation of their redemption; but in vain. No vision is granted, no promise vouchsafed. He does not, however, despair; he keeps looking and listening and longing for something to strengthen his faith or encourage his hope. All is hushed around, and again he listens with bated breath; but hark! at length he hears a sound. It is a voice away in a distant desert land; it is waking the echoes of the wilderness. "It is the voice of one crying." It is just a voice, and seemingly nothing more - not unlike that bird of which the poet writes -
"Shall I call thee bird,
Or but a wandering voice?...
Thrice welcome, darling of the spring!
Even yet thou art to me
No bird; but an invisible thing,
A voice, a mystery." We must not confound John with the voice, as those who translate the expression of the prophet, "a voice crying;" but understand the voice as his chief characteristic or main peculiarity, as in secular authors we read of the strength of Hercules, the virtue of Scipio, the wisdom of Laelius, or as when Cicero in a disparaging sense affirms that, on the removal of Catiline, he had nothing to fear from the drowsiness of Lentulus, or the corpulence of Cassins, or the mad rashness of Cethegus.
V. DISTRICT OF JOHN'S MINISTRY. Kings, when setting out to visit the remote provinces of their kingdoms, were usually preceded by heralds to announce their approach and pioneers to prepare the way - removing obstacles, clearing away impediments, and so making rough places smooth; bridging streams, filling up valleys, levelling hills, and so causing a straight, direct road to take the place of a circuitous and devious route. Some preparation like this was made for Alexander the Great when he marched to the Indus, and more so still for Semiramis in her progress through Media and Persia. Likewise in Vespasian's march to Galilee a detachment was appointed "to make the road even and straight, and, if it were anywhere rough and hard to be passed over, to plane it, and to cut down the woods that hindered their march." The necessity for such preparatory measures would be increased in a desert district without roads, or with roads so bad as to be almost impassable. When Jehovah restored the Hebrew exiles from Babylon to their own land, the region through which they had to pass was dreary and desolate, and in some places pathless. To the preparation of a way through the difficulties of such a district for the returning Hebrew exiles, with the great king at their head, the words of the prophet primarily referred. This, like other great events in the cycle of Jewish history, was, no doubt, typical of that moral waste in which the people were when Jehovah came again for their redemption in the person of Messiah. Very appropriately, therefore, did John choose for the scene of his ministry the wilderness of Judaea. This comprehended the eastern slope of the hills from Jerusalem and Hebron, down the Jordan valley to the western shore of the Dead Sea and the banks of Jordan - a wild region, in many places rough, rugged, and rocky, with sparse, if any, population, some spots of pasture-ground, and few or no trees. Here it was that the Baptist made his appearance (ἐγένετο) - "comes forth" (παραγίνεται, St. Matthew). A difficult work awaits him in preparing Messiah's way: humble and contrite ones are to be elevated; proud and lofty spirits to be brought low; the crooked ways of crafty men to be made straight; rough, untutored natures to be softened; and moral obstacles of every kind to be removed, in order that, the way being thus prepared, the march of Prince Messiah might be unhindered.
VI. DISTINGUISHING RITE OF THE BAPTIST'S MINISTRY.
1. Proselyte baptism. In connection with the ceremonial law of the Jews, there were "divers washings." Such baptisms or ablutions were practiced by them from the earliest period of their polity. Originally appointed by Divine authority, they were incorporated as part and parcel of the national religion. Their design was an important one, for they were intended to serve as symbols of that purity which was required in all true worshippers of Jehovah. On the eve of the giving of the Law to Israel, and of that people's gracious admission into covenant with God, a great national assembly took place - the various Hebrew tribes spreading over the desert and round the base of Sinai, the Lord directed Moses, saying, "Go unto the people, and sanctify them to-day and to-morrow, and let them wash their clothes, and be ready against the third day: for the third day the Lord will come down in the sight of all the people upon Mount Sinai;" while, in consequence of and in obedience to this direction, "Moses went down from the mount unto the people, and sanctified the people; and they washed their clothes." Further, when strangers from among the surrounding nations embraced the Jews' religion, they were washed as well as circumcised; and that washing was called "baptizing unto Moses," or proselyte baptism. This rite, notwithstanding the assertion of some to the contrary, appears to have existed before our Saviour's time, and to be evidently implied in several passages of the New Testament. It was, moreover, a rite which sprang naturally out of the opinion commonly current among the Jews that all mankind were in an unclean condition, and so incapable of admission into the covenant of Israel, unless and until they were baptized or washed, in token of being purified from their state of moral uncleanness.
2. Position of John's baptism. But what, it is necessary to inquire, was the position occupied by the baptism of John? What was its relation to other similar ablutions? In reply we answer that the baptism of John was neither proselyte baptism on the one hand, nor Christian baptism on the other. It was not proselyte baptism, for that was administered only to proselytes, that is to say, converts to the Jewish faith, whereas John baptized Jews; and this alone will account for the misgiving and alarm which the baptism of John caused to the Jewish authorities. Hence the question of the Pharisees, as recorded in John 1:25, "Why baptizest thou then, if thou be not that Christ, nor Elias, neither that prophet?" The prophet referred to, it may be remarked in passing, was probably Jeremiah, whose revivescence as a forerunner of Messiah the Jews expected, believing, according to an old legend, that he would restore, or reveal the hiding-place of, the ark of the covenant, the tabernacle, and the altar of incense, which he had hid in Pisgah, at whatever time God should gather his people together. The Pharisees could have readily understood the baptism of Gentile proselytes into the Jewish faith, and such baptism by John could have produced no uneasiness and caused no alarm. Instead of occasioning pain, it would have given them pleasure, as the admission of converts into the Jewish Church by such baptism would have contributed to their own ecclesiastical importance, and tended to augment the numerical power of their party. But the disquieting circumstance about it was that it was Jews whom John baptized; and what were they to make of that? What were these zealots for Judaism to think of the administration to Jews of a rite which had only been administered to Gentile proselytes; and the administration of which was either the formal introduction into a new faith or the first inauguration of a new dispensation? It was this that aroused their fears and excited their apprehensions. They saw clearly that John's baptism was the dawn of a new dispensation - a dispensation destined, as they rightly suspected, to subvert in a certain sense, or at least supersede, the old. In their alarm they accordingly ask, "If thou art not that Christ himself, who, we are taught to believe, will inaugurate a new dispensation; nor Elias, his forerunner; nor that prophet, be it Jeremiah or some other of the old prophets who shall reappear on earth at Messiah's advent; - why baptizest thou then, seeing it is not Gentile converts to Judaism, but Jews themselves, that are admitted to your baptism?" John's baptism, then, was not proselyte baptism. Neither was it Christian baptism, as we learn from Acts 19 at the beginning, where certain disciples at Ephesus, who had been baptized into John's baptism, were rebaptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. "Unto what then were ye baptized?" asks Paul. "And they said, Unto John's baptism. Then said Paul, John verity baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people, that they should believe on him which should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus. When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus." With this agrees the sentiment of an ancient Greek Father, the purport of which is that John's baptism was more than Jewish baptism, for it involved repentance as well as water baptism; it was less than Christian, for it was not with the Spirit, as Christ's was.
VII. DOCTRINE PREACHED BY THE BAPTIST. The doctrine he preached was the doctrine of repentance for the remission of sins. He called their sins to mind, summoning them to confession and contrition; while this proper sense of, and sorrow for, sin showed them their need of a Saviour and prepared them for his salvation. In token of repentance commenced and to be continued, and of the power of him whose reign was now beginning, to cleanse the truly penitent from all sin, he baptized them with water unto repentance. Thus, while John proclaimed the advent of the new dispensation, he prepared for it and prefaced it by a most appropriate and significant rite. On this Theophylact comments as follows: - "But whither did this preaching of repentance lead? To the forgiveness of sins, that is, to the baptism of Christ which had the forgiveness of sins."
VIII. DRESS OF THE BAPTIST. Everything was in perfect keeping with the strange surroundings of the Baptist. His dress, his diet, and his discourse were all in harmony with the desert where he ministered. His dress was neither gorgeous nor gay like that of a king's herald; it was of the coarsest and roughest kind. His garment was made of cloth of rudest texture, woven out of camel's hair; he was girded not with the rich linen or highly ornamented girdle of the Oriental, but with a cincture of untanned hide, like the prophets' raiment of early times; just such as Elijah wore, and such as Zechariah speaks of when he refers to the rough garment as the proper prophetic costume, and as such assumed by false prophets in order to deceive.
IX. DIET OF THE BAPTIST. His diet was as plain as his dress. His food was not sumptuous, but of the simplest sort; scarce sufficient to keep soul and body together - the honey of the wild bee, which he found in the fissure of the rock or clefts of trees, and the locusts of the wilderness. The honey was not that which exuded from trees, but the veritable product of wild bees; nor were the locusts the sweet pods of the locust tree, but the real locusts still used for food by the Bedouin of the desert. "He also," says Thomson in 'The Land and the Book,' "dwelt in the desert where such food was and is still used; and therefore the text states the simple truth. His ordinary 'meat' was dried locusts - probably fried in butter and mixed with honey, as is still frequently done. The honey, too, was the article made by bees.... Wild honey is still gathered in large quantities from trees in the wilderness, and from rocks in the wadies, just where the Baptist sojourned, and where he came preaching the doctrine of repentance."
X. DISCOURSE OF THE BAPTIST TO THE COMING CROWDS.
1. Audience addressed. The persons who went out to John's ministry are described by St. Luke as crowds or multitudes (ὄχλοι); but they are distinguished by St. Matthew as comprehending two component parts, or two contending sects, namely, Pharisees and Sadducees, that together made up the main body of the nation. To the Gentiles, for whom St. Luke wrote, the distinction would have little meaning and no interest; to the Hebrew Christians, for whom St. Matthew wrote, it would convey the fact that the crowds that flocked to the Baptist's ministry were made up of the two religious sects of Judaism promiscuously. In his audience were Judaeans and Jerusalemites - people from the country and the capital; and dwellers in all the region round about the Jordan (περίχωρος), Samaritans, Galileans, Peraeans, and Gaulonites.
2. His discourse denunciatory. His discourse breathed the spirit of a reformer and evinced the power of a reformer. He denounced most scathingly the ritualistic Pharisee and the rationalistic Sadducee - traditionist and scripturist alike; high and low, rich and poor. He spared the shortcomings of no class, the iniquities of no rank, and the sins of no individual. The plea of ancient privilege and of pious ancestors he treated with scorn, telling such as resorted to those refuges that God could, and would if necessary, raise up children to Abraham out of the stones that lay scattered through the valley, or the shingle that strewed the strand of the Jordan, or those huge boulders - those memorial stones which Joshua had set up near the bank of that historic river. This expression, by the way, though apparently harsh, may allude to Isaiah 51:1, 2, "Look unto the rock whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence ye are digged. Lock unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah that bare you."
3. His discourse menacing. He threatened the vengeance of heaven on all who refused to repent and return to God. The woodman's axe was already brandished to fell the trees that continued barren. The axe was brought into unpleasant proximity to such trees - not to the branches merely, but was laid to the very root; in fact, lies at it (κεῖται). The fatal blow was ready to be struck at any moment. In view of anger so imminent, he urges all to flee from the wrath to come - to repent, and not only profess, but prove, their repentance real by fruits answerable to such profession; "If then (οϋν) you are as anxious as you seem to escape that storm of future wrath, bring forth fruit suitable to genuine penitence."
4. His discourse effective. The various classes that had resorted to his ministry were roused to a sense of danger. The terror of the alarmed multitudes took shape in the question, "What, then, shall we do?" Just as on the day of Pentecost, the men of Israel, pricked to the heart, addressed themselves to Peter and the rest of the apostles, asking, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" And just as the Philippian jailor, in his wild alarm, trembling and falling down before Paul and Silas, cried out, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?"
5. Directions to different classes. The reply in this case inculcated a lesson of charity and sympathy - the person who had two tunics or under garments (χιτῶνες), besides his outer garment (ἱμάτιον), was to impart to the poor starveling who had not even one. So with food of all forms and every kind (βρώματα) as well as raiment. Such were the directions addressed to the multitudes (ὄχλοι) while the difference between these directions and those addressed to the two following classes deserves notice. To the former (the multitudes) he said, "Do good;" to the latter (publicans and soldiers)he said, "Abstain from evil;" to the one the direction is positive, to the other negative. To the former he said, "Learn to do well;" and the latter, "Cease to do evil." The publicans again, who were looked on as trading on their country's degradation, he forbade to continue their unjust exactions and dishonest dealings; while the soldiers on their march (στρατευόμενοι), whether those of Antipas marching against his father-in-law Aretas, or otherwise, he commanded, in reply to their numerous and earnest inquiries (ἐπηρώτων imperf.), to forbear extortions either by threats or false accusations - neither to concuss the poor by the former, nor force money out of the pockets of the rich by the latter: also to be content with their wages (ὀψωνίοις; literally, boiled fish, rations, soldiers pay).
XI. FORMAL, ANNOUNCEMENT OF MESSIAH By this time the crowds assembled round the Baptist were on the tiptoe of expectation. At this period expectations of some great deliverer were rife both in Gentile lands and among Jewish people. It is not strange, then, that the multitudes who had listened to the instructions of the Baptist reasoned within themselves whether haply John himself were the Christ. He had already, it may be presumed, given a definite answer to the priests and Levites deputed by the Sanhedrin to ascertain his claims. But now he feels called on to make a more public announcement.
1. Transition. All along he never once lost sight of his office as harbinger or herald (κηρύσσων) calling attention to the coming One. Yet gradually the office of herald was merging in that of the evangelist; hence the employment of εὐηγγελίζετο in the parallel passage of Luke, at the eighteenth verse. Ever more and more John seeks to turn attention from himself to Jesus, to whom he acknowledges himself as inferior in rank as in office. The meanest slave that brought his master's sandals, or stooped down in lowliness to undo the latchet that bound them, stood to the mightiest earthly master in a higher relation than John to Jesus; while the work of the latter was proportionately superior.
2. Superiority. The one administered the symbol, the other the thing signified; the one baptized with water, the other with the Spirit; the one was a light as of a lamp (λύχνος) kindled by, and reflecting, a borrowed light, the other was that central source of light (φῶς); the one was the morning star, soon to wane, and wishing to wane, before the other, who was the sun himself going forth in his strength.
"Where is the love the Baptist taught,
The soul unswerving and the fearless tongue?
The much-enduring wisdom, sought
By lonely prayer the haunted rocks among?
Who counts it gain His light should wane,
So the whole world to Jesus throng!" J.J.G.
Parallel VersesKJV: The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God;