“What would you think if I sang out of tune, would you stand up and walk out on me?” Most of us know the tune and have probably sung or hummed it, even without thinking. Perhaps in the shower, or just mindlessly thinking about nothing at work or driving, we’ll hum, “Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song and I’ll try not to sing out of key.” And then, even as Christians, we continue with the chorus, “Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends, mm, I get high with a little help from my friends.”
With this Beatles song, however, the meaning of the words are taken out of the original context and given symbolic meaning for us, about friends and friendships. We don’t care anything about the original intent of what the Beatles had in mind. Thinking further about the time (the 1960s) and the counter-culture of that day, the real reference may seem as obvious to us as it was to many who had heard the song back then: they were singing about drugs. Of course the Beatles denied that the words had anything to do with drugs; but, this was after the public soured on them a little for the song. Nonetheless, we sing without thinking about what the words originally meant.
We do the same with our treasured Christian words and phrases. Returning to the meaning of the word “Gospel” from my last post, without thinking we automatically accept the commonly understood meaning: “Jesus died for my sins, offers forgiveness, and makes a way for me to go to heaven.” We think this every time we hear the term “Gospel,” in a sermon, read it in a book, or even when we hear it from the Bible. We care not what it originally meant to the authors who gave it to us.
In Mark’s Gospel-story, he starts his narrative, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1). He makes clear that his story is about “the gospel of Jesus.” Some simply apply the commonly held definition—Jesus died for my sins—right away, laying it on top of Mark’s introduction, as if skipping to the end of the story in chapter 15 gets us where we need to go (want to go) to understand the Gospel according to Mark—the Crucifixion. We skip everything in between in order to affirm what we think we already know the word “Gospel” means: Jesus dies on a cross for my sins, it’s settled.
However, Mark actually defines what he means by “the Gospel of Jesus Christ” in the following verses of his introduction. Mark gives the reader his reference points that give this “Gospel” meaning. In verses 2-3 Mark refers to a tapestry of three Old Testament texts before he launches into the storyline of Jesus, long before the scenes of the cross in chapter 15. Although he refers directly to Isaiah, he actually blends three Old Testament texts to give us a foundation (i.e., a beginning) – reference points from which to understand what he means by the word Gospel. He writes:
As it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “Behold, I send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; a voice of one crying in the wilderness, make ready the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.”
These words are a blend of Exodus 23:20, Malachi 3:1, and Isaiah 40:3:
Behold, I am going to send an angel before you to guard you along the way and to bring you into the place which I have prepared (Exodus 23:20).
“Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming,” says the LORD of hosts (Malachi 3:1).
A voice is calling, “Clear the way for the LORD in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God” (Isaiah 40:3).
It would be fair to say that Mark defines what he means by “the Gospel of Jesus” through the lens of these three Old Testament texts. Of course the Gospel is about Jesus dying on a cross for your sins and mine, but before we even get there, Mark gives us a reference (a set of references) to pour into the concept so we get his meaning. Would it come as a surprise to you that Mark understands that the Gospel is linked to, not just a prediction of a suffering Messiah (which the Gospel is), but to how people were to relate to each other and to how the poor and vulnerable were to be treated and cared for? An examination of the three Old Testament texts that Mark uses to define the Gospel he is writing about shows that his Gospel is associated with Old Testament land-stipulations, issues of justice, as well as God’s redeeming actions that offer forgiveness of sins. An honest look at what Mark writes should inform us about the Gospel we treasure.
In the upcoming course Wasted Evangelism: The Gospel of Mark, Evangelism, and Social Action, we will examine in further detail the meaning Mark gives to the word Gospel. We will examine the Old Testament texts, their contexts and background in order to hear more clearly that all important word, Gospel. The question, Just what is the Gospel?, will be a central concern of the study. Why does Mark begin his story with these three Old Testament references? Join us in Fairfield CT for four Saturday mornings in January, 9:00-11:00am. Click here for the syllabus and enrollment information.