For the past three months, we have been in Exodus, taking the story up to chapter 20 and the Ten Commandments. We are now going to return to the New Testament and read Mark’s Gospel. We’re going to take this Gospel fairly slowly, reading only a few verses at a time on most days, to get as much as possible from our reading.
Monday 1st June
Today we begin a new series of readings in Mark’s Gospel, studying the life, ministry and teaching of Jesus. Most of us have some picture of Jesus in our minds, which was created during our days in Sunday School. As we read the Gospel of Mark, we ought to reconsider that picture, to be sure it is an accurate picture, built on the text of Scripture. It might also be helpful to read Mark’s Gospel all the way through at one sitting. It is quite short and that read through will help you to bear in mind the big picture as we examine the parts in some detail. Today we have read the whole of chapter 1. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark does not make any reference to Jesus’ birth, he goes straight to the beginning of his public ministry and what a dramatic beginning it was! We are embarking on a most exciting story. Over the next few days we’ll break down the chapter and look at it in more detail.
Tuesday 2nd June
Mark begins his Gospel with an account of the story of John the Baptist. It has been said that Mark portrays Jesus as a mighty king and that his way of beginning the story ties in with this theme. When a king was due to appear in a city, a herald or ambassador would be sent ahead to prepare the way and to announce his coming. John the Baptist is the herald, the ambassador, who prepares the way for the coming of King Jesus. The Gospel begins with these words, ‘The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ In a very real sense, the Gospel began with the ministry of John the Baptist. To underline this point, Mark says that the coming of John the Baptist was the fulfilment of a prophecy in Isaiah. In this way, the stories of John and of Jesus are seen as fulfilment of the Old Testament Scriptures. The people of God had been waiting for messiah for 800 years but now he had come in the flesh.
Wednesday 3rd June
John the Baptist was a most unlikely beginning to a great work of God. The way he dressed, the food he ate and the message he preached, were all unusual and yet there was something about John that attracted the crowds. We’re told that, ‘The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him.’ He was different from all the other wandering rabbis, preachers and prophets. The ordinary people recognised that this man had been sent by God. The Jewish religious leaders, of course, did not reach the same conclusion! The ministry of John is described in verse four: ‘And so John came, baptising in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.’ The people of Israel would not have found it strange that John baptised people. There were occasions in Israel when baptisms took place. What did surprise them (and angered many of them) was that John required this baptism not only of outsiders and foreigners who became Jews, he required it of the children of Abraham themselves. John’s baptism was a sign of repentance and conversion and to suggest that the Jews needed this transformation was profoundly shocking to them.
Thursday 4th June
John’s baptism was a baptism for the repentance of sins in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. John’s baptism was not a substitute for salvation in Christ, it was a preparation for salvation in Christ. John makes this plain himself as we see here in verses 7-8. Notice John’s comment that Jesus would baptise with the Holy Spirit. This refers to our new birth by the Spirit. In other words, those who were baptised by John still needed Christ and Christian baptism. In particular, they needed the Holy Spirit and the Spirit only comes into our lives when we are united to Christ. That is underlined by Acts 19:1-6. Only those who are ‘in Christ’ have the Holy Spirit. As Paul says in Romans 8:9: ‘if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.’ The act of God whereby he gives us new birth and unites us to Christ is the Baptism in the Holy Spirit. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:13: ‘For we were all baptised by one Spirit into one body’.
Friday 5th June
Suddenly Jesus himself appeared, to be baptised by John. Many people have been puzzled by this. After all, Jesus did not need to repent and turn back to God. Why should he want to be baptised by John? In Matthew’s account of the story, we find John himself raising this very objection. This is what we read in Matthew 3:13-15: ‘Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptised by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness.” Then John consented.’ The problem here is real. Since John’s baptism was about the removal of filth from the soul, why did the sinless one present himself for baptism? The answer is that he took our sin and was baptised on our behalf. In other words, he acted as our substitute. Two verses of Scripture help here: John 1:29: ‘The next day John saw Jesus coming towards him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”’ Then 2 Corinthians 5:21: ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’
Saturday 6th June
Then something else happened. Verses 10-11 tell us that the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus at his baptism and that God bore audible witness to his son. This passage does not mean that the Spirit was somehow separated from Jesus until this point. Rather, what we have here is Jesus receiving a special anointing for his public ministry which was about to begin. As one scholar, J.D.G. Dunn puts it, ‘The descent of the Spirit on Jesus effects not so much a change in Jesus, his person or his status, as the beginning of a new stage in salvation-history. The thought is not so much of Jesus becoming what he was not before, but of Jesus entering where he was not before – a new epoch in God’s plan of redemption.’ Our passage ends with Jesus being sent out into the desert to be tempted by the devil. The Spirit anoints Jesus and he is strengthened. Now the devil tempts him, he resists and is strengthened again. The stage is now set for all that will follow. God has come to earth and salvation will be accomplished.
Sunday 7th June
In this passage, we see the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. He declares that the kingdom of God is near and calls upon people to repent and believe the good news. He then calls his first disciples: Peter, Andrew, James and John. The kingdom of God played a vital role in Jesus teaching. In these verses today, Jesus announces that the kingdom is near. During his ministry, much of his teaching was about the kingdom (for example, the parables of the kingdom) and after the resurrection we read this in Acts 1:3: ‘After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.’ The kingdom of God was the central theme of Jesus’ ministry. Why do we hear so little about it today?
Monday 8th June
The central theme of these verses is that Jesus spoke and acted with authority. We see this particularly in verses 22 and 27. Authority! That was the mark of Jesus from the beginning. There was no hesitation or doubt or second thoughts with him. His words, his actions and indeed his whole life and character showed that here was a leader, a decisive and authoritative man, a man who knew the mind of God. We find the same reaction at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 7:28-29: ‘And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.’ They were astonished because they did not yet understand his identity as the Son of God. Jesus was able to speak with authority because of who he is. In John 10:30 he says ‘I and the Father are one’ and again, in John 14:9 he says ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father’. No wonder he spoke with authority, he is God incarnate and speaks with all the power and authority of the living God.
Tuesday 9th June
In these verses, we see the power of Jesus to heal and to cast out evil spirits. The passage begins with the story of the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law who was in bed with a fever. They asked Jesus for help and he healed her. So immediate and so complete was her recovery that she began to make her guests welcome and serve them with food. It is no surprise to learn that news about him had spread very rapidly. In a small and quiet town in the Middle East when a man starts healing the sick miraculously, people get to hear about it. As soon as the Sabbath was over and it was permissible to carry invalids, all the sick for miles around were brought to him. In verse 33 we read, ‘The whole town gathered at the door.’ Jesus continued to demonstrate his power by healing many people and casting out evil spirits. Why did he do this? First, no doubt out of compassion for those who had been brought to him; but second, the demonstration of his power to heal was part of the evidence to prove his identity. How do we know this man is the Messiah? Well, he has the power to heal.
Wednesday 10th June
Jesus went off by himself to pray very early in the morning. The result of this was a clear decision regarding his priorities. When Simon and the others woke up they went to find Jesus, to persuade him to continue the good work: ‘Everyone is looking for you’ they said. Jesus reply must have shocked them, ‘Let us go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.’ This is one of the most important sayings of Jesus for a proper understanding of his ministry. Jesus tells us that his primary purpose was to preach. The healing miracles and so on were intended to demonstrate his power and so identify him as the Son of God and prove his authority, but his real mission was to preach the good news. Jesus didn’t want people to follow him in the hope of seeing a miracle. He wanted people to repent of their sins and turn to God for forgiveness. For Jesus, preaching took priority over healing.
Thursday 11th June
The next section of our passage describes the healing of a man with leprosy. We see in this miracle something of the love and compassion of the Saviour. The man with leprosy was an untouchable, who would have been required to stay away from his village, separated from his family and friends. This man, however, was conscious of his own state, earnestly desiring to be cleansed, and humble enough to ask for that cleansing, believing that Jesus had the power to heal. Then we see the compassionate figure of Christ dealing with the man. The passage says that Jesus was ‘filled with compassion.’ The older versions of the Bible tell us that Jesus was ‘moved with pity.’ He didn’t flinch from touching the leper as everyone else would have done. This leper reached out to Jesus in faith and Jesus, full of compassion, responded to that faith and healed the man. We could almost say that this story is a parable or a summary of the Christian gospel. If we come to Christ, recognising our sin and our need to be cleansed from it; and if we recognise that only Jesus is able to do this, then he will respond and cleanse us from sin.
Friday 12th June
We read these verses again to make an important point. The law laid down certain things which had to be done by a leper who was cleansed and Jesus told the man to see to these matters, but he also instructed him to tell no-one about what had happened. In verse 45 we see that the leper disobeyed. We read that he ‘began to talk freely, spreading the news.’ And what was the result of all this? ‘Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places.’ One of the commentators wrote this: ‘Disobedience to the express command of Christ, even if undertaken from the best possible motives, can only lead to a hampering and a hindering of Christ’s work.’ In other words, it is not enough to do God’s will, it must be done in God’s way. That is why individuals and churches must always be obedient to the clear teaching of God as revealed in Scripture and not act on the basis of what we think might be best.
Saturday 13th June
Our passage today concerns the healing of a paralysed man, when Jesus was preaching in a house in Capernaum. The man who was paralysed had four friends who carried him to Jesus. Finding no way through the crowd, and being both determined and creative, they climbed on to the roof, dug a hole in it (the original word means that they ‘unroofed the roof’) and lowered their friend to the feet of Jesus. Jesus saw their faith and said to the paralytic ‘your sins are forgiven.’ Now we must be careful here. Jesus was not saying that the man’s illness was caused by his particular sins. The Pharisees believed that sin and sickness were connected but time and again in the Gospels Jesus argued against this view. Even his disciples in John 9:2 wanted to know if the man born blind was born in that way because of his own sin, or because of the sin of his parents. Jesus made it clear to them that this connection was not a necessary one. Jesus was not saying that the man’s sins caused his illness. He was using this man to demonstrate something very important, namely, the need of every human being for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus was not simply a healer, as we saw on Wednesday, rather his main interest was to bring forgiveness and to save souls.
Sunday 14th June
When Jesus spoke about the forgiveness of sins, the teachers of the law immediately objected, although they did not at first give voice to their objection. Jesus knew what they were thinking and challenged them. The controversy arose because Jesus told the man that his sins were forgiven. The Scribes who heard this regarded it as blasphemy. They were quite clear in their minds that only God can forgive sins. In fact, they were right! It is perfectly true that only God can forgive sins but, of course, what they did not know (or refused to recognise) is that Jesus is God. Jesus challenged their thinking by healing the man and forgiving his sins. Interestingly, he said that ‘the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.’ Even the use of this title (taken from the Book of Daniel) was a challenge to the religious leaders. It must have been clear to them that by forgiving sins and by calling himself the Son of Man, Jesus was claiming to be God. The religious leaders could not accept was that Jesus himself was God in the flesh. But the ordinary people believed and they praised God.
Monday 15th June
In these verses Jesus becomes involved in a controversy about associating with sinners. If we compare this story with the other gospels we can guess that Levi was probably another name for Matthew. This man was a tax collector. Jesus called Levi to be a disciple and then went to have dinner in his house. At the dinner there were other tax collectors and ‘sinners’ (verse 15). This was not a dinner party of respectable Jews, rather it was made up of those who were regarded as outcasts. The tax collectors were the quislings who co-operated with the hated Roman authorities in taking taxes from their own people. The ‘sinners’ were the Gentiles who did not keep the law. For any Jew to associate with such people was forbidden. The Pharisees were deeply upset by this behaviour. How could Jesus, as a Jew, associate with such people? Jesus answered in the famous words of verse 17: ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’ As Paul says in 1 Timothy 1:15: ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’. Only when we realise we are sinners will we find salvation in Christ.
Tuesday 16th June
Jesus now finds himself in another controversy, this time about fasting. The question was asked, ‘Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’ Jesus responded by saying that in a time of joyous celebration no-one thinks of fasting. His disciples would behave differently when he was gone. The key point, however, comes in verses 21-22, where Jesus points out that you don’t put a new patch on an old piece of cloth and you don’t put new wine in old wineskins. What does this mean? Well, it means that the Gospel was something new, breaking into the old Jewish ways and could not be contained by those old Jewish ways. The Pharisees and others were trying to force Jesus into an old mould but his Person and his gospel demanded a completely new beginning. They wanted the messiah to come but only if he fitted into the accepted structures of Jewish religious life. In other words, they wanted messiah but they didn’t want anything to change! Many people today want God to come to their churches and to bring reformation and renewal but they don’t want anything to change. This is not possible.
Wednesday 17th June
Having challenged Jesus over associating with sinners and about fasting, he is now challenged regarding the Sabbath. His disciples were accused of breaking the Sabbath law against harvesting because they had plucked a few ears of corn as they walked through a cornfield! Jesus told them a story of how the great King David had ‘broken’ the Sabbath and then made two vital statements. His first statement was this: ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.’ In other words, the Sabbath was given to human beings as a good gift for our well-being. It was not given as a burden to make our lives difficult or a hurdle for us to try and cross. Many of our modern day sabbatarians forget this teaching of Jesus. Jesus’ second statement was this: ‘The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath’. These Pharisees were trying to impose their petty regulations (many of them added to Scripture) on the one who, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, gave us the Sabbath. If we take these statements together, we can see that the Sabbath is a good gift from God to be enjoyed, not a burden to be borne. What a wonderful gift to be able to rest one day in seven. What a joy to have a day holy to the Lord. What a privilege to have a day when we can gather together for worship.
Thursday 18th June
In this passage, Jesus heals a man with a shrivelled hand and ends up in controversy with the Pharisees. It would be easy to think that this was simply another Sabbath dispute, like the one we saw yesterday. In fact, there was something much more dangerous here. Notice particularly verse 2, where we see the motives of his accusers. They were not zealous guardians of the law so much as evil men determined to find a reason to have Jesus killed. This is confirmed in verse 6: ‘Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus’. The public ministry of Jesus has just begun and already the Jewish religious leaders are plotting to kill him. In Revelation 12 the ‘dragon’ (Satan) tries to kill the child (Messiah) at birth. He continued to attack Jesus throughout his life and still continues to attack the Lord’s people. We must be aware of these powerful spiritual forces and not reduce our Christianity to a rationalistic system of doctrines.
Friday 19th June
Jesus was fast becoming a popular teacher and healer. Crowds followed him wherever he went. This often caused him problems. Here he even asked his disciples to put out a boat, so that he could teach from it and not be swamped by the crowd. He also continued to do battle against evil spirits, whom he silenced. It is hard from the distance of many centuries to grasp the impact of Jesus’ ministry on the people who flocked to hear him. These ordinary people welcomed him and loved to be with him, whereas the religious leaders hated him and wanted rid of him. Jesus divided opinion and does so still. When we share our Christian faith, our focus should be on Jesus. Only if men and women come to believe in him and recognise him as the eternal Son of God will they be saved.
Saturday 20th June
Here we find Jesus appointing twelve apostles, out of the larger group of disciples. These men would then be with him for three years, just like the pupils of other rabbis. We know quite a bit about most of the disciples, with Peter, James and John forming the ‘inner circle’ but with Peter as the clear leader of the group. We know about the betrayal of Judas Iscariot and about doubting Thomas. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that there are three disciples of whom we know virtually nothing: James, Son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus and Simon the Zealot. These are the ‘forgotten men’ but yet served with Christ and formed part of the apostolic core of Jesus’ disciples. It demonstrates that being a ‘big name’ or being ‘famous’ is not important. On the final day, when we stand before God, there will be missions of Christians, like these three disciples, of whom we know virtually nothing but who have faithfully served their Lord.
Sunday 21st June
The family of Jesus come to take him away, believing him to be mad. No doubt they had heard of all that was happening and how famous Jesus was becoming, with all the healings and the casting out of evil spirits and so on. As far as they were concerned he was an ordinary man from Nazareth. Later, they would come to understand. Then the teachers of the law accuse him of being an agent of the devil. They believed that he was possessed. Jesus pointed out that, since he was casting out demons and actively engaging in spiritual warfare against the devil, how could he be in league with the devil? A house divided against itself cannot stand. The family think he’s mad and the Jewish leaders think he’s bad! C.S. Lewis once said that, since Jesus claimed to be God, he was either mad (thought he was God), bad (pretended to be God) or truly was God!
Monday 22nd June
Jesus says that all sins can be forgiven except the sin against the Holy Spirit. This is a passage which has troubled many Christians over the years and some have become truly anxious lest they had inadvertently committed this sin. Such people should be reassured that their very anxiety over the matter indicates that they have not committed this sin! In order to understand what Jesus meant, we have to consider the context of his words. The teachers of the law were saying that he was an agent of the devil, even possessed by the devil. In other words, they were so far gone in sin and their minds were so darkened because of sin, that they could look into the face of Jesus and see only the devil. The one who commits such a sin, whose mind is so darkened, would never worry about having done so. Nevertheless, for those who have passed this point of no return, where they have placed themselves beyond the point of forgiveness, it is a serious matter indeed.
Tuesday 23rd June
In these last verses of the chapter, Jesus mother and brothers arrive. This is what happens: ‘Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.” “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” Jesus was not neglecting his duties to his family, indeed he took special care of his mother even when he was hanging on the Cross. He was, however, using the situation to make a point. He was emphasising that the relationship with other believers is stronger than natural human relationships. After all, it is our brothers and sisters in Christ with whom we shall spent eternity.
Wednesday 24th June
This is the parable of the sower, also found in Matthew 13. The picture we must have in our minds is of a farmer, with a basket of seed in front of him (held in place by a strap round his neck) and he is walking along taking handfuls of seed in turn, with his left hand, then his right, scattering it as he walks the length of the field. Jesus uses this imagery to say something about the spreading of the Word of God. Just as the sower sows the seed, so the preacher sows the Word of God. Just as the seed does not all land on good soil, so the Word of God does not always find receptive hearts and minds. We know this in our own experience. Some people with whom we share the Gospel, respond and become Christians, others turn away uninterested or worse. Nevertheless, enough seed lands in good soil to permit a bumper crop. In the same way, the Word of God achieves the salvation of many.
Thursday 25th June
Having heard the parable, Jesus’ disciples ask Jesus to explain its meaning. Jesus then goes through the significance of the various places where the seed falls and relates this to the obstacles in the way of spreading of the Word of God. In some cases, the devil snatches away the truth before it can take root in a human heart. To put this another way, we have an enemy who does not want a successful harvest. Then some seed lands in other places, where its growth is prevented or stunted. These are ‘the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things’. All of these can prevent a successful planting of the Word in the human heart. We know from experience how often the worries of this life mean that people are not prepared even to consider the truth of the Gospel. Some other seed appears to grow quickly but because it has no root, it soon dies away. We all know people who seemed to be converted to Christ and began the Christian life with great enthusiasm and joy but soon gave up. The root of the matter was not in them in the first place, it looked real but it wasn’t.
Friday 26th June
In these verses, Jesus tells us how to live as citizens of the Kingdom. He says that those who have received the light of the Gospel are to let that light shine. Jesus makes two very important points. First, he tells us that we must let the light of the gospel shine and second, he tells us that gifts which are not used will be withdrawn. To explain this, he uses the illustration of a lamp. A lamp is no use if you put it under a bowl or a bed. It only fulfils a useful purpose if it is put on a stand. The key message is the need for us to ‘shine’ as Christians in a dark world. In verses 24-25, Jesus gives us a warning about what will happen if we do not live in this way. He tells us that the standard of judgment which we use to judge others will be the standard used against ourselves. He goes on to say that any gifts and talents which God has given us for the furtherance of the gospel will be taken away if they are not used properly. We must use the gifts we have been given and we must shine for Jesus.
Saturday 27th June
The parable of the growing seed follows very naturally from the parable of the sower. Having sown the seed, what can we do to make it grow? How can we guarantee that it will bear fruit? The surprising answer is, ‘Nothing, except prayer and reliance upon God.’ It is God who gives growth, and it is God who brings forth the harvest. We have our responsibility: to sow the seed but it is God who brings it to fruition. In the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus was teaching that the kingdom of God would grow and expand despite its insignificant beginnings. The small community of believers whom he left behind when he returned to heaven would grow, spread out, multiply and so on, until the Christian church was a world-wide movement with millions of members. Thus the seed would become a great bush.
Sunday 28th June
This passage tells us something about Jesus in relation to the kingdom of God. As the ruler of the Kingdom, he exercises sovereign power, seen here in the calming the storm. What does that tell us about the Kingdom? Well, it tells us that the Kingdom of God is not a place, like the Kingdom of Fife but rather the Kingdom of God extends wherever God exercises his kingly power. Now in one sense God is King over the whole universe and in control over the whole universe but yet there is a devil who is described as the ‘god of this world’ and Jesus made it clear that there were two kingdoms. When Jesus calmed the storm, he was exercising ‘kingdom authority’, demonstrating that he had been sent by the King. No wonder people were astonished.
Monday 29th June
Jesus goes to the area of the Gerasenes where he is met by a man with an evil spirit, who was living among the tombs and in the hills. He was an immensely powerful man, such that even chains would not hold him – he simply broke them apart. There was no-one who could control or overpower him. He cried out when he saw Jesus but Jesus ordered the demons to leave him and go to the pigs instead and the man was healed. The man then began to witness to Christ, telling everyone what the Lord had done for him. This passage is a problem for many in our day, who simply do not believe in evil powers. Yet, it is impossible to explain the human condition or our history without a coherent, biblical understanding of evil and sin. The Bible teaches us that we have an enemy called the devil or Satan and we ignore him at our peril.
Tuesday 30th June
We read these verses again in order to consider the pastoral implications of the story. Jesus came to this man and he brought him peace. This was an extreme case but Jesus operates even in lives which are much less troubled. Many people today are troubled and anxious about many things. They have no peace in their lives. Some of them think that everything would be better if they just had more money, or a better relationship, or a better job, or a bigger house, or lived in a different place. The truth is that many of these people would be just as troubled, even if they had these things, because the lack of peace in their lives is much deeper. They are not at peace with their God and so they are not at peace in themselves. Now some people are lacking in peace because of illness or bereavement and so on but there are many who are troubled because they know that deep down something is missing in their lives but they don’t know what it is. The message of this story is that Jesus brings peace to troubled souls. Are you a troubled soul?