The Gospel of Mark is the shortest of the four Gospels, but still packs quite a vivid message. It is a Gospel of action and results. The preaching of the gospel message saturates Mark as does the steady, positive response of Jesus’ followers. Preaching and discipling are therefore constant concerns of the author and are strikingly present early in Mark’s Gospel.
The question in this week’s lesson title, “How Can Jesus Help Me?”, finds its answer among the preaching and discipling activities in chapter 1. Mark’s overriding advice is to listen to Jesus and follow him. Though this advice is millenia old, it still resonates today because Jesus’ message still speaks to hearts and calls people to follow him.
How can Jesus help? In many ways. This lesson provides four poignant answers and can help the student of the Gospel of Mark to learn how to find many more.
He can save (Mark 1:14-15)
The author of Mark took just 13 verses to introduce us to Jesus’ ministry and its focus on preaching the gospel message. The two verses in consideration in this section summarize Jesus’ distinctive ministry. Jesus burst onto the scene preaching a gospel of repentance. This message saturated his ministry from start to end. Though the Gospel does not continually emphasize this point, it is clear from the consistent responses of widely diverse people that Jesus powerfully preached repentance and skillfully challenged people to commit themselves to lives of repentance before God.
Verse 14 states that Jesus proclaimed the good news, or gospel, of God’s kingdom. Jesus proclaimed this message as a news courier might. He announced a message about God’s kingdom that could only be characterized as good news. There are many religious messages today, but none can rival the good news of Jesus. With Jesus’ preaching, God’s kingdom had arrived and the message, God’s gracious offer of salvation, was tremendous good news for a world racked by bad news for life and living.
Verse 14 states that Jesus’ ministry began after the imprisonment of John the Baptist. John had preached repentance with power and when his work to clear the way for the Messiah was completed, Jesus entered his ministry and took up preaching the same message.
Verse 15 tells us Jesus proclaimed that God’s kingdom had come near. The idiom has the same effect as the saying, “The kingdom of God is now here.” It was time for Jesus’ listeners to take action. The same is true for the readers of the Gospel of Mark today. God’s kingdom still is near and now is the time for action.
The type of action Jesus sought, and still seeks, is repentance. This is the only proper response to Jesus’ offer of salvation. Repentance is the decisive personal act of turning away from sinful activity and turning toward God, to focus on God and to commit one’s life to follow him. For many people, the act of turning from sin is not understood easily in the context of their own lives, so it must be appreciated that such understanding grows as they draw closer to God. The more important aspect of repentance is turning to God and committing oneself to follow him. This is the response of faith to the good news that God’s desires in each of his followers.
In the remaining passages of this lesson and throughout the book of Mark, the positive response of people to Jesus helps us see how repentance works in the lives of people.
It is important, however, to distinguish repentance from penance. Repentance focuses on following God. Penance focuses on paying punishment for sin. Repentance therefore puts the human focus where God desires it to be. God saves people from sin. The penalty for sin is paid, costly as it was, by God. The Lord requires no penitent activity, but he desires repentant activity. He desires people to commit to follow him, seek him, obey him, trust him and focus on him on a daily basis. Such is sufficient for God who operates by grace.
Thus, the gospel is a people-positive message from the Creator and Savior of all people who desires that all focus to be upon him and not upon worldly troubles, or sinfulness or penitent acts.
Already we have an answer to the title of this lesson. Jesus helps us by understanding how God wants to relate to people and how God desires to repair the broken relationship between himself and people. To see God’s message as good news and in positive form is meant to be energizing to people who are beaten down by the guilt of involvement in sin and evil in this world.
A word should be also said about the subheading, “He can save.” Strictly speaking, the topic of salvation is not discussed in verses 14-15, though of course it is implied as other Gospel material and New Testament material will point out. It is an important point to note that God can simplify his message to what is its bottom line for him: He desires people to commit their lives to him and actively live for him. Everything else in the process of salvation depends on God’s performance, details of which are not necessary for the general proclamation of God’s good news. We find out about these details elsewhere, but the simple, valid and positive message is that God has drawn near, so respond to him by turning to him!
He can lead (Mark 1:16-20)
That Jesus is able to lead is exactly the force of the next five verses. More accurately, the point is that Jesus is worthy to be followed. In the five verses, four men are called to respond to Jesus’ call of discipleship. They make immediate and decisive choices to do so. The characteristic act of discipleship is to leave everything and follow Jesus. These four men did so. Eight other men were added to these four to constitute the famous 12 disciples. The Gospels tell us many men and women of all ages committed themselves to follow Jesus. This phenomenon has continued across the ages as countless people have made the same decision to follow Jesus.
One characteristic of the Gospel of Mark is the telescoping of events. It therefore appears that the four men in these verses who immediately followed Jesus did not know him before, but instantly understood the power of his call on their lives. Of course, Mark does not say whether these men knew Jesus or not. The first chapter of John helps us to put this matter in perspective as Andrew and Peter, who were disciples of John the Baptist, seek out Jesus early in his ministry. Thus these men had time to process Jesus’ message and ministry before he appeared and called them to be his disciples. The modern reader has the same situation. Jesus’ message comes and as it saturates one’s life, the call comes to follow Jesus.
The most important word in the passage is Jesus’ word: follow. This is a discipleship word and characterizes how to live out repentance in one’s life: follow Jesus. There are no definitions to learn or check lists of activities to accomplish. Focus on following Jesus and the rest of life and repentance will work itself out.
One other observance helps here. The call to follow Jesus comes to all who hear the gospel. For those who have not chosen to follow Jesus, they may be considering if Jesus is worthy to be trusted and followed. The passage shows four men who were quite willing to follow Jesus, even though it meant leaving behind their businesses, belongings and families. They felt privileged to receive Jesus’ call. These four led the way, and many others have joined the movement of following Jesus as well. Counted together, this is a mighty testimony for the worthiness of Jesus to lead those who commit to him. Testimonies from class members on Jesus’ worthiness to lead can add a rich moment to their study.
He can free (Mark 1:21-28)
A common word for salvation is redemption which refers to delivery from slavery or oppression. One way to deliver from slavery was to purchase people by offering a redemption price. Another way was to rescue people by force. The great biblical example of redemption prior to Jesus’ ministry was Israel’s redemption from Egyptian slavery. God demonstrated his mighty power to redeem Israel. The common example of redemption from Jesus’ ministry, prior to his crucifixion, was his delivery of people from demonic oppression. Just as God displayed his power through the exodus events, Jesus also demonstrated his mighty power to redeem people. Jesus’ ministry was saturated with encounters with demons and setting people free from their domination. In the verses of this section occur Jesus’ first encounter with demons in the Gospel of Mark.
This story is not merely concerned with demonstrating Jesus’ authority over demons. It comes on the heels of Jesus’ calling his first disciples. The five attended synagogue together and a demonized person spoke out. Jesus’ actions in this episode signal to the disciples, and to us, that this Jesus who can deal powerfully and decisively with demons has come among us to call us to repent and follow him. So the episode reaffirms the positive response of Jesus’ followers.
This point is strongly driven by Jesus’ two activities in the synagogue. First, Jesus taught in the synagogue. His teaching was amazing in its own right, because Jesus taught as one having authority. His teaching must have seemed fresh, poignant and masterfully applied to his audience.
The second activity in the synagogue was the casting out of a demon. It seems so unexpected that a demon should be found among the worshippers. Yet the demonic world was deployed to oppose Jesus at all turns. Their mission was to destroy his teaching and his credibility with people. The demon burst out with words completely incongruent to Jesus’ standing before the people. The people saw him as one having authority, but the demon seemed to point out that Jesus was being unethical. Furthermore, the demon identified Jesus as the Holy One of Israel. This amounted to too much information at one time and put the people in the position of having to decide whether to dismiss the demon’s claim, which was true, as they disgustedly dismissed the demon’s conduct and presence in their house of worship.
Of course the demon was correct about Jesus’ identity, but this was a giant leap for the people to move from praising Jesus’ amazing teaching on a few passages one morning in a synagogue. So Jesus silenced the demon and then ordered him to depart from the man. The people may not have been ready for the truth the demon spoke, but they connected Jesus’ teaching with his mastery over the demon. Their summary of the entire event was priceless. In one word, Jesus’ activities that day were amazing.
John 8:31-32 says: “To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’” John’s passage helps us understand the importance of this story in Mark. Jesus taught the liberating truth of the gospel and backed up his teaching with a demonstration of his redemptive power.
He can enable (Mark 1:29-31)
The final passage of the lesson concludes with Jesus’ ministry in Peter’s home. In a private setting, Peter’s mother-in-law was found with a fever. With simplicity of motion, Jesus raised her up, and she was so completely healed that she went about her normal household duties, in this case tending to the family and guests. The day closed with Jesus healing and casting out demons, just as he had earlier in the day. The people came to him well into the evening and the impression is fully underscored: Jesus widely drew people to himself and he demonstrated the good news as he proclaimed it.
This section of the lesson is meant to assert that Jesus can enable his followers for service. The progression of Jesus’ leadership in the lives of his people goes from proclaiming repentance to calling people to follow him to teaching to preparing people for service in his kingdom. The steps of response on the part of his people are: practicing repentance, obeying Jesus’ call, learning his teachings, and cooperating with his enabling for service. So how can Jesus help us? He can ably guide our lives as we commit our lives to follow him.