Thursday, March 26, 2015

Jesus’ First Sermon

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the Gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel.” Mark 1:14-15 (RSV)

Empowered by the Holy Spirit and passing the test of pure evil (Mark 1:9-13; Luke 4:14), Jesus gives His first sermon in Galilee. Jesus proclaimed, “The time promised by God has come at last . . . .  The Kingdom of God is near (arrived)! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!” (Mark 1:14-15 NLT). These first words spoken by Jesus give the theme and centerpiece of Jesus’ preaching and teaching (see also Matthew 4:17). Jesus’ teaching and preaching focused on the Kingdom of God, the need for repentance, and belief (trust) in the Gospel of God (Mark 1:14-15). More than a hundred references to the Kingdom of God appear in the New Testament Gospels, many in Jesus’ parables (e.g., see Matthew 13:24, 31-33, 44-47; Matthew 20:1; Matthew 22:2; Mark 4:11; Luke 8:1).

The Gospel is called “the Gospel of God” because the Gospel comes from God and reconciles (unites) us to God through wholehearted faith in Jesus (see 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; see also Romans 1:1; Romans 15:16; 2 Corinthians 11:7; 1 Thessalonians 2:2, 8-9; 1 Peter 4:17). Also, the Gospel is “the Gospel of the Kingdom” because faith (trust) in Jesus brings you into God’s Kingdom, into God’s family, and brings eternal life (John 1:12-13; John 3:15-16). Gospel is the usual New Testament translation of the Greek word “euangelion.” The word Gospel simply means “Good News.” The Gospel is the Good News that God's unique Son (Jesus Christ) has come into the world to bring salvation (Matthew 1:21). Through belief (faith or trust) in God’s Son and repentance, our sins can be forgiven, we can be reconciled to God, and declared God’s child (e.g., see John 1:12-14; John 3:16; Ephesians 2:5, 8-9; 2 Corinthians 5:11-21). Even more, the Gospel is God’s proclamation victory over sin, death, and hell (see 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, 51-52; Galatians 1:1-9). The Gospel is the power of God’s Holy Spirit to raise the dead, to bring new life, and release bondage from sin (Romans 1:16-17; Romans 15:13; 1 Corinthians 2:4-5; 1 Thessalonians 1:5). Most important, JESUS IS THE GOSPEL OF GOD! In Jesus is the fullness (totality) of God with all God’s powers and attributes (Colossians 1:19; Colossians 2:9).

With the arrival of Jesus, the Kingdom of God had come (Mark 1:15). The only response to the arrival of God’s Kingdom was to first repent and second trust (believe) in the glorious Good News (Gospel) of the Kingdom of God. Like the Old Testament prophets and John the Baptist, God’s unique Son Jesus also preached the necessity of repentance (Matthew 3:2; Matthew 4:17; see also e.g., Hosea 3:4-5; Joel 2:12-17; Amos 5:4-6, 14-15). Repentances mean wholeheartedly turning our hearts and minds away from sins and genuinely seeking God. God always grants forgiveness when there is honest repentance.

Next, the idea of God’s Kingdom is central to Jesus’ teaching and preaching. What does “Kingdom of God” mean? The basic meaning of Kingdom of God means the reign or rule of God. The Old Testament contains no specific references to the Kingdom of God. However, the Kingdom of God takes its initial shape from Israel’s understanding of God as King (e.g. see 1 Samuel 12:12; 1 Kings 22:19; Psalm 5:2; Psalm 47:2, 7-8; Psalm 146:10; Isaiah 52:7; Revelation 4:9). In the Old Testament, God is spoken of as ruling and reigning (e.g. see Psalm 103:19; Daniel 4:17, 25-37). As Creator of the world, God is exalted above all creation and rules in majesty. The arrival of Jesus ushered in the eternal and heavenly reign of God throughout all the earth.

The proclamation of God’s Kingdom by Jesus meant “the time has come” (Mark 1:15). The Apostle Paul calls this moment the “fullness of time” or “just the right time” (Romans 5:6; Galatians 4:4; Ephesians 1:10).  In Greek language, there are two words for time. The first is “chronos” which means progressive time, quantity of time, or chronological time. Second, mean “kairos” which means “critical or opportune moment” and this form of time requires an immediate action or an immediate response to a significant moment in time. So when Jesus said “the time has come,” Jesus was declaring the right “kairos” has come and you most do something now (Mark 1:15). The rule or reign of God’s Kingdom had now come into the human world and the Kingdom will also arrive at the second coming of Jesus (e.g., Matthew 25:1-46). So the Kingdom of God is the rule (reign) of God which He extended over human lives through the ministry of Jesus (Mark 1:15); and the Kingdom of God is also is God’s rule which will be consummated or made complete in the future.

From then on Jesus began to preach, “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” Matthew 4:17 (NLT)

Then, Jesus follows with two requirements of the Kingdom of God:  (1) repent and (2) believe in the Gospel (Mark 1:15). Entrance into God’s Kingdom require repentance (forsaking and turning one’s heart and minds from sin) and belief in the Gospel of God, which is Jesus! In His preaching, Jesus invited people to enter the Kingdom of God. We must make the Kingdom of God our first priority and seek the Kingdom ahead of everything else and turn from evil (Matthew 6:33). Righteous living (turning from evil and seeking God) was also the continued central teaching of Apostle Paul and the other Apostles (e.g., Romans chapters 12 through 15; 1 Peter 1:13-25).

For the Kingdom of God is not a matter of what we eat or drink, but of living a life of goodness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. If you serve Christ with this attitude, you will please God, and others will approve of you, too. Romans 14:17-18 (NLT)

Throughout the Gospels and other books of the New Testament, there are direct references to the “Gospel of God,” “the Gospel of the Kingdom,” or the “the Kingdom of heaven” (e.g., see Matthew 3:1-2; Mark 1:14-15; Luke 9:1-2). Jesus prophesied this same message shall be taken to the ends of the world (Matthew 24:14; Mark 13:10) and Jesus commissioned His disciples (faithful followers) to continue the message of the God with the help of the Holy Spirit (see Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-18; Acts 1:3-8). Clearly, the early church proclaimed the same message Jesus Christ preached, that is, “the Gospel of the Kingdom of God” and the need to turn away from sin and turn to God (see Acts 8:12; Acts 19:8; Acts 20:25; Acts 28:23, 30-31). 

I have had one message for Jews and Greeks alike — the necessity of repenting from sin and turning to God, and of having faith in our Lord Jesus. Acts 20:21 (NLT)

Spirit Filled Life Study Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1991).
Zondervan NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008).
Butler, Trent. Holman Bible Dictionary (Broadman & Holman Pub., 1991).
Edwards, James R. The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002).
Kelber, Werner. Mark’s Story of Jesus (Houston, TX: Fortress Press, 1979).
Loyd, Melton, Ph.D., Professor of New Testament. Due West Campus: Erskine Theological Seminary, 2015.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Baptism and Temptation of Jesus

One day Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee, and John baptized Him in the Jordan River. As Jesus came up out of the water, He saw the heavens splitting apart and the Holy Spirit descending on [into] Him like a dove. And a voice from heaven said, “You are My dearly loved Son, and You bring Me great joy.” The Spirit then compelled Jesus to go into the wilderness, where He was tempted by Satan for forty days. He was out among the wild animals, and angels took care of Him. Mark 1:9-13 (NLT)

At Mark 1:9, Mark tells us Jesus came from Galilee and He was baptized by John the Baptist (see parallel at Matthew 3:13-17; Luke 3:21-22). Jesus’ baptism marked the beginning of His public ministry on earth. Jesus began His public ministry in AD 27 when He was approximately 30 years (Luke 3:23; see also Numbers 4:3). Prior to the beginning of His public ministry, Jesus worked in a small-town carpenter's shop and waited for God’s divine timing before beginning His ministry. Before His public ministry, Jesus spent most of His life in Nazareth (Matthew 2:23; Luke 4:23). Nazareth was Jesus’ hometown (Matthew 21:11; Matthew 26:71; Luke 2:39; Luke 4:16; John 1:45-46). Although Jesus was born in Bethlehem just outside Jerusalem, He was brought up in the city of Nazareth in Galilee (Matthew 2:22-23; Luke 1:26; Luke 2:39). Nazareth was a small town in the Galilean region (northern Israel) located about between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean Sea.

You know what happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee, after John began preaching his message of baptism. And you know that God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. Then Jesus went around doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him. Acts 10:37-38 (NLT)

The account of Jesus’ baptism by John created controversy in the early church as seen in early church writings. The early church had to wrestle with this issue of Jesus’ baptism. In the early church, some argued that Jesus was just like any other human with sins. Christians understood baptism not a baptism of ritual cleansing but a baptism that marked a newness of life, a turning from sin and an acknowledgement for forgiveness of sins (Matthew 3:8). If baptism is a sign of new life and acknowledgement for forgiveness of sins, the early church wanted to know why Jesus had to be baptized. The four Gospels do not answer this controversial issue regarding Jesus’ baptism but simply gives Jesus’ baptism as a statement of fact (Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:31-34). Also, Matthew’s Gospel states Jesus’ baptism fulfilled “all righteousness,” which means to accomplish God's mission or will (see Matthew 3:15). The Holy Scriptures amply confirmed that Jesus was sinless and holy (e.g. see John 1:29, 36; Acts 3:14; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15; 1 Peter 1:19; 1 Peter 2:22; 1 John 3:5). Although Jesus did not need forgiveness of sins, He was baptized to begin His Messianic ministry to bring the message of salvation to all people through faith. Also, by allowing John to baptize Him, Jesus identified Himself with sinful humanity whom He came to seek and save. Jesus’ baptism completely identified Himself with humanity’s sin and failure.

Immediately, after Jesus came out of the water, the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit appeared (Mark 1:10; see also Isaiah 42:1-2). The Holy Spirit normally was not discussed much with Mark’s Gospel. However, the Holy Spirit is heavily associated with Luke’s Gospel and the Book of Acts, which is also written by Luke. Luke emphasized the Holy Spirit not only in His Gospel (e.g., Luke 1:35, 41, 67; Luke 2:25-27; Luke 3:16, 22) but also in the Book of Acts, where the Holy Spirit is mentioned fifty-seven times. Yet, Mark prominently mentioned the Holy Spirit. With Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit came upon or into Him and anointed Him for His public ministry (see Luke 4:18, 21; John 1:32-33). Also, the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus to empower Him for His missionary work as Messiah (the “Anointed One”) (Acts 10:37-38; see also Isaiah 61:1-3). At Jesus’ baptism, all three Persons of the Trinity were present: (1) God the Father spoke, (2) God the Son was baptized, and (3) God the Spirit descended onto Jesus (Mark 1:10-11). As a side note, all faithful followers (disciples) of Jesus are also anointed with the Holy Spirit through their genuine love, faith, and obedience to Him (John 14:15-17; John 15:26-27; John 16:13; 2 Corinthians 1:21; 1 John 2:20).

During the baptism, God spoke directly from heaven declaring Jesus as His unique and beloved Son (Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22). Also, the Gospel writers recorded God’s voice from heaven addressing Jesus at the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:5; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35) and in the Temple area during Jesus’ final week on earth (John 12:28-29). Jesus’ declaration as God's divine Son is the foundation of Mark’s Gospel (e.g. see Mark 1:1, 11; Mark 3:11; Mark 5:7; Mark 9:7; Mark 12:1-11; Mark 13:32; Mark 14:61-62; and Mark 15:39). Mark did not write his Gospel about just any man. He wrote his Gospel about Jesus – the very Son of God who came from heaven to die for the sins of the world!

Based on this scene in Mark, only Jesus sees and hears God’s glorious voice speaking from heaven. Mark gives no account of John the Baptist or the people seeing and hearing God’s voice because Jesus is central to this scene in his Gospel. For Mark, John the Baptist was just a vessel, an instrument, or messenger as Jesus is central to his Gospel. However, John’s Gospel records both Jesus and John the Baptist hearing God’s voice and seeing the Holy Spirit descend onto Jesus as a dove (John 1:29-34). God’s declaration from heaven reminds us of Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1.

The Spirit then compelled Jesus to go into the wilderness, where He was tempted by Satan for forty days. He was out among the wild animals, and angels took care of him. Mark 1:12-13 (NLT)

One of the most fascinating features of Jesus’ baptism and temptation is the Holy Spirit’s compelling of Jesus into the wilderness. Immediately (Mark’s favorite term), Mark notes “the Spirit then compelled Jesus to go into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12 NLT). Matthew and Luke’s Gospels said “Jesus was lead out” into the wilderness (Matthew 4:1; Luke 4:1). But Mark’s Gospel said Jesus was “cast out” or “compelled” into the wilderness to be tempted and tested. Compelled reflects Mark's forceful style, while the other Gospel writers use "led"). The Greek word is “ekballō,” which may be translated “lead.” Mark translate the Greek word “ekballei” or “ekballō” as a forceful thrust of Jesus into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. Thus, the same Holy Spirit that endowed and equipped Jesus for His Messianic ministry also “casted” or “compelled” Jesus out into the wilderness to be tempted and tested. This is Mark's way of showing the intensity or immediacy of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus had no time to bask in the glory of the heavenly voice or the presence of the heavenly dove. Instead, Mark shows Jesus’ active ministry in first century Galilee. As typical with Mark’s Gospel, Mark’s account of the temptation is the briefest of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). Matthew and Luke give more details surrounding Jesus’ testing and temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1–11; Luke 4:1–13).

Since we have a great High Priest, Jesus the Son of God, who has gone into heaven, let us hold on to the faith we have. For our High Priest is able to understand our weaknesses. When He lived on earth, He was tempted in every way that we are, but He did not sin. Let us, then, feel very sure that we can come before God’s throne where there is grace. There we can receive mercy and grace to help us when we need it. Hebrews 4:14-16 (NCV)

Jesus was tempted and tested for forty days in the wilderness (Matthew 4:2; Mark 1:13; Luke 4:2). However, Jesus did not sin but remained faithful and obedient to God (Hebrews 2:18; Hebrews 4:15). The forty days of testing and temptation recalled the experiences of Moses (Exodus 24:18; Exodus 34:28) and Elijah (1 Kings 19:8) as well as the forty years of Israel’s temptation (testing) in the desert. The Lord God led Israel into the wilderness (desert) forty years. Jesus was subjected to a similar test as Israel and showed Himself to be the true Israelite who lived “on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3). Although Israel of the Old Testament failed when they were tested, Jesus succeeded victoriously by triumphing over evil and temptation. The second picture of the wilderness scene was that of the “last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45). The first Adam was tested in the beautiful Garden and failed. However, Jesus as the “second Adam” won the victory over evil and temptation through obedience and faith in God (Romans 5:12-21). Jesus was faithful and demonstrated His qualification to become Savior of the world. As the One who remained faithful and obedient to God in temptation and testing He became the Model for all believers when we are tempted and tested to remain faithful and obedient to God.

Moreover, the Scripture referenced that Jesus “was with the wild beasts” (Mark 1:13). This reference that Jesus “was with the wild beasts” is only recorded in Mark’s Gospel. Some biblical scholars comment that because there is no parallel in the other three Gospels that Jesus was “with the wild animals” or “wild beast” is Mark’s deliberate allusion to Nero’s persecution of Christian in Rome. During Christian persecution in the AD 60s, Roman Emperor Nero draped Christians with the skins of wild animals and the Christians were treated like a sport. Roman athletics would fight the Christians as wild animals until their death. Thus, this reference to the “wild beast” or “wild animals” is similar to Christian persecution by Nero and is a deliberate allusion to Mark’s audience who were suffering unjustly at the hands of Nero. Yet, Mark also said “angels took care of Him” as a reference of encouragement (Mark 1:13 NLT). God will take care of His people during times of suffering, trials and mistreatment in the wilderness.

Implicit in Mark’s Gospel is the question of unjust suffering. Mark wrote His Gospel message to Christians living in Rome and their only crime was their faith in Jesus Christ. Even today, some people that believe and follow Jesus are subjected to mistreatment and injustice and their only crime is faith in Jesus. As Mark tells his story of Jesus, Mark’s audience was suffering even though they are following God. In Jesus Himself, Jesus had a most glorious experience with a declaration of being God’s Son. Then immediately, Jesus is in the wildernesses facing temptation, testing and suffering. Many Jewish sources believe that the wilderness was a place of abandonment by God as the wilderness is a place in testing and temptation. Also, the wilderness alludes to the book of Numbers and Israel’s testing in the wilderness. Thus, Mark’s Gospel shows the readers Jesus’ highest point (God’s declaration and empowerment of the Holy Spirit) and Jesus’ lowest point (Jesus’s testing and temptation in the wilderness). Mark shows his readers that they too will experience highpoints and low points as genuine followers (disciples) of Jesus. As Jesus was tested during the wilderness testing and temptation, we must follow His example of continual trust, dependence and faith in God and God’s Holy Spirit.

God blesses those who patiently endure testing and temptation. Afterward they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love Him. James 1:12 (NLT)

Believer’s Study Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1995).
Life Application Study Bible (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Pub., 2005).
Ryrie Study Bible (Chicago, IL: Moody, 1995).
Zondervan NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008).
Loyd, Melton, Ph.D., Professor of New Testament. Due West Campus: Erskine Theological Seminary, 2015.
Wiersbe, Warren W. Bible Exposition Commentary (Victor Books, 1989).

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Messenger

This is the Good News about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. It began just as the prophet Isaiah had written: “Look, I am sending My messenger ahead of You, and he will prepare Your way. He is a voice shouting in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming! Clear the road for Him!’” This messenger was John the Baptist. He was in the wilderness and preached that people should be baptized to show that they had turned to God to receive forgiveness for their sins. All of Judea, including all the people of Jerusalem, went out to see and hear John. And when they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River. His clothes were woven from coarse camel hair, and he wore a leather belt around his waist. For food he ate locusts and wild honey. John announced: “Someone is coming soon who is Greater than I am — so much greater that I am not even worthy to stoop down like a slave and untie the straps of His sandals. I baptize you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit!” Mark 1:1-8 (NLT)

All four Gospels give the account of John the Baptist (Matthew 3:1-11; Mark 1:2-8; Luke 3:2-16; and John 1:6-9, 19-34). John’s ministry represented the bridge between the Old Testament and the New Testament. John appeared preaching like an Old Testament prophet, similar to the Prophet Amos and the Prophet Elijah (Matthew 11:9; Mark 11:32). Like Old Testament prophets, John called for repentance of the people, which meant a wholehearted turning to the true and living God to experience His mercy and approval and away from sin to avoid God’s wrath and punishment (Matthew 3:2, 6, 8, 11; Mark 1:4; Luke 1:77; see also 1 Kings 18:18-39; Amos 5:4, 6, 14-16). Jesus said of John, “Among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11). He was the last and greatest of the prophets (Matthew 11:13–14).

John the Baptist ministered “in the spirit and power of Elijah (see Luke 1:17; Matthew 11:13-14; Matthew 17:12-13; Mark 9:11-13). John was not literally a reincarnation of Elijah (see John 1:21), but John did fulfill the function and the role of the Prophet Elijah as he preached repentance, moral renewal, and wholeheartedly turning to God (see Matthew 11:14; Matthew 17:10-13; Luke 1:17; see also 1 Kings 18:16-46). Similar to the Prophet Elijah, John spent his time in the desert and he was clothed with camel’s hair, wore a leather belt and ate locusts and wild honey (2 Kings 1:8; see also Matthew 3:4; Mark 1:6 Luke 1:17). In essence, John reminded the people of Elijah because of his dress and behavior (Matthew 11:14; Mark 9:12–13).

While Zechariah was in the sanctuary, an angel of the Lord appeared to him . . . .  “Do not be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son, and you are to name him John. You will have great joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the eyes of the Lord. He must never touch wine or other alcoholic drinks. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth. And he will turn many Israelites to the Lord their God. He will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. . . . ” Luke 1:11, 13-17 (NLT)

John was the messenger and his job was to announce the coming of the Messiah (the Christ) into the world (Mark 1:2-3; see also Luke 1:76). Old Testament prophecies predicted that just before the Messiah’s arrival, God would send a special messenger first to announce and prepare the world for the Messiah’s coming (Isaiah 40:3; Malachi 3:1; Malachi 4:5-6; Matthew 17:10-13; Luke 1:17). John prepared people's hearts for the Messiah by urging people to repent because repentance was necessary to prepare the way for the coming Messiah. John’s preaching and baptism was tied to Jesus, who was Greater and Mightier than John (Matthew 1:11; Mark 1:7-8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33). As John baptized the people, John proclaimed:  “Someone is coming soon who is far greater than I am, so much greater that I am not even worthy to be His slave. I baptize you with water but He will baptize you with God’s Holy Spirit!” (Mark 1:7-8, TLB). Therefore, John represents a kind of bridge to what God did for His people in the Old Testament and what God would do through Jesus the Messiah. John’s singular ministry was to announce Jesus’ coming into the world (John 10:41).

John lived in the Judean wilderness (Matthew 3:1; Mark 1:4) and he preached near the Jordan River. He taught that all should be baptized as a public announcement of their decision to turn from sin and evil, so that God could forgive them (Matthew 3:2, 5; Mark 1:4). When the people confessed their sins, John baptized them in the Jordan River. With John’s preaching, people from Jerusalem and from all over Judea traveled to come see and hear John’s preaching and also to be baptized in the Jordan River (Mark 1:5). John’s preaching was connected to baptism. However, John’s baptism was not a baptism of ritual cleansing but a baptism that marked a newness of life and a turning from sin (Matthew 3:8).

Baptism was not a creation of John the Baptist or Jesus but a common practice of Jews in the first century. In the first century, Jews commonly performed baptism as a form of ritual cleansing. Also, a group of Jews called “Essenes” believed in ritual washings for ritual cleansing and their communities were filled with baptism pools. The Essenes where constantly engaged in ritual cleansing in these baptismal pools. Some commentators argued that John the Baptist was associated with the Essene communities until he become a follower of Jesus. Both John and the Essenes lived in the wilderness and performed baptisms. However, John’s baptism was not a baptism of ritual cleansing but a baptism connected to repentance and for the forgiveness of sins.

John lived and baptized people in the Judean wastelands or desert (Mark 1:5). “Desert” can also mean “wilderness” or a “dry place.” Palestine is already dry and hot. But the implication of “desert” in the Gospel means abandonment, particularly abandonment by God. From first century Jewish sources, demons and unclean spirits lived in abandoned desert places. Thus, the wastelands or desert was not just a hot dry place but a place where of demons and unclean people lived. For the most part, righteous and godly people stayed away from deserts.

When John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, all of Judea and all of Jerusalem came out to see and hear him. Itinerant or traveling preachers were not new in the first century. The appearance of traveling prophets, rabbis and preachers in the first century was very common. However, all four Gospels proclaimed that John’s preaching was different and authoritative. The people of Judea, including all the people of Jerusalem, saw something new and powerful with John’s preaching that had not been present for over 400 years! The Jews had not heard a true prophetic Word of God since the Prophet Malachi around 430 BC. The Jews believed that when the Messiah came, prophecy would reappear (see Joel 2:28-29; Malachi 3:1; Malachi 4:5-6). When John the Baptist burst onto the scene, the Jews were excited as John represented the power and Spirit of an Old Testament prophet.

There was a view in the rabbinic world that God had lifted His Holy Spirit from His people during the Jewish exile. The Jews believed God lifted His Holy Spirit after the Babylonian exile in 586 BC due to their punishment for disobedience to God’s Covenant and idolatry. God’s lifting of His Holy Spirit from the Jews did not mean God had abandoned the Jews. The Jews still believed they found God in the Holy Scriptures, the Law, and the Temple. For the Jews, the prophets spoke in the Old Testament only because the Holy Spirit gave the prophets words to speak. For example, Amos prophesied in the 8th century and Amos’ entire authority was “Thus said the Lord.” Within this view, there developed the belief that prior to the coming of the Messiah, which would be the coming of the Kingdom, God would pour out His Holy Spirit back upon His people as predicted by the Prophet Joel (see Joel 2:28-32) and the Spirit of prophecy would returned. The Jews believe that they would know that God had poured His Holy Spirit back on the people through the appearance of real prophet of God.

With the appearance of John the Baptist, the people believed he represented God’s Holy Spirit returning to all of Judea and Jerusalem (Mark 1:5). The Holy Spirit’s presence in John accounted for the great response to John’s preaching and baptism (Luke 1:15). Apparently, there were many people leaving Judea and Jerusalem to come see John. John’s presence, power, and authority of his preaching were evidence that God was pouring out His fresh Holy Spirit on the people and He was fulfilling His Old Testament promises. With this outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit, the people also believed that God was about to bring in His Kingdom and the Messiah into the world. Amazingly, all of the excitement and the returning of God’s Holy Spirit were occurring not in Jerusalem and the Temple but in the wilderness – the abandoned place and the place of unclean spirit. The people saw John as an authentic prophet of God (e.g., Mark 11:32). Clearly with John’s appearance, there was an awakening among the Galilean people of an expectation of the coming of the Kingdom. John’s ministry was a sign of God and a sign that God was about to do something new and the Kingdom was about to come.

Life Application Study Bible (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Pub., 2005).
Zondervan NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008).
Loyd, Melton, Ph.D., Professor of New Testament. Due West Campus: Erskine Theological Seminary, 2015.
Youngblood, Ronald. Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Pub., 1995).
Wiersbe, Warren W. Bible Exposition Commentary (Victor Books, 1989).

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Who Is Jesus? He Is the Son of God!

This is the Good News about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. . . . One day Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee, and John baptized Him in the Jordan River. As Jesus came up out of the water, He saw the heavens splitting apart and the Holy Spirit descending on Him like a dove. And a voice from heaven said, “You are My dearly loved Son, and You bring Me great joy.” Mark 1:1, 9-11 (NLT)

The Gospel of Mark opens with a clear announcement:  “The beginning of the Gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1, NIV). Near the end of the Gospel, Mark gives another clear announcement: “When the army officer who was standing in front of the Cross saw what happened when Jesus died, he said, ‘This Man really was the Son of God!’” (Mark 15:39, NCV). “When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, ‘Surely He was the Son of God!’” (Matthew 27:54, NIV).

The disciples saw Jesus do many other miraculous signs in addition to the ones recorded in this book (Gospel of John). But these are written so that you may continue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing in Him you will have life by the power of His Name. John 20:30-31 (NLT)

The Son of God expresses the holy being of Jesus as the one, unique Son of the true and living God (John 3:16; John 10:36). Other references Scriptures in the Old Testament and the New Testament refer to Israel, angels, and humans as “sons of God” (e.g., see Genesis 6:1-4; Psalm 29:1; Psalm 89:6; Psalm 82:6; Hosea 1:10). In fact, Israel is referred to as God’s firstborn son or simply as God’s son (see Exodus 4:22-23; Jeremiah 31:11; Hosea 11:1). Also, all faithful believers of Jesus are sons and daughters of God (Matthew 5:9, 45; Mark 3:34-35; John 1:12-13; Romans 8:14-17; Galatians 4:4-7). However, only Jesus lives in a unique relationship with God (John 1:18; John 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9). God was in Jesus (John 10:30, 38) to summons the world to repentance, to belief in the Good News and to reconcile humans with God (Mark 1:14-15). Frequently, Jesus referred to God as “My Father” (e.g., see Matthew 7:21; Mark 8:38; Luke 2:49; Luke 10:21-22; John 5:17; John 10:18; John 15:15). At Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration, God the Father identified Jesus as His beloved Son (see Matthew 3:16-17; Matthew 17:5; Mark 1:11; Mark 9:7; Luke 3:21-22; Luke 9:34-36; John 1:31-34). God the Father’s announcement from heaven reminds us of Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1. Also, demons and other evil spirits recognized Jesus as God’s unique and Holy Son (e.g., see Matthew 4:3, 6; Matthew 8:29; Mark 3:11-12; Mark 5:7; Luke 8:28). When the high priest asked Jesus, “Are You the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One” Jesus answered, “I AM” (Mark 14:61-62, NLT). Even as a Boy at the age of twelve, Jesus recognized God as His Father (Luke 2:29). Prior to Jesus’ birth, the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that her Son would be “great and will be called the Son of the Most High. . . . the Baby to be born will be holy, and He will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:32, 35, NLT). After seeing Jesus, John the Baptist – the prophet God sent to prepare the way for His Son – testified to his disciples “this is the Son of God” (John 1:34, NIV). Jesus’ disciples and faithful followers that witnessed the historical Jesus declared: “Truly, You are the Son of God” (Matthew 14:33; see also Matthew 16:16; John 1:14, 18, 34, 49; John 11:27). Even after Jesus’ death and ascension, the faithful followers of Jesus continued to proclaim to the early church that Jesus is the one true and unique “Son of God” (e.g., see Acts 9:20-22; Romans 1:3-4; 1 Corinthians 15:28; Colossians 1:13; 1 Thessalonians 1:10; Hebrews 1:1-4; Hebrews 5:5).

This letter is from Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, chosen by God to be an apostle and sent out to preach His Good News. God promised this Good News long ago through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures. The Good News is about His Son, Jesus. In His earthly life He was born into King David’s family line, and He was shown to be the Son of God when He was raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit. He is Jesus Christ our Lord. Romans 1:1-4 (NLT)

The “Gospel of Jesus Christ” is the Good News that God's very holy and unique Son has come from heaven to live as a human, to die for the sins of the world and to gain our victory over sin, death, and hell (1 Corinthians 15:1-8, 51-52; Galatians 1:1-9). “God showed how much He loved us by sending His one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through Him. . . . He loved us and sent His Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins” (1 John 4:9-10, NLT). We can be forgiven our sins, receive God’s grace and be united into God’s family through our faith in God’s one and only begotten Son, Jesus (see John 1:12-13; Romans 1:16-17; Romans 3:23-25; Galatians 4:4-7). Mark and the other Gospel writers did not write their books about just any Jewish servant but declare Jesus as the unique Son of God (Mark 1:1, 11; Mark 3:11; Mark 5:7; Mark 9:7; Mark 12:1-11; Mark 13:32; Mark 14:61-62; and Mark 15:39). Jesus’ announcement as God's divine Son is the foundation for all we read about Jesus in the New Testament.

Long ago God spoke in many different ways to our fathers through the prophets [in visions, dreams, and even face to face], telling them little by little about His plans. But now in these days He has spoken to us through His Son (Jesus) to whom He has given everything and through whom He made the world and everything there is. God’s Son shines out with God’s glory, and all that God’s Son is and does marks Him as God. He regulates the universe by the mighty power of His command. He is the One who died to cleanse us and clear our record of all sin, and then sat down in highest honor beside the great God of heaven. Thus He became far greater than the angels, as proved by the fact that His Name “Son of God,” which was passed on to Him from His Father, is far greater than the names and titles of the angels. Hebrews 1:1-4 (TLB)

Life Application Study Bible (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Pub., 2005).
Zondervan NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008).
Butler, Trent. Holman Bible Dictionary (Broadman & Holman Pub., 1991).
Elwell, Walter A. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Second Edition (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Book House Company, 2001).
Wiersbe, Warren W. Bible Exposition Commentary (Victor Books, 1989). 

Friday, February 27, 2015

Uniqueness of Mark’s Gospel Message

Jesus Christ:  “But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave (servant) of everyone else. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give His life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:43-45 (NLT)

Mark’s Gospel portrays Jesus Christ as the Suffering Servant and Son of God (e.g. see Mark 8:31-9:1; Mark 10:43-45). Jesus Christ was God in the flesh (incarnate), but Mark’s Gospel reveals Him as entering human history as a Suffering Servant to save humanity as predicted in the Old Testament prophecies (e.g. see Isaiah 42:1-4; Isaiah 49:1-6; Isaiah 50:4-9; Isaiah 52:13-53:12). Jesus Christ did not come as a conquering King on His first advent (arrival) but as a Servant announcing the Good News of God’s Kingdom to the world and sacrificially giving His life to save all humanity through their faith in Him (e.g., see Mark 8:31; Mark 9:31; mark 10:33-34). Although Jesus Christ suffered during His public ministry, Mark’s Gospel reveals Him serving humankind by telling the people of God’s Good News, healing varies disease and evil spirits, and proclaiming God’s love, mercy and compassion. Also, Mark’s Gospel shows Jesus Christ crossing national, racial, gender, and economic barriers to spread the Good News of God’s Kingdom to the world (e.g., see Mark 6:31-44; Mark 8:1-10). Mark wrote his Gospel message to encourage Jews and Gentile alike in their suffering and to also prove beyond a doubt that Jesus is the Messiah and the Suffering Son of the living God (Mark 1:1, 11; Mark 9:7; Mark 15:39).

Of the four New Testament Gospel messages of Jesus Christ, Mark is the shortest. Mark’s Gospel gives the readers a simple, concise, and vivid portrait of Jesus Christ. Mark emphasized more of Jesus’ activities and travels than what He said and taught. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus Christ is revealed in rapid and chronological action. The Gospel of Mark portrays Jesus Christ as busily moving from place to place as He met the physical and spiritual needs of all kinds of people – rich, poor, Jew, Gentile, male and female. Even more, Mark records more of Jesus Christ’s miracles than sermons. Jesus Christ is clearly revealed in Mark’s Gospel as a Man of power and action and not just words. With these series of actions, Mark’s Gospel portrays Jesus Christ’s true identity as the Messiah and God’s unique Son.

Mark begins his Gospel with a clear declaration: “Here begins the wonderful story of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1, TLB). Then, Mark summarizes the entire Old Testament and intertestamental period in two verses at Mark 1:2-3. By Mark 1:4, Mark takes the reader quickly into first century Galilee. Omitting the birth narrative (the nativity) of Jesus Christ, Mark begins with John the Baptist's preaching. Then, Mark moves quickly past Jesus Christ’s baptism, evil’s temptation in the desert, and the call of His disciples. Mark’s Gospel takes us directly into Jesus Christ’s public ministry in the first century Galilee at Mark 1:14. Jesus Christ is the uncontested subject of Mark’s Gospel and He is portrayed as a Man of action. Mark’s Gospel reveals Jesus Christ confronting evil, healing sick people, and forgiving sins. However in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels, the reader does not get into first century Galilee until after Jesus Christ’s birth narratives. Moreover, Mark’s deals with Jesus Christ’s temptation by evil in only two verses (Mark 1:12-13) while Matthew’s Gospel devotes eleven verses to Jesus Christ’s temptation (Matthew 4:1-11) and Luke’s Gospel devotes thirteen verses to His temptation (Luke 4:1-13). Moreover, Mark only gives the reader a sample of Jesus Christ’s teaching at Mark 4 with the parable of the sower, the parable of the growing seed, the lamp stand motif, and the illustration of the mustard seed. Then, Mark immediately takes the reader back into the action. Mark shows Jesus Christ calming the powerful waves, driving out demons, and healing Jairus's daughter. Next, Mark shows Jesus Christ returning to His hometown, Nazareth and experience utter rejection by His hometown. Although opposition against Him continued to mount, Jesus Christ continued to move, feeding 5,000 hungry Jewish men, reaching out to the Syrophoenician woman, healing the deaf man, and feeding another 4,000 hungry Gentile people. Then, Jesus Christ revealed His true identity to His disciples with His transfiguration. Even after His transfiguration, Jesus Christ continued His good and faithful ministry of teaching, healing, and defeating evil. Events moved rapidly toward the climax with Jesus Christ’s Last Supper, the betrayal, the crucifixion, and the resurrection. In all, Mark’s Gospel shows Jesus Christ in action – moving, serving, healing, sacrificing, and saving! Although Jesus Christ faced opposition, servitude, and suffering during His ministry, He continued faithfully serving God and loving others (see Mark 12:28-34; Acts 10:38).

Also, Mark’s Gospel was written with a simple structure using abrupt language, and sometimes poor grammar. Mark wrote his Gospel using ordinary spoken Greek. Until modern times, Mark’s Gospel had received considerably less attention than the other three Gospels. In comparison to John’s Gospel with its lofty theology, Matthew’s Gospel with its teachable narrative structure, and Luke’s Gospel with it parables and stories of Jesus Christ, Mark’s Gospel has often been called clumsy, artless and ordinary. Due to Mark’s ordinary writing style, the early church placed Mark’s Gospel behind Matthew and considered Mark’s Gospel as an inferior and slavish abridgement of Matthew’s Gospel. Mark’s Gospel begins with an abrupt title “Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ” and ends abruptly at Mark 16:8. Third, Mark wrote his Gospel with a sense of urgency. For example and as mentioned above, Mark gives a very concise version of the temptation of Jesus Christ (Mark 1:12-13) in comparison to Matthew and Luke’s Gospel version of Jesus’ temptation. Furthermore, a distinctive characteristic of Mark’s Gospel is his use (some 47 times) of words such as “at once,” “without delay,” “immediately,” “quickly,” and “just then” (e.g., see Mark 1:12, 18, 20, 23, 28, 42-43). Mark moves quickly from one episode in Jesus Christ’s public ministry to another. Some urgency about Jesus Christ public ministry is revealed in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels but this urgency was more pronounced in Mark’s Gospel. Mark’s Gospel contains the most action-packed events of Jesus Christ of the four Gospels. Moreover, Mark appears to be writing his Gospel to a Gentile Christian audience from Rome. As will be discussed later, many in the early church believed Mark was closely associated with Apostle Peter in Rome. Mark’s Gospel does not specifically designate his audience as Gentile Christians. Yet, Mark’s Gospel quotes relatively infrequently from the Old Testament. Also, as Mark is telling the story of Jesus Christ, Mark often interrupts his Gospel message with parenthetical remarks to explain common Jewish customs or Jewish words for readers (e.g. see Mark 7:2-4; Mark 12:18; Mark 14:12; Mark 15:42). Moreover, anytime Jesus Christ quotes an Aramaic word, Mark gives the reader the translation of the Aramaic word (see e.g. Mark 3:17; Mark 5:41; Mark 7:11, 34; Mark 10:46; Mark 14:36; Mark 15:22, 34). Mark’s Gospel presents Romans as neutral (e.g. see Mark 12:17; Mark 15:1-2, 21-22) and sometimes favorable light (Mark 15:39). Such remarks as these indicated Mark was writing to a non-Jewish audience who needed background explanation. Possibly, Mark’s audience was composed of Gentile Christians that came to the Christian faith directly from the pagan world. Next, Mark’s Gospel frequently interrupts a story with another second seemingly unrelated story. For instance at Mark 5, Mark starts telling the story of Jairus’s dying daughter and then Mark abruptly interrupts this story with another story of a woman with a hemorrhage.

In addition, Mark gives a unique portrait of Jesus Christ as misunderstood. Mark’s Gospel reveals large crowds following Jesus because He miraculous provided food, healed their sickness and brought comfort to hurting people. Jesus Christ’s compassion and mercy was unusual for first century Rome. The first century was a segmented society and no one cared about one another. In Roman first century society, there was no welfare system. However, Jesus Christ showed compassion to the weak, the hurting, and the needy (e.g., Mark 3:10; Mark 6:34; Mark 8:2). Also, Mark reveals the crowds misunderstanding Jesus’ true role as Messiah (Christ). The crowd wanted a conquering King like King David of the Old Testament. Instead, Jesus Christ came as a Suffering Servant serving and caring for the people as foretold by the Prophet Isaiah. Also, Mark reveals Jesus Christ’s confrontation with the teachers of the law early in His ministry. By Mark 2:6, the religious leaders were in direct conflict with Jesus Christ’s teaching and healings (see also Mark 2:6-7, 16, 24; Mark 3:2, 6, 22). Jesus Christ’s conflicts with the religious leaders came much later in Matthew and Luke’s Gospel. Moreover, Mark reveals the earliest plot to kill Jesus Christ came at Mark 3:6. Furthermore, Mark’s Gospel reveals that Jesus was often misunderstood by His own family and His hometown (e.g. see Mark 3:21, 31-32; Mark 6:1-6). Jesus’ family members thought He had lost His mind as a religious fanatic (Mark 3:21). These people saw no reason to believe that Jesus was any different from them, much less that He was specially appointed by the true and living God. The strangest misunderstanding of Jesus Christ came from the Twelve apostles (disciples). The picture we get of the Twelve in Mark’s Gospel is not a flattering picture. In Mark’s Gospel, the disciples often look confused, dulled or slow learners about Jesus Christ’s powers and authority (e.g., see Mark 4:13; Mark 5:51-52; Mark 7:17-21; Mark 8:4; Mark 9:32; Mark 10:13-14, 35-40). At one point, Jesus even called the disciples “hard hearted” (Mark 6:52; Mark 8:16-19).

Next, only Mark’s Gospel reveals Jesus Christ’s loneliness, isolation and abandonment by His family, friends, and His disciples. At the Cross, Jesus even felt abandoned by God. Only Mark gives one utterance of Jesus Christ from the Cross:  “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Mark 15:34, NLT). These final words of Jesus on the Cross reveal how deeply He felt in His abandonment even by God as He bore “the sin of the world” (see John 1:29).

Finally, the chief critical part of Mark’s Gospel concerns Mark’s ending. Serious doubts exists as to whether Mark 16:9-20 belongs to Mark’s Gospel. Mark 16:9-20 do not appear in two of the most trustworthy manuscripts of the New Testament, though they are part of many other manuscripts and versions. If Mark 16:9-20 are not a part of the genuine text of Mark, then Mark’s Gospel ends abruptly at Mark 16:8 with a promise that Jesus Christ has risen! 

The Gospel messages of Matthew, Mark and Luke are commonly identified as the Synoptic Gospels. These three Gospels tell essentially the same story of Jesus Christ, while John’s Gospel is quite different. Matthew, Mark and Luke’s Gospel agree extensively in language, in material, and sayings of Jesus Christ. The basic outline of Matthew, Mark and Luke are the same and in the same sequence. For instance, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke have a common starting point of Jesus Christ’s baptism and empowerment of God’s Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ’s baptism and Holy Spirit empowerment launched His public ministry in Galilee (northern Israel) with the peak of His ministry being Easter Sunday – the date of His resurrection! An example of the Gospels’ verbatim agreement is found at Matthew 10:22 and Mark 13:13. Even more, a mathematical calculation of the three Gospels reveals that 91 percent of Mark’s Gospel is contained in Matthew and 53 percent of Mark’s Gospel is found in Luke.

Since Matthew, Mark and Luke’s Gospels give the same story of Jesus Christ; these similarities have given rise to the question of Mark’s relationship to the other two Gospels. Many theories have been put forward to explain the similarities between Matthew, Mark and Luke’s Gospel. Some believe that the oral traditions circulated in the early church about Jesus Christ provided a common source for these three Gospels. Some have suggested that the three Gospel writers drew from each other with the result being similarities in their three Gospels. The most widely accepted theory explaining the three Gospels’ similarities is that Mark’s Gospel and a lost document commonly called “Quelle (meaning German for “source”) or “Q” were used by Matthew and Luke as sources for most of their materials. 

Matthew’s Gospel was written primarily for a Jewish audience and he opened his Gospel with a genealogy. After all, Matthew had to prove to his readers that Jesus Christ is indeed the rightful Heir to King David's throne. Also, Matthew’s Gospel continually presents Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. For instance, Matthew’s birth narrative is to present Jesus as the royal Messiah from the royal lineage of King David. The Sermon on the Mount portrays Jesus as a new Moses who teaches God’s law from the mountain. Moreover, Matthew’s Gospel provides extensive examples of Jesus’ parables and other teachings. While Mark’s Gospel emphasized the power and activity of Jesus Christ, Matthew’s Gospel emphasized His teaching. As mentioned earlier, Mark did not record many of Jesus Christ’s sermons because he emphasized what Jesus did rather than what He said. Mark’s Gospel reveals Jesus as God's Servant, sent to minister to suffering people and to die for the sins of the world.

Luke’s Gospel was primarily written to reveal Jesus Christ’s humanity – Jesus was the God-Man. Luke had a profound interest in interpreting Jesus as the Savior of all humanity. Gospel writer Luke is generally accepted as the only Gospel written by a Gentile and also by a person who was not directly connected to the historical Jesus or to one of His original disciples.

The Gospel of John was the last Gospel written. John's Gospel begins with a statement about Jesus Christ’s eternity and His existence as the eternal God. The most striking characteristic of John is its sequence of Jesus’ ministry, the vocabulary and tone of Jesus’ words, even the day on which Jesus is crucified. John’s Gospel does follow the same sequence as Matthew, Mark and Luke’s Gospels. Like John’s Gospel, Mark records no genealogy of Jesus Christ, unnecessary in regard to a servant. Mark’s Gospel, like the Gospel of John, begins with the ministry of John the Baptist.

The early church recognized God’s inspiration in the four Gospels of the New Testament. Yet several other books which presented themselves as gospels also circulated during the early church history. However, these other gospels were rejected as either an inadequate Jewish interpretations of Jesus or works heavily influenced by Gnostic heretics. Moreover, all of these rejected gospels were written much later than the four included in the New Testament.

For centuries, many scholars believed Matthew’s Gospel was the first Gospel written and Mark was clumsy abbreviation of Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew’s Gospel was the most popular Gospel accepted by the early churches because Matthew’s Gospel is very practical with actual teachings of Jesus Christ for everyday Christian living. However, Mark’s Gospel does not give actual teachings of Jesus Christ nor does Mark’s Gospel have a Sermon on Mount as in Matthew and Luke’s Gospel. Nonetheless, Mark’s Gospel message emphasizes Jesus Christ as “Teacher” more than Matthew’s Gospel message. The words “Teacher,” “teach” or “teachings,” and “Rabbi” are applied to Jesus Christ more than thirty-nine times in Mark’s Gospel.  Nevertheless, Mark’s Gospel remained in obscurity for many years as to the four Gospels and did not rise to the level of literary presence until the 18th century. In the 18th century as product of the Enlightenment, scholars concluded that Mark’s Gospel was not a clumsy abbreviation of Matthew’s Gospel but the first of the four Gospels written. So, many scholars concluded Gospel writers Matthew and Luke used Mark’s Gospel as their key source in composing their message of Jesus Christ.

The next question turns to the identity of Mark. No one really knows the true identity of the author of Mark’s Gospel. Mark’s Gospels have no direct internal evidence of authorship. Mark is never named as the author of the Gospel within the Gospel manuscript. The author of Mark’s Gospel as the other Gospels’ authors are anonymous and never identified within the early New Testament manuscripts. Connecting Mark as the author of this Gospel was done much later by the early church. Even the titles of each of the four Gospels, which were assigned on the basis of church tradition, appear in the second century. Mark was a common first century name and the true identity of Mark is generally not known.

Traditionally, the early church believed John Mark (“John, also called Mark”) authored Mark’s Gospel. John Mark was the cousin of Barnabas (Colossians 4:10) and sometimes the traveling companion of Apostle Paul (Acts 12:25; Acts 13:4). The first mention of John Mark is in connection with his mother, named Mary, who had a house in Jerusalem that served as a meeting place for believers of Jesus Christ (Acts 12:12). John Mark was perhaps the young man who fled on the night of Jesus Christ’s arrest (see Mark 14:51-52). When Apostle Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch from Jerusalem, John Mark accompanied them (Acts 12:25). Mark appears as a “helper” to Apostle Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:5). Evidently, John Mark was responsible for travel arrangements, food, and lodging for Apostle Paul and Barnabas. For reasons unknown, Mark quit the journey with Apostle Paul and Barnabas at Perga in Pamphylia to return to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13). Apostle Paul was deeply upset with Mark’s abrupt departure from the missionary journey. When Barnabas proposed taking Mark on the second missionary journey in approximately AD 50, Apostle Paul strongly refused. Apostle Paul and Barnabas disagreed whether John Mark could return with them on the missionary journey. This disagreement caused Barnabas and Apostle Paul to split their working relationship (Acts 15:36-39). Barnabas goes on another missionary journey with John Mark to Cyprus (Acts 15:36-41) and Apostle Paul picked up Silas on his second missionary journey. No further mention is made of John Mark in the book of Acts. Apparently, John Mark reunited with Apostle Paul. By the end of Apostle Paul’s life, John Mark had fully regained Apostle Paul’s favor (see 2 Timothy 4:11). John Mark reappears in Apostle Paul’s letter to the Colossian church written from Rome (see Colossians 4:10; Philemon 24). John Mark was present with Apostle Paul’s first Roman imprisonment. Evidently, John Mark returned from his work with Barnabas and became associated with Apostle Peter. A final New Testament reference of importance shows John Mark laboring with Apostle Peter in Rome (1 Peter 5:13).

The most important evidence of John Mark’s authorship of Mark’s Gospel comes from Papias, a prominent Roman historian. Papias quotes other earlier sources that identify Mark as a close associate of Apostle Peter. Mark became Apostle Peter’s faithful interpreter and followed Apostle Peter’s preaching. John Mark was not connected to the original Twelve apostles but his eyewitness account came from Apostle Peter. Mark received the oral tradition of Jesus Christ from the preaching of Apostle Peter, a close disciple of Jesus. The conclusion drawn from this tradition is that the Gospel of Mark largely consisted of Apostle Peter’s preaching. Similar to the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, Apostle Peter’s sermons began with John’s baptism and continued to Jesus Christ’s resurrection from complete death (e.g. Acts 10:37-43; see also Acts 2:14-41; Acts 3:12-26; Acts 4:8-12; Acts 5:29-32;). However, some people argue there was no valid connection with Apostle Peter and John Mark in Rome. Nevertheless, Papias’ statement gives rise to a geographical context from Mark and other sources support that John Mark was associated with Peter and more importantly with Rome.

As to the date of Mark’s Gospel, most scholars place Mark around the year AD 70. Mark’s Gospel does not give an exact date. Some argue Mark’s Gospel was written around AD 65 to 73. In the 60s and 70s, there were two major crises in the Roman Empire. In the eastern part of the Roman Empire, Palestine was heading to a war with Roman due to Rome’s oppression and taxation. On the western part of the Roman Empire, there were the activities of Emperor Nero. Nero came to the throne around AD 54 and ruled to approximately AD 68. Interestingly, the first five years of Nero’s rule was good and pleasant due to the good influences by his mother and two good tutors. After his mother and tutors’ death, Nero’s life began to turn evil, cruel and vain. Nero even had his son killed but spared his pet pig. Nero’s great ambition was himself and he was very vain. Nero was murderous, heartless and spending excessive money. The worse of Nero’s act was the fire he started around July 64 AD. No one saw Nero setting the fire in Rome but many people believed Nero started the Roman fire. Nero’s ultimate ambition was to rebuild Rome and name the city Neropolis, meaning “city of Nero.” Sadly, Nero made followers of the Way the scapegoats of the Roman fire. Seeking a scapegoat for the fire in Rome – a fire that Roman historian Tacitus blamed on Nero – Nero fastened blamed to Christians. As a result, Nero subjected Christians to the most gruesome horrors. Up to this point, Christians were not persecuted because they were seen as a sect of Jews and Judaism was protected by Roman laws that allowed religious toleration. So the by AD 60s the Christians were now separated from Judaism and many Christians were persecuted and even set on fire by the Romans. This was the worst time period for Christians.

A second statement relevant to the dating of Mark is the statement found at Mark 13:14 concerning the “abomination that causes desolation” and Mark’s reference to flee to the hills when “the abomination that causes desolation” arrives. These statements by Jesus Christ concerned the coming destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by God's enemies. The Temple was destroyed in AD 70 when the Roman general Titus placed an idol on the site of the burned-out Temple after the destruction of Jerusalem. If this suggestion could be established, then Mark’s Gospel was written before AD 70. Many scholars find ambiguity of Mark 13:14 rather puzzling if Mark composed his Gospel after the actual fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.

As mentioned earlier, many scholars believe Mark’s audience was Gentile Christians suffering in Rome around the last half of the first century during Nero’s reign. Many biblical scholars believe that Mark wrote his Gospel about Jesus Christ’s suffering as God’s Son to encourage and comfort these Gentile Christians also suffering in Rome. These Gentile Christians confessed Jesus as Lord. Yet, these Gentile Christians were suffering at the hands of Rome. Mark may have been writing to these Gentile Christians to comfort them by revealing Jesus Christ’s service and suffering for the Kingdom of God. There are many references throughout Mark’s Gospel to suffering and the importance of service (e.g., see Mark 1:12-13; Mark 8:34-38; Mark 10:33-34, 45). Suffering is the central issue of Mark’s Gospel. Mark was showing the audience how Jesus is Lord, even though He suffered persecution and rejection!

Life Application Study Bible (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Pub., 2005).
Ryrie Study Bible (Chicago, IL: Moody, 1995).
Zondervan NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008).
Butler, Trent. Holman Bible Dictionary (Broadman & Holman Pub., 1991).
Edwards, James R. The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002).
Kelber, Werner. Mark’s Story of Jesus (Houston, TX: Fortress Press, 1979).
Loyd, Melton, Ph.D., Professor of New Testament. Due West Campus: Erskine Theological Seminary, 2015.
Wiersbe, Warren W. Bible Exposition Commentary (Victor Books, 1989). 

Friday, February 20, 2015

What Is A Gospel?

The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Mark 1:1 (NIV)

Most modern biblical scholars believe Mark was the first Gospel written about Jesus Christ’s ministry. Until about 1800, the church generally accepted the view, first advanced by Augustine, that Matthew’s Gospel was the first Gospel written. Before the 1800’s, biblical scholars took the view that Mark abbreviated Matthew’s Gospel, and Luke used both Matthew and Mark to compose his Gospel message.

If Mark’s Gospel was the first Gospel written, then Mark started a new literary genre with no parallels. There were really no parallels in the Old Testament, ancient Judaism or Greco-Roman literature. Mark created a new and unique literary genre to help a first century audience facing a particular first century situation under the inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit. Many modern biblical scholars believe the other Gospel writers (Matthew, Luke and John) continued Mark’s new unique literary genre in writing about Jesus Christ’s ministry.

There were other first century forms of literature that were similar to a Gospel. Some argued that the Gospel writers were imitating a first century form of literature called Roman biographies. In the first century, these biographies were a mixture of historical fact, interpretation, and propaganda. Unlike the Gospels, Roman biographies never told of the struggles and hardships of the Roman Emperors. Yet, the Gospel writers told of Jesus Christ’s humanness, including His sorrow (Mark 14:34), disappointment (Mark 8:12), displeasure (Mark 10:14-15), anger (Mark 11:15-17), amazement (Mark 6:6), fatigue (Mark 4:38) and even uncertainty (Mark 13:32).

Some argued that the Gospels were just another form of miracle stories. In the first century Roman world, there were written collections of miracle stories. These stories included figures or people in the first century Roman Empire that were given the name “divine men,” also called “theois aner” in Greek. An example of such men included Simon Magus in Acts 8:9-25. These divine men were sorcerers or magicians and they were able to perform miracles. In Greek literature, the Greco-Romans believed the Greek gods lived on Mount Olympics and these Greek gods would sometimes make a sneak appearance on earth disguised a man. At Acts 14:8-20, when Paul and Barnabas were at Lystra and miraculous healed a slave girl, the people of Lystra believed the “gods have come down to us in human form” (Acts 14:12).  Paul and Barnabas were given the names of the two Greek gods, Zeus and Hermes and they were seen as divine men. In the first century, there were stories of these divine men and some argue say that the Gospel writers were essentially a pattern of these theois aner stories, particularly the Gospel of Mark. Much of Mark’s Gospel consisted of the miraculous healings of Jesus Christ. However, these miraculous accounts of these divine men verse the miracles of the Gospel are radically different. Many of these miracle stories of divine men emphasized the mechanics of actually how the miracles were done. However, the Gospels especially in Mark recorded Jesus Christ’s miracles but the Gospel writers gave no mechanics of how He performed His miracles. Thus although there were some similarities of divine men stories and the Gospels of the first century, these divine men stories were weak in comparison to the Gospels.

In summary, Gospels about Jesus Christ were not just a form of an Emperor biography or a theois aner story. Although these other first century literary forms may be similar to a Gospel, Mark’s Gospel was a unique literary genre with no real precedent and no significant comparison. One cannot explain the Gospel as divine men stories or a Roman Emperor biography.

In the New Testament, the word “Gospel” has two different meanings. First, the Gospel is the actual words spoken directly from Jesus Christ’s lips about the reign of God (Mark 1:14). Second, the Gospel is the story told about Jesus Christ’s earthly death and resurrection (Galatians 1:11-12; 1 Corinthians 15:1-8). The Gospel message Apostle Paul preached was the Good News of victory over sin through the saving effects of Jesus Christ’s death by crucifixion and of His triumph over death in His resurrection. Faith in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection is the only hope for sinful humans to “inherit the Kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 15:50-53-57). In each case “Gospel” refers to the work which God alone initiates and completes through His Son Jesus Christ. The central figure of the Gospel is Jesus Christ, in and through whom the history and the promises of the Old Testament are fulfilled (see Luke 24:27, 44-47; see Hebrews 1:1-2). Therefore, the Gospel is the continuation of the work which God began in Jesus Christ.

In Mark 1:1, Mark declares the essential content of his Gospel. At the very outset, Mark announces that the content of the Gospel is the Person of Jesus, who is the Christ and Son of God (Mark 1:1). “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1, NIV). This message is a brief confession of faith, the meaning of which will unfold as the reader follows Mark’s presentation of Jesus Christ in his Gospel. For Mark, the Gospel is the message and story of God’s saving activity through the life, death, and resurrection of God’s unique Son Jesus Christ. In the apparent appearance of Jesus in Galilee, a new age had dawn that requires repentance and faith. Mark’s written record of Jesus’ life is itself called a Gospel. The most basic summary of Jesus Christ’s preaching appears in Mark 1:15. “The time has come,” Jesus said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the Good News!” Jesus Christ’s purpose was to bring the Kingdom of God. He is the Proclaimer and Bringer of the Kingdom and all aspects of Jesus Christ’s life and death are related to this mission of the Kingdom.

The word gospel simply means “good news.” The “Gospel of Jesus Christ” is the Good News that God's unique Son has come into the world and died for our sins. The Gospel is the Good News because through faith in God’s Son our sins can be forgiven, we can be reconciled to God, and declared God’s child (e.g., see John 1:12-14; John 3:16-17; Ephesians 2:5, 8-9; 2 Corinthians 5:11-21). Even more, the Gospel is God’s proclamation victory over sin, death, and hell (see 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, 51-52; Galatians 1:1-9). The Gospel is the power of God’s Holy Spirit to raise the dead, to bring new life, and release bondage from sin (Romans 1:16-17; Romans 15:13; 1 Corinthians 2:4-5; 1 Thessalonians 1:5).

Gospel is the usual New Testament translation of the Greek word “euangelion.” The concept of good news itself finds its roots in the Hebrew language of the Old Testament. In both the Old Testament and in Greek literature, euangelion was commonly used for reports of victory from the battlefield. Also, the “euangelion” was used in the Greco-Roman world as describing the birthday of the Emperor. In the Greco-Roman world, the birth of the Emperor was seen as a manifestation of a god in the first century. For example in 9 B.C., the birthday of Caesar Augustus was hailed as “euangelion.” Since Caesar Augustus was hailed as a god, his birthday signaled the beginning of good news for the world. Yet, the Old Testament Prophet Isaiah used “good news” as the anticipated deliverance and salvation from the hand of God when the long-awaited Messiah appeared to deliver Israel (Isaiah 52:7; Isaiah 61:1-3). The military-political and personal references of good news were united in the hope of a Messiah who would deliverer God’s people and usher in a new age of salvation. The arrival of this Messiah would be good news. For Mark, the arrival (advent) of Jesus Christ is the beginning of the fulfillment of the “good news” announced by the Prophet Isaiah. Christians increasingly used euanggelion as a specific term to describe the good news of Jesus.

Normally, people have defined the Gospel as the story of Jesus Christ. However, the Gospels are not true biographies of Jesus Christ. The Gospels essentially omit the first 30 years of Jesus’ life and focus mostly on the last three years of Jesus Christ’s life. Apart from Jesus Christ’s birth (see Matthew 1–2; Luke 1–2) and one from His youth at age twelve (Luke 2:41–52), the four Gospels record essentially the last two or three years of Jesus Christ’s public ministry. Moreover, the Gospels tells us very little of Jesus Christ’s family life including His earthly father, His brothers and sisters. Essentially, Joseph never appears in the story after Jesus Christ’s birth. The Gospels give few reference to His brothers and sister (Matthew 12:46-50; Mark 3:21, 31-32; Mark 6:3; Luke 8:19-21; John 7:4-5) and no reference to Jesus’ educational background. Even the length of Jesus Christ’s public ministry is normally believed to be three years based on John’s Gospel references to Jesus’ attendance at three Passover events in Jerusalem. The traditional chronological of three years is based on the chronology of John where Jesus Christ went to Jerusalem on three different Passovers. Therefore, the Gospels are not true biographies of Jesus Christ’s life.

Even more, the four Gospel writers did not write their Gospels as an objective historical survey of Jesus Christ’s life and ministry. These Gospel writers were evangelist and they were calling readers to a commitment and faith in Jesus Christ. Moreover, the Gospel writers presented four distinctive theological portraits of Jesus Christ sent to four different first century Christian communities to help them deal with their circumstances. Matthew’s Gospel was written primarily for the Jews. After all, Matthew had to prove to his readers that Jesus Christ was indeed the rightful Heir to David's throne. Luke’s Gospel focused mainly Jesus Christ's humanity, for he knew that his Greek readers would identify with the perfect Babe who grew up to be the perfect Man. John's Gospel begins with a statement about eternity because John wrote to prove to the whole world that Jesus Christ of Nazareth is the Son of God (John 20:31). Mark wrote his Gospel for the Romans, and his theme is Jesus Christ the Servant (Mark 10:45). The Gospel of Mark reveals Jesus Christ as God's Servant, sent to minister to suffering people and to die for the sins of the world. Mark gives us no account of Jesus Christ’s birth, nor does Mark record a genealogy of Jesus Christ. Essentially, the Gospel writers give four distinctive versions of the same story of Jesus Christ. The church has resisted any attempts to harmonize the four Gospel accounts of Jesus Christ into one story.

Around A.D. 150, Tatian compiled the life of Jesus Christ, called the Diatessaron. In the Diatessaron, Tatian attempted to harmonize the four Gospels into one account of Jesus Christ. Tatian started with John’s Gospel and John’s chronological of Jesus Christ’s life and tried to Matthew, Mark and Luke’s Gospels into John’s chronological to create one Gospel account of Jesus Christ. Principally, the Diatessaron is a harmony of the four New Testament Gospels and attempted to simplify the Gospels into one account of the life of Jesus Christ. However, Tatian’s Diatessaron was eventually rejected by the early church and the Diatessaron no longer exists.

Prior to Tatian’s Diatessaron, the church had accepted the four-fold Gospels as a faithful witness to Jesus Christ. At an early date, the church realized that the combined witness of the four Gospels was required to proclaim the full and distinctive theological portrait of Jesus Christ. From the late second century forward, the Gospels have been circulated as a four-fold written collection of Jesus Christ. The early church saw a unique witness of Jesus Christ in each Gospel account and it was important to preserve the uniqueness of Jesus Christ’s life in each Gospel.

Matthew, Mark and Luke Gospels are often called collectively the “Synoptic Gospels”. These three Gospels tell essentially the same story of Jesus Christ in a similar fashion and similar content. The Synoptic Gospels casts the life of Jesus Christ within the framework of a Galilean ministry that extended from His baptism to His death, with emphasis on His final week on earth. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke recount many of the same incidents or teachings of Jesus Christ often in the same or related wording, arrangement, and content (e.g., see Matthew 3:13–17, Mark 1:9–11, and Luke 3:21–22). However, the Gospel of John presents a more independent account of Jesus Christ’s public ministry. John's Gospel begins with a statement about Jesus Christ’s eternity (John 1:1-5). John wrote his Gospel to prove to the whole world that Jesus Christ of Nazareth is the unique and eternal Son of God (see John 1:18; John 3:16; John 20:31).

In the past 200 years, a great deal of study has been devoted to discovering the historical Jesus Christ of the Gospels. There were probably 50 or more gospels written other than the first four Gospels found in the New Testament. These gospels are often called “apocryphal gospels” and they were written much later than the first four Gospels given in the New Testament. The Gospels in the New Testament were all composed by the end of the first century. However, the apocryphal gospels came out of the second, third, fourth and fifth centuries. Out of many gospels and other accounts of the life of Jesus (Luke 1:1-2), God led the early church to choose the four Gospel which He had inspired by the Holy Spirit – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

In the mid-1980s, a group called the “Jesus Seminar” lead by Robert Funk tried to find the historical or “real” Jesus. This group felt that the portrait of Jesus Christ through the early church was distorted over the years. This group saw the Gospels as a collection of what people had come to believe about Jesus Christ. This group sought to discover the “real” Jesus by surveying all documents that discussed Jesus Christ from the first 500 years of church history and this included these apocryphal gospels. Thus, the Jesus Seminar group gave the apocryphal gospels equal importance or equal weight as the first four Gospels written in the first century. The picture of Jesus Christ that emerges from the Jesus Seminar is often modern, politically correct, peaceful, and fits into the 21st century. Sadly, the portrait of Jesus Chris from these apocryphal gospels is distinctly different from the theological portrait of Jesus Christ of the four Gospels of the New Testament.

Nevertheless, how did the oral communications about Jesus transition from a spoken message to written books? The four-fold Gospels did not miraculous drop from the sky and appear. There was a long and complex process to the creation of the Gospels after Jesus Christ’s death and ascension. Historical documents outside the Bible documents approximately AD 30 Jesus Christ was crucified and dead at the hands Rome by Pontius Pilate. Approximately AD 30 marked the end of the earthly life of Jesus Christ (see also Acts 1). In approximately AD 65 or 68, this was the beginning appearance of the first written Gospel. Mark was the first Gospel believed to have been written around AD 65 and the last Gospel written believed to be John’s Gospel around AD 90. Matthew and Luke appeared to have been written around AD 70 to 90. Thus, there was approximately 35 to 40 years between the events of Jesus Christ’s life and Mark’s Gospel. This puzzles approximately 40 year gaps between Jesus Christ’s life and the first written Gospel puzzles the modern world. Twenty-first century westerner society was geared to writings and skeptical of the long delay and possible forgetfulness of the Gospel writers.

Yet, first century Palestine where Jesus Christ’s lived and ministered was an oral society. In first century Palestine, this period was a period of oral traditions and oral traditions about Jesus Christ circulated among the Christian churches by the witnesses of the historical Jesus during AD 30 and AD 60. Reading ability was uncommon in the ancient world. Books and writing equipment were expensive and usually reserved for the rich alone. Consequently, many societies including first century Palestine preserved and transmitted the message about Jesus Christ by word of mouth. Such a system may seem fragile and unreliable by modern standards, but ancient societies including first century Palestine trusted these oral methods and forms they developed to sustain the process. Within the New Testament, the word euanggelion always refers to oral communications about Jesus Christ, never to a document or piece of literature. The remaining Twelve disciples of Jesus Christ (e.g. John, Matthew, and Peter) that witnessed the historical Jesus and many others such as Apostle Paul, John Mark, and Luke would circulate the message of Jesus Christ’s life by oral communications. The early church missionaries received pieces of Jesus Christ’s story from these authoritative disciples of Jesus Christ and this how the stories of Jesus Christ spread in the first century. Many biblical scholars believe that there were probably written parts of the Jesus Christ’s story during this period of oral traditions. Most likely, the Passion story of Jesus Christ and the last week of Jesus Christ’s life from Palm Sunday with the Triumphal Entry to Easter Sunday were written down in first century Palestine. Also, New Testament writings of Apostle Paul, the other disciples of Jesus Christ, and even the Apostle Creed focused on Jesus Christ’s Passion (death and resurrection). In fact, Apostle Paul’s teaching and thirteen Epistles focused little on the earthly life of Jesus Christ and focused primarily on Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection first. Besides, the Passion story of Jesus Christ is almost identical in the four Gospels of the New Testament. However, when one starts at the Passion story and work backward, there is more variety and less agreement in the four Gospel message. First instance, Mark has no birth story of Jesus Christ, Luke’s and Matthew’s birth stories of Jesus Christ are different. So the most substantial agreement of Jesus Christ’s life is His Passion.

Also, there was no need to write down the events of Jesus Christ’s life because from approximately AD 30 to AD 70 the eyewitnesses to Jesus Christ’s life events were alive. The remaining Twelves disciples of Jesus Christ and many other faithful followers who had physically seen and eyewitness the historical Jesus and heard His teaching were alive and could authenticate His life and ministry (see Acts 1:21-22). In the first century, there were other stories of Jesus Christ such as the infancy gospel of Thomas but these stories were never canonized and never authenticated by the Twelve. Moreover, some stories of Jesus Christ were not written down because the people of the first century believed in the imminent end of the world and the return of Jesus Christ (e.g. see 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11).

Then, about thirty years after Jesus Christ’s ascension to heaven, several interrelated crises impacted the early church. As a result of these crises, the early church responded to the leadership of God’s Holy Spirit to write down the teachings, stories, and message of Jesus. Around AD 65, the Gospels started to appear in written form. First of all, by AD 70 most of the Christians were in the Roman world and the Roman world was geared towards written documents, unlike Palestine’s oral society. With the persecution of Christians in Palestine, the Gospel message about Jesus Christ had spread rapidly into the Roman world. Most of the Christian church – evangelists, teachers and preachers – were not in Jerusalem but in the utter most parts of the Roman world (see Matthew 28:16-20; Acts 1:8).

Also during this time, the Emperor Nero initiated the first official persecution so he could use early Christians as scapegoats for his own insane actions. After setting fire to the city of Rome in A.D. 64 as a way to clear a portion of the city for a construction project, Nero unfairly accused Christians for committing the burning of Rome. On the basis of this supposed guilt, Nero began persecution of Christians which included arrest, imprisonment, torture, and execution. The persecution begun by Nero continued in varying degrees by other Roman officials throughout the New Testament period. From a historical perspective, this persecution by Nero and others may have strengthened the spirit of the early church. Moreover by AD 70, most the eyewitnesses to Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry were dead leaving few disciples to authenticate the message of Jesus Christ’s life. Most believe by AD 70 most of the remaining Twelve disciples and other faithful followers of Jesus, including Apostle Paul were martyred except John who lived to the end of the first century. Some disciples during Nero’s persecutions and others simply aged enough to pass away from natural causes. The early church placed a high value on these faithful disciples and their actually having seen and heard Jesus Christ (Luke 1:2; 1 John 1:1). These witnesses had actually “heard . . . seen . . . looked at . . . touched” the historical Jesus during His public ministry (1 John 1:1; see also John 1:14; John 19:35; John 20:27; Luke 24:28; Acts 4:20; 2 Peter 1:16; 1 John 4:14)).  So since most of the personal eyewitnesses of Jesus Christ were deceased, there was a mission by the early church to transfer the oral traditions of Jesus Christ to written form. Finally, there was the realization of many believers of Jesus Christ that end of the world was not near. Members of the early church believed Jesus would return soon, so they felt no real urgency to write down His teachings for the future generations. Preaching recorded in the New Testament’s books such as Acts, Romans, and Corinthians have a distinct sense of urgency about the return of Jesus. The apostles believed that Jesus would be returning any day and that it was more important for them to give as many people as possible the opportunity to respond to the Gospel than to written down the message. Their constant emphasis was to communicate the Gospel and not to preserve the Gospel for the future. As a longer and longer period of time passed after Jesus’ ascension, the church became more and more concerned about preserving the Gospel message. The expectation of the immediacy of Jesus Christ’s return lessened by AD 70 and the fall of the Jewish Temple. So the expectation of the imminent of the end of the world was modified with the fall of the Temple. So, the oral traditions of Jesus Christ’s life began to be written, first by Mark’s Gospel.

In the late 19th century and the first part of the 20th century, there was another definition of a Gospel. However, this definition accounts for a discipline called form criticism. Form criticism flourished from the 1900 to 1950 and they focused on the period of oral traditions about Jesus Christ. The form critics concluded that during the forty-year oral period the stories circulated about Jesus Christ were embellished or exaggerated. They argue the four Gospels of the New Testament were based upon these embellished or exaggerated stories of Jesus Christ. According to form critics when Mark received the oral traditions of Jesus Christ’s life for his Gospel, these oral traditions were not “fresh” from the source. Form critics argue that Mark’s oral sources about Jesus Christ were now embellished stories as used in the life of the church. Thus, form critics state the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were just collections of oral embellished stories the early church had come to believe about Jesus Christ. However, form critics failed to take into consideration that the New Testament itself considered these oral traditions about Jesus Christ sacred and authoritative and not mere embellished gossip (see e.g., Luke 1:1-2; 1 Corinthians 7; 1 Corinthians 15:3). Even more, form critics’ methodology for assessing and critiquing the Gospels were flawed. For example, form critics Rudolph Bultmann and J. Jeremias both used form critical methodology to assess the Gospels. Using this same methodology Bultmann was very skeptical of the history of the Gospel while Jeremias using the same form critical methodology was very optimistic of the historical Jesus and the Gospel message. Thus, Jeremias and Bultmann essentially used the same form critical methodology and concluded with two differing opinions about Jesus Christ. Thus, the methodology of form criticism was not accurate and flawed and by the 1950’s, form criticism was abandoned.

Today, many modern biblical scholars define the Gospels as a theological portrait of Jesus. When the Gospels were written, the Gospels were sent to first century Christian communities that were mainly house churches. These Gospels were sent to these house churches to help Christians dealing with their first century troubles and circumstances. The Gospel writers were written by people that believed in Jesus and therefore the Gospels were evangelists. These evangelists were convinced of Jesus Christ and they were trying to convince others. Thus, Gospel writers gave the house churches a portrait of Jesus Christ and a portrait is essentially an interpretation of Jesus Christ by an artist. That is why the portraits of Jesus Christ are different in each Gospel because each Gospel writers are writing to their specific audience and addressing their audiences’ specific first century issues. That is why Irenaeus and the other church resisted incorporating the Gospels into one story of Jesus because each Gospel gives a different and distinct portrait or witness about Jesus Christ. In the 20th century, a Gospel discipline called redaction criticism tried to understand the Gospel text holistically and connect the Gospel to a first century event or situation. However, many argued this method is flawed like form criticism. So the most common method today is “story approach” in understanding a Gospel. This approach reads the Gospel holistically like redaction criticism but do not tie the Gospel to a first century situation.  However, some critics of the story approach argue without considering the first century circumstances surrounding the Gospels, the Gospels would be a short distance to an allegory. Most biblical scholars today read the Gospels as a story while also considering the cultural, religious, and historical conditions of the first century.

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