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Testing, Kingdom, Gospel, Call: Mark 1:12–20

"The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him."

So begins the war. The language is intense and violent: the Spirit that just came into Jesus (eis auton), possessing him at the Baptism, now immediately drives him out into the wilderness. It’s the same word used in Mark’s Gospel for driving out demons, ekballō. While Jesus recapitulates Israel’s experience in the wilderness here—the forty days alluding to Israel’s forty years of wanderings—the emphasis in Mark’s version falls on Eden. Jesus, the New Adam, confronts Satan where the old Adam failed to (Gen 3). He’s not simply “tempted” (our English word from the Latin tentatio), which suggests a desire for the sin of some base pleasure, but “tested,” a better translation of the Greek peirazō. Jesus here wrestles with Satan in an ordeal or trial not unlike a contestant in an athletic contest, and he bests him.

The “wild beasts” Mark mentions have suggested to some the spectacle of Christian martyrdom in the Circus Maximus, as if Mark were writing to encourage Roman Christians facing mortal persecution. Perhaps. But another option that makes sense on a literary, narrative level is to see Jesus here as the New Adam restoring Eden. He is with the wild beasts, as was Adam, having bested Satan, and now (in principle) restoring Eden. The wilderness (erēmos) is now pacified, and Jesus will feed the people with a Eucharistic miracle there in the feeding of the 5,000 (6:30–44).

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.'”

Satan having suffered an initial defeat, Jesus now advances and takes the message public: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” (1:15).

Mark’s opening raises apocalyptic expectations to a fever pitch, first with the coming of Elijah, and now with these, Jesus’s first words. It sounds as if Jesus is predicting the imminent end of the world. Elsewhere, he seems to sound a similar refrain: “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power” ( 9:1). It’s not for nothing that many have rejected Christian faith on the grounds that Jesus and the earliest Christians were wrong about the End.

So, we need to unpack Jesus’s words here, as they may suggest to the reader that the End is at hand, but that’s not ultimately the case.

First, Jesus himself displays rank uncertainty about the End elsewhere in Mark’s Gospel: “But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (13:32).[1] In fact, as apocalyptic as it is, Mark’s Gospel discourages the seeking of signs of the End. The classic example is Jesus’s prediction of the destruction of the Temple in 13:2. The disciples assume that means the end of the world, so Jesus has to disabuse them of that. In 13:3–8, he warns them not to be led astray by what seem to be portents of the End, for “the end is not yet” (13:7). He also speaks of the necessity of speedy flight and its difficulties in 13:14–23 when the “desolating sacrilege” is erected—a reference to the destruction or desecration of the Temple (see Dan 11:31 and 12:11, as well as 1 Macc 1:54).

Jesus tells the four disciples (13:3) and readers with understanding (13:14) that the desolating sacrilege is the sign that it’s time to head for the hills: “Let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains” (13:14). Flight will need to be quick, so one should neither enter one’s house nor return first from the fields before running away (14:15–18). Now, if this is the end of the world, there’s nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide. But Jesus advises flight to the mountains, so the End is not here in view.

In Mark 13:1–23, Jesus is talking about the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem, not the end of the world. He’s telling his four disciples and Mark’s readers that the fight for Jerusalem is not their fight, that they don’t want to get caught between the Roman legions and the walls of Jerusalem or its Temple. By contrast, when the world ends, it will be obvious, and so there’s no need to look for obscure signs of the apocalypse: “But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory” (13:24–26). Then the angels will gather the chosen (13:27).

Jesus’s point is that the End will be obvious. Which is good, because no one knows when it will happen—not the angels, not the Son, only the Father (13:32). So, instead of seeking signs of the End, disciples are to be vigilant at all times, precisely because they do not know the time of the End: “Take heed, watch and pray; for you do not know when the time will come. . . . And what I say to you I say to all: Watch” (13:33, 37).

I sometimes ask my students: If you knew the precise date of the end of the world, what difference would it make? Would you engage in debauchery and licentiousness and go clubbing in Minneapolis until, say, a week before, get your house in order, and then meet Jesus? No, of course not. We live as Christians out of love for God and gratitude for salvation, and we live in certain hope that the End will one day come.

What of Mark 9:1, in which Jesus promises some hearing him would not taste death until the kingdom of God comes with power? Mark himself shows the fulfillment of Jesus’s words in the very next passage, the Transfiguration, in which Peter, James, and John witness Jesus blazing with Resurrection glory. There, they have seen the kingdom of God come with power.

Second, Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God being at hand. Jesus will describe the kingdom in parables in chapter 4, and three of the parables he employs are parables of growth: The Parable of the Sower (4:1–9, with its explanation in vv. 10–20), the Parable of the Growing Seed (4:26–29), and the Parable of the Mustard Seed (4:30–32). Now, parables of growth imply a longer horizon of steady development, and so the kingdom of God is something that comes steadily, slowly, and, someday, certainly. Parables of growth cut against the idea that Jesus thinks the kingdom he proclaims is imminent.

Third, Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God being at hand. Or does he? Translation is interpretation. You can’t translate something until you have a sense of the whole of its meaning in its original language. And so. in light of Jesus’s agnosticism toward the timing of the end of the world and the parables of growth, we can ask whether translations of Mark 1:15 that suggest Jesus proclaimed an imminent end of the world are correct.

The Greek word translated “at hand” is eggizō. It can mean “come near” or “draw near” in a spatial sense. In fact it’s used precisely that way in Mark 11:1 (“when they drew near to Jerusalem”) and 14:42 (“my betrayer is at hand,” when Judas comes with his mob to seize Jesus). And so, the kingdom is not so much imminent, but immanent; it’s a matter of space, not time.

The perfect tense Mark employs, ēggiken, “has come near,” reveals this. The kingdom is already here, already present. The kingdom has come near in Jesus Christ. It’s centered on him. It persists and grows through time in, with, and through the Church he founded. The last days aren’t in the future, but have already begun and remain now in the age of the Church. They began with Jesus’s life, death, and Resurrection, and will be completed at his Second Coming.

I find two analogies from C. S. Lewis many people are familiar with help them understand the biblical concept of the kingdom. The first is from his fiction, the liberation of Narnia in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.[2] Narnia is frozen over, dominated by the diabolical figure of the White Witch. But then Aslan goes “on the move,” and at the midpoint of the story, surrenders himself to her, enduring execution on the stone table. After tending to his corpse, the children later find the table cracked and encounter Aslan resurrected, returned to his full leonine glory. Then the liberation begins: the snows begin melting, spring begins advancing. Eventually there’s a great final battle in which the White Witch is slain. Glorious summer ensues, Aslan and his army having achieved Narnia’s liberation.

A nonfiction example is the invasion of Normandy and the conquest of Nazi Germany. Landing about 150,000 men on D-Day, the allies have almost one million soldiers in northern France by the end of June 1944. At that point, it’s a matter of math: with the Soviets pressing from the East and the allies now coming from the West, not even Albert Speer’s logistical genius could save the Reich. The war is over in principle with D-Day. But it still takes eleven long months of brutal warfare to reach Stunde Null, zero hour, on May 8, 1945, when the German High Command finally surrenders. Then the European war is over in fact.

So too, then, with the kingdom: Jesus’s Baptism in the Jordan launches the invasion, but the kingdom will grow steadily through the years of history, as Jesus in his Church continues to heal, to exorcise, to reconcile enemies to each other and men to God.

The kingdom’s presence in Jesus fits well the Markan theme of Jesus as the Son of God leading the Trinity in an apocalyptic holy war to liberate the cosmos, for the kingdom of God ultimately is God’s reign, where the cosmos is reconciled to Him. Where Jesus is present, there demons and disease flee. And so, the kingdom has its advent with Jesus, the coming one whom John the Baptist announced. The proper response is repentance, joining God’s army to be liberated, and once liberated, advancing the liberation of the whole cosmos, which, ultimately, is the content of the gospel Jesus calls us to believe in.

Liberation is coming. Join the resistance.

And passing along by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net in the sea; for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on a little farther, he saw James the son of Zeb′edee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets. And immediately he called them; and they left their father Zeb′edee in the boat with the hired servants, and followed him.

We now deal with the call of the first disciples in 1:16–20. Important context is provided in 1:14, however: first, there is mention of Galilee, Jesus’s home (see 1:9). Jesus returns there from the wilderness to launch his ministry, and the Gospel will have readers recall this passage when the young man at the empty tomb tells the women to go tell Jesus’s disciples to go to Galilee, where they will see Jesus—in effect, inviting them to return again to the beginning and begin the journey on the way of discipleship with Jesus all over again, to respond to Jesus’s call readily as the first disciples did.

Second, there’s the theme of threat in Mark 1:14. John’s arrest sounds an ominous note, suggesting dark things for John, as well as Jesus. It also subtly suggests the dangers of discipleship, as there’s a chain running from John to and through Jesus to the disciples. John has been arrested, a most serious matter in the ancient world, and so also might Jesus and those who follow him face such a threat.

And so Jesus invites others to join him in battle, calling two pairs of brothers on the shores of the Sea of Galilee (1:16–20). The scene is stylized, a verbal icon representing the ideals of discipleship. Jesus calls, and the disciples drop everything and go. They’ve never met Jesus and have no idea who he is, but they respond to his call immediately. All four leave their fishing gear and thus their livelihoods behind—and in the case of James and John, even their very father—to follow a stranger they have never met.

No one in real life acts like that, simply dropping everything, even one’s very father, to follow someone they have never once met. The shocking way Mark has portrayed the call of the first disciples is a verbal icon representing the heavenly truth of the situation: the presence of the kingdom in Jesus the divine Son of God demands decisive response. Jesus calls, you go. Now. It’s intense.

For many of us, fishing is a hobby—a hobby in which some have invested hundreds and indeed thousands of dollars. Were I to embark on such a major life change, I’d have a rummage sale and recoup some of that money and, of course, give it to the poor and provide for my family. And, for the two pairs of brothers, those nets are their livelihood in an age when people lived hand to mouth, where life was chiefly about survival.

The particular response of James and John (1:19–20) is even more striking. For Mark relates that they left their very father in the boat. The disciples are Jews, Asians, living in an age already marked by extreme filial piety backed among Jews by God in the Fourth Commandment.

In this verbal icon, Mark is portraying the radical response required by Jesus’s call: the presence of the kingdom in Jesus Christ demands decisive response. Jesus calls, you go. Immediately.

[1] Emphasis added.

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe(New York: HarperCollins, 2004; originally 1950).

Adapted from Loosing the Lion: Proclaiming the Gospel of Mark

Purchase Loosing the Lion at the St. Paul Center

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