The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,
“Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way,
the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,”
John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:1–8)
If you were writing a Gospel, I wonder if you would have started in the same way Mark did? When Luke and Matthew sat down to begin their task, they began with giving Jesus’ genealogy. You can easily see why: people will wonder who this Jesus is and where he came from. Set out his family tree, and you answer some of those questions. You can point out his lineage from the tribe of Judah, in fact from King David himself. You set the scene.
John went one further and began with “in the beginning”. Rather than focussing on Jesus’ human lineage, he began with his divine credentials. Right at the outset John gives us an insider’s view of Jesus. From the beginning we know who Jesus is, and we read the Gospel like an insider.
Both these approaches make sense, so why did Mark begin with Isaiah the prophet?
In reality, Mark is doing the same sort of thing we see in the other Gospels. He is starting by putting Jesus into a bigger picture. He is giving us an essential background. While the other Gospel authors start with Jesus identity - who is he? - Mark begins with Jesus purpose - what has he come to do? In fact, this is one of the themes of Mark’s Gospel: we know Jesus is God because he does the things that only God can do.
Mark therefore begins in Isaiah, setting the scene for Jesus. He’s zooming out the camera so that we can get the full context. He wants to start with John the Baptist (because he was the one who prepared the way for Jesus), but he also wants us to understand the significance of John the Baptist. This is not simply a random happening, but something which has been set up generations before. Isaiah predicts, and many centuries later John the Baptist fulfils. Such is the timescale of God.
This is an important principle, as it stops us making a costly mistake. To understand Jesus best, we must place him within the context of the Old Testament. We must understand that throughout the Old Testament the plan of God is unfolding, and is progressing. The Old Testament is setting us up for Jesus, giving us a way to understand what he is doing. It is a “pre-enactment”of Christ.
To put it simply: Jesus is not a Plan B, but the fulfilment of Plan A.
This means we have to change our perspective and look to the Old Testament as giving us images of Jesus. For example, the sacrificial system of the ancient Temple with its slaughtering of animals to gain forgiveness is an image of Jesus’ death. King David, the shepherd who became a monarch and was a “man after God’s own heart”, is an image of Jesus. The “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53 shows us Jesus, as does the one born of a virgin in Isaiah 7:14.
Like Moses on Mount Sinai, Jesus preaches a sermon on the Mount. Like the column of cloud and fire, he leads his people out of bondage into freedom. Like the Temple itself, he is the meeting place of human and divine and the source of forgiveness. He is the fulfilment of Plan A. A plan reaching from eternity to eternity.
This is why Mark begins in Isaiah, it helps to understand that Jesus is part of a bigger picture and not simply a new start. As Jesus himself put it: “all the things that are written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44).
There is a danger with Christmas, a danger of cosy familiarity. The remarkable becomes well-known, and the extra-ordinary becomes humdrum. Rather than a grand, unfolding purpose of God which stretches over millennia, the focus is too tightly on stables, shepherds and kings. In the manger we see an infant, but we fail to notice God.
Let me make a plea this Christmas. It’s not the first time I’ve made it, and I’m sure you’ll grow weary of it over the years. Nevertheless, here it is: please zoom out this Christmas! Here is the day to gladden the hearts of those Prophets, Priests and Kings of the Old Testament, the day when there hopes are fulfilled and their words come to pass!
Here is the day spoken of by old Isaiah, the day when a boy would be born of a virgin. One who would be called “mighty God”.
Here is the day Micah foresaw, when Messiah was born in Bethlehem!
Here King David sees one of his kingly line who will rule forever, one prophesied by Jeremiah.
Back in the Book of Numbers, Balaam prophesied: “a star shall come out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel” and here that star rises, bringing wise men to the king of kings.
In Psalm 72 Solomon prayed: “May the kings of Tarshish and of the coastlands render him tribute;may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him”! Here he sees his prayer answered, one thousand years on.
As you see and adore that child - that small, powerless child - you gaze upon the “Word made flesh”. The Word who “was God”.
That’s why Mark began with a quote from Isaiah. He wants you to think big!