Reconsider Jesus – A fresh look at Jesus from the Gospel of Mark
A devotional commentary by Michael Spencer
Compiled and Edited by: Michael Bell
Table of Contents
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, 15 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
We return to this important summary of the overall message of Jesus to look at the conditions for entering the Kingdom. We must prepare to grapple with the essence of what Jesus is telling every person who will listen. We cannot pretend to understand Christianity if these words do not have life-anchoring significance for us.
“Repent and believe the good news!”
The first condition is repentance. In Christian theology, repentance has two aspects. First, we must abandon our loyalty to whatever holds authority other than God. Second, we must turn and move in the direction of obedience to God.
Some misunderstand repentance as a perfect abandonment and an absolute obedience. In our fallen state, such is not possible for us. Therefore, the Bible tells us that repentance is also a continuing work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian.59 The call to repent continues in the life of every person who follows Jesus. We are to be serious and lifelong repenters as the Holy Spirit reveals more and more of those things that hold our hearts more than the love of God. This call is not simply to believe some short form outline of “How to get saved,” but is a reorienting and rebirth of life at fundamental levels.
It is not the gospel if we preach repentance without Jesus; it is not the gospel if we preach Jesus without repentance. Jesus was a preacher of repentance, much like the Old Testament prophets. To call to repent is to confront the deadly fact of sin and the absolute necessity of abandoning our loyalty to sin in all its aspects if we are true disciples. The message of repentance is not comfortable. It is only good news to the person who is affected by the convicting power of the Holy Spirit and sees the truth about his/her spiritual condition.60 Jesus doesn’t say to the racist, to the greedy person, to the abuser, or to the addict: “Keep going the way you are going and be saved.” Instead his call is to repent, turn from your sin, and go in a new and different direction. You are not saved by repentance, but you are never saved without it. Faith and repentance are joined together as one thing. Belief without repentance is not true, saving faith.
The importance of repentance is taught throughout the New Testament. In Jesus’ most famous parable, “The Prodigal Son”, repentance is a major theme.61 Jesus also condemned whole cities for not repenting.62 Peter’s first instruction on the day of Pentecost was “Repent!”63 Paul states that God’s kindness to undeserving sinners is what should lead us to a desire to repent.64
Some churches, in seeking to avoid being heavy-handed about requiring repentance, have discarded the requirement entirely. The surgical removal of this aspect of the Gospel message is serious! I would go as far as to say that any Gospel that does not clearly proclaim repentance is a false gospel worthy of condemnation.
So let me be very clear about this: One of the most spiritual destructive mindsets among Christians is that grace is so free and unconditional to sinners that repentance is not necessary. Christianity has been cursed and millions of Christians’ lives have been rendered empty and powerless because they have never been told in no uncertain terms that it is time to stop and go in a different direction. We have seen this distortion of Christianity preached by person after person on the national stage. Cheap grace. Cheap forgiveness without repentance. It is shameful, and Jesus wouldn’t recognize it. Jesus wouldn’t recognize a person that said my response to my sin is simply to blow it off and go do whatever I want. God is not calling us to sackcloth and ashes, though I’ll tell you what, in many of our lives a little sackcloth and ashes wouldn’t hurt us from time to time.
You can’t take hold of the salvation that Christ offers unless you let go of the wrong direction you are going. So Jesus echoes the message of John. John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin. Jesus calls us to recognize we are sinners at war with a holy God. We must stop, lay down our arms, throw up the white flag, and say I am through with that direction, and I am ready for a new one.
The second condition for entering the Kingdom is to believe the Good News. We discussed the Good News quite a bit in the previous chapter, but I think it is important to reiterate just what we are to believe. Notice the parallel between verse 1 and verse 14. Mark has told us that his entire book will be good news about Jesus the Son of God. Jesus is preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God. Is there a difference between the good news about Jesus and the good news of Jesus? I do believe many Christians excuse themselves from dealing with the message Jesus preached because they think believing in Jesus is sufficient. Mark would not understand such a distortion. For him, there is no separation between the message of Jesus and the person of the Savior. In the mind of the inspired author they are the same. Now that the Messiah has arrived, the Good News becomes the announcement of not just what God is doing but through whom all is being done.
The Good News is the message of Jesus and the message about Jesus. It includes the arrival of the Kingdom, but also contains the cross of Christ, his empty tomb, his current reign and his future return. This is not Good News to those who live as God’s enemies, but it is the greatest news to those who are ready to lay down the weapons of rebellion and surrender to the one, true and only King.
So what does Mark mean by belief? The New Testament uses a word for belief that cannot be reduced to the sort of belief so common today. Modern vocabulary has given belief the connotation of a personal opinion that one adheres to for reasons entirely of your own. Have you ever heard someone say “You mean all I have to do is believe in Jesus in order to go to heaven?” Such a question shows the modern definition of belief as a sort of optional, minimal assent to a proposition that may have nothing whatsoever to do with truth. We “believe” in politicians, sports teams and UFOs.
I want to assure you that this is absolutely not what Jesus means. New Testament belief has more in common with the sort of belief we associate with life commitment. Marriage is the best example. The persons giving their lives to one another “believe in” the other person with a totality of their being, their future and their possessions. This is the sort of belief expressed by the person who chooses to jump out of a plane with only a parachute between himself and death. Jesus is asking, in short, for a life-altering, life-anchoring bet on the truth of who he is.
Understanding this as simply “a point in time action with continuing effects into the future” is probably misconstruing the meaning of belief. Belief in Jesus that does not continue is not true belief. Perseverance is one of the characteristics of true faith.65 Faith may be a long and winding journey with many peaks, valleys and seasons of more and less fruitfulness, but genuine faith continues to believe in Jesus and to seek to follow him. The Bible offers no comfort to the person who once believed but does so no longer.
Does this belief differ from that expressed in John 3:16? Not really. The “Eternal life” that is spoken of in John is the life of God that is available beginning in the present. As such, it is John’s version of saying “The Kingdom of God is upon you.” In passages like this, where Jesus seems to be inviting decision, he is in reality inviting a reordering of life based on recognition of the Kingdom of God and recognizing the Messiah as God with us. N.T. Wright has rightly pointed out that this is a proclamation telling us about a whole new world.66 Our response to it truly amounts to either entering, or refusing to enter, a “new creation”. For the person who accepts the Bible as authoritative, this is why we need both John and the Synoptics. In their quite different approaches to Jesus, they present the whole picture, which will not allow any separation between belief in Jesus and following the message of the Kingdom.
Repentance and belief must go hand in hand. So, when someone asks me what they must do to go to heaven, I give an honest answer: Admit your sin, repent and surrender all you know of yourself to all you know of Jesus.
Oops. The following paragraph was accidentally copied from the previous post.
Understand Jesus Christ in the fullness of the Gospel presentation: mediator, kingdom-bringer, reconciler, teacher, Lord, discipler… and you will have understood all the “good news.”
 See for example 2 Timothy 2:25
 Luke 5:32; 2 Cor. 7:9-10
 Luke 15:11-32
 Matthew 11:20
 Acts 2:38
 Romans 2:4
 Matthew 10:22; 24:13
 N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, HarperCollins, 2008.
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23 thoughts on “Reconsider Jesus – The Response (Mark 1:14-15)”
Too much concern for establishing and enforcing criteria that distinguish who is “in” from who is “out” is one of the hallmarks of bad religion. At its worst, it leads to cultism, but in its less extreme forms it is still unlovely, ungracious, and unhealthy, both psychologically and socially. And it always seems, to one degree or another, to try to separate the wheat from the tares, to make the church a narrow community of the pure rather than the wide ark of salvation in which sinner and saint travel together until God himself sees fit to make whatever separation may be necessary.
Question: Let’s say Barclay is largely right, something I’m not sure of, but my question is premised on that assumption: How does one know, or how would others know, in ancient times or the present day, that one is loyal to Jesus? What is the “loyalty test”? A set of rules, as given for instance in the teachings of Jesus? Obedience to one of the forms of the institutional Church, its rules and teachings? How is it clear that one is in rather than out?
>But, this was the world in which Paul’s churches lived. The patron-client relationship was ubiquitous and everybody was one or the other, usually both.
But, however it may be with regard to Paul, the patron-client relationship does not seem to encompass or exhaust everything that Jesus himself was about in his relationship to his disciples and the wider world, even though he lived in the same world as Paul’s churches. He sometimes uses language drawn from that mode of relationship, but you can feel his language pushing against the limits here even as it does in other areas. Jesus was “contextualizing the message”, as you said of Paul, but he was also pushing it so hard that it at times cracks open onto new and even disturbing vistas of meaning — “Let the dead bury their dead.”
Hmm…. so repentance is a bit of “whoever is not with me is against me”…? Not sure about that, if that’s an interpretation.
My own thoughts are:
Maybe repentance in a more macro sense is an acknowledgment that “I am broken and separated from God, and I need to acknowledge the need for something to change that brokenness and separation.”
Robert, I agree to a degree. Barclay outlines 6 ‘perfections’ of grace that various theologians have emphasized throughout history (a taxonomy derived from Derrida). He argues that later understandings of ‘grace’, from different cultures, including our own, color our reading of Paul, going back as far as Marcion and Augustine He contrasts Paul’s understanding with ancient authors, and spends much time (several hundred pages) contrasting it with Jewish sources who talk of ‘grace’. Barclay notes that Paul’s emphasis is on the ‘incongruity’ of grace – something that was foreign to Jewish sources (grace was given, usually in the end, to the faithful Jew, but not to Gentiles or reprobate Jews), and secular sources (gifts were given to those who would use them wisely and reciprocate, often to those who could reciprocate and not to those who couldn’t). Paul is unique (at least among first-century Jews) in his emphasis on incongruity. However, he does hold to other ideas that were common in first-century culture – reciprocity (rejecting ‘non-circularity’) and superabundance – the gift is extravagant. He rejects others (e.g. ‘singularity’ – the idea that God ALWAYS acts in grace – Paul does not appear to follow this. according to Barclay), and says little about others (‘efficacy’ – the idea that grace always accomplishes its purposes), and ‘priority’ (God does act first, but God does not decide).
But, this was the world in which Paul’s churches lived. The patron-client relationship was ubiquitous and everybody was one or the other, usually both. They would naturally have understood these terms (grace, faith) in light of these relationships. Everyone used those terms and the ideas were the air they breathed (even in Palestinian Jewish culture, as reflected in the gospels). What Paul seems to do is re-orient the ideas slightly and emphasizes the ones he thinks fit. Kind of like Jesus does with the ‘Kingdom’ idea. Jews had specific ideas about God’s coming Kingdom but Jesus takes those ideas and re-orients them in a different direction (cf. George Eldon Ladd). Perhaps Paul is, in a sense, ‘contextualizing’ the message – his churches are familiar with these ideas so he uses them as points of contact to explain something that is really beyond explanation. Perhaps they are metaphors, and as you know, metaphors, like analogies, only go so far.
I think that as the church evolved, and the culture became ‘Christian’ after Constantine, the terms took on religious and theological significance. Just as ideas like ‘Kingdom’ and terms like ‘repentance’ are rare in Paul’s writing (and ‘disciple’ doesn’t appear anywhere but the gospels and Acts), because Christianity moved from its earliest roots (Judaism) into the Gentile world (different metaphors, terms, connotations of terms), the church lost touch with the original ideas (perhaps metaphors) and the ideas evolved.
Some would argue that this is an example of ‘corruption’ but I think it says much about how God intended the faith to be somewhat dynamic. All the questions weren’t answered by the end of the first century, and some of them weren’t even thought of by then! The New Testament forms a foundation, but I don’t think it is the ‘set in stone’ model for the faith. So it’s natural that questions like the Trinity would come along at some point. It probably wasn’t that important for first-century Christians but it became important later.
Do you think it is necessarily true that Paul’s theology of grace was trapped in the patronage practices and understandings of the cultures of his time? I don’t see that that’s necessarily the case. Paul’s thinking seems to have transcended the limitations of his time and people, as well as the the limitations of the ancient world in general. If you say that is impossible, then it would have been equally impossible for something such as the language and understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity to have developed in the church from the God-talk of the Jewish people and the god-talk of the Greeks and Romans.
And what if one chooses to be on Jesus’ side, and then not only fails to live up to the commitment, but backs away from it, giving up for whatever period of time? Is there a second chance, a third, a fourth, is there a limit to the number of chances given? If there is no limit, if you get to make that choice to be on Jesus’ side again and again after really failing and backing off from it over and over, then we are still talking about grace being the end and the beginning and the end and the beginning and the end and the beginning of the Christian life, not repentance. But if not, if there is a limit, then I need to find another Lord and savior, because I can’t cut the mustard with Jesus.
repentance does include some commitment NOT to return to places and people that involve temptation that led to trouble in the first place;
so that life-style change MIGHT offer some support for a better way forward
in the end, are we not wounded and weakened by those wounds and sometimes we don’t even KNOW why we do what we do, but God does and that makes the difference that allows for mercy
But it WAS happening in Jesus’ day and his call was to his contemporaries. In that sense is was a call to Israel (as Wright notes) but by extension it is a call to all who hear the message today, since the Kingdom was inaugurated by Jesus, in his day. The Kingdom is not a future thing (like some Dispensationalists believe), though its consummation is future. It is a present reality, and that calls for people today to make that same ‘eschatological’ choice – which side am I on?
I’m not arguing against the need for daily (sometimes more!) repentance and confession. I’m just saying that is not the ‘repentance’ Jesus is calling for here. His arrival brought a ‘crisis’ and that crisis calls for a response from us today as well as it is from Zacchaeus, Peter, and the ‘rich young ruler’.
But as long as that eschaton hasn’t immenentized yet in our time, there’s still a daily process involved.
Repentance does not require the prerequisite of sin:
Repentance is not, at its root, sin management.
I know that in my own life calls to repentance have little vigor, little power to move my own stony heart. Engaging even moderates here leads usually to binges of reading Ezra Pound, listening to Doom Metal or Wagner, and daydreaming about a well-ordered world where everyone Knows Their Place and Does What They Should. It is contact with penitents, not scolding, that changes that, even marginally.
But again, I think this is a misunderstanding of ‘repentance’ in this context. As N. T. Wright has said (‘Jesus and the Victory of God’) this is a call to an ‘eschatological repentance’ in light of the announcement of the impending Kingdom. It is not a call to ‘repent’ after every sin; it is a call to ‘pick a side’ in light of the coming of God’s Kingdom. Jesus, as Wright says, is establishing/inaugurating a ‘reconstituted Israel’ (made up of the ‘remnant’ who ‘repent’ [Is 10 – v. 21 is a pun ‘only a remnant will return’ is the same wording as ‘only a remnant will repent’]), and Jesus’ first-century Jewish hearers would hear the echo of Isaiah and recognize the implications. It’s an announcement that the promises of the prophets are being fulfilled and the prophets (like Isaiah) and that calls for a response. It’s a call to a new allegiance, one that challenges all previous allegiances to family, ethnicity, and religion, even Torah (Matt 5 – ‘but I say to you’).
“The message still remains transactional and individual, though: if we personally repent (however defined) and believe (however defined) we personally get as a reward from God our ticket for this place out there somewhere which is called “the kingdom” (whatever that means).”
Yes, this is often how it is seen. And that ‘transaction’ often becomes a ‘contract’ that guarantees the promised reward – fire insurance.
I like Michael’s emphasis on repentances as a matter of loyalties. I think this idea gets us closer to what Jesus meant, though I’m still trying to piece it all together (I used to know a lot more than I do now). I wrote my master’s thesis in seminary (222 pages of boring bedtime reading) about Jesus’ calls to repentance. I traced the terms and ideas from the OT (primarily the prophets, where ‘shuv’ originally meant a ‘return to the covenant/law’), through the intertestamental literature, and into John and Jesus’ preaching. Based on that I concluded that ‘repentance’ (Greek ‘metanoia’) had a different connotation to first-century Jews than it did in secular Greek. In secular Greek contexts it denoted more of a ‘change of mind’, which, incidentally, was not something that honorable people did (which might indicate why Paul used the term sparingly). In the first-century Jewish context it carried the idea of a ‘change of allegiances’ and was closely associated with proselyte conversion (e.g. Joseph and Aseneth, as well as Qumran literature). I found it interesting that John, and Jesus himself, addressed Jewish listeners with language calling them to ‘convert’ (as Jews did when addressing Gentiles) – perhaps that’s why they got such opposition (e.g. John saying ‘don’t say we have Abraham as our father . . .’). Proselyte conversion (and in the Qumran community) involved an ‘oath’ pledging one’s allegiance to Torah, and to the people of Israel (one ‘cast his lot’, so to speak, with Israel).
The other part I think we misunderstand is ‘grace’, and thus the meaning of ‘faith’. John M. G. Barclay (Durham University) wrote a book called ‘Paul and the Gift’, in which he argues that ‘we’ import moderns ideas of ‘grace’ into ancient contexts and thus misunderstand how Paul uses the term, and how his audiences would have understood his message. Moderns (even back to Luther’s time) see ‘grace’ in altruistic terms – the ‘unconditional’ gift, often given anonymously. He notes that in the ancient world ‘grace’ (‘gift’) was never seen as an unconditional, non-reciprocal, ‘unmerited’ gift. It was always understood to involve reciprocity; it establishes a relationship, with obligations. Gifts were normally given to those who could be trusted to value the gift, and to reciprocate. His book is 670 pages long so I won’t go into detail. But his basic argument is that Paul emphasizes the ‘incongruity’ of the gift – that is the fact that God gives his ‘gift’ to those who are not worthy (in contrast to Jewish beliefs that God gives grace to those worthy of it [i.e., faithful Jews]).
The point of that is to note two things. First, ‘grace’, while given freely to those unworthy, always carries obligation – the idea of ‘non-reciprocity’ is not found in Paul (according to Barclay). Second, gifts were often associated with the patron-client relationship. When a patron gave ‘grace’ (‘gift’) to a client, a relationship was established between them. In that relationship the most important thing expected of the client was loyalty. The Greek words used in these contexts are interesting. The ‘gift’ is ‘charis’ (translated in the NT as ‘grace’). The response, loyalty (Latin ‘fides’) is ‘pistis’, most often translated in the NT as ‘faith’. (I might also note that this relationship was often established with an introduction by a broker, Greek ‘parakletos’ – cf. 1 John 2:1.)
David deSliva, in his book ‘Honor, Patronage, Kinship, & Purity’, argues that the early Christians would have understood themselves to have become clients of the ultimate patron – God. Their ‘introduction’ was through Jesus (the ‘parakletos’). Since they had received God’s gift – life, and Jesus himself – their response was ‘faithfulness’ (Gk ‘pistis’) – loyalty. (It is also interesting to note that these terms – ‘grace’ and ‘faith’ were not religious terms – they were common terms associated with social relationships. They became religious terms as Christianity developed and moved away from its ancient cultural context.)
I think that if we understand these ideas as the ancients did it casts the whole issue of ‘repentance’, ‘faith’, and ‘grace’ in a different light. Rather than seeing it as God demanding that we turn from our sin and believe in Jesus to receive his grace, and thus avoid fire and brimstone (transactional), we should see it as God offering his gift – life, Kingdom, Jesus – to us and our response to that gift is appreciation and loyalty, faithfulness. ‘Faith’ is not the key that unlocks the door so God can give us his grace but ‘faithfulness’ is the natural response to a gift freely given to unworthy recipients. Yes we often need to renew our allegiance to God, as our allegiances can often become conflicted (Matt. 6:24), but I think Jesus words become much more less of a ‘demand’ (and thus less transactional) when we see them as an invitation to become part of God’s Kingdom, where things are done differently, with a different value system. When we see that as a ‘gift’, and see the value of God’s Kingdom, and that way of living (Matt. 13:44-46), one’s allegiance to God and his Kingdom will be manifested as we live out those values.
The problem with repentance for we humans is that it is a “lather, rinse, repeat” situation. Sure, I can repent of (insert your choice of sin here) today, but guess what? In three day, I’ll probably have to do it again.
Grace, on the other hand, is not a “lather, rinse, repeat” situation. It is freely bestowed, it is freely given.
Thus, it all begins with grace. It is nothing but grace through and through. And it all ends with grace.
And I’ll never believe His grace is cheap, regardless of my “lather, rinse, repeat” repentance. It cost God His son.
“For him, there is no separation between the message of Jesus and the person of the Savior. In the mind of the inspired author they are the same.”
sounds like what Joan of Arc said, when questioned by the bishops before she was burned at the stake for a heretic:
“About Jesus and the Church, I simply know they are just one thing, and we shouldn’t complicate the matter.”
I’ve probably phrased that badly: I was trying to fit the general idea of the world being made ready for the kingdom into Jesus’s specific call to repent. The kingdom is not yet fully here: God is holding off its final coming. It’s repeated in several places that before the kingdom comes the good news must be preached to all nations, and the conversion of all the nations back to God is a repeated part in the OT and NT descriptions of God’s final kingdom on earth. Once you get away from the idea it’s all about individuals “accepting Christ as their personal saviour” it seems to me fairly clear that the purpose of Jesus’s ministry, and the church and its mission is to bring the world / nations as a whole back to God (Paul is explicit about this in Romans 9-12) and the end will come when they are brought back,.which, (as Paul says in Romans) will indeed happen.
Maybe you are right – I’ve probably put that badly: I am not suggesting that we have to earn the kingdom and all be holy enough for it to come. It’s still the case, however, that God is holding off on the final coming of the Kingdom, and unless we reckon God is just having trouble getting out of bed in the morning, or is taking a short vacation, it must be being held off for our own benefit until the time is right. Jesus is pretty explicit that without collective repentance the coming of the kingdom will be bad, not good, as God’s coming in power was a disaster for Israel in the 1st Century because the Jerusalem quisling administration hadn’t repented and they weren’t ready for it: the Romans massacred everyone and the temple was destroyed.
Iain, what do you mean that we have to collectively repent for the kingdom to come at all, and where do you find that in Scripture?
“we collectively have to repent so that the kingdom can come at all”
No, that is the mistake that the Pharisees made – that Israel had to be collectively holy for Messiah to come. But that’s not how it works. Jesus’parables are full of warnings to those who ARE NOT ready when the Kingdom comes. It’s coming, ready or not. The wise will be prepared.
The message still remains transactional and individual, though: if we personally repent (however defined) and believe (however defined) we personally get as a reward from God our ticket for this place out there somewhere which is called “the kingdom” (whatever that means).
However, the movement of the kingdom in the Bible is always in the other direction: the kingdom is said to be coming down from God to us here. The repentance is surely in preparation for the arrival of the kingdom, not a condition or entry qualification as such. This means it is a collective repentance first and foremost, and we collectively have to repent so that the kingdom can come at all, but is also an individual repentance because the kingdom will “cast down the mighty from their thrones” and “send the rich empty away”, so you don’t want you yourself to be the rich and mighty, orthe oppressor, or the one who does not forgive, or isn’t ready or won’t put in their party clothes and join in the party when it turns up.
This avoids to my mind what is something of a stretch as to what the “believing” is about which is made necessary if you make “belief” another and separate entry qualification to repentance. If the “good news” is the coming of the kingdom then belief that the kingdom is coming is not something you have to do as an entry requirement for it, but the reason why you would repent in preparation for its coming.
Even though the message doesn’t espouse “cheap grace”, grace is still a HUGE part of the message. Though we are called to repent, and repentance can be a bitter pill (without grace), repentance is made bearable by 1) the understanding of the rest of the good news (that we are children of God and that nothing can separate us from Him, that we can’t serve two masters so we have to give one up, that all you need is love, that love is our real nature…) and 2) the grace received from Jesus in a relationship with Him (my burden is light).
So, yes repentance is key, but grace makes the impossible possible.