Beginning of Good News

Purpose within the continuity of the gospel mission

Flyer on lightpost saying Good News Is Coming
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

December 31, 2023

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Commentary on Mark 1:1-20

The gospel message is central to understanding the continuity between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, but its meaning was not always clear in antiquity. Mark had to introduce readers to who Jesus was and how he fit within Jewish prophecy and history. His message, actions, and mission were often misunderstood by his disciples and opponents. Some of the confusion that ancient readers had persists today. The opening chapter of Mark aims to clarify and validate how Jesus was the Son of God and Israel’s promised Messiah. Some questions that Mark seeks to answer include:

  • What was John’s role in Jesus’ ministry?
  • What did Jesus’ baptism convey about his identity and function?
  • What was the “good news” that Jesus proclaimed?

Mark’s gospel

The first verse in Mark raises questions about content and identity. What was meant by “good news,” and what did it mean that Jesus was the Son of God?1 In this verse, Jesus’ life, proclamation, teaching, crucifixion, and resurrection are what made the message “good news” for the reader. Although the “good news” refers to Jesus in the opening verse, it also points to God’s kingdom.

John the Baptist and the gospel

John’s introduction situates the interpretation of Jesus’ earthly ministry within early Judaism. John is a minor character, but his function and message are substantial. Mark uses Isaiah to illustrate John’s function. Mark reinterprets Isaiah by having John prepare the way of Jesus instead of Yahweh (Isaiah 40:3). John also evokes Elijah, who was expected to return before the Day of the Lord (Malachi 4:5–6).2 In the Synoptic Gospels, John wears hairy clothing and a leather belt like Elijah (2 Kings 1:8; Mark 1:6); baptizes near the Jordan River, where Elijah was taken up to heaven (2 Kings 2:6–11); and is also a prophet. Interestingly, John denies being Elijah in the Gospel of John (1:19–23). His baptism and message of repentance and forgiveness of sins were precursors to Jesus’ message.3

Jesus’ baptism

John’s message about the Day of the Lord, repentance, and forgiveness of sins is the context for Jesus’ baptism. The torn heavens and the Spirit’s descent denote divine selection and empowerment. The Spirit’s descent “like a dove” conjures imagery of Noah sending one out after the flood as a sign of safety and Leviticus’ turtle doves as sacrificial sin offerings (Genesis 8:8–12; Leviticus 5:7; 12:6).4 Both conceptions of the dove could symbolize Jesus’ sacrifice for sin and the peace it brings to the believer (Mark 10:45; John 14:27).5

The heavenly voice also confirms Jesus’ identity: “You are my son” may be a quotation of Psalm 2:7, which designates the figure as Yahweh’s son and his “anointed” (messiah). “With you I am well pleased” echoes Isaiah 42:1 with inexact wording. If it is a quotation, then it adds to Jesus’ identity as Yahweh’s servant and chosen one, along with having his spirit (42:1–4).6 The voice from heaven is also referred to in Hebrew as the bat qol (“daughter voice”) in rabbinic tradition. According to later rabbinic sources, the bat qol spoke from heaven to express God’s will to humanity. The bat qol, for instance, spoke to announce the death of Moses and praised a mother of seven sons after they were martyred.7 The voice from heaven also speaks in other places to confirm Jesus’ identity and authority, such as the transfiguration episode (Mark 9:7; John 12:28). Interestingly, 2 Peter 1:17 refers to the heavenly voice at Jesus’ baptism as the “Majestic Glory.”

Jesus’ temptation

Verses 12–13 present a concise version of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.8 The Spirit driving him out recalls figures, such as Ezekiel and Philip, who were transported by the Spirit to different places (Ezekiel 8:3; 11:1; Acts 8:39–40). Why Jesus needed to endure temptation, however, is not explained.

Cities, with their temples and enclosed gates, were safe and sacred spaces under the protection of patron deities. Outside the sanctity of the city was the “wilderness” or “desert” where wild animals and malicious spirits roamed (Matthew 12:43; Luke 8:29). Jesus in the wilderness might reflect Israel’s faith being tested by Yahweh for 40 years or Moses’ 40 days on Mount Sinai with Yahweh (Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 8:2).

The desert was also a place to receive guidance and revelation at critical junctures. Jesus, for instance, is depicted as frequently retreating to “desert” places for prayer (Mark 1:35; Luke 5:16). The angels “ministering” to Jesus may recall Psalm 91:11–12, which mentions angelic protection against physical harm. Jesus is also assisted by an angel at the garden of Gethsemane just before his crucifixion (Luke 22:43).

Good news of the kingdom

Verses 14–15 help to contextualize John’s and Jesus’ message and ministry. Both verses require an understanding of John’s proclamation, which had its foundation in the biblical concept of the “Day of the Lord” (Isaiah 61:1–4; Joel 2–3). For John and Jesus, the “good news” was about the coming of the kingdom of God, which was synonymous with the Day of the Lord. The content of the message included God’s intervening in human history to judge the nations; forgiveness of sins and salvation to those who repented; and the restoration of Judah and Jerusalem. The gospel message later emphasized the central role of Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah of the restored kingdom (Luke 4:16–21; Acts 1:6).

The connection between the Day of the Lord (Yahweh) and Jesus’ return became so intertwined that it was sometimes referred to as the “Day of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:8; 5:5). Belief in this gospel initially implied Torah faithfulness and later included trust in Jesus’ teachings as God’s anointed messenger.

The first disciples

The initial steps of Jesus’ public ministry are narrated in verses 16–17 and introduce the first disciples who would spread the good news of the coming of the kingdom of God. The reasons behind their selection and reaction are not elaborated. Their introduction sets the stage for Jesus’ “inner circle.” Their traditional names (Simeon, Jacob, Johanan, and Andrew) indicate that they were Judean men. They eventually develop from fishermen to central characters in church history. James and John are named “sons of thunder” by Jesus (Mark 3:17); James the son of Zebedee becomes the first martyred apostle (Acts 12:2); Simon Peter becomes a leader of the Jerusalem church (Acts 15:7); and two of the four, Simon Peter (Cephas) and John, become known as “pillars” of the church to apostle Paul (Galatians 2:9).9

Reading the events of Jesus’ ministry in light of the gospel message gives the reader a framework to better interpret his words and actions. Connecting his identity and proclamation to the wider historical landscape also helps the modern reader to find their purpose within the continuity of the gospel mission.


  1. “Gospel” and “good news” are translations of the Greek word euaggelion and are synonymous.
  2. Elijah (“My God is Yah”) was famous for upstaging Jezebel and the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:20–40), for performing miracles (1 Kings 17:1; 2 Kings 1:10), and for not dying but being carried into heaven in a whirlwind on a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2:11). Jesus even describes John as the Elijah who was to come (Matthew 11:1–14).
  3. Josephus describes John’s baptism as a purification ritual for the body, instead of for forgiveness of sins (Ant. 18:116–117). A further elaboration of John’s message, which shows its similarities to Jesus’ later preaching, is found in Luke 3:10–14.
  4. The Septuagint (LXX) uses the Greek word peristera for Noah’s dove and the sacrificial turtle doves in Leviticus, which is the same word to describe Mark’s dove descending on Jesus.
  5. The Holy Spirit is also connected with the imagery of a dove in the Babylonian Talmud’s tractate Hagigah 15A and the Aramaic Targum version of Song of Songs 2:12. In Hagigah, the Holy Spirit hovers over the waters like a dove, and in Song of Songs, the voice of a dove is interpreted as the Holy Spirit; for the full discussion, see Adela Yarbro Collins and Harold W. Attridge, Mark: A Commentary, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2007), 146–149.
  6. Isaiah 42:1 is applied to Jesus in Matthew 17:5.
  7. Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sotah 13b and Gittin 57b.
  8. For the longer detailed accounts, see Matthew 4:1–11 and Luke 4:1–13.
  9. Boanerges is a Greek transliteration of an Aramaic word that means “sons of thunder.”


Heavenly God, when Jesus was baptized by John in the wilderness, you claimed him as your son. Claim us as your children, inheritors of your glorious kingdom. Amen.


Cold December flies way   ELW 299, UMH 223
Lord Christ, when first you came to earth   ELW 727, H82 598
Take Me To the Water   ACS 957, GG 480, NCH 322, TFF 117
You Have Come Down to the Lakeshore   ELW 817, GG 721, NCH 173, UMH 344, TFF 154


Nunc dimittis, Robert Scholz