The good news centers on Jesus the Messiah, who shows himself to be the Son of God by inaugurating God’s kingdom age. He is declared as such first by Old Testament prophecy and then by the wilderness voice, his forerunner John the Baptist.
Key Themes of Mark 1:1–8
This passage is the “prologue” to Mark (cf. John 1:1–18), and the purpose is to inform the reader about the primary truths in the book, especially the identification of Jesus. In the rest of the book we will see the primary groups (disciples, crowds, leaders, demons) wrestle with the truths that we, the readers, know from this prologue: Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God who has come to bring God’s final kingdom to reality and fulfill all the hopes of the Old Testament. By centering the action on John the Baptist as the forerunner and on Satan as the primary opponent, Mark also introduces us to the conflict and polar oppositions occasioned by Jesus. The passage is framed by Jesus’s Son of God status, stated at the outset (1:1) and confirmed by the very voice of God (1:11).
This prologue is framed (introduction, vv. 1–3; conclusion, vv. 14–15) with the gospel, the arrival of God’s kingdom with Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. There are three intersecting main sections: John, who via baptism announces the need for repentance and forgiveness; the baptism of Jesus, which launches the new age of the Spirit; and Jesus’s defeat of Satan in the wilderness.
1:1 The beginning of the good news. This can refer to the opening of this prologue alone or to the start of Mark’s Gospel as a whole. Since this verse is a proper heading for the whole book, the latter is the primary thrust. Mark tells us what he wants us to conclude after reading his Gospel. In fact, as the first writer, Mark has in a real sense invented the genre of “gospel,” from a Greek term that in its verbal form (euangelizomai) means “to proclaim, inform” and as a noun (euangelion) is used often in both the Greek translation of the Old Testament and the Hellenistic world for “a good report” (e.g., the birth of an emperor) or “news of victory.” In the New Testament it also describes the “good news” or “joyous message” of God’s intervention in a sinful world by sending his Son to bring salvation to humankind.
about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. The TNIV places “Son of God” in a footnote because it is missing in a couple of ancient manuscripts; however, it is found in the vast majority and may have been simply passed over by a couple of copyists (so the new NIV  restored it). The Greek has “gospel of Jesus,” most likely an objective genitive best translated as here “about Jesus.” The two titles sum up the primary christological emphasis in Mark: Jesus (whose Hebrew name, “Yehoshua,” means “Yahweh is salvation”) is both the Messiah (though in the Greek text it occurs without the article, it is certainly a title) and the Son of God (see the sidebar). As the Messiah, Jesus fulfills the promise of a final Davidic ruler as well as the Isaianic Suffering Servant who will become king by giving himself as the sacrifice for us on the cross. As the Son of God, he is defined by his unique sonship (eight times in Mark), with God as his Father (four times in Mark).
Jesus as Messiah and Son of God
Messiah. The idea of a messiah (Heb. “anointed one”) began with the expectation of a restored Davidic monarchy centered on a figure who would fulfill the hope of an eternal Davidic king (see Ps. 110:1; Isa. 7:14; 9:1–6; 11:1; Jer. 33:14–26; Ezek. 17:22–24; Mic. 5:1–4; Zech. 9:9–10). At times this took the form of two messiahs (a royal “messiah of Israel” and a priestly “messiah of Aaron” at Qumran [1QS 9:9–11; CD-A 12:22–23]), but mainly the expectations centered on a divinely sent conqueror who would defeat the enemies of Israel and return the nation to the glory days of David (1 En. 39:6; 46:1–3; 48:8–10; 4 Ezra 7:26–44; Pss. Sol. 17:21–45). Jesus fulfilled this role as royal messiah, but in his first advent he came as Suffering Servant (Isa. 52–53; cf. Mark 8:31; 9:30–31; 10:32–34). The throne whereupon Jesus becomes Davidic Messiah is the cross, and he enters his glory (Mark 12:35–37) not just at the resurrection but also at his sacrificial death “for many” (10:45; 14:24). He will be the conquering king at his second coming (13:24–27; 14:62).
Son of God. All four Gospels describe Jesus in terms of divine sonship, and this is a major theme in Mark. In the Old Testament the phrase/concept “son of God” is used of angels (Gen. 6:2; Dan. 3:25), Israel (Exod. 4:22–23; Mal. 2:10), and the king (2 Sam. 7:14; Ps. 2:7), with all specifying a unique relationship to God. In the Old Testament and Judaism in general the title was rarely used of the coming Messiah, though it is anchored in 2 Samuel 7:14; Psalms 2:7; 89:26–27 and was utilized this way at Qumran (4Q174 1:10–14; 4Q246). For Jesus and the early church it was a key designation, describing the uniqueness of his intimacy with his Father, tantamount in many ways to a declaration of his divinity. Jesus is declared by God to be his “beloved son” (Mark 1:11; 9:7 [cf. Ps. 2:7; Isa. 42:1]). The demons recognize this status (3:11; 5:7), as does the centurion at the cross (15:39), but the disciples in Mark seemingly fail to come to this realization (cf. Mark 6:52 with Matt. 14:33). For Mark this status is a culmination of his Gospel, and Jesus’s exclusive and exalted status is closely connected to his resurrection (12:10–11) and second coming (8:38 [“the glory of his Father”]; 13:32).
1:2 written in Isaiah the prophet. Referring primarily to Isaiah 40:3, what follows also incorporates Exodus 23:20 (on the “messenger of the covenant,” an angel in Exodus) and Malachi 3:1 (on the messianic “preparer”). Isaiah 40 is the turning point in that book, pivoting from the prediction of the exile (39:5–6) to God’s promise to “comfort” his people (40:1). The supreme comfort is to be found in the final return from exile to be accomplished in the coming of Jesus Christ.
messenger . . . who will prepare your way. Here this applies to John the Baptist, the messianic forerunner. This is the only fulfillment passage in Mark (Matthew has eleven), and this shows that every element of the launching of Jesus’s messianic ministry comes on the basis of God’s predetermined plan. John is the God-sent “messenger” (angelos) from Exodus 23:20, fulfilling the role of the angel in the exodus who went before the nation on the way through the wilderness. This may well depict the coming of Jesus (“your way” refers to Israel in Exod. 23:20 but to Jesus here, perhaps as the true Israel), so a “new exodus” is taking place in his arrival. From Malachi 3:1 comes the prophecy that God will send this messenger to “prepare the way before me” as he arrives to bring judgment to a recalcitrant nation. Again this forerunner is John, who comes bearing a message of deliverance through repentance and of judgment. But the primary figure is Jesus, who is the presence of God arriving in justice and judgment, bringing with him a new exodus from sin.
1:3 a voice of one calling in the wilderness. The themes binding the three Old Testament texts are of a messenger from the wilderness preparing the way for the Messiah. Isaiah 40:3 is the primary text, and it was a core text for both Qumran (1QS 8:13–14) and Christianity (the early church even called itself “the Way” [e.g., Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23], probably on the basis of this). It stated God’s intention to bring the exiles home on a divinely prepared highway from Babylon to Zion, with God removing all obstacles. Here both the return from exile and the exodus are fulfilled in Jesus, and John is the wilderness voice proclaiming the return to God through the arrival of Jesus of those exiled from God through their sin and unbelief. The final promises of God are now inaugurated, and this is a kind of Roman “triumph,” a victory procession as the king comes. The wilderness is the place of testing and messianic crisis (the Essenes went into the desert to signify the necessity of purifying an unclean nation) and also of divine succor and comfort (1 Kings 19:4–18; Rev. 12:6, 14). Both ideas are part of the wilderness motif in Mark.
1:4 a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John’s baptizing was a startling event. At Qumran adherents went through daily lustrations in a ritual pool (1QS 5:12–14), and Jewish people experienced many ceremonial washings (e.g., Num. 19). Neither provides close parallels. Gentile proselytes experienced a one-time baptism as an initiation rite, and that would provide an interesting parallel (John would be saying that the nation had become like Gentiles), but there is no evidence of such a practice before AD 50. It may be best to see this as a unique event, as God led John to provide a brand-new metaphor on spiritual purity attained through repentance (a change of heart involving not only sorrow for sin but also a new lifestyle) signified by baptism (as in 2 Kings 5:14, where Naaman immerses himself in the Jordan). Repentance and confession (1:5) for forgiveness (the judicial result) are God’s requirements for anyone to be right with him, and this is closely connected with “believe the gospel” in 1:15 below.
1:5 whole Judean countryside . . . went out. John’s immense appeal prepares for Jesus’s popularity with the crowds, and this will be one of the primary themes in Mark 1. The fact that they “went out” is a further part of the “new exodus” motif (cf. Exod. 13:4, 8; Deut. 23:4).
1:6 camel’s hair . . . leather belt . . . locusts and wild honey. John’s clothing and ascetic diet present him as a prophet like Elijah (2 Kings 1:8), continuing John’s fulfillment of Malachi 3:1, 4:5–6 as the Elijah-like forerunner of the Messiah. The answer to the spiritual needs of Israel cannot come from the well-dressed Jerusalem establishment but rather will arise through a wilderness prophet who rejects the fine things of this world (cf. Jesus having “no place to lay his head” in Matt. 8:20).
1:7–8 one more powerful than I. John’s message is powerful, but he is preparing for one who is incomparably greater, who possesses the “power” of God himself. John is not even worthy to be his slave, to “untie” the straps of his sandals (the act of a slave). This coming one will show his power by “baptizing with the Spirit,” a messianic reference to the prophesied outpouring of the Spirit, a sign of the last days (Isa. 32:15; Ezek. 36:25–27; Joel 2:28). In Isaiah 11:2 the Messiah is infused with “the Spirit . . . of might,” so this great power is seen not just in miracles and a mighty ministry but also in his baptism with the Spirit, meaning that not only will he possess the Spirit, but also he will immerse his followers in the Spirit (Ezek. 35:25–27), a power that only God possessed. This was fulfilled at Pentecost but is also fulfilled in the coming of the Spirit upon all believers at conversion (Rom. 8:14–17).
Mark here introduces the primary purpose of his Gospel: to tell the world about Jesus Messiah, Son of God. He is a prophet yet more than a prophet. He is God’s promised Messiah, the anointed Son who has been sent into this world to sacrifice himself for the salvation of humankind. Second, Mark centers on fulfillment, the finalization of the expectations of the Old Testament saints and prophets for God to intervene in this world. The Old Testament again and again points forward to the coming of Jesus. Finally, this section centers on the “gospel” (1:1, 15), the “good news” about God’s redemptive work in Jesus, anticipated in the Baptist’s ministry calling upon the people to “repent” and receive “the forgiveness of sins.”
1. Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God. This is the core theme of Mark’s Christology, developed throughout his work. We must help people to recognize that Jesus is more than their friend; he is their Lord. As Messiah, Jesus is our “anointed” king. There are two aspects: he is the royal or Davidic Messiah, the one who sits at the right hand of God (Ps. 110:1; cf. Mark 12:35–37) and is exalted to the heavens. At the same time he is the suffering Messiah, the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 52–53 who will give his life on the cross as the atoning sacrifice for our sins, making it possible for “many” to experience God’s salvation (Mark 10:45; 14:25–27). His “Son of God” status dominates this passage (1:1, 11) and the Christology of Mark. He is the unique Son who himself is very God and, as God, brings final salvation into this evil world.
2. John the Baptist is the messianic forerunner. John fulfills Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1 by becoming the one who “prepares the way” for the coming of God’s final kingdom in Jesus the Messiah. His ministry in every way foreshadows Jesus. He is the first great prophet in four hundred years, the one coming “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17), yet he gives way to Jesus, the greater prophet (a major emphasis in Luke 1–3) who will perform the miracles of Elijah and bring God’s salvation to humankind. He preaches repentance (Mark 1:4), preparing for Jesus’s proclamation, “Repent and believe” (1:15). His task is to prepare the highway so that Jesus can lead lost humankind to Zion, bringing redemption to all.
Jesus the Messiah as the Suffering Servant
Popular Culture: When a person meets the queen of England, a complicated royal etiquette is to be followed. This includes a “no touch” rule, which all visitors, including dignitaries, are to follow. In 1992 Australian prime minister Paul Keating was assailed by the media when he put his arm around the queen. The queen’s position demands that the royal etiquette be followed in every detail. But this is not Jesus. Although he is our anointed king, he came as the Suffering Servant who would eat with sinners, touch lepers, and heal the broken. He came to serve us by suffering on a cross so that we might have life.
Preparing the way for Jesus
Testimony: The role of John the Baptist was to prepare the hearts of the people for the coming of the Messiah. Tell (or invite someone else to tell) about a person God has used in your life, or how God has used you in the life of another, to prepare the way for Jesus. Challenge your listeners to think of one or two people whom God has placed in their lives who do not know Jesus. Encourage them to ask God, “How can you use me to prepare the way for Jesus?”
A message of repentance
Sports: “Repentance” means changing one’s mind in order to change one’s actions. On October 25, 1964, Jim Marshall of the Minnesota Vikings recovered a fumble and ran sixty-six yards in the wrong direction into his own end zone, resulting in a safety for the other team. Marshall’s perspective was confused when he recovered the fumble, and it led him to run the wrong way with the ball. We too are often confused with regard to our perspective in life, and it leads us to make poor life choices. We think that we see clearly, but actually we are moving in the wrong direction and need to repent. When we lose perspective and head in the wrong direction, it usually costs a lot more than points on a scoreboard.