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Good morning, church. I’m grateful that I can return to serve as a speaker at IBF. I want to thank the IBF board for understanding my need for a one-year break. My break was refreshing, and I feel ready to serve again at this wonderful church.
Today, I will begin a series about the Gospel of Mark. I chose this book of the Bible partly because I have been studying it with two of my non-Christian students. It’s been a challenge helping them understand the Bible since they have no background knowledge of the characters, concepts, or terms. At the same time, it’s a joy to study alongside them and find ways to make the Bible relatable and relevant. I hope that what I’ve learned will also be relevant to your life.
To introduce the Gospel of Mark, today I’m just going to focus on what the word “gospel” means. What did it mean to Mark’s original readers 2000 years ago? Then, I want to say why it matters to us today. First, let’s pray.
What did the gospel mean for the original readers?
The Gospel of Mark begins with this sentence: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
With this opening sentence, Mark isn’t just saying in a bland way, “OK guys, I’m going to start telling you about Jesus.” There’s a deeper meaning if you know what the word “gospel” meant to his original audience.
His audience were Christians, and mainly Gentiles living in Rome—the word “Gentiles” means “people who are not Jewish”. They were not familiar with Jewish culture, so Mark sometimes explains Jewish customs.
However, they did know the word “gospel”. In Greek, this word is euangelion. If you know the anime called 新世紀エヴァンゲリオン(Neon Genesis EVANGEION), this is the same word. Euangelion means “good news”. But it’s more than just good news like, “Hey, I have some news for you: There’s a huge sale at AEON now!!”
When these early Christians heard the word euangelion, they immediately thought of Caesar. You see, this word “gospel” was used by Roman kings, the Caesars. It was used to talk about how Caesar will bring peace to the empire, including territories they conquered. For example, in Western Turkey there is a surviving stone inscription about Caesar Augustus. The inscription says he is a savior who will benefit all humanity. One of the lines says, “the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the gospel for the world.”
Mark borrows this word “gospel” and uses it for Jesus. He was saying to his readers, “Behold your king!”
This was an unmistakable challenge to the authority of Caesar. Mark was saying, “Caesar is not your king. Caesar is not God. Jesus Christ is God and king.” This wasn’t just clever wordplay. For Roman Christians, it was a controversial and dangerous statement. Over the next few centuries under Roman persecution, Christians paid with their lives for such beliefs.
What kind of king was Jesus?
What made the early Christians give their allegiance to a king they couldn’t see, when the threat of persecution was very real? The Gospel of Mark will tell you why Jesus was such a compelling king.
Unlike the other gospels, Mark gives little background information about Jesus—no story about his birth, childhood, or ancestry. Almost immediately, Mark begins describing what Jesus did and said during the last few years of his life. To summarize a few things about this king:
Unlike the Roman kings, Jesus didn’t expand his kingdom by force. Jesus’ kingdom is a kingdom of love, even love for one’s enemies. This king heals the sick and frees people from demons. He did not amass power to indulge himself or stay in his comfort zone. In fact, he had no permanent home on earth. The climax of his earthly career was to be nailed on the cross like a criminal by Roman soldiers, as he willingly died for the sins of humanity. He did not wear a crown of gold but a crown of thorns. It almost seems like he failed and was stamped out by the Roman authorities as a troublemaker. Christians, behold your king!
In a letter from Apostle Paul to Christians in Corinth, a major Roman city, he said the gospel is “foolishness to the Gentiles”. Why would a king die in this way? This is what I thought when I was 8 years old and my best friend in school told me about the gospel. I thought, “What kind of god is this? That’s stupid.”
What kind of good news is this? Even today, what we believe is foolishness to many people. But as Paul said to the Corinthians, “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” (1 Corinthians 1:25)
Caesar’s kingdom fought for land and to dominate people. God’s kingdom drives away the enemy within our hearts, to free us from what controls our hearts. I pray that as we continue to study the Bible and apply it, we will see the beauty and wisdom of God as well as his power in our daily life.
What does the gospel mean for us today?
The question I want to leave with you today is, “Who is your king? Who is your master?”
This matters because it determines the course of our life. Each of us inevitably serves someone or something, or are controlled by it.
A friend of mine works in the entertainment industry. He managed to land his dream job, but he hates it. Almost every week, he suffers from anxiety over whether he can do his work well enough for his boss to approve. Sometimes, even before his boss has said anything negative, he imagines it and feels so much stress than he cannot breathe properly.
“But I need the money,” he says, when we discuss the idea of him changing jobs. He needs the money to pay for expensive psychiatric medication so that he can continue functioning in this current job. He needs the money for hobbies that help him temporarily escape the stress.
Many months ago, he asked me, “I don’t see how your Jesus has anything to do with my life. You Christians talk too much about life after death. I’m not afraid of dying because at least if I died, then I’m freed of this job. What I’m afraid is living!” This really got me into thinking about how is the gospel relevant in this friend’s life and work. Because if we’re only talking about the gospel as just about what happens after we die, then it has no relevance to what every day people are going through today. However, if the gospel has the power to transform how we view life, work, and identity and gives us meaning and purpose for our everyday lives, then it is truly good news.
And this is what I want to communicate to my friend. That the gospel is truly good news to him, an invitation to find freedom and purpose by letting Jesus be his king. Because in Jesus, no longer does our self-worth rest in our performance at work. Instead, it rests in Jesus’ work on the cross for us. Because Jesus is king of our lives, our purpose in life is not merely to eke a living by working hard to earn money. While we may work under our bosses, our ultimate loyalty isn’t to them or the company, but to Jesus. Our priority shifts from “What does my boss or company want me to do?” to “What does Jesus want me to do here in this company?” In every aspect, Jesus promises to give my friend a better sense of his worth as a person as well as a purpose and direction in life.
Unfortunately, he still lives in a kingdom where your worth is determined by how others see you, by your performance. In the kingdom of this world, the bottom-line is you need to earn money to survive, to be respectable, and to buy things to ease your loneliness, boredom, and frustration. It’s a kingdom that is skeptical of undeserved kindness. Is this the sort of world we want to live in? If we could live in a better world, wouldn’t that be good news?
I continue to pray that my friend will experience a different reality, the kingdom of Jesus. And know the kind of person that Jesus is. Jesus is the only person who can give my friend true rest and peace—rest from his fears, from striving to be someone, from relying on himself.
What does it mean for Jesus to be your king? This is something we are continually discovering.
In your daily life, it may start with recognizing what controls you—whether it be anxiety, perfectionism, a desire to be popular, addiction, an important relationship, someone’s opinion, and so on. When Jesus is your king, you are on a journey to discover the kind of person He designed you to be. You are growing in the relationship He wants to have with you. And growing in relationships He wants you to have with other people. You are joyfully part of the kingdom he is building, which includes a loving community.
As we listen to Mark’s story, may the words and actions of Jesus resound in your heart. May Jesus’ death, resurrection, and his presence today show us how life was truly meant to be. And how to live with the difficult realities of this world. Jesus is not a distant and unreachable king, but the King who is near. He speaks to each of us with love, even now.
Let me end by sharing a quote from Eugene Peterson, the translator of the Message translation of the Bible: ‘The Christian is a person who recognizes that our real problem is not achieving freedom but in learning service under a better master. The Christian realizes that every relationship that excludes God becomes oppressive. Recognizing and realizing that, we urgently want to live under the mastery of God. Let’s pray