Here is an amazing thought: Jesus preached. He actually stepped out into the world he created with his own evangelistic program, aimed as spreading the good news about himself. He took personal ownership of the gospel and chose a method for communicating it that could be copied by humans. He returned to Galilee following the arrest of John the Baptist. Mark 1:14 says he began proclaiming the gospel of God, and in so doing fulfilled his destiny to usher in the next great phase of redemptive history. Proclaiming is the same word used to describe John’s work in Mark 1:4 to describe his proclamation of the coming Messiah. Jesus would now preach the good news that he was the good news. This was the gospel of God, a phrase that means “the good news from God” that is revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ. God himself is dropping his own son into occupied territory to proclaim a plan for peace. Human leaders send a messenger to the enemy with terms of surrender. Jesus comes into the world himself. It’s hard to calculate the humility of a divine savior who would spread his message of salvation personally, and on foot.
There was a misconception in Israel that Jesus had to deal with. The prevailing view as that if you followed the Law you would be welcomed into the Kingdom. Presumably they understood that no one was perfect, so obedience was relative. The point was the pursuit of relative righteousness. Scholars tell us they divided the world into two groups, the “sons of light” and the “sons of darkness”. The idea was that being born a Jew meant instant credit in the eyes of God, and external compliance was all he demanded. This is the matching funds approach. They meet God half way, putting up some of the merit in hopes that he puts up his share of the grace. In the end they make a deal. Jesus blew up that system. The battle was for the heart. Jesus Christ therefore arrives on the scene as the good news from God, and he proclaims the good news from God. The good news is you don’t have to be perfect in the eyes of the Law because that’s impossible anyway. He goes public with the offer of a heart transplant that makes you whole. No meeting half way. No matching funds required.
Mark is not really a detail-oriented writer. He tends to stick to the point and drive forward to his objective. This endearing quality is forsaken in Mark 1:14. He goes out of his way to provide both the timing and location of one of the most significant events in the life of Christ: the beginning of his public ministry. It’s remarkable. Jesus goes public at a time and place, both of which were less than ideal. John the Baptist was in prison. There was no endorsement value there anymore. Furthermore he chose a humble location. Galilee was not the place to be. It would be like having the Oscar’s in Topeka, Kansas. Frankly no one cared what came out of Galilee. The region had a checkered past and was considered unclean by the religious elite. Lessons abound, but for the sake of time let’s consider these two. First of all, Jesus came to those who were likely to admit they needed a savior. Galilee was ripe with folks who didn’t have a self-righteousness complex. Secondly, Jesus came to those who were outside the sphere of religious formalism. The gospel made its debut in a place that wasn’t known for religious display.
After his baptism the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah became public knowledge. The privately held secret, believed by only a select few, was now a public offering, available for subscription to anyone who believed. You might expect a celebration, but instead the newly identified Son of God is sent on a mission to acquaint himself even more deeply with humanity. He is put in a position to endure everything human beings would endure. It was the Spirit who put this plan into motion, filling him, and then driving him into the wilderness for the purpose of undergoing an intense season of temptation. Similar to Job, God himself is unapologetically instrumental, but doesn’t bear responsibility for actually tempting. James 1:13 is clear, Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. Instead God gives Satan enough slack to reach Christ. Through this trial Jesus grew in wisdom and stature (Luke 2:52), and in his ability to empathize with man. Going public required going away so that he could fully relate to the people he came to save.
Remember the kid who throws stuff into the fire and can’t resist blowing on the embers? That’s me, and the gene has been passed down to my three sons. Looking at the fireplace in my house, I thought of something that helps me grasp the temptation of Christ. The brick floor and walls provide an unburnable shell for whatever conflagration occurs in there. Even the huge logs eventually turn to ash, but the brick remains, enduring the most intense heat. Here’s my thought. Jesus Christ could not sin. He withstood degrees of temptation that would incinerate normal human will power. His inability to sin created an environment where it reached maddening intensity that has never been duplicated. Only He knew it. The greater your ability to resist, the more temptation you can endure. Since the Son of God has an infinite capacity for resistance, he endured the full extent of satanic power with respect to temptation. The Devil gave him everything. Everything. As a result he has seen and known things beyond our wildest nightmares. In this way he demonstrates his love for us, and knows how to plot an escape route for any temptation he allows us to experience.
Followers of Christ have unique privileges. Among them is the comforting knowledge that God can relate to us. He actually knows what it is like to be human. God is profoundly empathetic because of the incarnation. Jesus Christ is fully God and therefore could not sin, a concept known as his impeccability. He could never perform an act contrary to his holiness. This provides the governing limits to any study of the temptation, and reminds us that he could not sin under any circumstances. But the humanity of Jesus provided an opportunity to know what it felt like to want to sin. The fullest degree of temptation was inflicted upon him. It exceeds our true comprehension because unlike Jesus Christ, we have a breaking point. This is why God promises that, “…he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability…” (1 Corinthians 10:13). God knows us intimately, became one of us, and now protects us from the effects of irresistible temptation. This is a mercy we don’t deserve, and a grace that keeps us from the consequences of uncontrollable sinning.
One day Jesus made an excursion into the wilderness to hear the preaching of John and be baptized. Have we considered that the Son of God and Creator of all things didn’t require John to come to where he was? Jesus requires no house call. This is partly because Jesus didn’t have a house, but it was also on account of his humility. What is equally amazing is John’s reluctance to do it. Here is the Messiah, requesting to be baptized, and John refuses him. The only other rejects were the hypocrites. John is in a tight spot. Luke adds a curious statement, “when all the people were baptized” indicating maybe Jesus waited to be the last. It may have been just him and John, with no one around who knew any better. But here we have a man full of conviction who just can’t grasp the fact that Jesus would ask to be baptized. He has no category for this. It doesn’t make any sense. Sometimes obedience is really an act of faith. Remember it’s better to be reluctant (like John did) and then obey, than a person who initially says yes, but doesn’t follow through (Matthew 21:28-32).
Nazareth was in the middle of nowhere. Mark needed to say Nazareth of Galilee just so people had some idea where Jesus was coming from when he went out to be baptized. Why is it significant that Jesus comes from a bucolic borough and not the bright lights of Jerusalem? No doubt great leaders can emerge from scarcely populated locations, but that’s not really the point here. I think what you see is a testimony to how corrupt most of the Jewish leaders were in Jerusalem. Jesus was avoiding that whole scene. In those days the further you lived from Jerusalem the more irrelevant you were, but Jesus chose to live on the fringe. The true Messiah lacked everything the elite wanted in a savior. At his baptism, Mark shows him arriving from obscurity to visit a man who also lives on the fringe in order to receive a baptism that few desired. Jesus found common ground among those who saw the decay that infested the Jewish religious system and still does today. Living in the provincial outskirts had protected some people from the numbing effects of perpetual corruption. Perhaps this is why prophets often come in from the wilderness.
John the Baptist was offensive. I’m not referring to his diet or wardrobe, but to his preaching. He was not afraid to confront influential people about their sin, and he paid the price for it. He was a great man who died an inglorious death. Harod arrested him because he condemned the relationship with Herodias. He was subsequently imprisoned, and eventually had his head cut off to satisfy a foolish promise he made in the presence of drunken perverts, to an iniquitous teenager who was the daughter of his illegitimate wife. Part of us wishes the story ended differently, like with a miraculous jail break a la Peter, Paul, and Silas. But that didn’t happen. John just went to jail and got killed. Even those who were released eventually were recaptured and killed. What does all that say about our view of protection? Why are we always praying for safety and thorn-free flesh? That was not part of the agreement. Did we forget the part about taking up our cross? These are the good old days. Things will get worse before they get better. The longer we live, the more John the Baptist will begin to make sense.
John the Baptist was no ordinary man. Jesus Christ himself said, “I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John” (Luke 7:28). However this great man lived in isolation, foraged for food, slept in the open, and dressed in a sweater of sorts make from camel hair. We tend to imagine great men living in great houses with great comforts and a great staff. John had none of that. He wasn’t grand. He certainly wasn’t impressive. The ministry he conducted was controversial, so attracting a crowd was not his objective. It required an effort to get out to where he was, so making it convenient wasn’t his goal. The message he preached was repentance, so offending people was no big deal. The response to the message required a humbling act, so making people comfortable was irrelevant. The stigma attached to him could result in political and certainly religious consequences, but the people still came in droves. He was controversial, inconvenient, intolerant, offensive, and unpopular with the religious and political elite. It just goes to show you can be great without being grand.