Who is Jesus? A Quartet of Witnesses to God's Son
Sermon Passage: Mark 1:1–13 | Preached to Sovereign Grace Fellowship | 03-21-2021
By Peder Kling
Sorry, this sermon was not recorded. Enjoy the manuscript!
A "First Look" at the Gospels
Today, we begin our series through the gospel of Mark. This is the first time we, as a church, have ever walked through a gospel together. So, I figured we might take a moment to consider some introductory reflections on what a gospel narrative is, and how we should approach them.
What’s a Gospel Narrative?
So first—what is a gospel narrative? We have four of them in our Bibles (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). Many might read the gospels simply as neat stories about Jesus—perhaps we might regard them as biographies about our Lord’s life and teaching. But, we aren’t reading a simple biography when we read the gospels, are we? For one thing, the gospels are almost entirely focusing in on three years of a man’s life. Most biographies cover the entire life of a man. So, this isn’t just a biography about a man’s accomplishments and teachings that we would be inspired to be like him, is it?
To narrow into what kind of literary work we are dealing with, we might do well to think about the genre or title that these for gospels are given in their names. The gospel of Mark, the gospel of John. We don’t typicaly call these four works “the life of Jesus according to John”, do we? We call them gospels. And, the first verse in Mark’s gospel lends us to just that. Verse one, “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ”. We aren’t focusing on his life, per se. We are focusing on the gospel—the good news—that he brought and accomplished in his life.
So, what should we think of when we hear the word “gospel”? A genre of music? Not quite. The word “gospel” comes from the greek word euangelion—good news. It’s a term that pertains to proclamation. You proclaim good news of victory, or salvation, to people who are in dire distress. You could think of a king proclaiming victory after a long, hard battle—that’s gospel, good news.
Biblically, when you hear the word “gospel” you might do well to think of Isaiah 61 where words are ascribed to the promised Messiah who, when he comes, will say something like this—
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to bring good news [i.e., gospel] to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
Does that sound at all familiar? Perhaps, maybe, that’s a short-hand summary of what we discover every time we open one of the four gospels? A man is sent by God, he is anointed by the Spirit as a king or prophet or priest is anointed into a sacred office in Israel. Yet this man is anointed to bring in and fulfill all the promises God has made to his people—that they would be a most cherished and blessed nation in all the world. That, after a time of the Lord’s discipline and chastening—perhaps even judgment—this anointed one of God would bring good news to proclaim, “the year of the Lord’s favor”. And as we will see, he didn’t just proclaim it. He showed it through miracles and wonders which made the poor rejoice, and the sick healed. And at the climax of these gospel narratives, we see Jesus secure good news to all by dying for their sins, and offering new life through faith in his resurrection.
So, that’s what a gospel narrative is, and why it focuses on those years of Jesus’s life wherein he brings good news to us through his ministry, sacrifice, and resurrection.
Why Four Gospels? "That You May Have Certainty"
But why four of these? What is their purpose, that they might affect us today?
We would do well to remember the historical context of Judaism in Jesus’s time. At the time, the Jews had an eager, daily expectation for the Messiah. They were longing for good news to be proclaimed on their street corners—news about a Messiah and his victory. You can imagine the anticipation that Israel had in the years and decades leading up to the Messiah’s arrival. Malachai 4:5–6 marks the last word that God’s people would hear from a prophet for 400 years. “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes”, and then silence from God. No prophets came to Israel until John the Baptist came to announce Jesus’s arrival.
Yet, it wasn’t like those 400 years were easy, quiet, waiting. During those 400 years, God’s people in Israel would receive discipline from the Lord. They lost their independence, and Rome took them under their rule so that God’s people would be have Caesar over them, and they would have to pay taxes to him. You might imagine how the anticipation for the Messiah became increasingly pressing on the hearts of every Israelite. And not just increasingly pressing, but increasingly political. This gives insight into an irony that every four gospels expose. Given this political climate in Israel, the people of Israel began to desire a political Messiah who could deliver them from Roman rule. They forgot that the Messiah was promised to deliver them from sin and the devil. He was to come and dismantle the devil’s rule over them, and sprinkle the nations with righteousness rather than with worldly power. You may remember the advent sermon I gave in December that traced the promise for the Messiah from Genesis 3:15 all the way to Jesus’s birth.
And, just in case we miss it—isn’t it so easy to slight our problems to the immediate, worldly problems that are immediately before us? I fear that even today, Christians are seeking a Messiah in politics, who might relieve some worldly distress, more than they are seeking a Messiah in Christ who can relieve eternal distress. Our real problems are eternal, dealing with God in heaven whom we sin against and whose wrath we deserve if not for the blood of Jesus. The people of Israel had forgotten that. They masked their problem of sin with temple sacrifices and obedience to the law. They felt they only needed a savior from Rome rather than from themselves. Sound familiar?
So, as time would pass until Jesus came, people claimed to be the Messiah and grew followings. We actually see an account of this in Acts 5:36–37. In that passage, the pharisees are questioning whether the new Christian movement that the apostles were promoting is of God or of human creativity. It’s actually a really interesting passage to read. During the dispute, a pharisee named Gamaliel stands up and says,
35 And he said to them, “Men of Israel, take care what you are about to do with these men. 36 For before these days Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. 37 After him Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered.
So there, Gamaliel reminds his buddies of two men who rose up and claimed to be the Messiah. The one man’s name was Theudas, the other’s name was Judas the Galilean. They each had followings, they had zeal. But what was their zeal for? Political glory and freedom. The passage doesn’t say explicitly here, but most commentators all agree that these men were seeking to be a political Messiah. Judas rose up “in the days of the census”—there’s actually solid historical documentation of his movement which was essentially a tax revolt. But, what happened to them? They were killed, and their followings scattered. And, I think it’d be foolish to assume these were the only two in Jewish history to claim themselves as the Messiah. Even today, we have all sorts of people claiming to be the second arrival of the Messiah. It’s a sad reality.
The Big Question: Is He the One?
So, with all this background, we have to ask the same question the early Jews and Christians were asking as the church was beginning to grow after Jesus’s death and alleged resurrection. Is Jesus really the Messiah? Sure—he had a following, but so did Theudas and Judas the Galilean. And yes—he died a martyrs’ death, but so did Theudas and Judas the Galilean. Was he who he claimed to be?
That’s why the gospels were written. The gospels were designed to give you assurance, or certainty, that Jesus really is who he said he is. Mark doesn’t give us a very explicit “purpose” statement that might say something like, “this was written so that you can be sure Jesus wasn’t a lunatic or liar”—but, Luke and John do.
Luke opens his gospel by saying, “it seemed good to me also, having followed all the things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught”. Do you have any doubts about the claims of Jesus? If you do, you’re probably unstable in your faith and life. The gospels are here to quiet those disquieting and distressing doubts in your soul.
John does the same thing in his gospel, only he puts his statement at the end of his gospel. John 20:31, “these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” Do you have any doubts about the claims of Jesus? Here’s the gospel of John—a book written so that you may believe, with a reasonable and unwavering confidence, that Jesus is the Messiah as he claimed.
Jesus is not like Theudas or Judas the Galilean. He’s different—and in part, because he claimed to be a very different Messiah who accomplished a very different mission. The gospels give you all of that, while rooting it all in the OT promises and descriptions of the Messiah, so you can have certainty that you are not following some crazy political zealot. Jesus fulfilled the Biblical description of the Messiah, he accomplished the Biblical mission that the Messiah was promised to fulfill. That’s what the gospels show us, so that we might have certainty that we are worshipping a real Savior.
Certainty—or assurance—in the faith is an astounding thing, isn’t it? We considered this at length in our Hebrews sermon series because of some key verses in Hebrews. Yet, I want to make sure we are approaching the gospels with the same goal—to grow in our confidence and conviction in who Jesus was, what he said, and what he accomplished. Confident Christians who are fully assured in their faith toward Christ are peaceful, zealous, joyful through suffering and serious in their fight against sin. They are Christians who confidently share their faith, and who might even die for their faith—all because, to use Luke 1:4 again, they “have certainty concerning the things [they] have been taught”. I pray we pursue that certainty for a mature faith in Christ every time we open the gospel of Mark together.
So with all that background and general chit-chat about the gospels, let’s narrow into Mark’s gospel. The driving question that Mark’s gospel keeps us asking goes along with what we have been saying. The question is, quite simply, “who is Jesus of Nazareth?”. The gospel opens up with a very clear answer—that’s our passage today.
Who is Jesus? A Quartet of Witnesses to the Son of God
Who is he? He is the promised Messiah who would deliver his people from their sins, and from the curse. This is really clear in our passage today, which opens up the gospel of Mark. He’s the Messiah.
1. Mark says it in verse 1.
2. John the Baptist says it in verses 2–8.
3. God said it in verses 9–11.
4. Jesus proved it in verses 12–13.
That’s what we are going to see today—four testimonies to the fact that Jesus is the Messiah. You could call these witnesses a "quartet of witnesses"—each playing their part in testifying that JesusFour testimonies so that you may have certainty—an unshakable, reasonable faith—that Jesus is who he claimed to be. And as God would have it, in these testimonies, we will also see a glimmer of what kind of Messiah Jesus is.
1. Mark’s Witness: "Jesus Christ, the Son of God"
So, let’s take a look at the first verse in Mark’s gospel where Mark tells us very clearly who Jesus is. “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ [i.e., Jesus the Messiah], the Son of God.”
Now, just to clear the air of confusion, you may have noticed that Mark says “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus”, rather than just “the gospel of Jesus”. What he is doing there, is tipping us off to the fact that what he wrote explains the origins of the good news that we now confess. Good news isn’t good news unless it is worked for and accomplished. When a soldier returns home with good news of victory to proclaim to the king, the king is likely going to say, “excellent! tell me about it! tell me the beginning of this good news—when did the war turn to your favor, and you started to overcome the enemy?”. The second John the Baptist arrives as a precursor to the Messiah, good news begins to form and develop until it was finally accomplished at Jesus’s resurrection.
But, notice how Mark explicitly identifies Jesus from the very first verse. “Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. He’s Jesus Christ. The word “Christ” is simply the Greek word for “Messiah”—Jesus the Messiah. That’s who he is, and everything this story says about him is going to prove it to you. The words “Christ” (in the Greek), and “Messiah” (in the Hebrew) mean “anointed one”—anointed by God as a show of his blessing upon the man to carry out a specific task, or office. I suppose you could say that the long-awaited Messiah was anointed to deliver us from all our sin and misery.
Yet, Jesus is also the “Son of God”. This is a unique title that plays an important role in Mark’s gospel. If you trace all the instances where Jesus is referred to as God’s Son in Mark, you will quickly discover the irony concerning Jesus’s identity which this gospel develops. Mark tells us Jesus is the Son of God right away in verse 1. That’s the title we are supposed to see and look for—who is going to get this, and when? In verse 11 of our passage, we will see God declare Jesus as his “beloved Son” at his baptism. Then, we will see a number of instances when demons recognize him as Jesus’s Son. Jesus himself will allude to himself as God’s son in the parable of the tenets. The suspense is building through all this—who is going to finally understand Jesus’s royal, divine identity?
Finally, at Jesus’s trial, the high priest explicitly asks him in 14:61–62, “are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?”. Notice, those are the two titles Mark starts his gospel out—Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Jesus would be put on trial for these two specific titles that we see in verse 1 of our passage today. And, the reason is quite simply because the Jews never get it. The demons do—and, that’s it so far! It would not be until Jesus breathes his last in 15:39 that a Roman centurion (of all people) proclaimed, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”. The suspense is finally resolved, yet it isn’t through the mouths of the disciples, or even the Jewish leaders. It’s through a Roman centurion. Again, God is going to show us that he is sovereign over our hearts, and that we can only properly answer “who is Jesus”, if God would give us faith through the power of his Spirit. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:3, “No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit”. Even the disciples, with all the time they had with Jesus, wouldn’t entirely get it until Jesus rose from the dead, and opened their eyes with his life-giving Spirit.
But what does it actually mean for Jesus to be the Son of God? What exactly does this title refer to? We will circle back to that question when we look at Jesus’s baptism, where God says to Jesus “you are my beloved son”.
But there, in verse one, we see Mark testifying to the fact that Jesus is who he says he is—the Messiah, even the Son of God. Mark said it. Now, let’s hear John the Baptist say it.
2. John the Baptist’s Witness: "He is Mightier than I"
When we look in verses 2–8, we are reminded that John the Baptist was a specific prophet whose purpose was to testify to the Messiah who would come after him.
John the Baptist’s testimony to the Messiah was promised in the Old Testament. In verse 1, Mark says Jesus is the Messiah, God’s Son. Then verse 2, he grounds that statement by appealing to the fact that the Old Testament required a man like John the Baptist to come before Jesus.
As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way. The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!
Now, if you look that up in Isaiah, you’re only going to find the second sentence in that statement in Isaiah 40:3. The first sentence is from Malachi 3, who also talks of John the Baptist’s ministry. The point is, throughout the Old Testament, we learn that the Messiah was to be preceded by a messenger who would announce his coming, and prepare the people’s hearts to receive him.
But it is interesting to consider the words that Isaiah ascribes to this messenger in the wilderness. “Prepare the way of the LORD”. In the original Hebrews language of Isaiah’s prophesy, the word is “Yahweh”. So, “Prepare the way of Yahweh”—that is, God. At the very least this tips us off to seeing that Jesus is closely related to God, or even, he is God himself.
In fact, John the Baptist goes so far to identify Jesus with divine power when he says “I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Man has the ability to baptize with water. That’s why John did it, as a man. Baptism was a ceremonial washing—a cleansing ritual. We often wonder where the concept of baptism came from—but remember that baptism simply means “ceremonial washing”. There were a number of baptisms, or washings, in the OT Levitical law. That’s why Hebrews 6:2 refers to various “baptisms”, or “washings” which the Jews practiced in order to cleanse them ceremonially for worshipping God. Yet, what does Jesus say about ceremonial washings and purity laws? He says they don’t work!
In Mark 7, he reminds us that “there is nothing outside a person that, by going into him [or touching his skin] that can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him”. He gets more specific in verse 21 when he says, “for from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immoraltiy, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these things come from within, and they defile a person”.
Can ceremonial washings—or baptisms—cleanse a person from the profanity and offense that this brings to God? “Here God! my clean skin! my right eating habits!”. You see, those rituals were all designed to point Israel to the greater problem of sin. They were designed to be coupled with prayer, “Lord, wash my heart clean even as I wash myself ceremonially clean”.
And so, John the Baptist’s ministry was designed to give people an opportunity to look at their filth, and recognize that they cannot on their own power cleanse their heart. They can repent, ask God for forgiveness and a clean heart, and then show that request externally and ceremonially through their baptisms. That’s all John the Baptist could offer.
So, what does he ultimately say in his ministry? “He who comes after me is mightier… he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit”. He’s going to accomplish it with the Spirit, in the heart. Who is able to do this to a man’s soul, but God himself?
What good news is beginning to take form, here! John the Baptist is literally telling us that God is going to do a work that will actually cleanse our hearts. He will accomplish something so that when we pray with the Psalmist, “create in me a clean [i.e., cleansed] heart, o God!”, we will have an accomplished gospel work to rest upon that offers a clean heart! We learned in the last few weeks from Hebrews that Jesus’s blood offers just that. Hebrews 9:13–14 reminded us,
13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer [and might I add, and the baptism with water], sanctify for the purification of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience…”.
Our conscience—that voice in your head that tells you whether your heart is clean or dirty; that plagues you with the stench of guilt, or blesses you with the aroma of righteousness and acceptance before God. Jesus’s blood, through the Spirit, has the power to cleanse you in that way. John the Baptist, the last prophet of the Old Covenant before Jesus began his ministry, testified to this in a powerful way. Listen to his voice.
John the Baptist and the Witness of History
Now, just in case we miss it, our passage reminds us that John the Baptist did his ministry in the wilderness wearing peculiar, raggedy clothing. This detail is important because it links John the Baptist to Elijah—another prophet whose ministry called Israel to repent. He was another prophet who went before a successor who was greater in power and the Spirit’s blessing. Do you remember how Elisha asked Elijah for a “double portion” of his spirit? And, what did he do with that double portion? He healed and restored, just as John the Baptist’s successor did. God’s ways are ancient, and they are designed to draw us to the glory of Christ.
If this isn’t beginning to confirm in your heart that Jesus really was who he claimed to be, I’m not sure anything will. History is designed to glorify and testify to Jesus’s outstanding claims to be the Messiah, the Son of God.
We’ve seen Mark’s claim about who Jesus is. We’ve seen how John the Baptist testifies to the same. Now, God himself joins in this quartet of witnesses to Jesus’s messianic identity.
3. God’s Witness: “You Are My Beloved Son”
When we turn to verses 9–11, we read the story of Jesus’s baptism. Unlike other gospels, Mark gets straight to the point. Mark’s gospel likes brevity. Verse 9 says that “Jesus came from Nazareth”—that is, his home town—“and was baptized by John in the Jordan”. So, we get a picture of Jesus leaving his hometown in order to begin his ministry, and the first thing he does is to be baptized by John in the Jordan. Now, based on what I just said about John’s Baptism, you might think this is odd. Jesus is God—he is sinless. Why would he be baptized with John’s baptism of repentance, a baptism that signifies cleansing?
One of the reason for Jesus’s baptism is linked to Psalm 2. When Jesus is baptized, Mark tells us that “he [and only he] saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove, and a voice came from heaven [quoting Psalm 2, verse 7], ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’”.
In other words, God came upon Jesus and pronounced Psalm 2 over Jesus. Why?
When you read Psalm 2, you read about God’s intent to anoint the Messiah into his office, that he might rule the world as God’s beloved Son. What it means in Psalm 2 for the Messiah to be God’s Son is that the Messiah would be anointed as God’s royal Son and king over all the earth.
At his baptism, God formally anointed Jesus with the Spirit, that he might carry out the office of the Messiah, and conquer the world. For Jesus, baptism does not merely signify cleansing from sin, but also an anointing by the Spirit. Jesus’s ministry would begin after he was formally anointed by God as the Messiah. Quite literally, this is the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It’s all uphill to glory from here.
Now, I said earlier that we would circle back to what it means for Jesus to the Son of God. Here, we see that he is the beloved Son of God from Psalm 2, who would rule the nations with an iron rod. But if you look ahead in Mark’s gospel and consider the limited number of times that Jesus is referred to as God’s Son, it often is in the context of suffering. Jesus, positioning himself as God’s son in 14:36, calls out to his Father “abba Father, remove this cup [of suffering your wrath] from me”. Or you could think of the parable of the tenets in 12:1–11, where the father’s tenets kill the son. And of course, the climactic statement of Jesus as God’s son in Mark 15:39, when the centurion looks at a dead Jesus and says “this truly was the Son of God”. What?! A dead man can’t be the Son of God that Psalm 2 promised! He’s supposed to rule the nations! So, when we look ahead to Mark’s gospel, we must expect this gospel redefine what glory is, and who a competent savior might be.
So, Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. Mark said it. John the Baptist said it. God said it at Jesus’s baptism. Now, let’s look at verses 12–13 where the now-anointed Messiah proves his ability to save us when he duals with the devil in the desert.
4. Jesus’s Witness: Actions Speak Louder than Words
Verses 12 and 13 tell us of the events immediately after Jesus’s baptism where he was anointed into the formal ministry and office of the Messiah.
Mark 1:12 The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.
I won’t go into much detail here, other than to simply say that Jesus did it. He proved himself to be above sin and rebellion against God in the desert—the same place where Israel fell. You see, Israel was called to be a light and blessing to the nations. And immediately after that call—after God redeemed them from Egypt—they grumbled and sinned against God in the wilderness. They feared the nations the were to conquer, and they disobeyed. Yet, Jesus faced the devil himself, alone without the assembly of God’s people to encourage him. Against all odds, he was faithful to God and proved himself to be the Messiah. The good news has begun, and it’s making good progress.
Will you Join these Witnesses?
So, there we have it. We know who Jesus is. We have a quartet of witnesses in Mark 1:1–13 telling us that Jesus is the beloved Son of God, the promised Messiah. Mark said it. John the Baptist said it, God said it, and Jesus’s faithfulness in the wilderness proved it. The question is, will you say it? Perhaps you believe it, yet you struggle to let it sink so deep into your soul that you would forsake this world for him. You need more assurance for that sort of faithfulness. Let these four witnesses to the truth serve to give you certainty, or assurance, in the claims of Christ, so that you might not be an unsteady and distressed Christian.
Looking Ahead to the Rest of Mark's Gospel
Now, we have these introductory statements to serve us as we consider the rest of Mark’s gospel narrative. We know the answer to that big question—“Who is Jesus of Nazareth?”. But Jesus’s peers didn’t have it quite so easy. They were confused at John the Baptist’s teaching; they didn’t hear the Father’s voice at Jesus’s baptism; and they weren’t with Jesus in the wilderness. So, through the rest of Mark’s gospel, we will watch all of Jesus’s peers struggle to consider who Jesus is—both his enemies and his disciples. Even when Peter finally calls Jesus the Christ in chapter 8, he does it with a false understanding of what kind of Christ Jesus was. Jesus says to him in the next verse, “get behind me Satan, for you have your mind set on the things of man”. Peter wanted a political hero in Jesus—much like Theudas and Judas the Galilean claimed to be. But Jesus came to bring the gospel which the OT had prepared us for—news of salvation from sin, the devil, and the curse. We’re talking about salvation from real, eternal problems. May God help us see this, and rest assured in Jesus Christ’s person and accomplished work of salvation, as we press further into this gospel in the coming weeks.