If you have been following the news over the past fortnight, you will know that the actor Richard Attenborough and the comedian Robin Williams both passed away recently. Both had very full and public lives. And the papers have been full of obituaries describing their achievements, their personalities and so forth. Obituaries answering questions like: What was their background? What made them tick? What were their goals and ambitions in life? And so on.
The same sort of questions have been asked about Jesus of Nazareth for 2,000 years. Questions that are still being asked today. Depending on who you ask, you get very different answers.
- If you asked many people on the street, they would say Jesus was a great moral teacher, a shining example to us - but long dead for sure.
- Some of our Jewish or Muslim friends might go further, and admit him to be a great prophet - but nothing more.
- Others have called Jesus the first social worker, or a pioneer socialist or a political revolutionary. A compassionate man who could draw crowds in his day - but not anymore.
- For Christians, of course, Jesus is the centre of our faith. He is the Son of God. Someone we call our risen Lord – alive for evermore.
But which view of Jesus is right? Which portrait of Christ is consistent with what really happened? What’s so special about Jesus of Nazareth? Will the real Jesus please stand up!
So over the next few weeks at St. Michael’s I want us to refresh and renew our picture of Jesus. Whether you sit here this morning as a committed Christians or a curious enquirer, I want to persuade you that the Christian portrait of Christ is correct. I want us all to be reassured that the Christ we worship really is the Jesus of history.
Our guide for this journey is Mark, the author of the Gospel we shall be looking at this month. We don’t know a great deal about Mark, but the earliest sources suggest he was a friend and companion of the apostle Peter. Peter, of course, was Jesus’ closest disciple, the man he called his Rock, the man he wanted to lead his church after he had gone. So as we look at Mark’s Gospel this month, we can be confident that we are reading an early eye-witness account of Christ, probably written within 30 years of his crucifixion.
As we look at our Bible passage this morning, Mark wants us to learn something about the identity of Jesus, and the authority of Jesus. Because if Jesus is who Mark says he is, then we all need to sit up and pay attention. But before I go further, let me pray: Father God, as we look at this passage this morning, help us to see who Jesus really is, and help us to understand the difference it should make to our lives. Amen.
- The Identity of Jesus
Firstly then, let’s look at the identity of Jesus in our passage today. Our reading was a fairly long one, so let me remind you of how it began in verses 9 to 11. “At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
I wonder what areas of the country you look down on? What towns or cities do you consider unattractive, depressing or insignificant? Places like Slough, Milton Keynes or Burnley often get a bad press. And hardly anyone has heard of little places like North Holmwood, Aughton or Grandpont, although all three have been significant locations in my own life. (If you ask me later, I will tell you why!)
Nazareth was viewed in a similar way in first century Israel. It was a backwater, somewhere small and insignificant, somewhere off the beaten track. Not the sort of place someone significant was expected to come from. But God often does the unexpected, doesn’t he? And so when Jesus of Nazareth appears at the river Jordan, a voice from Heaven reveals him to be God’s beloved Son, and God’s Spirit descends on him like a dove.
The exact words God speaks over Jesus are highly significant, much more significant than we might first realise.
- Most obviously, God is declaring Jesus to be his only-begotten Son, his eternal offspring, walking on earth in human flesh. Throughout his earthly life, the Bible describes Jesus enjoying a unique and intimate relationship with God, like a loving son with his father.
- But by calling Jesus his Son, God was doing more than simply explaining their relationship. God was also declaring Jesus to be his chosen King. By calling him his Son, God was letting anyone listening know that Jesus was the rightful ruler of the world. Let me explain why - throughout the Old Testament God had repeatedly promised to send a perfect king. A perfect king who would be a descendent of king David, who would establish God’s justice and bring peace to God’s people. A King, or ‘Messiah’, who would eventually make all things new. And this Messiah would be called God’s Son. Most famously, in Psalm 2, God promised that when the Messiah began his work, he would tell him he was his begotten Son. A promise God kept when Jesus stepped into the river Jordan with John.
- So Jesus is God’s King as well as his Son. But he is also God’s Servant, because scholars see another similarity between God’s words to Jesus at the Jordan, and God’s words spoken through the prophet Isaiah in the past. In passages like Isaiah 42, God speaks of a future Servant who would come. A perfect Servant who would come and completely obey God. A servant who would identify with sinful people (as Jesus did by being baptised). A servant who would die an undignified death (as Jesus would on the Cross), to take away the ‘transgressions’ of people like you and me. Isaiah describes this Servant as someone in whom God would ‘delight’ and be ‘well pleased’. Someone on whom God’s Spirit would descend. Which, of course, is exactly what happened to Jesus as he emerged out of the river Jordan (v.10-11).
I hope you can see why Mark recorded the words spoken from heaven about Jesus. They were rich words, pregnant with meaning. Words that reveal to us Jesus’ identity. His identity as God’s Son, God’s Servant and God’s King. An identity far greater than any moral teacher, social worker or prophet could ever claim.
- The Authority of Jesus
We live in a culture which is suspicious of authority. It’s a sad fact that many people have less respect for people like teachers, policemen and politicians than they did in the past. I think people are suspicious of authority figures because they fear they will abuse their power and restrict their freedom.
In the remainder of our Bible passage today, we also see Jesus exercising great authority and power, but in a way that brings new life and true liberty to those he meets. We see Jesus saying and doing things that only God’s Son, God’s King and God’s Servant could say and do. So for example:
- In verse 15 we see Jesus “proclaiming the good news” that “the kingdom of God is near”. Only God’s chosen king could make such an announcement. A socialist revolutionary like Marx or Lenin might call for a communist state, and an Islamist militant might declare a Caliphate in northern Iraq. But only Jesus, God’s king could announce that God’s good kingdom had begun.
- In verses 16 to 19 we see Jesus call his first disciples, fishermen called Simon, Andrew, James and John. They accepted his invitation to follow him “at once”. They immediately left their fishing nets and their own father behind to go with Christ (v.20). Jesus’ personality was clearly attractive and his call was compelling. Only a perfect king could provoke such wholehearted obedience.
- The story continues in Capernaum, in verses 21 and 22, when Jesus begins to teach in a way that amazes the people present. Jesus taught them “as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law”. You see, Jewish rabbis only used to quote, interpret and apply existing laws and scriptures. But Jesus gave commands and made promises in his own right, on his own authority. Only someone who was God’s Son and God’s king could make such confident pronouncements.
- And finally, in verses 23 to 26, we see Jesus exercise authority over an evil spirit. With a simple command to “be quiet” and “come out”, a possessed man was liberated from slavery to an evil supernatural power. The last words spoken by the demon before he left the man are highly instructive. Because the demon rightly recognised Jesus of Nazareth as “the Holy One of God” (v.24). Up against such authority, the evil spirit had no alternative but to obey.
Conclusion: Amazement isn’t enough
I wonder how you would feel if you had seen and heard all these things yourself. If you had been sitting on a hillside among the crowd as Jesus declared the kingdom of God. If you had been sitting in the synagogue listening Jesus teach with authority, and seen him exorcise a demon with a simple command. I expect we would have shared the same amazement as those who were there at the time (verse 27).
But amazement alone isn’t enough. Because in this passage we see the response Jesus is looking for, the right response to him and his Gospel message. Look with me at verse 15: “’The time has come’, he said. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news’.”
The first thing we must do is “repent”. Whoever we are, we must admit that there have been times, maybe years, when we haven’t lived with Jesus as our God-given King. Times when we haven’t submitted to his authority over our lives. Times when we have said, thought and done things that offend God and disobey his Son. And true repentance is more than simply saying sorry. It is to turn from sin, seek God’s forgiveness and follow Jesus wholeheartedly, just as those four fishermen did beside the Sea of Galilee.
We are also to “believe” the good news. We are to believe that Jesus is God’s Son and God’s King. We are to believe the good news that Jesus is God’s Servant, sent into our world to take our guilt upon his shoulders, and on the cross take the punishment we deserved.
I expect many, if not most of us this morning will have already repented and believed in Christ. We have already put our faith in Jesus as our saviour and become God’s forgiven friends forever. But now what? Here’s three suggestions as we close:
Firstly, can I encourage us all to enjoy an intimate relationship with God. If we are Christians we have been adopted into God’s family. We have become God’s sons and daughters, like Christ has always been. And so like Christ we can call God our Father. We can enjoy an intimacy with him in prayer, an intimacy with our heavenly Father like Christ enjoyed during his earthly life. Prayer is a privilege for every adopted child of God, so let’s enjoy it and experience it.
Secondly, we must pay close attention to Christ’s words. Did you notice that each time Jesus exercised authority in our passage today, he did it through his word? He called out to the fishermen, and they came. He taught in the synagogue, and people were amazed. He told the demon to come out, and it fled away. Jesus’ words have power and authority. So let’s all pay regular, close attention to what Christ says to us in the Bible, his living Word today. It should be our ultimate authority. It contains promises we can totally trust, and teaching we must wholeheartedly obey. If you struggle to read the Bible unaided, then please borrow some Bible reading notes from our library, or join a house group to read the Bible in the company of others. You are always welcome!
Thirdly, and finally, we need to tell others about the identity and authority of Jesus. We need to take opportunities to tell our family, friends and colleagues the good news about Jesus. We need to be like the four disciples in our passage who went from being fishermen to “fishers OF men” (v.17). For example, over the next few weeks why not take every opportunity to invite people to our Christianity Explored course, starting on 7th Christianity Explored is a relaxed and informal way for people to investigate the claims of Jesus for themselves, and anyone is welcome to join us. Flyers and invitations will be available soon.
At the very end of our passage this morning, Mark tells us that the “news about Jesus spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee”. Wouldn’t it be great today, if the good news about Jesus was spread over the whole of Gidea Park through us?