Maybe you didn’t know that he was gone. He was. The prophet Ezekiel saw it all in a vision. God abandoned his temple during the Babylonian Exile in the sixth-century BC:
Ezekiel 10:18 — Then the glory of the LORD went out from the threshold of the house, and stood over the cherubim.
Ezekiel 11:22–23 — Then the cherubim lifted up their wings, with the wheels beside them, and the glory of the God of Israel was over them. And the glory of the LORD went up from the midst of the city and stood on the mountain that is on the east side of the city.
God left. But now God is back. And his name is Jesus.
Several Sundays ago I read Mark 1:14–15 to my congregation:
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
I then asked:
“What does Jesus mean here by ‘the gospel’”?
Audience participation is not uncommon at Oceanside Christian Fellowship, and, when all was said and done, we unpacked “the gospel” in Mark 1:14–15 as follows:
“God is holy. We are sinful. God sent Jesus to die for our sins, so that we can be reconciled to God and be with him for all eternity.”
This is all very orthodox. And it is completely biblical. But this definition of “the gospel” makes little sense in the context of Mark 1.
Imagine that you are living in Galilee when Jesus begins his public ministry with the proclamation cited in Mark 1:14–15 above. He has said nothing about the cross. He is still very much alive. Jesus has yet to die for anyone’s sins.
Could Jesus really have expected his early Galilean audience to understand “gospel” in the ways it was understood by his inspired interpreters (Paul, Peter, John, etc.) after his death, burial, and resurrection? I think not.
What, then, does Jesus mean by “the gospel”?
Simple! The “good news” in Mark 1:14–15 is that God is back!
We saw in Ezekiel that Yahweh had left Jerusalem during the Babylonian captivity. Sadly, he did not return when the Jews rebuilt their temple upon return from exile.
Back in Exodus the Bible informs us that “The glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle” that the Israelites built in the wilderness (40:33). God’s glory also “filled the house of the LORD”—the first temple—that Solomon later built in Jerusalem (1 Kings 8:10). We read of no such manifestation of the presence of God’s glory when the second temple was dedicated in 516 BC (Ezra 6:15–16).
If the story of God and his people had ended there, it would have been real bad news. But the prophet Ezekiel had another vision. He saw a future day when God would return to his people:
“the glory of the God of Israel was coming from the east… the glory of the LORD entered the temple by the gate facing east… and behold, the glory of the LORD filled the temple” (Ezekiel 43:2–5).
God is gone. But he’ll be back. Someday Yahweh will return to Zion.
Do you think this qualifies as “good news”? The prophet Isaiah certainly thought so:
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,
who publishes salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
The voice of your watchmen—they lift up their voice;
together they sing for joy;
for eye to eye they see
the return of the LORD to Zion.
“The gospel according to Isaiah” is that Yahweh will return to reign from Zion. And this is exactly what Jesus is describing in Mark 1:15:
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
First, it is important to know that the word translated “kingdom” is a dynamic expression referring to the exercise of God’s royal authority—not a static term referring to a realm (or a people) over which a king rules. “Kingdom of God” would be better rendered “reign/rule of God.”
What Jesus is proclaiming in Mark 1:15 is that Yahweh has now returned to Zion to reign over his people—just as he had promised through the prophet Isaiah.
God is back. And his name is Jesus.
If you remain unconvinced by the above interpretation of “gospel” in Mark 1:15, consider another of Isaiah’s predictions of the return of Yahweh to Zion (Isaiah 40:3–5):
3 A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
5 And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
Look back at Ezekiel and notice that when God left the temple he headed towards “the east side of the city” (11:23). Ezekiel saw that the glory of the Lord would one day return “from the east” (43:2). It is not insignificant that “the wilderness”/“desert” that Isaiah describes above lies east of Jerusalem. Isaiah 40:3–5 thus predicts the same event as Ezekiel 43 and Isaiah 52:7–8: Yahweh will return to Zion to reign over his people.
This is precisely what Mark—writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit of God—understood to be happening when Jesus began his public ministry in Galilee. Notice how Mark unpacks what he calls “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1) as he proceeds to introduce his Gospel in the next two verses:
2 As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,
“Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way,
3 the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
Look familiar? It should. This is the passage from Isaiah 40 that I cited above.
The “good news” in Mark 1 is that Yahweh has returned to Zion.
Perhaps you are concerned that I have essentially removed the idea of substitutionary atonement from “the gospel” in Mark 1. Well, in a sense, yes, I have. But not entirely.
One could effectively argue that the atonement is implied in the passage, since the purification of the remnant was included in the promise that Yahweh would one day return to Zion. Indeed, this very aspect of the return of Yahweh appears in the immediate context of the text from Isaiah that Mark quotes (see Isaiah 40:1–2).
But to be fair, yes, I have left the details surrounding the sin-bearing aspect of Jesus’ ministry elsewhere in the New Testament, where they rightly belong.
Like many words, gospel has different nuances depending on the context in which it occurs. We set ourselves up for trouble when we assume that what Jesus meant by “gospel” in 27 AD is the same as what Paul meant decades later. Reminding ourselves that “gospel” is not a technical term for “substitutionary atonement,” but, rather, a general term meaning “good news,” helps us to see this. “Good news” comes in a variety of packages.
As it turns out, Mark 1:14–15, properly interpreted, proves to be even more theological robust than would otherwise be the case. By the way in which he frames his introduction, Mark essentially identifies the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry with the return of Yahweh to Zion. This “Jesus = Yahweh” connection constitutes a powerful argument for the deity of Christ.
God is back. And his name is Jesus.
This was real “good news” to first-century Jews.
It remains real “good news” to every one of us today who are willing to say YES to the reign of God in our lives, who “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).
For more, visit the Good Book Blog, a seminary faculty blog from Talbot School of Theology.