The Gospel of Mark focuses on actions much more than words, but there’s a lot packed into Jesus’ single sentence in Mark 1:15:
The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.
It would take the rest of his ministry to unfold the meaning of what he introduced there. Take “the gospel,” for instance. The Greek word means “good news.” What good news would his listeners have thought he was calling on them to believe? Today we understand it in terms of his death on the cross freeing us from our sins, and his resurrection freeing us from death. Early in his ministry, “good news” of the kingdom of God would have probably been understood a freedom from oppression. When I continue this series with Jesus’ first sermon in Luke (Luke 4:18-21; 22-27), we’ll see that Jesus actually did have that in mind. The fullness of what he meant by that will be a topic for later reflection.
Good news! How welcome that must have sounded in the Galileans’ ears, if they dared to believe it—which is just what he called them to do. Undoubtedly good news seemed all but impossible: All Israel was under Roman dominion, led by unjust rulers and dishonest administrators. But Jesus called them to a change of mind, a metanoia or as we say it in English, to repentance, for “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.”
And what was it that made this time different than any other? It was the presence of Jesus Christ himself.
One of the most remarkable things about Jesus’ teaching was the way he kept placing himself at the center. It wasn’t just about ethics or about the character of God; it was about who he was. This is especially easy to see in Jesus’ many “I am” statements in the book of John, but it pops into view straightaway even in Mark. Jesus was the carrier of the message, and he was the message. He spoke about how to live, and he himself was that life (John 14:6). He brought a message of the kingdom of God, and later it became clear that he was the king in that realm.
The crowds loved him. Bonhoeffer rightly called him “the man for others.” Hypocritical, power-seeking religious leaders saw his popularity as a huge threat, yet generations since then have regarded Jesus as the greatest moral teacher of all times. Every major religion in the world tries to claim Jesus Christ as one of their own.
Those facts put together should give us pause. Usually when we meet someone who makes himself the focus of his own conversation, we run away. They didn’t do that with Jesus; they ran to him.
Every other great moral teacher has said, “Don’t put me on a pedestal; look to God instead,” or “look to the ethical principles instead.” Jesus alone could say, “Look to me,” for in doing so he was saying at the same time, “Look to God.” Jesus alone could make himself the focus of hope while being indeed the man for others, making himself the greatest possible sacrifice for others.
In both these ways he was unique; there has never been another like him in history or even in fiction.
I have said it before and I will repeat it now: if the story of Jesus was a fabrication, it was an invention whose ethical and creative genius exceeds all others in history. Jesus-mythers think a beleaguered community of faith pulled that off. If so, the members of that group were either intentionally lying, pathologically deceiving themselves, or else hopelessly confused about reality. I do not think that is the kind of community that could generate a character like Jesus Christ. For Christ to have been fictional would be stranger than for him to have been the truth.
I have many reasons to believe in Jesus Christ, but this is chief among them all: He is not only the greatest man of all time, his story is the greatest of all time. It is too great to be fiction.
Jesus’ arrival was the moment of fulfillment, the breaking in of the kingdom of God. His kingdom was not of this world, as he said later, but he kept inviting people into it, by calling them to accept his loving presence and rule in their lives by faith. The same invitation is open today. The day will come when his kingdom will come to this world in every sense. It is and it will be a good kingdom, a “good-news” kingdom. Why not enter in now?