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Mark 1:14-20 Biblical Commentary:
MARK 1. THE CONTEXT
Mark begins his Gospel with the words, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ” (v. 1), and tells the stories of the ministry of John the Baptist (vv. 2-8), the baptism of Jesus (vv. 9-11), and Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (vv. 12-13).
John the Baptist careful puts himself in proper relationship to the one who is coming after him. That one (Jesus Christ) will be more powerful, and will baptize with the Holy Spirit. John is unworthy even to untie the thong of his sandals (vv. 7-8).
Our Gospel lesson is the story of the call of the first disciples, which opens Jesus’ ministry.
Following the call of these disciples, Jesus launches into his public ministry, healing a man with an unclean spirit (vv. 21-28), healing Simon’s mother-in-law and others at Simon’s house (vv. 29-34), preaching in Galilee (vv. 35-39), and cleansing a leper (vv. 40-45).
Brooks sees the aim of first half of this Gospel (through 8:21) as proclaiming (by preaching and teaching) and demonstrating (by miracles) “the nearness of the kingdom of God” (Brooks, 46).
Mark’s Gospel is fast-paced, rather like a series of images flashed on a screen one after another, moving almost too fast for us to keep up.
MARK 1:14-15. JESUS CAME PREACHING THE GOOD NEWS
14Now after John was taken into custody (Greek: paradothenai—from paradidomi—handed over, delivered up, betrayed), Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the Good News (Greek: euangelion) of the Kingdom of God, 15and saying, “The time (Greek: kairos) is fulfilled, and the Kingdom (Greek:basileia) of God is at hand! Repent, and believe in the Good News.” (Greek: euangelion)
“Now after John was taken into custody” (paradidomi—delivered up or handed over) (v. 14a). Mark will tell the story of John’s arrest as a flashback at 6:14-29.
Mark tells us that Jesus began his ministry only after John was arrested (paradidomi—handed over, delivered up). In John’s Gospel (3:22-30), John and Jesus have overlapping ministries for a time. Mark tells the story differently, taking John the Baptist out of play before Jesus begins his ministry—possibly because Mark wants to emphasize John’s role as forerunner. Once Jesus is on the scene, John is no longer needed.
Paradidomi combines the Greek para (over to) and didomi (to give), and means “to give over to” or “to deliver up.” The World English Bible translates it, “after John was taken into custody,” and the NRSV says “arrested.” Both are valid translations, because they convey the meaning. However, I prefer “Now after John was delivered up” or “handed over,” because those translations capture something of the sinister nature of John’s arrest.
Mark will also use the word paradidomai to speak of to speak of the betrayal of Jesus (3:19; 9:31; 14:21, 41) and his being handed over to the Gentiles (10:33). That is not accidental. John was the forerunner of Jesus Christ. Not only did he prepare the way for Jesus, but his life also served as an overture to Jesus’ life, introducing themes that would characterize Jesus’ life and ministry. That is particularly true of paradidomai. Like John, Jesus will be delivered over to the authorities. Like John, Jesus’ paradidomai will lead to his death.
Jesus will also use paradidomai to warn his disciples that they will be handed over to the councils for beatings and trial (13:9-13).
While there is evil at work in each paradidomai, we can be assured that God is at work behind the scenes—and is capable of transforming Good Fridays into Easters. Tertullian assured us that the blood of Christian martyrs is the seed of the church. While we should not take the suffering of our Christian brothers and sisters lightly, we need to remember that God is working in the background—and that God will win in the end.
“Jesus came into Galilee” (v. 14b). Judea was John’s domain, but Galilee was Jesus’ domain. The people of Jerusalem and Judea went to the wilderness to hear John preach (Matthew 3:1-6). While people from Jerusalem and Judea will be among those who come to hear Jesus (Mark 3:8), Jesus begins and ends his ministry in Galilee (see 16:7). Most of his ministry, other than his death and resurrection, takes place in Galilee. Jerusalem will be associated with opposition to Jesus. The religious authorities (priests, scribes, and Pharisees) will engineer his execution there.
“preaching the Good News (euangelion) of God” (v. 14c). The euangelion (Good News) is that God loves us and has made provision to save us. This idea has deep Old Testament roots. Isaiah tells us that all people are like grass, which withers—but assures Israel that “the word of our God will stand forever—and that God “will feed his flock like a shepherd.” These are the “good tidings” of which Jerusalem is to be herald (Isaiah 40:6-11). In the New Testament, euangelion is usually the good news of Jesus Christ and the salvation that he offers. In this case, however, Jesus proclaims the good news of God.
“The time (kairos) is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand” (v. 15a). The Greeks have two words for time:
• Chronos is chronological time—the kind of time that we measure on clocks and calendars—the kind of time by which we keep appointments.
• Kairos is significant time—the moment of truth—the decisive moment—the fork in the road that makes all the difference. A kairos moment divides past from future—ushers us into a new kind of life.
The number of days that a ship takes to go from one port to the next is chronos time, but when we say, “When my ship comes in,” we are talking about kairos time. If we are late for an appointment (chronos time), that might or might not turn out to be important. However, if “our ship came in” (kairos time) and we missed it, that will almost certainly be tragic.
Jesus says that the kairos “is fulfilled.” The decisive moment has arrived. God’s reign is at hand. Heads up! Pay attention! Don’t miss this one! Your life is at stake!
“the Kingdom (basileia) of God is at hand” (v. 15a). Hooker suggests that we might translate basileia as kingship rather than kingdom. The word kingdom implies the geographical territory over which a king reigns, but God’s kingship is his sovereign rule over the hearts of people—not land (Hooker, 55).
The idea of the kingdom of God has its roots in the Old Testament (see Psalms 45:6; 103:19; 145:10-13; Isaiah 52:7), although that phrase is not found there. The early Israelites, in their rebellion, rejected God’s kingship in favor of a king like the ones that they saw in surrounding nations (1 Samuel 8:5-22), but the promise of God’s kingdom and the salvation that it brings was always present.
The Israelites of Jesus’ day thought of God’s kingdom as a restoration of the power and glory that Israel enjoyed during David’s reign—God ruling through his chosen people, Israel.
Jesus tells of a very different kind of kingdom—a kingdom that “is at hand” (v. 15)—a spiritual kingdom that is realized when we surrender our hearts to God—a kingdom that began with Jesus’ first coming, but which will be fully manifested only in his Second Coming.
Jesus will say much more about the Kingdom of God. He says:
• “To you (his disciples) is given the mystery of the Kingdom of God, but to those who are outside, all things are done in parables” (4:11).
• “The Kingdom of God is as if a man should cast seed on the earth, and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should spring up and grow, he doesn’t know how”(4:26-27).
• “How will we liken the Kingdom of God? Or with what parable will we illustrate it? It’s like a grain of mustard seed” (4:30-31).
• “Allow the little children to come to me! Don’t forbid them, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (10:14).
• See also 10:23-24; 12:34; 14-25.
Given that Jesus made the Kingdom of God such a central part of his teaching and preaching, we disciples need to do the same. The church, however, is always tempted to let other things displace the proclamation of the kingdom of God. When we allow that to happen, we are being unfaithful. Whatever we thought was more important than the proclamation of the kingdom becomes an idol, and cannot serve either the church or society well.
“Repent, and believe in the Good News” (v. 15b). The appropriate response to the coming of the kingdom is twofold: Repent (Greek: metanoeo—to change one’s mind or direction) and believe the good news!
We tend to think of repentance as feeling guilty, but it is really a change of mind or direction—seeing things from a different perspective. Once we begin to see things rightly, we will probably feel bad about having been wrong for so long—but repentance starts with the new vision rather than the guilt feelings.
When Jesus called the Israelites to repentance, he was calling them to turn away from false gods (human efforts or alliances that would betray them in the end) and turn to the true God (who could and would save them).
“and believe (pisteuo) in the Good News” (euangelion) (v. 15c). To believe (pisteuo) is to be convinced that something is true—to trust it—to have faith. The author of Hebrews defines faith as the “assurance of things hoped for, proof of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).
Belief makes it possible for people to live confidently in the midst of difficulty. Belief makes it possible to keep moving forward toward seemingly impossible goals. Belief makes it possible for us to step out into the darkness, certain that God will give us sure footing.
But the object of our belief is critical. People believed in Hitler, but Hitler betrayed their trust. His legacy was shattered lives and rubble. People believed in Mao with similar results. Extremist religious beliefs drive most of the world’s terrorist activity today. Any number of people believe in money or power.
But Jesus calls us to believe in the Good News (euangelion). The Greek word euangelion combines the words eu (good) and angellos (to proclaim—related to our word angel, because angels were God’s messengers). In the New Testament, euangelion means the Good News of Jesus Christ.
That might sound like spiritual claptrap, except that we have seen how belief in Jesus Christ has transformed lives. One of my favorite stories has to do with an alcoholic who became a Christian and was able, by the grace of God, to quit drinking. His old drinking buddies made fun of him. One of them asked, “Do you really believe that Jesus turned water into wine?” The new Christian thought for a moment and then replied, “I don’t know whether Jesus turned water into wine—but I do know that, in my house, he turned beer into furniture.” The stories of lives transformed by belief in Jesus are legion—and true.
MARK 1:16-20. JESUS CALLS FOUR DISCIPLES
Why does Jesus call these four disciples? Why do they follow? Nothing in the text fully answers either question. Apparently Jesus sees something worthwhile in these four men—not necessarily what they are but what they could be. Apparently the four men see something compelling in Jesus—something that causes them to walk away from that which is precious to follow him. For Simon and Andrew, the sacrifice is leaving their nets. For James and John, it is leaving their father.
These men did not seek to become Jesus’ disciples. They had not presented Jesus with their resumes and begged him to accept them as students. It was Jesus’ initiative, not theirs, that resulted in their becoming Jesus’ followers. That is typical of call stories. See the story of Abraham (Genesis 12:1-9)—and Moses (Exodus 3:1-21)—and Samuel (1 Samuel 3:1-18)—and Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1-8). God chooses whom God chooses.
MARK 1:16-18. COME AFTER ME
16Passing along by the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. 17Jesus said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you into fishers for men” (Greek: halieis anthropon). 18Immediately they left their nets, and followed him.
“Passing along by the sea of Galilee” (v. 16a). The Sea of Galilee is a large freshwater lake near the headwaters of the Jordan River—13 miles (21 km) long at its longest point and 8 miles (13 km) wide at its widest point—surrounded for the most part by high hills. The Sea of Galilee is also known by three other names:
• The Sea of Chinnereth (the Hebrew word for harp), because of its harp-like shape (Numbers 34:11; Joshua 12:3; 13:27).
• The Lake of Gennesaret, because of the plain of that name that adjoins it (Luke 5:1).
• The Sea of Tiberius, because of the city by that name on its shores (John 6:1; 21:1).
In Jesus’ day the Sea of Galilee supported a substantial fishing industry that exported fish to Egypt and other distant locations (Edwards, 49). While some fishermen would practice subsistence fishing (fishing primarily to feed their own family), there would also be substantial export trade. Some fishermen would be poor—most would be comfortable—and some would be quite prosperous.
Simon and Andrew are from Bethsaida (John 1:44), probably located on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee east of Capernaum.
Jesus “saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen” (v. 16b). Jesus sees them. They weren’t looking for him. Their attention is focused on the task at hand—casting their net—hoping for a good catch.
Casting a net into the sea involves a large circular net with weights fastened around the edges and a draw rope to trap fish. Nets of this type are still used in some parts of the world, and it is a thing of beauty to watch a skilled fisherman cast such a net. Larger fishing operations would use a boat and dragnet. Some scholars contrast Simon and Peter (less affluent brothers who cast a net) with James and John (more affluent brothers whose father not only owns a boat but also has hired hands—v. 20). However, Luke 5:3 says that Simon owns a boat, so this contrast is probably overdrawn.
“Come after me, and I will make you into fishers for men” (halieis anthropon) (v. 17). Gender-neutral versions say, “fish for people” instead of “fishers for men.” While “people” meets today’s gender-neutral standard, it does so at the expense of poetic charm. I must confess that one of my favorite songs as a child was, “I will make you fishers of men, fishers of men, fishers of men. I will make you fishers of men if you follow me.” That, of course, was another century—another millennium—but I feel cheated not to hear children singing it—and go through the motions that accompanied it.
“Come after me” (v. 17b). The call is personal—an invitation to follow Jesus rather than to join a cause. Most rabbis expect aspiring students to seek permission to follow, but the initiative here is with Jesus. He chooses his disciples rather than waiting to be sought out by them. Jesus’ call is also different in that he calls them , not to follow the Torah, but to follow himself (Edwards, 49).
In a society where family ties are strong and fathers expect sons to take over the family business and to support elderly parents, Jesus’ call demands a radical break from:
• Social ties that bind men to their extended families. Their work will support their families financially. In the event that they are injured or ill, their families will support them. When they grow old, their children will support them.
• The economic security represented by fishing, the only work that they know.
Jesus calls Simon and Andrew to let go of everything that they know so that they can step out onto a pathway that he will show them—a pathway that he does not define for them in advance—a pathway that they will not understand until they have walked it. That is what discipleship involves—faith to step into the unknown, trusting Christ to lead us to the right destination.
“fishers for men” (anthropon—men, humankind) (v. 17b). Some scholars believe that “fishers for men” involves gathering people for judgment, because the Old Testament uses the fishing metaphor in that sense (see Jeremiah 16:16; Amos 4:2).
The context in Mark, however, makes it clear that Jesus is calling these men to an evangelistic task. They, like Jesus, are to proclaim the Good News—the Good News of the Kingdom of God—the Good News of Jesus Christ who is ushering in the kingdom. These four men will invite people to make God their king—to submit to his reign (Geddert, 57).
“Immediately (euthus—one of Mark’s favorite words) they left their nets, and followed him” (v. 18).
• In Luke’s version of this story, the call of these four disciples follows a great fishing miracle-of-abundance (Luke 5:1-11), which makes it easy to understand why they follow Jesus.
• In the Gospel of John, John the Baptist announces that Jesus is the Lamb of God, and two of his disciples (including Andrew) follow Jesus. Andrew then goes to his brother, Peter, announcing that he has found the Messiah (John 1:35-41). Again, it is easy to understand why they follow Jesus.
• Mark, however, gives us none of this background. Perhaps he is simply reducing the story to its barest essentials, but he is probably just emphasizing the compelling nature of Jesus’ call.
In Mark’s Gospel, Andrew appears only once more (13:3), although there are two more mentions of his name, including one in a list of apostles (see 1:29; 3:18). Jesus will give Simon the name Peter at 3:16, and Peter will go on to become the most prominent of the apostles. Prior to the resurrection, his behavior will be uneven, and he will deny Jesus (14:26-31; 66-72). After the resurrection, he will become the rock that his new name predicted.
Simon and Andrew follow Jesus, but Jesus keeps them near their home for quite some time. They will go to the synagogue at Capernaum, near their hometown, for the sabbath (vv. 21-28), and will then return to their home where Jesus will heal Simon’s mother-in-law (vv. 29-34). They will stay in Galilee for the first nine chapters of this Gospel, at which time they will go to Judea (10:1). They will return to Galilee after the resurrection (16:7).
MARK 1:19-20. THEY LEFT THEIR FATHER, ZEBEDEE
19Going on a little further from there, he saw James the son of Zebedee, and John, his brother, who were also in the boat mending the nets. 20Immediately (Greek: euthus) he called them, and they left their father, Zebedee, in the boat with the hired servants, and went after him.
“Going on a little further from there, he saw James the son of Zebedee, and John, his brother, who were also in the boat mending the nets” (v. 19). This story is roughly modeled after the call of Elisha by Elijah in 1 Kings 19:19-21, but with notable differences:
• Elisha received permission to say goodbye to his father and mother prior to following Elijah, whereas Mark says that James and John simply leave their father to follow Jesus.
• Upon returning from his goodbyes, Elisha slaughtered the oxen with which he had been plowing and boiled them, using their yokes as fuel—thus insuring that he could not turn back to his old way of life. James and John do not destroy their boat and nets, but simply leave them behind.
“Immediately (euthus) he called them” (v. 20a). Again we hear Mark’s characteristic euthus—immediately. In the last instance, Simon and Andrew “immediately…left their nets and followed him” (v. 18). In this instance, Jesus immediately calls James and John.
“and they left their father, Zebedee, in the boat with the hired servants, and went after him” (v. 20b). Like Peter and Andrew, James and John hear Jesus’ call and leave their father to follow Jesus. The detail about Zebedee remaining in the boat with the hired men illustrates the suddenness with which James and John make their decision and follow through on it. The point of their quick departure is the compelling nature of Jesus’ call.
The mention of hired hands suggests that Zebedee is running a larger enterprise than Peter and Andrew—just how large we cannot know. The mention of hired men also softens the departure of James and John—they do not leave their father bereft of help.
James and John will be known as Sons of Thunder (3:17), and will join Peter as members of a small inner circle that is present at the Transfiguration (9:2-9), Gethsemane (14:33 ff.), and other significant moments. They will petition Jesus to grant them places of honor (10:35 ff.). John will become a key member of the Jerusalem church (Galatians 2:9). James will be killed by Herod Agrippa (Acts 12:1-3), and Mark 10:39 suggests that John, too, will be martyred.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Barclay, William, Gospel of Mark (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1954)
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Perkins, Pheme, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995)
Waetjen, Herman C., A Reordering of Power: A Socio-Political Reading of Mark’s Gospel (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989)
Williamson, Lamar Jr., Interpretation: Mark (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1983)
Witherington, Ben III, The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Wright, Tom (N.T.), Mark for Everyone (London: SPCK and Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001, 2004)
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