Isn’t Mark a bit of a Scrooge for not including the story of Jesus’ birth in his gospel? Really! No star in the east. No angels touching their harps of gold. No little town of Bethlehem. What a grump! And what’s up with beginning with John the Baptist preaching repentance? Does that sound like Christmas? I submit that it does not!
we saw before (here), Mark had his reasons. One was wanting to help us as readers experience Jesus as the first disciples did, with all their interest and confusion.
Mark had another reason for starting his gospel in the desert. That is where the most significant nation-forming event in the life of Israel began. That story opens with Moses coming to rescue his people from Egypt with many signs and miracles, especially the ten plagues. Likewise, the miracles in Mark are concentrated in the first section of Mark, signaling Jesus as one like Moses who comes to save his people from bondage. In both cases the new community is called by the sea (Ex 14/Mk 1:16-20), has a nation-forming moment on a mountain (Ex 19-20/Mk 3:13-19), and has bread being provided miraculously in the wilderness (Ex 16/Mk 6:30-44).
The second part of Mark, “The Way to Jerusalem,” corresponds to the journey in which Moses led the people through the wilderness to the Promised Land. Echoes of the journey of Israel from Egypt to Zion include the transfiguration (Mk 9:2-9), the focus on the law given to Moses during the wilderness journey (Mk 10:1-12), and Jericho being Jesus’s final stop before arriving in Jerusalem (Mk 10:46)–just as was the case for Israel at the conclusion of its wilderness travels (Jos 1-6).
main theme of the gospel, found in the Old Testament passages quoted in Mark 1:2-3, introduces “the way” through the wilderness to the Promised Land. The way is prepared for the Lord who (in the context of the Isaiah 40:3 passage quoted there) is coming as a Divine Warrior to defeat the enemies of his people. The great irony is that this victory and conquest of Zion, which we see in the third and final part of Mark when Jesus enters Jerusalem as a king, comes not through the death of enemies but through the path of suffering and death of the Lord at the hands of his enemies.
Mark wants us to see Jesus as leading a New Israel through a New Exodus, forming a new people of God who will serve him faithfully. Jesus is the New Moses who is greater than Moses.
Yet Jesus is more. He also embodies the New Israel himself, going into the desert for 40 days as Israel was in the desert for 40 years. He takes on, in himself, the role and work of the entire nation of Israel, as a stand-in for all the people. They succumbed to the temptation by turning to idolatry (Ex 32). Jesus, however, passes the test–doing what Israel should have done but didn’t. And by his victory, he accomplishes the purpose for Israel given to Abraham (Gen 12:3) which the nation never fully achieved–being a blessing to all nations.
As a result we can sing and encourage all nations to sing:
Joyful, all ye nations, rise.
Join the triumph of the skies.
With th’ Angelic Hosts proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new-born King.”
This post is partially adapted from Mark Through Old Testament Eyes.