Mark wrote his book to convince both believers and unbelievers that Jesus, who was condemned as a criminal, was the authoritative, powerful, loving, and pleasing son of God. To begin, Jesus had his way prepared for him by John the Baptist. It was a road that led them both to their betrayal and death. Yet, regardless of the abuse he and John faced, Jesus proclaims good news. This makes me feel uneasy. Does Jesus overlook injustice? How is Jesus good news right now, here on earth? As we work out the dissonance of Jesus, we are confronted with our own values. Do we need to change our minds on some things? Or, is the gospel of Jesus too good to actually work? Even for those of us who have been believers for decades, we continue to struggle with the gospel that jars us and causes tension.
As I write this, the USA is agitated over the not-guilty verdict of Kyle Rittenhouse for killing two men in what was judged to be self-defense. The outcry is over the political issues of gun rights, racial equality in our justice system, and vigilante justice rather than a disagreement with Rittenhouse’s defense itself. The trial has evoked a feeling that the US justice system is not functioning fairly, and it has highlighted the sharp disagreement between Americans on how these issues should be addressed in a bigger setting than one court case can allow.
In Mark 1:14, we find another politically charged incident in the arrest of John the Baptist. Mark does not elaborate, but he hints at the injustice of the case, describing it as a “handing over,” an unjust betrayal. John had been imprisoned for purely political reasons. His “crime” was speaking out against the immoral and murderous actions of the king. John’s condemnation was sparking the seeds of rebellion against Herod and ultimately against their Roman overlords who had appointed him. John was silenced because he believed the king should be held to the same law as those he governed.
In the midst of this injustice, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news from God (Mark 1:14). How can Jesus proclaim good news when his mentor, cousin and friend is rotting in a Roman prison for committing no crime except to speak against the unlawful behavior of the king? Jesus can preach good news, because betrayal, imprisonment and even death do not impede the kingdom of God. Jesus is not distracted with a political agenda, nor does the injustice of kings surprise him. Instead, Jesus is “saying, ‘The time is now. The kingdom of God is nearby. Repent and believe into the good news.’” (Mark 1:15)
The time is now.
This is it. Time is full. Nothing else can be added to it. No more waiting for something to happen in the future. It is happening right now. Jesus claimed his coming summed up time. They didn’t need to wait for justice for John to enjoy the good news, because with Jesus’ coming everything in heaven and earth would be brought together (Ephesians 1:10). All the moral and ethical ideals that legal systems attempt to epitomize and enforce are but shadows of the true goodness of God. Jesus’ arrival brought that goodness to earth and made it accessible once more to humanity. When we trust the legal system to characterize what is right and good, we can only be frustrated. The law only takes us so far. Jesus claims to embody what is good about the heavenly realm of God, here and now, in the created realm of earth. When we trust Jesus to characterize what is right and good, we connect to God’s kingdom.
The kingdom of God is nearby.
Jesus explained his coming brought God’s kingdom close. This is not a temporal designation, but a spatial designation. God’s kingdom is nearby. It is beside us. Or as Jesus says elsewhere, it is within.
Imagine an embryo inside her mother’s womb. She is not aware of the world that exists outside her warm, watery home. She may be conscious of her mother’s voice, but she does not know how her mother’s world interacts and influences her little life until she is born into it. The kingdom of God is like this embryonic awareness. It is mysteriously hidden alongside the created world and can only be explained through metaphor and story. Entering God’s kingdom brings a change of awareness, much like being born out of the womb into the world. We have access to peace, celebration, forgiveness, kindness, goodness, and loyalty even when the physical world is full of betrayal, discord, and injustice. This is how Jesus can continue to proclaim the goodness of God’s kingdom even while John is suffering the injustice of a corrupt political system. Jesus is aware of the heavenly world interacting and influencing the created world.
When we believe the good news of Jesus, we no longer expect God’s kingdom to be something outside working to make things better for us. Instead, when we become aware of God’s sovereign control, it transforms our inner life. God’s kingdom begins in the essence of who we are, inside of us. This belief begins to affect the world from the inside out.
Repent and believe into the good news.
The kingdom of God begins with change, not political change, but personal change. Jesus invited people to repent, and repentance is the essence of change. It is when we name the things that we want to be different in our own lives. It is a change of heart that leads to a change of behavior, which lead to a whole new way of living.
John the Baptist connected his message of repentance with purity, but Jesus connected repentance with belief into good news. Mark uses a specific preposition to explain how we should relate to the good news. It is often altered into English as “in.” But, “into” is a little more precise. It takes belief beyond mere mental acknowledgement and asks us to dive into it, to make it personal, to embody it. I know you’ve heard the phrase “Be the change you want to see.” When it comes to people who believe in Jesus, this phrase is more than a lofty ideal. It becomes reality. When people choose to believe into the good news of Jesus, connecting to the goodness of the kingdom of God, it transforms families and alters the course of generations. When we believe into the good news, we become good news ourselves.
Now, if you know the story of Jesus, this emphasis on good news may sound confusing to you. If Jesus lived a good, and some would say – a perfect life, how could he have ended up a convicted criminal on a Roman cross? That’s not good news! That is one of the most heinous injustices of all time! How could Jesus proclaim good news in the face of such evil? For the same reason Jesus could continue to proclaim the good news from God while John faced an unjust penal system. Betrayal, imprisonment, and death do not impede the kingdom of God.
I am reminded of the stories of Christians behind the Iron Curtain in Communist Russia when I think of the contrast of believing the good news in the face of stark injustice. Richard Wurmbrand published letters from Maria, a Russian Christian girl, in his book Tortured for Christ. (Disclaimer: I do not endorse Voice of the Martyrs today, but Wurmbrand’s book is wonderful.) Maria writes about her friend Varia, who was an outspoken member of the Communist Youth Organization. Varia was intrigued by Maria’s kindness toward those who insulted and hurt her. In time, Varia accepted the good news and became a believer in Jesus. After speaking about Christ to those in the youth club, Varia was arrested and sent to prison. Maria writes,
When I saw her yesterday, she was thin, pale, beaten. Only the eyes shone with the peace of God and with an unearthly joy. Yes, my dear ones, those who have not experienced the wonderful peace of Christ cannot understand it… but how happy are those who have this peace … For us who are in Christ no sufferings and frustrations should stop us. (Tortured for Christ by Richard Wurmbrand, Living Sacrifice Book Co, 1998,138.)
Varia was sent to Siberia, and she wrote to Maria that she found the camp was filled with other Christians. One woman whispered to her as she came off the train, “God lives.”
Amid godless cruelty and systemic injustice, the simple statement of God’s presence brings the kingdom of heaven to earth. Welcome to the dissonant good news.