“Immediately”Categories: Iron sharpens iron
Some people get frustrated by the four separate accounts of Jesus’ life on earth found in the New Testament. There’s repetition, but also confusion, as they don’t always include the same stories, or in the same detail, or in the same order. Much effort has been spent trying to perfectly harmonize all four perspectives, but although that’s worthwhile, it’s also a mistake to eliminate the particular flavors that each of the authors infused into the work. These flavors show up in many forms, sometimes giving us insight into Jesus, his teaching, and the Kingdom of Heaven.
One of these little insights comes at the very beginning of Mark’s gospel. Of the four, his is the shortest by a longshot. This is mostly due to his concise, just-the-facts approach, and from the beginning it’s apparent that he intends to spend as little text as he possibly can on an introduction. Where Matthew begins with Jesus’ genealogy back to Abraham, Luke begins by discussing his writing approach and telling us about Jesus’ distant cousin’s parents, and John writes a dense, yet profound assessment of the nature of light and truth, Mark simply says, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk 1.1), spends a few sentences telling us about John the Baptist, and by verse 9 is covering Jesus’ baptism. He picks up 30 years after Luke, 2000 years after Matthew, and eons after John, and rather than slowly developing the character of Jesus, by the end of chapter 1 Jesus has been tempted in the wilderness, begun preaching the gospel, called disciples, and healed a large number number of sick people. He sets a very quick pace, and we’re hard pressed to keep up.
Mark’s favorite word is “immediately.” It’s a fairly common word in the New Testament narratives, often used as a transition to the next episode. Matthew uses it 14 times, and Luke 12 times in his gospel, as well as another 13 in Acts. Mark, in the shortest of the books mentioned, uses it 35 times, and nine of those occur before he’s concluded the first chapter (vv10, 12, 18, 20, 21, 23, 29, 30, and 42). To some extent, that’s just because of their personal preferences and writing styles; but it helps to showcase Mark’s approach toward telling this whole story. Throughout his gospel and especially in the first chapter, he’s deliberately emphasizing how quickly all of this happened. It’s a rapid-fire course of events with very little time in between to process. By emphasizing the speed with which these events took place, Mark gives us a window into the experience of most of the people who heard of them in real time, who weren’t actively following Jesus around, who were distracted by the normal, everyday cares of life, and for whom all of this happened very…suddenly. As Mark tells us after the first healing he records, “at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee” (Mk 1.28).
Why does Mark do this? What is the point of demonstrating more clearly the swiftness of all that Jesus did here on earth? It matches the predictions God makes elsewhere about the judgments he will bring on the wicked. For example, he tells Babylon,
These two things shall come to you
in a moment, in one day;
the loss of children and widowhood
shall come upon you in full measure (Isaiah 47.9)
Speaking of a different “Babylon” several centuries later, a voice from heaven says,
For this reason her plagues will come in a single day,
death and mourning and famine,
and she will be burned up with fire;
for mighty is the Lord God who has judged her. (Revelation 18.8)
More follows in verses 10, 17, and 19, in these cases speaking of “a single hour.” The point in each one is that God has been patient, and has given ample warning of harsh judgments to come. He gave them plenty of time to repent and turn toward him, but now that the day has come, there will be no escaping. In the blink of an eye, everything is changed.
Jesus’ coming did represent a judgment, but it also represented the opposite—good news. That included a need for repentance, as Mark notes in both John’s teaching (Mk 1.4) and Jesus’ (Mk 1.15). But instead of that repentance simply pushing off God’s wrath for a little while, it brought about, for the first time, a genuine cleansing, healing, and God’s favor. He did all of that in a period of, at most, three years. Even in terms of our lifespan, three years is short, and yet in that brief time, while it was never quite like the flipping of a switch, everything changed.
Today, we often content ourselves with slow, incremental progress, or even just managing to keep things steady. While both of those are better than a continuous descent into hell, it’s important that we not become complacent. As Mark records later, referring to the coming destruction of Jerusalem, “concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mk 13.32). It’s dangerous to say, “I’ll be ready when the time comes,” either for your death or for Christ’s return. You don’t know when that time will be. You need to be ready, now. If there are still hurdles between you and God, don’t put them off until you’ve figured out every last detail, or mastered the history and philosophy of Christianity in the western world. Perhaps you’ll have time for that later, but for now, you need to deal with whatever separates you from God’s love, immediately.