Jesus had waited a long time for his first public sermon. During the first thirty years of his life he was relatively silent, growing in "wisdom and stature" (Luke 2:52) and laboring in obscurity as a carpenter (Mark 6:3). The fact that the Gospel accounts give us precious little information about this phase of his life only heightens our expectations (and curiosity) about what Jesus would say when he was finally ready to step onto the public stage. After all, when you look at the first portion of the Gospel stories it seems everyone is talking except Jesus. In Mark's Gospel, for example, we begin by hearing the prophets Isaiah and Malachi speak. Then we hear John the Baptist speak. After that, at Jesus' baptism, the Father in heaven speaks. By this time, the tension is beginning to build in the mind of the reader about what Jesus is going to say when he speaks. What will be his first words to a waiting world? What will be the subject of his very first sermon? What will be his big opening line?
In Mark 1:15 we have our answer: "The time is fulfilled." Now, for most modern readers of the Bible this seems like a remarkably strange topic for Jesus' public debut. What in the world is he talking about? And why would Jesus launch his ministry with a sermon on such an obscure subject? Shouldn't Jesus' first sermon have been a bit more practical’maybe about how to "get saved" or something like that? But the implications of Jesus' words would not have been missed by his first-century audience. The phrase "The time is fulfilled" would have been quickly recognized as a proclamation that God's great and wonderful promises’the very promises Israel had longed to see realized for generations’were about to come true.
It was an eschatological declaration that God's rule was about to break into human history in a powerful and mighty way and that God's dominion would spread throughout the world. It meant that the kingdom of God had arrived. (1)
Thus Jesus' inaugural sermon in Mark 1:15 tells us something very critical; it tells us that somehow the ministry of Jesus is intimately and unavoidably connected with the coming of the kingdom of God. This connection is confirmed by the fact that the kingdom of God is the heart of Jesus' message in all four Gospels (Mark 1:15; Matt 4:23; Luke 4:21; John 3:3-5). His preaching concerns not only "how to get to heaven" but also how heaven has, in some sense, come to earth. He is not interested only in soteriology, but also in eschatology’not just in redemption, but also redemptive history. But the connection between Jesus and the kingdom goes even deeper than this. It is not just that Jesus liked to talk about the kingdom of God, but rather he is the very one who ushers in the kingdom of God. It is through the person of Jesus and no other that God's eschatological kingdom breaks into the world in a new and powerful way. Why? Because Jesus is more than just a herald of the kingdom. He is not merely an announcer. He is the King. The kingdom of God has arrived because the King himself has arrived.
All of these connections make it clear that if we are to understand Jesus and his mission, it is imperative we further explore this topic of the kingdom of God. One cannot be rightly understood without the other. To do so, we shall probe more deeply into Mark 1:15 and the surrounding texts. When we dig deeper into Jesus' inaugural sermon, we will begin to realize that the kingdom of God is not just one theme in Jesus' ministry but the foundational theological architecture for his ministry’it forms the structural girders that frame it and hold it up.
The Power of the Kingdom: The Defeat of Satan
The first thing to note about Jesus' announcement of the kingdom of God is that it was, in effect, an announcement of the defeat of Satan. Just two verses before Jesus' inaugural sermon, Christ was in the wilderness being tempted by Satan for forty days (Mark 1:13). Remarkably, Mark gives us very little detail about this temptation (as opposed to the other Gospels) and does not even tell us the outcome of the temptations. Of course, this creates enormous tension for the reader. What exactly happened in the wilderness for the last forty days? (See "What a Difference a Comma Makes" on page 30.) How did Jesus fare in this cosmic showdown with Satan himself? Who won? Then, in the very next verse, Jesus emerges from the wilderness and makes the simple statement, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand." It is here that the reader recognizes the outcome of Jesus' forty days in the wilderness. He has proved faithful and victorious over the temptations of the devil. The power of Satan has been decisively broken. (2)
The significance of Christ's victory over Satan in the desert is often missed by the casual reader. We too easily forget that up to this point in history not a single human being, not one person anywhere, has ever fully withstood the temptations of the devil. Not Adam. Not Abraham. Not Jacob. Not Moses. Not Joshua. Not David. Not Elijah. Not Daniel. Not anyone. Every person on the planet, from the beginning of creation, has ultimately succumbed to the wiles of the evil one’until now. Where the first Adam failed, the second Adam succeeded. While the first Adam gave in to temptation in a perfect and wonderful garden (with an abundance of food), the second Adam resisted temptation in a barren wilderness (while having nothing to eat). As a result, Jesus earned perfect righteousness for those he represents. He kept the law perfectly on our behalf. The accusations of the devil against God's people cannot stand, for his people are wrapped in the perfect imputed righteousness of Christ.
The fact that the kingdom of God is marked by the overthrow of Satan is picked up in a number of other New Testament texts. In Matthew 12:28 Jesus declares, "But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you." Jesus makes it clear that his dominion over demonic forces is evidence of the arrival of the kingdom. Likewise, he declares that demons cannot be cast out unless someone "first binds the strong man" (Matt. 12:29). Thus it is the binding of Satan (and his demons along with him) that marks the coming of God's new reign. This same language also occurs in Revelation 20:2, "And [the angel] seized the dragon, the ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years." (3)
Of course, to say that Satan is bound or defeated when Christ ushered in the kingdom of God will inevitably create some confusion. How can we say that Satan is bound when he seems to be quite busy and troublesome? Is he not described as a "roaring lion, seeking someone to devour" (1 Pet. 5:8)? But Christ's defeat of Satan does not require that Satan is now inactive. He is bound, not destroyed. This simply means that Satan's power has been curbed and the decisive blow has been dealt, even though the battle rages on. In particular, Satan is bound in regard to his ability to "deceive the nations" (Rev. 20:3). Put differently, God has a global plan for the world’to save people from every nation, tribe, people and tongue’and Satan cannot stand in the way. Prior to the coming of Christ and the kingdom he brings, the world was largely in darkness, but now "the people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light" (Isa. 9:2; cf. Matt. 4:16).
The manner in which Satan is defeated in part, but not yet in whole, reveals the essential nature of the kingdom of God. We might expect (as did many Jews in the first century) that God would bring his kingdom into the world all at once, decisively and finally overthrowing his enemies and establishing his everlasting reign. But the kingdom of God does not enter the world in one big apocalyptic event; it enters the world gradually and in advance of its final eschatological manifestation. (4) It is like the mustard seed that starts off small but then grows "larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches" (Matt. 13:32). This is why the eschatological nature of the kingdom of God is captured by the phrase "already, but not yet." Although the kingdom has already come in principle through the work of Christ overthrowing Satan, it has not yet come fully and completely.
Thus Jesus' inaugural sermon leads us to rejoice in the coming of the kingdom of God where the power of Satan is curbed and the righteousness we so desperately need has been earned for us by Christ. But it also calls us to look forward to the time when the kingdom is fully realized, Satan is utterly defeated, and all temptations toward sin finally cease. In the meantime, we live in tension, with a foot in each of these worlds.
The Purpose of the Kingdom: The Great Commission
Thus far we have seen that the King has returned, defeated Satan, and has announced the coming of his kingdom. It is here that the text takes a surprising and wonderful turn. One might expect that any king who returns to find rebellious subjects would issue proclamations of judgment and condemnation upon them. Surely, we should expect swift and decisive retribution on the king's enemies. But that is not what happens. Instead, this offended King offers the opportunity for a gracious pardon. After announcing the kingdom, Jesus then declares, "Repent and believe the good news" (Mark 1:15). People can join Jesus in his new kingdom if they repent of their rebellion and insubordination and embrace by faith the rightful rule of God. Of course, if they do not repent, then they will be destroyed by the judgment to come. Nevertheless, the offer of a gracious pardon tells us much about the purpose of Christ's new kingdom. Its purpose is not (yet) to destroy but to save. Christ is building a new kingdom because he intends to fill it with a new people.
If so, then we might wonder where Christ would begin this process. Where will he turn to find the right people to help build this new kingdom? Perhaps to the Sanhedrin, the ruling aristocratic class? Perhaps to Jerusalem or Judea, the very heart of Israel? Surely, in these places Christ could find the kind of people fit for his new kingdom. But once again he does the unexpected. Our passage tells us exactly where Christ goes first to fill his new kingdom: "Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God" (Mark 1:14). Unfortunately, being two thousand years removed from the first century, we have little appreciation of the reputation of Galilee. But in its day, it tended to be despised, especially by those from Judea. Such derision is noticeable when Nathanael was told that Jesus was from Nazareth of Galilee and he responds, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" (John 1: 46). Elsewhere, the Jewish leaders reject Jesus' messianic claims because he comes from Galilee (John 7:41). This derision may be due to a variety of factors, but certainly included the fact that Galilee was surrounded by and partially comprised of Gentiles. This is particularly true in Upper Galilee, which was known as "Galilee of the Gentiles" (Matt. 4:15; cf. Isa. 9:1).
Again, the circumstances of Jesus' first sermon remind us that the coming of the kingdom of God marks a grand transition in redemptive history. Throughout the old covenant era, redemption largely came to and through the Jewish people. To be sure, Gentiles were allowed to join the covenant community during this time period (upon conversion and circumcision), but there was not a proactive, external focus on winning Gentiles to the God of Israel. But now things have changed. Jesus has defeated Satan. The power of sin has been broken. A new era of redemption has come. The location of Christ's first sermon indicates that the kingdom of God will now expand to the undesirable places of the world: to the dark corners of the earth where God is not known or worshipped. Those invited to the great wedding feast of the Lamb are not who we might expect: "Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame" (Luke 14:21). Thus the coming of the kingdom of God is the foundation for the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20).
The idea that God's coming kingdom would bless all nations and not just Israel is certainly not a new one. Jesus was not creating a new vision for Israel, but merely calling Israel to be what God has always intended it to be: the light of the world. (5) N. T. Wright observes, "The call of Israel has as its fundamental objective the rescue and restoration of the entire creation." (6) Indeed, Zechariah 14:9 describes the coming kingdom as the time when "the Lord will be king over all the earth." (7) Thus Jesus' announcement in Mark 1:15 that the kingdom had come would have indicated to first-century Jews that the time had arrived when God's reign would finally spread throughout the world. Put differently, if Jesus is declaring that God is about to act to fulfill his promises to Israel, one of those promises is that she would be a light to the Gentiles (Isa. 49:6; cf. Acts 13:47).
This connection between the kingdom of God and the Great Commission is further emphasized in the next set of verses. In Mark 1:16-17 Jesus recruits his first disciples of the kingdom, Simon and Andrew, and calls them to be "fishers of men." Unfortunately, this phrase "fishers of men" is often regarded by modern readers as merely a play on words’a witty pun used to link the current vocation of the disciples with their new vocation. While this is certainly part of what is going on here, the implications of the fishing motif go much deeper. The concept of fishing for men has a rich Old Testament and intertestamental heritage that regularly indicates that God's eschatological judgment is near. (8) For example, through the prophet Jeremiah God speaks of wicked men as follows, "Behold, I am sending for many fishers, declares the Lord, and they shall catch them….For my eyes are on all their ways. They are not hidden from me, nor is their inequity concealed from my eyes" (Jer. 16:16-17). Jesus draws on these same motifs: "The Kingdom of Heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad" (Matt. 13:47-48). To fish for men then is to "catch" them so they can be judged by God’some unto death and others unto life. It is not just "doing evangelism" in the abstract, but it is a decidedly eschatological event that marks the coming kingdom of God. As William Lane observes, "Fishing is the evidence of the fulfillment which Jesus proclaimed, the corollary of the in-breaking kingdom." (9)
It is only when this Old Testament context is understood that the immediate response of the disciples in Mark 1:18 makes any sense. Why would Simon and Andrew immediately leave their nets and follow Jesus? What would cause such a quick and decisive reaction? It is not simply because Jesus is making a play on words and informing them of their new vocations. Instead, it is because they would have recognized the metaphor of fishing as an indication that God's righteous judgment was imminent. The eschatological in-breaking of God's kingdom was about to happen. The storm clouds were on the horizon. Jesus had sounded the alarm, so to speak, and they understood the urgency of the mission. They were to be hunters of men with a very clear message for them: repent of your sins or be swept away by the flood of the kingdom of God.
Thus the Great Commission’the urgent call to preach the gospel to all the world’is not something that would have fit at just any point in redemptive history. It is decisively linked with the coming of the kingdom of God in Jesus Christ. It is for precisely this reason that so many of Christ's kingdom parables are about the spreading of the gospel or the seeking of the lost (e.g., Matt. 13:3-9, 31-33, 47-50; Luke 15:1-31). (10) This is not to suggest that evangelism did not occur in the Old Testament era, but this type of urgent, eschatological fishing is unique to the new covenant era. It can exist only where the kingdom exists and Satan has been bound. As Herman Ridderbos observes, the coming of the kingdom means that "the gospel itself now operates with an entirely new force, and an intensified content; it is the preaching of the fulfillment; it is the message of the grace of God revealed in Christ which now starts its course in this world." (11)
This all too brief glimpse at Jesus' first public sermon makes it clear that the concept of the kingdom of God provides the infrastructure for his entire mission and ministry. As a result, the core of Jesus' message was that through him something decidedly new was happening in the world. God's reign had broken into history. Satan's power had been decidedly overthrown. Jesus' perfect righteousness as the second Adam had been fully earned. And therefore the task of the Great Commission could be undertaken with urgency. The power of Jesus' message was in his focus on the coming kingdom. The message of the modern church must be no different. Rather than viewing Satan as a general, timeless enemy of God, we must view him in light of the new kingdom that has arrived’as defeated and overthrown by Christ. Rather than viewing the Great Commission as generic "evangelism," we must put it into a kingdom context’we are urgently hunting/fishing for men on the eve of the eschaton. In all of this, we are reminded that the redemptive-historical timeframe matters for our understanding of the gospel and our mission. The good news is not just about the "who" or the "what" but is also about the "when." This is why we should begin our message in the same place that Jesus began his: "The time is fulfilled."
2 [ Back ] This is not to suggest that Satan was defeated only by Christ successfully enduring temptation. Obviously, the overthrow of Satan involves numerous events, including most centrally the death and resurrection of Christ. G. E. Ladd, The Presence of the Future: The Eschatology of Biblical Realism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), declares, "It is the entire mission of Jesus which brings about Satan's defeat" (157).
3 [ Back ] For a thorough argument that Revelation 20:2 refers to the first coming of Christ, see Kim Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003).
4 [ Back ] G. E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 54-67.
5 [ Back ] Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 308.
6 [ Back ] N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 268.
7 [ Back ] Numerous Old Testament passages make it clear that God had always had a plan for the nations; e.g., Gen. 17:4-5; Ps. 2:8, 22:27, 96:10, 97:1; Isa. 49:6, 66:1; Jer. 3:17, 10:7.
8 [ Back ] Wilhelm Wuellner, The Meaning of "Fishers of Men" (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1967).
9 [ Back ] W. L. Lane, The Gospel According to St. Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 68.
10 [ Back ] Ridderbos, 148-55.
11 [ Back ] Ridderbos, 149.