In the year 64 a fire erupted in Rome that roared for 5 days straight, quieted, re-ignited, and then burned hard for another 2 days. As you can imagine, the city was all but leveled to the ground and very little (if anything) was salvageable.
People were devastated.
Tons were injured.
Everyone was in shock.
And the Empire that was once the strongest and most feared on earth all of a sudden wasn’t.
The question remained, though - who was to blame? Who started the fire? Where did it come from? Why did it blaze so hard? Why did it stop and then start again? How will justice be served?
As the survivors began to reassemble whatever was left of their lives, a rumor began to swirl that Emperor Nero was responsible for the fire. History tells us that he had grand dreams and schemes and proposals drawn up to rebuild Rome into an amazing and beautiful city and so the gossip was that burning it to the ground would assure him that his plans would move forward without a hitch.
People began to point fingers.
His officials became angry.
Gossip began to grow.
And all of a sudden Nero was in up to his eyeballs in hot water and needed to find someone, somewhere to blame.
Fortunately (or should I say, unfortunately) for the Jews, the Jewish part of the city remained completely untouched by the fire because it was on the other side of a river and on the outskirts of the city. Distance from the city is what caused it not to burn, but Nero spun a web of lies and convinced the Roman world that the reason it didn’t burn was because the Jews started the fire as an act of war and saw to it that their small ghetto of a city would remain untouched and unhindered.
“The Jews are mocking us!”
“The Jews did this!”
“The Jews have always wanted to overthrow us!”
“They need to pay!”
Desperate to calm the wrath of an Emperor who was known for being ruthless and would surely obliterate the entire Jewish world, someone approached Emperor Nero and confessed that a very small group of Jews who were acting as rogues from the rest of the group started the fire.
This group? - The Christian Jews or the Jews who declared themselves to be followers of Jesus.
Scholars aren’t sure of exactly how the chain of events went from there, but what they are sure of is that Nero demanded that the Jewish world partner with the Roman world to identify each and every one of the Jewish Christians in Rome so that they could be destroyed. As you can imagine, a mini-genocide ensued as Roman soldiers literally dragged Christians out of their homes and to the floor of the Circus Maximus (which was temporarily set up away from the debris of the fire) where they were sprinkled with blood and attacked by dogs all the while Roman citizens watched and cheered.
Heads of households turned on family members to save their own lives.
Neighbors turned on neighbors.
Friends betrayed friends.
Parents against children.
Children against parents.
(NOTE: Maybe that's why in Mark 13:12 Mark has Jesus saying that a time would come when "Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death." I wonder if those words sent chills down the spine of Mark's readers?)
Sadly, in the end, almost the entire Roman community of Christian Jews was destroyed and the majority of the small band of Christ followers in that great Empire were as demolished as the city itself.
Why do I tell you all of this? What’s the point? Because it’s in the context of this horrible nightmare that Mark composed his Gospel as a gift to the Jewish Christians of Rome. Of the 4 Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), Mark is the earliest to be written dating somewhere around the Mid-60’s (likely somewhere between 66 and 70) amidst the wrath and/or aftermath of Emperor Nero.
And why do I tell you that? Because when it comes to reading the Bible, context is everything.
I don’t know about you, but I was always taught that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are nothing more than historical records of Jesus’ life that were written by 4 different guys who wrote from 4 different perspectives, all with the same goal - to tell us about Jesus.
I heard that growing up in a private Christian School.
In Bible studies.
In Bible College.
And I even said it countless times from the pulpit.
And it's kind of true, but also very incomplete because, you see, the author of Mark’s Gospel was writing to a broken and discouraged people who found themselves feeling abandoned by the Savior in whom they put their faith and with very little (if anything) to live for.
Family was lost.
Dignity was no more.
Friends were gone.
Homes were destroyed.
“What’s the point?”, they might have asked. “We gave everything for Jesus ... and for what?”
This is important stuff to keep in mind when we read the stories that Mark shares with us because he’s including them and crafting them ...
NOT to give us a historical record about Jesus.
NOT to tell us about what Jesus did.
NOT to make sure Jesus’ life was recorded.
... BUT to encourage his readers to cling to their Savior, to push forward, to keep moving, and to trust in the One who can calm the storm. When we read his stories in that light with that background in mind, they may very well take on an entirely new meaning.
And so although you and I might have never been stared down by an evil Emperor who was threatening to have us ripped apart by bloodthirsty dogs, I do think we all know what it feels like to be alone.
Alone, abandoned, and hopeless ... left wondering if God really does exist - we all know that feeling and so I think we can all find a piece of ourselves in the hearts and lives and experiences of Mark’s readers and (therefore) be encouraged and challenged by the stories and great narrative that Mark shares with them.
That said, let’s turn to verse 1.
Mark opens his Gospel and says, “the beginning of the Gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
In all of the Bible this might be the most meaning packed statement ever recorded because for Mark’s readers (those early, beat up Christians) the terms “Gospel” and “Son of God” meant something entirely different than they do to you and me.
“Gospel” was a Greek expression that literally meant “glad tidings” and according to the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament was “a technical term for news of victory” especially in military battles. In the Roman Empire, for example, it was a term that was shouted in the streets when Rome would take a colony or province under its control following a military victory - “glad tidings are coming because Rome has extended its power over your city”.
Rome is your new parent.
Rome is your new mother.
Rome is your new home.
Rome is your new protector.
Rome is victorious.
... And this is “gospel” or “good news” or “glad tidings”.
And “Son of God” was a term that Caesar used in reference to himself. In fact, printed on many Roman coins was an inscription that read, “Ti[berivs] Caesar Divi Avg[vsti] F[ilivs] Avgvstvs” (“Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus”), which laid claim that Caesar Augustus was the son of god, a claim that dated back to 42BC when his step-father (Julius Caesar) died and was given the title “the divine Julius Caesar”.
As Mark opens up his story, his gloves are off and he’s taking a direct shot at the Emperor and all of the Roman Empire because (in essence) he’s declaring that ....
“Good News doesn’t lie in the Roman Empire and Good News has nothing to do with the military strength of Rome and Caesar isn’t anymore divine than a pesky mosquito. No! Good News is found in none other than Jesus, the only and true Son of God.”
“The news is good even in the midst of the horror you (Rome) have bestowed upon our people. We will keep believing. We will keep following the true Son of God. We will keep our faith. There’s nothing you can do to take it away. Try your best, tap into your darkest evil - we’re still here. Believing. Loving. Joyful. Holding on to hope. Yes, Jesus is King, not Caesar.”
In his commentary on Mark, Ched Myers puts it like this ...
“Mark is serving notice that he is challenging the apparatus of imperial propagation. His dramatic opening (unlike the birth stories of Matthew and Luke) heralds the advent of an anointed leader who is confirmed by the Deity and who proclaims a Kingdom of His own. In other words, Mark is taking direct aim at Caesar and his legitimating myths.”
Do you see what a revolutionary idea this is?
Here’s what I want you to take away from this. I’m not sure what fires are blazing in your life. And I’m not sure what enemy is hunting you down ...
Maybe your Nero is cancer?
Maybe your marriage is ablaze with problems?
Maybe financial messes?
Maybe bills you can’t pay?
A teenager who won’t talk to you?
A job you just lost?
I’m not sure where in your life you’re feeling lonely and maybe even betrayed by the God you thought you could trust and I don’t know what kind of Nero’s are running through your life and wrecking havoc at every turn.
What I do know, though, is that there is Good News even in the midst of all of that and that as powerful and overwhelming and scary as those fires and enemies feel, Jesus the true Son of God is alive and with you every step of the way.
And so as Mark said to his readers, so I say to you - keep the faith, my friends. Everything around you might be burning, but God's not done. The King IS here and you can be glad.
Love and peace.
Helpful Resources Referenced:
(1) Heart and Mind by Dr. Alexander Shaia
(2) Mark for Everyone by N.T. Wright
(3) Binding the Strong Man by Ched Myers
(4) The Gospel of Mark by William Barclay
(5) Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson