And yet, the New Testament begins and ends in story. In fact, in page volume nearly two-thirds of the New Testament is story. Why?
To answer that question, I'll have to tell a story:
There was once a disciple of the great Rabbi, the Maggid of Mezritch, whose name was Leib Saras. He said that he did not visit the Maggid to hear Torah from him but to see the way he tied his shoes.The goal was not simply to learn Torah, but to “become” a Torah. This can only happen when you are with your Rabbi and carefully observe how he does things. If you can’t literally be with him, hearing stories about him is the next best thing.
The goal of following a Rabbi—of being a disciple in the Jewish tradition was to become like your Rabbi. An ancient Jewish sage, Yossei ben Yoezer said: Let your home be a meeting place for the wise; dust yourself in the soil of their feet, and drink thirstily of their words. According to some preachers and scholars, from this came the saying: may you be covered in the dust of your rabbi. The idea is that you follow him so closely you are covered with his dust. Even Jesus says as much in Luke 6—he said “a disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher.”
And so we come to the gospel of Mark. Many scholars believe this was the earliest gospel written. This collection of Jesus stories was written to a group of persecuted Christ-followers in Rome. Mark wanted them to understand exactly what it meant to follow Jesus—to be a disciple. He wanted them to be covered with the dust of their Rabbi—to become like Jesus. So he told them the stories.
The first group of these stories in Mark 1:1-20 gives us a picture what being a disciple is all about.
The beginning of the good news, Jesus the Messiah, God's son: as it is written in the scroll of Isaiah the prophet:
"I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way"--
"a voice of one shouting in the wilderness,
'Prepare the way for the Lord,
level the paths for him.' "
And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance into the forgiveness of sins. All of Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore camel's hair clothing, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: "After me comes the one more powerful than I am. I am not worthy to bend down and untie the laces of his sandles. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being ripped open and the Spirit descending in him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love; I am very pleased with you." At once the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. "The time has come," he said. "The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!"
As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. "Come, follow me," Jesus said, "and I will send you out to fish for people." At once they left their nets and followed him. When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.
This is all about good news and kingdom. Notice that good news and kingdom is tied up with the person of Jesus. You could almost say: "The good news that is Jesus the Messiah." Notice the good news is about Kingdom of God, too. Jesus personifies the rule of God. If you want to know what it is like to live in God’s rule, you look at Jesus. If you want to know how to live as a disciple, you look at Jesus. Some people might say, I could never be like that! I'm not Jesus! But that is precisely the point of being a disciple: to be with him and to be like him! We are not presented with a list of teachings—we’re presented with a life.
Notice, too, being a disciple is about baptism and wilderness. While my tradition has been accused of over emphasizing baptism, the importance of baptism in Mark cannot be overlooked. Baptism is more than just a water ceremony. It is an immersion into the ministry of Jesus—and immersion into Jesus’ ministry always involves wilderness: suffering and difficulty. He tells two of his disciples later on they will be baptized in his baptism and they will drink his cup—the clear reference is to suffering. This message is especially meaningful to the Christ-followers living in Rome. They are suffering, they are being baptized, they are drinking the cup—they need to see how this connects with the life of Jesus. Just as we need to be aware following Jesus is not about health and wealth or getting that job I always wanted or having my marriage work out perfectly our my kids turn out nicely. Following Jesus involves baptism and wilderness. Difficulty in the life of a disciple is to be expected. Our Rabbi went through it, why should we be surprised if we experience it too?
This group of stories also demonstrates following Jesus is about repentance and release. The good news which is Jesus and the kingdom is tied directly to the concepts of repentance and release. Repentance has become a religious word. It means to “change your mind.” Don’t think for a minute this is merely some intellectual exercise. A better way of saying it would be: to reorient your life’s direction or to get a new mind. Repentance is to change the entire way you view life—it is to radically alter your world view which will radically alter your behavior. Again, it is to be totally immersed into the life of Jesus—to begin to look at life through his eyes and from his perspective. No wonder baptism is so tied to these concepts of repent and release: it is a decision that affects your entire body, soul, and spirit.
The Greek word for release is translated in most Bibles as “forgiveness.” Understood this way, forgiveness of sins is not just being cleansed—but being released from their domination. Being a disciple means to look at life through the eyes of Jesus and experiencing the freedom of forgiveness of all wrongs and evils in my life. Furthermore, once I'm forgiven, I am also free from them. I am free to live life as it was meant to be lived!
Why does the New Testament start with the story of Jesus rather than the teaching of Jesus? Why is the New Testament a book of stories? God intended it to be that way. He wants us to become disciples of Jesus—and that means he wants us to become like Jesus. We don't just go to hear gospel from him--we go to see how he ties his shoes. God wants us to enter into Jesus'life style, his suffering, and to experience the joy of his forgiveness. What truly amazes me in all of this is God believes in us! He believes we can be like Jesus! And to make certain, like he did with Jesus, he gives us the presence of his Spirit to empower us. And can you hear his voice? He says to you, as he said to Jesus: You are my child, I am pleased with you!
So, may you visit and re-visit Jesus through his stories. May you learn how to live by living with him. May he come often to your house and may you dust yourself with the soil of his feet as you drink thirstily of his words. May God fill you up with the Spirit of Jesus, so you can live the life of Jesus here and now.