A good joke leads an audience down one path (the setup), but then jolts them with an unexpected turn at the end (the punchline). In the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, we may not read any jokes, but we experience an unexpected twist.
Mark 1:15 gets us going down one path. Jesus begins his ministry with an epic invitation: “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news.” For a single verse, it packs some serious theological heft with words such as kingdom, repent, faith (“believe”), and gospel (“good news”). It seems obvious that Jesus is taking us down the path of theological substance and historic magnitude.
But that’s verse 15. When we get to verse 16, it’s as if the car has hit ice and is spinning off onto a side road—a bumpy gravel road—where we see a couple good ole boys ice fishing. Here’s verse 16: “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.”
Those of us familiar with this story easily miss the strangeness of the twist.
After millennia of anticipation, Jesus the Messiah finally arrived, announced the kingdom, and preached the gospel. It does not get more epic than this. Yet out of nowhere, he went from cloud-splitting pronouncements to hanging out with a couple of blue collar fishermen nobody had ever heard of.
Shouldn’t Jesus be having dinner with the governor? Shouldn’t he be reclining with the high priest of the temple and explaining the kingdom to him? Shouldn’t Jesus have called a meeting with the most prominent teachers of the law, mesmerizing them with how what they have been teaching is now fulfilled in him?
Instead, all of history has built to his coming, announcing the kingdom, and then hanging out with a couple of fishermen—almost as if he’s decided to construct his messianic kingdom with real life construction workers. They’re not masters of theology. They’re not politically powerful. They’re not cultural influencers.
Why build his kingdom with fishermen?
The answer has everything to do with something Jesus said in that epic verse 15. In Mark 1:15, Jesus said, “Repent and believe the good news.” Translation: Change your mind (“repent”) and place your faith in the gospel (“good news”).
Jesus could have built his kingdom with the really good people in society—professional holy men such as Pharisees, for example. The problem, however, was that they didn’t believe in Jesus’ good news. They had their own good news. For these religious leaders who studied comprehensively, tithed meticulously, and prayed impressively, the real gospel was good news for good people. Jesus’ good news which was good news for everybody—especially sinners—didn’t feel as good as their good news.
Jesus could have spent most of his time with the rich and powerful—loaded, politically savvy insiders like the Sadducees. Yet they had their own good news. Their version of the gospel was good news for the rich and powerful. When Jesus came with good news for everybody—especially for the poor—the Sadducees thought, “We’ve got way better news than that.”
Jesus could have allied himself with the zealots. The zealots hated the Romans who had occupied their nation and understandably conspired to drive them out. God hadn’t promised the land to the Romans, after all. Jesus could have spent most of his time with zealots, yet they too had their own gospel. For them, it was good news for their country, their people. Jesus came with a good news for everybody—even the Romans.
When Jesus said, “Repent and place your faith in the gospel,” the people with all the righteousness responded, “We’ve got a better gospel than that.” The people with all the money and power said, “Perhaps, but we’ve got an even better gospel still.” The people sharpening their knives said, “We’ve got the best gospel of all.”
That’s why Jesus started his kingdom with a couple of fishermen.
It was a kingdom for whosoever. It was for fishermen. It was for filthy rich tax collectors that nobody liked. It was for poor people who had trouble paying their bills. It was for untouchables like lepers. It was for outsiders and unlovables. It still is.
It’s significant that Jesus said, “Repent and believe the good news.” This assumes that there are false gospels we need to change our mind about so we can put our full trust and allegiance in Jesus’ good news.
In 2021, you and I are going to have a lot of different gospels to choose from. There’s the good news of my perfection. The gospel of my power and popularity. The gospel of my prosperity. The gospel of my people. Of my political party.
In response to all these false gospels, Jesus invites you and me to repent and believe the good news: Jesus is the risen and reigning King. Believing the gospel means that we remove our ultimate hope from lesser things and retrain them on King Jesus.
Believing the gospel means seeing Jesus’ kingship as the best news ever. The first century church was discipled in this by fishermen who had outshone everybody in their willingness to drop their nets and follow the King. The twenty-first century church needs to be discipled by these fishermen again.
In response to all these false gospels, Jesus invites you and me to repent and believe the good news: Jesus is the risen and reigning King.