Christianity 101

The opening week of every semester brings the need to explain Christianity to a new group of students.   But how to do it quickly, efficiently, and effectively?  I’ve taken to using the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark…

Narrator’s Introduction:

Mark 1:1-45 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; 3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'”

First off, the Christian message is good news.  Why?  Hm.  Well, we’ll have to talk more about that one.  Just file it away for the moment.  Next up,  Jesus.  Affirmed to be Messiah and Son of God.  The two titles introduce the idea that Jesus of Nazareth was someone special.  What kind of special?   Well, his status as messiah links us thru him to all those OT promises.  Son of God has its own nuance in Mark, but at this point it identifies Jesus as someone who has a unique relationship with God.  That’s the basics, right there.

The Baptism of Jesus

4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.  6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.  7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

John the Baptist is the living link between Jesus and the OT prophets.  The NT authors held that Jesus was predicted by the dead prophets and look, he’s predicted by the latest OT prophet!  Then there’s the promise of the Holy Spirit, which at this point in Christian thought is more God’s power than a person — but a relationship with God through the Spirit is a key element of Christianity.

And the baptism itself, yes, Matthew is right: if Jesus was baptized then Christians likewise, despite the fact that it doesn’t seem to have played much of a role in Jesus’ own work.  Then the heaven are torn open.  Not opened, but torn, suggesting that the relationship between heaven and earth is irreparably changed.  And finally, God’s affirmation of Jesus’ status confirms the special relationship identified in v. 1 and sets us thinking about why baptism brings about this tender theophany.  Hm.  More later on that one.

And then somebody usually notices that Jesus’ baptism doesn’t look much like their own, so this sends us off on a tangent looking at all the different idea about baptism in the NT.  For History of Christianity guys, this tends to puncture the myth of early Christianity theological unity pretty effectively.

The Wilderness Temptation

12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.  13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

If there’s one thing Christian agree on, it’s that Jesus was tempted and that he overcame temptation.  This always interests me because Milton’s Paradise Regained makes this episode, not the Passion, the point at which Christ’s success is assured.

And then that business with wilderness, beasts, and angels.  Sounds a bit like a return to Eden, no?  Or at least a move in that direction.  Heh.  Protology is eschatology in much Christian thought, no?

Summary of Jesus’ Teaching

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

This are the first words spoken by Jesus, so they set the “tone” for developing his character.  Do you want to know what Jesus did, at least as it’s taught in the Synoptics?  He preached the coming of the Kingdom.  Notice that we’re back on the good news, but this time it’s God’s good news.  Gotta be something about the fulfillment of all those OT prophecies to save his people, no?  Good news, indeed!

And look at that: “the time is fulfilled.”  Hm.  God has a timetable and a plan!    And then there’s the term “kingdom of God.”  When I ask students what this means, they inevitably tell me “heaven.”  So we have to talk.  In general terms, which is all that’s appropriate on the first and second day of class, it means that we yield our will to God.  In the Gospels it has both a present sense, that is, there are places where the kingdom is already present, where it is near, and where it has a far future sense.  Christian life takes place in a world with multiple temporal horizons.

Repent.  Turn back.  Pretty straightforward: turn away from anything that isn’t God and turn toward God.

Believe.  In the NT, believe usually means “trust” and I tend to use trust a lot more than believe when I teach since there are some connotations of believe in English that don’t do justice to Christian faith or hope.

Calling Disciples

16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea– for they were fishermen.  17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”  18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him.  19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets.  20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Disciples are another key element in Christianity and the foremost trait of a good disciple is willingness to leave job (Peter and Andrew) and family (James and John) and follow Jesus without hesitation.  This is the first place where my NT classes do a little bit of historical reconstruction because I always ask them which of the two pairs of brothers appears to be the most wealthy — James and John, of course because they have a boat.


21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught.  22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.  23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”  25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!”  26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.  27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching– with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”  28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.  29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John.  30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once.  31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.  32 That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons.  33 And the whole city was gathered around the door.  34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

Here you get typical Jesus stuff: teaching with authority, healing, and exorcisms.  This also links the teaching with the power because the miracles Jesus does reinforce his message that the kingdom is at hand and that his listeners should turn back toward God and trust him.  After all, they can clearly see that Jesus is more powerful than the representatives of the demonic kingdom, so why not?

At this point I like to ask what traits this reveals about Jesus’ character.  Most students go with “power” or “wisdom” but I have never had a class where one student, perhaps a bit more perceptive than the rest, failed to point out that everything Jesus does, he does for others.  And then I get to explain the concept of love as the Bible teaches it, which is quite a distance from the crap they tend to associate with love.  This is my favorite part of the lesson, BTW.

Jesus Prays

35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.  36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him.  37 When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.”  38 He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”

Jesus prayed, and so do Christians.  No matter how powerful or successful, they pray.  That’s because the source of their vigor is God.  Prayer is more important than sleeping, eating, or companionship, and even one’s daily tasks must wait upon prayer.   But  Christian prayer is the beginning, not the end, so once his communion with God is interrupted Jesus returns to his task.

Success in Galilee

39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.  40 A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.”  41 Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!”  42 Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.  43 After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 44 saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”  45 But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

The healing of the leper is an interesting story because it opens up the relationship between Jesus and the Law.  We don’t get into it much early on, but it does highlight the fact that Jesus is properly identified as the most famous Jew in all of Christianity.    And beyond that, there’s the notice that Jesus was so popular that he could no longer visit the towns.  This sounds like success, but it is also the narrative “instability” that opens up the next phase of the Gospel narrative because all this excitement attracts the attention of the Jewish leadership — attention that will ultimately be fatal for Jesus and life-giving for the rest of us.

So there.  That’s a good selection of Christian thought.  Toss in a parable or two about the growth of the kingdom, Peter’s confession, the passion narrative in Mark and the resurrection narrative in Matthew, and you’ve got a nice little synopsis!

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