Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Mark 1.14-20
3rd Sunday after the Epiphany - Year B

Other texts:

If you are looking for a (Lenten) Bible Study series on Mark, check out "Marked for Life."

Our text can be divided into three sections:

  1. Jesus' proclamation (1:14-15)

  2. The calling of Peter and Andrew (1:16-18)

  3. The calling of James and John (1:19-20)

Note that in NRSV, there is a space after verse 15, thus implying that verses 14-15 are more connected with the preceding verses, i.e., the conclusion to the prologue. However, the RCL, by included these verses with what follows suggests that they mark the beginning of Jesus' public ministry.


"After John was arrested" -- the Greek word for "arrested" is paradidomi -- the word that is used for Jesus' "betrayal" or "handing over" (3:19; 9:31; 10:32; 14:10, 11, 18, 21, 41, 44; 15:1, 10, 15). John is Jesus' precursor in terms of message -- "repentance;" in terms of "being handed over;" and in terms of death. This verse also illustrates that Jesus "comes after" the Baptist (1:7).

It may also be that John and Jesus are both precursors to the fate of the disciples who will face "being handed over" (13:9, 11).

James R Edwards (The Gospel according to Mark) comments:

The arrest of John and the beginning of Jesus' ministry are intentionally correlated to show that the gospel is proclaimed and known in adversity and suffering, not in ease and comfort. Jesus' announcement of "good news" (1:14) in the immediate context of the arrest and eventual execution of righteous John epitomizes Mark's presentation of the gospel. [pp. 44-45]


Surprisingly, the noun, euaggelion = "gospel," is not all that common in the Gospels! The statistics and references follow.

The verb, euaggelizomai = "to proclaim the gospel," "to evangelize" occurs as follows:

What is "the gospel" in Mark? Note that the parallel passage in Matthew (4:12-17) does not include the two phrases of our text with euaggelion.

First of all, traditionally these Greek words referred to victory in war. The messenger would run back from the front lines and shout, "We've won!" That was good news for the king. I suggested in a sermon, that the opening verse of Mark might be translated, "The beginning of the victory of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." Starting with the idea of a "victorious" hero, we might better see the irony Mark intends for his readers in this book. Among other things, it ends with silence, not a shout of victory.

Secondly, euaggelion is something that is proclaimed (kerusso) (1:14; 13:10; 14:9; 16:15). That suggests that it is not a doctrine or even a teaching to be studied. It's a declaration -- a shout! -- fans yelling and screaming and jumping up and down when their team wins a championship. (Again, the silent ending of Mark's "Gospel" is quite ironic.)

Thirdly, it is something that is to be believed (1:15). We are to believe what has been declared. For example, we can respond to the declaration, "God forgives all your sins," either by believing the words or calling the speaker a liar.

Fourthly, it is something that motivates our lives -- acting "for the sake of the gospel" (8:35; 10:29). Properly speaking, when one believes something, that belief makes a difference in their lives. If one believes, "Honesty is the best policy," we would expect them to be honest -- their actions express their belief -- perhaps more accurately than their words. As I've quoted from Verna Dozier before, "It isn't enough to ask, 'What do you believe?' but "What difference does it make that you believe?'" We also say, "Actions speak louder than words." St. According to legend, Francis of Assisi advised: "Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary use words."

The verbs "proclaiming" and "saying" are both present participles, indicating that these were ongoing actions of Jesus.


The content of Jesus short speech can be outlined as:


The verbs in A.1. and A.2. are both perfect, which indicates a past action with continuing effects in the present. The perfect can be translated with a present or with a perfect. The NRSV does both with these two phrases: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near." (The phrase could just as rightly be translated, "The time has been fulfilled and the kingdom of God is near.")

The phrase, "The time has been (or is) fulfilled" is only in Mark. The word for time is kairos" It is used in 11:13 and 12:2 to refer to the "time of harvest" -- an image that usually refers to the time of judgment. It is also used in 13:33. I translate vv. 32-33: "Concerning that day or hour, no one knows; neither the angels in heaven nor the son, except the father. Watch, stay awake, for you do not know when is the time."

The "time" referred to in ch. 13 is "The Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory." We know "when the time is." It is now. The "time has been (or is) fulfilled." It is like scriptures "being fulfilled" (14:49) -- they are coming true. They are happening.

Basileia can refer to the area ruled by a king (e.g., "kingdom"); or it can refer to the power or authority to "rule" as king. We probably shouldn't interpret the "kingdom of God" as a place -- such as the place we go when we die; but as the ruling power that emanates from God. Eugene Boring (Mark) quotes others who define it as

The verb eggizo is difficult to translate in this passage. It means "to come near". It can refer to space, as one person coming close to another person. The same perfect form is used of the betrayer "coming near" to Jesus (14:42) in the Garden of Gethsemane. The present form is used of the disciples "coming near" to Jerusalem (11:1). The word can also refer to time, as "it's almost time".

The difficulty is with the perfect tense of the verb, which, as I wrote earlier, indicates a past action with continuing effects in the present. When we say that "The rule of God has come near." That implies that God's rule is near or perhaps, "God's rule has arrived." Edwards (The Gospel according to Mark) makes this interesting statement: "In Jesus of Nazareth the kingdom of God makes a personal appearance" [p. 47]. In this case, the kingdom is not a place or a power, but a person.

I like Luther's explanation to the second petition of the Lord's Prayer. "God's kingdom comes on its own without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come to us."

Ched Myers (Binding the Strong Man: a Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus) comments about this coming kingdom. 1:15, Jesus announces the awaited moment of God's intervention: the "time is fulfilled". The kingdom's arrival is "close at hand," an expression unique in the New Testament, connoting profound imminence, even liminality. Yet in 1:16, we are once again frustrated. Instead of a kingdom epiphany, the second act opens with Jesus wandering by the sea, bidding some common laborers to accompany him on a mission. The world appears still very much intact! Mark is obviously aware of the risk involved in his appeal to prophetic and apocalyptic traditions, for they also were being used to bolster the triumphalistic eschatological expectations of Jewish nationalism. For this reason, Mark pursues a narrative strategy that consistently frustrates the equation between epiphany and victorious holy war. And again, a more careful reading of his narrative symbolics confirms that Jesus is indeed commencing his assault upon the old order, as the next scene shows. [p. 131, his comments on the next scene will come a bit later in this note]

More simply stated, Boring (Mark) translates the phrase:


The two verbs in the second part of Jesus' proclamation are present tense imperatives. That implies continued or repeated actions. "Keep on repenting!" "Keep on believing." Repent and believe are not like a door that we pass through once, e.g., I repented and I believed, so now I'm in the kingdom. Rather they are part of an ongoing lifestyle of the people to whom the rule of God has come near.

To repeat something I've shared in earlier notes about repentance. Repentance properly understood is an "I can't" experience, rather than an "I can" experience. If repentance is promising God, "I can do better," then we are trying to keep ourselves in control of our lives. If we can do better, we don't need a gracious God, only a patient One who will wait long enough for us to do better. When we come before God confessing, "I can't do better," then we are dying to self. We are giving up control of our lives. We are throwing our sinful lives on the mercy of God. We are inviting God to do what we can't do ourselves -- namely to raise the dead -- to change and recreate us.

The words metanoeo (verb) and metanoia (noun) are infrequent in Mark. The noun occurs only at 1:4 in reference to John's baptism. The verb is in our text and in 6:12. My literal translation of 6:12: "And going out, they [the 12] proclaimed (kerusso) so that (hina) they might repent." Repentance is the result of the proclamation. It is the power of the Word of God (as Law) to kill. To lead us to confess, "I can't."

However, the flip side of the "I can't" is "believing the gospel" -- "God can". In Mark the synagogue leader believes and his 12-year-old daughter is restored to life (5:36). The father of a son with an unclean spirit believes (but prays for help with his unbelief) and his son is cured (9:23-24). Little ones believe (9:42). However, the promise is given to those who believe that they will be able to move mountains into the sea. I don't know about others, but my faith has never been large enough to move even little molehills. I think that the core message of Mark is the statement/prayer of the father, "I believe! Help my unbelief."

Williamson, (Mark, Interpretation Commentary) offers this analogy which "may capture some (not all) dimensions of this summary of the preaching of Jesus."

In a crowded airline terminal, hundreds of persons are scurrying in dozens of directions. Above the steady buzz of noise a voice booms through a loud-speaker, "Flight 362 is now arriving at gate we. Will passengers holding tickets for New York please check in at gate 23; you will be boarding soon." Some people, of course, never hear the announcement and continue on their way. Others hear it but, having reservations on another flight, pay no attention. Some, however, who want to go to New York and who have been nervously awaiting such an announcement, look up expectantly, check their ticket for the flight number, gather their baggage, turn around and set out with some urgency for gate 23. [p. 43]

It is about our openness to hear and believe and act on the proclamation.

Douglas John Hall (Bound and Free: A Theologian's Journey) writes about the necessity of "our becoming and being a thinking faith." I think it relates to these two commands to repent and believe.

There is a problem today that is found not only in Christianity but in most of the religions, as well as in many nonreligious ideologies. I will call this the problem of certitude. Its corrective is the importance of Christianity's being a thinking faith -- and, more specifically, the importance of doubt in the life of faith.

The people who attacked the United States on September 11, 2001, were apparently inspired by absolute certainty with respect to their cause. They found that certainty in their religious belief. Their religion functioned for them as an antidote against all self-doubt, all consciousness of the limitations of knowledge, all awareness of the precariousness of human judgment. ... No one religion, and not religion as a whole, has a monopoly on what (for want of a better word) we call fundamentalism. Fundamentalism, whatever the origin of the term, has come to mean a position of such exactness and certitude that those embracing it -- or, more accurately, those embraced by it -- feel themselves delivered from all the relativities, uncertaintites, indefiniteness, and transience of human existence. They are provided, they fell, with a firm foundation -- a fundamentum -- greater than their own finitude, greater than any observations of any of the sciences, greater than the collective wisdom of the race. [pp. 99-100]

He then states that biblical religion (Jewish and Christian) refuses to offer such certitude. What God offers as an alternative to certitude is trust. "God reveals Godself as one who may be trusted" [p. 101].

Recognize that the Greek word for "believe" (pisteuo) carries an element of trust in it, could we then interpret repent (metanoeo) = "to change one's thinking" to be a movement away from personal certitude? Which then leads to trusting the trustworthy One?


How are the call stories related to Jesus' proclamation? One possibility, given what follows the calls, is the authority and power of Jesus' words to do what he says. Immediately following the calls:

Note that these all come from texts that are assigned during the Epiphany Season.

Given the power of Jesus' words in these following events, it is not surprising that his invitation to follow is met with immediate obedience (also with Levi in 2:14). These are indications that the kingdom, that is "the power" of God to rule is here. It is a power that rules over people and spirits and diseases. With a word from Jesus, they succumb to that power.

Jesus does not encounter these fishermen in the religious sphere, but in the midst of their everyday life where they really live. Were they certain about what they were getting themselves into, or did they follow as a matter of trust with uncertainty? I think the latter is more likely.


The fact that later we are told that Andrew and Peter have their own house (1:29) and that James and John have hired hands (1:20) indicates that these were not poor, destitute fishermen, but that they were prosperous at their trade.

Literally, Jesus does not ask them "to follow" him; but "Come behind me." The word for behind (opiso) can be a spatial term, to stand or walk behind someone. It can be a temporal term, to come at a time after something else. This might be the meaning behind John's use, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me" (1:7). It can also be a status term, behind (or under?) in terms of rank or importance. Jesus' rebuke of Peter, "Get behind me Satan" (8:33), is probably concerned with Peter trying to assume too much importance -- trying to be ahead of Jesus.

The command, "Come behind me," may be a way of saying, "Make Jesus the most important thing in your life." Even one's own self comes in second behind Jesus.

This understanding of the phrase may be supported by their reaction. We are told that Andrew and Peter, "immediately leaving the nets, they followed him." Their successful occupations take a back seat to Jesus. James and John "leaving their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired hands, they go behind him." Their family relationships take a back seat to Jesus.

The word for "follow" (1:18) is akoloutheo -- from which we get "acolyte". Besides its literal meanings of following or accompanying, it also has a figurative meaning of being a disciple.

Peter indicates later that they have left everything to follow Jesus (10:28). In contrast, the rich man is not able to part from his wealth and give to the poor and follow Jesus (10:21).

In a stewardship newsletter article, I raised the issue about "sacrificial giving." A meaning of sacrifice is "to give up something valuable for the sake of something considered even more valuable." I challenged: "Consider what valuable things you have given up because of your giving to the church. If you can't think of anything, ... " (I'll let you make your own conclusion.)

Could (or should) a similar challenge be raised about our following Christ? Andrew and Peter leave their occupations. James and John leave their father. Family and jobs are usually quite high on our priority lists. How can we make them "come behind" Jesus in importance?

Coming with Jesus meant work. (Being a disciple is more than just going to heaven when I die in the sweet by and by.) They were to "fish for people". An interesting approach to the "fish for people" image is to talk about what kind of bait would work to attract people. I title a sermon once, "Worms Won't Work." However, that is not the way these fishermen fished. They used nets. They didn't use bait. The fish didn't have a choice of "to eat or not to eat" -- "to bite or not to bite" - "to be hooked or not." They were dragged in a net either to the shore or into a boat. They were dragged from life in the water to their death in the air.

Perhaps it isn't so bad for parents to "drag" their children to church. Maybe we should "drag" more people into church, whether or not they want to come. Put up roadblocks on the street and force the cars into our parking lots. Used armed ushers in uniform to march them into the worship service. (For some reason, I'm afraid that people forced to church in these ways might get a distorted picture of a loving and caring and compassionate God.)

This may also indicate that the coming of the Kingdom is out of our control. We are going to be "caught" in its coming whether we like it or not.

Smith (Matthew, Augsburg Commentary) says:

In the ancient world fishing was a metaphor for two distinct activities: judgment and teaching. Fishing for people meant bringing them to justice by dragging them out of their hiding places and setting them before the judge at the end of the world. And fishing was also used of teaching people, of the process of leading them from ignorance to wisdom. Both cases involve a radical change of environment, a break with a former way of life and entrance upon a new. [p. 72]

Generally we view being captured, like in a net, a negative thing; but we also talk about being "captured by love". The relationship of love is often something out of our control. It happens to us. When its power runs its full effect, it means a change in life -- marriage is as much a dying to the old life as it is the beginning of a new life. That new life brings with it a bunch of new relatives, whether we want them or not. Being captured by Jesus' irresistible call meant an end to the old life and relations for the fishermen, so that they might start begin a new life as followers of Jesus. (See Mark 10:29-30). However, Ben Witherington III (The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary) makes this observation:

It is significant that though they respond to the call here, they do not fully take up the tasks entailed for some time. They must first be "made" fishers of human beings -- shaped and molded and trained in the requisite skills. [p. 85]

A wonderful comment by Hare (Matthew, Interpretation series): "Our task is to share a faith that is exciting enough to be contagious." [p. 31]

However, to return to Ched Myers (Binding the Strong Man), he offers a different interpretation of this familiar phrase:

There is perhaps no expression more traditionally misunderstood than Jesus' invitation to these workers to become "fishers of men" (1:17). This metaphor, despite the grand old tradition of missionary interpretation, does not refer to the "saving of souls," as if Jesus were conferring upon these men instant evangelist status. Rather, the image is carefully chosen from Jeremiah 16:16, where it is used as a symbol of Yahweh's censure of Israel. Elsewhere the "hooking of fish" is a euphemism for judgment upon the rich (Am 4:2) and powerful (Ez 29:4). Taking this mandate for his own, Jesus is inviting common folk to join him in his struggle to overturn the existing order of power and privilege.

...The point here is that following Jesus requires not just assent of the heart, but a fundamental reordering of socio-economic relationships. The first step in dismantling the dominant social order is to overturn the "world" of the disciple: in the kingdom, the personal and the political are one.... This is not a call "out" of the world, but into an alternative social practice. [pp. 132-133]

After looking briefly at the call of Levi (2:13f.;), Myers ends his comments with:

Mark's call-paradigm contrasts sharply with the traditional method of rabbinic recruitment, as noted by E. Schweizer (1964). Normally the student sought the teacher and followed only for as long as it took to attain rabbinic status himself. The call of Jesus, however, is absolute, disrupting the lives of potential recruits, promising them only a "school" from which there is no graduation. This "first" call to discipleship in Mark is an urgent, uncompromising invitation to "break with business as usual." The world is coming to an end, for those who choose to follow. The kingdom has dawned, and it is identified with the discipleship adventure. [p. 133]

R. T. France (The Gospel of Mark) notes that Jesus' call is closer to the model of Elijah calling of Elisha (1 Ki. 19:9-21), then states: "Rabbis did not call their followers; rather, the pupil adopted the teacher. Jesus' peremptory summons, with its expectation of radical renunciation even of family ties, goes far beyond anything they would be familiar with in normal society. It marks him as a prophet rather than a rabbi. [p. 96]

I do think that Jesus' call involves a radical departure from "business as usual." It is also a call away from certitude to trusting in something different and, as of yet, unseen -- namely the full arrival of the kingdom of God. I think that understanding Jesus' call in these ways will become more and more crucial as our society seems to be becoming more and more secular and driven by other gods -- often gods who promise certainty.

Boring (Mark) notes: The followers of Jesus are not a volunteristic society for promoting good, but those whose business-as-usual lives have been disrupted by a draft notice (p. 60)

To conclude with some comments in a past sermon:

What God promises us fish, who are dragged out of the water in the nets to die, is a resurrection, a new life, a new family, a new future, all under God's control, all within the Rule of God, which has come near in Jesus.

As I related earlier, we have very little control over our own lives, but as fish caught in the net of God's love, we can trust that we are under God's control. We have to believe that being captured by God's love, that responding to the command to repent and die to self, that being raised to a new life by God, is not only right for us, but a message we need to share with the entire world.

I'm afraid that if we did drag people into church or force their cars into our parking lot, and their bodies onto our pews, they might miss the gospel message we are trying to share with them. I'm sure that we can come up with better ways of catching people with the nets of God's love. Amen.

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 2215 S 8th Avenue, Yuma, AZ 85364