“Repent, Believe, and Follow” (Mark 1:14-20)
In the early chapters of the gospels, we track Jesus’ early ministry, as he goes about Galilee, preaching, teaching, and healing. As sort of a subset of his healing ministry, Jesus also casts out demons. And interspersed among these accounts, Jesus also gathers disciples to himself. And so it is that today and for the next two weeks we get such accounts of Jesus’ early ministry from the first chapter of Mark. Today we get a sample of Jesus’ preaching and his calling disciples. Next week we will see Jesus casting out an unclean spirit. Two weeks from today, we’ll see Jesus healing physical ailments. And through these readings, we will gain insight and faith for what all of this means for us.
Today, then, we hear Jesus speak to us, saying, “Repent, Believe, and Follow.” “Repent and believe”: That’s a summary of Jesus’ preaching. “Follow”: That’s Jesus’ call to discipleship. Repent, believe, and follow: Three imperatives, three commands, from the lips of Jesus. Repent, believe, and follow: Three words that lead to forgiveness, faith, and purpose in life for every one of us.
Let’s start with Jesus’ preaching. We read: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’”
This preaching, the proclamation of the gospel, begins with an announcement: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” What does Jesus mean by these two statements?
“The time is fulfilled.” That is to say, everything that has been leading up to this moment and preparing for this moment has now come to pass. All of Israel’s history, all of human history, has reached the point God had in mind. The prophecies foretelling what the Lord would do–those prophecies have now reached the point of fulfillment. This is the moment the world has been waiting for. Indeed, this is the moment the Lord has been waiting for, and working toward. It is now here in the coming of the Christ. All of that is packed into Jesus’ words, “The time is fulfilled.” Think of what St. Paul says in Galatians, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son.” And this was that fullness of time. This was just the right moment for Jesus to come on the scene.
The time is fulfilled, “and the kingdom of God is at hand.” The kingdom of God: This is God’s gracious rule and reign among men. It is God’s end-time kingdom of grace and blessing. Jesus is the king who ushers it in. That’s why Jesus can say this kingdom is “at hand.” It is right here among you. The kingdom arrives with the presence of Jesus. That’s how it works.
The Lord had promised this end-time kingdom in the prophecies of the Old Testament. The arrival of this kingdom would mark a time of marvelous abundance and blessing, of a sea-change in the affairs of men, a shift in the ages. God would visit his people to bless them and redeem them, the Lord coming in the end-time to act in salvation and in judgment. That’s all wrapped up in Jesus’ announcement, “The kingdom of God is at hand.”
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” So now what? What does this mean for our lives? What is Jesus’ message to us in view of these things? It is this: “Repent and believe in the gospel.”
Repent and believe: The two go together like hand in glove. You don’t have one without the other. When Jesus calls you to repent, he also calls you to believe. Jesus calls you to believe in the gospel, so that repentance doesn’t leave you desolate and in despair.
“Repent and believe in the gospel.” What is Jesus saying to us when he says, “Repent”? He is saying: Turn from your sins. Turn away from them in sorrow and contrition, mourning how you have messed things up. Change your mind, change your way of thinking, from the world’s way of thinking and from the selfish desires of your flesh, which is turned in on itself. Recognize how you have broken God’s commandments, how you have not loved God with your whole heart, how you have not loved your neighbor as yourself. That’s what sin is. That’s what being a sinner is. Own it. Confess it. Don’t rationalize it or excuse your sins. Don’t compare yourself to other people, focusing on how bad they are. No, look in the mirror. See how you have sinned–in thought, word, and deed, in what you have done wrong and in what you have failed to do right. Admit you’re a sinner, lost without God’s mercy and forgiveness, having no righteousness in yourself that would avail before God. Recognize your need and your powerlessness before God’s righteous throne of judgment. The wages of sin is death. All that–yes, all of that–is packed into this one word of Jesus, “Repent.” Do you hear this call to repent? Jesus is speaking to you today.
But thank God, Jesus has another word to speak to you today. And it is this: “Believe in the gospel.” The gospel is the good news, the glad tidings of God’s undeserved favor toward sinners like you and me. This is something to rejoice over, that God does not have only words of judgment to speak to us, but that he also speaks words of salvation and grace, words of comfort and consolation.
But this gospel is not just some vague pronouncement of “Everything’s OK. God’s a nice guy. He won’t hold your bad stuff against you.” No it goes much deeper than that. It has more specific content that that. The gospel of God’s grace and forgiveness comes to us absolutely free, and at the same time it came at great cost. For Jesus Christ is the heart and center of this gospel. His person, his work–the person and work of Christ is the specific content of this good news. Who Jesus is and what he has done–this is what makes the gospel good news.
This man Jesus who is going about Galilee, preaching and teaching and healing–he is the very Son of God come in the flesh, come down to earth to bring salvation to lost sinners. True God and true man, he is our brother and our Savior. As our brother, he fulfills the law on our behalf, always doing the right thing, the way man was meant to do it. And Jesus is our substitute also in taking the punishment that the law requires for sinners. Even though he had no sins of his own, Jesus bore our sins in his body on the cross. He shed his holy blood for our forgiveness and our cleansing. And because he is the holy Son of God doing these things, his sacrifice is sufficient for all of us, for all men everywhere. Christ’s righteousness is enough to cover the entire world. God pronounces us righteous for his sake. It’s a free gift.
This gift, then, is received through faith. That’s why Jesus says, “Believe in the gospel.” To believe, biblically speaking, is not just to know about something in your head, with no connection to life. No, rather, to believe is to trust, to entrust yourself to this gospel of Christ, to know in your heart that this is your only hope of righteousness before God. “Believe in the gospel,” that is to say, Trust in Christ your Savior. Take refuge in him. He will save you. He will save you from your sins. He will save you from death and eternal damnation. He will save you by the power of his resurrection unto eternal life, so that you will share in his resurrection on the last day. This is the content of our faith.
And this faith is worked in you by the Holy Spirit, creating faith and nurturing faith through the means of grace, Word and Sacrament. The fact that you trust in Christ your Savior–this is itself a gift from God. The Holy Spirit gave you this gift of faith in Holy Baptism, and he continues to strengthen your faith as you receive Christ’s body and blood in the Holy Supper. Yes, God’s mighty word creates and awakens the very faith it calls for.
“Repent and believe in the gospel.” Now one more word that Jesus has to say to us today: “Follow me.” This is the word that Jesus spoke to those fishermen, way back when, calling them to be his disciples. To be a disciple of Jesus is to follow him in faith and to learn from him. It is a learning that is personal and practical. It is to grow in wisdom and in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is to learn what it means to be a Christian, a follower of Christ, in your daily life.
The call of Jesus to come and follow him may mean a change in your vocation, as it did for those fishermen of old. At the very least, it is the transforming of your vocation, to see yourself as Christ’s person in every aspect of your life. As a member of the church. As a citizen in society. As a family member, in your relationship to husband or wife, parents or children. It includes your job, your workplace, your life as a student–in all these spheres of life, Jesus is calling you to learn the life of love. Love for your neighbor, caring for one another. Forgiving one another when someone has wronged you. Taking the initiative to seek reconciliation where relationships have been strained. This is the living out of witness, mercy, and life together in Christ. All of this is packed into the words of Jesus, “Follow me.”
Dear friends, Jesus comes to us today, here, into this place, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Hear his voice and heed his call. Jesus comes to us today, to our Galilee, to our fishing boats, summoning us to the new life of adventure he has for us as his disciples, speaking to each one of us his powerful words of life, “Follow me.” Yes, hear the voice of Jesus saying to you today, “Repent, believe, and follow.”