One unfortunate consequence of preaching through the Bible text-by-text is that Christians can begin to treat a book like Mark’s Gospel as a collection of disparate stories instead of a single, unified story with different scenes. This consequence is surely unintended, and it shouldn’t keep churches from preaching through books. Rather, we need to be aware that this can occur and work to prevent it, since God inspired unified stories.
This problem can be further exacerbated by having chapter numbers and paragraph headings in our Bibles. They’re useful, but when I open my ESV to Mark chapter 1, I see it broken up into nine different sections. Visually, I’m told, “This is a collection of nine different stories.” The part concerning the “fishers of men” occurs in verses 16 to 20, and we struggle to integrate it into the surrounding context.
It struck me today that the disciples (Simon-Peter, Andrew, James, and John) are the ones that Mark describes as astonished at Jesus’ teaching and exorcism in verses 21 to 28, not the crowd. The crowd of onlookers has not yet come onto the scene, and Mark wants to tell us about the disciples’ first experience with Jesus.
Notice, “they” refers to the disciples in 1:16-20:
1:18 – And immediately they [i.e., Simon & Andrew] left their nets and followed him.
1:20 – And immediately he called them, and they [i.e., James & John] left their father Zebedee in the boat and followed him.
Ignore the section break, and proceed into 1:21-28. Mark doesn’t introduce any new characters, apart from the man with an unclean spirit. “The crowd” doesn’t become a character in the story until later on.
1:21-22 – They [i.e., Jesus and the disciples] went into Capernaum… he [i.e., Jesus] entered the synagogue and was teaching. And they were astonished at his teaching…
1:27 – And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”
To whom is they referring in 1:22 and 1:27? Did onlookers hear Jesus’ teaching and witness his exorcism in the synagogue? Surely. But here’s the key: Mark has the spotlight focused on Jesus’ newly-called disciples. The word they in verses 22 and 27 refers to them, not the crowd. Mark wants to put us into their shoes and experience their surprise as they witness something completely unexpected; the One who called them had an authority that transcended the scribes and unclean spirits.
But what about being “fishers of men”? Well, after witnessing Jesus’ teaching and authority in the synagogue, they take Jesus to Simon’s mother-in-law. This serves as something of an initial test, as if they wanted to make sure that “this guy was for real.” After Jesus effortlessly heals her and the sun sets, ending the Sabbath, the disciples get to work on their first fishing expedition. They are the ones that bring to Jesus “all who were sick or oppressed by demons.” For the first time in Mark’s story, the disciples have cast their nets and brought people to Jesus. “The whole city was gathered together at the door.” Many more expeditions will follow.
If we seek to integrate the scenes of a unified story, we will notice things we might otherwise miss. In the end, we more accurately discover the meaning of God’s inspired text.