These are the first words that Jesus utters in Mark's gospel. Since I think that words are important: written and said, I find it fascinating what words in scripture are spoken by different people first, last, or at some significant happening. You can learn so much about someone that way. Like when the transfiguration is happening all around Peter and he says, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” It says that when Peter is in awe and doesn't know what to say, he can say some silly things. Sometimes Peter just sticks his foot in his mouth.
In this instance Jesus has been adequately marketed by John and people are intrigued by John's proclamation and who this Jesus might really be. Jesus is baptized and then sent to the wilderness to be tempted. When he returns Mark shares these words as his first.
Jesus' first words are really intriguing aren't they? There is no small talk. Mark's gospel is fast and gets down to business. There is no birth narrative, it is only 16 chapters (smallest of all four gospels), and he uses the word immediately as much as Jesus' name (that may be a bit of an overstatement). So Jesus gets down to business. He makes a bold statement that the time has come. That long awaited time that the Jewish people had been longing for is now here. Their new king has arrived. Even in their excitement of wanting to listen to Jesus, they have no idea what he is really getting at by this statement. God is ready to reign and Jesus will become the way for that to take place. He has come to fulfill the story of God from the time of creation to God choosing his people, to the Exodus, to the judges, kings, and prophets, now to the ultimate king. They will look for a king like Saul that will lead them into battle and destroy in order to reign. What they have received though is a lamb that will be slaughtered so that once and for all the wall of hostility between God and His people can be broken down. There will be no need of annual sacrifices or baptisms, just a need for dedication and following the one sacrifice, Jesus.
Jesus calls on his audience to repent and believe the good news. It is time for the people to not just dip in the water to release themselves of guilt for the sins they have committed only to do it again, but to really turn away from sin, false gods, distractions, and purposeless life. Jesus comes with this message right on the heels of being tempted by Satan to a point of spiritual exhaustion where he needed angels to attend to him. He preaches what he understands, that while it is a difficult struggle to turn away from temptation and sin, it is the only way to truly live. While the temptation and sin might feel good temporarily in the end you have handed your soul over to Satan and you will become a slave to him and his schemes. Turn and choose the Lord and you might miss on what this temporary world has to offer, but you will gain the Spirit's insight into an unending joy that wells up from the divine.
You can only do this if you believe the gospel. This isn't some flimsy kind of belief as if you are simply acknowledging something as a possible truth, but this the kind of belief where you are willing to stake everything you have on it. Jesus will test this belief with the crowds, the disciples, the apostles, and the future church. Some will express their flimsy faith when they walk out on him (John 6) and some will have their lives ended because of their rock solid faith (Stephen, Acts 7). The belief that Jesus is calling them to with this proclamation is not to gather a following as much as it is to direct them back to the Father and give themselves back to the one who has done so much for them by rescuing them and choosing them and who will soon sacrifice his son for them.
But what is Jesus calling them to when he says, "gospel"? What is the gospel? Throughout church history we have taken this term gospel and have done our best to simplify it so that it could easily be preached and received. So the pioneer and frontier preachers during revivals simplified the gospel to the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. It's not a false gospel, but maybe the fuller gospel could be more helpful in our understanding of God and His mission from beginning to end. I would encourage you to read King Jesus Gospel by Scot McKnight for a fuller understanding of the gospel. But basically his claim and a claim that I completely agree with is that the gospel is not just the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Rather the gospel is Jesus being the complete fulfillment of Israel's story and promise from God that culminates itself in Jesus' sacrifice and God's power over death through resurrection. And I believe that, that gospel will find itself being told until the Holy Spirit brings it to completion when God restores all things and has his son return.
So when Jesus comes from the wilderness and addresses the crowd he says:
“The time has come...The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
And he is still addressing us with these words today!