Mark relates no stories of Jesus’ birth or childhood, but launches right into Jesus’ adult life and the beginning of his public ministry.
He introduces his story succinctly: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1). From the beginning, readers are told what characters in the story will struggle and often fail to understand — that Jesus is Christos (Greek translation of the Hebrew word Messiah), God’s anointed one, the long-expected deliverer of God’s people.
This story is good news for all who are awaiting God’s deliverance. Yet the way in which this Messiah delivers God’s people will shatter all expectations. He does not come as a warrior to overthrow the Roman occupiers. He does not appear in Jerusalem among the religious and political rulers, but in the Judean wilderness among sinners coming to be washed in the Jordan. This tension between what is expected of the Messiah and who Jesus is will only intensify as the story progresses.1
Before Jesus appears on the scene, we are introduced to John the baptizer, by way of the prophets. Mark’s scriptural citation conflates material from Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3. In Malachi 3, the Lord promises to send his messenger to prepare the way before the Lord, who will suddenly appear to purify God’s people. Isaiah 40:3, an oracle of salvation for God’s people in exile, speaks of a voice crying out to prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness.
The description of John’s clothing (1:6) recalls that of the prophet Elijah (2 Kings 1:8), who was expected to return at the end of the age. Early Jewish interpreters understood the “messenger” of Malachi 3:1 to be Elijah, whose return is promised in Malachi 4:5-6, “before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.”
John the baptizer appears “in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (1:4). With characteristic hyperbole, Mark says that people “from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” come to be baptized (1:5).
Ritual washing was important in Jewish practice, particularly for priests serving in the temple, but also for lay people and proselytes to Judaism. John’s baptism is distinctive in that it is performed in the wilderness, far from the temple. Its focus is not on ritual purity, but on repentance and forgiveness in preparation for the more powerful one who is coming, the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit (1:8).
John the baptizer fulfills the words of the prophets, sounding both judgment and promise, calling God’s people to repentance in preparation for the coming of the Lord, and promising forgiveness, a new return from exile.
Heavens Torn Open
John has spoken of the more powerful one who is coming, and as if on cue, Jesus appears and is baptized by John in the Jordan. As he is coming up out of the water, Jesus sees the heavens “torn apart” (schizώ) and the Spirit descending like a dove on him (1:10). The verb schizώ is also used to speak of the rending of the temple veil at the moment of Jesus’ death. When Jesus breathed his last, Mark says, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (15:38).
The design of the temple was intended to symbolize the design of the cosmos, with the heavens as the great cosmic curtain protecting creation from God’s presence. So the temple curtain before the Holy of Holies was meant to provide protection from God’s awesome presence. Only the high priest could pass beyond this curtain, and only on the Day of Atonement. As Don Juel has suggested, the rending of the heavens and of the temple curtain indicates that our protection is gone. The barriers have been torn down, and God is “on the loose” in the world.2
A voice comes from heaven declaring, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (1:11). This declaration echoes Psalm 2:7, a royal psalm in which God speaks to God’s “anointed” as “Son.” The voice thus confirms Mark’s introduction of Jesus as Christ and Son of God (1:1). The phrase “in you I am well pleased” echoes Isaiah 42:1, spoken by God to the servant on whom God has poured out the Spirit.
There is a sense in which Jesus is “possessed” by the Spirit in Mark. Immediately after his baptism, the Spirit drives or “throws” (ekballώ) Jesus out into the wilderness, where he stays for forty days with the wild beasts, tempted by Satan, but also waited on by angels. Mark does not narrate any details of Jesus’ testing, as Matthew and Luke do, but his wilderness sojourn is reminiscent of both Moses (Exodus 34:28) and Elijah (1 Kings 19:8), as well as Israel’s forty years of testing in the wilderness.
The Time is Fulfilled
Jesus returns to Galilee and begins his public ministry after John has been arrested (1:14), an ominous note that hints at what lies ahead for Jesus. Mark summarizes Jesus’ proclamation of “the good news of God” with the words, “The time (kairos) is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near” (1:15). Like John, Jesus speaks in eschatological language. The fullness of time has arrived, the decisive moment chosen by God for the in-breaking of God’s reign on earth. This proclamation is followed by the urgent imperative to “repent, and believe in the good news” (1:15).
Mark follows this summary of Jesus’ preaching with the story of Jesus calling his first disciples, two sets of fishermen brothers. Jesus says to Peter and Andrew, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people” (1:17). Immediately (euthus) they leave their nets and follow him (1:18). Similarly, Jesus calls James and John, and immediately they leave their boats and nets, and their father Zebedee too (1:19-20). Mark does not explain their willingness to drop everything and follow Jesus. Jesus seeks them out and claims them for his mission, and apparently that is enough. They demonstrate the appropriate response to the reign of God coming near in Jesus.
God on the Loose
A sense of urgency pervades these opening episodes in Mark. The critical time has arrived; God’s reign is breaking in, and there is no time to dawdle. This announcement of God’s in-breaking reign may come as threatening news to us. It is much more comfortable to think of God safely beyond the heavens, benignly looking down on us. If God is “on the loose” in Jesus, alive and active in our world, then we are not in control. There is no telling what God might do, or what God might ask of us. Might we too be called to drop everything and follow Jesus on a risky mission?
There is no escaping the call. Yet this is good news. Through Jesus, God is on a mission to reclaim the world as God’s own, beginning with each of us. Through our baptism into Christ, we too are declared God’s beloved children, “possessed” by the Holy Spirit, and enlisted for God’s mission. God’s gracious claim on our lives defines us and gives us purpose.
1Don Juel, Mark (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1990), 36. 2Ibid, 34.