Commentary on Mark 1:4-11
The text for the Baptism of our Lord, January 8, 2012, is Mark 1:4-11. This is a gospel which begins with words that exclude a main verb.
In other words, the first verse is not a complete sentence but rather the title of the gospel: “Beginning of the good news/gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). A definite article (the) is not present before the noun, beginning.
The evangelist is proclaiming from the opening word that there are no limits to a “beginning” in whatever parable, story, miracle, deed, saying, teaching of Jesus in the gospel. A “beginning” takes place as the good news/gospel of Jesus Christ breaks into our hearing. What remarkable “beginnings” take place throughout the gospel! What an epiphany word to proclaim on this Sunday of the baptismal voice from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved!”
We hear prophetic voices of Malachi, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way,” and Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight'” (Mark 1:2-3). With these prophetic words of call we enter into our text as John the baptizer is identified and emerges on the scene as the one who fulfills this prophetic role as forerunner of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Following this prophetic identity the narrative begins with the appearance of John in the wilderness. John’s message is one of proclaiming the coming one. His words proclaim a baptism of repentance, a call to turn around from their ways and receive the forgiveness of sins. His call is dramatic and claims the attention of “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem.” The scene of response is no less dramatic as they “were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Mark 1:4-5). To us this looks curiously like the scene of a contemporary tent revival on the sawdust trail of religious revivalism in American history.
John’s identity is marked by the wilderness as seen by his apparel and diet: “Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey” (Mark 1:6). Perhaps it was curiosity that brought the people from the country and city. He certainly stood out in some fashion as a prophetic figure who challenged the people. But his role was not to draw attention to himself but to the coming one: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandal” (Mark 1:7). The role of John is a servant or slave of the one to whom he bows down in service.
At this point we only know that this one whom John announces is “more powerful.” What type of power will be demonstrated by this one? To our question we now hear the focus of this narrative: “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8). John’s water baptism is the Elijah-like preparation of Jesus’ baptism with the Holy Spirit.
As we read further in the gospel of Mark, we will hear that Jesus identifies John in the Elijah role. Elijah will be with Moses on the mount of Transfiguration when Jesus is identified by God in the voice from heaven: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 9:4-7). On the way down from the mountain Jesus will reveal to his disciples that Elijah “has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it was written about him” (Mark 9:13).
The narrative of the beheading of John will appear later in the feast of Herod (Mark 6:14-29) where they did “whatever they pleased” to John. This is the true identity of John the Elijah-like forerunner. He will suffer the same fate as the one for whom he prepares and proclaims: “Elijah is indeed coming first to restore all things. How then is it written about the Son of Man, that he is to go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt?” (Mark 9:12). As readers of the gospel of Mark we know that John and Jesus will both be treated with the same contempt and their lives concluded by beheading and crucifixion.
The scene changes once again and we are now at the Jordan with our two figures: “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan” (Mark 1:9). But this is no ordinary baptism for as Jesus comes out of the water the heavens are torn apart: “And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (Mark 1:10).
The translation “just as” in the NRSV is better rendered “immediately.” This adverb (Greek, euthus) occurs for the first of 41 occurrences in the gospel of Mark. The evangelist is drawing us into the drama of the gospel with each occurrence of this word. The word “immediately” both expresses a chronology (Greek, kronos) in the gospel story but also expresses an opportune time (Greek, kairos) of God’s kingdom breaking into our world in the stories, parables, miracles, deeds, sayings and teachings of Jesus throughout the gospel.
One such opportune time is this story when the heavens are “torn apart” (Greek, skizo) and Jesus alone hears the voice of God at the baptism bestowing upon him the identity: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). We will hear this verb only once again in the gospel of Mark when the temple curtain is “torn apart” at the moment when Jesus breathes his last (Mark 15:38). Now the confession of Jesus’ identity will come in the words of the centurion: “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mark 15:39). The gospel of Mark is dramatically framed by these two events of the in breaking of the kingdom and Word of God present in Jesus Christ.
The identity of Jesus is now known for the entire gospel story and will take us from his baptism to the cross. In this story the engagement with the power of Satan now begins: “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tested by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him” (Mark 1:12-13). Jesus’ Spirit-empowered ministry begins as he proclaims the good news, calls people to repent and believe (Mark 1:14-15), and calls the first disciples immediately (1:18, 20) to follow him (Mark 1:16-20).
This is the concluding framework for our January 8, 2012 text. Stay tuned, there is more to come, as we pick up this action packed drama of epiphany in two weeks as we work with the January 22, 2012 text of Mark 1:14-20, which is another great Epiphany text!