Commentary on Mark 1:9-15
Last week for Transfiguration Sunday we started by placing three key Markan texts side by side to understand what Mark’s narrative was aiming for overall: an apocalyptic vision of the gospel. We now turn to the first of those three texts, the baptism of Jesus in Mark 1:9–15, to understand how Mark aims to begin his Gospel in close relation to Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, a central text in the lectionary for this First Sunday of Lent. In doing so, we’ll understand Jesus’ temptation as the first skirmish of his vocation and a harbinger of the apocalyptic battle to come.
Temptation in an apocalyptic frame
We begin by noting the structure of Mark 1:9–15. The pericope for Lent 1 encapsulates in succession three quickly moving scenes at the beginning of Mark’s story of Jesus: Jesus’ baptism by John (1:9–11), Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (1:12–13), and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee (1:14–15).
Lent 1 typically focuses on a narrative of the temptation of Jesus, and in Years A and C there’s a lot to work with. Both the Lukan and the Matthean narratives are extended treatments of Jesus’ temptation, with ample Satanic dialogues to boot. Mark’s temptation is rather meager by comparison. It comprises essentially two verses. Once again, Mark’s brevity is revealed.
But another thing that is revealed in this six-verse pericope is the apocalyptic urgency of Mark’s writing and the way Mark situates the temptation in relation to Jesus’ baptism and ministry. Preachers need to consider that the uniqueness of Mark’s vision doesn’t come through dialogical sophistication (as in Matthew 4:1–11 and Luke 4:1–13 in years A and C respectively), but through its urgency and its apocalyptic framing in Jesus’ baptism and inaugural preaching.
A ripped, cosmic baptism
Once again, the general urgency of the text comes through Mark’s favorite word: “immediately” (euthus). In 1:10, Mark uses it when Jesus comes up out of the water (the New Revised Standard Version renders it as “just”). Mark wants to drive home the point: this event of the gospel in Jesus (1:1) is a world-shattering one. This is corroborated as well by the apocalyptic framing of the baptism itself.
By using a well-chosen participle, Mark describes the heavens as “ripped open” (schizomenous). The opening of the heavens is a recurring apocalyptic motif. Mark’s use of the word this way, however, is also reminiscent of the proto-apocalyptic desires of Third Isaiah, whose prophecy in 64:2 gives voice to the longing for an act of God that breaks through and accomplishes the justice so longed for:
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
Biblical scholar and preacher Brian Blount puts it well. In his sermon “On the Loose,” Blount aims to describe the unhinged scene of Jesus’ apocalyptic baptism and what it means:
Clouds tearing. Heavens ripping. Divine voice booming. Spirit descending. This is terrible, untamed tiger talk. It is the language of slashing and slicing, shredding and clawing until something once locked up on that safe and seldom seen heavenly side over there knifes its way free to this historical, human side we’re standing on over here.1
Jesus’ baptism in Mark is being portrayed as an act of apocalyptic cosmic disruption. And we’re just getting started!
Temptation as a struggle
By the time we get to the temptation proper (Mark 1:11–12), this cosmic apocalyptic frame has been set. Again, Mark aims for apocalyptic urgency. His word “immediately” (euthus) now describes the Spirit’s work in driving Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted. Mark puts it in a wild way: the Spirit “casts out” Jesus into the wilderness (this exorcistic-sounding word is ekballei in Greek).
Jesus’ temptation is not some theological conversation with the devil. Instead, it is a forty-day, life-or-death, Spirit-authorized struggle in a place of vulnerability. Wild animals show up. Angels wait upon him. The temptation in Mark is not words, but an apocalyptic struggle that Jesus survives.
Announcing the gospel of God as God’s reign
Yet out of that test and struggle instigated by the Spirit, Jesus finally comes forth to preach in Galilee. The funny thing is that the gospel he preaches is the gospel of God (1:14). Just 13 verses earlier, Mark was insisting that the gospel was Jesus Christ (Mark 1:1). But here, having now come through his Spirit-driven test by Satan, Jesus points not to himself but announces God’s ultimate purposes: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (New Revised Standard Version).
The apocalyptic battle with Satan has begun. Round 1 goes to Jesus in the wilderness. Now Jesus can announce what lies ahead: the inauguration of God’s purposes in the coming reign. Let the healings, the liberations from bondage to evil, the announcements of forgiveness, and the calls to transformation begin. It’s on.
Disrupting Lent with Mark’s Jesus
I think this Markan apocalyptic vision of the temptation of Jesus disrupts our meager Lenten practice, at least in the mainline, white churches I have both pastored and frequented. The Markan temptation is not just leading us from a chocolate to a temporary non-chocolate existence for seven weeks. It calls us, rather, to envision a kind of holy disruption grounded in the longing for God to set things right, just like Third Isaiah said centuries before.
As a post-Covid church, it may be tempting to minimize transformation, at least until we learn to manage hybrid worship and get the numbers in the pews back up again. But Mark’s Jesus won’t have it. He comes with the gospel of God, points away from himself, trusting that the longing for God to break through the heavens means both change for us and change with us.
I’ve taken a shine to the way God’s people keep playing with Martin Luther King Jr.’s paraphrase of Theodore Parker: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”2 This expression is built on the notion that God has already built the principle of transformative justice in the created order. True enough, I suppose.
But the variation on that quote that has also broken forth of late changes the intransitive “bends” to the transitive “bend,” as in, our task is to “bend the arc.” Go figure. In those “breaking in” moments described in today’s lection, perhaps even “God’s work” is becoming “our hands.” Welcome to Lent! It’s on, church.
- Brian Blount and Gary Charles, Preaching Mark in Two Voices (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 29.
- Mychal Denzel Smith describes King’s use of Parker’s abolitionist writing and interrogates it in light of King’s life in The Truth about ‘The Arc of the Moral Universe,’” Huffington Post, January 18, 2018, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/opinion-smith-obama-king_n_5a5903e0e4b04f3c55a252a4.