Commentary on Mark 1:1-8
To an observant reader, one notes that the first verse in the gospel of Mark does not contain a main verb: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1).
The significance of this observation is to see that these words do not compose a sentence; they rather serve to express the title of the gospel of Mark. Whatever story, miracle, parable, exorcism, teaching or narrative event of Jesus is in the gospel of Mark, it is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. This beginning takes place in our hearing or reading of the gospel of Mark. The words of this gospel break into our lives with the good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
The good news begins with the witness of two prophetic texts from Malachi and Isaiah that announce a forerunner who will go before the coming of God’s Messiah. A messenger of God will go “ahead of you” (Malachi 3:1), one who will: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Isaiah 40:3). The faith in which God’s people have lived in Messianic hope serves as the inaugural word, bringing together the anticipation and fulfillment times of God’s salvation.
The messenger, witness, and forerunner of this time of fulfillment is John the baptizer. The Second Sunday of Advent in Year B focuses on the person of John. In our text from the gospel of Mark, we hear an extensive description of John’s identity. He lives in the wilderness near the river Jordan where Jesus is baptized. The baptism he offers is for his people from the Judean countryside as “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (1:4).
John’s baptism is preparatory in anticipation for the coming of the Messiah. John even draws people from the city of Jerusalem, the city of religious leaders, who “were baptized by him (John) in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (1:5). John’s baptism of repentance and forgiveness is a call to the people of Judea and those in the city of Jerusalem to turn from their godless ways and receive the forgiveness that is present in God.
The description of John stretches our imagination. He is identified as a wilderness man: “John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey” (1:6). However, the primary intention of John was not to draw attention to himself, but to the one of whom he is the forerunner: “‘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 sandals'” (1:7). John’s role is that of a servant to the one he is called to serve.
The baptism of this one who is to come is radically different from that of John’s baptism: “‘I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit'” (1:8). This is the role that John plays out in a significant way, calling attention to the one who ushers in God’s kingdom. Jesus is the Messiah whose ministry is empowered by God’s Spirit.
The baptism of Jesus by John in the river Jordan is a baptism in which the manifestation of the Holy Spirit is evident: “And just as he was coming up out of the water, [Jesus] saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (1:10). The voice from heaven confirms who Jesus is: “And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased'” (1:11).
John fulfills the role of the one who is the forerunner, the one who is called to make known “the Messiah, the Son of God” (1:1), “the Lord” (1:3), the one who “will baptize with the Holy Spirit” (1:8), and the one who is “my (God’s) Son, the Beloved” (1:11). Within the opening verses of the gospel we are introduced to Jesus, and we see and hear for ourselves the one who is “the beginning of the good news” (1:1).
This is the one who has come, who is present, and who is to come again. We too are called to announce and make known God’s Son in this season of Advent. Like the witness of John, we too are witnesses to the one who incarnates “the beginning of the good news, the gospel” (1:1).
At the midpoint of the gospel, in the story of the transfiguration (9:2-13), we will again hear God’s voice from heaven announcing the role and mission of Jesus: “Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him” (9:7). As we move into the second half of the gospel of Mark, we are called to listen to the final teachings and deeds of Jesus, along with the witness present in “the Son of Man (who) came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (10:45).
At the end of the gospel in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, we will again see the identity of Jesus made known as “the Son of God” (1:1). Throughout the gospel, the unclean and demonic spirits know who Jesus is as he has engaged in battle with them and the powers of this world. As the heavens were “torn apart” (1:10) at Jesus’ baptism, the temple curtain is “torn in two from top to bottom” at Jesus’ death (15:38). At the cross of crucifixion, we hear for the first time in the gospel of Mark the identity of Jesus as the Son of God on the lips of a human witness in the words of the Roman centurion: “Truly this man was God’s Son” (15:39).
From “the beginning,” the evangelist Mark leads us through the pages of the gospel with the intention and goal of seeing Jesus Christ as the one who is the crucified and risen Lord. This is not only the beginning of the good news, the gospel, but in Jesus’ death and resurrection we have the fulfillment of all the aeons of time in Jesus Christ.
John the Baptist leads us in this Advent season to the one who is our Lord, whose birth we await and whose reign in eternity will never end. This is “the beginning of the good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1).