The Gospel of Mark is old.
It’s even older than many Christians have long suspected. For much of church history, Mark was held to be a secondary summary of the Book of Matthew penned by Peter’s companion John Mark. But in recent decades, scholars have concluded that Mark -written in Greek, to a Gentile audience, and employing a strange mixture of Hellenistic, Roman, and Jewish literary devices- is indeed the oldest (and therefore most original) of the four canonical gospels.
The Gospel of Mark is important.
In it we have the oldest, most unadulterated, most unfiltered stories of the life of Jesus Christ of Nazareth – the one Mark’s anonymous author repeatedly refers to as “the Christ,” the Son of God, and the messiah of Israel. In Mark we are confronted for the first time by the good news (or euangelion), urgency, and eschatological imperative of this already-not-yet Savior.
Mark matter-of-factly presents us with Jesus’s prophetic bona fides.
The author of Mark opens his/her book by quoting from Isaiah 40: “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” By citing Second Isaiah (a book also written in the midst of exile imposed by a militaristic empire), Mark’s author emphasizes that this Christ is indeed the one spoken of by the prophets. In doing so, he/she identifies Jesus as the deliverer of a people once more in political, economic, and religious exile.
Mark reminds us of Israel’s historic cycle of relationship, rebellion, and reconciliation.
Probably written in the midst of Nero’s persecution of Christians (c. AD 66-70), Mark’s earliest passages comprise a stark reminder that Israel has been here before. The Jews were a nation familiar with exile, and a people whose religious hopes had long been linked with the recurrent redemption and deliverance by God of God’s people.
Mark introduces us to John the Baptist. And boy, does he seem like a weirdo!
In some ways, John is presented as a classic Jewish holy man/outsider archetype (and one who has the wilderness prophet getup down pat). Leather belt like Elijah? Check. Hairy clothes like Zechariah described? Check. Familiar, apocalyptic-sounding message of radical repentance borrowed from Isaiah? Check. Unsettling, wide-ranging ripple effects on social, political, and religious culture in Jerusalem (the kind that can get you killed if you’re not careful)? Double-check.
This dude is clearly onto something serious. And that something is the Christos, the Messiah. [John] proclaimed, “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. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.
John is not messing around. While continuing to call Israel to repentance, the baptizer also reminds his audience that there is more to religious belief that mere confession and contrition. “This is just the beginning,” he seems to say. “Wait until you see and hear the real thing.”
In other words: John is keenly aware that real, life-changing transformation only comes from the indwelling presence of the very Spirit of God. And that same Spirit -the one that filled Adam’s lungs and would later raise Jesus from the dead- would be made available to the people of Israel as never before: in the incarnate person of Christ, at once the Son of God and Son of Man.
But first: a most extraordinary baptism.
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.
This Jesus is nothing if not humble. He’s from Nazareth, the not-at-all-important backwater village of “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” fame (spoiler alert: yes). This messiah hails from Galilee, a northern district of first-century Israel of far less socisal, political, economic, and religious significance than the southern capital of Jerusalem and surrounding Judean countryside. This Christ chooses to meet his (for now) significantly more famous cousin John exactly where he is: out in the wilderness, calling all of Israel to repentance.
And the wilderness, as Mark’s Jewish readers and many Gentile converts knew, is where things sometimes get a little weird.
The wilderness is where God first chose the people of Israel. Where an aging Moses recounted the Exodus. Where an upstart named David hid from Saul. Where a hopeful Isaiah prophesied praise, and a brokenhearted Jeremiah prophesied lament. Where Ezekiel and Joel both pronounced judgment and promised restoration. And where John the Baptist now preached repentance.
In the Jewish religious imagination, the wilderness was where God’s chosen people (and especially God’s chosen prophets) often went to encounter and experience the Divine in mystical, mysterious, and dynamic new ways.
And just as [Jesus] was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Boom! Welcome to Act 1 of the Gospel of Mark.
This is the Word of the LORD.