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Mark 1:4-11

This passage deals with repentance and preparation, as well as the hope of the Messiah through topic of baptism. In it, we are introduced to the prophetic figure of John the Baptist, which then culminates in Jesus’ own baptism. This particular pericope is present in all four gospels Matthew 3:1-12, Luke 3:1-20, and John 1:19-28, where we see John, leading and teaching that people must prepare for the arrival of God’s kingdom and someone greater than himself. This is a passage laden with expectation and hope.

 

Eugene Boring comments, “In Mark, John is not a fire-and-brimstone preacher; he does not proclaim the imminent judgement of God or explicitly call for bringing forth the ‘fruit’ of good works… but announces the forgiveness of sins available in the baptism he proclaims and points to the coming powerful one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.”[1] After years of prophetic silence, there is a voice from the wilderness, a person who matches the idea and presumptions of what a prophet should be, and he is teaching of someone greater who is to come. Just before our passage selection (in Mark 1:2-3), we see a direct echo of Isaiah 40:3, as well as an hint to Malachi 3:1, which refer to a person who is sent to prepare the way. Therefore, John functions as an emissary, a spokesman seeking to do just that; to prepare the way and prepare the people for their Messiah.

 

The use of “wilderness” is intriguing in its own right, because to the people of God, the wilderness was where you went to encounter the divine. Therefore, it makes sense that John, who was sent to lay the groundwork and stoke the spiritual fire of God’s redemption and presence, would come from the wilderness. As William Barclay notes, “John was no city-dweller. He was a man from the desert and from its solitudes and its desolations. He was a man who had given himself a chance to hear the voice of God.”[2] Therefore, John’s role is to beckon the people to prepare themselves for the coming savior and Christ.

 

John was both prophet preacher and baptizer. Baptism was a seen as a symbol of the purifying washing that repentant believers showed, rather than the regular act of a cleansing wash expected of people of the time. Baptism was a symbol expected to be done once to proclaim repentance and spiritual purification. John then contrasts this symbol of baptism by water immersion with that of baptism by the Spirit to express not only the repentance and purification from sin, but also, baptism by the Spirit as seen in the work of God in the life of the believer. Larry Hurtado sheds light on this thought, remarking, “This statement is to be seen against the background of the OT promises of a time when God would bestow his Spirit on all his people giving them all special closeness with him and, thereby, the blessings of salvation… Obviously the Holy Spirit is not a liquid, and the language of ‘baptizing’ with the Holy Spirit is an image intended both to associate the coming salvation with John’s own ministry of baptizing and at the same time to show the superiority of the one to the other by contrast of the Holy Spirit and water.”[3] 

 

Therefore, John is noting that the baptism he has been practicing is one of repentant proclamation. While the other, by the power of the Holy Spirit, will be a baptism of God’s redemptive work made known in the life of the believer. This scene culminates in the act of Jesus’ own baptism. Although, this raises a powerful question; why Jesus would need to be baptized. Jesus was not in need of repentance or purification. Rather, his baptism was seen by some as an act of anointing and calling, and stepping into his ministry. While others see it as Jesus setting the expectation of the believer. It wasn’t a need of purification in his life, but rather setting an example of the spiritual journey for believers. Pastor Roy Harrisville observes, “The meaning of Jesus' baptism is not exhausted, however, in the proclamation of his divine sonship. It also serves to express his solidarity with sinners. John baptized for the purpose of repentance and forgiveness. Although …Mark offers no explicit explanation, it is likely that Mark understood Jesus' baptism to be the expression of an alliance with sinners. The believer is to understand that Jesus was acting on behalf of sinners such as we. His baptism was the inauguration of the reign of one who takes the part of those ruled by sin.”[4]

 

Much of Mark’s Gospel hints at Jesus’ role as the Messiah, but allows the readers and audience to make the connection themselves via symbolism, allusion, and OT echoes. Eugene Boring observes, “Jesus’ unique status as Son of God is confirmed by the descent of the Holy Spirit (v.10)…. Instead, Jesus is the only one who sees the heavens open and the Spirit descend, and the only one who hears the divine voice (vv.10-11). Thus Mark’s readers are shown the identity of Jesus, while that knowledge remains hidden from the characters in the narrative.”[5] Along with this, the act of baptism is a way of John endorsing Jesus as the fulfillment of the OT law and the one who has been foretold of, the long-awaited teacher and messianic hope, which is alluded to but left unsaid. The Spirit descending on Jesus after being baptized echoes the role of the spirit in creation, and Kent Brower indicates that this is emphasizing the new creation, the restorative hope of Jesus’ mission.[6] 

 

After his baptism, it says that the heaven were “torn apart.” Brower notes in his commentary, that this verse is using the same imagery that later will refer to the temple veil being torn/split, hinting at God’s presence and activity, and heaven meeting earth.[7] Boring makes the point that this idea of being “torn open/torn apart” that is seen in Mark carries themes of God’s presence and eschatological activity; “Each text may have the overtones of both threat (God is no longer safely in heaven or in the temple but is loose in the world) and promise (the time of waiting and longing is over, the ultimate act of God’s revelation is already beginning).”[8] Something new is afoot and beginning, which is the hope imbued in the Gospel of Christ; God’s presence made manifest.

 

This is a passage about the hope of new beginnings, that the messiah was here. NT Wright observes, “Mark’s opening verse tells us what to expect; all this is the beginning of the good news of Jesus the Messiah, God’s son (‘God’s son’, in the judaism of the day, was a title for the messiah)… The main thing Mark gets us to do in this opening passage is to sense the shock of the new thing God was doing.”[9] With this in mind, we can see the hope for the coming messiah beginning to be realized through the preaching and teaching of John, as he prepares the way for the Lord and seen in the baptism of Jesus. Along with this, there is a question of our own preparedness for God’s presence and transformation in our lives. John beckons a two-fold question; are we prepared, have we repented and sought forgiveness so that we can stand in confidently in the presence of God and partner with him in the restoration of creation? The second question, like it, are we actively engaged in preparing the way for others to do the same?


[1] Eugene M. Boring, Mark: A Commentary (version First edition.). First ed. The New Testament Library. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, 40.

[2] William Barclay and Alister E. McGrath, The Gospel of Mark (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 16

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