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Mark 1:1-8 Biblical Commentary:
MARK 1:1-13 (14-15). THE PROLOGUE TO MARK’S GOSPEL
Verses 1-13 constitute the Prologue to Mark’s Gospel. Like the Prologue to John’s Gospel (John 1:1-18), the Prologue to Mark’s Gospel sets the scene for the rest of the book by establishing the major theme (“the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”) and by introducing Jesus and John. Mark’s prologue tells his readers who Jesus is, and the rest of Mark’s Gospel will show how Jesus fulfills the expectations laid out in the prologue (France, 54-58).
MARK 1:1-8. JOHN THE BAPTIST
The angel Gabriel, who will appear to Mary to announce the birth of Jesus, first appeared to Zechariah, John’s father, to announce John’s birth (Luke 1:5-25). The story is reminiscent of the announcement of Isaac’s birth to Abraham and Sarah in that both couples were elderly, surprised, and somewhat doubtful. John’s mother, Elizabeth, was related to Mary, Jesus’ mother, and became pregnant with John six months before Mary became pregnant with Jesus (Luke 1:36).
John and Jesus were surely well acquainted, and must have played together as children. Being six months older may have given John some advantage in their earliest years, but he apparently recognized Jesus’ superiority even prior to their births (Luke 1:39-45).
The angel who announced John’s birth required that John never touch strong drink, and promised that, even before his birth, he would be filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:15). The prohibition of strong drink is one of the requirements of a Nazarite vow, the other requirements being that the Nazarite not cut his or her hair and that he/she not touch a dead body (Numbers 6:1-8). Most Nazarite vows were taken for a period of time, but (if Luke 1:15 means that John is a Nazarite) John was one of the few lifelong Nazarites.
John was raised in the wilderness (Luke 1:80), was called by God in the wilderness (Luke 3:2), preached in the wilderness (Mark 1:4), and was most likely imprisoned and died in the wilderness at Machaerus (Josephus, Ant. xviii 5.2). His imprisonment and death were the result of his rebuke of Herod for taking his brother’s wife, Herodius, who schemed successfully to have John beheaded (6:16-29).
John’s mission was to prepare the way for the Messiah—to make his paths straight (1:3). He did this by preaching in the wilderness, where he attracted great crowds, by calling people to repentance, by baptizing, and by heralding the one who was to come.
Jesus said of John that he was Elijah (9:13; cf. Matthew 17:12-13). He also said, “Most certainly I tell you, among those who are born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptizer; yet he who is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he” (Matthew 11:11).
John had disciples of his own during his lifetime, and a number of these disciples maintained their devotion to John long after John’s death. Acts 19:1-7 tells of Paul’s encounter with a dozen of John’s disciples in Ephesus about thirty years after John’s death. Paul reminded them that John had come to point the way to Jesus, after which they submitted to baptism “in the name of the Lord Jesus.” However, the persistence of John’s disciples made it necessary for Jesus’ disciples to emphasize Jesus’ priority.
MARK 1:1-3. I SEND MY MESSENGER BEFORE YOUR FACE
1The beginning (Greek: Arche—beginning) of the Good News (Greek: euangeliou—glad tidings, good news, Gospel) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2As it is written in the prophets,
“Behold, I send my messenger (Greek: angelon—messenger, angel)
before your face,
who will prepare your way before you.
3The voice of one crying in the wilderness,
‘Make ready the way of the Lord!
Make his paths straight!'”
“The beginning of the Good News” (euangeliou—good news, Gospel) (v. 1a). Mark begins his Gospel with a trumpet call, Now Hear This! He gets right to the point, and the point is “the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
We should not miss the first word of this Gospel, “Beginning” (Greek: Arche). We are reminded of the book of Genesis, which begins, “In the beginning.” Just as that book describes the beginning of all creation, this Gospel describes the salvation work of Jesus Christ—the culmination of God’s creative relationship with the world.
The beginning, for this Gospel, starts not with a baby in a manger, but with a prophetic word. The quotation from Isaiah (v. 2) establishes that Jesus Christ is not a recent fix to a creation-gone-bad, but has instead been central to God’s plan all along.
While it might seem odd that Mark, who was writing with a Gentile readership in mind, should include this prophecy from Isaiah, he does so to establish the roots from which the Christian faith sprang. Jesus does not reject the salvation work that God has done through the Jews, but fulfills it (Matthew 5:17).
“of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (v. 1b). Even though Jesus Christ sounds as if these are Jesus’ first and last names, that is not the case:
• Jesus is the name—the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Joshua, which means “Yahweh saves.”
• Christ is the title—the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word Messiah, which means “anointed”. In the Old Testament, prophets, priests, and kings were anointed with oil as a sign of their being set apart to their respective offices. Their anointing was a commissioning in which they were (1) authorized to act in God’s behalf and (2) empowered by God to meet the requirements of their office. Their service was imperfect, however, and the Hebrew people looked forward to the perfect services of the Messiah—the perfect anointed one.
“the Good News of Jesus Christ” (v. 1b) can mean either the good news about Jesus Christ or the good news proclaimed by Jesus Christ. The first meaning makes more sense in this context, but it is possible that Mark’s ambiguity is intentional—that he wants us to savor both meanings—see verse 14, where Jesus proclaims the Gospel as well as embodies it (France, 53).
The Jewish people expect the Messiah to be, not only of the lineage of King David, but of the same type—a strong ruler who will re-establish Israel as an independent and great nation—a warrior/king. In this Gospel, Mark will disabuse them of this notion. It is often said that the shadow of the cross falls across this Gospel. The suffering Christ whom Mark will reveal is very different from the warrior/king whom the Jewish people expect. However, this is not a gloomy book. Mark tells us from the beginning that this story is Good News.
“the Good News (euangelion) of Jesus Christ” (v. 1b). The Greek word euangelion combines the words eu (good) and angellos (to proclaim). Angellos is related to our word angel. Angels were God’s messengers.
• In secular use, euangelion (Good News) was used for a victory in battle—or for the reward given to a messenger who brought word of such a victory.
• In the New Testament, euangelion is usually translated Good News or Gospel. The word Gospel comes from the Old English “god spel,” which means “good news.”
• In the New Testament, euangelion is used in two ways:
(1) Most often, it is used for the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ.
(2) However, as Mark uses it in this verse—the gospel of Jesus Christ—it can serve as a title for his account of the life of Christ. Christians have seized on this to speak of “The Gospel of Mark” (or Matthew or Luke or John)—accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Mark was the first of the four Gospels to be written, so this verse is the first time euangelionis used in that way. Later, Justin Martyr (100-165 A.D.) will write about a worship service “at which the ‘memoirs of the apostles… called gospels’ were read out to the congregation (Apol i.66). (However), the plural ‘gospels’ was not a NT usage” (Martin, 529).
“the Son of God” (v. 1b). Mark adds that Jesus is the Son of God. This Gospel is written for Gentiles, and the title, Christ, does not have the same authority for Gentiles as it does for Jews. The title, Son of God, however, speaks to Gentiles of an all-powerful being. By including both titles, Christ and Son of God, Mark denotes Jesus’ authority in terms that both Jews and Gentiles can appreciate.
“As it is written in the prophets” (v. 2a). Mark identifies Isaiah as the author of the prophecy in verses 2-3, but these verses actually incorporate portions of three Old Testament books. Matthew and Luke, both of whom use Mark’s Gospel as one of their primary sources, quote only the portion from Isaiah (Matthew 3:3; Luke 3:4). The three scriptures in Mark’s verses 2-3 are as follows:
• “I am going to send an angel in front of you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared” (Exodus 23:20). In the Greek, angelos can mean either an angelic or a human messenger. In Exodus, God sent an angel to lead the people on their wilderness journey. In this Gospel, the messenger is John the Baptist (Marcus, 142).
• “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me” (Malachi 3:1). Malachi intended this as a warning. The priests had become corrupt and self-serving, so that their service had become an abomination to God. The messenger of whom Malachi spoke “was to come to cleanse and purify the worship of the temple before The Anointed One of God emerged upon the earth” (Barclay, 3). But Mark reinterprets the verse from Malachi to identify John as Elijah, who comes to prepare the way for the Christ as foretold by Malachi 4:5.
• “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God'” (Isaiah 40:3). Isaiah wrote this verse during the Babylonian exile. The people were in despair, but Isaiah spoke of a new exodus. Just as God led the Israelites through the wilderness into the Promised Land, so also God would lead the exiles back to Jerusalem through the wilderness (Arthur & Nestingen, 14). This, in fact, happened when the Jewish exiles were allowed to return to their homeland.
” Behold, I send my messenger (angelos—angel or messenger) before your face” (v. 2b). John will not only proclaim the coming of Jesus, but will also be a forerunner of Jesus in several ways:
• The wilderness will be important for both their ministries.
• Both will call people to repentance.
• Both will be betrayed and arrested (paradidomi—betrayed, delivered up, handed over). Mark 1:14 tells of John’s paradidomi, and 3:19; 9:31; 14:18 of Jesus’ paradidomi (Brueggemann, 19-20).
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness” (v. 3a). The wilderness is key to Israelite history. It was in the wilderness that God tested the people and it was in the wilderness that they rebelled. It was in the wilderness that God saved them again and again, and the wilderness was the crucible where they became a nation. The wilderness was both a route to the Promised Land and a place of exile. It was a place where people sinned and where they also repented to restore their relationship with God.
MARK 1:4-6. JOHN THE BAPTIST CAME BAPTIZING IN THE WILDERNESS
4John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching the baptism (Greek: baptisma – a dipping, plunging, or immersion) of repentance (Greek: metanoias – a change of mind or direction) for forgiveness of sins. 5All the country of Judea and all those of Jerusalem went out to him. They were baptized by him in the Jordan river, confessing their sins. 6John was clothed with camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey.
“John came baptizing in the wilderness” (v. 4a). It seems counter-intuitive that John would go to the wilderness to proclaim his message. Why not go to the city, where people live? The answer is that the wilderness has special meaning to the Jewish people. It was to the freedom of the wilderness that God led them from their slavery in Egypt. It was in the wilderness that they became a nation. The answer is also that John the Baptist is the embodiment of Elijah the prophet, who was associated with the wilderness (1 Kings 17:2-3). The scriptures promised the return of Elijah (Malachi 4:5). John’s dress and diet link him with Elijah. Later Jesus will tell us that Elijah has, indeed, returned—“and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written about him” (9:13)—clearly pointing to John, whose arrest is mentioned at 1:14.
John comes preaching “the baptism (baptisma – a dipping, plunging, or immersion) of repentance (metanoias – a change of mind or direction) for forgiveness of sins” (v. 4b).
There are two traditions from which John’s baptism could be derived:
• One is ritual washings with which people cleansed themselves of spiritual impurity. Ritual bathing was especially important in the Qumran community with which John may have had some connection.
• The other tradition is proselyte baptism of Gentile converts to Judaism, an initiatory cleansing rite performed by immersion.
However, there are differences between each of these traditions and John’s baptism:
• Ritual bathing was a self-administered, oft-repeated ritual, but John personally administers baptism, apparently as a one-time rite.
• Proselyte baptism was for Gentiles only, signifying entry into membership in the people of God. Jews were already members of the people of God, and thus assumed to need no baptism. John’s baptism, however, is directly specifically to the Judeans and Jerusalemites who came to hear him—presumably all Jews.
It seems likely that John borrows from both traditions (ritual washings and proselyte baptism), but establishes his own baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Regarding his requirement that Jews be baptized, prophets such as John were called by God to help people see with new eyes—and to respond in new and often uncomfortable ways. In this instance, John is telling the Jews that they are in need of God’s forgiveness. In that, they are no different than Gentiles. John baptized them to prepare them for the day when God would come in judgment. It was a first step toward a new life.
John’s is a baptism of repentance. We tend to think of repentance as feeling guilty about our sins, but it is more—much more. The Greek word, metanoia, means a change of mind or direction. It is related to the Hebrew word tesubah, used by prophets to call Israel to abandon its sinful ways and to return to God. Both words (metanoia and tesubah) imply “a total change of spiritual direction” (Marcus, 150).
When we learn a new and better way of thinking, we naturally respond by changing our behavior to accord with our new understanding. If our earlier actions harmed others or ourselves, we will feel sorry that we acted in those ways and for the harm that we caused. In that sense, guilt is part of repentance, but guilt becomes true repentance only when it causes us to change our mind and direction.
“the baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins” (v. 4b). These three elements, repentance, baptism and forgiveness, go together (Williamson, 32). Repentance motivates us to seek baptism, and repentance and baptism together open the door for us to receive forgiveness of sins.
“All the country of Judea and all those of Jerusalem went out to him” (v. 5a). It has been more than three hundred years since a prophet was active in Israel, and the people think that the age of prophets is past. Now, learning of John the Baptist and his wilderness proclamation, they flock to hear him.
“All those of Jerusalem” (v. 5a) is clearly hyperbole (exaggeration for effect), but the people of Jerusalem are clearly drawn en masse to hear this new prophet, who was promised to them (Malachi 4:5), but who nevertheless appears unexpectedly.
Not only are people willing to travel to the wilderness to hear John, but also the wilderness is part of the attraction. Big city people dream of the countryside—an idyllic, quiet, peaceful, innocent place by comparison with the city. Drawn to the city by the promise of money and excitement, they find themselves yearning for that which they left behind—uncalculating neighborliness, uncomplicated friendships, unvarnished truth, and unpretentious living.
John’s location in the wilderness identifies him, not only with Jewish salvation-history, but also with the freshness that makes it possible for people to repent and to rid themselves of their sins. Ironically, people who were attracted to the excitement of the city, only to find many of its promises hollow, now find themselves attracted to the excitement of a new prophet in the wilderness whose preaching promises to be enduring. They go “confessing their sins” and seeking baptism (v. 5).
“John was clothed with camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey” (v. 6). The description of John is intended to identify him with Elijah, whom the Old Testament describes as “a hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist” (2 Kings 1:8).
• John’s diet of locusts and wild honey also places him in the prophetic tradition—the prophet Daniel declined a royal diet in preference for vegetables and water (Daniel 1:8-16). The Torah specifies locusts as a permissible food—the modern word is kosher (Leviticus 11:22). Jewish tradition does not classify locusts as meat, so it would suit an ascetic such as John the Baptist (see Matthew 11:18; Luke 7:33) (Marcus, 151).
• Also, John’s confrontation with Herod Antipas (6:18) is reminiscent of Elijah’s confrontation with Ahab (1 Kings 18). In both cases, it was the wives that proved truly dangerous. Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, failed in her attempt to kill Elijah (1 Kings 19), but succeeded only in scaring him. However, Herod’s wife, Herodias, will succeed in her effort to kill John the Baptist (6:16-29).
MARK 1:7-8. AFTER ME COMES HE WHO IS MIGHTIER
7He preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier (Greek: ischuroteros—spaner, mightier, more powerful) than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and loosen. 8 I baptized you in water, but he will baptize you in the Holy Spirit.”
“After me comes he who is mightier than I” (v. 7a). The people throng to hear John, but he redirects their focus to the one who is coming. John identifies that one as more powerful than himself, no small claim given John’s great charismatic power. Nobody has seen prophetic power such as John’s for three centuries—no living person has ever seen such power—but John says that his power is nothing compared to that of the one who is to come.
“the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and loosen” (v. 7b). The task of untying someone else’s sandals is considered so menial that all Jews, even Jewish slaves, are exempted from such duty Only Gentile slaves can be required to perform such service (Edwards, 33). When John says that he is unworthy to untie the thong of the sandals of the one who is to follow, he is saying that the social distance between him and the one who is to come “is greater than that between a master and a slave” (Perkins, 533). The point is not John’s insignificance, but Jesus’ overwhelming significance.
“I have baptized you in water, but he will baptize you in the Holy Spirit” (v. 8). After centuries of prophetless, spiritless history, John promises that Jesus will baptize (immerse, submerge, overwhelm) them with the Holy Spirit. It is an exciting promise indeed—Good News for sure!
This will not be the first time that Jewish people receive the Holy Spirit in the wilderness. During the Exodus, God “put within them his holy spirit” (Isaiah 63:11), and “the spirit of the Lord gave them rest” (Isaiah 63:14). Now “the prophet announces the second exodus as a time when there will be a fresh outpouring of the Spirit (Isa 32:15; 44:3)” (Lane, 52). He also introduces Jesus as both a dispenser (v. 8) and a recipient (v. 10) of the Spirit.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Arthur, John W. and Nestingen, James A., Lectionary Bible Studies: The Year of Mark: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Study Book (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1975)
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Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year B (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993)
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Grant, Frederick C. and Luccock, Halford E., The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 7 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1951)
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Hare, Douglas R. A., Westminster Bible Companion: Mark (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996)
Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark (Hendrickson Publishers, 1991)
Jensen, Richard A., Preaching Mark’s Gospel (Lima, OH: C.S.S. Publishing Co., 1996)
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Lockyer, Herbert Sr., Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1986)
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Martin, R.P., “Gospel,” in Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume Two: E-J – Revised (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982)
Perkins, Pheme, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995)
Thayer, Joseph Henry, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (NY: American Book Company, 1889)
Williamson, Lamar Jr., Interpretation: Mark (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1983)
Wright, Tom (N.T.), Mark for Everyone (London: SPCK and Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001, 2004)
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