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Mark 1:4-11 Biblical Commentary:
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.
MARK 1:9-11. JESUS WAS BAPTIZED BY JOHN IN THE JORDAN
9It happened in those days (kai egeneto en ekeinai tais hemerais), that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10Immediately (Greek: euthus) coming up from the water, he saw the heavens parting (Greek: schizomenous—from schizein—torn or ripped apart, split open, rent), and the Spirit descending on (Greek: eis—into) him like a dove. 11A voice came out of the sky, “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
“It happened in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized by John in the Jordan” (v. 9). Each of the four Gospels includes an account of Jesus’ baptism. Mark’s account is the earliest, and Matthew and Luke both use Mark as one of their sources. Luke’s account (3:21-22), like Mark’s, is spare. Matthew (3:13-17) adds dialogue between Jesus and John, who would have prevented Jesus from being baptized. John’s account (1:29-34) is distinctive and begins with the Lamb of God testimony from John the Baptist.
“It happened in those days” (v. 9a). These words, “in those days,” are eschatological (related to the end of time—see Jeremiah 31:33; Joel 3:1; Zechariah 8:23; Matthew 7:22; 9:15; Mark 13:17, 19, 24). They serve as a transition—telling us that the one who is to come (v. 7) has arrived.
“Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee” (v. 9b). Jerusalem is the site of the temple, and is therefore associated with the presence of God. One would think that Jesus, like Samuel, would grow up in the temple (1 Samuel 1-2), but Nazareth is far removed from the temple and has none of the religious cachet associated with Jerusalem. Jerusalem is a great city, but Nazareth “was such an obscure village it is not mentioned in the Old Testament, Josephus, or rabbinic literature” (Brooks, 42).
Yet it is from Galilee that Jesus comes, and it will be to Galilee that he will return after his resurrection (16:7). Jerusalem and the temple will be associated with his opposition, not his support. The first ten chapters of this Gospel, encompassing the bulk of Jesus’ public ministry, take place in Galilee. Chapters 11-16, located in Jerusalem, tell of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection as well as the events leading up to them.
“and was baptized by John in the Jordan” (v. 9c). The purpose of Jesus’ baptism, in this Gospel, is to establish his identity as the Son of God. Verses 10-11, which tell of Jesus’ vision and the voice from heaven, constitute the core of this baptismal story.
“Immediately (euthus) coming up from the water” (v. 10a) indicates that Jesus was down in the water. That fact, combined with the meaning of the Greek word, baptizo (dipped or immersed) suggests immersion baptism.
The word euthus (immediately) in verse 10 is a key word in this Gospel. Mark uses it forty-two times, giving his short Gospel a sense of quick movement—a sense of urgency.
“he saw the heavens parting, and the Spirit descending on him like a dove” (v. 10b). In the Gospel of John, John the Baptist tells of seeing “the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove” (John 1:33). In Mark’s Gospel, only Jesus sees the vision of the torn-apart heavens and the Spirit. The voice from heaven is addressed to him, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased,” and presumably he is also the only one to hear the voice. For other people to recognize Jesus’ true identity, they must listen to Jesus’ words and observe his deeds.
Jesus “saw the heavens parting” (Greek: schizomenous—from schizein—v. 10)—the wording hearkens back to Isaiah’s prayer “that you would tear open the heavens and come down” (Isaiah 64:1). The people of Isaiah’s time imagined God dwelling at the top of a multi-storied heaven, an image suggesting a great gulf between God and humans. Isaiah’s prayer is that God will come down and be fully present with humanity. Mark clearly intends to say that, at Jesus’ baptism, God answers Isaiah’s prayer.
Matthew and Luke use a gentler word, anoigo, which means open, instead of schizein. Mark will also use this word, schizein, to describe the ripping of the temple veil from top to bottom at the moment of Jesus’ death—an event followed by the testimony of the Roman centurion, who will say of Jesus, “Truly, this man was God’s son” (15:38-39—see also Heb 10:19-22). In both instances, Mark intends the schizein (parting, ripping open) to announce Jesus as God’s Son.
“and the Spirit descending on (eis—into) him like a dove” (v. 10c). The point of this verse is that the Spirit descended on Jesus. Some scholars link the dove to Genesis 1:2, because rabbinic tradition has God’s Spirit “brooding on the face of the waters like a dove” (Hasel, 988). However, that is quite a stretch, given that the Genesis account includes no dove. More likely, Mark simply intends “like a dove” to help us to visualize the descent of the Spirit.
The Spirit descends “into” (Greek: eis) Jesus rather than “on” (Greek: epi) Jesus, suggesting a complete union between Jesus and Spirit. The Spirit of God is the controlling, empowering force behind Jesus’ ministry and life.
“A voice came out of the sky, “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (v. 11). In the first verse of this Gospel, we learned that Jesus Christ is the Son of God (v. 1). Now God confirms Jesus’ identity as Son—God’s beloved Son—a Son whose faithfulness has pleased the Father.
God directs these words to Jesus, and it is he who hears them. We cannot know for sure the extent to which Jesus understood his unique status as the Son of God prior to his baptism, but these words from heaven remove any ambiguity from his mind.
These signs, the rent heavens, the descent of the Spirit, and the voice, make it clear that Jesus is not just another prophet, but is God’s son in a way that others created in God’s image are not.
God’s words in verse 11 have various Old Testament roots:
• First, we have God’s commandment to Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac. “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you” (Genesis 22:2). Abraham set out to obey God’s command. God prevented him from following through, but blessed him, saying, “Because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son, …I will bless you greatly” (Genesis 22:16-17). Paul echoes this incident in his epistle to the Romans, speaking now of God’s offering of Jesus, “He who didn’t spare his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how would he not also with him freely give us all things?” (Romans 8:32—see also Hebrews 11:17-19). Clearly, God intends Abraham’s sacrifice, even though not consummated, to serve as an archetype for God’s own sacrifice.
• “You are my son. Today I have become your father” (Psalm 2:7)—words spoken to the king on his enthronement. In this instance, the king is a proxy for the nation Israel.
• “Behold, my servant, whom I uphold; my chosen, in whom my soul delights” (Isaiah 42:1).
• The servant of the Lord is the lamb led to the slaughter but who “didn’t open his mouth” but “was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:7, 12). The linkage to Jesus is unmistakable.
The baptismal words will be repeated at Jesus’ transfiguration, when God speaks to the disciples, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him” (9:7). Some scholars have interpreted the baptismal words as an adoption formula, as if Jesus became the Son of God at his baptism. However, since it is clear that these words spoken at the transfiguration cannot also be an adoption formula, there is no reason to consider the baptismal words an adoption formula. Matthew and Luke make it clear that Jesus becomes God’s Son at conception rather than at baptism (Matthew 1:18, 20, 23; Luke 1:31-37).
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)
Barclay, William, Gospel of Mark (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1954)
Bartlett, David L., New Year B, 1999-2000 Proclamation: Advent Through Holy Week (Minneapolis: Fortress, Press, 1999)
Brooks, James A, The New American Commentary: Mark (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1991)
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)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993)
Donahue, John R. and Harrington, Daniel J., Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Mark (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2002)
Edwards, James R., The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002)
France, R.T., The New International Greek Testament Commentary: The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002)
Geddert, Timothy J., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Mark (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001)
Grant, Frederick C. and Luccock, Halford E., The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 7 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1951)
Guelich, Robert A., Word Biblical Commentary: Mark 1 – 8:26 (Dallas: Word Books, 1989)
Hare, Douglas R. A., Westminster Bible Companion: Mark (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996)
Hasel, G. F., in Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), “Dove,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume One: A-D – Revised (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979)
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)
Lane, William L., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Mark(Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974)
Marcus, Joel, The Anchor Bible: Mark 1-8 (New York: Doubleday, 1999)
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)
Witherington, Ben III, The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
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