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Mark 1:9-15 Biblical Commentary:
MARK 1:9-15. THE CONTEXT
Mark covers a great deal of territory in these few verses. They pull together Jesus’ baptism, his temptation, his announcement of the coming near of the kingdom, and his call to repentance and belief.
Mark uses strong, jolting language. The heavens were “parting” (Greek: schizo—ripped open) (v. 10). The Spirit “drove (Jesus) out” into the wilderness “immediately” following the baptism (v. 12). Jesus was tempted by Satan. He dwelled with wild animals, and was attended to by angels (v. 13). He preaches,“Repent, and believe in the Good News” (v. 15).
In the Exodus, Israel passed through the waters of the Red Sea into the dry air of the desert wilderness. There they encountered many temptations during their forty-year wilderness journey. Now Jesus passes through the baptismal waters of the Jordan and goes directly from the cool water to the hot wilderness. We can almost feel the quick chill as the desert air quickly evaporates the water from his body.
There is an important difference between the experience of the ancient Israelites and Jesus’ experience, however. The Israelites often failed their test—Jesus will not fail his.
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).
MARK 1:12-13. THE SPIRIT DROVE HIM INTO THE WILDERNESS
12Immediately (Greek: euthus) the Spirit drove him out (Greek: ekballei) into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted (Greek: peirazomenos) by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on (Greek: diekonoun) him.
“Immediately (euthus) the Spirit drove him out (ekballei) into the wilderness” (v. 12). Here we encounter the word euthus (pronounced you-THOOS) once again (see v. 10). The Spirit doesn’t give Jesus time to celebrate his baptism. Immediately—straightway—directly—the Spirit who had descended so gently on Jesus in verse 10 drives him out into the desert wilderness. There is an abruptness here that we hadn’t expected. What’s the hurry? Why not give Jesus a little time to enjoy his baptism?
The answer is that God the Father sent Jesus the Son into the world to bring about the defeat of sin and death, and it is time to get on with the job. There will be time for celebration later—after the resurrection—when the job is finally done. What is needed now was to get started—to send Jesus out onto the battlefield where he will encounter Satan face to face—where Jesus will confront Satan and Satan’s minions with the power of God—where Jesus will deliver Satan a small but telling defeat.
In each of the Gospels, Jesus goes straight from his baptism into his temptation (Matthew 4:1; Luke 4:1). We might think of his baptism as a commissioning and his temptation as a strengthening, toughening, hardening experience. Throughout Israel’s history, the wilderness has been where the Israelites have been tested, often failing, but it is also where they have been deepened spiritually. Unlike the Israelites, Jesus will not fail his testing.
If I may use a military analogy, the baptism would have been like the recruit holding up his hand and swearing to uphold the Constitution. The temptation would be like basic training—an intense, mostly painful time designed to prepare the recruit for the difficult challenges that he will face later.
Luccock notes that the life of a Christian is not characterized by a long series of high moments, but a rhythm of hills and valleys. Jesus’ baptism is a grand moment, but is followed immediately (Mark’s favorite word) by the testing in the wilderness. So it is also for us. Our lives will have their ups and downs. We shouldn’t anticipate a bed of roses, lest we invite disappointment (Luccock, 655).
“He was there in the wilderness forty days tempted by Satan” (v. 13a). Forty is a number often associated with intense spiritual experiences. God caused it to rain for forty days and forty nights to cleanse the earth (Genesis 7:12). The Israelites were in the wilderness forty years. Moses spent forty days and nights on Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:18; 34:28), and Elijah journeyed forty days and forty nights to Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:8).
Jesus is tempted by Satan. The Greek word peirazo can mean tempt or test. To tempt is to entice a person to do what is wrong; to test is to give a person the opportunity to choose what is right. To tempt is to hope for failure; to test is to hope for success. Testing has precedents in the Old Testament (see Genesis 22:1-19; Deuteronomy 8:2-5).
Satan is a Hebrew word that was brought into Greek and English by transliteration (creating a same-sounding word in another language). Satan sounds much the same in all three languages, but we can best ascertain its meaning by looking at the Hebrew. In Hebrew, satan means adversary or opponent or enemy. Because of its usage in the Old Testament, it came to mean “the demonic archenemy of God” (Renn, 850-851).
In Jesus’ baptism, God revealed his true identity as God’s Son, and the Holy Spirit descended on him, empowering him to do God’s work. Then “immediately” (Mark’s favorite word), “the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness,” where he began his Godly work of opposing Satan.
While Mark doesn’t describe specific temptations, Matthew (who uses Mark as one of his sources) tells of three temptations:
• To make bread from stones
• To throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple and
• To worship Satan (Matthew 4:3-10).
“He was with the wild animals” (v. 13b). It seems odd that Mark would mention Jesus being with wild beasts. While a number of species make the desert their home, they tend to be reptilian rather than mammalian—quiet, hidden, unobtrusive. The desert appears to be barren—empty. Why would Mark mention wild animals? While some scholars have suggested that Mark intends to show Jesus living peaceably with wild animals, most see the wild beasts as allied with Satan (Guelich, 38; Lane, 61).
There may be an allusion here to Psalm 91:11-13, which says:
“For he will put his angels in charge of you,
to guard you in all your ways.
They will bear you up in their hands,
so that you won’t dash your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and cobra.
You will trample the young lion and the serpent underfoot.”
Mark’s Gospel was probably written in the 60s when Nero was having Christians torn to pieces by wild animals. We can be sure that Mark’s mention of wild animals did not cause his first readers to think of the peaceable kingdom.
“and the angels were serving (diekonoun) him” (v. 13c). The angels that we expected following Jesus’ baptism finally come to wait on (diekonoun) him. Diekonoun is the word from which we get the word “deacon” and has to do with service. What kinds of service might the angels render Jesus? At the end of Jesus’ time in the wilderness, they could provide food and drink. However, the angels may have been with Jesus throughout his wilderness experience to support him in his conflict with Satan (Hooker, 51).
The picture, then, is of two opposing camps: “On the one side, supporting Jesus, are the Spirit and the angels; on the other, Satan and the wild animals” (France, 83).
Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark does not report the outcome of the temptation. There is no mention of specific temptations or Jesus’ quick ripostes to counter Satan’s proposals.
MARK 1:14-15. THE KINGDOM OF GOD HAS COME NEAR
14Now after John was arrested (Greek: paradothenai), Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time (Greek: kairos) is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Greek: euangelion).
“Now after John was taken into custody” (paradothenai—from paradidomi – to hand over – to deliver up—to betray—”taken into custody” is a weak translation) (v. 14a). Paradidomi will be used in this Gospel not only of John the Baptist, but also of the disciples (13:9, 11-12) and of Jesus (9:31; 10:33; 14:21, 41, etc.).
Herod Antipas had married his brother’s wife, Herodias, and John had rebuked him for this. Herod had him arrested and imprisoned. Later, Herodias successfully schemed to force Herod to behead John (6:17-29; Matthew 14:3-12; Luke 3:19-20).
The hand of God was in this. God’s plan was being implemented. John was the forerunner, the one who was to prepare the way for the one who was to come (vv. 1-8), and the paradidomi (handing over) of John ushered in the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. “The passion (death) of a faithful messenger of God is never a defeat for the secret kingdom (4:11); it is always a doorway through which the kingdom advances and grows” (Geddert, 35).
At the very beginning of this Gospel, John was the preacher, and now Jesus takes his place,“preaching the Good News (euangelion—Gospel or good news) of the Kingdom of God, and saying,‘The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand! Repent, and believe in the Good News'” (vv. 14b-15). Mark began this Gospel with the words, “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (v. 1). Now he says, “Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom of God” (v. 14). After the resurrection, the focus will shift back to the good news about Jesus (1:1) (Marcus, 172).
Jesus preaches the Good News, but he also embodies the Good News. He is more than John’s successor, because he has been baptized with the Holy Spirit and so is able to baptize with the Holy Spirit (1:8).
“The time (kairos) is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand! Repent and believe in the Good News” (v. 15). The good news of God has two components—“the time (kairos) is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God at hand,” and requires two responses—“Repent and believe in the Good News.”
• “The time (kairos) is fulfilled” (v. 15a). The Greeks have two words for time, chronos and kairos. Chronos is chronological time—the time of day or the time of year. Kairos is significant time—opportune time—decisive time—critical time. To be late for a chronos appointment can be embarrassing, but to be late for a kairos appointment can be tragic—the equivalent of “missing one’s boat”—missing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Jesus is saying that the Great Day has come, because the kingdom of God has come near. The kingdom comes wherever people embrace God as king of their lives.
• “Repent and believe the good news” (v. 15b). The proper response is to repent and to believe the good news. The “truth is not self-evident. To be seen, it must be believed” (Williamson, 42). “If repentance denotes that which one turns from, belief denotes that which one turns to—the gospel” (Edwards, 47).
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)
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Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)
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)
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