The beginning (Mark 1:1-20)

The beginning. While this gospel is focussed on reaching a non-Jewish audience (see last weeks intro to the gospel for some background here), Mark still wanted to anchor his work in the narrative arc of all scripture – that means the Old Testament. That means showing that Jesus wasn’t some random, and that his coming was foretold even before creation and that he was God himself.

When I’m reading, I like to highlight and make notes as to what strikes me. Each blog in Mark I do, I’ll post mine. There’s no right answer to this, it’s your personal observations and questions and meditations as you read God’s word.

The beginning takes us back to Genesis 1:1 – the creation work of God himself. Mark actually doubles down on this reference when Jesus is baptised in 1:10. It says that they saw the Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove. There is only one other place in scripture where the Spirit is likened to a dove – in Genesis 1:2 where the Spirit hovers over the waters. As Tim Keller says, to capture this vivid image, the rabbis translated this passage as “the Spirit of God fluttered over the face of the waters like a dove.”

This is something new. A new act of creation is happening.

It’s interesting that Mark names Jesus twice in the first verse. He calls him Jesus the Messiah and the Son of God. Why both? Aren’t they the same thing? Actually no. To understand this we need to try and put ourselves back in the place of a first century Jew or Gentile. We understand the “Messiah” as being Jesus and all that he encompasses. But remember, they were still grappling with who Jesus was and what he had come to do. The concept of the Messiah for them was someone God-sent who would bring about the salvation God promised. The Messiah was not necessarily anything more than a prophet. In Deuteronomy 18:18, God had promised he would send another great prophet, and since Elijah, there had been an expectation of another saving one sent from God. To add “the Son of God” was to hit people between the eyes. This was a whole new dimension. A Messiah was expected. The Son of God was NOT expected.

“As it is written in Isaiah” Mark says – again, anchoring Jesus story in the narrative arc of all scripture. He was known, he was expected, he was foretold. What he actually quotes is an amalgam of Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3. This mix and matching is not surprising given his audience. What is interesting though is that God gave those words through Malachi and Isaiah when his people were lost and feeling alone and needing God’s peace and grace. He promised resolution. Just no timeframe. And now it had come. The waiting…the hundreds of years of waiting, were over.

The words that link paragraphs are always interesting and important. Here, Mark says “and so”. This shows a clear link that Baptist was again, no random. He came specifically as foretold by scripture. He is the messenger to prepare the way. The description of John links him specifically to Elijah, the last great prophet sent from God. 2 Kings 1:8 describes Elijah as wearing a garment of hair and having a leather belt around his waist. So, this Elijah-like prophet is preparing the way for the Lord.

There is a sense of a two step progression. John is the messenger, Jesus is the Lord. John will baptise with water and Jesus will baptise with the Spirit. John preaches a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus preaches that the kingdom of God has come near and so repent and believe. In every sense, John is preparing the way. This is something sort of expected, but also so new, it requires the way to be prepared.

It is striking that Mark highlights Jesus’ divinity and humanity. His divinity is clear in the baptism narrative. But he mentions he was in the wilderness 40 days, being tempted by Satan. We know more detail of this from the other gospels. I remember my doctrine lecturer once posing a question “Was Jesus unable to sin, or was Jesus able to sin but didn’t?” I also remember him, after we had talked ourselves round in circles for an hour, saying “like all good theological questions, the answer is Yes.”

What is always find startling is Jesus, in his humanity, was tempted beyond all endurance. He was genuinely tempted because he is genuinely human. He experienced everything that we do. He must have been exhausted, agonised, anguished, starving, thirsting even to the point of death. And yet still he did not bow to Satan.

So yes. He is divine and has the power to save. But he is human and has experienced everything I have and triumphed. He triumphs in his divinity as the Son of God. In his weakness and frailty he triumphs in his humanity.

This is mind bending. In a few short verses, Mark has placed Jesus in the narrative arc of scripture, he had proclaimed Jesus as both messiah and Son of God, he has declared the gospel of repentance and belief and has highlighted both Jesus divinity and humanity.

This is as new now as it was then. And there’s a newness in re-remembering the depth of what Mark is communicating to us.

Let me know your questions – there’s so much in here we could spend many weeks! We could look at the concept of baptism, what happened to John when he was sent to prison and why, we could go SO much more deeply into repentance and belief. We’ll cover a lot of these as we go on, but please feel free to post questions or comments here or on the Facebook post if you want to engage!

21 thoughts

  1. When I read through this passage one thing that jumped out at me was heaven being torn. This made me think of the veil in the temple that was torn from top to bottom after Jesus crucifixion. Do you think there’s any links between the tearing of heaven in this passage and the veil tearing after Jesus crucifixion?

  2. What is your understanding of what God’s kingdom is? And what does it mean that Gods kingdom is near? It must be important as we’re told that because it’s near we need to repent and believe. It must also be good as it’s described here as good news that God’s Kingdom is near.

    1. Hi Alison, it could well be. The same Greek word is used both times. Mark Strauss in his commentary thinks it’s a possible “inclusio” that is, literary book ends. It’s used as a literary device to draw attention to each other and they house the meat of the message in between. That would mean that 1:10 and the sky being torn is a clear theophany with a declaration of Jesus’ divine sonship. The temple curtain tearing in 15:38 shows the removal of any barrier between us and God but shows a second theophany – with a declaration from the centurion that this truly was the Son of God. I tend to agree with you and Strauss because, as simple as Mark’s language is, he uses lots of clever literary devices to really help his message hit home.

    2. That’s a really interesting one because “the kingdom of God” as an exact phrase doesn’t appear in the Old Testament and so is something completely new. And yet, the concept of all things (ie God’s people) coming under God’s rule in God’s place (his kingdom) was a well understood concept that had drive. The whole Old Testament narrative. In the OT, there had been the Israelites in Canaan but they had adulterated God’s rule with paganism. Yet this as a concept was where all God’s promises to Abraham were leading and the expectation was that one day they would be fulfilled.
      In Ezra I think the remnant has returned from exile and they have purified their community and re-dedicated themselves to God, and rebuilt the temple. Yet at the dedication of the temple, while there is cheering and celebration, in the distance can be heard wailing and weeping. In the book there is no reason given. But the feeling is that again, the promises of God we’re not yet fulfilled.

      I’m Mark, he uses the term “the time has come” – literally in Greek that means “is filled up”. The sense we get is it’s NOW. The significant of the “kingdom of God” is that it’s the thing awaited since Abraham, since the Fall even! Not just waited for, but prayed for, hoped for, despaired for…. it’s hard to imagine any news that could be better.

      For gentiles – and jews – there’s an interesting twist. For Jews, the repent and believe angle is the culmination of many prophecies from the Old Testament that had not hitherto really caught on. The focus had been on the legalism – stick to the rules. They truly believed that the closer you stuck to the law, the quicker the kingdom would come. It’s why they go so crazy at Jesus when he appears to break them. But repentance and faith had always been there. Ezekiel 36:26-27 is a classic. It’s not about the laws – it’s about the heart of faith. This for Jews was familiar but terrifying. It required them to reject all they knew to “true” – laws and regulations they considered to be the heart of their religion.

      For gentiles this was brilliant. Because you didn’t have to do anything! Obviously there was repentance and belief, but what I mean is most religions at the time required sacrifice and money and time and was linked to your station in life. Now, God was saying it didn’t matter who YOU are it matters who HE is.

      And the kingdom of God is near? Let’s not forget that Jesus himself is the tabernacle. He is the place where we meet God. Does that make him the kingdom of God? I agree with Goldsworthy that this is the start of the “now but not yet”. Jesus has come and inaugurated the time of the kingdom of God, but it won’t be complete until the new heaven and new earth. So we are in the end times, but it is not yet complete.

  3. I’ve often thought about Jesus’ need to be baptised. Can you explain more of why it was a necessary act? Was it for the benefit of those who witnessed it? Was Jesus providing an example for us to follow?
    And what about those church denominations where baptism(esp immersion) is a really big deal?
    I’d be interested in your thoughts😁

    1. Hi Shaz! Wow – thats a mighty question. But its an excellent one. Lets pick it apart because there’s a lot in there.

      First, why did Jesus need to be baptised? John the Baptist preached baptism for repentance and forgiveness of sins. Jesus had no sin and therefore had nothing to repent of. We get the story fleshed out in Matthew 3:13-15. J the B knows Jesus doesn’t need to be baptised. In fact he says Jesus should baptise him. But Jesus replies “it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” What does he mean by that? I’ve read that the word we translate as “fulfill” also means “complete” – so Jesus’ baptism completes all righteousness. What does that mean? Jesus came to fulfill (or complete) the law – to not so much bring it to an end but to start something new. Jesus’ baptism in and of itself doesn’t do that – what it does is a few things (among a great many things! But here’s a few):

      1. It gives the clear visual symbol for cleanness, purity and newness of life which is at the heart of the gospel message. The Old Testament has many references around washing to be clean – not literally clean, but spiritually. In Ezekiel 36:25 – a prophecy to the exiled Israelites who are desperate for a message of hope and are given primarily a message of judgement – there is yet a glimmer of hope for the remnant. Ezekiel gives Gods promise: “For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.”

      Again we see this imagery of water and cleanliness from impurity and sin. But if Jesus didn’t need to (which he didn’t) he was giving a clear sign-act (ie a visual cue) to all his followers that this is what WE need. The baptism is an outward symbol but is very much linked to the work of God in our hearts. Faith and God’s work in our hearts is central to the gospel. It begins to a large extent with repentance – and that is what John preached. Baptism of repentance. Jesus takes that one step further. It is repentance and newness.

      2. It gives John the Baptist the sight of heaven’s tearing open and the Spirit descending on Jesus. J the B’s job is to be a witness – and this is the thing he needs to be a witness to. He needs to have seen this new work of God beginning the ministry of Jesus with a supernatural event.

      3. It makes the concept of baptism central to the message and the journey. God knows our hearts and the truth of our repentance and faith. As humans we need these visual cues and cultural markers. They are significant milestones in our lives. They are signals to others. And they are outward signs of what is happening inside.

      That’s why baptism can be so hotly contested in different denominations. For some its just a symbol. For others it is the actual spiritual commencement of a walk with God. It is interesting (I think) that in the early church, new converts were catechists for about 2 years before they were baptised into the faith. The implication is that baptism was a sign of entry into relationship. A full step. Prior to that, the adherents needed to be sure they understood what that step meant. I think that means we can’t down play baptism – this was the understanding of the earliest disciples who had walked with Jesus himself.

      In Acts also (18:24-26) Paul meets a man who preaches the Way but only knows John’s message of baptism – “But when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him to their home and helped him understand God’s Way even better.” So we shouldn’t over-state baptism either.

      There’s so much that could be said about this whole topic! These are just thoughts for further digestion and discussion though 🙂

  4. Thanks for the questions and responses. I’m learning a lot. Something that interests me with Jesus’ baptism is that in Mark 1:12 it says that immediately after Jesus baptism the Holy Spirit leads him into the wilderness where he is tempted by satan. In my mind I’ve always thought it was because Jesus got baptized that he was then led into the wilderness to be tempted but i don’t know what the link (if any) there is between Jesus baptism and God leading Him into the wilderness to be tempted. This is also interesting because in the Lord’s prayer Jesus teaches us to pray and ask God not to lead us into temptation. I also never thought God would lead someone into temptation but it seems from the account of Jesus being led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness that he does. Do you think there’s a link between Jesus baptism and the timing for him being led into the wilderness and do you have any thoughts regarding God leading Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan?

    1. That is an absolutely brilliant question. John Piper has some helpful initial thoughts here:

      In terms of the timing, yes I think it is deliberate. In Mark 1:12 it says “At once” the Spirit sent or impelled him to go. I think it has to do with humanity and to do with communicating the order of salvation. To take the latter, if it happens after baptism, it sends the message that baptism/conversion is not a flick of a switch, or a “silver bullet”. We are still the same human broken person tried and tempted in our humanity. If it had happened before baptism (and Jesus had triumphed) it sends the message that one must overcome all temptation to become baptised – which would be impossible. It could also lead us to think that we had a hand in our own salvation by “beating the devil” in some way. We are saved by the grace and mercy of God alone – and then after that moment, while we are still in the world, it is by his strength and Spirit that we learn to fight temptation.

      It has to do with our (and Jesus’) humanity because it shows us that after baptism, he was tempted on every human level. And he triumphed. Perfect triumph is impossible for us but it shows us what is possible. It is a a picture in how we can grow in our Christ-likeness.

      Thats a very short answer to a very deep questions but I hope it helps!

      1. Thanks, I hadn’t thought about what the implications could be if Jesus were tempted before he was baptized. Your response made a lot of sense to me and the article by John Piper confirmed what I was thinking when I asked this question. I also received your response as an email this time:-)

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