The Ministry of John the Baptist, 1-8

1:1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Lane remarks that the most striking features of Mark’s prologue are its abruptness and its silences.  No background is given for John’s appearance in the desert, or for Jesus’ submission to John’s baptism.  What is emphasised is the coming of Jesus as Messiah and very Son of God.  His encounter with Satan is itself a prologue to his conflict with the forces of evil that feature to prominently in Mark’s narrative.

The beginning – we should not miss the link with Gen 1:1. Here is a ‘new start’, as radical and decisive in its own way as creation itself.

The word ‘arche‘ can mean refer either to the first in a sequence, or to origin.  Edwards says that the second is intended here, and ‘the beginning of the gospel’ refers to Mark’s work as a whole.

Another explanation, noted by Witherington, is that Mark had intended, like Luke, to write a second volume.

‘“Beginning” implies not simply the start of the narrative, but that its total message is the “foundation” of that gospel that continues to be proclaimed in Mark’s own time (Mk 13:10; 14:9)’ (Harper’s Bible Commentary)

If we accept the link between Peter and Mark’s Gospel, there is possible significance in the fact that in Acts 10:37 Peter is reported as having begun his preaching of the good news by referring to Jesus’ baptism by John.

We must remember that the epistles pre-date ‘the Gospels’.  ‘The gospel’ had circulated far and wide by the time that ‘the Gospels’ came to be written.  The preaching and writing of the apostles (including Paul) had freighted the word with much theological meaning.  As the message spread, and the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ own life and ministry grew older, it was reasonable for people to ask, ‘How did it all begin?  What did our Lord say and do in the days of his flesh?’  These are precisely the kinds of questions that Mark (and the other Evangelists) set out to answer for their respective constituencies.

By beginning his account of the gospel with the ministry of John the Baptist, is Mark either ignorant of the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke or does he regards them as irrelevant?  For all we know, Mark may not have been aware of the birth narratives.  After all, Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts seem quite independent of one another at this point.  Furthermore, they do not feature explicitly in the rest of the NT witnesses.  This does not make them ‘irrelevant’, but it does suggest that they are of less central importance than our Lord’s death and resurrection.  What we can say is that Mark evidently has a purpose of his own in starting where he does.  As Evans (Holman Apologetics Commentary), says, Mark begins his Gospel with a quotation from Isaiah 40 in order to show that his focus will be on Jesus the divine warrior who will lead his people from their bondage and exile. It is commonly understood that in his prophecies of restoration from exile, Isaiah portrays the restoration as a new exodus. Rikki E. Watts has shown that “for Mark the long-awaited coming of Yahweh as King and Warrior has begun, and with it, the inauguration of Israel’s eschatological comfort” (1997, 90). The Gospel’s action begins in the wilderness, indicating that God’s people are still in exile, outside the land of promise and blessing).’

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke, on the other hand, begin with birth narratives in part to emphasize the Davidic lineage of Jesus, who is coming to his people in fulfillment of the Davidic covenant. Mark also shows Jesus’ Davidic lineage (Mark 10:47-48; 11:10; 12:35-37), but does not place the emphasis there as Matthew and Luke do. This is why Mark has no genealogy or birth narrative. For this situation and others that will arise during our examination of the Gospel of Mark, it is important to note that an author’s silence about a given event or fact does not count as a denial of that event or fact.

The gospel – the word ‘evangel’ was used among the Romans to denote the joyful tidings of festivals events marking the birthday of the emperor and similar events. An inscription dated around 9 BC says of the emperor Octavian (Augustus):

Providence… has given us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humanity, sending him as a savior [soter, cf. Luke 2:11; John 4:42; Acts 5:31; 13:23; Eph 5:23; Phil 3:20; 2 Tim 1:10; Titus 1:4; 2:13; 3:6; 2 Pet 1:1, 11; 2:20; 3:2, 18; 1 John 4:14).], both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and put all things in order… Caesar, by his appearance [epiphanein, cf. 2 Thess 2:8; 1 Tim 6:14; 2 Tim 1:10; 4:1, 8; Titus 2:13] excelled our expectations and surpassed all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done… the birthday of the god [theos] Augustus was the beginning [archesthai] for the world of the good news [euangelia] that came by reason of him.

Mark’s Roman readers would therefore have well understood Mark’s proclamation of Jesus.  But there is contrast as well as similarity: Jesus is, of course, a very different kind of personage.  Lane quotes Stauffer: ‘Caesar and Christ, the emperor on the throne and the despised rabbi on the cross, confront one another.  Both are evangel to men.  They have much in common.  But they belong to different worlds.’

Edwards comments: ‘In the Greco-Roman world the word always appears in the plural, meaning one good tiding among others; but in the NT euangelion appears only in the singular: the good news of God in Jesus Christ, beside which there is no other.’

Mark is not referring to ‘the gospel’ as a book (the word did not became attached to the four ‘Gospels’ until the 2nd century).  Nor is he thinking of it as ‘the scheme of salvation’.  He is, rather, using the word to refer to ‘the good news about Jesus’.  He uses the word ‘gospel’ more than any of the other Evangelists (seven, compared with four in Matthew and none in Luke or John).  As (probably) the first of the four, he also ‘inaugurates a new literary genre in applying the term “gospel” to the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.’ (Edwards)  The same writer adds: ‘In Mark’s understanding…the gospel is more than a set of truths, or even a set of beliefs. It is a person, “the gospel of Jesus Christ.”’

The Gospels generally, and Mark’s Gospel in particular, constitute a challenge to the Roman emperor cult: it is Jesus, not the emperor, who is the beginning of good news for the world, and God’s son.

The word ‘evangel’ had additional meaning for the Jews, since, as the quotation from Isaiah reminds us, the evangel was the good news of God’s salvation, as promised in the prophets. The message about Jesus Christ is ‘good news’ and is to be joyfully proclaimed as such.

Edwards reminds us that the word ‘euangelion‘ was often used of reports of victory in battle.  Thus, ‘When the Philistines defeated the troops of Saul on Mt. Gilboa, “they sent messengers throughout the land of the Philistines to proclaim the news (euangelizesthai) … among the people” (1 Sam 31:9; see also 2 Sam 1:20; 18:19–20; 1 Chr 10:9). The messenger who brought the report was the deliverer of “good news” (2 Sam 4:10; 18:26).’

The message about Jesus Christ is good news!

Jesus Christ, the Son of God – Edwards comments that ‘Son of God is a more complete title for Jesus’ person and mission than is Messiah, and is Mark’s blue chip title for Jesus, the chief artery of the Gospel.’

Here, at the outset, is a full declaration of the person of Christ. Jesus means ‘The Lord is salvation’, cf Mt 1:21. Christ is more a title than a name, and indicates that he is the long-awaited Messiah. The expression, the Son of God is full of meaning, and expresses the fact that he is divine, the very equal of God, Jn 5:18, he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God. It is fitting that a Gospel should begin with such a declaration, for the divinity of Christ explains the unique authority of his teaching, the wonderful power of his deeds, and the abiding efficacy of his death. See Rom 9:5, Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! When we stand on this doctrine, we stand on an impregnable rock. When we move from it, we sink in a quicksand.

There is, however a further angle to be explored regarding the title ‘Son of God’.  ‘Adam was “the son of God” (Luke 3:38). Adam failed, however, to walk in obedience to God. God later called Israel to be his “son,” and the Bible even describes God as calling Israel his “firstborn” (Ex. 4:22–23). Yet Israel, too, failed. Jesus, however, was the final Son of God, the true Firstborn, the Son who succeeded where all others had failed (Mark 1:11). Because of his obedient sonship, God is pleased to adopt into his own family those who are united to the Son by faith (Rom. 8:14 –17; Heb. 2:10). Mark 1 taps into this whole-Bible theme.’ (Source)

‘Christ’ (Messiah) is found just six other times in this Gospel.  Of these only three refer to Jesus as the Christ (Mk 8:29; 9:41; 14:61–62, and in only the last of these does Jesus make a direct personal claim to be the Christ.  All of this makes the wording of the present verse the more striking.

We must note, however, that the expression ‘the Son of God’ is missing from one of the earliest copies of Mark’s Gospel.  Was it omitted deliberately (perhaps because the copyist did not want to offend his Jewish readers at the outset), or carelessly?  Or was it added to another copy because the scribe wanted to ‘promote’ Jesus from human to divine?  The latter view is taken by Bart Ehrman in his book Misquoting Jesus.  However, the conspiracy theory does not stand up very well, because there are plenty of other (undisputed) texts which describe Jesus as the Son of God (Mk 1:1,11; 3:11; 5:7; 9:7; 12:1-11; 13:32; 14:61-62; 15:39).  The uncertainty about Mk 1:1 makes no difference at all to the overall theology of Mark’s Gospel.

The end of the old, and the beginning of the new

‘If Mark was composed and circulated in the late 60s, then the Evangelist’s identification of Jesus as the true “Son of God” would be highlighted against the backdrop of the decline of the myth of the divine Roman emperor. After the Senate declared him a public menace, Nero committed suicide in 68. He was followed in rapid succession by Galba, Otho, and Vitellius. The first and last were murdered; the second committed suicide. Not one ruled for more than a few months. Vespasian, who ascended to the throne in late 69, was the fifth Roman emperor and “son of God” in two years. The dubiousness of the Roman imperial myth had become apparent to many. In this setting Mark presented to the Roman public a new model of divine leadership, the true “Son of God,” with whom the good news for the world truly begins.’ (Holman Apologetics Commentary)

The gospel is Jesus

‘In v. 1 Mark declares the essential content of the euangelion, the “good news.” The Gospel of Mark is thus not a mystery story in which readers must piece together clues here and there to discover its meaning; nor is it a pedestrian chronicle of dates and places without purpose or significance; nor is it reducible to a mere system of thought. Rather, from the outset Mark announces that the content of the gospel is the person of Jesus, who is the Christ and Son of God. It is a brief confession of faith, the meaning of which will unfold only as the reader follows Mark’s presentation of Jesus in the Gospel.’ (Edwards)

Witnesses

A number of witnesses to Jesus Christ are apparent in the opening verses of Mark’s Gospel:-

  1. The witness of Mark himself, v1. ‘He states boldly that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. It is likely that Mark was an eyewitness of some of the events that he wrote about. He lived in Jerusalem with his mother, Mary; and their home was a meeting place for believers in the city. (Ac 12:1-19) Several scholars believe that Mark was the young man described in Mk 14:51-52. Since Peter called Mark “my son,” (1 Pet 5:13) it is probable that it was Peter who led Mark to faith in Jesus Christ. Church tradition states that Mark was “Peter’s interpreter,” so that the Gospel of Mark reflects the personal experiences and witness of Simon Peter.’ (Wiersbe)
  2. The witness of the prophets, vv2,3.
  3. The witness of John the Baptist, vv4-8.
  4. The witness of the Father and the Holy Spirit, vv 9-11.

What about the silence of Mark and John regarding the Virgin Birth?  This objection ‘would only apply if it was the design of these Gospels to narrate, as the others do, the circumstances of the nativity. But this was evidently not their design. Both Mark and John knew that Jesus had a human birth-an infancy and early life-and that his mother was called Mary, but of deliberate purpose they tell us nothing about it. Mark begins his Gospel with Christ’s entrance on his public ministry, and says nothing of the period before, especially of how Jesus came to be called “the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). John traces the divine descent of Jesus, and tells us that the “Word became flesh” (John 1:14); but how this miracle of becoming flesh was wrought he does not say. It did not lie within his plan. He knew the church tradition on the subject: he had the Gospels narrating the birth of Jesus from the Virgin in his hands: and he takes the knowledge of their teaching for granted. To speak of contradiction in a case like this is out of the question.’ (James Orr)

This confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, came only after a long process of revelation and discovery.  As Witherington remarks, the writer and readers of this Gospel know something that the characters within the story do not yet know.  We should therefore be all the more patient with them.  We have the benefit of hindsight.

Mk 1:2–8 = Mt 3:1–11; Lk 3:2–16
1:2 As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,
“Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way,
1:3 the voice of one shouting in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make his paths straight.’ ”

It is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way” – Lit., ‘Even as it is written…’, indicating ‘that the proper context for understanding the gospel is the promise of future salvation found in the latter half of Isaiah’ (Lane).

As Edwards points out, Mark makes sparing use of quotations from the OT, for these would have carried less weight with a Gentile audience.  All the more remarkable, therefore, that it is precisely with such a quotation that he begins.

It has been suggested that Mark is mistaken, in attributing a quotation from Mal 3:1 to Isaiah, and that Mt 3:3 corrects this.  (In fact, in later manuscripts Mk 1:2 reads, ‘in the prophets’, rather than, ‘in Isaiah the prophet’).    However, the present quotation is actually a modified composite from Ex 23:20; Mal 3:1; and Isa 40:3. Such composite quotations, with incomplete indication of the sources, was common.  The abbreviated ascription makes good sense, in that Isaiah was the most celebrated of these prophets, and contributes the ‘lion’s share’ (v3) to the composite.

Both in the OT and in the Hellenistic world, ‘it is written’ frequently introduces an authoritative statement or legal declaration.

‘The blended quotation functions to draw attention to three factors which are significant to the evangelist in the prologue: the herald, the Lord and the wilderness’ (Lane).

God fulfils his promises

Ryle reminds us that the coming of Jesus into the world was not accidental or unforeseen. It was foretold from the beginning, Gen 3:15, and continued to be promised with increasing clarity and detail. We should always read the OT in the expectation of learning about Christ there, Jn 5:39.

Even though there are relatively few direct quotations from the OT in this Gospel, the whole thing is saturated with biblical allusions.  Note, for example, the description of John’s apparel, so obviously reminiscent of Elijah’s.  More than that, ‘Mark’s Jesus will repeatedly appeal to the Hebrew Bible to justify his practice. He deploys it offensively (Mk 11:17) and defensively (Mk 2:24ff.).… His challenge to the ideological competence of his ideological rivals often has a bitter rhetorical edge: ‘Have you never read what David did … ?’ (Mk 2:25); ‘Have you not read in the book of Moses … ?’ (Mk 12:26).’ (Myers, quoted by Witherington)

Verses 2-3 ‘introduce John as the divinely ordained precursor of Jesus, and Jesus as the manifestation of God. The quotation has the further effect of linking the life and ministry of Jesus to the OT. Jesus is not an afterthought of God, as though an earlier plan of salvation had gone awry. Rather, Jesus stands in continuity with the work of God in Israel, the fulfiller of the law and the prophets (Matt 5:17)…The gospel is understandable only as the completion of something that God began in the history of Israel. This excludes the possibility of Christians either dismissing or diminishing the importance of the OT, or of attempting to “purge” the gospel of its Jewish origins and context.’ (Edwards)

Witherington reminds us of the suggestion of Origen, ‘that Mark is seeking to show that the beginning of the Gospel is intrinsically connected with the Old Testament and its prophecies (Against Celsus 2.4). Though Jesus’ coming is a new thing, it is not unanticipated or without advance warning.’

Christ the fulfilment of the temple

It is well-known that when the NT writers quote from the OT, they intended their readers to be fully aware of the context of the quotation.  In this case, the citation of Mal 3:1 would have brought to mind the very next verse, which refers to ‘the Lord coming to his temple’.  It is notable, then, that towards the close of his Gospel Mark has a further reference to Jesus as the fulfilment of the temple (Mk 14:58).  Now, the context of Mal 3 is one of judgement.  ‘And it is this theme of judgement on the temple that surrounds Mark’s presentation of Jesus.  For Jesus’ references to the Jerusalem temple in the Gospel of Mark are mostly in the negative.  In Mark, the temple is to be destroyed because of its lack of fruit.  What then will take its place?  For mark the answer is Jesus.  He is the one who will build a temple not made with human hands!’ (Dalrymple, These Brothers of Mine)

Christ brings about the end of exile

The whole of this introductory section (Mk 1:1-15) resonates with ideas relating to the theme of exile and restoration.  Mark quotes from Isa 40:3, which itself comes at the beginning of the Book of Comfort (Isa 40-55), announcing the end of exile, and the beginning of the return to Israel.  After his baptism in the Jordan, Mk 1:11, where he is identified as the Spirit-anointed messenger of Isa 66:1f, Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee, preaching a message of ‘good news’ that resonates with Isa 52:7.  In these ways, the beginning of Mark’s Gospel presents Jesus as ‘the divinely appointed messenger of a *gospel that, through his words and deeds, inaugurates the long-expected end of exile and restoration of Israel’ (DJG [2nd ed.] art. ‘Exile and Restoration’).

Isa 40:3 is quoted by all four Evangelists (Matt 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 1:76; John 1:23).  This quotation is one a number of echoes in Mark of passages in Isaiah that speak of a new exodus (e.g., Isa. 11:11–16; 40:3–11; 42:16; 43:2, 5–7, 16 –19; 48:20 – 49:11; 51:10).  We may conclude that Mark does introduce Jesus as achieving this ‘new exodus’ for God’s people.

In the desert – Edwards says that in the MT and the LXX the meaning if Isa 40:3 is, ‘A voice of one calling, ‘In the desert prepare the way for the LORD’.  Witherington agrees, and thinks that this is Mark’s meaning as well.  This was used as a justification in the Dead Sea Scrolls for the founding of the Qumran Community.

As Lane, remarks, the wilderness motif dominates Mark’s prologue: it features in the composite quotation from the prophets (v3), in the location of John the Baptist’s preaching (v4) and ministry of baptism (the lower Jordan was considered a ‘desert’ area), and in the scene of Jesus’ temptation, v12f.  Only in v14 is there a change of locality (from the wilderness to Galilee).

“Prepare the way for the Lord” – notice how the original reference to Jehovah is applied to Jesus. John is not merely the herald of the Messiah, but of ‘the Lord’, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

With this quotation by Mark in mind, N.T. Wright (Paul and the faithfulness of God) remarks that it has only recently started to dawn on scholars that Mark, Matthew and Luke have just as ‘high’ a christology as John, even though it is expressed in a different way.

Notice too the essential place given to patient preparation. There was a long wait of several centuries, and even then there was a final period of preparation before the full dawning of the Gospel day. We are often impatient for God to do things in our lives, when in his wisdom he sees it best to prepare us in his own way and in his own time.

Who was John?  ‘One of John’s most distinctive traits was that he quite specifically did not want to make a name for himself. He did not see himself as a messianic deliverer appointed by God to get rid of the political and social injustices of the time, but as ‘a messenger’, ‘a voice’ sent to bring the good news that the Messiah was about to come, and the nature of God’s kingdom would soon be made plain.’ (Drane, Introducing the New Testament).

Who is Jesus?  The quotations from the prophets referred originally to the Lord, but are now applied to Jesus Christ. The scene is already set for a further explication of Who Jesus Is, culminating in Peter’s great confession in chapter 8.  As Peter Lewis says: ‘Central to the Old Testament hope is the coming of Yahweh himself to establish his kingship in the world he has made.  The various Old Testament theophanies are his appearances on earth for the deliverance of his people; the “day of the Lord” is his coming to earth in judgement and salvation; and the hope of the kingdom of God is the expectation of his advent to establish his sovereignty and salvation.’ (The Gory of Christ, p153).

The nature of the gospel.  As Edwards remarks, the gospel is not a set of ideas or rules.  It is something very practical – a ‘way’ or ‘path’, defined and made possible by God.  In the second part of his Gospel, Mark will indicate that, for Jesus, this ‘way’ led to the cross.  See also Acts 9:2.

1:4 In the wilderness John the baptizer began preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 1:5 People from the whole Judean countryside and all of Jerusalem were going out to him, and he was baptizing them in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins. 1:6 John wore a garment made of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

John the Baptist prepared the way for Christ.  The introductory quotation from the prophets has indicated that his appointment for that task was not human, but divine.

Edwards remarks that Mark’s depiction of John is highly focused: ‘Omitted in Mark are the wondrous circumstances of John’s birth (Luke 1), his thunderous challenge to the dominant Pharisaic and Sadducean schools of Judaism (Matt 3:7–10; Luke 3:7–9), and his call for social reform (Luke 3:10–14). Mark restricts his portrait of John to a single motif, depicting John as the fulfiller of Elijah’s climactic role as the forerunner of “one more powerful” (1:7), whose sandals he is unworthy to untie.’

‘The actions and description of John (Mark 1:4-6) draw on contemporary Jewish eschatological expectations, i.e., beliefs about the “last days.” John is dressed like Elijah (v. 6; see 2 Kings 1:8), who will return to prepare for the day of the Lord (Mal. 3:1; 4:5). Mark depicts John not simply as the fiery reformer preparing for the advent of this day, but as forerunner of the Messiah (Mk 9:11-13; cf. Mk 6:15; 8:28).’ (Harper’s Bible Commentary)

So John came – As Lane remarks, John’s appearance in the wilderness being the most important event in Israel’s life for three centuries. The voices of the prophets had long been silent, and yet men clung to the expectation that the Prophet like Moses would appear, who would herald the events of the last days, Deut 18:15-19.

Baptizing in the desert region – A place associated with repentance, and with the ministry of Elijah (1 King 17:2f).  For the prophets, the desert could also be a place of hope (Jer 2:2–3; Hos 2:14ff).

Some infer from this that Mark is hinting that God’s people are still in exile, outside the land of promise and abundance.  The quotation from Isa 40 would indicate, then, that Jesus is the divine warrior who will lead his people out of bondage and exile.  This helps us to understand why Mark begins his Gospel as he does.  Matthew and Luke, on the other hand, begin with the birth narratives in order to emphasise the Davidic lineage of Jesus, who fulfils the Davidic covenant.

Preaching – this has strongly religious overtones for us. However, in Greek culture a herald would (a) call attention to the coming of the king, (b) summons the citizens to the city’s ruling assembly, and, (c) describe the rules of participation to athletes at the games.  Nevertheless, the word does indicate that John’s proclamation was not his own, but came with the authority of another.

Repentance – This was the essence of John’s message.  It was ‘not just for notorious sinners (Lk 3:12–13) or Gentiles (Lk 3:14) but even for righteous Jews (Mt 3:7–10)’. (Edwards)

As Wright says, ‘Many had wanted a Messiah to lead them against the Romans, but they weren’t anticipating a prophet telling them to repent.’

Wright again: ‘If someone came into your town and told you that the President, or the Princess, or some other great person, was on their way to pay you a visit, you’d quickly rush around smartening things up. In Britain it’s a standard joke that wherever the Queen goes she smells fresh paint. John was like the messenger going ahead of royalty, getting everywhere ready for the ‘stronger one’ who was coming after him. Israel as a whole needed smartening up. Each individual within Israel needed to smarten up. Someone was coming who would put even John in the shade.’

‘John summons people away from the routines and comforts of their urban domiciles, and especially from the statutory temple hegemony of Jerusalem, “to a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” in the wilderness.’ (Edwards)

Witherington likewise: John ‘seems to have been offering forgiveness without sacrifice being offered in the temple. He was offering remission of sins without connection to the hierarchical system in Jerusalem. Is this why so many Jerusalemites came to check out John’s message? Was John suggesting, like those at Qumran, that the temple in Jerusalem was hopelessly corrupt and one must look elsewhere for means to reconcile oneself with a holy God?’

There is just one reference to John’s baptism outside the page of the NT: ‘[John] exhorted the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practise justice towards their fellows and piety towards God, and so doing to join in baptism.’ (Josephus)

‘Get on fire for God and men will come and see you burn.’

(John Wesley)

The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem – Such expressions were not meant, and should not be taken, literally.  They do indicate, however, the John drew attention both from the ordinary people of the countryside and also the ruling elite who lived in Jerusalem.  His influence was widespread: 20 or 30 years later, Paul came across followers of John in faraway Ephesus (Acts 19:1-7), and Josephus says more about John than Jesus.

The Jordan River – the prophetic call to repentance was not entirely new, but the baptism in the river was quite novel, and was so striking that John became known simply as ‘the Baptizer’.

‘As the people heed John’s call to go out to him in the desert far more is involved than contrition and confession.  They return to a place of judgement, the wilderness, where the status of Israel as God’s beloved son must be re-established in the exchange of pride for humility.  The willingness to return to the wilderness signifies the acknowledgement of Israel’s history as one of disobedience and rebellion, and a desire to begin once more.  John’s proclamation of the forgiveness of sins provides the assurance that God extends grace as well as judgement.’ (Lane)

We should not forget how important John was as the forerunner of Jesus. His preaching created a great stir, and aroused a nation from its slumbers, Jn 5:35. Yet how fickle is popularity! How many attended John’s ministry, yet how few followed Christ to the end! We should remember this when we see a crowded church: It is not the number who show interest, but the number who persevere to the end, which counts.

The reference to John’s clothing and diet reinforce his association with the wilderness. The ‘leather belt’ harks back to Elijah, 2 Ki 1:8, even though the connection between the two prophets is not made explicit until Mk 9:9-13.

He ate locusts – ‘Although offensive to some modern Western tastes, the eating of locusts fell within Jewish dietary regulations (Lev 11:22; m. Hul. 3:7) and provided a high source of protein and minerals.’ (Edwards)

John’s dress and diet set him apart from the Temple elite of Jerusalem and emphasise his location in the desert.

1:7 He proclaimed, “One more powerful than I am is coming after me; I am not worthy to bend down and untie the strap of his sandals. 1:8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

John saw himself as a humble messenger and servant. “After me will come one more powerful” – one who ‘comes after’, or ‘follows’ another is usually a disciple, cf Mk 1:17. In this case, however, John affirms that he is not worthy of performing even the most menial task – a task too menial even for a Hebrew slave – such is the dignity of the Coming one.

More powerful – ‘This description of Jesus anticipates the compact one verse parable in Mk 3:27, where Jesus refers to himself as the only one powerful enough to bind the strong one, Satan.’ (Edwards)

The thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie – this would have been the duty of a slave – and a Gentile slave at that.

In beginning his Gospel with an account of John’s message and ministry, the evangelist confronts his readers with a crisis of decision. John awakened a nation from its slumber; he called a wayward people to repentance; he pointed away from himself to Jesus. In all these respects, he speaks to us and to our nation today.

John’s message here is a model for all who would proclaim Jesus: our principal work is to set him forth, in all his fullness and power to save. If people go away with the impression, ‘That was a lovely service; that was a wonderful message,’ we have failed miserably. If people are led to exclaim, ‘What a wonderful Saviour!’ then they have achieved success. Let all of our thoughts and plans and actions be geared to this end.

“I…he…” – Here a reason is given for John’s denigration of himself and exaltation of Jesus. The ministry of Jesus is of a different kind and on a different place to that of John and the prophets. All who would speak and act on behalf of Christ should realise how little they can achieve on their own, and how much can be achieved by the Saviour. How different is his work from ours! Our own work is outward and superficial; Christ’s work is inward and life-changing. We can impress people, teach people, make people think; only Jesus can give them new hearts.

He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit – Another indication of the high status of Jesus, for in the OT it is Jehovah himself who pours out his Spirit.

In what sense did Jesus ‘baptize with the Holy Spirit’?  According to Harper’s Bible Commentary, he did so by his very words and deeds.

John’s message finds a strong parallel in Eze 36:25-28.  See also Isaiah 32:15; 44:3; Ezekiel 11:18–19; and Joel 2:28.

Matthew and Luke add, “and with fire.” Perhaps this phrase is omitted by Mark because he also passes over the references to judgement found in the other Gospels at this point. (Mk 3:7-10; Lk 3:7-16) The fulfilment of this prediction can be found partly in the events of Pentecost, Acts 2; and partly in the experience of the Spirit which belongs to all who are Christ’s, Rom 8.

John’s ministry was very important, and yet it was only part of a bigger whole, a stage in a larger process. We need to realise too that we play a limited, yet vital, part in God’s purposes. We are not expected to achieve everything; but we are expected to do what we can.

Summarising the impact of these opening verses, Wright says, ‘The main thing Mark gets us to do in this opening passage is to sense the shock of the new thing God was doing. If you’re sick, and unable to sleep much, sometimes the night seems to go on for ever. But then, just when you’re dozing a bit, suddenly the alarm clock goes off: it really is morning. That’s the mood here. It raises the question for us too: where are we asleep today, in our churches, our communities, our personal lives? What might it take to wake us up?’

Gospel-centred

The Bible contains many different kinds of writing, including commands.  But ‘the overarching story line of the Bible is one of rescue and deliverance—of gospel. The message of the Bible, at its core, is what has been done by God in Christ for sinners, as the first verse of Mark underscores: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Mark wrote to recount good news. His Gospel relates what God has done for us in Jesus.’ (Source)

The Baptism and Temptation of Jesus, 9-13

1:9 Now in those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan River. 1:10 And just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens splitting apart and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 1:11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my one dear Son; in you I take great delight.”
Mk 1:9–11 = Mt 3:13–17; Lk 3:21,22
Mk 1:12,13 = Mt 4:1–11; Lk 4:1–13

Jesus was himself baptised by John the Baptist. ‘By skilfully placing verses 8 and 9 next to each other Mark portrays the enormous contrast between the baptism which the Lord is to perform and that to which he himself submits’ (Lane).

Acts 1:21f confirms the importance of Jesus’ baptism by John as the inauguration of the former’s public ministry.

Nazareth – the town where his legal father had worked as a carpenter Mk 13:55; where Jesus grew up and himself became known as ‘the carpenter’, Mk 6:3; from where Jesus had departed at the age of 30,  Lk 3:23, to proceed to Jordan.  This is the only place in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus’ home town is named.

Baptized by John – Note the subtle, but telling, shift to the passive voice.  The Great gives way to the Greater.  The method of baptism is not described. But why was Jesus baptized at all, since baptism was with a view to cleansing from sin? The answer is that Jesus identified himself with our sin, and took them upon himself, Isa 53:6; so that he could take them away, Jn 1:29. By means of his sacrifice, the forgiveness of our sins was secured, a forgiveness signified by our own baptism.

‘There is continuity between John’s baptism of repentance (Mk 1:4) and the trinitarian baptism instituted by Jesus. (Mt 28:19) Both were symbols of cleansing and had remission of sins in view. (Mk 1:4 Acts 2:38) They were not identical, however, and those baptized by John needed Christian baptism too. (Ac 19:5) Christian baptism is an initiatory sign pointing to a relationship with the Christ who has come (it is called baptism in Christ’s name in Acts 2:38; 10:48; 19:5); John’s baptism was a preparatory rite, signifying readiness for the coming of the Christ and for his judgment. (Mt 3:7-12; Lk 3:7-18; Acts 19:4)

John’s baptism was a radical innovation. Previously, only Gentiles converting to Judaism had been required to undergo a symbolic washing. Now, however, God through John was commanding all Jews to signify their repentance by being publicly washed. Most Jewish leaders thought John’s requirement was heretical and insulting. (Mt 21:25-26)

Jesus insisted that John, his cousin, must baptize him, overriding John’s protests. (Mt 3:13-15) In his role as Messiah, “born under law,” (Gal 4:4) Jesus had to submit to all God’s requirements of Israel and to identify with those whose sins he had come to bear. His baptism proclaimed that he had come to take the sinner’s place under God’s penal judgment. This is the sense in which he was baptized “to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt 3:15; cf. Isa 53:11).

His baptism was a manifestation of the Trinity: the Father spoke from the sky, and the dove descended, a sign of the Spirit’s anointing. The meaning of the dove descending and abiding was not that Jesus had not previously been Spirit-filled but that he was now being marked out as the Spirit-bearer who would become the Spirit-baptizer (Jn 1:32-33) and so bring in the age of the Spirit that was to fulfill Israel’s hopes.’ (Lk 4:1,14,18-21) (Packer, Concise Theology)

For John Dominic Crossan, the baptism of Jesus by John is one of the surest things we can know about him.  His reason for saying so is the ‘increasing nervousness’ about it as we move from Mark (who refers to it in a rather matter-of-fact way), through Matthew and Luke (who refer to it defensively and almost evasively, respectively; Mt 3:14f; Lk 3:21), to John (who doesn’t refer to it at all, but only to the Baptist’s testimony to Jesus as ‘Son of God’ and ‘Lamb of God’ (Jn 1:26-33).  (The Historical Jesus: Five Views)

‘When Jesus comes up from the water he experiences three things that in Jewish tradition signified the inauguration of God’s eschatological kingdom: the heavens were opened above him, the Spirit descended into him, and the heavenly voice spoke to him. The concurrence of these momentous events at the baptism signals that Jesus is the “more powerful one” (1:7) promised in the OT and the inaugurator of God’s eschatological kingdom.’ (Edwards)

He saw heaven being torn open – An echo of Isa 64:1.  It was commonly thought that God had not spoken since the time of the OT prophets.  Heaven was closed, and God’s Spirit was absent: all that was left was a faint echo of his voice.  But now comes the long-awaited return of the Spirit, and the beginning of a new period of grace.

‘Torn open’ translates schizein.  As Edwards explains, ‘It appears in Jewish literature for cataclysmic demonstrations of God’s power, such as the dividing of the Red Sea (Exod 14:21), Moses’ cleaving the rock (Isa 48:21), the splitting of the Mount of Olives on the Day of the Lord (Zech 14:4), or the descent of the heavenly man in Joseph and Aseneth (Jos. Asen. 14:3). Mark employs the word for similar effect at the baptism. Schizein occurs only once again in Mark, when the centurion confesses at the crucifixion that Jesus is God’s Son, at which the temple curtain is “torn in two from top to bottom” (Mk 15:38). Both rendings—the first at his baptism and the last at his crucifixion—are supernatural occurrences revealing Jesus as the Son of God.’

‘”Heaven” in the Bible often means God’s dimension behind ordinary reality. It’s more as though an invisible curtain, right in front of us, was suddenly pulled back, so that instead of the trees and flowers and buildings, or in Jesus’ case the river, the sandy desert and the crowds, we are standing in the presence of a different reality altogether.’ (Wright)

The same writer adds: ‘A good deal of Christian faith is a matter of learning to live by this different reality even when we can’t see it. Sometimes, at decisive and climactic moments, the curtain is drawn back and we see, or hear, what’s really going on; but most of the time we walk by faith, not by sight.’

The Spirit descending upon him – Lit. ‘was descending into him’, ‘indicating Jesus’ complete filling and equipping for ministry by the Spirit.’ (Edwards)

This anointing for ministry was acknowledged by Jesus, Lk 4:18.

Like a dove – The dove symbolises gentleness and purity, cf Mt 10:16.

As Witherington says, this is not intended to convey the appearance of the Spirit, but rather his manner of descent – like a dove coming down gently to land.

‘Many had come to the Jordan to be baptized by John, but only in the instance of Jesus, in whom true submission to God was perfectly embodied, was the “coming up” from the water answered by a “coming down” from above. The cosmic significance of this event is indicated by the vision of the rending of the heavens, the descent of the Spirit and the testimony of the voice from heaven. Mark’s distinctive language echoes Isa 64:1, where the prophet says, “Oh that thou wouldst rend the heavens, that thou wouldst come down, that the mountains might quake at this presence…” The pattern had been established already in the first exodus that God could not come down until the people had been consecrated. (Ex 19:10f) For this reason Jesus expressed a vicarious confession of sin on behalf of the many. He walked into the waters of baptism in obedience to the Father’s will. He had consecrated himself in faith, even as every other man must do. But in this instance God came down, and there was striking attestation that sonship has been re-established through the one true Israelite whose repentance was perfect.’ (Lane)

“You are my Son” – Lane says that this is not a messianic title, but signifies ‘the unique relationship which Jesus sustains to the Father, which exists apart from any thought of official function in history: Jesus is God’s unique Son.’

OT antecedents include Ps 2:7; Isa 42:1; 43:9.  ‘Like the ministry of Isaiah’s mysterious Servant, that of Jesus will be fraught with opposition and seeming defeat, but his vicarious service will have revelatory (“a light for the Gentiles”) and salvific (“to bring my salvation to the ends of the earth,” Isa 49:6) effect.’ (Edwards)

The significance of the identification of Jesus as the ‘Son of God’ is underscored not by the frequency of this title in Mark, but by its placement: it occurs at key points, at the beginning (Mk 1:11), middle (Mk 9:7), and end (Mk 14:61) of this Gospel.

“My Son, whom I love” – This is reminiscent of Abraham’s love for Isaac, Gen 22:2, 12, 16; see also Rom 8:32; Heb 11:17–19.

Edwards rightly says: ‘To no prophet had words been spoken such as the words to Jesus at the baptism. Abraham was a friend of God (Isa 41:8), Moses a servant of God (Deut 34:5), Aaron a chosen one of God (Ps 105:26), David a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam 13:14), and Paul an apostle (Rom 1:1). Only Israel (Exod 4:23)—and the king as Israel’s leader (Ps 2:7)—had been called God’s Son before. But where Israel failed, Jesus takes its place.’

The sense of this verse may be, “Because you are my beloved Son, I have chosen you for the task upon which you are about to enter.” (Lane) The construction is paralleled in Mk 9:7 = “Because this is my beloved Son, listen to him.”  See also Jn 12:28.

It might be interesting to speculate to which this experience informed Jesus’ own perception of himself.  After all, the voice from heaven is addressed to him, and only overheard by the others present.  As Tom Wright sometimes (irreverently) caricatures the matter, Jesus did not wake up one day with the realisation, “I’m the Second Person of the Trinity!”.  It seems reasonable to assume that his divine nature and calling were learned, rather than instinctively known.  But such lines of thinking are precisely that – speculation.

Edwards remarks that the Father’s declaration, together with the Spirit’s empowerment, mean that Jesus not only speaks and acts for God, but as God, in his:-

  • forgiveness of sins (Mk 2:5);
  • acceptance of sinners (Mk 2:15);
  • calling of tax collectors into discipleship (Mk 2:13);
  • healing of the sick (Mk 1:40ff.);
  • casting out demons (Mk 1:24);
  • recovery of the true intent of the Sabbath (Mk 2:28);
  • challenge to the Jewish religious establishment as represented in the oral tradition (Mk 7:1ff.), the temple (Mk 11:12ff.), and the Sanhedrin (Mk 14:61ff.).

Edwards concludes: ‘It is not coincidental that when Jesus is later confronted by the Sanhedrin asking, “‘By what authority do you do these things?’” he drives his questioners back to his baptism (Mk 11:27–33). What Jesus does as God’s servant ultimately has meaning only because of who he is as God’s Son.’

It is when we are mindful of what what Paul teaches us about being ‘in Christ’ that we can agree with Wright: ‘When the living God looks at us, at every baptized and believing Christian, he says to us what he said to Jesus on that day. He sees us, not as we are in ourselves, but as we are in Jesus Christ. It sometimes seems impossible, especially to people who have never had this kind of support from their earthly parents, but it’s true: God looks at us, and says, ‘You are my dear, dear child; I’m delighted with you.’ Try reading that sentence slowly, with your own name at the start, and reflect quietly on God saying that to you, both at your baptism and every day since.’

1:12 The Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness. 1:13 He was in the wilderness forty days, enduring temptations from Satan. He was with wild animals, and angels were ministering to his needs.

The Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness – As Edwards remarks, the inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry lead, not to celebration, but to a very different kind of task.  ‘The apocryphal Gospel of Philip has Jesus emerging from the baptism laughing in contempt at the world, as though his ministry were a melodrama. Not so in Mark, where dead earnestness pervades the temptation narrative. The same Spirit that descended on Jesus at the baptism has an appointment for him in the wilderness.’

‘These words indicate that in the temptation of Christ the initiative was on the side of the divine, not the diabolical. After the approval of heaven came to assault of hell. After the dove, the devil. After the blessing, the battle. This is commonly the order in Christian experience. The fact that Jesus was filled with the Spirit did not exempt him from the rigours of temptation.’ (J.O. Sanders)

Edwards finely says: ‘The temptation of Jesus is not presented as an unfortunate circumstance or as a hardship resulting from a lapse or failure on Jesus’ part. What happens to Jesus in the wilderness is as divinely orchestrated as what happened to him at the Jordan. The baptism, as we noted, is something that God did to Jesus; the temptation, likewise, is its necessary corollary, lest Jesus be imagined a divine clone or automaton who had no choice or desire of his own. The temptation establishes the free, sovereign agency of Jesus, who, like all human agents, must choose to make God’s will his own.’

He was in the wilderness forty days, enduring temptations from Satan – Although Mark does not mention the Evil One frequently, he does appear alongside his account of Jesus’ first miracle, Mk 1:21-28, and his first parable, Mk 3:27.  See 1 Jn 3:8.

‘This picks up a theme that travels through the Old Testament: Moses spent 40 days on barren Mount Sinai (Ex. 34:28); Israel was tested for 40 years in the desert (Deut. 8:2); and Elijah spent 40 days in the desert, too (1 Kings 19:8). In each case the “wilderness” experience was a testing ground of sorts.’ (Source)

He was with wild animals – It is alluring to think of Jesus as a sort of Francis of Assisi, living peacefully among these animals, in the spirit of Gen 2:19; Hos 2:18f; Isa 11:6–9 and Job 5:22–23.  But Edwards may well be correct when he sees these beasts as ‘symbols of “the horror and danger” of the vast, haunting, and untamed Judean wilderness.’  Edwards adds: ‘Given the ravaging of Christians by ferocious animals during Nero’s reign, it is not difficult to imagine Mark including the unusual phrase “with the wild beasts” in order to remind his Roman readers that Christ, too, was thrown to wild beasts, and as the angels ministered to him, so, too, will they minister to Roman readers facing martyrdom. If this explanation is correct, then “with the wild beasts” is an important piece of evidence for locating the provenance of Mark in Rome during the reign of Nero.’

Angels attended him – Elijah was similarly supported by an angel  (1 Kings 19:5-7).

With wild animals…and angels

‘The portrayal of Jesus’ time of trial involves both danger and assistance. There are wild beasts in the wilderness, but there are also angels…It reminds us that in the hour of need, God provides extra help, extra sustenance, extra strength so that we may persevere through the trial…God may put us to the test, but he gives us the resources to persevere through that test. It is probable that no person can judge in advance what sorts of trials or temptations he could endure, precisely because one cannot gauge how much grace or what resources God will make available at the time of the trial in order to overcome it.’ (Witherington)

Preaching in Galilee and the Call of the Disciples, 14-20

1:14 Now after John was imprisoned, Jesus went into Galilee and proclaimed the gospel of God. 1:15 He said, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the gospel!”

This verse marks the beginning of a new section in this gospel, recording Jesus’ early ministry in Galilee. John records Jesus’ still earlier, Judean ministry.  There is, accordingly, a likely interval of time between v13 and v14.

After John was put in prison – Lit. ‘was handed over’, an expression that would be used of Jesus, Mk 9:31; 10:33; and repeatedly in chapters 14–15, and of his followers, Mk 13:9, 11, 12.

Passing over the details of John’s denunciation of Herod for immorality, and leaving mention of his death until Mk 6:14-29, Mark simply notes here the time of the commencement of Jesus’ public ministry.

Jesus went into Galilee – ‘He did not prepare for a missionary campaign, first against Jerusalem and then into the rest of the world; no, he remained in insignificant Galilee.’ (E. Schweizer)

Galilee, as Edwards remarks, was the place where Jesus enjoyed greatest success, Mk 1:28; 3:7.  It was also the place to which he gathered his disciples after his death and resurrection, Mk 14:28; 16:7.  This is in stark contrast to Jerusalem, which, for all its religious tradition and ceremony, is characterised by Mark as a place of unbelief and opposition.

Galilee was fiercely independent, the first target of attacks from the north. ‘Galilee was the centre of a humming political and commercial life. It stood at the crossroads of the nations of the ancient world, through which the armies and the traders and the diplomats passed. There some of the greatest battles of the world had been fought…Galilee was the home of a thoroughly cosmopolitan population: Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic would all be heard in the markets; Syrian, Jew Roman and Parthian mixed freely. It was a land of passing excitements and dangerous fashions, of a barbarous dialect and offensive manners’ (Blanch, Encounters with Jesus, 31). As in the time of Isaiah, so in the time of Jesus, Galilee represents God’s people in bondage, to whom the light of salvation would come, Isa 9:1-2. Jesus’ ministry did not commence in some cosy backwater, but in a place of activity and conflict.

Edwards suggests that ‘the arrest of John and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry are intentionally correlated to show that the gospel is proclaimed and known in adversity and suffering, not in ease and comfort.’  Edwards adds: ‘If, as seems probable, Mark’s Gospel was composed in Rome in the mid-sixties, then the hortatory effect of linking the gospel with the arrest of the Baptizer would not be lost on Mark’s readers who were suffering from persecutions under Nero.’

Proclaiming the goods news of God – The Gospel is both the message of Jesus and the message about Jesus.

In this verse as two assertions and two commands: God has acted decisively, and what he has done calls forth a definite response from the hearers.

‘The reader of the Gospels must be wary of reading a post-Easter definition into the Evangelists’ use of the term gospel (such as is found in Pauline writings, 1 Cor 15:1–4; Rom 1:2–4). In the Synoptics it is found in the mouth of Jesus at the beginning of his ministry: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1:14–15; cf. Mt 4:17, 23; Lk 4:18, 43). They use the term to designate Jesus’ message without prior definition, implying that it was a term known to their audience.’ (C.C. Broyles, DJG, art. ‘Gospel’)

“The time has come” – See Gal 4:4; Eph 1:10.  ‘The news which Christ thus heralded in Galilee was that God’s hour had struck, the time to which all the Old Testament had looked forward. God’s reign upon earth – a concept familiar to the prophets – was about to begin’ (Cole). This statement by Jesus anchors his own ministry in the history of redemption. He sounds a distinctive note of fulfilment.

Donald English points out that the clock and the watch are not the only way to measure time: it is to be judged not only by its duration, but also by its significance: ‘Jesus says God is now filling the time of the beginning of his ministry with immense importance. All the centuries of preparation and prophecy are reaching their fulfilment. This is a time heavy with eternal significance.’

“The kingdom of God is near” – But not the earthly kingdom which even Jesus’ disciples persisted in expecting, but the peaceful rule of God in the hearts of men, Lk 17:21. Of course, the primary meaning of the Aramaic term used by Jesus was not ‘kingdom’ but ‘rule’ or ‘sovereignty’.

‘Near’ means not so much, ‘it will be along shortly’, but ‘is dawning right now’.

‘The idea of present fulfilment and of a new age comes out particularly in the teaching of Jesus about the Kingdom of God, one of his central themes. He used the term in a wide variety of contexts, so that its essential meaning needs careful definition. It means the sovereignty of God, the situation in which God is in control, his rule or reign. Now while in one sense God is always in control, it is also a fact that man rejects his sovereignty and rebels. The ‘coming of the kingdom’ therefore denotes the practical implementation of God’s rule in human affairs, and it was this coming of the kingdom which Jesus announced as he began his ministry. (Mk 1:15) Other sayings reinforce the message that his coming already brought into operation the rule of God. (e.g. Mt 12:28; Lk 17:20f) Thus he could already speak of people ‘entering’ or ‘receiving’ the kingdom, (Mk 10:15,23-25; Lk 12:31; 16:16) and assure his disciples that ‘Yours is the kingdom of God’ (Lk 6:20; cf. Mt 5:3,10).’ (R.T. France, NBD)

‘The coming of the kingdom of God means that God’s rule over people’s hearts and lives is being established in and through Jesus. The kingdom is a whole-Bible theme in that Eden was set up as a little “kingdom” of God with Adam, the first king, commissioned to rule over the earth (Gen. 1:28). The king theme is heightened with the setting up of the kingship in Israel, and especially with David, to whom God promises a lasting dynasty (2 Sam. 7:8–16). With Jesus this kingdom dawns decisively, and he will one day bring this kingdom to completion, sitting on his throne for all the world to see (Rev. 4:1–11).’ (Source)

“Repent and believe” – These two words may present the negative and positive – what people were to turn away from, and what they were to turn to.  People were called to a change of heart and a glad acceptance of the good news for which John had prepared the way.

Mark uses the word ‘repentance’ just three times – as a summary of the message of John (Mk 1:4), of Jesus (Mk 1:15), and of the disciples (Mk 6:12).

N.T. Wright (Jesus and the Victory of God) is eager to show that ‘repentance’ in the NT has a political/eschatological, rather than a moralistic/pietistic, meaning.  Repentance, for Wright, ‘is what Israel must do if her exile is to come to an end.’  Wright supports this contention with a quotation from Josephus, who writes that in speaking to a man who had plotted against his life, he said he would pardon him ‘if he would show repentance and prove his loyalty to me’ (ei melloi metanoesein kai pistos emoi genesesthai – ‘if he would repent and believe in me’).

Josephus is, in effect, urging the man to abandon his revolutionary ways and trust him (Josephus) for a better way.  Wright asks: if this is what the words meant in Galilee in AD 60, why should we suppose that they meant anything different in Galilee in AD 30?  In Jesus’ case, of course, true repentance involved allegiance to himself.  Wright finds such a meaning in Mt 11:20-24; Mt. 12:38f., 41/Lk. 11:29f., 32; cf. Mk. 8:11–13; Mt. 16:1–4; Lk. 5:29–32; Lk. 13:1–5 and elsewhere.

Faith has content

Donald English reminds us from this verse that faith has content. True, it is more than the simple acceptance of a set of doctrines; but there is something to be taught and understood and believed. The content is signalled in the words ‘time’, ‘kingdom’, ‘repent’, and ‘believe’.

1:16 As he went along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew, Simon’s brother, casting a net into the sea (for they were fishermen). 1:17 Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will turn you into fishers of people.” 1:18 They left their nets immediately and followed him. 1:19 Going on a little farther, he saw James, the son of Zebedee, and John his brother in their boat mending nets. 1:20 Immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.
Mk 1:16–20 = Mt 4:18–22; Lk 5:2–11; Jn 1:35–42

‘The first recorded act of Jesus’ ministry in Mark is not something sensational—a spectacular miracle or a mighty sermon—but a simple summons of four common laborers into fellowship with himself.’ (Edwards)

The passage in Luke shows that Jesus did not call Peter and the others ‘out of the blue’.  See also Jn 1:35-42.

Simon and his brother Andrew – Lit. ‘Simon and Simon’s brother Andrew’ (placing greater emphasis on the first-named).  Simon is the first of the Twelve to be mentioned in this Gospel, and also the last (Mk 16:7).  Bauckham regards this as an inclusio, indicating to the first readers the main source of the eyewitness material.

Casting a net – Edwards summarises the procedure: ‘The word for “casting a net” (Gk. amphiballein), meaning “to throw around,” designates a circular net, an amphiblēstron according to Matt 4:18, measuring some twenty feet in diameter and with heavy bars of metal or rocks attached to the perimeter. With practice and dexterity the casting net could be handled by a single fisherman who, either standing in a boat or, as is the case here, wading out into the water, gathered the net on his arm and heaved it forcefully outward in a circular motion so that it would land like a parachute on the water, trapping fish as it sank to the bottom. Fish were retrieved by the fisherman diving to the bottom, gathering the weights of the net together, and dragging the net and its catch to shore.’

‘They do not search for him, but he searches for them. It is in their world that discipleship begins. When Jesus as God’s Son initiates human fellowship the encounter takes places not on his ground, or even on the holy ground of the synagogue or temple, but on their ground in the working world of boats and nets and labor from dawn to dusk.’ (Edwards)

Some days are more memorable than others. Do you remember your first day at school, your first day at work, your first day on a course, or the day you first met your husband or wife? Do any days stand out as being especially happy, or sad. Do you remember what you were doing when Princess Diana died or (if you are older) when you heard the news of President Kennedy’s death? Simon and the others would never forget the day that Jesus came along and said, “Come, follow me.”

Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you first heard Jesus’ call to follow him?

Ryle points out a number of instances in which men were called while working with their hands.  ‘Moses was keeping sheep when God appeared to him in the burning bush. Gideon was threshing wheat, when the angel brought him a message from heaven. Elisha was ploughing, when Elijah called him to be prophet in his stead. The apostles were fishing, when Jesus called them to follow Him.’

“Follow me” – These were both the first and the last recorded words spoken by our Lord to Peter, Jn 21:22.

Witherington notes that ‘they are not called upon to repent and believe but rather to leave their nets and follow. The social situation is one of the recruitment of disciples for new tasks, not, or at least not primarily, the conversion of the lost.’

According to Edwards, there is no recorded precedent for a Rabbi calling his disciples in this way.  For them, the allegiance was to the Torah, not to themselves.  Moreover, the initiative would come from the student, not from the Rabbi.  ‘In the OT the idea of “following God” is rare, if not absent. Neither Moses nor the kings nor the various “men of God” nor the prophets call people, as a rule, to follow them. The summons, rather, is to walk in God’s ways and according to his statutes (e.g., Deut 5:30). But Jesus calls the four to himself.’

Edwards comments further: ‘The call to the four fishermen is rooted not in the Torah, nor even in the name of God, but in Jesus’ messianic authority alone. No supporting evidence accompanies his call—no miracles or debate or moral persuasion. Unlike rabbinic aspirants, the fishermen are not required to do anything before they become disciples; they need not exhibit knowledge of the Torah or pass a qualifying examination in theology. What they need to learn and do can only be learned and done as they follow Jesus (Mk 10:52). For Mark, the act of following Jesus entails a risk of faith, and faith must be an act before it is a content of belief. Only as Jesus is followed can he be known.’

“Follow me…and I will make you fishers of men” – Lit., ‘I will make you become fishers of men’, hinting at a process that would take time and trouble, and would not be without its setbacks and failures.

Lane points out that there is much more than an apt play on words here.  For the OT prophets, God himself is the fisher of men, and is presented as such mainly in rather ominous tones of judgement (Jer 16:16; Ezek 29:4f; 38:4; Amos 4:2; Hab 1:14-17).  ‘The summons to be fishers of men is a call to the eschatological task of gathering men in view of the forthcoming judgement of God…Their ultimate function will be to confront men with God’s decisive action, which to faith has the character of salvation, but to unbelief has the character of judgement.’

Witherington concurs: ‘What Jesus seems to be asking these disciples to do is rescue some in the face of the coming eschatological judgment, lest all be lost.’

‘Fishers of men’, says Ryle, ‘is the oldest name by which the ministerial office is described in the New Testament. It lies deeper down than the name of bishop, elder, or deacon. It is the first idea which should be before a minister’s mind. He is not to be a mere reader of forms, or administrator of ordinances. He is to be a “fisher” of souls. The minister who does not strive to live up to this name has mistaken his calling.’

This summons, although issued at a particular moment in time, had both a history and future.

The first disciples

1. Who these people were. They were ordinary people. They were not intellectuals or aristocrats, they were not powerful or famous, they were neither particularly wealthy nor especially poor. They were just working men. Lincoln said, “God must love ordinary people – he made so many of them!” It was twelve such folk that Jesus chose, and used them to change the world.

2. How Jesus called them. He did not say, “Here is a book for you to read,” or, “Here is a course you can enrol on,” or “Here are some ideas I would like to discuss with you.” He said, “Come, follow me.”

3. What he gave them. He gave them a task to do, a task that he himself would prepare them for.

This seems like a very rapid response, and indeed it is. But it is not so very unusual. Travelling rabbis were quite common, and would gather a group of disciples around them who would accompany them for perhaps a year (roughly equivalent to our modern ‘gap year’). But for Simon and the others there was no going back. They were entering training for a completely new kind of life and the course would last a lifetime. Later, Peter would remind his readers of their calling and their need to keep growing more like Jesus, 2 Pet 1:8. Peter’s training would be practical and on-the-job. He would make mistakes, but he would learn from them.

The hired men – This suggests that the fishermen, although not wealthy, were not poor either. They left behind a thriving business when they responded to Jesus call to follow him. Peter and Andrew were probably in business with James and John. (Lk 5:7-10)

‘It is not an exaggeration to say that the seeds of the Christian church originated in the first act of Jesus’ public ministry in which he called four fishermen into community with himself.’ (Edwards)

This section (vv16-20) ‘is a crucial text for the interpretation of the Gospel by virtue of its primary position.  It anticipates the call of the Twelve in Mk 3:13-19 and their subsequent mission in Mk 6:7-13,30, but looks beyond this point to the conclusion of the Gospel [Mk 16:7].’ (Lane)

Jesus’ Authority

1:21 Then they went to Capernaum. When the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. 1:22 The people there were amazed by his teaching, because he taught them like one who had authority, not like the experts in the law.
Mk 1:21–28 = Lk 4:31–37

They…Jesus – Richard Bauckham (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses) picks up on an observation of Cuthbert Taylor in 1925 to the effect that this is the first of twenty-one instances in Mark’s Gospel where the ‘they…he’ form is used (the last occurs in Mk 14:32).  It is suggested that these third-person plurals must originally have been first-person plurals (‘we…he’), representing the eyewitness testimony of Peter.

Jesus went into the synagogue – In the early part of his ministry he was invited to speak in synagogues as a visiting teacher (cf. v39; Mt 9:35; Lk 4:16-27), but later synagogue teaching is not mentioned (because his radical teaching was unacceptable?), and Jesus is found teaching the crowds in the open air, and devoting an increasing proportion of time to the instruction of his closest disciples.

His teaching

He taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law – Unlike them, his teaching had the ‘ring of truth’, was utterly sincere, was practical and soul-searching. Moreover, as the next incident shows, it was backed up with real spiritual power.

1:23 Just then there was a man in their synagogue with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, 1:24 “Leave us alone, Jesus the Nazarene! Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” 1:25 But Jesus rebuked him: “Silence! Come out of him!” 1:26 After throwing him into convulsions, the unclean spirit cried out with a loud voice and came out of him.

How many times had this man attended the synagogue without the demon becoming apparent? It took the presence of the Son of God to expose the demon.

‘There are people today just like this demonized man: in a religious meeting, able to tell who Jesus is, and even trembling with fear of judgment-yet lost!’ (see Jas 2:19) (Wiersbe)

The demon recognises Jesus human nature (“Jesus of Nazareth”) and also his divine nature (“the Holy one of God”).

“Be quiet” – lit. “Be muzzled.” The same expression is used of Jesus’ stilling of the storm, Mk 4:39.

1:27 They were all amazed so that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He even commands the unclean spirits and they obey him.” 1:28 So the news about him spread quickly throughout all the region around Galilee.

“A new teaching – and with authority!” – The truth of Jesus’ teaching is matched by the power (exousia) of his actions.

News about him spread quickly – ‘Our Lord did not encourage this kind of public excitement lest it create problems with both the Jews and the Romans. The Jews would want to follow him only because of his power to heal them, and the Romans would think he was a Jewish insurrectionist trying to overthrow the government. This explains why Jesus so often told people to keep quiet. (Mk 1:44; 3:12; 5:43; 7:36-37; 8:26,30; 9:9) The fact that they did not obey created problems for him.’ (Wiersbe)

Healings at Simon’s House

1:29 Now as soon as they left the synagogue, they entered Simon and Andrew’s house, with James and John. 1:30 Simon’s mother-in-law was lying down, sick with a fever, so they spoke to Jesus at once about her. 1:31 He came and raised her up by gently taking her hand. Then the fever left her and she began to serve them.
Mk 1:29–31 = Mt 8:14,15; Lk 4:38,39

Here (vv29-31) we have ‘one of the rare glimpses into the home lives of the apostles.’ (Cole) There are several eyewitness touches, and that eyewitness was evidently Peter.

Simon’s mother-in-law – Peter’s wife is mentioned in 1 Cor 9:5. See note there.

‘The reference to Peter’s mother-in-law serves to clarify what it means for Peter to be confronted by Jesus’ summons to follow him. He had a family and a home for which provision had to be made; the call to be a fisher of men demanded total commitment to Jesus. The healing accomplished within Peter’s home indicates that salvation had come to his house in response to the radical obedience he had manifested.’ (Lane)

They told Jesus – lit. ‘they told him’. ‘Support for a Petrine background to Mark comes from the fourteen places in which the narrator begins in the plural referring to the disciples but then shifts to an unidentified “he” and continues in the singular. In context, the “he” almost always means Jesus, but the way of narrating is strange unless Mark picked it up from one of the disciples themselves and, given the places in which the phenomenon occurs, one of the inner core of followers who was used to speaking this way about his master without necessarily mentioning him by name.’ (Blomberg, http://www.denverseminary.edu/dj/articles2007/0200/0204)

Citing the work of Cuthbert Taylor, Bauckham remarks: ‘Turner was right to see this narrative feature as adopting the ‘point of view’ of the group of disciples or of someone within the group. If we are to construe this point of view consistently through all these passages, then it should be that of one of the inner group of disciples – Peter, James, and John – since in some cases it is only they and Jesus who are the understood subject of the plural verb.’

This is Marks’ first account of a healing miracle. As is generally the case, the healing is complete and instantaneous. There is no sign of the weakness that would normally be the sequel to a high fever. As soon as the fever left her she began to wait on them.

As Cranfield points out, ‘the miracles are not compelling proof…Their significance is recognizable only by faith. They are, as it were, chinks in the curtain of the Son of God’s hiddenness. The light let through the chinks is real light (the miracles do reveal, they are an effective manifestation of Christ’s glory for those who believe, (cf. Jn 2:11) and failure to discern their meaning and to respond to the summons to repentance which they constitute is without excuse (Mt 11:20-4 = Lk 10:13-15)); but the light is not so direct as to be compelling. There are several reasons why it is not. for one thing, the amazement which the miracles cause is offset by the apparent weakness and unimpressiveness of him who works them. (e.g. Mk 6:1-6) For another, other people were credited with miracles. Jesus himself refers to Jewish exorcisms (Mt 12:27 = Lk 11:19) and reckons with false messiahs and false prophets working miracles in the future. (Mk 13:22) The OT records numerous miracles and even attributes miracles to heathen magicians, (Ex 7:11, etc.) and in the contemporary Gentile world people certainly were credulous about miracles (the healings attributed to Vespasian a little later are well known). Moreover, there are striking external similarities between many of Jesus’ healing miracles and those attributed to others…Thus other explanations lay close to hand besides that of faith: another prophet, another Rabbi, or even just another wonder-worker.’

1:32 When it was evening, after sunset, they brought to him all who were sick and demon-possessed. 1:33 The whole town gathered by the door. 1:34 So he healed many who were sick with various diseases and drove out many demons. But he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
Mk 1:32–34 = Mt 8:16,17; Lk 4:40,41

That evening after sunset – The previous two miracles had been performed on the sabbath. Now, with the sabbath past, crowds gathered to seek healing, for the sick could be brought for healnig without risk of breaking the law.

The people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed – There is a note of excitement in the narrative (see also the next verse).

The sick and demon-possessed – Here and in v34, and also in 6:13 a clear distinction is made between the sick and the demon-possessed. Some have attempted to blur the distinction by identifying what in ancient times was described as demon-possession with what in our our time we would call various types of psychosis. But there are critical differences: for example, the demon-possessed react to religious matters; and they characteristically exhibit psychic knowledge, such as awareness of who Christ is (e.g. v24, 34).

The whole town gathered – But not so much to hear the message of repentance and the kingdom of God as to find relief from pain and affliction. With compassion, Jesus meets their needs, but this is not primarily why he came, v38.

The door – Presumably that of Peter’s and Andrew’s house.

Healed therapeuo – originaly meaning ‘to attend’, then ‘to attend medically’, then ‘to heal’, as here.

Many polus, but probably not to be contrasted with pas (‘all’) in v32, as though all were brought to Jesus but not all were healed. So Cranfield.

He would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was – See vv24f. ‘All such testimony is non-voluntary, an unwilling recognition of an empirical fact, and thus corresponds to no moral or spiritual transforming discovery.’ (Cole) As Jas 2:19 shows, such grudging recognition of who Christ is is widely different from true faith, as exemplified by Peter, Mk 8:29.

Praying and Preaching

1:35 Then Jesus got up early in the morning when it was still very dark, departed, and went out to a deserted place, and there he spent time in prayer. 1:36 Simon and his companions searched for him. 1:37 When they found him, they said, “Everyone is looking for you.” 1:38 He replied, “Let us go elsewhere, into the surrounding villages, so that I can preach there too. For that is what I came out here to do.” 1:39 So he went into all of Galilee preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.
Mk 1:35–38 = Lk 4:42,43

Again, we seem to have Peter’s recollections here (cf. v36).

Very early in the morning – ‘When others were asleep in their beds, he was praying, as a genuine Son of David, who seeks God early, and directs his prayer in the morning; nay, and at midnight will rise to give thanks. It has been said, The morning is a friend to the Muses-Aurora Musis amica; and it is no less so to the Graces. When our spirits are most fresh and lively, then we should take time for devout exercises. He that is the first and best, ought to have the first and best.’ (MHC)

Jesus…went off to a solitary place, where he prayed – Mark gives three records of Jesus at prayer: here, near the beginning, when his ministry is being defined (v38); in the middle after the feeding of the five thousand, 6:46; and near the end when Jesus is in Gethsemane, Mk 14:32-42. These are all critical moments, and each takes place at night and in solitude.

Simon and the others (probably Andrew, James and John, cf. Mk 1:29) may well have felt impatient that Jesus, faced with so many opportunities for doing good (and in their own home town), chose instead to pray in solitude.

The implication is that Jesus has received guidance on the next step in his ministry through spending time in prayer (v35).

‘The disciples apparently wanted Jesus to make the most of the opportunity to become a popular miracle-worker; but Jesus rejected it, regarding preaching more highly than miracles. Miracles were “appendages” to the Word (Calvin): the relation was not to be reversed.’ (Cranfield)

If Peter and the others felt impatient at Jesus retiring from the crowds, they must have felt even more puzzled by his decision to move on altogether.

“That is why I have come” – Either, ‘that is why I have come over from Capernaum’, or ‘that is why I have come from God’. The ambiguity may be intentional. Cf. Mk 2:17. Jesus’ aim was not to heal as many people as possible but to win over their hearts for the kingdom of God.

Cleansing a Leper

1:40 Now a leper came to him and fell to his knees, asking for help. “If you are willing, you can make me clean,” he said. 1:41 Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I am willing. Be clean!” 1:42 The leprosy left him at once, and he was clean. 1:43 Immediately Jesus sent the man away with a very strong warning. 1:44 He told him, “See that you do not say anything to anyone, but go, show yourself to a priest, and bring the offering that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.” 1:45 But as the man went out he began to announce it publicly and spread the story widely, so that Jesus was no longer able to enter any town openly but stayed outside in remote places. Still they kept coming to him from everywhere.
Mk 1:40–44 = Mt 8:2–4; Lk 5:12–14

Filled with compassion (σπλαγχνίζομαι) – An alternative reading has ‘anger/indignation’.  Bart Ehrman (Misquoting Jesus) prefers the latter reading.  In his view, copyists would sometimes deliberately alter the text of the New Testament, and (as in this case) significantly change the picture of Jesus or the doctrine of the original.  But this is not a very persuasive line of argument.

Cranfield, who also thinks that the ‘anger’ reading is the original, goes on to ask, ‘Why was Jesus angry’.  He thinks that the most likely explanation is that this was ‘anger with Satan at his disfigurement of God’s creature…Not only demon-possession but all disease was the devil’s work (cf. Lk 13:16); and in his healing miracles Jesus was waging war on Satan’s power.’

We may not be very far wide of the mark to see Jesus’ anger here as an expression of the ‘groaning’ that Paul writes of in Rom 8 in the light of a broken and not-yet-fully-redeemed cosmos.  See also Mk 7:34.

Lane, who agrees that the ‘anger/indignation’ reading, takes a similar view: ‘The anger can be understood as an expression of righteous indignation at the ravages of sin, disease and death which take their toll even upon the living, a toll particularly evident in a leper.  As such, Jesus’ encounter with the leper brings him once more into the sphere of the demonic.’

Edwards: ‘Anger may not be as offensive as it first appears if one recalls that in Judg 10:16 “[God] became indignant over the misery of Israel” (RSV), much as Jesus does here. If “anger” was the original reading, it must clearly mean that Jesus was indignant at the misery of the leper (so John 11:33–38), for Jesus willingly healed him.’

It is not difficult to see why an over-cautious copyist sought to prevent misunderstanding of the character of Jesus by replacing the more difficult ‘anger/indignation’ with the easier ‘compassion’.

Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man – In this way, Jesus demonstrates his willingness to associate with outcasts.  By the same token, he renders himself ‘unclean’.

Sent him away – εκβαλλω – more lit., ‘sent him packing’, or even, ‘threw him out’.

Strong warning – lit. ‘snorting’.  The occurrence of the same expression in Jn 11:33,38 indicates that it can bear a range of meanings, all of which, however, entail strong emotion.

“See that you don’t tell this to anyone” – ‘Perhaps what Jesus was worried about…was news leaking out that he was doing things which seemed to challenge the authority of the Temple itself. As we shall soon see, there was more of this to come. It wasn’t just that if news of spectacular healings got round, he soon wouldn’t be able to move for the crowds (this is more or less what happened). It was that he might be attracting the wrong kind of notice. People would get angry. He was by-passing the system. And soon the question would be asked: is he really a loyal Jew? Can his message about the kingdom of God be real? Can we believe him? Isn’t he dangerous? Hasn’t he gone too far?’ (Wright)

The priesthood was an hereditary office.  There were as many of 20,000 in Israel at the time.  So finding a priest would not have been difficult.  Galilee is, of course, a long way from Jerusalem: the offering of sacrifices could be done on his next visit there.

‘We are to see the man as disobeying Jesus and probably as simply publicizing Jesus’ miracle rather than really giving the proper witness to Jesus’ significance.’ (Hurtado)

Mark 1:43–45, which contains the first command to keep a miracle secret, in conjunction with Mark 1:38 shows that the leper’s disobedience resulted in a frustration of Jesus’ plans, namely, to preach in other towns (cf. also Mk 7:24 with 7:36). Thus Mark may well have understood the four prohibitions in practical-strategic terms.’ (DJG (1st ed, p553)

Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places – This may be because

(a) Instead of presenting himself to the priest for confirmation of his healing, the man went around publicising the fact that Jesus had rendered himself ‘unclean’ by touching him.  However, this interpretation involves a certain amount of reading between the lines.  Moreover, we then would have to explain why Jesus re-entered Capernaum within just a few days (Mk 2:1).

(b) Jesus wished to retreat ‘from the shallow glory of publicity’ (Hurtado).  He ‘never desired people to be drawn to follow him simply in hopes of material benefits to be obtained from him.’ (Cole)

HSB (p408) suggests: ‘This popularity was bad in two ways. As we see in Mark 6:31, it made life difficult. The situation appeared so crazy to his relatives that they wanted to take him into protective custody (Mk 3:20–21)! In fact, it even made ministry difficult, for frequently crowds became a hindrance in people’s attempts to get to Jesus (Mk 2:2–4). Furthermore the popularity attracted the attention of the authorities, which could be dangerous (Mk 6:14). So this problem reinforced Jesus’ own humble modesty about his healing activities.’

‘This shows how expedient it was for us, that Christ should go away, and send the Comforter, for his bodily presence could be but in one place at a time; and those that came to him from every quarter, could not get near him; but by his spiritual presence he is with his people wherever they are, and comes to them to every quarter.’ (MHC)

Jesus has, as it were, traded places with the healed man: ‘Early in his ministry Jesus is already an outsider in human society. Mark casts him in the role of the Servant of the Lord who bears the iniquities of others (Isa 53:11) and whose bearing of them causes him to be “numbered with the transgressors” (Isa 53:12).’ (Edwards)

Theological documents

In their own way, the Gospels are just as theological as the epistles, and the Gospel of Mark as, say the Gospel of John.  See how the character of Jesus is revealed in the opening chapters:-

  1. In chapter 1 he heals the sick
  2. In chapter 2 he forgives the sinner
  3. In chapter 3 he has authority over spiritual powers
  4. In chapter 4 he has power over creation
  5. In chapter 5 he is sovereign over death
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