[January 10, 2010] I explained earlier (on the First Sunday of Advent) that what we call the Gospel according to Mark is essentially the words of the apostle Peter as he sought to validate the Gospel scrolls of Matthew and Luke, retelling the story of Jesus which he had in front of him on the two scrolls—looking first at one scroll (and then the other—from the point of view of his own eyewitness testimony. He did this before a private audience in Rome during the time when the emperor Nero was persecuting the church. Mark edited the shorthand notes taken by others at the time and published them a few years later when Jerusalem was under siege by Rome. Peter told the story of Jesus at a time when the church’s faithfulness to Jesus was being severely tested—in fact his own martyrdom was immanent—and Mark edited the notes at a time when the return of Jesus seemed immanent, when the church would be called to account. In the Gospel as recounted by Peter, Jesus proves Himself under trial—often in contrast to His disciples—as a model for us to follow when we come under similar trials.
The Gospel (Mark 1:1)
The Gospel according to Mark begins with the words, “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The Gospel—the Joyous Tidings or Good News—is the coming of Jesus. The content of the Gospel is the story of Jesus. Peter begins the Gospel when Jesus is anointed with the Holy Spirit to carry out His work as the Messiah (meaning, “Anointed One”; Christ is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Messiah). See Acts 1:2 and 10:37. Jesus is anointed with the Holy Spirit so that He can carry out the work that the Father has given Him to do, the work that shall lead Him to the cross. This is also when Peter, whose history with Jesus goes back to this time (as we learn from the first chapter of John’s gospel), became an eyewitness of the story.
Jesus is also revealed to be the Son of God. The heavens are “ripped apart” for the Father to reveal this at His baptism and again at His transfiguration. When Jesus is brought before the high priest and he asks Jesus, “Are you the Son of the Blessed One?” (Mark 14:61), Jesus answers, “I am” (Greek: eg? eimi). A Roman centurion bears witness to this at the time of His death (15:39), when the veil separating the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem was “ripped apart.” Heaven knows Jesus to be the Son of God, but on earth it is by His faithfulness to the extent of death that He proves Himself to be the Beloved, the One in whom the Father has found His delight.
The story of Jesus is not a journalistic report of things that happened in history but the testimony of witnesses to whom it was also revealed that Jesus is the Son of God who came to be the Messiah (“Son of God” referring to His Person, “Messiah” referring to His mission). We might say that they saw events from a particular perspective, through a particular “lens.” Their special knowledge is something we cannot obtain simply by observing the events objectively. Their testimony, however, is the means which God uses to reveal to us who Jesus is. This Gospel (their testimony) is “the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16), and through their testimony we “remember” Jesus when we break bread together.
One Greater than John (1:2-8)
As it is written in the prophets, John the Baptist came preparing the way before Him, calling people to repent (1:2-5). Mark conflates Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1 (and possibly Exodus 23:20) to emphasize that Jesus’ coming is in fulfillment of the hope that the prophets brought to the people.
Mark spends little time on John’s ministry compared to Matthew and Luke, emphasizing instead that John came dressed as Elijah (2 Kings 1:8) whom the prophet Malachi said would come “before the great and terrible day of the Lord” (4:5-6) and whom Mark identifies with “My [God’s] messenger” who “will clear the way before Me” (Malachi 3:1; Mark 1:2). As this one, John announces that he is not worthy to stoop down and untie the sandals of the One who is coming, that he only baptizes in water but the One who is coming will baptize you in the Holy Spirit. John does not compare to Jesus in significance, but only prepares the people for His coming. It is coming of Jesus which is the Gospel. In Mark’s gospel John does not have a message independent of this.
The Revelation of the Son of God (1:9-11)
When Jesus was baptized “into”the Jordan (the word baptize means “to dunk”), immediately as He came up “out of” the water He saw the heavens being “ripped apart.” This is a much stronger word than Matthew and Luke use (the heavens “open”) and Mark probably uses it to draw a parallel with the rending of the veil in the Temple that separated the inaccessible “Holy of Holies” (the place of the Shekinah) from the more accessible “Holy Place” in front of it, where the altar of incense was (Mark 15:38).
The baptism of Jesus, as the inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry, rips apart the veil that separates heaven and earth (compare this to the dome, KJV’s “firmament,” in Genesis 1:6). From then on, heaven is open to Him as His ministry commences. An “open heaven” is the term the Bible frequently uses for there being free intercourse between heaven and earth when the hidden reality of things that heaven sees is revealed to those on earth.
Mark only relates that Jesus saw the heavens being ripped apart, implying that the crowd did not see it, and that the heavens were opened to Him. The tearing of the veil in the Temple by the death of Jesus implies that heaven is now open to us by His faithfulness unto death. The beginning of His faithfulness was His baptism by John.
As soon as the heavens open, Jesus sees the Spirit as a dove descending “into” Him (eis: Matthew and Luke say “on,” epi). Even though the Holy Spirit dwelt in Jesus as the Son of God (the divine Persons dwell in each other eternally), Jesus as a human being needed the power of the Spirit for His ministry. Just as Jesus act not act according to His own sinless will but in everything submitted to the will of God even though He was the Son of God, so also He did not carry out the work that God gave Him to do by His own human strength but made Himself completely dependent on God. It is by this divine anointing that He performed miracles. When God abandoned Him on the cross, God removed this anointing (though both the Father and the Holy Spirit continued to dwell in Him even as He died).
Just as Jesus needed the Holy Spirit so that He could do the work that the Father gave Him to do, so also the church needs the Holy Spirit to carry out its work. The church was anointed with the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. The church, however, was not anointed independently of Jesus but it received the Holy Spirit that came upon Him (Acts 2:33). The Holy Spirit comes upon us as His body (the church), not as independent individuals. It is as we are baptized into His name that we receive the Holy Spirit that came into Him at His baptism. The laying on of hands that (formally) follows baptism signifies our identification with His body, (see Acts 8:14-17; 19:1-6; and 9:17 where it precedes baptism).
Jesus is the One who baptizes us in the Holy Spirit in verse 8 since we receive the same Spirit which anointed Him in verse 10.
The voice that came out of the opened heaven was the voice of the Father. It revealed who Jesus is: He is the Son and Beloved of the Father, the One in whom the Father has found His delight. This revelation, given to Jesus, reveals the eternal relationships of the divine Persons—the Father and Son behold One Another with love and delight—but what opens the heavens to Jesus is the obedience of the Son in His humanity by His submitting to baptism.
The baptism that Jesus submitted to was a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” What marked this act of obedience from all His earlier acts of obedience, since He always lived in submission to the Father’s will, was that here He took His place as a repentant sinner, even though He was sinless. In other words, this act of obedience was entirely unnecessary as far as He was concerned. He acted “as if” He were a sinner in order to fulfill the repentance that is required of us if we are to be forgiven. He had nothing to repent of, but He acted “as if” He too were under the divine judgment and He were to submit obediently to that judgment. This is what He did in going to the cross. Thus He bore our judgment as if He were a repentant sinner. This obedient surrender to God’s judgment is how He became our Savior. The Father accepted His obedience—this obedience—on our behalf, as the repentance that we need to offer the Father if we would be forgiven.
What ended in the cross began right here, at His baptism. It was this act of obedience that called forth this reaction of heaven. The “You” here is emphatic, singling Jesus out from all the rest of humanity.
The Testing (1:12-13)
Immediately the Holy Spirit that descended into Him drives Him out (literally “throws” Him; a stronger word than that used by Matthew and Luke) into the wilderness where He was tempted by Satan. It was in the wilderness that John prepared the way of the Lord, and now Jesus enters the wilderness to be tested. The wilderness is where God prepared Israel to enter the Holy Land and it is in the wilderness that the prophets tell us God will again meet and restore His people (for example, Hosea 2:14 and Isaiah 40:3). The wilderness is where we are separated from the help and influence of culture and therefore it is a place of testing, where we are left alone with ourselves and the social influences that have been internalized (where Satan hides). The test is whether we will depend on God. The Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness and He is tempted (by Satan!) to rely on Himself. He does not, even though of all humanity He was the One most qualified to do so. Instead, the angels ministered to (diakone?) Him, reminding us of the heaven that is now open to Him. (Mark does not tell us that Jesus fasted. Instead he tells us that the angels acted as those who wait at table.)
Mark also tells us He is with the wild animals. While this reminds us of the animals in Adam’s Eden—since Jesus as the “second Man” was tempted like the first man only He was victorious compared to Adam who failed—there is a difference. Adam was tempted in a garden but Jesus is tempted in the wilderness under the conditions of sin. The wild animals here might remind us of the ones that Christians faced in the circuses and arenas of the Roman Empire (see 1 Corinthians 15:32). Jesus was with the wild animals the way that Daniel was with the lions in the den, restoring the peace of Eden.
The Gospel (1:14-15)
John’s arrest reminds us that Jesus is embarking on the same treacherous path as he. Jesus began His ministry in Galilee as soon as John was arrested. Mark does not tell us how one event determined or influenced the other, if it did. Only we are left to assume that the ministry of John had run its course once Jesus was revealed. According to Mark, the purpose of John’s ministry was to prepare for the coming of Jesus onto the scene.
The proclamation (kerygma) of Jesus, like that of the apostles in the Acts of the Apostles, is the Gospel. When Jesus says, “The time (kairos) is fulfilled,” He is referring to the special or appointed time that the prophets spoke of, the time when the promise would be fulfilled, when the Messiah would come and the new age begin. The time to which the prophets had taught Israel to look forward is now here.
It is the time that the kingdom of God has drawn near. In Isaiah 52:7 the Gospel (good news) of peace and salvation, when they would see with their own eyes the Lord Himself coming to Zion, is the message, “Your God reigns!” The kingdom of God is the reign of God. Although God reigns at all times, the kingdom of God refers to God overcoming all opposition. The drawing near of the kingdom of God is the coming of God in the Person of Jesus as the Messiah.
When Jesus says, “Repent and believe in the Gospel,” the Gospel that He is referring to is the Gospel of His own coming, that the kingdom of God has drawn near in His own Person. The only appropriate reaction to Him is to repent and believe. In Hebrew the word repent means to “turn around” while in Greek it means to “change the mind,” that is, that which you are minding. Repent means to turn to Jesus from whatever was previously occupying us and claiming our time, energy and attention. Let us turn to Him and believe. This involves an entire change of our mentality.
The story that follows is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.