Proclaiming the King: Baptism of Jesus (preaching resource for Epiphany 1: January 7, 2024)
This post exegetes Mark 1:1-13, providing context for the RCL Gospel reading for 1/7/2024 (first Sunday of Epiphany, which focuses on the baptism of our Lord). This exegesis draws on commentary from Alan Cole ("New Bible Commentary") and John Grassmick ("Bible Knowledge Commentary").
The kingdom of God (in its relationship to the cross of Christ) is the key organizing theme of Mark's Gospel—a theme encountered in the section of Mark spanning 1:1-8:6. This section addresses the declaration of the kingdom. Here Jesus is preaching (and healing) throughout Palestine. Though crowds flock to him, most people fail to understand him. Moreover, the religious leaders bitterly oppose him—opposition that will intensify all the way to the cross. Throughout this section, Jesus keeps what commentators refer to as the Messianic secret—he does not tell people openly that he is the Messiah. In Mark 1:1-13 we see how Jesus' is proclaimed as Messiah (King) through his baptism, and we will consider the significance of Jesus' baptism for all of us.
|"Baptism of Christ" by Zelenka (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Proclaiming the king
1 The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2 It is written in Isaiah the prophet: "I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way" -- 3 "a voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.'" 4 And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: "After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
Here we encounter Mark’s blunt and to-the-point style as he first proclaims his focus: the gospel—the good news about Jesus who is both the Christ (Messiah) and the Son of God. The nature of both these titles will emerge more clearly as the book proceeds, though Jesus never claims them for himself. Rather, it is in observing what Jesus teaches and does that we come to understand who he truly is. Mark is all about these sorts of actions.
This ‘good news,’ which now is being revealed in the words and acts of Jesus is not a new innovation. It was planned by God long before Jesus’ arrival. Mark proves this by quoting Malachi and Isaiah (though he only mentions Isaiah by name). Mark shows that the prophesied ‘messenger’ announcing this good news is John the baptizer, while the Lord referred to in v3 is Jesus himself. Thus, Mark is already equating Jesus with God, for ‘Lord’ usually means ‘God’ in the Old Testament. These are the claims for which the Jewish priests and elders will eventually crucify Jesus. Thus from the beginning, Mark presents his key evangelistic question: Is Jesus the Messiah and God’s Son, or is he not? The reader is challenged to decide.
John preached repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This phrase is difficult to translate and means literally “repentance unto remission of sins.” The idea is not that baptism is the means of obtaining forgiveness, or that repentance is necessary to be forgiven. The trouble lies in the use of the Hebrew word “eis” (translated “for” in the NIV), which sometimes is used when purpose is expressed, but sometimes when there is no such idea (as in Mat 10:41, 12:41). Probably, a more accurate translation of eis here would be, "with reference to." In the New Testament (as prefigured by John’s baptizing), baptism points us to Jesus, giving us a picture of his baptism (see Mark 1:9), death to sin, and resurrection to new life on our behalf.
We also note that baptism was already in use at this time by Jews for Gentiles converting to Judaism. Thus John (rather shockingly) is treating the Jewish nation as pagans who need to repent, confess sin, and thus come under the rule of the kingdom of God. John’s baptism in the Jordan is thus an objective challenge to the people of God (the Jews) to return to the Lord of the kingdom, now present before them in the person of Jesus. And thus John announces that someone far greater than he is about to arrive. John can only baptize with water (an outward sign), but the one coming will cleanse and renew their hearts (an inward transformation) by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is what makes Jesus’ ministry related to, yet completely different from that of John.
We note here that though Mark's Gospel does not quote from the Old Testament as often as the other Gospels do, he clearly places the roots of the gospel in the Old Testament. Also, though he does not speak of the Holy Spirit as much as the other Gospels, he believes firmly that Jesus is the giver of the Spirit, and that the Spirit is the birthright of all, not just a few (as was the case in the Old Testament). Just as every Jew who comes looking to John is baptized by John with water, so every person who comes looking to Jesus is baptized by Jesus with the Holy Spirit. John’s baptism is thus a picture of the reality of Jesus’ baptism and his kingdom.
Testing the king
9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased." 12 At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert, 13 and he was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.
Kings and judges in Old Testament Israel were chosen by God and anointed. Times of testing would show that they were indeed God’s choice for the task. So it is with Jesus, the king of the Kingdom of God. He now comes to be baptized by John. But why would Jesus be baptized if he has no sin and thus needs no repentance? Mark has no problem with this; he simply records that it happened. Because baptism is often a sign of judgment, perhaps Mark sees it as a willing acceptance by Jesus of the judgment come upon all humanity because of sin, as well as the related path of suffering that he must endure as Messiah (see Mark 10:38). In Jesus, humanity is baptized unto repentance and into the fellowship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
In v10, it is most natural to take the "he" as referring to Jesus, although John 1:33 seems to indicate that John the Baptist saw the vision as well. Heaven being "torn open" is characteristic of the Old Testament symbol of God’s descending. However, in this instance it is the Holy Spirit who descends, like a dove, a symbol of gentleness and peace. This picture is also reminiscent of the creation story in Gen. 1:2.
When Mark wrote, some early heretics were saying that Jesus was only a man on whom the Spirit came down, but Mark emphasizes that God himself is calling Jesus his Son, who he loves and with whom he is well pleased. In doing so, God quotes Scripture—a combination of Psa 2:7 and Isa 42:1. Taken together, they show that although Jesus is God’s Son, as God’s servant he will suffer and die to carry out his Father’s work. This reinforces the point that Mark sees Jesus’ baptism as his willing acceptance of this task. As Mark will go on to tell us, Jesus' followers were unwilling to accept the path of suffering and death for their Lord, and even more unwilling to accept it for themselves. Yet, as Paul says in Romans 6:3, we were all baptized into Christ’s death, and this was literally true for many Roman martyrs. There is no other path in Christianity except death to self, for Jesus our forerunner, deliberately took it upon himself on our behalf.
Jesus thus passes his first test as king, by accepting his calling with all that it costs. But will he pass the second test? The same Spirit that he has seen in the vision at his baptism now sends (and the Greek word means “drives” or “casts forth”) Jesus into the desert, where he faces the attack of Satan. The other Gospels give details of the ways in which the enemy tested Jesus: it is enough for Mark to show that Jesus is victorious, though in winning this victory he does not fight alone—the powers of heaven (angels) are on his side.