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➨ Read the text without verses by clicking on the link below.
“Take notice,—I am sending my messenger ahead,
He will show you the correct road to travel:
A loud voice shows up in the desert saying:
Make a way for the Lord!
Clear a straight highway for him!”
John was baptizing in the desert and preaching the baptizing. He told his the folks gathering to turn away from their sins and be baptized and that they would be forgiven by God of their sins. Many of the folks who came to hear him confessed their sins and he took them into the Jordan and baptized them. John wore camel’s hair clothes held at his waist by a leather belt. His diet was locusts and wild honey. His announcement to the folks was: The person who follows me will be stronger that I am. I wouldn’t dare to bend down and loosen his sandals. I have covered you with the water of the Jordan. He will cover you with the Holy Spirit.
Jesus showed up one day from his home in Nazareth of Galilee and John baptized him in the Jordon. In that very moment of baptism as he was coming out of the water he saw the sky split open and the Spirit descending to him like a dove. A voice from the sky said: You are my son, I have chosen and marked you out by my love. You are the pride of my life.”
In the blink of an eye, the Spirit drove him into the desert where he stayed for forty days and the satan attacked him while he was there. There were wild beasts everywhere as the angels waited on him.
When I enlisted in the United States Air Force, I had no idea what I was going to do in life. I was transferred from Japan to Hawaii in the summer of 1964. The first weekend I was there, I showed up to a church in Honolulu, HI. I remember walking into the church on a Sunday evening with a friend that I was stationed with and realizing that the only seats that were available were on the front row. Having grown up in church, I had the standard Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes on, i.e., a dark suit, shirt, and tie. The two of us were severely overdressed and were told later that the pastor thought that we were two missionaries from a different religious group who had come to disrupt the evening service. Apparently that had occurred in the past.
On my left, seated at the piano was the pastor’s wife, Juanita Vincent, and on the right, seated at the Hammond organ, was the pastor’s daughter, Donna Faith Vincent. Little did I know that the young lady playing the Hammond organ would become my wife. I have often teased her that she fell in love with me on that evening and that she chased me until I caught her.
The church had a Bible school, so, I decided to attend and take a course from the pastor’s wife. The real motive for enrolling in the course was to get close to her so that I could get close to her daughter, Donna Faith. Remember, I had no idea of what I was going to do the rest of my life. I was in a wilderness of sorts, treading water, waiting for who knows what to happen. That first course and others from another female teacher, Adele Carmichael, struck a chord in me and within a few months, I was asked to teach a young folks Sunday school class on a specific Sunday. I thought that a bit strange since I had never taught anything to anyone in a classroom setting in my life. I studied the best I knew how and taught on that Sunday standing in the balcony of the sanctuary located on the corner of Lunalilo and Victoria Street in Honolulu, Hawaii. More than one person came up to me afterward and told me that they enjoyed my presentation and thought that I should become a Bible teacher.
I started teaching on that bright sunny Hawaiian morning because I was asked to teach. But because of the encouragement of several folks who seemed to be telling me that I should consider becoming a teacher, I soon entered into a wilderness experience that began to shape my life for that vocation. There seems to be a pattern here of which the follower of Jesus may be unaware: that being driven by the Spirit into a wilderness experience where one is forced to focus on a direction that God may be directing one toward rather than thinking of a wilderness experience as some kind of punishment. This idea appears in Mark’s telling of the Story, or such it seems, was the case with Jesus as Mark tells the beginning of his story.
Observing Mark’s Story
As we have suggested before, Mark was originally an evangelistic tract for the church at Rome. His writing would demonstrate for the average Roman citizen that Jesus was a powerful man who was in charge of his own life decisions. The book appears to have three acts that we shared in the first session. Reviewing that outline will help readers focus on the larger context of the material that Mark is presenting. Here is the brief short chiastic outline structure:
The Story Opens: Mark 1.1-13: 1.1-13
First Act. Presentation of Jesus: Mark 1.14-8.31
Second Act. Passion Predictions: Mark 8.32-10.52
Third Act. Passion of Jesus Mark 14.1-15.47
The Story Continues: Mark 16.1-8
We should observe that we are presently looking at the Prologue section (Mark 1.1-13).
Mark had a challenge on his hands when he wrote to his Roman audience. He had to hook them early and keep them interested, which all authors face. He met that challenge with astounding success. The stories in the first chapter move across the reader’s eyes with stunning success. In the opening paragraphs Mark briefly
- introduces his book (Mark 1.1),
- introduces John the Baptist (Mark 1.2-8), and
- introduces Jesus and the beginning of his ministry (Mark 1.9-13).
Interpreting Mark’s Story
Announcement of the Beginning (Mark 1.1)
Mark briefly introduces his story about Jesus with one of the most powerful statements in all of Scripture. The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, God’s son…. Knowing something about the words Mark provides you as a reader with gives some important clues about what he is writing.➨ Thoughts to Consider
Mark was in effect having a conversation with his readers. In having any conversation, there are obstacles. Here are a few to consider:
- Linear Language: A written text presents its words in a sequence or progression. In the Greek language from which the ancient text of Scripture and the English language that we read, we read from left to right on a page or a screen. We can only see the text that is in front of our eyes as we read. We cannot see the whole of what is being said in a complete document, i.e., Mark in this case. Our reading builds on what has been said before, in the document we are reading. The biblical text is linear. The authors arranged their material the way it appears on the page and not in some other way. These authors choose what they wrote about first, second, third, etc. This is not only for the whole of the story but the sequence of the words that are presented. Therein lies a problem for the English reader. The Greeks did not write in a specific sequence, i.e., subject, verb, and object (if there was one.) They wrote their sentences putting the most important thing first in the sentence, regardless if it was a verb, a noun, or some other part of speech. The ending result is that it is still linear, one word comes after the other.
- Selective Language: A writer cannot and does not say everything. Every detail that could be in a story is not there. So, the one reading the text, the reader, is left with some work to do while reading an ancient text. What is left out is sometimes assumed by the writer to be known by the reader. We who read all these years later that when the ancient writers wrote must make an attempt to educate ourselves with reference material to help fill in the author’s gaps.
- Culture is Embedded in the Language: This is one of the liabilities that we face when we read Scripture in an English translation (read any language here if not the original language). We simply and without thought assume that the words in our language that we are reading is their words not ours. When we read we must take into account that we are reading across cultures. We cannot conscript the language of the Bible texts and use them to serve our own beliefs and use them to justify some present practice of our own culture.
- Readers are Culturally Embedded: Texts are embedded in a culture and the reader of the text is also embedded in another culture. We do not come to any ancient text without bias. We bring our own cultural biases with us into any reading. This surely includes but is not limited to our own biases in religion and politics. When we become aware of this, we will read more intuitively reminding ourselves that we are not reading with a “clean” slate.
- Practiced Reading: When you watch a sports event or a concert, or a cooking contest, etc., you are aware of what you are seeing, but often unaware of what goes on behind the scenes that allows what you are watching to take place. As an example, basketball players routinely practice the fundamentals but often stay after regular practice to shoot hundreds of jump shots, or free throws, or three-point shots from all kinds of positions. When you hear a well-played piece of music by an orchestra being played, what you don’t see is the behind-the-scenes practices both individually and as a group that produced the sound you enjoyed. It is this behind-the-scenes practice that allows for a more functional engagement with the text in order to produce something that is meaningful to one’s life and mission in life.
All of these ideas will, over time, produce for us a reading that is somewhat second nature rather than a surface nature reading of the text. After a while, we will discover that these items help us become at home with the sacred text 6
The second word is good news (often translated by the word gospel). The words good news carries two ideas that the Romans would have understood. First, it meant “joyful tidings” and was associated with the cult of the emperor whose birthday was a festive celebration. The announcement was called “good news.” A calendar inscription from 9 BC about Augustus reads: “the birthday of the god was for the world the beginning of joyful tidings, (good news) which have been proclaimed on his account.” 1 For the Roman, this idea meant that a historical event had occurred that introduced a new situation for their present world. Thus, Mark is announcing Jesus’ coming as an event that brings about a radically new state of affairs for humankind. In this statement, Mark shares the apex of the storyline of the Genesis-Revelation story. The end of the story happened in the middle. It was the end of the story now, but not yet.
Second, the Romans would understand good news in the context of war. Rome was the most powerful force in the ancient world and it kept the peace with skirmish wars. In these wars when one of the battles was won, a soldier was selected to take the good news back to the encampment, often running more than twenty-five miles from where the battle had actually happened. When he arrived, he announced that the battle had been won and frequently dropped dead from the exhaustion of having just come off the battlefield and then his long announcement run. So in the Roman’s eye, the gospel was a message that was delivered by a chosen person who was willing to give his life to deliver the message. As we will see later, Jesus and Satan were at war. It was a war between the age to come and this present evil age. Mark presents Jesus as the victor who delivered and died for the good news that the kingdom of God (rule of God) had come into the present evil age in the words and works of Jesus.
Announcement of John the Baptist (Mark 1.2-3)
Mark introduces the ministry of John the Baptist by combining a passage from Exodus 23.20 (from the Septuagint) with two Prophets: Malachi and Isaiah (Mal. 3.1; Isa. 40.3 LXX). The significance of the ministry of John the Baptist can only be appreciated against the historical setting of his day. For centuries, the living voice of prophecy had been stilled. God paused in his speaking through human prophets who declared his word about keeping his covenant. Exodus 23.20 contained God’s promise to send a messenger to his people during the first Exodus through the wilderness. Isaiah 40.3 demonstrates that the messenger calls for preparation for the coming of the Lord.
The combination of these ideas from the First Testament sent a shockwave through the Jewish community who were expecting the Messiah to come but were not ready for his announcement to be given by a somewhat weird prophet telling folks to repent.
In this early section of the Story of Jesus by Mark, he seems to be using small quotes from the Old Testament to make his point. With the advent of chapters and verses (the 1500s), we have transposed those little notations back into the sacred text even though it did not have any such additions. Because we see the writers doing this, we assume that it is all right for us to do it. It has become the common way to explain this idea by those who defend verse quoting.
However, there are two things one should think about. First, there were no verses when Jesus and those functioning as apostles were writing. Second, quoting small fragments produces a problem of “selectivity.” This idea is addressed by Richard Hays under the concept of intertextuality, which he says is the “embedding of fragments of an earlier text within a later one….” 2 My doctoral mentor, Kent Yinger sees “intertextual play” found in “all strata of the OT,” which helps us have a “better understanding” of concepts like “grace and works” in the New Testament. 3 What Paul and others may have been doing when they quote a text from the Old Testament (remember, the Old Testament was not yet canonized and certainly not versified at this time in history and the authors did not have copies lying around like we do in the twenty-first century) is simply drawing attention to the whole story from which the text is being quoted. A present analogy would be the use of “keywords” in a search engine such as Google to find the larger context in which those words are recorded. It just might be that we have taken our propensity to proof text and projected it back on Paul and other writers of the New Testament.” 4 An example of this is Jesus quoting the first line of Psalm 22 (which was not known as Psalm 22 when he was quoting it) as a way of saying to those at the foot of the cross that what they were viewing was not defeat but victory. We get fixated on the “words” Jesus said and seldom reflect on the story from which they came.
Appearance of John the Baptist (Mark 1.4)
I grew up in part of the country where it was hot and humid in the summer before air conditioners were popular or affordable. To alleviate some of the misery that went with the heat, we could drive about seven miles to a natural spring that fed a large sandy bottom pool. The water flowing from the spring was always seventy-two degrees, summer or winter. So on those hot summer days, when the heat was in the high nineties and the humidity was even higher, we would run and jump into the natural pool and our hearts would jump as we came up gasping for air because the sudden change in temperature to our bodies was like getting a cold splash of water in the face without knowing it was coming. It was a startling wake-up call to the body. Such was the arrival of John the Baptist on the scene for the Jews.
From the prophetic silence, came the preaching of John the Baptist in the wilderness proclaiming to the people of God their need for repentance and baptism. In Mark’s story, John the Baptist is not important for his own sake. He is seen as the fulfilling of the Old Testament prophecy as the beginning of the unfolding drama of redemption that centers on the ministry of Jesus. Remember, the Jews were looking for a person like Moses who would come and bring then out of their bondage and provide freedom for them once again. John came pronouncing that that person was coming.
Activity of John the Baptist (Mark 1.4-5)
The word preach is a common word of a king’s herald who went throughout the kingdom proclaiming the message of the king. In today’s ChurchWorld, we have made it preaching about something else. John’s message was repentance and to repent meant to completely change one’s direction in life, a turning toward God’s face, a change from the story they were living into a different story. The Jewish mindset would have understood this to mean a return to the wilderness where they began their original relationship with God through covenant. They were to repent for or because of their sins. John preached that men and women should be baptized and that baptism was a symbolic act representing that they had repented, they had gone through the Sea of Reeds as their forefathers and mothers had done many millennia before. John spoke in hyperbole or exaggerated speech. There was a continual procession of people coming to be baptized by him. He told them to confess their sins. The original word for confess commonly means “to say the same thing that God says, to agree with God.” So, folks were implored to change their life direction by agreeing with God that they were on the wrong path. This could be an echo of the idea in Psalms of being led on the right versus the wrong path (Psalm 23).
Attire of John the Baptist (Mark 1.6)
John’s attire was a deliberate imitation of the external marks of a First Testament prophet (see Zech. 13 and 2 Kings 1 for a description). Thus, Mark pictures John like a First Testament prophet.
What were ancient prophetic clothes like? Click To Tweet
Bending Custom (Mark 1.7)
John says that his ministry was only to be a servant of the ministry of the one who was to come. In the ancient world, a slave would stoop and unloose the shoes of an arriving guest and rinse the dust from his feet. But, a Hebrew slave could not wash the feet of his master, nor put his shoes on him, or carry his things. Only one’s son or pupil could do so. Thus, John said that he was not worthy of performing the most menial task from which the Hebrew slaves had been released. He is surely a model for everyone functioning in the kingdom of God by noting that we are not worthy of performing the most menial tasks for the king. This is an often forgotten message for those who call themselves leaders in ChurchWorld today.
Comparing Ministry (Mark 1.8)
We now see a comparison between the baptism of John with water and Jesus’ baptism of the Spirit. The message of John was an expected event in Israel. God promised to pour out his Spirit on the descendants of Jacob in quickening and life-giving power (Isa. 44). Ezekiel said that God would put his Spirit within them enabling them to obey his covenant.
One might ask, why did Jesus need to be baptized? For him, three things may have occurred. His baptism was a moment of election as he identified with the Jews and their sins. It was a moment of endorsement as the Father gave his approval, and finally, it was a moment of equipment as the Spirit came to empower him for his ministry.
Driven into the Wilderness (Mark 1.9-13)
When John baptized Jesus, several things happened as Jesus came up out of the water. First, he saw. The word saw means “to see a spiritual vision with the natural eye.” The vision he saw was heaven being split apart and the Spirit descending like a dove. In Israel’s history, the dove was a symbol of the community of Israel. What Mark pictures is that in one true Israelite (Jesus), the Story of God was reaching its apex. Jesus was the unique representative of the new humanity of the New Israel that was created by the Spirit. The text says that the Spirit descended into Jesus 5 and he heard a voice saying, “because you are my unique Son, I have chosen you for the task upon, which you are about to enter.” Remember, this was the first telling of this story in writing. It clearly indicates that Jesus was anointed and thought of as the son. The idea of Jesus being Messiah at this point was not a part of Mark’s thought.
After Jesus was baptized, there were three things, which happened to him. First, he was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness to be attacked by the enemy. We often think of the Spirit as gentle and one who leads. Mark abolishes that vision of Spirit by telling his readers that he pushed Jesus into the wilderness. Second, forty days is a fixed time of symbolic significance. It represented the beginning of a new stage of history with God. This was not a period that began and ended in the desert. It was a new beginning, which indicated the complete ministry of Jesus that was and is. Third, the enemy attacked him. The word translated tempted could be better translated attacked, which was an assault of the enemy to destroy Jesus. Satan would attack and Jesus would counterattack as we shall see anon. The picture of Jesus being pushed into a desolate place by the Spirit and there being attacked by Satan is not a thought often consumed by Jesus followers. It is too painful to think of the Spirit as one who puts us into places where the enemy will attack us. But, the good news is that Jesus survived, as can we.
The note about the wild animals is a way of saying that the wilderness was like being in the garden. However, in the midst of this attack, the New Adam, Jesus, would be victorious over Satan and would not be seduced by him as the first Adam was seduced by the serpent in the garden story.
The mention of angels ministering demonstrated the concern of God for Jesus. This was a reminder of the angelic beings who helped Israel through the first wilderness. It could also be a reminder of the angelic being who protected the garden once it was abandoned because of a choice made by Adam and Eve to be independent of God instead of interdependent with God. There is no need to return to the first garden. Jesus would create a new way forward.
Living into Mark’s Story
- How do new beginnings affect your life (Mark 1.1)?
- Can you track the wilderness experiences that began after a new focus for you began (Mark 1.3)?
- Which of the following three items do we leave out of ministering (Mark 1.8)? Why?
- A time when we must identify with the person to whom we are ministering.
- A time in which God will approve.
- A time of empowerment from the Spirit.
- When was the last time the Holy Spirit drug you into the wilderness? While you were there, how did he guide and protect you (Mark 1.9)?
- Have you ever been aware of ministering angels at your side to take care of you (Mark 1.13)?
- Read Mark 1.14-45.
Easy to Understand
Tom Wright. Mark for Everyone (New Testament for Everyone [Paperback] Advanced
Ben Witherington III. The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary.
William L. Lane. The Gospel according to Mark: The English Text With Introduction, Exposition, and Notes (The New International Commentary on the New Testament)
- William Lane, The Gospel of Mark. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), 43. ↩
- Richard Hays, Echoes of Scripture. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), 14. ↩
- Kent L. Yinger, Paul, Judaism, and Judgment According to Deeds. (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 19. ↩
- Winn Griffin, God’s Epic Adventure [The Reader Edition]. (Woodinville, WA: Harmon Press, 2014), 39. ↩
- James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making, Volume 1. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans 2003), 373. ↩