The Baptism of Jesus in Mark

Christian baptism is a one time event with life-long consequences. Those baptized into Christ have 1) Kingdom Hope; 2) Forgiveness of Sins; 3) Spirit Power and 4)Christian Community. All four Gospels agree that John’s baptism was the precursor of Christian baptism. This essay focuses on Mark’s brief baptismal narrative in Mark 1:4-11. Even in this brief account we find echoes of all four themes.

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At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. (Mark 1:9)

Christian baptism is a one time event with life-long consequences. Those baptized into Christ have:

  1. Kingdom Hope
  2. Forgiveness of Sins
  3. Spirit Power
  4. Christian Community

All four Gospels agree that John’s baptism was the precursor of Christian baptism. This essay focuses on Mark’s brief baptismal narrative in Mark 1:4-11. Even in this brief account we find echoes of all four themes.

Kingdom Hope

My mother used to call to me, “It’s time for supper. Wash your hands and get ready for dinner.” Similarly, John says, “Get washed up folks.” Why? What is it time for? What’s about to happen?

It is time, of course, for the coming of the kingdom. Like the cartoon figure carrying a sign proclaiming “The End is Near,” John heralds the coming of the end of the age. John has an eschatological message. We get a clearer picture of that, however, in Matthew and Luke’s gospels. Mark does not tell us directly. He leaves it to Jesus to announce, “The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God has drawn near. Repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15)

Still, there are hints of the kingdom in Mark’s baptismal narrative.

Mark points us at the “kingdom” content of the baptismal narrative with the very first words of his narrative:

The beginning of the gospel (“good message” or “good news,” Greek: euangelion) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

John’s baptism is somehow the beginning of the good news of Jesus. While “good news” appears to us to be a rather generic term for “a message that will make you happy,” it does have other, more technical connotations.

The Septuagint uses euangelion to translate the Hebrew basar in Isaiah 40:9, Isaiah 52:7 and Isaiah 61:1. Here in so-called Second Isaiah (chapters 40 and following), “good news” is the message that God is going to act to deliver his people from Babylonian captivity and restore them to a secure, prosperous and happy homeland in Judah –and bring justice to all the nations as they bow before Judah’s God.

Also, as certain Christians frequently remind us today, euangelion was (or could be) the language of the imperial Roman cult. Caesar’s birth and his benefits were proclaimed as “good news” for the people.

Still, by the time Mark wrote his gospel, the word euangelion had been in circulation for quite some time as a broad technical term for the content of Christian proclamation. Paul uses it quite frequently in that sense. While euangelion hints in the direction of kingdom language, it is only a hint. We need to look further into Mark’s text to determine what he means by “gospel.”

Mark describes John in terms reminiscent of the prophet Elijah who wore a garment of hair and a leather belt (2 Kings 1:8). Elijah’s return was expected to precede the time of fulfillment. In fact, the spirit of prophecy had been dead for generations. After a long period of prophetic silence, the appearance of a genuine prophet would be an eschatological sign.

At Jesus’ baptism, the heavens were “torn open,” recalling the eschatological vision of Isaiah 64:1-9: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.“

When the heavens are torn open, the Sprint descends like a dove on Jesus. Mark tells us, in fact, that John looked forward to the coming of the one who “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” The one on whom the Spirit descends is the one who will baptize others with the Holy Spirit. Again, all of this spirit talk is eschatological; at least early Christians thought so. In Acts 2:17-21, Luke has Peter quote Joel 2:28-32 on the day of Pentecost. The coming of the spirit is a sign of a “day of the Lord” type event.

Then a voice from the heavens spoke:

You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.

The first words echo a coronation Psalm that originally applied to Israelite kings:

I will declare the LORD’s decree:
He said to Me,
‘You are My Son;
today I have become Your Father’ (Psalm 2:7).

Mark omits, however, the adoptionist language of “today I have become your Father.” The identification of Jesus as the Son of God points back to Mark 1:1; the nature of Jesus’ “sonship” is the subject of Mark’s entire gospel.

The voice concluded with words that may recall the suffering servant of Isaiah (found in the same section of Isaiah with all the “good news” passages.)

This is My Servant;
I strengthen Him,
this is My Chosen One;
I delight in Him.
I have put My Spirit on Him;
He will bring justice to the nations (Isaiah 42:1).

Isaiah’s “delight” and “spirit” are present in Mark’s theophany, but not any reference to the geo-political act of bringing “justice to the nations.” (Here, and elsewhere, Mark has stripped every mundane political connotation from the language that he uses to describe Jesus’ earthly ministry).

The voice, then, identified Jesus not only as the son of God of Psalm 2, but as the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 42 et passim. Mark’s subsequent story of Jesus’ ministry tells of Jesus’ many of works of power. For Mark, however, it is Jesus’ suffering servanthood – and not his works of power – that most characterizes his sonship.

John’s baptism is the beginning of the good news of Jesus. It is “good news,” but John tells the people to repent. That sounds like “bad news to me.” How does repentance fit into the good news of the kingdom?

Imagine you are an unemployed high school dropout in a town where all the factories had shut down and all the businesses had closed up. A lot of people in America are in exactly that situation. What if I told you that a new factory with lots of jobs was being built? That would be good news. But what if I then told you that the jobs there were going to require a high school diploma? That would be bad news. But then, what if I said, “I’m here to prepare you to get your GED so that you can get a job when the factory opens.” That might be good news or not, depending on whether you decided to take me up on the offer.

John comes preparing the way for God’s coming kingdom. The kingdom of God is coming. That’s good news. But, John also comes with the message that even God’s people are sinners and only the righteous will enter the kingdom. That’s bad news. But, John says, “God has provided a way. Repent, and be baptized. Then you’ll be ready to take your place in the kingdom of God.” That may be good news or not, depending on whether you decided to take God up on the offer he was making through John.

Forgiveness of Sins

Why get washed up? The kingdom of God is at hand. And while that is potentially good news, it also might be bad news. Again, Luke and Matthew tell us more. The coming of the kingdom means the coming of God’s wrath. The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.

If you are invited to a dinner in someone’s home, it would be unthinkable to show up with muddy boots and spoil the carpet with the filth clinging to the soles of your feet. How much more presumptuous it would be to think we have the right to track the filth of our idolatry, greed, corruption, selfishness, deceitfulness and violence into the halls of God’s kingdom. Our filth does not affect just the appearance of the place. It is an insult to God and a threat to the well being our fellow guests.

The kingdom is at hand, but is its coming a threat or a promise? By the grace of God, it is a promise – a precious hope – to those who repent and believe the gospel.

Spirit Power

“I baptize you with water,” John said, “but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:8) Two verses later, we learn who “he” is. “As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove” (Mark 1:10). Jesus is the one who has the Spirit, and he is the one who will baptize believers in it. The gift of the Spirit, in fact, is what differentiates Christian baptism from John’s baptism in its effect. Acts 19:1-7 makes this clear. Why is this important?

Many of you have just made New Year’s resolutions. You want to spend less time watching television, more time reading books, more time in prayer, more time practicing the guitar, more time exercising, less time eating junk food, less time reading blogs. Oh, wait! That’s not you; that’s me.

But how many people actually keep their resolutions?

Self-improvement is big business. Even the bookshelves of our tiny PX are filled with self-help books of various sorts: get more organized, earn more money, become more attractive, have better sex, develop a better attitude.

But how many people actually make substantive, lasting change in their lives? Most self-help books just sit on a shelf. Most people only flirt with change.

Oprah Winfrey is running a series this week on AFN called, “Live Your Best Life.” I think she sort of borrowed the title from Joel Osteen. The promos for the program show Oprah saying that she is disappointed with herself for still struggling with her weight. Her experience is not unique. From alcoholism to anger control, people can say with Paul that “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:15).

And it’s important to note that the Christian faith is NOT just concerned about making our lives better; it’s concerned about making them holier. It’s nice to develop better work habits and to keep the kitchen clean. It’s essential to develop the habit of holiness and keep one’s heart clean as we stand before a holy and righteous God. We are even MORE stuck when it comes to the habits of the heart that really matter than we are in the everyday habits that we want to change.

So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? (Romans 7:21-24)

We begin our life in God by grace through faith – and we continue our life in him by grace through faith. Those who grit their teeth and simply “try harder” to live in accordance with God’s will fail. Sinfulness is hopelessly entangled in our present human existence. Paul writes to the Christians in Galatia:

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by human effort? Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain? (Galatians 3:1-4)

By itself, John’s baptism only solves part of the problem. The cross of Christ fulfills the promise of John’s baptism of repentance and forgiveness in a way that John could only begin to understand. But even if Christ’s death wipes the slate clean for us, how do we keep from falling into the same old ruts and habits of sin?

The “old self” is dead in principle – it died on the cross with Christ. In fact, Paul says that is part of what Christian baptism means.

Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. (Romans 6:3-7)

Like the old man in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, however, the “old self” tends to complain, “I’m not dead yet.” Our faith calls us to put another nail in its coffin at every opportunity. At Christ’s appearing, its destruction will be complete. Shall we mourn its death? Only for those in whom there is no “new self” to take its place. Otherwise, good riddance!

The “new self” is already present in believers. We get glimpses of it as the Holy Spirit works in us. Paul called the Holy Spirit the “down payment” on our future inheritance.

Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. (2 Corinthians 5:5)

This Holy Spirit enables believers to fulfill God’s righteous intent, something that our corrupted “old self” was never able to do.

For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the sinful nature [literally “flesh”, Greek: sarx ], God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful humanity to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in human flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:3-4)

Does that mean that “real” Christians are so spirit-controlled that they never sin again? No, at least not in any sense that matters. John Wesley believed the Bible teaches that Christians can become “perfect in love,” but even he did not believe that we can become so perfect as to not need the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

While Christians live in this world, we live as both sinners redeemed by grace and Spirit-empowered citizens of God’s kingdom. If you look at my life, some days you may see mostly the sinner. On other days, you may see a little more of the Spirit empowered believer. Mostly, you see some of both in everything I do.

Nevertheless, the “new self” created by the Holy Spirit is real. It is the Holy Spirit who makes us children of God and co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:14-17).

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

It is the Holy Spirit who gives eternal life (Romans 8:10-13).

But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you. Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.

Believers live in both this age and in the age to come. Their citizenship in this present evil age is all too obvious. Their citizenship in the age to come is a gift of the Holy Spirit and is received by faith. And, as the early Christians recognized, faith, Spirit and Christian baptism belong together. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit,” John said. To the promise of the kingdom and the promise of forgiveness, Christian baptism adds the promise of the Holy Spirit.

Christian Community

Many religious groups practice ritual immersion or cleansing with water. The Judaism of John’s era knew two broad types of ritual washings. Most commonly, there were ritual washings that cleansed one for ritual impurities that one accumulated in the course of normal life. Words like “unclean” and “impure” probably give us the wrong impression about these ritual impurities. Observant Jewish women, for example, bathe in a mikvah following their monthly cycle. That doesn’t imply that the normal functioning of their bodies is sinful. There were many quite ordinary activities and events that could render one in need of a ritual washing. This was simply a part of the rhythm of Jewish life in obedience to God’s commandments. (See Amy Jill Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew, Chapter 4, “Stereotyping Judaism” for more examples.)

The second form of ritual washing involved the baptism of converts to Judaism. Many people are aware that male converts to Judaism are circumcised in accordance with the decrees God gave Abraham. Not as many know that both male and female converts to Judaism require baptism. Chapter 18 of Oskar Skarsaune’s In the Shadow of the Temple has a very good description of the parallels between Jewish proselyte (“proselyte” means “to draw near”) baptism and the liturgical practice of baptism as it developed in the early church. Proselyte baptism was a one-time, non-repeatable prelude to inclusion in the covenant community of God (i.e, the Jewish people). It was said that those who were baptized into Judaism had been “born again.” Sound familiar?

John’s baptism is something of a third way. Like the ritual immersions of the Jewish people, it was an act of covenant faithfulness – or perhaps better – covenant renewal. John’s baptism, however, was concerned with true unrighteousness before God and not simple ritual impurity. Like proselyte baptism, it was a “once for all” act intended to prepare one for entrance into a community. Proselyte baptism prepared one to enter the covenant people of Israel; John’s baptism prepared one to become a citizen of an eschatologcial community – the kingdom of God – whose members would be pronounced innocent at the final judgment and who would enter the blessed life of the age to come.

John’s baptism challenged individuals and required a personal decision on the part of everyone who heard his message. You couldn’t be baptized for your neighbor’s sins; only for your own. And only you could decide to accept John’s message and the call of the kingdom.

But in other ways, John’s message was addressed not just to individuals but to the whole people of Israel. John was seeking to purify and renew the covenant community before its date with destiny.

And all the country of Judea was going out to him, and all the people of Jerusalem; (Mark 1:5)

The “all” of Mark 1:5 is not a statistical “all.” We know from the later story that not “all of Judea and Jerusalem accepted the message of John or the one who came after him. “All,” here, is also more the mere hyperbole. It is “all” in the sense of “whole.” Israel viewed as a single unity – a whole community of faith – is being purified and renewed. It is this redeemed and restored Israel that will stand righteous in God’s judgment and enter the kingdom of God. Individual members may be lost but the whole will be saved.

John’s baptism did effectively create a community within a community, even apart from the Christian community that grew out of it. Mark 2:18 and many other passages refer to “John’s disciples.” We know from texts such as Acts 19:1-7 that there were groups of people who still identified themselves as John’s disciples for quite some time after Jesus’ death .

So, when John baptized people in the Jordan, they didn’t just say “Thanks, John” and go on their merry way. Those whom John baptized became part of a community that saw itself as the true and redeemed people of Israel who were waiting for the coming Day of the Lord.

Likewise, when the church baptizes people into Christ, we don’t just baptize them and send them off on their own. When we baptize them into Christ, we are also baptizing them in the Christ’s body, the church.