The Baptism of the Suffering Servant

“I have baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. As soon as He came up out of the water, He saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending to Him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: You are My beloved Son; I take delight in You (Mark 1:8-11 HCSB)

Mark 1:4-11

John the Prophet baptized Jesus. Mark states this fact unambiguously. Luke, on the other hand, avoids directly describing John’s role in Jesus’ baptism, while the Gospel of John doesn’t refer to the baptism of Jesus at all. Mark does not attempt to explain Jesus’ baptism (as does Matthew), but simply reports it. Mark’s sparse language highlights his focus in reporting the story: the ministry of Jesus surpasses John’s in the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus bears God’ spirit, and he bestows it.

Mark’s short pericope contains several Biblical allusions. The heavens are “torn open” in a phrase reminiscent of the Isaiah’s apocalyptic vision, “If only You would tear the heavens open and come down” (Isaiah 64:1).

The voice from heaven begins by echoing 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 HCSB). 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 Jesus’ “sonship” is the subject of Mark’s entire gospel.

The voice from heaven concludes by recalling the suffering servant of Isaiah, “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 HCSB). Isaiah’s “delight” and “spirit” are present in heaven’s declaration, but not any reference to the geo-politcial act of bringing “justice to the nations.” (Here, and elsewhere, Mark has stripped every mundane political conntation from the language that he uses to describe Jesus’ earthly ministry).

The voice, then, identifies 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.