Thought for the day
In all our lives, there are “before and after” moments, whatever they might be (parenthood, marriage, career etc.). In my life as a disciple, can I name any particular “before and after” moments? This probably won’t include baptism, because mostly we were just babies. But later, what happened to bring faith alive and to help me grow up as a believer? Such reflection may help us grasp the significance of John’s baptism for Jesus himself. For him, it was a true “before and after” event, sustained by the ringing affirmation, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Father, we are all your beloved sons and daughters; we dare to say that with us too you are well pleased. Help us embrace our new reality by letting ourselves be loved by you. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Mark 1:7 John proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Mark 1:9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
That John the Baptist baptised Jesus is historically certain. As the New Testament unfolds, there is increasing unease with this fact, revealed in the editorial strategies of Matthew, Luke and John. Such unease arose, in part, from the continued existence of followers of John the Baptist right up to the end of the first century. When we link this fact with the other fact, namely, that the timing of Jesus’ own ministry is triggered by the arrest of John the Baptist, then it is safe to conclude that Jesus was a follower of John the Baptist and did not go into the desert just to be immersed by him. The metaphorical relatedness of the two figures is intriguingly explored by Luke in his first two chapters.
It is important to establish who was John the Baptist. In summary, a prophetic figure, in the mould of the iconic prophet Elijah; he withdrew from the Temple cult into the desert because of the compromised nature of the priesthood; he preached the coming kingdom of God, an experience of judgement; historically, he may or may not have recognised Jesus. (The stories in John 1 are driven by theology not by history.) As a follower, Jesus echoed his mentor’s teaching.
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 3:1–2)
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 4:17)
The similarity is evident. However, whereas John preached judgement and conversion, Jesus preached the good news and conversion. Finally, Mark 1:8, as its stands, reflects Christian theology. It is likely that John originally used a comparison of water and fire, as follows: I have baptised you with water; but he will baptise you with fire.” (Mark 1:8)
Kind of writing
The excerpt in the lectionary takes in two scenes. The first is the presentation of John the Baptist (1:2-8) and the second is the prophetic legitimation of Jesus (1:9-12). In continuity with the biblical tradition, this legitimation is presented as a theophany, with visual and acoustic symbolism. Note that only Jesus sees and hears the phenomena—and, significantly, the reader. The reader attends to the rest of the story differently on account of this privileged knowledge about the identity of Jesus.
Old Testament background
Then he sent out the dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground; but the dove found no place to set its foot, and it returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth. So he put out his hand and took it and brought it into the ark with him. He waited another seven days, and again he sent out the dove from the ark; and the dove came back to him in the evening, and there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf; so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. Then he waited another seven days, and sent out the dove; and it did not return to him any more. (Genesis 8:8–12)
Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. (Malalachi 4:5)
I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you. (Psalm 2:7)
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. (Isaiah 42:1)
He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” (Genesis 22:2)
New Testament foreground
(a) John the Baptist turns up a few more times in Mark.
Arrest and death (6:14-29); comparison with Jesus (6:14-15; 8:28); authority of John (11:27-33). There is a fuller picture in Matthew and Luke.
(b) Related events in Jesus’ life:
Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 9:6–8)
Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mark 15:39)
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3–4)
For all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female–for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:27–29)
Verse 7 “Proclaimed” (whence kerygma) is a very important word in the New Testament, especially in Paul. Mark uses it proportionately much more frequently: Matthew (9); Mark (14); Luke (9); John (0); Acts (8). In Christian terms, it implies effective proclamation, especially in the ministry of Jesus himself and in the proclamation of Paul. Historically, John the Baptist did look forward to another figure, but there is some uncertainty as to whom (the messiah? God? a prophet? an angel? etc.). That John was unworthy to undertake the most menial task of a slave speaks for itself. Footwear remains the image in Matthew, although there John is not worthy to carry his sandals. Even Mark feels the need to emphasise the inferiority of John to Jesus.
Verse 8 Immersion is common in all religions and in Judaism. The distinctive feature of John’s immersion was that it was once off and that it expressed a commitment to his vision and the consequent conversion of heart and life. (Needless to mention, this immersion is to be distinguished from the later Christian baptism.) The original word pair was probably water and fire (see Mt 3:11-12), a more natural contrast and a fitting one for the rather ferocious Baptist. Later Christian experience of Spirit, symbolised by fire, has facilitated the editorial adjustment.
Verse 9 The bare facts are coolly reported here. Clearly, this was a highly significant choice for Jesus and the next few verses interpret the event. Mark has no discussion like that in Matthew, because in this Gospel Jesus identifies with sinners – cf. Isaiah 6:5; 53:12. Isaiah continues to be the influence in the next verses: God’s spirit rest upon the prophet (Isaiah 61:1), he is the servant/son (Is ahah 42:1) and the ideal Davidic ruler (Isaiah 11:1-3).
Verse 10 The heavens torn apart: that is, an ecstatic, transcendent experience. It had been generally conceded by then that from the point of view of prophecy and revelation, the heavens were shut. The most one could hope for was an echo of God’s voice (the bat qol, literally, the daughter of a voice). The sense of vocation and anointing, undoubtedly historical, is expressed symbolically through the Spirit descending. Was it the Spirit like a dove descending? Or was it, the Spirit descending like a dove? The iconographic tradition privileges the literal, but the metaphorical may be more accurate. Just as the dove signalled the end of the disaster of the flood, here the Spirit, descending on Jesus as he rises from the flood, signals the end of that silence of the closed heavens. The driving force of this Spirit is immediately evident in v.12. The (Holy) Spirit is mentioned a few times in Mark. Just now on the lips of John the Baptist (v. 8); the driver into the desert (1:12); the sin against the Holy Spirit (3:9); the inspiration of Scripture (12:36); the giver of the right words in times of persecution (13:11).
Verse 11 A voice from heaven resembles Daniel 4:31, an apocalyptic book. The first words are a citation from Psalm 2:7 (perhaps also Isaiah 41:8 above), an important source for early Christological reflection (Acts 13:33; Hebrews 1:5; 5:5). The force of “beloved” is often “pertaining to one who is the only one of his or her class, but at the same time is particularly loved and cherished.” There is a disturbing echo of Genesis 22:2, where Abraham is commanded to sacrifice his beloved son. “Delights” is limited to here in Mark. The link with the transfiguration is intentional: Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 9:7)
Pointers for prayer
1. John gives an example of humility as a person confident in his own role but not seeking to claim to be more than he is. He is able to acknowledge that Jesus is greater. There is a freedom in being able to acknowledge the gifts of others without losing a sense of one’s own giftedness. Recall times when you were able to do this.
2. The baptism of Jesus was an extraordinary religious experience for him. Something happened that was a major step forward for Jesus in coming to know that he was the beloved Son of God. We all have events in our lives that are milestones along the road of discovering who we are. What have been these milestones for you?
3. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Bring to mind memories of experiences in which you knew you were the beloved (of God or of another person) and that the one who loved you was well pleased. Bring these experiences to mind with gratitude, knowing that the only proper response to love received is thankfulness. Perhaps you have also given that experience to another.
God of salvation, in the river Jordan you bathed your Son Jesus in glory and revealed him as your obedient servant.
In spirit and in power rend the heavens and come down to us. Strengthen us to acknowledge your Christ, that we who are reborn in his likeness may we walk with him in newness of life.
Grant this through Jesus Christ, your Word made flesh, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, in the splendour of eternal light, God for ever and ever. Amen.