Our scripture passage this week is Mark 1:9-11, the baptism of Jesus. Most of our “memory” of Jesus’ baptism is a combination and harmonization of all four gospel accounts. When we look at Mark’s account by itself, we are struck with its brevity, but also with its directness and the force of its conclusion. Though some well known critical scholars question whether this event ever occurred, its very inclusion speaks highly of its historicity. It would have been an embarrassment for the early Christians to explain why the son of God was baptized by a Jewish prophet in a ceremony that indicated conversion or repentance from sin! Yet, all the Gospel writers make it a centerpiece of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
Mark gives us no information about Jesus’ family or ancestors because his purpose to identify Jesus as the Son of God overrides this sort of detail. Mark does tell us that Jesus is from Nazareth in Galilee. Nazareth is such a small town that it is not mentioned in the Old Testament or rabbinic literature. Even today it is a small place. Scholars estimate that Nazareth may have had a population of around 700. But this does not mean Jesus grew up isolated or in a cultural backwater. Nazareth was only seven miles from Sepphoris, a large Roman town of as many as 30,000 people. It is highly likely that Jesus may have worked in the city at some time.
Galilee itself was an area that had been controlled by the Assyrians in the later Old testament era. It was known as the home of many gentile inhabitants and was “multi-cultural” for first century Palestine. Greek, Roman and Jewish language, culture and ideas were all part of Jesus’ world. During Jesus’ lifetime, Galilee was ruled by Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great. The teachings of Jesus show that he was at home and highly observant of the politics, culture and ordinary life of Galilee. While all Christians join in affirming that Jesus was a visitor to our world from His Father’s Heaven, we also take comfort in knowing that Jesus had a hometown, roots and “place.” It is good to know that he was also “at home” in our world.
Time is a hard matter to trace in Mark’s Gospel. He hits the ground running and is more concerned with “what’s next” than with “when.” This contrasts with Luke, who carefully anchors many events into the historical and political figures of the day. As to when Jesus’ was baptized, it is simply “at that time” or NASB “And it came about in those days.” We can assume that this is during the ministry of John the Baptist. As I have mentioned earlier, it is easy to fit an extended time of contact between John and Jesus into what the Gospels tell us, though it is not certain. I find it unlikely that this was the first time John had met Jesus or vice versa.
Baptism is not a secret ritual and Jesus certainly publicly presented himself to John. What was going through the mind of those two men has been a fascination for Christians ever since. Why was Jesus baptized? Those who see here a denial of the Christian doctrine of the sinlessness of Christ are being shallow. The message and ministry of John are incomplete without the one who would come after, the bridegroom for whom the friend is only the announcer. What other way was there for Jesus to be presented into the plan and ministry of John? There is also a picture here of the savior of sinners standing in the place of sinners, a preview of the cross that is to come. Most likely, this was simply the place where the Father directed Jesus to go, the place where he would receive the spiritual release for his ministry.
The later Gospels tell us that Jesus had to explain to John the importance of carrying through with this ritual, one that places Christ in a position of humility and service. One of the answers Jesus gives is that it is necessary to “fulfill all righteousness.” The heart of Jesus is to submit to the heavenly Father in all things. Those coming out of the waters were proclaiming their ultimate allegiance to the Kingdom and their abandonment of everything to prepare for it. Jesus comes to the waters abandoning family and reputation, completely surrendered to the will of God, while he does not need cleansing, obedience requires him to publicly lead the way that will be the way of his disciples.
Jesus has many admirers today who may imagine they are disciples. Baptism, and the public identification with the purposes of God, was the way chosen by Jesus for himself and his followers. How do we imagine ourselves followers of Jesus if we cannot go the way that Jesus himself followed? While many may say they are “followers” but not “joiners,” you cannot be a Kingdom person and a secret disciple.
The language of the baptism would indicate immersion, which the word baptizo most closely resembles. The mode of baptism is relatively unimportant, but for those who want to follow Jesus there is some real significance in “coming up out of the water.” The NIV misses the language of verse 10 by dropping “immediately,” which as we will see, is a favorite Marcan device. (Sometimes the NIV’s desire for dynamic equivalence takes a wrong turn!) Mark uses this phrase like any other writer uses his favorite word, but it is more than a habit, it is a primary device for tone and pace in the narrative. There is a rush, an immediacy to Mark that is not in the other Gospels. Someone has said that Mark has a movie director’s sense of pace and he pushes his characters at a ruthless pace! But there is something to be said for this; Mark wants his readers to be caught up in the action. He doesn’t linger often and wants his audience to follow Jesus literally, as Jesus moves immediately from event to event.
Water was frequently associated with end-time cleansing and renewal. Passages such as Isaiah 44:3, Ezekiel 36:25ff, Joel 2:28ff reminded the Jewish people that the Spirit of the Lord would cleanse and annoint at the time of his Kingdom’s arrival. Jesus baptism is the beginning of the fulfillment of these prophecies.
The tearing of the heavens is a fascinating motif. It is clearly an end-times sign, but it is also the sign of the end of God’s silence and the beginning of His speaking through Jesus. (See Isaiah 64:1) God is removing barriers and coming down among men in Jesus. (The same language is used again in 15:38 about the tearing of the temple veil.) We should expect the unexpected. And in this case, the unexpected is the descent of the Holy Spirit and the voice from heaven.
The comparison of the Holy Spirit to a dove never occurs in the Old Testament or in Rabbinic literature. Those who say this may hearken back to Noah and a symbol for a new world may be right. Probably this is purely descriptive and points to some visible aspect of the Spirit’s coming upon Jesus. (Though those who actually picture a bird landing on Jesus have missed the point!) Isaiah 61:1 says that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon the messiah to anoint him for ministry. This is undoubtedly the experience Jesus has at his baptism. The Spirit now anoints him for his mission and the work of the Kingdom. (Those who say Jesus had no crucial experiences of this type are going against the clear direction of this entire passage.)
The voice from heaven is a feature of later Jewish literature. Here God brings two (or possibly three) Old Testament passages together to identify His Son. Psalm 2:7 speaks of the royal Son, Isaiah 42:1 about the suffering servant who pleases God and Genesis 22:2 about the beloved Son who is offered. All these Old Testament motifs surround Jesus at this point. Mark is also identifying Jesus to his readers, but his identity is still a secret to all others. This is the beginning of Mark’s ironic use of secrecy. The reader will know Jesus identity, but it will be an unfolding secret to all others. God himself proclaims that this is his son. It is not a matter of human opinion. The scriptures have spoken of him long before he came into the world. Now Father, Son and Holy Spirit come together to inaugurate the Kingdom of God that comes in Jesus.
Jesus baptism is a beautiful picture to contemplate. It is a crucial experience in Jesus’ own life, a break with what has gone before and leap into the new. He will be directed by the Spirit from here to the cross. The Baptism is also a model for all of us to follow. It is the public announcement of our heart’s intentions. It is a picture in water of a spiritual reality. In the water with Jesus, the Spirit comes to us as well, to cleanse and to anoint for ministry. The Father says to each of us that we are his beloved sons and daughters. And where to from here? To the desert of temptation and testing!
1. How would you answer a skeptic who says Jesus never existed? How could the baptism of Jesus be part of that response?
2. What if Jesus had never been baptized? Would it have made any difference?
3. Some Christians say baptism is not important because it is simply an outward ritual. How would you respond?
4. If you were to translate Jesus’ hometown into similar modern geography, where might he live?
5. Have you ever had a crucial spiritual experience where you felt the presence of God revealing himself and helping you to understand yourself? What was it?
6. Look up the Old Testament passages referred to at Jesus’ Baptism. How does each one apply to Jesus? Do any of them apply to those of us who are Christians?
7. How does the tearing of the heavens relate to the tearing of the veil in Mark 15?
8. What does it mean to you that God himself proclaims who Jesus is?
9. How does this scene relate to the idea of the Trinity?
10. What special responsibilities fall on those who know who Jesus is in a world that doesn’t?
11. Before a person goes into ministry, many churches have a laying on of hands or even an anointing service. What is the value of this kind of experience?