God always prepares long beforehand for important events taking place in his world.
Think, for instance, about nature. The clouds gather before the rain comes. There is no ripe fruit until the seed has been planted and there have been months of growth and development. Human birth is the climax of nine months spent in the womb.
The Bible writers were convinced that the God who works in nature is also busy in history. In fact, the latter is where their main interest lies. In his Gospel, Mark records the greatest happenings in the history of the world. These thirteen verses set the scene for us and show us God's processes of preparation for these momentous events.
What a help it is to know the nature of a book before you start to read it! It means that you can approach it in the right frame of mind. Mark gives us this kind of help when he tells us in the very first verse what his book is. So what is it?
It is really a kind of preaching, for it presents the gospel (the good news) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Is it surprising then to find it followed by sixteen chapters of facts? This should not take us by surprise, for every sermon in the Acts of the Apostles majors on facts, all of them, as here, about Jesus or very closely related to him. The message needs to be applied to the hearers, of course, but unless you preach about Jesus and give facts about him you are not preaching the gospel at all in the New Testament understanding of the term.
In every sphere of human life, trust plays an important part. Even in politics, if people are to be challenged to put their faith in a person who is seeking election, they need to know something about that person, particularly his or her character and record. Who Jesus is and what Jesus has done form the strongest possible basis for the most important of all faith-commitments. Luke tells us in his preface that he wrote his Gospel for Theophilus, 'so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught' (Luke 1:4). There can be little doubt that this was Mark's aim too.
We are used to the term 'gospel' as applied to a book, but this kind of application of the term was not in use until the second Christian century, so that the word here refers to the contents of the book rather than to the book itself. It is not then simply a biography but a joyful message for the reader about Jesus. One person advising another about a possible friendship will sometimes say, 'Avoid Jack, he's bad news!' Mark is saying to us, 'Get to know Jesus, he's good news! In fact, he's God's own good news.'
Who does Mark show this Man to be?
He is 'Jesus', an individual man, bearing a name shared by many others in his country at this time. This is no surprise, for it was the Greek form of the name 'Joshua', borne in the Old Testament by the man who succeeded Moses and who was sent by God to lead his people from the wilderness into the land of promise. It was also the name of the high priest of Israel when Haggai and Zechariah were prophesying to God's people after their return from Exile (Hag. 2:2; Zech. 3:1). In fact, there is even another Jesus, 'Jesus called Justus', mentioned in the New Testament (Col. 4:11). Like so many Old Testament names, it has a wonderful meaning. In the case of Jesus of Nazareth, this points us to his special work, for it means 'the Lord is salvation'.
He is also 'Christ'. This word is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word translated 'Messiah', the person God promised to send to put things right in and for Israel. Many important servants of God had emerged in the long story of God's people. God told Abraham to leave his homeland in Mesopotamia and he led him to the promised land. Moses was used by God to bring the descendants of Abraham out of Egypt and Joshua led them into Canaan; Elijah stood for the true God at a time of great religious crisis. Isaiah transmitted from God to the people many great promises of future blessing through Christ. There were many more. Nobody, however, could be more significant than the promised Christ, and this is who Jesus was and is.
But he is much more. He is the Son of God. As the Christ he was special in what he did, but as God's Son he is unique in who he is. He is, in fact, not only human but divine. So we are not surprised to discover that what he did matters not only for Israel but for every human being. That is why the study of this Gospel of Mark is so important for us today, nearly 2,000 years after the events it records.
Some old manuscripts of the Gospel do not contain the words, 'the Son of God', in this first verse of the Gospel, although they are firmly fixed in the great majority of manuscripts, and they are accepted as genuine by the majority of textual scholars. They seem to be most apt, because this title for Jesus is such an important one in the book. It is particularly at specially important and significant points in the story of Jesus that Mark records its use. These include his baptism (11), transfiguration (9:7), trial (14:61) and crucifixion (15:39). These events bear eloquent testimony to the person and work of Jesus, and the use of this great title at such times shows that his divine status was very important for the work he came to do.
One surprise we have is that the term 'Son of Man' is not included in this verse, for it was a favourite self-designation of Jesus and occurs a number of times in the Gospel, and at most significant points in the story. It has been described as 'a veiled designation of Messiahship' (G.B. Stevens) and it also has some transcendent implications which could be thought of as contained within the expression, 'Son of God'. We will be thinking more fully about this great term later in the Gospel.
Students of literature note that the opening of a book is often of special importance in stressing the book's main purposes and showing the reader what the writer cares about most. For this reason, in reading Mark's Gospel, we must never forget this great opening statement. In every event recorded in the Gospel, Jesus was being revealed as the Christ, the Son of God and this revelation was very special good news from God.
Jesus Christ came into the world after many preparatory centuries. God had been guiding his people Israel, and many passages in the Old Testament—both predictions and also events, institutions and persons which prefigured in some way and so anticipated the coming Christ—were fulfilled in Jesus. Mark quotes two of these passages in verses 2 and 3, although, as was the custom among the Jews at that time, he referred by name to the more important prophet only. In this case it was Isaiah, even though the quotation from Malachi stands first on his page. Another example of this kind of thing may be found in Matthew 27:9, 10.
Mark uses the expression, 'it is written', which was a technical term for the New Testament writers and is used by them only when they quote from the Old Testament Scriptures. It might be translated, 'it stands written', for it implies not only that something was written in the Old Testament years ago but also that it confronts the living reader as a word from God, with all its power to encourage or challenge.
These Old Testament passages might seem to be about John the Baptist, and of course they are, but only as the forerunner of Jesus Christ, to prepare his way. This means that they are at least indirect witnesses to Jesus himself.
Mark changes the wording of Malachi 3:1, which refers to God, so that it relates to Jesus, 'me' becoming 'you' and 'my way' becoming 'your way'. This too was recognised practice at the time, and it was really a kind of shorthand method of combining a quotation with its interpretation. There is not really a problem here, because it was done simply for convenience and not as an attempt to convince the unconvinced. The first readers of Mark's Gospel were sure already of the deity of Jesus.
This was true for the people of the New Testament as a whole. For instance, in Hebrews 1, the writer takes some Old Testament Scriptures about God and applies them to Jesus, without even feeling it necessary to argue for this way of handling them. One example of this is his quotation of Psalm 102:25-27 in Hebrews 1:10-12.
The quotation from Isaiah 40:3 is interesting, because that chapter of Isaiah soon mentions good news. Its ninth verse reads, 'You who bring good tidings to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, "Here is your God!" ' Roman Christians would know the Book of Isaiah in the Greek Septuagint version, in fact some of them (Jews and also Gentiles who had attended a Jewish synagogue) would have known it long before they became Christians. The Greek word for 'good tidings' in this verse from Isaiah is closely connected with the word translated 'gospel' in Mark's first verse.
'Prepare the way for the Lord' (Isa. 40:3); 'here is your God!' (Isa. 40:9)—how significant such language is! We cannot set any limits to the greatness of Jesus.
In the first verse of his Gospel, Mark uses the word 'beginning'. He seems to be saying that the good news began with John the Baptist. Why? Because John kept pointing to Jesus, who was himself the good news. Apart from Jesus, his whole ministry is without meaning.
Simon Peter's brother, Andrew, had been a follower of John the Baptist, as their friend John the apostle tells us (John 1:40-42). Peter was one of his followers too, as we can infer from what he says in Acts 1:15, 21, 22. Both in that passage and in his later sermon to Cornelius and his friends (Acts 10:37), Peter begins the gospel story with John the Baptist. So we can well imagine Peter talking to Mark and saying to him, 'Start with John the Baptist! That was the real beginning for those of us who became disciples of Jesus.'
It has been interestingly suggested that the word 'beginning' here is used for another reason, and that is that it echoes the first verse of the Bible. Here is Jesus, a whole new beginning to the story of this world. There can be no doubt that in the first verse of John's Gospel Genesis 1:1 is in the mind of the author, for the verses that follow it concern the work of Jesus in creation. We cannot be quite so sure, however, about Mark's intentions. Maybe he did have this in mind—it would have been very appropriate—but we cannot be certain.
John the Baptist, although a character found in the New Testament rather than the Old, was really the last of the old prophets (Matt. 11:13), for, like the others, his task was to prepare for the coming of Jesus. If Jesus is God's Seed, Israel was the soil, and pretty hard soil it was at this time. John's task was to break up the soil, so he spoke to the people about their sins, telling them to forsake them and to be baptized in water. If they were baptized it showed they were in earnest, and that they were looking to God to cleanse away their sins. Mark shows that John's ministry created quite a stir, affecting both Jerusalem and the area round about it.
The word translated 'baptising' here normally meant immersing in water; often, but not always, this was for purposes of cleansing. It is well known, of course, that there has been much debate as to whether other modes of using water, such as pouring or sprinkling, were ever used for baptisms in New Testament times and whether such methods may be legitimately employed in the work of the church today.
Great men and women expect their representatives to dress the part. An ambassador who is down at heel will give the impression he represents a king or president of little consequence. We are somewhat surprised then to see how basic John's clothing was. Surprising as it may seem, however, John's dress did actually represent what he was. It had symbolic significance. It was recognized attire for a prophet (Zech. 13:4). It was especially appropriate for a man who was in many ways the successor of Elijah, who, like John, challenged a king's conduct (Mark 6:17-20; 1 Kings 21:17-26) and called the people to repentance. He too had been clothed in this way; in fact this garb was so characteristic of him that the king was able immediately to recognise him from a report given to him by one of his men (2 Kings 1:8).
What about his food? Like his clothing, it was quite basic. He could find locusts and wild honey in the countryside, and this perhaps meant he could concentrate on the special work God had commissioned him to do without the need to engage in cultivation or to rely much on others to supply his daily needs.
His message about Jesus emphasized how great he was. John felt unworthy even to do the lowly task of a servant for him and so to remove his sandals. In view of this, it is all the more moving to find the apostle John in his Gospel recording an event in which Jesus himself went well beyond the unloosing of the sandals of his disciples by personally washing their feet (John 13).
John contrasted the baptism to which he called people, a baptism in water, with that of Jesus, who would baptize with the Holy Spirit. His words at this time were however intended not only to contrast the baptisms but even more the baptizers. This is made clear to us by Mark, because the way he wrote verse 8, as an examination of the Greek text reveals, places emphasis on the words, 'I' and 'he'. He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit is, without doubt, greater than he who baptizes in water, not only of course because the Holy Spirit is a Person but also because He is God.
Here the whole work of Jesus in renewing and empowering the inner being of his people is briefly stated and promised, for Holy Spirit baptism is essentially inward and spiritual. This promise that came through John the Baptist is mentioned again, and by Jesus himself, shortly before the Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit (Acts 1:5).
John the Baptist's comment is also a most important reminder that we should never think of the Spirit's work in such a way as to detach it from Christ's, for they are bound together in God's great and gracious saving initiative. The Spirit's work is a consequence of Christ's. This saves us from making the potentially disastrous error of mistaking 'spiritual' experiences which are not Christ-related and Christ-centred for genuine experiences of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus himself is introduced in verse 9. Here is another comparison with the Gospel of John. John begins his Gospel by reference to the pre-incarnate Word of God and he does not actually identify him as Jesus until verse 17. This means that the reader is given a profound context for understanding who Jesus is before he is himself introduced. Mark does something similar, showing Jesus as the fulfilment of prophecy and as a very great Person. Of course, he does make reference to him in verse 1, but this is somewhat of a general heading.
The New Testament contains four Gospels. Matthew and Luke both tell the story of his birth, Luke adds some facts about his boyhood, while John starts with his life and work with the Father long before he came into the world. It is perhaps surprising that Mark does not begin his story with the birth of Jesus. Instead he starts with his adult life. This is because he wants to stress his special work, which commenced at his baptism, and especially the great events at the climax of his life. As we shall see, his emphasis on the cross is very strong indeed. It is helpful, however, for us to keep in mind that there were thirty silent years of preparation before the events recorded here.
His baptism brought that process of preparation to a climax. Others were baptized because they were sinners. In view of what Mark has just told us about Jesus in verse 8, then, it is most surprising to find him coming for baptism. Matthew records John the Baptist's protest at the thought of administering it to him (Matt. 3:14). Mark, with the strong dramatic sense he undoubtedly had, held the name of Jesus back until the last possible point in his sentence, a feature we discover also in many passages in the Epistle to the Hebrews. This sort of thing is not always easy to bring out in a natural fashion in English translation, but we could render verse 9 somewhat in this way: 'And it happened at that time that there came Someone (that is, Jesus) from Nazareth of Galilee and he was baptized....' How astonishing and how unexpected!
Why then was he baptized? We can see how fitting it was when we find Jesus saying that in this (as well as in all else he did, of course) he was to fulfil God's righteous purpose (Matt. 3:15). An important saying of his, later in the Gospel story, shows clearly that he came to die in the place of sinners (10:45). So, because he was going to bear their sins, he shared the baptism which in their case was an acknowledgement of their sins. His baptism in water foreshadowed the awful baptism of blood which he experienced at Calvary (Luke 12:50).
Some early heretics, known to historians as the Modalists, maintained that the terms Father, Son and Holy Spirit as used in the New Testament are simply different ways of describing the one true God, each appropriate only at certain periods in the Biblical history. In Old Testament times, they said, he was the Father; then, from Bethlehem to the Ascension he was the Son; and now since Pentecost he is the Holy Spirit. In becoming the Son, he ceased to be the Father, and in becoming the Holy Spirit he ceased to be the Son.
This rather naive outlook was an attempt to relate the New Testament evidence and language about Jesus Christ and about the Holy Spirit to the doctrine of God's unity, but it does not square with the Biblical facts. For instance, here at the baptism of Jesus the three Holy Persons participated in one event, so showing that their existence is simultaneous and not simply successive.
Like Matthew, Mark concentrates on what the events connected with the baptism meant to Jesus himself. Three amazing things happened.
First of all, Jesus 'saw heaven being torn open' (NIV). Mark uses the Greek verb he employs here once more in his gospel, in 15:38, where he tells us that when Jesus died for sinners the great veil in the temple, symbolizing the barrier between God and human beings, was rent asunder. Here just before his ministry opens Jesus is being assured that there is no barrier between earth and heaven for him. So, when he died on the cross, he was dealing with a barrier which existed for others but not for himself.
Then, secondly, the Spirit descended on him like a dove. The dove is a symbol of purity, and is so used in Song of Songs 6:9, in the words, 'my dove, my perfect one.' The symbolic use of this bird in this way is due not only to its colour but also to its concern to keep clean. When Noah wanted to know if the waters of the flood had dried up, he sent out a dove from the ark. He knew it would stay out only if it found a dry, clean place for its feet (Gen. 8:6-12). The Spirit of God was of course active in Israel in earlier times, as many passages in the Old Testament show us, but here at last, like Noah's dove, he had found a permanent resting-place. He, the Holy Spirit, had found God's holy Man.
The final event puts the holiness of Jesus beyond doubt. Here we move from visible symbols to words and, in them, to an unambiguous statement: 'You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.' God identified Jesus as his beloved Son. We must never forget that his love for Jesus did not take the form of grace, as it does for us who are sinners. Here was a wholly merited favour, for all that he had been and said and done, including his baptism, had expressed his own love, answering his Father's love for him, and his consequent obedience to the Father. In Old Testament days, too, God had spoken audibly, for his voice was heard on Mount Sinai. Then it was to give his requirements; here it is to express his deepest approval and delight.
This is not all though. The words, 'You are my Son', come from a great messianic psalm (Ps. 2:7). This is in fact the key psalm in the messianic teaching of the whole Book of Psalms, because, coming near the start of that book, it alerts the reader to look for the messianic theme as he reads through its pages. The Lord's delight in his Servant on whom he puts his Spirit is found in Isaiah 42:1, which again is a scene-setting passage, for it begins a great series of Servant passages in Isaiah's prophecy that comes to its profoundly moving climax in the picture of atoning suffering given in Isaiah 53. This intensifies the awareness we have already been given in verses 1 to 3 that the later chapters of Isaiah's book are important for understanding who Jesus was and what he came to do.
As we can tell from contemporary and near-contemporary Jewish documents, many in Israel saw no real connection between the Messiah and the Servant. Ultimately, of course, it is God's prerogative to interpret his own Word, and here his voice, speaking from heaven, unites these two Old Testament figures in one great New Testament reality—Jesus himself. He was God's Christ, but he would endure profound suffering in the course of his service to his Father.
When God is pleased, Satan is displeased, for his designs are the exact opposite of those that are in the mind and heart of God. He hates to see anybody dedicating himself or herself to the will of God.
In the case of Jesus, of course, this Satanic hatred was particularly intense, for his work would mean the binding of Satan himself, as our Lord was soon to declare (Mark 3:23-27). So the devil tempted him in order to try to deflect him from the pathway of God's will. Mark records the simple fact of his temptation, while Matthew and Luke spell this out for us in more detail (Matt. 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13).
Mark tells us that it was the Spirit who sent Jesus out into the desert (v. 12). The verb used suggests that Jesus was aware of a strong inward constraint and, because this constraint came from the Spirit of God, this in turn shows that God had a special purpose in the fact that he faced Satanic temptation and overcame it. God does not tempt us, for this is alien to his holy nature (James 1:13-15), but he does not abdicate his sovereignty when evil is on the rampage. The temptations that Satan designs to overcome us God uses to strengthen us, as we face them in the power of his Spirit. What Satan intended as temptation for Jesus, God intended as testing. Satan's motive was entirely evil and intended to thwart God's purpose, but all he actually accomplished was to show how deeply committed Christ was to the will of his Father! In 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, Paul shows his readers how, in his own life, God had used an act of Satan to show him his weakness and therefore to cause him to look to God for strength. So God's sovereignty is at work in such a way that even the evil acts of the devil may be so overruled by God as to serve his purposes. The cross is the supreme example of this.
It is possible that the forty days of his temptation, although of course quite literal, also have some symbolic significance. It was for forty years that the people of Israel were tempted in the desert on their way from Egypt to Canaan, and of course, they failed miserably and, as a result, a whole generation was banned from entering the Promised Land. Like Israel too the very first human beings, Adam and Eve, had been tempted and failed, but Jesus resisted temptation and triumphed over Satan.
Does the reference to wild animals suggest that Jesus is the new Adam, living among the beasts as Adam did in the garden? Or does it perhaps suggest more than this, the fact of his dominion over the animal creation, a dominion given at first to human beings but now only imperfectly exercised (Gen. 1:27ff; Heb. 2:8)? Certainly passages in the Book of Isaiah show us the wild beasts living together in harmony in the coming reign of the Messiah (Isa. 11:1-9; 65:25), which, incidentally, is not easy to interpret unless we think of his kingdom as having some earthly expression after he comes in his Second Advent. It is of course possible that the reference here in Mark is simply a reminder of the hazards of desert life.
Angels attended him during this period. Does this mean he had resources in facing his temptations which are not available to us in ours? Not at all! After all, the Epistle to the Hebrews rather enigmatically tells us that angels have been sent forth to minister to those destined to inherit salvation (Heb. 1:14), just as they ministered to him, salvation's Author. Passages like Matthew 18:10, 24:31 and Luke 16:22 may suggest the nature of their ministry to God's people.
We may find ourselves here reminded of Psalm 91. This is a psalm about God's protection of the godly man, and in it the angels are on hand to rescue him (vv. 11, 12). The wild beasts are there too in the psalm (v. 13). In fact, there is even language there that reminds us of Satan, in the reference to the serpent. In view of this, it should not surprise us that Satan, in quoting verses 11 and 12 (Luke 4:10, 11), did not go on to verse 13. He probably knows some psychology! He did not want to remind Jesus of the promise, 'You will tread upon... the serpent'. Remember what God said to the serpent in the garden of Eden: 'I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel' (Gen. 3:15).
The temptations of Jesus were real and intense. They show us with great clarity that the idea that we have to yield to temptation before we can help others is simply a lie of the devil. It is just not true, for instance, that we have to experience drunkenness ourselves before we can help people with a drink problem. If two men of equal physical power were to be pushed by somebody else, and one gave in after a few seconds while the other held on for the duration of the assault, which of them more fully experienced the force of the push? Jesus experienced the full force of Satan, but he did not yield. What help he can give us! This is spelled out for us in Hebrews 4:14-16.
These verses set the scene of the ministry of Jesus for us and careful study of them prepares us for what is to come. This suggests that for Mark, what he gives us here is important not only in its own right but also because of its introductory character, conditioning the reader to look for particular themes as he moves into the remainder of Mark's book.
Here we see that the book is to be read as good news. It is therefore a kind of preaching. We discover in fact that not only is the book good news about Jesus when taken as a whole but that so many of its events represent elements in the gospel of God's grace which the New Testament proclaims. Here people are challenged and blessed by contact with Jesus, some of them healed from their diseases (and what greater disease is there than sin?) while others are liberated from evil powers that have taken possession of them. All these point us towards aspects of God's salvation in Christ. Here too are miracles that feature the impact of Jesus on the physical world, for instance his miraculous feedings of multitudes and his ability to walk on water. This feature points suggestively in the direction of the supreme manifestation of his power over the physical world in his resurrection from the dead.
Then there is the importance of the Old Testament, viewed as prophetic and anticipatory of Christ, and brought to its final stage in the ministry of John the Baptist who, although belonging to the New Testament, was really, as we have seen, the last in the great line of prophets under the Old Covenant. There is so much in the subsequent story that reminds us of the connection between Christ and the Old Testament.
Here too we see the importance of repentance. The gospel of Christ challenges the whole outlook and lifestyle of the world, even of the religious world, and requires a complete reorientation in the life of the man or woman to whom it is presented. Here is no mere 'easy believism', and the disciples were certainly to discover this when he challenged them to take up the cross and follow him (8:34).
Of course, the chief emphasis of the book right from the beginning is on Jesus himself, the Christ, the Son of God, the One who would baptise with the Holy Spirit. In the preached gospel of Christ, people are called to put their trust in him, and for that trust to be meaningful there must be teaching that focuses on him. This is what the Gospel does from its beginning to its end. The supreme worthiness of Jesus is already made clear to us in these verses. Not only so, but in the temptation by Satan, the theme of opposition to him is introduced, that opposition which would come to its climax in the story of the cross.
Jesus as the Son of God and his cross as God's great saving act. These are the themes of the preached gospel and of Mark's written Gospel too.