Mark's Gospel is one of action. The storyline follows Jesus as he travels dusty roads and crosses stormy seas, weaving in and out of towns and villages as he makes his way from Galilee in the north (chapters 1–9) to Judea and Jerusalem in the south (chapters 10–16). Along the way we see Jesus preaching, leading a group of disciples, performing miracles, engaging in dialogue with people, defending his actions and beliefs in open debate, and finally being put on trial and crucified.49 More than one-third of Mark's Gospel is devoted to the last week of Jesus' life (chapters 11–16), placing major emphasis on the events surrounding the crucifixion.
The key verse in Mark is: "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45, NASB). Broadly speaking, we see that:
Jesus the Servant is presented (1:1 - 2:12)
Jesus the Servant is opposed (2:13 - 8:26)
Jesus the Servant instructs (8:27 - 10:52)
Jesus the Servant is rejected (11:1 - 15:47)
Jesus the Servant is resurrected (16:1-20)50
John the Baptist Prepares the Way 1 This is the Good News about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. It began 2 just as the prophet Isaiah had written:
"Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
and he will prepare your way.
3 He is a voice shouting in the wilderness,
'Prepare the way for the Lord's coming!
Clear the road for him!"
4 This messenger was John the Baptist. He was in the wilderness and preached that people should be baptized to show that they had repented of their sins and turned to God to be forgiven. 5 All of Judea, including all the people of Jerusalem, went out to see and hear John. And when they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River. 6 His clothes were woven from coarse camel hair, and he wore a leather belt around his waist. For food he ate locusts and wild honey.
7 John announced: "Someone is coming soon who is greater than I am - so much greater that I'm not even worthy to stoop down like a slave and untie the straps of his sandals. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit!" The Baptism and Temptation of Jesus 9 One day Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. 10 As Jesus came up out of the water, he saw the heavens splitting apart and the Holy Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice from heaven said, "You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy."
It has been four-hundred years since Israel last heard from a true prophet of the one true God. The people are famished for a word of hope. There is much anticipation concerning the promised Messiah who will deliver Israel and restore her to greatness. Just as people clear and level roads in expectation of a king's visit, so John calls people from every social class to prepare their hearts for God by repenting of their sins. Baptism is a public declaration of a person's willingness to turn from serving self to serving God, and a change in lifestyle is the necessary evidence of that willingness (see Malachi 3:1–5). Jesus presents himself to John to be baptized. Immediately afterward, God testifies publicly that Jesus is his Son and he is "fully pleased" with him.
Good News ... Son of God (Mark 1:1)
The opening words of Mark's historical record ("The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" NASB) directly challenge a common claim of his day - namely, that the Roman emperor was the divine "Son of God." There was actually an inscription in honor of Caesar Augustus that referred to his birthday as being "the beginning of the good news [or gospel] for the world." Hence Mark's claim for Jesus would have been perceived as nothing less than "a bold challenge to Roman politics and religion."51 That said, it should be noted that by immediately linking Jesus' ministry with OT prophecy, Mark shows that his primary concern is with "Israel's narrative and in particular Isaiah's prophetic hopes of restoration."52
As the prophet Isaiah had written (Mark 1:2)
Mark's quotation draws from three different OT texts (Exodus 23:20; Malachi 3:1; Isaiah 40:3). As one source explains: "Mark prefaced this composite quotation from three Old Testament books with the words: 'It is written in Isaiah the prophet.' This illustrates a common practice by New Testament authors in quoting several passages with a unifying theme. The common theme here is the 'wilderness' (desert) tradition in Israel's history. Since Mark was introducing the ministry of John the Baptist in the desert, he cited Isaiah as the source because the Isaiah passage refers to 'a voice … calling' in the desert."53
Prepare the way (Mark 1:3)
John's message echoed that of the prophet Isaiah, who had pictured the nation of Israel, joyful as she returns from captivity, being led by the LORD (Jehovah). The Isaiah passage was highly significant, as among the Jews there was tremendous anticipation associated with Isaiah 40 in general and 40:1-3 in particular.54 John applied the exodus/deliverance imagery to Jesus as the Messiah/Christ who offers deliverance from sin and its eternal consequences.55 This is a vital point, since it is a sobering reminder of Israel's failing to worship God (which resulted in her captivity) and the fact that, even more so than occupation by the Romans, sin is the enemy that must be vanquished before we can enjoy true, unbroken fellowship with God.56
John the Baptist (Mark 1:4)
Important Roman officials were always preceded by a herald or announcer, and it may be in deference to this custom that Mark's gospel - likely written to/for Roman Christians - begins with the herald of "the most important man who ever lived."57 John's is a prophetic voice urging people to prepare to meet God. ("The wilderness and its obstructions are in the hearts of the people; there the Lord's way is to be prepared."58) His mission and message placed him outside the established order. As a prophet of God his aim was not reform but revival. Rather than going to the king's court or to Jerusalem, John went to the desert. The words he spoke, the clothes he wore, the food he ate - in short, everything about him - testified to the fact that this Elijah-like figure stood outside the mainstream religious order. He called people to turn from dead religious orthodoxy to living faith in the one true God whose kingdom was fast approaching.59
Someone ... greater (Mark 1:7)
John announced the coming of someone greater than he. What did he mean? And in what sense was John "great"? John was referring to the Messiah, Jesus Christ (although he had not yet identified Jesus specifically). John was great in that 1) he had been chosen by God to prepare the way for the Messiah, and 2) his message had a great, or powerful, impact, with huge crowds coming out to hear him and many people being baptized. On the other hand, Jesus was great in an absolute sense and, in contrast to John, Jesus' message was accompanied by many powerful miracles. While John was fully persuaded of his calling and of the urgency of his message, he was also humble enough to acknowledge his relative unimportance as compared to the Christ.60 When John spoke of being unworthy "to stoop down like a slave and untie the straps of his sandals," he was employing imagery with which his audience could instantly identify. It was the job of the lowliest slave in a household to untie, remove, and clean the filthy sandals of the master and his guests.61 As one source puts it, the difference between Jesus and John is the difference between the original light of the sun and the reflected light of the moon.62 A very telling illustration of Jesus' greatness can be found in the story in which Jesus depicts himself as the one able to overpower the strong man in order to plunder - or "thoroughly ransack"63 - his house (see Mark 3:27). Satan is the strong man, his house "is the realm of sin, sickness, demon possession, and death," and Jesus plunders Satan's house by "releasing the enslaved victims."64 (Would not this then mean that Christians who deliberately sin are in a sense opening the door to Satan's house and placing one foot back inside?) Jesus' miraculous healings and exorcisms were a vital part of his baptizing "with the Holy Spirit,"65 the full measure of which would take place at Pentecost (see Acts 1:5; 11:15-16; 19:2-5).66
Repented ... John baptized [Jesus] (Mark 1:4, 9)
As "God's chosen people," the nation of Israel was renowned for its intricate system of religion. There was a law or a rule for just about everything imaginable. Why then does John call Israel to repentance? Simply put, it is because religion cannot save us; only a personal relationship with God can save us. John's message and baptism prepared the people for the personal relationship that Jesus would make universally available following the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.67 "The Baptist demanded true repentance for his baptism. This is inward, unseen, in the heart; yet it always manifests its presence by an honest confession of sin."68 The Bible consistently teaches that Jesus was completely perfect, entirely without sin. Why then does he submit to baptism by John? Jesus' baptism accomplishes a number of things:
It marks his decision to begin his public ministry.
It allows him to publicly identify with sinners.
It is an opportunity for receiving God's (public) approval.
It is the occasion on which he is equipped by the Holy Spirit.69
Baptized (Mark 1:9)
Some commentators describe the events surrounding Jesus' baptism in terms of a new/second exodus. God used a deliverer (Moses ~ Jesus) and many miraculous signs (the plagues ~ Jesus' healings and exorcisms) to deliver Israel (from Egyptian slavery ~ from bondage to sin). Along these lines, "the rent heavens and descent of the Spirit can hardly be anything but the sign that God himself has now come in power to rescue his people."70 At the same time, it appears that the events surrounding Jesus' baptism declare the beginning of a new creation by God. Parallels between the original creation account in Genesis 1 and Jesus' baptism include: the presence and voice of God; the heavens; the Spirit of God; and water. The dove would thus picture the Holy Spirit as he was "moving" or "hovering" over the waters in Genesis, which in turn alludes to "the hovering and brooding of a bird over its young, to warm them, and develop their vital powers."71
A Defining Moment
All of us experience defining moments marked by public ceremony, such as a graduation, a promotion, or a wedding. Such occasions represent many things:
A decision to begin a new stage in life.
A way to identify with a certain group or class of people.
Public recognition or approval.
A proud moment for friends and family.
John the Baptist called people to prepare for what would be the most important defining moment of their lives: baptism in preparation for meeting God. Jesus' baptism was a monumental defining moment, as well, since it marked the beginning of his public claim to Messiahship.
John's appearance and habitation presented a stark contrast to the common comforts of life that the majority of his audience enjoyed. "In drawing people out into the wilderness after him John made them share a bit of his own austere life. Men left their mansions, offices, shops, their common round of life and for a time at least gave their thoughts to higher things."72 What's more, for his part Jesus' baptism was his way of publicly declaring his decision to completely submit to God's will for his life, even though he knew that decision would result in pain, suffering, and death.
??? What can the examples of both John and Jesus teach us about personal comfort versus God's will?