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Commentary: Mark 1:4-11

The events surrounding the baptism of Jesus serve to explain how Mark can be so bold at the very outset of his Gospel when he calls Jesus Christ, "the Son of God"(1:1). The prologue of Mark builds to the divine speech identifying Jesus as God's special "son"(1:11). With Jesus' significance established, Mark, in 1:12-13, is able to proceed with his case for who Jesus is.
Immediately prior to our pericope, Mark has introduced Isaiah's prediction of a messenger. This finds fulfillment in the person of John the Baptist. In a corresponding fashion, John then predicts the coming of another "mightier than I." By verse 11, this finds its fulfillment in the person of Jesus. The prediction that Jesus will baptize, not with water but with the Holy Spirit, remains to be developed throughout the rest of Mark. By his Gospel's close, the reliability of the predictions lends credence to Mark's insistence that Jesus is, in fact, God's son.
According to the church calendar, we encounter the character John the Baptist annually during the season of Advent. Therefore, for this First Sunday after Epiphany we will concentrate our attention specifically on the event of Jesus' baptism (1:9-11).
Verse 9: For Mark, there is no mistaking the person about whom he writes. He links Jesus to the obscure village of Nazareth. We encounter that connection again after his crucifixion in 15:6: "You seek Jesus of Nazareth...he has risen." This resurrection fulfills the predictions of John that Jesus will "baptize with the Holy Spirit," and thereby usher in the eschatological age often spoken of by the prophets. Ezekiel 36, Jeremiah 31, Isaiah. 32, and the Qumran community (1QS 4:18-21) all envisioned a time of inward cleansing, not simply outward washing. Mark informs the reader that this new age is inextricably tied to Jesus from Nazareth. The fact that Jesus was baptized by John has proved problematical. Of all the Gospels, only Mark documents the event. The primary purpose appears to be to show Jesus' unique status as declared in the events surrounding his baptism (1:10-11). Jesus' baptism seems to be a necessity for the Gospel story.
Verse 10: Mark does not concern himself with the precise mode of baptism, which has ever since furrowed the brows of Jesus' followers. Crucial is what transpires as a result of the baptism. Jesus experiences a personal epiphany ("he saw"). Thus his "secret" is maintained in Mark, while in Matthew and Luke, the events surrounding the baptism occur publicly. For Mark, Jesus' unique status is known only to his readership.
We are told that Jesus saw "the heavens opened." This "signifies God's decisive intervention" in that God began to speak again,1 bringing to mind the prayer in Isaiah 64:1f, for God's self revelation as in the past, and (with the allusion to Sinai) to inaugurate a new exodus. Jesus seeing the "heavens opened" further suggests his intimate communion and solidarity with God, who is normally aloof and inaccessible.
Simultaneous with the opening of the heavens was the "coming down of the Spirit like a dove." This clearly alludes to Isaiah 63:11f. and the fact that God's Spirit once rested upon the exodus generation and led them. In a like manner, the Spirit comes again to empower Jesus for his Messianic task. The Spirit's descent "like a dove" further verifies that God's Spirit came upon Jesus. The dove appears as a familiar symbol for the Spirit of God in Jewish literature. From the moment of his baptism by John, God's Spirit rested with Jesus, marking the fulfillment of the ancient longing, and explaining the events and character of Jesus' ministry as evidences of the new age.
In this manner, Mark presents the significance of Jesus' baptism. Rather than being a baptism intended to wash away sins, it becomes an anointing act whereby Jesus is designated or set apart as God's own. John's baptism inaugurated the true, efficacious baptism with the Holy Spirit, by which Jesus was empowered to begin his active ministry.
Verse 11: All the action leads to this verse, where God calls Jesus, "My son." To state, "A voice came from heaven," is to identify that God was speaking, a common anthropomorphism. God's words are citations from the psalms and Isaiah. "You are my beloved son" is from the messianic psalm 2:7, thereby confirming that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah (who is considered God's unique Son). "What is important to Mark is the beginning of Jesus' sonship in the world, i.e., the point in time when he began to exercise his sonship.2
The reference to the suffering servant passage in Isaiah 42:1, "In whom I am well pleased," further clarifies the unique nature and quality of Jesus' sonship. This son is a servant. God's "Spirit" is upon him, and his servant role as God's son will be something other than what anyone would have expected of the Messiah.
The baptism of Jesus inaugurates his ministry and defines the character of his messiahship. From the start, the reader is made aware of the unique Son/servant role, but this remains hidden from the participants in the story. Occasional glimpses of insight in Mark, however, confirm what the readers already know. "Son of God" runs likes a thread throughout Mark(1:1; 1:11; 9:7; 15:39). At his baptism, at his transfiguration, and at his crucifixion, the testimony is made that this Jesus of Nazareth is God's son. Mark establishes that fact from the very outset.
Our passage makes plain that Jesus is the Messiah/Son of God and servant, who fulfills the Old Testament promises. The baptism is the vehicle by means of which this awareness was made to Jesus. That this marks the inauguration of the eschatological age is alluded to by the Old Testament references. Mark will provide the corroborating evidence throughout the rest of his Gospel, leaving little doubt by his Gospel's end that Jesus is God's beloved Son.
John M. Scholer
NOTES
1. E. Schweizer, The Good News According to Mark (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1977), p. 40. 2. Schweizer, Mark, p. 41.