Commentary: Mark 1:4-11
Form and Redaction
The pericope falls into two parts. In verses 48, Mark retells elements of the John tradition from a completely Christian perspective. Mark ties John up to the preceding Old Testament quotation (vv. 23), mentioning wilderness, preaching, and preparation for the coming one. Mark intends to make it clear that John, a popular religious figure in his own right (compare Acts 19:17, especially verse 3), must be understood as a subordinate forerunner of Jesus. The fates of John and Jesus will continue to be intertwined in this gospel (6:1416; 8:28; 11:30; 6:29 foreshadow 15:46).
Mark himself created the connection between the John material and the baptism of Jesus. This pre-Markan narrative (verses 10-11 with verse 9 as a Markan transition) is a "legend." It is an edifying story with a miraculous center intended to hold Jesus up to our awe and admiration. Like the transfiguration narrative in chapter 9, it recounts an epiphany, the revelation of Jesus as a transcendent figure. Mark uses this narrative to get the gospel's main character on stage and to identify him for readers as the spirit-filled "Son of God." This title is critical for Mark's Christology (1:1) and is witnessed to by God (here and 9:7), by demons (3:11; 5:7), by Jesus in answer to the high priest's question (14:6162), and climactically by the gentile centurion (15:39). Also critical for Mark is the recognition that Jesus possessed the Holy Spirit (3:2829). Moreover, Jesus' mission in Mark is to be understood as that of a suffering servant (8:31; 10:45), as the heavenly voice's allusion to Isaiah 42:1 suggests. Thus Mark makes three important points about Jesus (Son of God, Spirit, servant) before his Galilee mission begins and reveals to readers Jesus' identity, status, and power.
Mark presents John as a thoroughly archaic figure, wearing simple prophetic dress (Zech 13:4) and Elijah's belt (1 Kings 1:8), eating the lean, natural food of the desert. The wilderness theme points to a time of new beginnings with God (Hos 2:14; Is 43:1921). John, the wilderness voice, preaches two themes. He preaches his repentancebaptism (the genitive indicates the nature of this baptism), the goal of which is that God would forgive sins. Repentance suggests the beginning of a new moral and religious life. The act of undergoing John's baptism, accompanied by a verbal confession of sins, was in itself an act of repentance. The imperfect verbs of verses suggest a constant parade of penitents.
The second focus of John's preaching is Jesus the coming one. Here John becomes the first of many preachers in this gospel: Jesus himself (1:14), his disciples (3:14; 6:12), others (1:45; 5:20; 7:36) and the later church (13:10). Jesus so much surpasses John that John does not even have the status to offer Jesus the most humble of personal services. John's baptism is by means of water. Jesus' future baptism will use the instrumentality of the Holy Spirit. John's prediction of a baptism with the Holy Spirit seems to point outside the horizon of Mark's gospel, in which we read of no other baptism than a baptism of suffering (10:3839). However, the outpouring of the Spirit was anticipated in the OT as a signal eschatological event (Joel 2:2829; Is 32:15; 44:3). In Mark, therefore, John is not pointing to Pentecost or Christian baptism, but to Jesus as an apocalyptic figure.
The verses about John prepare the way for the much more important double attestation of Jesus, by Spirit and voice, as servant and royal Son of God. The introduction, "in those days," sounds weighty and biblical and focuses readers' attention on a matter of great significance. Jesus is singled out, coming from a different direction (Nazareth) than the repentant crowd (Judah). John's baptism is not the cause but only the occasion of the sign which Jesus alone sees and the voice which addresses him directly ("you").
Jesus sees two things, the sky splitting and the Spirit descending. Reflecting Mark's pre-scientific world view, the sky is ripped apart (by God) to permit the Spirit and the voice to reach earth. This reflects the plea of Isaiah 64:1 for a new saving epiphany and also points forward to the ripping apart of the temple veil at Jesus' death (15:38; same verb). The Spirit descends either on Jesus or perhaps "into" him (the closest grammatical parallel is Mark 9:25). We cannot be sure whether Mark meant that the Spirit looked like a dove in form or moved in the manner of a dove, but in either case this represents a visible guarantee of the reality of the Spirit's coming. Here the lectionary asks us to con sider the parallel of God's Spirit moving over the primordial waters, linking the Spirit's role in creation and salvation. The voice of God identifies Jesus as God's "servant" in the tradition of Second Isaiah through an allusion to Isaiah 42:1, but also as "messiah," God's royal son, by quoting Psalm 2:7. Both servant (Is 42:1b; 61:1) and messiah (Is 11:2) are figures invested with God's Spirit.
In Mark this event is a secret epiphany, something experienced by Jesus and the readers of the gospel alone. The secret of Jesus' identity will remain publicly unrevealed until the centurion's recognition of it in 15:39, but we readers know it from the beginning, having overheard God's word to the beloved Son. That Jesus is God's Son and servant is made manifest to us, but we will only find out what these seemingly glorious titles really mean by reading Mark's
gospel to its bitter end. The heavenly voice will identify Jesus again as God's Son at his transfiguration (9:7), going on to command, "Listen to him." Jesus will then speak not of messianic glory, but of suffering and cross (9:12,31). It is precisely when he has seen Jesus die that the centurion can confess, "This man was the Son of God." For it is the baptism of death (10:38), when Elijah does not come (15:36), when the temple veil is rent, and when God remains silent, which finally reveals the hidden meaning of Jesus' first baptism.
Richard D. Nelson