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Commentary: Mark 1:9-15

This passage contains central aspects of Mark's presentation of "the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (1:1). He first connects Jesus to prophecy and to the eschatological renewal that John's prophecy portends. John is preface and preparer for Jesus. Though John's role is active, it is stated passively: Jesus "was baptized by John" (v. 9). The effect is to place Jesus above John (see Mt 3:13-15 and Jn 3:22-30 for other ways of making that claim).
Jesus "saw the heavens torn apart" (v. 10; cf. Isaiah 64:1). Schizo has the connotation of ripping or tearing apart (cf. Mk 15:37). Matthew and Luke both use the more gentle verb anoigo, which suggests the opening of a door or a window. Mark's more dramatic language sounds apocalyptic.
In keeping with his view of Jesus' hidden identity, Mark describes Jesus' own experience: Jesus sees the torn apart heaven and the dove, and he hears the voice, "You are my Son." Matthew 3:15-17 suggests the opened heavens, were visible to all and the voice heard by all; Luke retains the voice's direct address to Jesus, but his "bodily" form of the dove gives an open reality to the incident. Mark lets the reader know what the bystanders could not know. The three symbols of spirit, open heavens, and voice reveal for the reader Jesus' special identity as the Son of God who brings salvation.
The voice from heaven implies the fulfillment of scripture, though the words are not an exact quotation of any passage. "You are my Son, the Beloved" recalls Psalm 2:7, in which God addresses the king as God's son. Jesus is thus identified as Messiah. "With you I am well pleased" reflects Isaiah 42:1, and thus identifies Jesus with God's servant, who later (53:1ff) faithfully suffers for the benefit of others. Combining these passages represents a radical departure from Jewish messianic expectation: Jesus is Messiah, but in his mission he resembles suffering servant more than Davidic king. The contradictory expectations associated with these two figures lead to serious disagreements between Jesus and his disciples (e.g., Mk 8:31-9:1; see comments of the exegesis of Mk 9:2-13). Whether it was Mark, the early church prior to Mark, or Jesus himself who creatively combined these figures as a way of understanding Jesus' identity and message cannot be resolved. What is clearer is that Jesus' crucifixion radically revised messianic expectation for those who followed him. Mark puts that revision at the very beginning of the "good news of Jesus Christ," for in his view that is the center of the gospel.
Mark shows the significance of what is occurring, but he does let the reader see into Jesus' own psyche or religious experience. Similarly, he tells the wilderness struggle with Satan. The Spirit "drove him out" (v. 12) to engage in his central struggle, the struggle of God against Satan. Like Israel he was "tempted" (or tested), but unlike Eve in Eden or Israel in the wilderness, Jesus remained faithful. Whether being with the "wild beasts" (v. 13) implies a fierce struggle or whether it suggests a renewed Eden is not clear. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark says nothing about fasting or hunger; rather, "the angels waited on him" implies they provided food and sustenance. Mark does not tell the reader what temptation confronted Jesus, but Peter's "satanic" opposition to Jesus in 8:32-33 suggests that the struggle was about the way of messiahship (Matthew and Luke so interpret it).
Jesus, Son of God, endowed with the Spirit, faithful in time of testing, God's agent of salvation, now speaks for the first time. Mark locates Jesus' speech after John "was put in prison" (NIV) or "was arrested" (NRSV) (v. 14); paradidomi, a general meaning "delivered up" or "handed over," has special meaning for Mark in connection with Jesus' "betrayal" and being "handed over" for death (9:31; 10:33; 14:10).
Jesus' message is the "good news of God," which can mean either the good news about God or the good news from God (more likely the latter, though both would be true). No contrast is implied between Jesus as preacher of good news and John as preacher of judgment, since in Mark John's message is not as judgmental as in Q.
"The time is fulfilled" (v. 15, NRSV; NIV: "has come") connects Jesus' message with prophetic tradition (as does also his association with John). The "time" (kairos not chronos) is significant time; significant because God has ordained its content, anticipated it in prophecy, and now brought it into present chronology. "The kingdom of God has come near" (NIV: "is near"). For Mark the kingdom has not yet arrived, but it is "at hand," immediate not distant, impinging upon the present, making the present a decisive moment for acknowledging and living toward the kingdom.
"Kingdom of God" means God's rule over God's creation, including over human events, but is that rule present or future? Does it entail the defeat of satanic, political, and personal forces that thwart the doing of God's will? Does the coming of the kingdom mean an apocalyptic conclusion to history or is the kingdom the presence of God in individual human life? These are not mutually opposing ideas, and some passages lead in one direction and others in another. Mark seems to include both an apocalyptic element (e.g., 9:1), the return of the Son of Man (e.g., 13:24-27), and an element of personal decision to allow God's will to transform one in the present (e.g., 10:23-27).
Does Mark reflect Jesus' own view? Because Jesus was crucified as a claimant to the throne of Israel, one may assume that his view of the kingdom included political and social change that was deemed threatening to the authorities. It might also have included an apocalyptic element, since apocalyptic was often a hidden form of political protest. Jesus' view also surely included personal renewal, preparation to "enter" or participate in the action of God to renew and redeem Israel.
The impinging of the kingdom demands repentance (v. 15), a change of mind (compare with Hebrew shuv=change of direction), in order for one to receive it as the "good news" it fundamentally is.
R. David Kaylor