Mark 1:1–13 the First Thirteen Verses.
Key Notes: Son of God!? Mark cites Malachi with a twist. Elijah and John the Baptist. What is the Gospel? Note on Harmony of the Gospels.
Mark was a great surprise to me. I have studied and taught the other three Gospels repeatedly, but used Mark only as the backbone of the Harmony of the Gospels. (See footnotes.) I expected Mark to be somewhat dull compared to the other Gospels. That was pure prejudice. Mark is blunt, shocking and delightful.
Anyone reading the first thirteen verses of Mark for the first time must be astonished. Four events are packed into these few lines, without an introduction or explanation. And the events are so unusual, so outlandish, that we wonder what the author was thinking and who his audience was. Although we, two thousand years later, cannot deny previous knowledge of Jesus and His life, it is useful to look at this book as if for the first time. It will be fresh food, and yield much nourishment.
1:1 “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” That is a bold proclamation to begin a book. Let us assume that we do not grasp the meaning of the words in this grouping. “Beginning” we understand is the start of something. “Gospel” is religious good news. “Jesus” means “God saves”. “Christ” is the Greek name meaning “anointed’’; in Hebrew the word is “Messiah”.
But “Son of God”? Aren’t we all sons of God? We may not understand that and must learn more as we move along.
1:2–3 Mark begins by quoting Malachi and Isaiah, with a slight change in the pronouns.
Malachi says “Behold, I send My messenger to prepare the way before Me;” (Mal.3:1)
Mark quotes Malachi, “Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, who shall prepare Your way;”
Mark says “Your”; Malachi says “My and Me”. Malachi says God Himself is going to make an appearance, as evidenced by the phrase that follows ----“and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to His temple….” Mark makes it clear that “You” refers to Jesus, with the messenger being John the Baptist. He tips the sentence slightly so that Jesus is the One whose way is prepared. He is Malachi’s “the Lord”.
So The One prepared for is Jesus Himself, who is also the Lord and has a messenger who precedes Him. In other words, Mark is identifying Jesus with God.
The second part of the quotation is from Isaiah:
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.”
Isaiah says “A voice cries: ‘in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” (Isa. 40:3). Isaiah’s fuller quotation affirms that Our God will walk among His people. John the Baptist’s task was to clear the path for Jesus Christ, Lord and God Himself. So “the Son of God” is not another one of us mortals.
1:4–8 John the Baptist simply appeared….
*In the wilderness of Judea, where he would attract attention. Nobody stays in the desert normally.
*Preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
*Clothed in camel’s hair cloth with a leather belt.
*Eating locusts and wild honey. (Locusts are edible, kosher. Lev.11:22)
People came to the Jordan in droves to be baptized, confessing their sins. He was a sensation.
He was like Elijah, the great OT prophet. His clothing, his food, his location and his message were attractive to a people who were preparing for a new phase of Israel’s future. But he made it clear that his work was preliminary to One who would follow, One so superior that he was hardly qualified to perform the simplest slave-task for Him, untying his shoes.
John the Baptist resembled Elijah, described in IIK.1:8 as dressed in hair-cloth with a leather belt. They both lived in the desert. They differed in personality: John the Baptist was popular and developed a following; Elijah was solitary and disappeared for years. Jesus said John the Baptist was the “Elijah to come” as prophesied in Mal.4:5. Mk.9:13; Matt.11:14
The desert of Sinai after the Exodus had been Israel’s place of beginning with God.
“I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed Me in the wilderness, in a land not sown.” (Jer.2:2). It is also cited in the prophets as a future place of blessing. Hos.2:14
The baptism of repentance was not the ritual mikvah bath for periodic cleansing. Baptism was the custom for converts to Judaism. This was immersion in the river, and for Jews, not proselytes. The word repentance (“metanoia” in Greek) also means to change the mind, or be converted. John was exhorting inhabitants of Jerusalem to be baptized, confessing their sins, and changing their minds. They were being prepared to reverse their direction, turning away from rabbinical law to face the Son of God for forgiveness of sins.
1:9–11 Without so much as a breath, Mark goes on to tell of Jesus coming from Nazareth to be baptized by John. Was He also a sinner in need of repentance? “Can any good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn.1:46).
There is no explanation, but the vision that followed says it all:
Jesus came up out of the water.
The Holy Spirit descended upon Him like a dove.
A voice from Heaven proclaimed “This is my beloved Son; with You I am well pleased.”
They beheld the Trinity displayed for human eyes and ears.
“He saw the heavens opened.” Is “He” Jesus or John? Both saw it. Jn.1:31–34
“Heavens opened” is more literally “heavens rent”, or torn open. Isaiah cried “O, that You would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at Your presence.“ (Isa.64:1)
Isaiah’s prayer has been answered.
1:12–13 Before we can react, we are told that Jesus was driven by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness. The word “driven” is a strong word in Greek, with a hint of force. That was a movement of the Holy Spirit Who seems here more like a hawk than a dove. Jesus was driven there to be tempted by Satan, to be with wild animals, and with angels ministering to Him. No contest is described as found in other accounts. (Matt.4:1–11; Lk.3:2–17; Jn.1:29–34). No other humans ventured there. The presence of wild beasts would ordinarily be a threat, but we are not told and perhaps they were rather a comfort. Certainly the angels were.
This is the beginning of the good news. What good news?
God is coming to walk among His people
He is preceded by an advance-man, so that there is no doubt about His intentions.
The event was foretold 400 years (Malachi) and 700 years (iaiah) before it happened.
The good news is not a sermon or a tract. It is a Person. He is coming. Jesus is the good news. Since the Gospel is good news, are Isaiah and Malachi as prophets predicting the future or preaching the Gospel ? Predicting is certainly part of the answer. We read in the OT of the prophets’ ecstatic utterance, their predicting, denouncing, comforting and encouraging. We do not think of them as preaching the Gospel. Peter and Paul say they were.
“To Him all the prophets bear witness that every one who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His Name.” (Acts 10:43)
“And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the Gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’” (Gal3:8)
But His coming would be awesome, perhaps frightening, according to Malachi. “Who can stand when He appears? “ (Mal.3:2). How will He look and what will He do? The prophecy was made years before John the Baptist or Jesus came to this little beleaguered country of Palestine, oppressed by the Roman conquerors as well as the guerilla bands that fought and terrorized both sides. What would He do? Whose side would He take?
When the people were magnetized by John’s message, they were exposed to Jesus, but in a unique introduction. He made a most unexpected move. He came to Jordan to be baptized by John as if He also would receive baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin, as His fellow Jews were, confessing their sins. He did not make any such confession. God made the confession. God Himself, the Holy Spirit exhibiting Himself as a dove descending on Him, and the Father speaking from Heaven, tells us that Jesus is God’s Son, the Beloved. So the title that begins the chapter is verified by the account itself. He is the Son of God because the voice of God from Heaven says so and Malachi and Isaiah the prophet confirm it.
What happens immediately is again astonishing. The Holy Spirit, seen as a dove, a symbol of peace, purity and love, now shows a striking contrast: He drives Jesus further into the desert to be tempted by Satan! Why must He be tempted directly by Satan? Jesus was, as the other Gospels say, a true human being, born of a woman, as well as the Son of God. As Man, he must undergo rigorous testing before beginning His work. It is a kind of boot-camp, a severe exercise to toughen the moral fiber, to demonstrate His ability in spiritual combat. And it was the Holy Spirit who pushed Him into it. After forty days He was exhausted, and starved, but victorious. And He was rewarded accordingly. Now He was ready to go. The multitudes have seen Him in a dramatic setting. God has affirmed him. Satan did not harm Him. Angels fed Him. Now we will see what He will do.
“Introduction” is a technical term for the analysis of a book’s author, date, language and vocabulary, content and history. I do not emphasize it because I trust the text we have and think prolonged analysis of the book detracts from its use by today’s readers. Nevertheless, Mark’s Gospel is interesting because it appears to have been written by John Mark, a cousin of Barnabas (Col. 4:10) and a controversial missionary in the early Church. (Acts 15:36–40). He is described as the “interpreter” or ‘translator” of Peter although he was not one of Jesus’ close disciples. Scholars envision Peter sitting at Mark’s elbow and pouring out his life with Christ into Mark’s ear. His recounting of end-times prophecy (Mk.13) suggests that he wrote before 70AD and the Fall of Jerusalem. Analysis of content suggests a Gentile Christian audience, perhaps in Rome.
(New Testament Introduction. The Gospels and Acts. D. Guthrie; IVP,’65; p.49–83).
The Gospel of Mark. N.T. France. Eerdmans, 2002 has a valuable introduction to Mark. I found it rewarding to read after studying the book, as well as before.
Combining quotations from Isaiah and Malachi, citing only one author is not unique. We have another example in Matt. 27:9, a fragment text of Jer.32:6–9 combined with Zech.11:12–13.
The phrase “Son of God” is missing in Mk.1:1 from one of the important Greek sources, (Codex Sinaiticus) but it is present in most of the other manuscripts and is amply supported by the text itself.
Harmony of the Gospels is an important effort to make the Gospels into a history of Jesus' life. Harmony, however, is not a satisfying way to learn the Gospel message because the unique perspectives of the individual writers are diluted and their teaching is sometimes obscured. Each book demands to be read on its own terms. So Mark remained hidden to me until I studied it directly. This study will not try to integrate Mark with the other Gospels. We will read it by itself for what it says, rather than what we wish it said or would have said if we were there.