Intensity is the mark of Mark’s Gospel; for instance, the word euthus (“immediately,” “at once,” “right away,” etc.) appears forty-one times. In today’s Gospel text (Mark 1:9-15; vv. 12-15 for Catholics) we see intensity produced also by Mark’s compact style, as he relates three brief stories (the baptism, temptation, and proclamation of Jesus) in seven short verses. If there is one theme that Mark might have those preaching this selection proclaim, it is that the presence of the kingdom demands decisive response, a most appropriate message for the beginning of our Lenten journeys.
The Baptism of Jesus (vv. 9-11)
Note how suddenly (and thus intensely) Mark moves: Before the reader can breathe, we are told that Jesus “was baptized by John in the Jordan.” Nothing of their conversation found in Matthew 3:13-17 is to be found. Jesus is then barely out of the water when the other two persons of the Holy Trinity show up in the dove and in the voice.
The heavens are “torn apart” (schizein, the Greek word from which we get “schizophrenia” and “schism”), not merely “opened” (anoigein) as in Matthew and Luke. The image is violent. With the intense and violent imagery, Mark means to convey that the coming of Jesus is the beginning of an apocalyptic spiritual holy war against Satan and his minions who have the world in bondage. Similarly, the Spirit in Mark’s version does not simply come to rest “upon” (as if the Greek were epi) Jesus, as in Matthew and Luke, but rather pops “into him” (eis auton), almost as if the Holy Spirit is possessing Jesus. The Spirit will then drive Jesus out into the wilderness in v. 12 to make holy war on Satan (v. 13); see below. The word employed is ekballein, the same word used to describe Jesus’ casting out of demons. Again, a violent image, as if the Spirit is tossing or throwing Jesus in to the wilderness.
In the same way that the heavens are torn open at the beginning of Mark, the temple curtain is “torn in two” at Jesus’ death at the end of Mark (15:38); as the Spirit breaks out of heaven through the cosmic tear, so does God the Father break out of the holy of holies in response to the death of Jesus, and the resurrected Jesus breaks out of the tomb; by the end of the Gospel of Mark, all three persons of the Holy Trinity are on the loose in the cosmos.
The voice from heaven in v. 11, “You are my beloved Son,” is a death omen, for it alludes to Gen 22:2, 12, and 16, in which Isaac is described as Abraham’s beloved son on the occasion of God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. This is where Jesus receives his divine sacrificial commission. As Abraham the father would have sacrificed Isaac his beloved sons for redemptive purposes, God the Father of Jesus his beloved Son sacrifices him for redemptive purposes. The final battle of Mark’s holy war will involve Jesus’ death on the cross.
Note also that the divine voice is in the second person: “You are my beloved Son.” Matthew and Luke have the voice in the third person: “This is my beloved Son.” Now Mark is also a Gospel of secrecy; Jesus is often telling people to remain silent about his person and work. Therefore, one suspects that it is Jesus alone who hears the voice; it is private revelation to Jesus, not public revelation to all. Thus, only Jesus knows the true nature of his sacrificial commission as the beloved Son.
Finally, note that for readers of the text, we have here the initial revelation of the Holy Trinity, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are present.
(See also Dr. Nicholas Perrin’s treatment of Mark 1:4-11 for the relatively recent feast of the Baptism of the Lord [8/9 January 2012]).
The Temptation of Jesus (vv. 12-13)
Again, the Spirit casts (ekballein) Jesus into the wilderness in a violent manner, as if the Spirit is a coach throwing a wrestler right into the ring. Indeed, the image of a wrestler is a good one, for what we have here is an agōn, a contest, a struggle, a wrestling match between Jesus and Satan.
Some translations say Jesus is “tempted”; the Greek is peirazein, which can be rendered either “tempt” or “test” (or perhaps “trial” as well). It’s the same word as a noun in the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6: “Lead us not into temptation (peirasmos)…” Given the words’ respective connotations, “test” (as in “contest”) is better. Jesus is being tested as one wrestler tests another, as one team tests another. “Temptation,” by contrast, which becomes the standard translation of peirasmos by way of the Latin tentatio, connotes all too often simple sin. But in the Lord’s Prayer, we actually pray that God would spare us from the time of testing, the time of trial, for (like the disciples in Gethsemane) we may find ourselves too weak to stand up under it. God would never tempt us to sin; we pray that he might spare us severe ordeals of persecution and martyrdom which would test our faith to the limit.
In any event, Jesus is locked in combat with Satan. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark does not provide the three specific diabolical tests, but does suggest that Jesus bested Satan.
What of the “wild beasts” present with Jesus, and the angels serving Jesus? There are two possibilities, and it is difficult to decide which Mark had in mind. One possibility is that Eden is in view. Like Adam, Christ the New Adam (perhaps the meaning of “Son of Man” throughout Mark) is restoring everything to its original Edenic innocence. Christ is with the animals as Adam was in his naming them (Genesis 2) and later Jewish traditions play up the presence of angels in Eden. Another possibility is that the wild beasts of Mark 1:13 evoke the image of Roman arenas (popular in our own day thanks to movies like Gladiator and series like Spartacus: Blood and Sand), in which many early Christians perished brutally. If Mark was written in the mid/late 60s in Rome as many scholars believe, then this latter interpretation fits, for it would encourage to Roman Christians suffering Nero’s brutal persecutions (see here for Tacitus’ description thereof); Jesus too faced wild beasts with aid from angels.
The Proclamation of Jesus (vv. 14-15)
We are first informed that John has been arrested; the details of his arrest and execution are written in Mark 6. Here Mark mentions it to intimate the dark note of death. John is Jesus’ forerunner, and what happens to John happens to Jesus: both will be executed by cowardly rulers reigning at Roman pleasure (Herod Antipas executes John, Pontius Pilate executes Jesus.) In the Bible more broadly John is also Jesus forerunner in birth (cf. Luke 1; Elizabeth and Mary and their children John and Jesus are kin) and proclamation (cf. Mark 1:4 and 1:15; both John and Jesus preach repentance). Just as the heavenly voice of Mark 1:11 is a death omen, so too is mention of John’s arrest in v. 14.
Indeed, one of Mark’s chief emphases — if not the chief emphasis — is Jesus’ cruciform death. Mark’s is a Gospel of the cross, reinforcing again and again that the cross is a necessity for Jesus and his followers. Mark goes so far as to reserve the only human utterance of “Son of God” for the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross: “Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’” (Mark 15:39). Here and only here does a human in Mark’s story call Jesus the Son of God (and the centurion likely doesn’t believe it; the irony is that he speaks truth he does not affirm, for what in Mark’s description of Jesus’ wretched, solitary, forsaken death would precipitate faith in the centurion?). It’s Mark’s subtle way of making the point that Jesus identity as Son of God is inseparable from his crucifixion. He is no mere teacher or wonder-worker or superstar; he is a sacrifice.
Jesus preaches the “gospel of God” (v. 14), given content in v. 15: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the gospel.” A few salient observations:
The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Many are under the impression that Jesus and the earliest Christians were convinced the world would end in their lifetimes. But it’s not so clear-cut (as N.T. Wright has argued). The parables of growth — the Mustard Seed, the Sower, the Wheat and the Tares — suggest that the kingdom of God requires time to develop, to work its way through the cosmos. Further, Mark goes to great pains to dissuade his readers from concerning themselves with attempts at discerning to time of the end (see the present writer’s discussion here); for instance, in Mark 13:32 Jesus as the Son of God disclaims any knowledge about “that day or hour”, i.e., the End.
Furthermore, thanks to popular literature and media and a lot of bad teaching, many Christians today think the new age will only break in at the end of the world. But it is more biblical to see the new age breaking in with Jesus (“The time is fulfilled…”). The new age began almost 2000 years ago with his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension. In the meantime the kingdom spreads under the aegis of the Spirit in and through the Church.
In short, the common phrase “already but not yet” best sums up Christian teaching about the kingdom. It is already here in the person of Jesus, but God’s reign is still partial, not yet established over the entirety of his rebellious cosmos.
Repent. In Hebrew, to repent is shuv, “to turn around.” Metaphorically, the call to repent means to walk no longer in wrong directions along wrong paths but to walk the right direction. Many have said that faith is a journey, and it is, and everyone has his or her own paths, which he or she does, but for Christian faith, whatever the starting points of our respective journeys, they have one and the same goal: an eternal life of blessedness in God. It may do one well to remind congregants of this ultimate goal; Lent is not about being a better person or Christian, or getting one’s life together, but about reorienting ourselves towards God in hope of spending eternity with him.
Believe the gospel. What is it? The answer to that depends to a large extent on how one’s tradition has interpreted the Scriptures, as the Bible presents a beautiful, multifaceted picture of salvation. But in Mark, the gospel is more than the good news of reconciliation between God and men, more than forensic justification, more than forgiveness, as crucial as those things are. Rather, Mark’s story is one of spiritual holy war, and it operates with a Christus Victor soteriology in which Christ conquers Sin, Death, Hell, and the Devil for us. This, indeed, is good news.
Dr. Leroy Huizenga is the Director of the Christian Leadership Center and Assistant Professor of Theology at the University of Mary in Bismarck, ND.