The lectionary gospel reading for this Sunday, the First Sunday of Epiphany, is Mark’s rather compressed account of Jesus’ baptism by John in Mark 1.4–11.
Just over a year ago, when such things were normal (remember that…?) I went with my family to see a film—the final episode of the nine main instalments of the Star Wars saga, the Rise of Skywalker. I confess that I wasn’t really gripped by it, not least because I had a constant feeling of déjà vu. Just about every interesting scene appeared to be lifted from one of the previous films! It turns out that this was deliberate; this site lists 31 references to earlier episodes and related computer games based on the franchise. The whole creation was, in large part, a homage to the earlier elements of the franchise.
But where that (for me) made the film a little dull, in this week’s reading it does the opposite. The background allusions actually add energy, excitement and weight to the text, and they are essential to understand in order to grasp the impact of the events that are related. (Within narrative criticism, this is known as metalepsis; the author describes things by borrowing language from another context in order to help the reader make connections between the immediate situation and what what previously narrated.)
The scriptural texts cited in the previous verses are a combination of Ex 23.20 (‘I am sending my angel/messenger ahead of you…to the place I have prepared’), Mal 3.1 (‘I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me’) and Is 40.3 (‘A voice of one crying in the desert prepare the way for the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God’). In effect, Mark is presenting us with the text of Isaiah, read through Malachi, as a reference back to Exodus. Allusions to the return from exile are offering with overtones of the exodus, which is not surprising, since the return from exile is indeed a kind of second exodus—God powerfully leading his people out of oppression, through the desert, to the land of promise.
Mark’s use of these texts set up three sets of expectations. The first is what we might now call Christological: the preparation is for the coming of the God of Israel, but this now becomes preparation for the one who is coming after John the Baptist, who thus embodies the presence of God amongst his people. The second relates to the identity of John himself: Mal 4.5 goes on to identify the one doing the work of preparation as a returning Elijah, and we see numerous further Elijah motifs in the following verses. The third is eschatological: this Elijah figure will be sent ‘before that great and terrible day of the Lord’, and this sits within widespread Jewish anticipation of an eschatological Elijah figure coming to prepare God’s people and usher in the longed-for messianic age.
The simple phrase ‘John appeared…’ thus signifies the long-awaited fulfilment of this promise of hope as God comes in redemptive judgement to his people.
The idea of baptism, administered by a third party, appears to be novel. Gentile converts to Judaism (proselytes) had to undergo a ritual washing as part of their initiation, but this signified a change of ethnic affiliation, and here John is baptising Jews who remain Jews. Ritual washing in the miqveh was practised at Qumran and in connection with the temple, but only began around this time, was self-administered, and was a repeated action where John is offering a once-for-all action in preparation for the coming of God.
But there is a sense in which the people of God are very familiar with the idea of passing through water as preparation for the action of God. They passed through the waters of the Red Sea as preparation for journeying in the wilderness (hence Paul’s language of ‘baptism in Moses’ in 1 Cor 10.2); they then passed through the waters of the Jordan to enter the Promised Land; the psalmist is rescued through the deep waters of death by God (eg in Ps 18.16); and in returning from exile God has rescued them as they ‘pass through the waters’ (Is 43.2). This multiple significance was captured rather nicely in the prayer over the water in the ASB 1980 Baptism service (sadly emaciated in the Common Worship service).
John’s baptism is offered as a sign of ‘repentance’, of turning back to the way of God after having strayed, and anticipates Jesus’ own preaching about the right response to the kingdom in Mark 1.15. (It is often suggested that the Greek term metanoia has a sense of ‘thinking again’ because of its etymology, but words do not always mean what their etymology suggests, and in the LXX it is used to translate shuv meaning a literal or metaphorical turning around and changing direction.)
The description of ‘all of Judea and all Jerusalem’ is hyperbolic, but it does point to John leading a significant popular movement, so it is not surprising that Herod Antipas, who ruled not only the northern region of Galilee but also the region of Perea, east of the Jordan, could feel threatened by John’s actions.
John is baptising in the Jordan, a location laden with historical significance for the people of Israel, since it is through the Jordan that they crossing, following the ark of the covenant and led by Joshua, when first entering the promised land. And it was at the Jordan that Elisha succeeded Elijah in his prophetic ministry. Thus the Jordan signifies a place of transition and change, as Mary Ann Beavis notes (Paideia commentary, p 34):
[This is] a sort of running of Israel’s history backwards: the people of Judea flock back to the river where they had crossed into the promised land in the time of Joshua. For Mark, the baptism offered by John is a new turning point for Israel, an event as portentous as the crossing of the Jordan.
Mark’s brief description of John again highlights the Elijah motif, since he is clothed like Elijah (2 Kings 1.8) in a manner which appears to have become the signature of a prophet of God (Zech 13.4). I was taught by William Barclay that akris that he ate could be interpret as carob nuts rather than locusts, but I am not sure there is any evidence of that. Locusts are listed specifically in Lev 11.22 as insects that are permissible to eat; thus John, whilst trusting for God’s provision in the desert and eating what is there, is still obedient to the commands of Torah.
The language of ‘one coming after me’ is used elsewhere of discipleship—so, for example, when Jesus rebukes Peter, the language of ‘getting behind me’ is exactly this language of following. But John (and Mark) appear to understand this in a merely temporal sense: John is preparing the way for one who will soon follow. The language of a ‘stronger one’ again has echoes of the Elijah/Elisha narrative, since the succession of Elisha was marked by his receiving a ‘double share’ of the spirit of Elijah, enabling him to perform greater works (2 Kings 2.9). There appear to be significant parallels between the ministries of Elisha and Jesus:
- they are both prophets who go about amongst the people;
- they help the poor and needy;
- they minister primarily in the north regions of Galilee
- they are prodigious wonder workers;
- even after death, they perform miracles (see 2 Kings 13.20–21).
(For later exultation of Elisha, see Sirach 48.12b–14)
Yet the comparison between Elijah and Elisha pales against the contrast between John and Jesus. To untie the thong of someone’s sandal was the work of the most humble of servants, and John is not even worthy to do that for Jesus. Elisha was described as the ‘son of Elijah’ but Jesus is soon declared to be the favoured son of God. ‘The one who comes after John will be a mighty agent of God who will inaugurate the end times’ (Beavis, p 35).
The opening phrase of Mark 1.9 is one of the few occasions when Mark uses kai egeneto, rendered by the AV as ‘And it came to pass that…’ which rightly highlights the connection with Old Testament narrative. (Technical note: the Greek and the AV English are very rigid translations of the ‘vav-consecutive’ construction in Hebrew, where the letter vav, which elsewhere means ‘and’, is used to turn the verb into a narrative past tense. Modern ETs rightly simply interpret this as a narrative past, but the AV translated each word, thus creating this slightly odd scripture phrase ‘and it happened that…’) The effect is that Mark is deliberately making his narrative sound scriptural.
Jesus stands out from the crowd immediately. He apparently comes on his own, rather than with a retinue, and is a northerner in this southern crowd. In contrast to Matthew, who includes a detailed exchange concerning John’s objection to Jesus baptism, and the Fourth Gospel which completely omits reference to the baptism itself, Mark appears unembarrassed to associate Jesus with a ‘baptism of repentance’. He is more concerned to see Jesus associated with this movement of the people in eager anticipation of this eschatological work of God.
Contrary to all artistic depiction, what happens next occurs immediately after Jesus has ‘gone up out of the water’, in other words, once he has left the river and is on the bank once more. But it does happen ‘immediately’ or, in the language of the AV once more, ‘straightway’. This is one of more than 40 uses of the term in Mark, and it is especially characteristic of Jesus’ ministry in the first half of this gospel. John has come to make ‘straight ways’ in the wilderness for Jesus, and Jesus acts in the power of God bringing healing and forgiveness ‘straightway’.
In Luke, the divine voice is addressed to Jesus, but the opening of heaven and descent of the Spirit ‘bodily’ appears to be a public event. Matthew’s account leans more to Luke than Mark; we are to ‘behold’ the sudden opening of the heavens, and the divine voice affirms Jesus to the crowd. But here in Mark’s account, the focus is on Jesus’ experience: he saw heaven opened and the Spirit descending, and the divine voice addresses him. The splitting open of the heavens alludes to the longing expressed in Isaiah 64.1, that God would come down and rescue his people, vanquishing their enemies, and the opened heavens are an apocalyptic sign of God’s revelation in both Ezekiel and Revelation. The sending of the Spirit is an eschatological act in Joel 2.32 brought to completion in Acts 2.
The language of ‘my son, my beloved, in whom I delight’ take us back to at least two significant OT passages. The first is Gen 22.2, where God calls Abraham to offer his ‘son, whom you love’ as a sacrifice; the end of that narrative is the fulfilment of Abraham’s claim that ‘God will provide the sacrifice’. The second is the Servant Song in Is 42.1, where God’s servant ‘in whom I delight’ will be anointed with God’s Spirit, will bring justice to the nations, and has been called ‘in righteousness’ (Is 42.6).
But the whole episode suggests a range of other OT passages as well, some more strongly signalled than others. The combination of a dove and the Spirit over the water reminds us of the beginning of creation, when the Spirit of God broods over the chaotic deep. Do we have here a suggestion that Jesus is the one who brings the new creation (2 Cor 5.17?)
A dove also comes across the water in the account of Noah and the flood in Genesis 6–9. Noah’s father believed that Noah would bring people ‘rest’ and relief from the curse of sin (Gen 5.29), and he leads a faithful remnant, rescuing them from the judgement of God on the sin of the world after the ‘heavens were opened’ (Gen 7.11). Could Jesus be the one to rescue us from judgement, and give us true rest (Heb 4.1–11)?
Ezekiel (Ezek 1.1, 2.2) stands by a river, sees heaven opened, and receives a vision of God in which he is commissioned for is prophetic ministry promising God’s people a return from exile. Is Jesus the one who will finally bring his people home?
And as we have seen, passing through the waters of the Jordan was a key moment in the saga of God’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt, when they finally completed their journey and entered the promised land (Joshua 3–4). Is Jesus (his name being the Greek version of Joshua) the one who will finally deliver God’s people from all their slavery to sin, and complete the promise of God’s deliverance?
It might be challenging to spot all these allusions and echoes, and there is a large question as to whether Mark is pointing us in these directions, or whether we find them by standing back and seeing connections between the different elements of the biblical narrative. And these connections are certainly not designed to create ‘insiders’ who are the only ones to get the connections. But when we are reminded of these other episodes in the life of God’s people, we can see how they are brought to completion in the ministry of Jesus—then and now.
God is not quoting the Old Testament, nor setting a puzzle for the scripturally erudite hearers to unravel. He is declaring in richly allusive words that this man who has just been baptised by John is his own son in whom he delights. From this point on, [the gospel’s] readers have no excuse for failing to understand the significance of Jesus’ ministry, however long it may take the actors in the story to reach the same Christological conclusion. (R T France, NICOT on Matthew, p 124)