The Sunday lectionary gospel reading for the First Sunday of Lent in Year B is Mark 1.9–15. Come and join Ian and James as they discuss the text in the video above, or explore the commentary below.
I have to say I am finding what the lectionary is doing with the opening chapter of Mark’s gospel is a bit odd, and would love to hear an explanation from anyone who understands it! (John 1–2 gets pretty messed around as well…)
|2 Before Lent
|Sunday before Lent
So today is our fourth reading from Mark 1, and once again it is out of order with our previous reading and again overlaps readings earlier in the liturgical year. I would have thought there is a better way to read it—though, as I have noted several times, this chapter is both very compressed and dense with allusions to the Old Testament, so perhaps there is no harm in going over parts of it again!
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. The second phrase ‘in those days’ also adds a sense of weight and significance, and we sense this in the AV: ‘And it came to pass in those days…’ signals events of biblical proportions about to take place.
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 three 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). And the third is the Ps 2.7, a text of royal enthronement. The three together tell us that Jesus is the royal Son of God, who comes as the Lord’s servant to surrender his life as a sacrifice—and this combination matches the striking later juxtaposition of his recognition as ‘the Christ’, the announcement of suffering, and the glory of the Transfiguration that we will meet in chapters 8 and 9 (and have of course, just encountered in the lectionary readings).
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, NICNT on Matthew, p 124)
In the very brief description of Jesus’ temptation in the desert, Mark piles on his characteristic style. ‘Immediately’ (or ‘at once’, TNIV) the Spirit acts, continuing Mark’s punning on the ‘straight way’ that has been prepared for Jesus—though this is hardly a straight way which is easy and without challenge. Again we have the typical parataxis: ‘And immediately…and he was there…and he was with…and the angels…’
Mark uses the most forceful of images: the Spirit hurls Jesus (ekballo) into the desert. This is not the moment to ask Trinitarian questions arising from later, more developed, theological understanding of the ‘persons’ of God; with our Old Testaments open in front of us, we understand the spirit of God to be God’s dynamic presence and power, sovereignly pushing, pulling, lifting and driving people here, there and everywhere. It becomes clear that the affirmation that Jesus has been given by the heavenly voice is not for his comfort and ease, but to prepare him for what is to come. And sonship is less about privilege and more about unflinching obedience in the face of trial and challenge.
The image of the desert or wilderness, and the time period of ‘forty’, immediately conjure up the mention of the Exodus wanderings for forty years. In biblical terms, this was both a time of testing but also one of God’s wooing his people, and establishing intimacy with them. But we also remember the forty days and nights of the flood in Gen 8.6, and Elijah’s forty day flight to Mount Horeb in 1 Kings 19.8. But each of these times also points to a new epoch in salvation history—the new covenant with Noah (Gen 9.8–17), the giving of the tablets of the law to Moses, and the entry into the Promised Land (Ex 16.35)—and this will happen once more with the outpouring of the Spirit following Jesus’ forty days teaching about the kingdom after his resurrection (Acts 1.3). The wheels of history are turning under the sovereignty of God through the obedience of Jesus to the direction of the Spirit.
No details are given here about the nature of the testing Jesus experiences; all we need to know is that he triumphed. Mark uses the biblical language of ‘the Satan’, the Adversary, the one who tested and opposed God’s people in the OT (Job 1–2, 1 Chron 21.1, Zech 3.1–2) and now the one who attempts to steal away the life-giving word of God (Mark 4.15) and deflect Jesus from the path God has called him to (Mark 8.33).
Mark alone mentions the ‘wild beasts’ (which is the reason for choosing the Stanley Spencer picture at the top), and it is not immediately clear whether this suggests that Jesus was in an Edenic paradise, at peace with nature, or whether these are part of the menacing wilderness. The term therion can have both positive and negative connotations. Though Mark does not mention Jesus’ fasting, he agrees with Matt 4.11 that angels attended to his needs; Jesus is here no solo superhero, but depends on the provision of God.
The Fourth Gospel depicts continuity between the ministry of Jesus and John the Baptist, with their disciples both baptising at the same time in John 3.22–24, and Matthew uses the same language for the message of John and Jesus. But Mark suggests some discontinuity; breaking with his ‘and…and’ style, he uses the adversative de, ‘but’ or ‘now’. Yet what has happened to John (which we will hear more about in Mark 6), ‘handed over’ or arrested, is what Jesus will both predict and experience for himself.
We have only a hint here of the content of Jesus’ preaching, and we have to wait until chapter 4 until we learn any more detail—but we immediately learn the most important things. First, Jesus is preaching ‘the gospel of God’; it is the ‘good news’ that Mark introduced his writing with in Mark 1.1, and here is the only time in the gospels it is describe as the ‘gospel of God’ (though Paul uses this phrase several times, eg Rom 1.1, 15, 16, 1 Thessalonians 2.2). Jesus is, following his experience in the desert, completely aligned with the purposes of God.
The language of ‘time’ is kairos meaning ‘season’ or ‘opportunity’ or ‘moment’, rather than chronos referring to a date in the calendar; in modern Greek the term can mean ‘weather’! The long-expected moment has come, and God is present with his people. The perfect tense of ‘coming near’ suggests that the promised reign of God is now close at hand—close enough to reach out and touch for those who would respond to this moment. Jesus suggests that it has come in nothing other than his own teaching, action and presence—he carries with him this electrifying promise that God has come to rescue his people.
The language of ‘kingdom’ that we are used to can feel rather static; the sense of much more of God’s dynamic, reigning presence amongst his people. Though Paul does not use the language of the kingdom much, it is central to the teaching of Jesus in each of the synoptic gospels. One key point of continuity with John the Baptist’s message is that it calls for a two-fold response: the turning from what has gone before, and the grasping of this moment of promise with the hands of faith. Some have suggested that the present tense of the verb metanoieo suggests a continual openness to ‘change our minds’, which reflects the etymology of the term. But in the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint, LXX), this verb translates the Hebrew term shuv, literally a turning to face the opposite direction. It is used both of the (re)turning of his people to the land, and their turning from their sin to live in holiness before him.
God, in Jesus, is declaring the end of the people’s spiritual exile as they turn back to him and respond to his presence in the person of Jesus.
The temptations of Jesus are often preached as though they were moral examples for us to follow: we should go into the desert; we should face our demons; we should quote from Scripture; and so on. But to preach in this way is in danger of missing the most important thing in preaching: not to put ourselves in the narrative as if we were the most important subject, but to note what God is doing and what God has done. The focus for all three gospels writers is that Jesus has undone the failures of both Israel and Adam; when we are incorporate into Jesus, we are incorporated into this victory, and we share in it by grace rather than by our own efforts—and Mark’s account, by omitting the details of the threefold temptations recorded in Matthew and Luke, encourages us to read in this way. That does not mean, as we face temptations and challenges this Lent, we can avoid the challenge of discipline and effort. But we face these things knowing that Jesus conquered them, in the power of the Spirit, and that the same Spirit is God’s gift to us, and it is his presence that brings victory and enables us to be ‘more than conquerors’ (Rom 8.37; compare Rev 2.7 and parallels).