First Thoughts on Year B Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

The Baptism of Jesus

William Loader

Baptism of Jesus: 8 January Mark 1:4-11

‘O that you would rend the heavens and come down!’ These words of Isaiah 64:1 may have influenced Mark’s choice of language here: Jesus ‘saw the heavens rent open’ (1:10). This is a very graphic way of doing christology. In Jesus there is a meeting of the God sphere and the human sphere. I sometimes think it is helpful to turn the whole scene upside down: in Jesus God surfaces from the depths in a special way! Mark offers little explanation. Nothing he says diminishes God’s "godness" or Jesus’ humanity. He simply reports Jesus’ baptism vision in a way that makes unmistakably clear that the story which follows is about God’s activity, the good news of God (1:14) and this is inextricably bound up with the activity of Jesus over the months that follow.

We need to move forwards and backwards from this heaven rending vision to be able to weigh its significance. Backwards, we find Jesus immersed by John in the Jordan, taking his place among John’s hearers as one who responds to the call to be ready for God’s future, ready to be immersed in it. That future is the focus rather than human cult heroes, so Mark has no worries portraying Jesus as submitting to John’s novel rite (usually you immersed yourself!). Preoccupation with power and status will find the scene embarrassing and need to drop John down a peg or two.

Back further (1:7-8) we find John asserting clearly that the one to come is his superior and will baptise with Spirit, as he baptised with water. Reading forwards we expect some news about this one who will baptise with the Spirit and the baptismal scene provides it. Here is both the person of whom John spoke and the Spirit with which he will baptise, descending like a dove (a symbol of gods? of the hovering Spirit of Genesis? certainly gentle). If we did not know Luke’s writings and his report in Acts of the day of Pentecost, we would expect that this immersing in the Spirit is about to take place. Doubtless this is Mark’s meaning. Jesus is about to baptise in the Spirit; he is about to commence his ministry which is the good news of God.

Though the word, Spirit, occurs infrequently in Mark, it comes at key points which confirm that Mark sees John’s prophecy being fulfilled in Jesus’ ministry. The Spirit takes Jesus away into the wilderness (1:12). In 3:28-30 Jesus describes his exorcisms, in particular, as works of the Spirit. Baptising with the Spirit, according to Mark, is being a bearer of the Spirit to people in a way that brings release and freedom. It is sad that such a rich image has been reduced in some circles to a description of a ‘second high’ in spiritual, emotional experience. It is profoundly spiritual and profoundly earthed, is repeatable (unlike John’s baptism) and has to do with being set free so, in turn, to become good news for others.

1:7-8 also focus on the person of Jesus. He is stronger. He is more worthy. Again the baptismal scene tells us why. He is the bearer of the Spirit; we are enabled to see that. Then we hear: ‘You are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.’ In these words there is a flood of allusions. We might think of Abraham’s ‘beloved son’, Isaac (Gen 22). I doubt that all the associated imagery of sacrifice is meant here, because the focus is on the actions of ministry through the Spirit. Or does the rent heaven already point forward to the rent curtain of the temple at Jesus’ death? Possibly, possibly not.

There is, however, a clear allusion to Isaiah 42:1, ‘You are my servant in whom I am well pleased’, which links Jesus to the prophetic calling often associated with the Spirit (also in Isaiah 42:1; see also Isaiah 61:1). But even here there is not a direct quotation; rather the words are; ‘You are my beloved son’. Perhaps in the tradition before Mark, Greek and Aramaic words which meant both servant and child facilitated the change, but in Mark clearly Jesus is addressed as ‘Son’, as he will be, again, at the transfiguration (9:9).

Perhaps the adoption formula employed at royal coronations and preserved in Psalm 2:7 (‘You are my son; today I have made you my son/given birth to you’) has influenced the wording. It was very probably applied also in speculation about the coming future anointed (messiah/Christ) king of Israel. Such an anointed one was to be anointed with the Spirit (Isaiah 11:2). Certainly for Mark Jesus is the fulfilment of that messianic hope, but he is also more than Israel’s messiah, a ‘son of David’ (see Mark 12:35-37). Mark is telling us that Jesus stands in a special relationship to God, such that God can address him as his beloved (almost ‘chosen’, ‘only’) Son. Mark can do this without apparently knowing of or espousing the kind of christology which portrays Jesus as existing in the heavens as God’s son long before his birth, or, in Mark’s case, ministry, such as we find in John and also in its early stages in Paul. The sequence of passing through water and then into the wilderness may also be suggesting that Jesus is representative of God’s people, God’s children, Israel.

It is likely that all these threads come together in the weave. Jesus is God’s beloved son, who, as the parable of the wicked tenants expounds (12:1-12), has come in the succession of the prophets, seeking the fruits of the harvest. Preoccupation with possession and power on the part of the tenants will kill him. They will not find him pleasing at all!

Back further still (1:4-6) we find the first instalment of God’s new initiative: the coming of John, calling people to change and providing a novel rite through which people could appropriate forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness of sins and the novel rite are not abandoned when Jesus comes, but form a continuing part of the message (although during his ministry we hear nothing of baptism). Indeed some people become so preoccupied with them that they would describe the gospel only in terms of forgiveness of sins, missing out all that Jesus adds!

Looking forward beyond 1:9-11 will also interpret the text and belongs to the coming Sundays. Stopping at 1:9-11 might have been enough to found a cult. But Mark wants us to see the good news rather in terms of dynamic action which flows from the Spirit and the special relation of Jesus to God, a model also for what it means to be Christian and to be Christian community.

Epistle: Baptism of Jesus: 8 January  Acts 19:1-7

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