September 29, 2020

Reconsider Jesus – The Baptism (Mark 1:9-11)


Reconsider Jesus – A fresh look at Jesus from the Gospel of Mark
A devotional commentary by Michael Spencer
Compiled and Edited by: Michael Bell
Table of Contents

The Baptism

9 About that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. 10 As soon as Jesus came out of the water, he saw the sky open and the Holy Spirit coming down to him like a dove. 11 A voice from heaven said, “You are my own dear Son, and I am pleased with you.”

Mark 1:9-11 – C.E.V.

When it comes to the story of Jesus’ baptism, most of my “memory” of the event is a combination and harmonization of all four gospel accounts. When we look at Mark’s account by itself, we are struck with its brevity, but also with its directness and the force of its conclusion. Though some well-known critical scholars question whether this event ever occurred, its very inclusion speaks highly of its historicity. To elaborate on what was discussed in a previous chapter, it would have been an embarrassment for the early Christians to explain why the Son of God was baptized by a Jewish prophet in a ceremony that indicated conversion or repentance from sin! Yet, all the Gospel writers make it a centerpiece of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

Time is a hard matter to trace in Mark’s Gospel. Mark hits the ground running and is more concerned with “what’s next” rather than with “when.” This contrasts with Luke, who carefully anchors many events into the historical and political figures of the day.22 As to when Jesus was baptized, it is simply “about that time” or as the NASB version states it: “And it came about in those days.” We can assume that this is during the ministry of John the Baptist. As I have mentioned earlier, it is easy to fit an extended time of contact between John and Jesus into what the Gospels tell us, though it is not certain. I find it unlikely that this was the first time John had met Jesus or vice-versa.

Baptism is not a secret ritual and Jesus certainly publicly presented himself to John. What was going through the mind of those two men has been a fascination for Christians ever since. Why was Jesus baptized? Those who see here a denial of the Christian doctrine of the sinlessness of Christ are being shallow. The message and ministry of John are incomplete without the one who would come after, the bridegroom for whom the friend is only the announcer. What other way was there for Jesus to be presented into the plan and ministry of John? There is also a picture here of the savior of sinners standing in the place of sinners, a preview of the cross that is to come. Most likely, this was simply the place where the Father directed Jesus to go, the place where he would receive the spiritual release for his ministry.

The later Gospels tell us that Jesus had to explain to John the importance of carrying through with this ritual, one that places Christ in a position of humility and service. One of the answers Jesus gives is that it is necessary to “fulfill all righteousness.”23 The heart of Jesus is to submit to the heavenly Father in all things. Those coming out of the waters were proclaiming their ultimate allegiance to the Kingdom and their abandonment of everything to prepare for it. Jesus comes to the waters abandoning family and reputation, completely surrendered to the will of God, while he does not need cleansing, obedience requires him to publicly lead the way that will be the way of his disciples.

Jesus has many admirers today who may imagine they are disciples. Baptism, and the public identification with the purposes of God, was the way chosen by Jesus for himself and his followers. How do we imagine ourselves followers of Jesus if we cannot go the way that Jesus himself followed? While many may say they are “followers” but not “joiners,” you cannot be a Kingdom person and a secret disciple.

The language of baptism would indicate immersion, which the word baptizo most closely resembles. The mode of baptism is relatively unimportant, but for those who want to follow Jesus there is significance in following his example by “coming up out of the water.”24

Water was frequently associated with end-time cleansing and renewal. Passages such as Isaiah 44:3, Ezekiel 36:25-38, and Joel 2:28-32 reminded the Jewish people that the Spirit of the Lord would cleanse and anoint at the time of his Kingdom’s arrival. Jesus’ baptism is the beginning of the fulfillment of these prophecies.

Mark immediately moves on to what happens next. Note his use in verse 10 of the phrase “as soon as”. In other Bible versions it is translated “immediately” or “just as”. This is a favorite Markan device used for tone and pace in the narrative. There is a rush, an immediacy to Mark that is not in the other Gospels. Mark has a movie director’s sense of pace and he pushes his characters at a ruthless pace!25 But there is something to be said for this; Mark wants his readers to be caught up in the action. He doesn’t linger often and wants his audience to follow Jesus literally, as Jesus moves immediately from event to event.

Then the unexpected happens, “the sky opens”, or more literally “the sky was torn open.” The language parallels that of Isaiah 64:1, “Rip the heavens apart! Come down, Lord; make the mountains tremble.” This was not a mere parting of the clouds that is described here, but a sign of God acting directly in the earthly sphere. It speaks of God removing a barrier between himself and his creation, similar to the tearing of the temple veil in Mark 15:38. It also marks the end of God’s silence and the beginning of his speaking through Jesus. When we read about the life of Jesus we should expect the unexpected. This first unexpected event is quickly followed by another, and Mark tells us of the descent of the Holy Spirit and the voice from heaven.

The comparison of the Holy Spirit to a dove never occurs in the Old Testament or in Rabbinic literature. Some say this image may be intended to draw us back to Noah and that the dove is a symbol for a new world. More likely this is purely descriptive and points to some visible aspect of the Spirit’s coming upon Jesus. Those who actually picture a bird landing on Jesus have missed the point! Isaiah 61:1 says that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon the Messiah to anoint him for ministry, and this is undoubtedly the experience Jesus has at his baptism.26 27

The words God uses to identify his son are found in two (or possibly three) Old Testament passages. Psalm 2:7 speaks of the royal Son, Isaiah 42:1 about the suffering servant who pleases God and Genesis 22:2 about the beloved Son who is offered. All these Old Testament motifs surround Jesus at this point. Mark is also identifying Jesus to his readers, but his identity is still a secret to all others. This is the beginning of Mark’s ironic use of secrecy. The reader will know Jesus’ identity, but it will be an unfolding secret to all others. God himself proclaims that this is his son. It is not a matter of human opinion. The scriptures have spoken of him long before he came into the world. Now Father, Son and Holy Spirit come together to inaugurate the Kingdom of God that comes in Jesus.

Jesus’ baptism is a beautiful picture to contemplate. It is a crucial experience in Jesus’ own life, a dividing line between what has gone before and his coming ministry. He will be directed by the Spirit from here to the cross. His baptism is also a model for all of us to follow. It is the public announcement of our heart’s intentions. It is a picture, in water, of a spiritual reality. In baptism, the Spirit comes to us as well, to cleanse and to anoint for ministry. The Father says to each of us that we are his beloved sons and daughters. And where to from here? To the desert of temptation and testing!

—————————————-

Footnotes:

[22] Luke 3:1-2 “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert.” – NIV

Tiberius Caesar started his rule in A.D. 14. which meant that John started his ministry about A.D. 29. This date fits with the dates that we know for the others mentioned in this passage.

[23] Matthew 3:15

[24] The Didache, best described as an early Christian instruction manual, recommended that Baptism be performed if possible in cold running water. However, as a Pastor friend noted, “I see very little spiritual benefit in being baptized in cold water!”

[25] The portrayal of Mark as a Movie Director can be found in the Introduction to Mark in the NIV Student Bible. Notes were written by Philip Yancey and Tim Stafford.

[26] Compare Isaiah 61:1 with Mark 1:14-15 and Luke 4:16-21.

[27] We cannot overlook the similarities between the experience of Jesus here, and the experience of the Apostles in Acts 2. Those who say Jesus had no crucial experiences of this type are going against the clear direction of this entire passage.

Notes from Mike Bell:
1. What questions or thoughts come from your mind from what you have just read?
2. Would you be interested in a paper or Kindle version of the book when it is available? Please email us at michaelspencersnewbook@gmail.com so that we can let you know when it is ready.
3. Find any grammar or spelling errors, phrases that are awkward or difficult to understand? Also send these type of comments to the email address above.

Comments

  1. this is interesting, Mike:

    “The comparison of the Holy Spirit to a dove never occurs in the Old Testament or in Rabbinic literature. Some say this image may be intended to draw us back to Noah and that the dove is a symbol for a new world. More likely this is purely descriptive and points to some visible aspect of the Spirit’s coming upon Jesus. Those who actually picture a bird landing on Jesus have missed the point! Isaiah 61:1 says that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon the Messiah to anoint him for ministry, and this is undoubtedly the experience Jesus has at his baptism”

    reminds me of Genesis 1:2, this
    “. . . . darkness was upon the face of the deep:
    and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”

  2. Susan Dumbrell says

    Small talk from Susan, Rather personal, so treat me gently.
    in Australia.

    I have been attending the Anglican/Church of England since I was a babe. Born Nov 1944. Taken to church in arms by my mother. My father was serving in the forces during WW2..
    My aunts and uncle were my godparents,

    I feel my baptism in March 1945 was a very important event which I have acknowledged for many years as I have progressed as a Christian. My Father was home on leave. Nice photos. He and I loved each other till he died in 1987.

    A few years before John was put in care, he and I went to the town to visit my family graves and we went to the Church of the Holy Trinity where I was baptised..

    We attended worship on the Sunday and we were upset by the evangelical pastor and the lack of correct teaching . No meaningful lessons from the pastor. It was so against our version of worship as John and I had been accustomed to in our many years of marriage,

    The upside of this event was that after the service John and I went back through the church and I went to the Font and the Scallop Shell resting on the rim. This is where I was baptised. I felt myself there. As a babe who has grown in the faith. I still remember the feeling. Overwheming!
    The Holy Spirit was there with me as I looked at this scenario. My past days were there as I stood by the Font,
    Not baptised in a river or a bath tub or someones river or cattle dam.
    Here was the Font where I was blessed for my entire future life. Such a blessing.

    Just there as I stood in His presence.that Sunday.
    Just there many years previously with my godparents, my mother and my father on leave fighting for freedom. Sprinkled with Holy Water and made new.
    What a blessed event.

    I share too much.
    Bless me,
    Susan
    Susan

    • Burro (Mule) says

      God bless you, Susan

    • “We attended worship on the Sunday and we were upset by the evangelical pastor and the lack of correct teaching . No meaningful lessons from the pastor. It was so against our version of worship as John and I had been accustomed to in our many years of marriage,”

      The first Evangelical service I attended was in the early 1990s. My roommate was getting married, so I went to his church. It was part of the regular service, which I thought a bit odd, but was happy to go with the flow. I came out of the experience wondering when the worship service was going to start? We Lutherans have a clear understanding of what constitutes Christian worship: The service of the Word and Holy Communion. Ideally we do both, but at least do one. I was not so naive as to expect communion, but I figured that they would do a pretty thorough job of scriptural readings and a sermon expanding on them. Nope. Just a few snippets of scripture, and a sermon about, oh, I have no idea at this point. Not the scripture. It may have been a typical marriage sermon, which tends to be pretty rote. I wondered at the time if this was atypical, modified for the wedding. I have since learned that it actually is pretty much par for the course. Goodness knows it is easy enough to find Lutheran worship done poorly. But even at its worst, you will get a substantial chunk of scripture.

    • We attended worship on the Sunday and we were upset by the evangelical pastor and the lack of correct teaching . No meaningful lessons from the pastor.

      This has not been my experience.
      In fact, if you took the phrase “evangelical pastor” and replaced it with “liturgical minister” it would mirror my experiences. Of the thousands of sermons I have heard from Evangelical Pastors over the years, only a handful would fit what you have described here. I have not been so fortunate in liturgical churches.

      I think it comes down to the fact that we settle down in churches where we are in agreement with the teaching. Anytime we step outside of that, we are likely to get something that doesn’t fit with what we believe.

      That being said, most Evangelical churches are not a good theological fit for me today, so I would be more likely to experience a discomfort with what is being said. I think though the primary disagreement would not come in what was said but in some of the theological underpinnings. (Calvinism, Pre-trib, anti-science, or also what Michael Spencer called “wretched urgency”.)

      • The strength of a liturgical church is not that the sermons are better. They might be, but then again they might not. I have sat through any number that are gaps in my life that I will never have back. Rather, the strength is that a liturgical church will have substantial scripture readings, and not just the pastor’s favorites that he comes back to constantly. And then it will, if you are lucky, have the eucharist, which by itself is worth the trip.

    • Great big hug to Susan!

  3. Jon Bartlett says

    Mike, please do keep working at this labour of love – I’m enjoying and learning from the posts, and am blessed by hearing Michael Spencer’s voice again. I’ll definitely buy any book that comes out of this exercise. And if that’s OK, I may use some of the contents, or at least the ideas, in our church Zoom Bible studies. Blessings, Jon

    • Hi Jon,

      Thanks for the encouragement. Yes, you can certainly use this in your Bible studies. If you could do me a favor and send an email to address listed, it will help me for now to keep all expressions of interest in one place.

      As an interesting side note, some time ago when I was researching what Michael Spencer’s sources may have been I found the transcript of a Pastor’s sermon that was word for word from one of Michael’s written bible studies. No attribution given.

  4. Burro (Mule) says

    It is something of a mystery to me why the Gospel of Mark is set up the way it is. It skips right over a lot of stuff that figure very prominently in the Orthodox Tradition and spends most of its time recapitulating the last week of Jesus’ life. The Baptism of Jesus is one of these. Of course, the vital feast-of-the-Holy-Theophany elements are there; the Baptist, the river, the Voice, the bird. But its all over in three verses.

    Matthew is the summer Gospel that takes us from Pentecost to the Byzantine new year and the feast of the Cross. After that, Luke the winter Gospel takes over and leads us to the Lenten Triodion. John is the Hallelujah Gospel for after Paschal until Pentecost. It is probably my ignorance showing, but Mark seems to be filler.

    Also, I think our ancestors were far less reflective and less ‘psychological’ than we are. I cannot shake the feeling that they had smaller ‘insides’. There is such an expansion of interior space from Gilgamesh to Odysseus, and an even greater one from Odysseus and Aeneas to Hamlet and from thence to À la recherche du temps perdu and Proust’s asparagus. To such unreflective people, I’m certain, Baptism really washed their sins away. Incense was not a ‘symbol’ of prayer, but rather the reverse. Prayer was a substitute for incense, and the lifting up of hands stood instead of an evening (bloody, messy, noisy) sacrifice.

    So, yeah, I’d take issue with the pastor who said he saw no ‘spiritual’ benefit to getting baptized in cold, running water. Probably not if your idea of ‘spiritual’ means replacing the images of the Kardashians that currently fill your head with images of Jesus, the Baptist, and you handing out food packages to smiling Mexican children.

    It wasn’t that long ago that a great poet (Hopkins) could use the word ‘ghostly’ for ‘spiritual’ and it meant something completely other than something that happened inside your cranium.

    • A great point. The ancients were blessedly free of psychologizing which is why referring to the gospels as biographies as some do misses the mark. The ancients were interested in things we never think about and indifferent to things we consider essential (like so-called “formative experiences”). It is literary culture not an oral one that concerns itself with symbols and meanings.

    • Read John Spong’s “Reclaiming the Gospels.” According to him, the Synoptics were all composed with an eye to providing weekly readings with themes matching the Torah portions. Mark only covers half the year; Matthew and Luke extend this to the whole year. The Christian liturgical year gives an idea of how this worked.

  5. Burro (Mule) says

    Screw this.
    I am moderated every day.

    • Annoying to me too. It is not my fault that the WordPress algorithm doesn’t like you, but it does mean that I have to log in more and see if there are any unapproved comments.

      I will try and keep a closer eye on this.

    • I am wondering if your email address is what is causing the moderation. Could you try submitting using a different one?

      • Burro (Mule) says

        I think it’s my username.

        Being an apologist for patriarchy and hierarchy with my posting history, my posts are likely weighted differently than are others’. Natural Language processing software is getting very accurate.

        I could change my username, go full-bore reactionary for a bit, and see if it happens again.

      • I suspect it has to do with certain symbols or fonts used in the emails. If I use words with diacritical markings, italics, etc I get moderated. Otherwise not. Of course for Burro it could be either Antifa or the Chinese secret police. Pick your poison.

        • Burro (Mule) says

          I’ve noticed that too many HTML statements get me moderated. More than one hot link is certain to put you into Time Out. Blockquote is touch and go.

          For statements without tags, longer statements are far more likely to get moderated than longer ones. If there is a lot of posting activity, some posts will be moderated.

          If Antifa or the Chicoms are snipping me, well, Thank you sirs, that’s an honor. I’ve been punking Communists on the Internet since my punchups with Sendero Luminoso apologists on the PERU-L BITNET list in the earliest 90s.

  6. Lots of great content here, but the keeper for me was this line:

    “There is also a picture here of the savior of sinners standing in the place of sinners, a preview of the cross that is to come.”

  7. Ah a great subject so pardon if I blather on for a bit.

    I was raised by rural Georgia hardcore Baptists so when I was baptized as a young child it was in the river. Not the Jordan of course but a tributary of the Flint. I had a profound religious experience during my baptism as a young child; I would even call it mystical, an experience I’ve never had in the context of any other religious rite. So for my whole life I’ve been fascinated by the practice of Baptism. So some comments.

    First, note that the vision that Jesus has of the descent of the Holy Spirit in Mark’s account is experienced by him alone. It is the later gospels who make it a public event witnessed by others. Also note that the figure of the dove is a literary simile. The Holy Spirit descended “like” a dove. It doesn’t mean that Jesus saw a dove.

    Note how John’s role embarrasses the early Christians to some extent. The assumption the reader would have made in context is that the person baptizing is spiritually superior to the one being baptized. Note how the later gospel writers increasingly diminish John’s role and marginalize him. So that by the gospel of John the actual baptism is not depicted and it is John himself who testifies to the descent of the Holy Spirit on Jesus.

    Many scholars think Mark’s lack of distress at John’s role is due to his Christology. There is an interesting textual variant in some of our earliest and best gospel manuscripts that reads “You are my beloved Son, today I have begotten you”. This leads some scholars to think that the depiction of Jesus’ baptism reflects what’s called an “Adoptionist” Christology. Jesus was made the divine Son of God at his baptism because of his righteousness. (This would also account for Mark’s lack of interest in Jesus’ birth. Jesus had a normal human birth.) The thinking is that later scribes altered the text to reflect the developing Christology we see in later gospels. (This a complex argument and I submit if for what it’s worth not to start an ruckus.)

    Finally, there’s a whole lot we don’t know about the practice of baptism. Functionally I mean. How did it work exactly? Did John personally dunk every candidate like a good modern Baptist preacher? Was it a personal ablution like you find in ancient Jewish purity rituals? I had the chance to ask Joel Marcus, the scholar I mentioned last time, and he confessed we just don’t know. So every denomination and sect can have it their own way, dunk, sprinkle or spray!

    • I remember reading the suggestion that Jesus believed himself to be possessed by the Holy Spirit of God, Ruach ha-Kodesh, which allowed him to work miracles (much like our TV evangelists and Pentecostal preachers do). Later Christian Trinitarian theology has made hash of this apocalyptic Jewish belief system, which was still monotheistic despite being inhabited by all kinds of angelic spirits.

  8. Was baptized at age 10 in a German Immigrant Baptist church. I understood the baptism to mean, that because of my repentance and profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Savior of the world, having died in my place on the cross, I will now be buried in the waters to rise with Him to a new life, in the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Much happened to me in my life between 10 and 18 when I rededicated my life to serve Him, and follow Him faithfully. More recently folks are trying to persuade others in my circle, that because the baptism was in the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, it is not valid, and one should be re-baptized or else one is lost forever. It should have been done as Peter says, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off–for all whom the Lord our God will call.” Acts 2 I recall that the thief on the cross beside Christ, was not even baptized.Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” For me, though I believed the Holy Spirit lives within, was my Teacher, Guide, and Comforter, I was only given the gift of tongues at a very spiritually needy time much later in my life, to bring me to wholeness in my faith journey. He’s still working on me. I would love to hear your comments on this.

    • David Greene says

      “More recently folks are trying to persuade others in my circle, that because the baptism was in the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, it is not valid, and one should be re-baptized or else one is lost forever. It should have been done as Peter says, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”

      The only thing I would like to say that if it comes down to the specific phraseology used in baptism then it has been reduced down to little more than a meaningless magic incantation. What is valid is not the exact phrase used but the commitment to Jesus.