Someone has said, “Preparation is half the battle.” How often do plans fail for lack of preparedness? How often are we like the young man I once observed speaking with the manager of a gas station about getting a job? He was wearing his pajamas; his hair was a mess. He looked like he had just rolled out of bed. He was obviously not prepared for this interview and probably didn’t get the job.
At the beginning of his Gospel, Mark teaches us the importance of preparation. His Gospel is a record of the most important plan ever enacted, the ministry of Jesus Christ. As we consider Jesus’ preparation for his ministry, our faith in his finished work can be greatly strengthened.
Mark 1:2-13 gives a distilled account of three stages of Christ’s incarnational ministry. In the first stage the people are being prepared by John the Baptist. In the second two stages the focus shifts to Christ’s preparation. At the end of this brief account we rightly have high hopes for the ministry that is to follow. Christ’s Herald (1:2-8)
Christ came to preach the good news of the kingdom of God, as the King of that kingdom. But every king has a herald, someone who goes before the king and announces his coming. Christ’s herald was John.
Who was John the Baptist? If you would have asked him that question he would have said, “I’m a nobody.” He didn’t want people to know who he was because he came to point people to Christ. In honor of John’s request not to focus on himself we’ll be brief. John was born under miraculous circumstances to Zacharias and Elizabeth. He lived in obscurity for most of his life. One day he came out of the wilderness, preached Christ with all his might for a short time, and then was beheaded by Herod (Matt. 14:3, 10). He was a man who gave his life to Christ. Rather than focus on who John was we focus on three ways in which he served as a herald.
John Came Fulfilling Prophesy
John testified to Christ by being the one the Old Testament said would come to prepare his way. Appropriately, Mark uses the Old Testament to introduce Jesus’ harbinger (vv. 2, 3). Mark first quotes from Malachi 3:1. In its broader context Malachi 3 foretells that the Messiah would come to judge the temple. Before this judgment God would send his messenger to prepare the way. By quoting from the last of the Old Testament prophets Mark skillfully links John the Baptist to the long line of messengers whom God sent to his people (Heb. 1:1).
Mark then quotes from Isaiah 40:3. Isaiah 40 begins Isaiah’s message of comfort. Before the Messiah would come to deliver his people they would hear “the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.’” Isaiah said that a messenger would cry out in the wilderness; Mark 1:4 says that John came baptizing and crying out in the wilderness.
Mark introduces John the Baptist with these two passages to show the dual purpose of Christ’s coming: to judge the illegitimate sons of the kingdom and to deliver his true sons from bondage to sin. John serves as Christ’s herald by fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies which predicted that Christ would have a forerunner.
John’s role as forerunner is also shown by his style (1:6). Mark’s reference to John’s clothes of camel’s hair and leather belt seem strange until we understand their purpose. John is here compared with Elijah, who was a hairy man who wore a leather belt (2 Kings 1:8). The last two verses of the Old Testament (Mal. 4:5-6) say that Elijah would return before Messiah would. Mark here suggests what Christ would blatantly state: Elijah has come (cf. Mark 9:13)!
John Came Preaching a Baptism of Repentance
John’s message of repentance is a perfect hinge between the law-dominated Old Testament and the gospel-saturated New Testament.1
So important was John’s message that it is highlighted by a visible symbol of baptism. The Bible says a lot about the meaning of baptism. Baptism is a sign of covenant membership and of identification with the people of God. But here baptism focuses on personal sinfulness. John heralds Christ’s coming through baptism by emphasizing the reason for his coming: to remit sins. Baptism symbolizes our need for cleansing. For believers it is a seal of the forgiveness of sins and a call to new obedience. If you have been baptized, then you are identified as someone who has a problem with sin. You have also been identified as one who can look confidently to Christ for forgiveness of sins.
John Came Magnifying Christ
John magnifies Christ through two sayings (vv. 6-8). First, John speaks of his own unworthiness compared with Christ. “Christ is so great that I am not worthy to touch his shoes!” Not his feet, but his shoes! As evidence of his union with Christ, John thought great things of Christ and spoke great things of him. John’s faith was anything but private!
Second, John says that although he baptized with water, Christ will baptize with the Spirit (v. 8). John makes the point that there is a difference between him as the outward administrator of baptism and Christ as the “author of spiritual baptism.”2 Mark is insisting, early in his record, that the Messiah is no mere man. After all, who can command the Spirit of God but God himself?
Christ’s Baptism (1:9-11)
John’s baptism prefaces the baptism of Christ, which provides an opportunity to reflect on the name “Christ.”
The Name “Christ”
In the baptism of Jesus his title of Messiah (from the Hebrew for “anointed one”; the Greek form is “Christ”), though not used, is graphically illustrated. To understand this important concept we need to look to the Old Testament. The kings of Israel were anointed with oil and thereby singled out for the office to which they had been called. Likewise, when King Jesus is introduced by his herald, he too is anointed, not with oil but with the Holy Spirit in his baptism. Christ was anointed to be a mediator, or one who bring resolution to two parties in conflict. Christ’s baptism is his ordination service.3 The mediatorial nature of Christ’s ministry is clearly seen from the way Christ identifies with both man and God in his baptism.
Christ’s Identification with Man
Mark tells us that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee for his baptism. This seemingly small detail is quite important. When the disciple Nathanael heard that Jesus was from Nazareth he said to Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). Jesus’ geographical extraction showcases his humility.
Jesus identifies with his people not only by hailing from an insignificant city but also by undergoing the rite of baptism. Jesus underwent John’s baptism of repentance which was for the remission of sins. Did Jesus need to have sins forgiven? No. But, as Paul writes, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21).
Identification with God
Jesus’ baptism account is one of the great Trinitarian texts of the Bible. In Jesus’ baptism the three distinct persons of the Godhead are shown to be intimately united. The Father speaks to the Son in words of affirming love. The Spirit, in the form of a dove, publicly sets him apart indicating that this is no ordinary man. As the Anointed One he has been distinguished from all other people (cf. Is. 61:1) and equipped for a monumental task. How meaningful were those powerful words which pulsed through Christ’s mind: “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Christ was about to begin a public ministry that would bring upon him shame, hostility, powerful temptation to sin, death, and even hell. God urges obedience by reminding his Son of their intimate and blessed relationship. Jesus was baptized in the Father’s love to prepare him for a second baptism of the Father’s wrath on Calvary (Luke 12:50).
If Christ’s baptism was encouraging to him, it is to believers as well. Christians always have the Spirit, but God uniquely prepares us for difficult tasks. Sometimes we are filled with fear to step out of ourselves for God. We need to remember that where God calls he also empowers. We also need to remember God’s pattern as we urge others to greater faithfulness. How often do we sound like the Scranton, Pennsylvania, radio personality who introduces his show every day by shouting: “You better listen!”? God is setting a pattern of communication. He was not content to assume that his Son knew of his love. He knew that something powerful happens when we verbally affirm the love we have for others.
These words of the Father are also important words for how we view Christ. If the Father was not pleased with his Son, then we could not be saved. We are staking our lives on the sacrifice of Christ’s own life which he offered to the Father. If that life was not well pleasing to the Father, then we have no forgiveness. But we can have the confidence of knowing that Christ’s sacrifice was accepted by God because he was his beloved Son. In fact, God says these same words to believing Christians. If you have repented of your sins and trusted in Christ as mediator, then the Father says to you today, “You are my beloved, adopted son or daughter, in whom I am well pleased.” It is true that everything we do is stained with sin. But, as Paul affirms, “I am crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).
Christ’s Temptation (1:12-13)
Following his baptism, Jesus is three times tempted by Satan in a dry and solitary setting surrounded by wild beasts. The name “Satan” means “adversary.” This is an appropriate introduction to the clash that Jesus was initiating between himself and the devil. In just a few short years this adversary would be defeated even though he will not be fully incapacitated until the last day.
We can understand only a little of how Jesus was tempted because we are so prone to give in to temptation and therefore rarely ever experience its full power. In football, quarterbacks can’t afford to experience the full hit of the linemen so they often just slide down when they are about to be hit. This is what you and I often do. The husband who is tempted to get angry at his wife fights the urge for a moment and then gives in. The man who is tempted to look at pornographic images on the computer might go a few days or weeks without looking but then gives in. A woman is tempted to share that shocking bit of gossip but before the temptation even gets strong, she gives in. We have never experienced the intensity of temptation which Christ experienced because we give in so quickly. “In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Heb. 12:4, NIV). But Christ did!
Here is the comfort in Christ’s temptation: he did not give in. As Christians we struggle sometimes with doubt. We look at our sins and are grieved and wonder how we could possibly be saved. We wonder at how easily we give in to temptation. We are terrified by our failures. It is in times like this that we must take comfort in the temptation of Christ, because he passed the test! Your salvation does not depend on your performance but on Christ’s. And here we have a grand demonstration that Christ will never fail us.
Jesus’ temptation was heightened by his physical weakness. Matthew and Luke tell us that had nothing to eat during that time. Probably the longest that some of us have gone without food is less than one day. Think about how easily Esau gave up his birthright because he hadn’t eaten for a few hours or maybe for a few days. But here Christ hadn’t eaten for forty days and holds fast to his birthright which becomes our blessing by faith in him. Christ is here contrasted with God’s disobedient son, Israel, who wandered in the wilderness forty years (Num. 14:34). He is shown to be the true ark of salvation which was battered about a turbulent sea for forty days and nights (Gen. 7:12).
At the conclusion of this God-ordained time of testing, God the Father ministered to by his son through angels. The end of obedience is blessing.
In the first lesson we suggested three ways to engage Mark’s Gospel in terms of application: What is Christ teaching? What kind of life does God bless or judge? What do we learn of God’s redemptive work in Christ? The following chapters won’t always outline these questions quite so explicitly, but to underscore the methodology, let’s consider each in turn.
What Is Christ Teaching?
In this passage Christ doesn’t say anything; he utters no promises or commands. But God, in publicizing Christ’s authority, is teaching us the importance of this question. Authority is a huge issue in teaching; jut a few verses later, Mark tells us how the people marveled over Jesus’ authoritative teaching. If you don’t have authority and credentials, then what you say carries little weight. Why is it that when a black-and-white car—with its lights flashing—races up behind your car, you pull over? You instantly recognize that the police officer in your rearview mirror has authority. In his baptism God broadcasts the absolute authority of his Son; in his temptation Christ proves his authority. Understandably, newly commissioned military officers fresh out of college struggle to command the same respect as seasoned and tested soldiers. In the wilderness Christ is tested and demonstrates his right to our respect and obedience.
What Kind of Life Does God Bless or Curse?
God blesses the life of total commitment. How else could you describe the life of John the Baptist (Matt. 11:11)? But we also learn that God blesses the life of repentance. You will never outgrow sin in this life. But, by God’s grace, you can develop a lifelong habit of “repentance leading to salvation” (2 Cor. 7:10).
What Do We Learn About Christ’s Redemptive Work?
God is fulfilling the promise made in the Old Testament that he would defeat Satan, and he’s doing that through his beloved Son. In the garden of Eden the first Adam scurries away before the victorious devil (Gen. 3:8); in the wilderness of Judea, the devil limps away before the victorious second Adam (Luke 4:13).
Preparation is half the battle. After this preparation we have a pretty good sense of how the battle between Christ and Satan is going to go. This Gospel is good news! And keep in mind . . . this is only the beginning! 1. Calvin sees the beginning of John’s preaching as “the abrogation of the law and the beginning of the gospel, strictly speaking” (Harmony of the Gospels, 1:174). 2. Calvin, Harmony of the Gospels, 1:197. Calvin also maintains, in this connection, that Christian baptism today is the same as that which John administered. 3. Erdman, Gospel of Mark, 24.
Points to Ponder and Discuss
1. What do you learn about Christ by reading Mark’s opening Old Testament quotations in their original contexts?
2. How does John the Baptist glorify Christ?
3. How can we imitate John in glorifying Christ?
4. To what degree is your life characterized by confession of sins?
5. Why does the Father pronounce his love to Jesus at his baptism?
6. Is there anything about the Father’s declaration that we can bring into our various relationships?
7. How does Christ’s baptism convince us of his sympathy with and toward sinners?
8. Reflect on the fact that it was the Spirit who drove Jesus into the wilderness to test him (Mark 1:12).
9. Why is Christ’s temptation significant for the believer?
Rev. William Boekestein is the pastor of Covenant Reformed Church in Carbondale, PA (URCNA).