The Baptism of Jesus

Baptism of Jesus – 2009
Mark 1:4-11
Marian Free
In the name of God who desires that we acknowledge our fallen nature and turn our lives around. Amen.

Mark’s short account of Jesus’ baptism raises a number of questions. Why does Jesus come to be baptized by John? What is the meaning of John’s baptism? Why does John baptize and Jesus does not)? What does it mean that John’s was a baptism for the “forgiveness of sins” and that people were baptized “confessing their sins”? What (especially in the light of the reading from Acts) is baptism with the Holy Spirit?

I don’t yet have the answers to all those questions, but it is obvious that at least two things are happening in this account. The first is that the writer is intent on establishing the distinction between John and Jesus (a theme he will continue to develop). The second is that Mark is establishing who Jesus is and what his role is to be.

As is usual for Mark, the story of Jesus and John is told without any elaboration. A quote form scripture is followed by John’s appearance in the wilderness suggesting that he is the subject of the quote – God’s messenger. He  preaches a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Apparently people flock to him and are baptized – confessing their sins. John declares that the one who is to come is stronger than himself and that he is unworthy even to undo that one’s sandals. He tells us that while he, John, baptizes with water, Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit.

From this short description of John’s activity we can deduce a number of things. Even though John appears to have great success (all Jerusalem and people from the whole of Judea come out to him), he is only the herald announcing another. He preaches a baptism of repentance because his role is to prepare the people for God’s coming among them. John’s identification of Jesus as the stronger of the two evokes an image of Jesus as a divine warrior, or a royal messiah. Thus the scene is set for Jesus’ first appearance in the gospel of Mark.

Jesus’ arrival in the narrative is just as abrupt – “In those days, Jesus came”. However, the language Mark uses: “in those days”, would be familiar to his listeners and would  indicate that Jesus is the one who is expected – that is, he is the one referred to in the quote of v 2 and the one named as Lord in v 3. We are told that Jesus is from Nazareth in Galilee – the only biographical detail we are going to get for the moment.

The voice from heaven combines two Old Testament quotes – Psalm 2:7 “You are my son” and Isaiah 42:1 “behold my servant in whom my soul delights” The first affirms Jesus’ position as the descendant of David and attests to his messianic status, while the second identifies him with the suffering servant of Isaiah. In this subtle way Mark prepares his readers for what is ahead – the one who comes is not the triumphant warrior king, but the servant who will suffer for the people. Mark’s succinct story-telling style is evident here. In just three verses, we are told Jesus’ origin, his identity and his role.

In just eight verses, Mark has demonstrated that John and Jesus are vastly different. One is a prophet who announces the “coming one” and the other both human and divine figure who – we will learn – proclaims the “good news”. One baptizes with water in the OT tradition of ritual cleansing. The other, with allusions to the Old Testament promises of a new creation, will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Here too, Mark has also alerted us to the significance of Jesus. He is the promised messiah but he comes not as a king but as the suffering servant.

But why should Jesus be baptized by John? Surely Jesus would not need to repent? Mark does not provide us with an answer to this question. However, an understanding of the Greek word “metanoi;a ” can help us unravel the conundrum. “metanoi;a” means a change of direction, conversion, repentance. It is not a common word in the NT and is found mostly on the lips of John the Baptist. When John uses the word it means “repentance of sins” in view of the nearness of the anointed one. It is also refers to a change of direction – that is, a radical acknowledgement of God and of the fallenness of humanity – a recognition that involves surrendering the certainty of salvation and in so doing opening the possibility obtaining it.

At the same time, it is not unusual in the Old Testament for repentance to refer to an act of God. So a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, may also refer to a decision by God to withhold judgement either on the basis of an act of contrition by the people or simply as a result of God’s inability to withhold God’s love. Either way, repentance here represents an appreciation of the necessity of throwing oneself on God’s mercy rather than depending on one’s own efforts.

In contrast to John, there is very little evidence that Jesus preaches repentance. When Jesus uses the word “metanoi;a” he does so in the context of his preaching of the Kingdom of God. He begins his ministry proclaiming: “Repent and believe in the good news.” For John repentance is associated with a change of heart in relation to the fallenness of humanity, for Jesus it is associated with a change of heart in relation to what one believes and how one responds to the teaching and actions of Jesus. In other words, Jesus eliminates the connection of repentance with judgement.

Why then does Jesus come to be baptized? He surely does not need a change of heart? Here in Mark’s gospel, by submitting to John’s baptism, Jesus is demonstrating his solidarity with fallen humanity. He is one of us, one with us.

In this three verse description of Jesus’ baptism, Mark has introduced Jesus, shown him to be both human and divine and implied that he is both the one sent to redeem us and the one who will suffer for and with us.

Mark is a person of few words. That does not mean that they are not well-chosen or that their content is lacking, only that we need to heed what he is saying and to grapple with the layers of meaning contained within.

Mark’s intention is to share with us the good news of Jesus Christ. Our goal should be to allow that good news to change our hearts and transform our lives so that we can in our turn share the gospel with others. Mark’s succinct story-telling style is evident here. In just three verses, we are told Jesus’ origin, his identity and his role.


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