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Mark 1

Scripture: Mark 1:1-45

Overview:

  • John the Baptist shows up and starts baptizing people (go figure) in the wilderness just as Isaiah, the prophet, prophesied.
  • The people flock to see John the Baptist but he tells them, “I’m just the opening act. I’m nothing compared to the one who comes after me. He’s gonna baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
  • Jesus shows up and gets baptized by John in the Jordan
  • As Jesus is baptized, the Spirit of God lands on him and a voice from heaven declares him to be God’s son.
  • Jesus then heads out into the wilderness and is tempted.
  • After John gets put in jail Jesus starts preaching (in Galilee) that the kingdom of God is near.
  • Jesus sees Simon and Andrew working as fishermen. He tells them to follow him. They do.
  • In Capernaum, on the Sabbath, Jesus is teaching in the synagog when he’s (rudely) interrupted by a man with an evil spirit who hollers out, “What’s up, Holy One of God? What did I ever do to you?”
  • Jesus casts out the evil spirit. The audience is sufficiently amazed.
  • After leaving the synagog, Jesus and his disciples (which now include James and John) head to Simon’s house and heal his mother-in-law
  • The healings make Jesus popular, so all the sick people start flocking to him
  • Jesus gets up early in the morning and goes to a solitary place for a little alone time and prayer
  • The disciples track Jesus down and they travel throughout Galilee preaching and healing
  • A man with leprosy asks Jesus if he’s willing to heal him.
  • Jesus is willing and the man is healed.
  • Post healing, Jesus tells the man to keep his mouth shut and go to the temple to purify himself
  • The man blabs to everyone about his healing, making Jesus even more popular, so popular he has a hard time entering towns from then on.

Historical Context:

John the Baptist

Baptism was not an invention of John, nor was it unique to the Israelites. Ritual washings have been around since ancient times.

In Judaism, “tvilah” is a purification ritual of immersing in water, which is required for conversion to Judaism. If a gentile became a proselyte, besides keeping the Sabbath and avoiding defiled meat, he had to be circumcised, offer a sacrifice, and be immersed (baptized) as a sign of his cleansing from past pollutions and the beginning of his new, purified life as a member of the household of God. (GCI)

It is interesting that John was calling Jews (already God’s people) to be baptized as though they were gentile proselytes.

John identifies himself as a prophet in the same vein as Elijah by his dress–both had a leather belt around his waist and a hairy garment (see 2 Kings 1:8).

John the Baptist is also identified by Mark as a prophet in the role of anointing Jesus as the king (messiah = “the anointed one”).  The story of Jesus’ baptism is reminiscent of Samuel’s selection and anointing of David in 1 Samuel 16:13: “So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him [David] in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David.”

John the Baptist was an influential person in first century Palestine. His relationship with Jesus was important to relay to the early Christians. In the Gospel of John it seems as though Jesus may have been a follower of John (John 3:26), and that at least some of Jesus’ disciples were originally followers of John (John 1:30). In Luke, it is asserted that John the Baptist and Jesus were cousins. And according to the first century Jewish historian, Josephus, John the Baptist: “was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness.” (Wikipedia)

In all the gospel accounts, John the Baptist acknowledges his role as secondary to the one coming after him. Note how John declares his baptism (with water) as mere preparation for theMessiah’s baptism (with the spirit) which will inaugurate the new age of the Spirit. John even declares himself to be lower than a slave when he says he’s unfit to tie the messiah’s sandals.

Prepare the Way

Mark starts with an Old Testament reference declaring that a messenger would come to “prepare the way” for the Lord. “Preparing the way” originally referred to physical the preparation needed for a royal visit (Isa. 57:14; 62:10).  (Bible.org)

Mark seems to be quoting Isaiah 40:3  “A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lordmake straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lordwill be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’” 

However, there are also similarities in his quote with Malachi. 3:1“I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LordAlmighty.”

The implication that the messenger would be Elijah comes from Malachi 4:5: “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”  

Mark may be further referencing Isaiah with the usage of the term “gospel” or “good news” as in Isaiah 40:9: “You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’”

Dove

One might ask that when Jesus saw the Spirit descending, did he later describe something metaphorically, (i.e. as a dove would fly) or literally (i.e. it looked like a dove)?

It has been pointed out by some that Isaiah 42 implies God intends the Messiah to be gentle and humble when the prophet says, “Behold my servant whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not fail or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law.” (Jesus.org) In this sense, it would imply that the dove was metaphorical–gentle, peaceful, gracious.

However, the text may also be literal. Jesus may have seen something fluttering and white that reminded him of a dove.

The dove is associated with certain religious sacrifices, as a messenger of hope for Noah, and is generally considered a symbol of peace and gentleness in all ages. (Coffman)

Son of God

Psalm 2: 7, a coronation psalm,  says, “He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have become your father,” which establishes that to the ancient Hebrews the anointed King was understood as the “Son of God.” This same concept is found in 2 Samuel 7:13-14, where the Lord promises to David (regarding Solomon): “He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son.” (Turton)

The term “son” in the Old Testament could refer to (1) the nation of Israel; (2) the King of Israel; or (3) the coming Davidic Messianic King.

Wilderness

The wilderness had theological significance as a location. It was seen as a place of purity/purification. The Essenes themselves went into the wilderness (Qumran) for this very reason. It was seen as the place in which one could prepare to meet God. The place were God’s way could be prepared devoid the corruption of the cities, so that God could enter the cities triumphantly.

Unclean Spirits

In Mark, “unclean spirit” is used synonymously with “demon.” The term carries with it the idea of estrangement from God. Usually physical or mental disease accompanied the possession by demons. (Robertson)

Exorcisms were not uncommon in the first century. The historian Josephus reports exorcisms were performed in ancient Israel by administering poisonous root extracts and others by making sacrifices. The Dead Sea Scrolls mention that exorcisms were done by the Essene branch of Judaism. (Wikipedia)

Ancient exorcisms often involved a fumigation of incense of smoke, charms being spoken or inscribed on an amulet, or other ritual objects. Also, the exorcist generally called on another spirit greater than the demon to flush the demon out (for example, the spirit of Moses or Abraham).

The people no doubt marveled that Jesus cast out an unclean spirit by simply telling it to come out. It was done by a word. He did it in his own name, and by his own authority. (Barnes)

It has been noted that throughout his ministry Jesus demonstrated a rejection of popular first century notions regarding demons. “He commanded the crumbs to be taken up after the feeding of multitudes, defying the superstition that demons lurked in crumbs; also the popular notion that demons could take advantage of people who borrowed water was flaunted by our Lord’s borrowing water from the woman of Samaria. The Saviour himself represented demons as preferring ‘waterless places’; but he did not hesitate to frequent waterless places, or desert places.” (Coffman)

Messianic Secret

Jesus often tells those he heals, or those who are demon possessed and loudly professing him to be God, to remain silent after their cure. This is often referred to as the Messianic Secret (see previous blog post for more details). Simply put, Mark is most likely emphasizing that Jesus did  this to communicate that his identity as the messiah cannot be solely understood through his miracles.  Jesus can only be fully recognized and proclaimed God when seen through his sacrifice on the cross and subsequent resurrection.

Leprosy

Leprosy meant many types of skin diseases in the first century, not simply what we consider leprosy today. However, regardless of the condition, the Jewish law forbade contact with a leper (Numbers 5:1).

The fact that Jesus touched the leper was evidence that Jesus regarded him as already clean. (Barnes)

Note how when Jesus says, “I am wiling” he is declaring himself more than just a healer, he is declaring himself divine. Only God can work a miracle. Yet Jesus does it by his own will –by an exertion of his own power. (Barnes)

After his healing, Jesus tells the leper to follow the law of Moses and be pronounced clean by the priest. This involved an elaborate ceremony in which one bird was sacrificed and another set free, followed by a period of waiting and then more sacrifices (Lev. 14)

Observations:

  • The opening verse of Mark may be better translated “This is the good news of Messiah Jesus, the Son of God. It began as the prophet Isaiah had written…” (France)
  • The term “gospel” (euangelion) seems to have been in general use as part of a standard phrase arche tou euangeliou (the beginning of the gospel) known from proclamations and inscriptions from the time of Augustus. The phrase “Son of God” (theou hyios) was also used of Roman emperors (Turton)
  • Note how Mark proclaims Jesus as the anointed one and the Son of God, then immediately tells the story of how Jesus was anointed (via baptism and the spirit descending on him) and declared the Son of God (the voice from heaven)
  • The Holy Spirit is only mentioned six times in Mark. Half of them are in the first 13 verses as a key player in launching Jesus’ ministry. Mark seems to be indicating that Jesus is empowered, directed by and thereby capable of dispensing the Spirit.
  • John preached baptism “for the forgiveness of sins.” The term “forgiveness” literally means “put away.” This is one of several biblical terms for forgiveness. It has metaphorical connections to the Old Testament Day of Atonement where one of the two special goats is driven away from the camp of Israel, symbolically bearing the sin away (Lev. 16:21). (Bible.org)
  • To the outside observer at Jesus baptism, an ordinary man from an obscure village came and was baptized, just like anyone else. Mark implies they didn’t see the spirit, hear the voice, witness the temptations or see the angels. (France) Mark telling us that “He [Jesus] saw the spirit descending…” may imply that only Jesus saw and heard this Messianic affirmation. If so, this would fit into the recurrent theme of Mark’s Messianic Secret (Bible.org)
  • The boats the disciples were on were large fishing boats. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were prosperous middle class fishermen (i.e., had hired servants). John apparently had business contracts to regularly sell fish to the priestly families in Jerusalem (i.e., John was known by them as implied by John 18:15-16). (Bible.org)
  • Notice Peter is the first officially called in Mark, while in John 1:35 it was Andrew. (Bible.org)
  • Meier observes that in the Old Testament fishing for humans is a regular metaphor in the context of judgment and destruction (Jer. 16:16. Ezek. 29:4-5; 38:4; Habakkuk 1:14-17, Amos 4:2).
  • In the synagogue, the presiding elder, after reading the Scriptures, invited any who chose to address the people (Barnes)
  • When the unclean spirit calls out, “What do you want with us?”  This seems to mean, “Have we injured you?” or, “We have done nothing to injure you.” (Barnes)
  • “Amazed” literally means “struck to attention.” Jesus’ teaching style and content were radically different from that of the rabbis. They quoted one another as authorities, but He spoke with his own authority.
  • “It cannot be fortuitous that Mark, in portraying the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, describes three healings: of a demoniac, a mother-in-law, and a leper. The first and last make clear that he is depicting Jesus’ outreach to the most reviled of the community; situated between a demoniac and a leper, “the mother-in-law,” we assume, is an ancient joke. But there are serious implications here as well: before the time of Hillel and Jesus, women, like lepers, were relegated to the outer courts of the Temple, and women received social status only through their relationship to males — usually their fathers or husbands; for a woman to be known through her son-in-law is so extreme as to suggest that Mark is making a special point of her social anonymity.” (Marie Sabin)
  • Notice how all diseases are not connected to demon possession (i.e. the leper and Peter’s mother-in-law). The first century Jews could distinguish between illness and demon possession.

Discussion:

  • Why was Jesus baptized?
  • Why do you think Jesus told people he healed to be silent? Would you have kept silent?
  • What do you think about the calling of the disciples? Why do you think they were so willing to leave behind friends, families and careers? What does this tell us about discipleship?

References:

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