Second Sunday of Advent
December 10, 2017
Commentary on the Texts
There is no Lectionary Commentary for this reading,
but there is available a
The first line of Mark's Gospel, "the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God," serves as a title for the whole writing. The traditional title, "The Gospel According to Mark," which in Greek is simply "According to Mark," was added by the early church at the end of the first century or early second century to distinguish the four gospels from one another. All four Gospels were written anonymously.
The third and fourth century church historian, Eusebius, makes reference to a statement that Papias, a second century church father, had made about the Gospel of Mark. Eusebius says:
New Testament scholars have expressed varying degrees of confidence in the credibility of Papias' statement, all the way from wholesale rejection to wholehearted acceptance. A reasonable position may be somewhere in the middle. Since "Mark" was not a prominent name in Christian circles in the first century, there would be no reason why this Gospel would be attributed to him unless there was a strong tradition behind it. The author of this Gospel may very well be John Mark, who is mentioned in Acts 12, 13, 15, 1 Peter 5:13, and in several letters of Paul (for example, Philemon 24). On the other hand, Mark's Gospel is more than a simple recollection of Peter's preaching. A careful examination of the Gospel indicates that Mark used many early collections of material, such as miracles, parables, and a passion narrative.
However, interpretation of this Gospel does not depend on whether or not Mark is identified as the author. The person of Mark does not intrude into the narrative of the Gospel. We know from the narrative itself some things about the implied author. Whether or not the author was Mark has no direct bearing on our interpretation.
On the other hand, the date and place of writing may be more significant for our understanding some aspects of the Gospel of Mark. If this Gospel was written in Rome shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, as many critics have concluded, such an understanding enables our interpretation of several things in Mark, such as the imprecise description in 13:14-23 of the Jewish-Roman war in Palestine. The statement in Mark 13:14, "when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be," is much less explicit than the parallel statement in Luke 21:20 that reads, "When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies." Since Luke wrote his Gospel a decade or more after the fall of Jerusalem and knew all about that tragic event, he made Mark's ambiguous statement more explicit.
Mark uses the Greek word euaggelion in 1:1, which may be translated "gospel" or "good news." It is more likely that Mark meant "good news" than "gospel." In the history of early Christianity the word euaggelion eventually came to mean a type of writing, a literary genre. But Mark used the word not so much for the purpose of telling his readers what type of writing he was about to produce but for the purpose of declaring the content of the good news, namely, Jesus Christ the Son of God.
Mark tells us that what he is writing is the beginning of the good news. In verse 2 he uses the transitional clause "just as it is written in Isaiah the prophet" to introduce an Old Testament quote. This implies that the beginning of the good news for Mark lies somewhere in what God had said earlier. God had made some promises through Isaiah and those promises are now being fulfilled in the ministry of John the Baptist and the subsequent life and ministry of Jesus.
However, what Mark quotes in verses 2-3 is not simply from Isaiah; it is a combination of various Old Testament texts. The first two lines of the quote, "Look, I am sending my messenger before your face who will prepare your way," comes from Exodus 23:20 and Malachi 3:1. In Exodus God promises Israel an angel to guard them in their wandering in the desert on their way to Canaan. In Malachi that angel becomes the messenger who would come in the future to usher in the eschatological age and is identified as Elijah in Malachi 4:5. Now in Mark, or possibly the pre-Markan tradition, John the Baptist becomes that messenger.
Both in Hebrew and in Greek the same word sometimes means angel and other times it means a messenger. In some biblical passages the word does not clearly indicate whether the one who is sent is a "supernatural" angel or a human being. For example, in the story of the empty tomb in Mark 16 a young man dressed in white addresses the women who come to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. Although it is more likely that Mark has an angel in mind, one is still left wondering why Mark calls him a young man.
In verse 3 Mark quotes Isaiah 40:3. This section in Isaiah (chapters 40-55) was probably written around 539 or 538 BC when Babylon had been taken over by Cyrus, the Persian King, and the exilic period was about to end (see Cyrus and the Rise of Persia). In anticipation of these incredible events, Isaiah 40:1 begins with a joyous message from God: "Comfort, O comfort my people" (see The Turn Toward Hope: Isaiah 40). Then in 40:3 the prophet alludes to a highway being prepared in the desert for God, meaning that the exiles would be returning home on this highway. Now in Mark there is another desert, and the voice of John the Baptist is crying out in preparation for another momentous event. The words of Isaiah 40:3, "make straight in the desert a highway for our God," are changed in Mark to read, "make his paths straight." The pronoun "his" in Mark in place of "our God" in Isaiah is intended to make Jesus the point of reference.
Here we find an excellent example of how biblical language functions and how biblical traditions develop. The move is from the angel (or "messenger") of God in Exodus, to a voice crying out in Isaiah, to Elijah in Malachi, and finally to John the Baptist in Mark. Even though the good news manifests itself in novel ways, there is a running thread in the story of God's redemptive activity in history. All of these texts are brought together with the dual theme of a messenger sent by God and the activity of God in the desert.
Mark 1:4-6 describes the person and ministry of John the Baptist. First, we are told that John was doing his preaching in the desert (v. 4). But in verse 5 Mark tells us that people were being baptized in the Jordan River. One may wonder how John's location could be in the desert and at the same time in the vicinity of the Jordan River. Granted, the Jordan River may not be all that far from the desert, so that it is unnecessary to conclude that Mark was confused about the geography of Palestine.
However, there is something else at work here. Mark placed John's work in the desert for theological reasons. This is not to deny that John was indeed in an area that could generally be described as desert. A more important point is that by locating John in the desert Mark was linking John's ministry in the desert to the Old Testament passages that were just quoted. God's promises in Exodus, Isaiah and Malachi are now beginning to find their fulfillment in the good news that Mark is beginning to recount.
We are told that John was "proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." John is probably not the first to use water in a religious ceremony. Rituals of washing, bathing, or cleansing were not unknown in Jewish as well as pagan religions in New Testament times. The Essenes practiced daily ceremonies of bathing. The Essenes were a separatist Jewish sect at Qumran in the vicinity of the Dead Sea during the earthly ministry of Jesus, even though they are not mentioned in the New Testament. This is not to suggest that John borrowed his practice of baptism from other Jewish groups or pagan religions. On the other hand, it is quite likely that John was familiar with the Essene practice. Some historians have even conjectured that John at one time may have been part of the Essene community, although that is impossible to prove.
John's ministry was that of "proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (v. 4). Mark has already provided a context from which to interpret John's ministry of baptism. That context is that of Old Testament expectations of the coming of God's messenger to prepare the way of the Lord. Mark understands John's ministry as preparation for the dawning of the messianic age, which for Mark is the eschatological climax of history. By bringing together the theme of wilderness or desert, the Jordan River and repentance, Mark intends for the reader to make some connections with the story of God in the Old Testament. The wilderness in Exodus was the place of God's continuing redemption after Israel's exodus from Egypt. Yet in the wilderness Israel often tested God rather than trusting him. But God continued to care for Israel. In Isaiah the wilderness becomes a place of God's protective presence as Jewish exiles are offered a new hope and restoration to the homeland. Now in Mark the wilderness becomes a place of preparation for God's final and climactic act in history, the dawning of the eschatological age and the coming of the Messiah.
The Jordan River is also rich with symbolism. God redeemed Israel from Egyptian slavery, led and cared for them in the wilderness, and finally made a path for them miraculously through the Jordan River into the land of Canaan under Joshua's leadership (Josh. 3). Now John is ushering in the final age in salvation history. It requires that people go out to the desert, pass through the Jordan River in baptism, and be prepared to experience the forgiveness of God in the new messianic age that was about to dawn.
Verse 5 seems at first to be a hyperbole, an exaggeration: "And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him" (NRSV). The Greek text literally reads: "the whole Judean countryside was going out to him and all the Jerusalemites." Mark's intention was not to exaggerate John's popularity. Mark was rather intending to show that John's preaching was a call to repentance to all of Israel as a people rather than to individual Israelites. For Mark John's preaching marked the beginning of a new and final era in God's activity in history. The final messianic age was around the corner.
Verse 6 describes how John's clothing and food: "Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey." Why are these details of John's attire and diet significant? We must recall that in 2 Kings 1:8 Elijah is described as "a hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist." Thus John's role is that of Elijah who was expected to come back and prepare the way for the messianic age (cf. Mal 4:5). Later in the Gospel, after the story of the transfiguration, the disciples ask Jesus, "Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?" Jesus says to them, "Elijah is indeed coming first to restore all things . . .. But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written about him."
In verses 7-8 Mark gives us a more focused summary of John's message than the previous verses. John says, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
Commentators have raised several interpretive issues here. First, who is this "more powerful" one? Mark and his Christian readers have no doubt that it is Jesus. But someone who is not familiar with the Christian story cannot tell from this text that John is talking about Jesus. If the reader is a Jewish person who knows the Old Testament but has never heard of Jesus might surmise that John was talking about God. After all, Isaiah said, "See, the Lord God comes with might" (40:10). In the two texts of Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3 that Mark had quoted earlier it is God who comes after the messenger.
But as Mark will develop the story in the next paragraph, the reader will know that it is Jesus who comes after John. The reader will be told that when John baptized Jesus, the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus and therefore he must be the more powerful one that baptizes with the Holy Spirit. The Christology of Mark, already explicit in 1:1, "Jesus Christ, the Son of God," is now carried out in a more subtle way in John's statement. The words, "more powerful," originally describing God in the Old Testament, will now become a designation for Jesus. We may never know exactly what all John the Baptist said or meant. What we do know is how Mark understood these words and how he intended his readers to understand them.
Another point of discussion among commentators has to do with John's second statement: "I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." One question that has been raised is of a historical nature: what did John really say? The second question has to do with Mark's theology: what is Mark's understanding of baptism with the Holy Spirit?
First, what did John really say? The question is raised because both Matthew and Luke give us a different version of what John said. If we accept the Q hypothesis of the Synoptic Gospels (see The Gospels and The Synoptic Problem and A Proposed Reconstruction of Q), Matthew and Luke used a hypothetical Q source in addition to their use of Mark. In Q (therefore in Matthew and Luke), John's message is as follows:
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire" (Matt 3:7-12; cf. Luke 3:7-9, 16-17).
One can easily see that in Matthew and Luke (=Q) John speaks words of judgment, which are absent in Mark. We can conjecture one of two things: either Mark had no access to the tradition of John's judgment words, or else he did have access to those words but chose to omit them. The latter is the better possibility for the reason that Mark does indicate in other places that he knew much more about the nature of John's person and message than what he tells us here in chapter 1. For example, he does tell us about John's words of condemnation against Herod Antipas for marrying his brother's wife (Mark 6:18). But even here in chapter 1 there are clues that he knew something about John's judgment message. The fact that Mark reports John's preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins and that people were going out to him and confessing their sins indicates that Mark had some knowledge of John's denouncement of sins and warning of coming judgment. If so, why did Mark choose to delete John's judgment message?
Mark tells us in chapter 1 that the good news of Jesus had its beginning in the work and message of John. Mark wanted to emphasize that what John was preaching was good news. Mark sees John as a precursor to the good news of Jesus Christ. John's message of judgment did not quite fit what Mark wanted to do in this opening section of his Gospel. It is perhaps for this reason that in Mark John says that the one coming after him will baptize with the Holy Spirit, whereas in Matthew and Luke it is "Holy Spirit and fire." John's use of the fire imagery, as seen in Matthew and Luke, clearly indicates judgment. For that reason Mark leaves out "fire."
Some commentators have argued that even the term Holy Spirit itself originally meant judgment in John's mouth. In both Hebrew and Greek the same word can mean either spirit or wind. The argument is that originally John said or meant that God would baptize people with the wind and fire of judgment. It was the early church that interpreted John's words as Holy Spirit and fire along the same lines as the Pentecost account in Acts 2. On the other hand, it is equally possible, and even more probable, that John spoke of the Holy Spirit in the same way that some Old Testament texts spoke of the spirit of God, such as Isaiah 44:3; Ezekiel 36:25-27; and Joel 2:28-29. These texts say that in the last days the spirit of the Lord would be poured out on people. Surely John as an eschatological prophet was not ignorant of these promises about the messianic age.
Regardless of what John may have said or meant, it is clear that Mark interprets these words of John to mean that Jesus is the one who will baptize people with the Holy Spirit. However, we must not read into the Gospel of Mark what we know from the Pentecost account in Acts 2. Instead, it would be helpful to see how the Gospel of Mark speaks of the Holy Spirit. Immediately after the words of John in 1:8, Mark tells the story of Jesus' baptism by John and the descent of the Holy Spirit on him. Mark makes it clear that since Jesus is endowed with the Holy Spirit and is declared to be the Son of God, he is the one who is powerful to baptize with the Holy Spirit. But still, what does this mean?
As we read further, we find that this same Spirit who comes on Jesus as a dove drives Jesus out into the desert, where he would be tempted or tested by Satan. Receiving the Holy Spirit does not exempt a person from temptation or testing.
Another significant point that Mark makes about the role of the Spirit in the life and ministry of Jesus (and by the same token in the life of his disciples) is that being empowered by the Spirit does not guarantee that others will acknowledge the Spirit's presence. The scribes from Jerusalem accuse Jesus of being possessed by Satan and that he does his exorcisms with demonic powers (3:22). Jesus says that such accusation is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit for which there is no forgiveness (3:29-30). Even though Jesus is baptized and will in turn baptize with the Holy Spirit, this in itself does not compel people to recognize Jesus as being from God. Even Jesus' own family members think that he has gone out of his mind and come out to take custody of him (3:21). Though baptized and empowered by the Holy Spirit, Jesus remains vulnerable to the opinions and attitudes of human beings. It is true that Jesus promises his followers that the Holy Spirit will give them words to say when they are taken to court for their faith in Christ (13:11). Yet even such empowerment to speak will not guarantee that they will escape persecution or even death (13:12-13).
What then does it mean for Jesus to baptize people with the Holy Spirit? From the narrative of the Gospel of Mark it is clear that this baptism is a preparation for service, both for Jesus and for his disciples. (For further comments on this point see the commentary on the lectionary from Mark 1:4-11 for Epiphany 1, Year B.)
The good news is something that happens. It is an event in history. It is not simply a truth much less a slogan that is trumpeted. It is something that God does in history. God acts. A new age is beginning to dawn in the story of God's activity in the world. That is good news. God has not quit acting! He does new things. Yet God's new activity is not a cancellation or negation of God's previous work in history. The story of John the Baptist connects God's past activity in history with God's climactic activity through Jesus Christ. If this Gospel was written in Rome shortly before the fall of Jerusalem, what Mark tells in this story becomes even more significant. Rome may be the world's super power. The Roman emperor thinks of himself as a god worthy of worship. Roman armies under Titus are already engaged in a battle that will demolish Jerusalem. In a time like that Mark produces the story of Jesus and calls it good news.
John is a second Elijah, that is, John is a true prophet. Elijah was a threat to King Ahab and Queen Jezebel who used their royal power to sanction Baal worship. Elijah was the voice of protest and affirmation that Yahweh alone is God. The contest on Mount Carmel between Elijah and the prophets of Baal is a familiar story. John embodied that same rugged personality that stood in protest against anything that compromised an authentic and wholehearted devotion to God. Just as Elijah was pursued by Jezebel, so also John was imprisoned and later executed by Herod Antipas. Mark will tell that story later in 6:14-29.
It is significant that John is preaching in the desert and baptizing people in the Jordan, and all of Jerusalem and Judea go out to him. Is there a subtle hint here that a spiritual renewal is happening not through the efforts of the hierarchy of ruling priests in the Jerusalem temple but out here in the desert through the voice of someone who is not sanctioned by the officialdom in Jerusalem? Mark will tell us later of a debate between Jesus and the hierarchy in Jerusalem:
Again they came to Jerusalem. As he was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to him and said, "By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?" Jesus said to them, "I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Answer me." They argued with one another, "If we say, 'From heaven,' he will say, 'Why then did you not believe him?' But shall we say, 'Of human origin'?"--Łthey were afraid of the crowd, for all regarded John as truly a prophet. So they answered Jesus, "We do not know." And Jesus said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things" (Mark 11:27-34).
Is it a coincidence that in the history of the church great renewal movements often happened through individuals and groups that seemed to "come out of nowhere"? Moreover, the official power structures of the church all too frequently tried to muffle these voices that called the church to repentance by condemning them as heretics, scorning their teaching and even burning them at the stake. When we become too smug, complacent, or self-sufficient, God has a way of raising up individuals and movements that challenge the status quo for the interests of the kingdom of God. May we as the people of the church be ever vigilant that we do not delude ourselves into thinking that our church structures embody all that there is of the kingdom of God.
This Sunday in the Church Year
Season of the Year:
Color this Sunday:
Dark Blue, Bright Blue, or Purple
Reading also used:
Mk 1:4-11: Year B, Epiphany 1