Thursday, January 05, 2006

Second Pass at This Week's Bible Lesson: Mark 1:4-11

Continuing to consider the Bible lesson for this weekend's worship celebrations, there are two issues I want to briefly address regarding Mark 1:4-11:
4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “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. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
(1) Why is Jesus baptized? After all, we're told that John's baptism at the Jordan was for the repentance and the forgiveness of sin. But Jesus was sinless.

Mark, in his typically clipped fashion, doesn't do much in the way of explanation or interpretation and as I explained in my first pass at this text. His account of Jesus' baptism certainly conforms to his usual pattern.

In Matthew's telling, John at first refuses to baptize Jesus:
"I need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?" But Jesus answered, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." (Matthew 3:14-15)
In other words, being baptized in a baptism of repentance was part of Jesus' solidarity with the human race, something most fully expressed when He bore the twin curses of our sin and our death, the common fate of humanity, on the cross.

This solidarity with us is an essential element of Jesus' mission in the world. Only a representative of the human race could bear our rightful punishment for sin. But only a sinless Savior could rightly escape eternal imprisonment to rise from death and liberate all who entrust their lives to Him.

Jesus' solidarity with us is well expressed in the Bible lesson for last Sunday, Philippians 2:5-11. (See here and here.) The New Testament book of Hebrews alludes to this same theme when it says:
Because He Himself was tested by what He suffered, He is able to help those who are being tested. (Hebrews 2:18)

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have One Who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:15)
I believe that the conversation at the Jordan between John and Jesus, as recorded by Matthew, explains why Jesus was baptized. But why does Mark leave it out?

Don't let the brevity of Mark or his use of an almost primitive Greek fool you. There is method to his narrative style. He begins his breathlessly-rendered Gospel with an incomplete sentence and if the scholars are to be believed, ends it without an actual resurrection appearance--only a fearful reaction to the announcement of His resurrection--at Mark 16:8.

The point? Jesus' life, death, and resurrection are only "the beginning of the Gospel" (Mark 1:1), the Gospel being the good news of God working to bring new life and the forgiveness of sin to all who believe in Jesus Christ. Mark would say, I think, that the risen and living Christ is still in business, still available to all willing to dare surrendering to Him. And, He seems to be saying, life in Christ is an open-ended business. There's no telling what might happen in the life of a person who follows Christ. But it will be an eternal adventure!

But, by ending His Gospel account at Mark 16:8, Mark seems to be saying, "God isn't going to show you everything right now. You need to trust and follow!"

Perhaps the absence of detail in Mark's Gospel then, has nothing to do with a lot of the reasons usually cited by scholars (i.e., he didn't have access to as much of the alleged Q-document or other "source materials"; or, he wrote at a time closer to the events he describes, yada, yada, yada). Maybe Mark's telling was the result of a deliberate decision by a narrator to give the reader sufficient information to demand a verdict about Who Jesus is, but not so much as to take away the crucial element of trusting faith. Maybe he wanted his readers to experience "the beginning of the Gospel" in precisely the same way as those who first encountered Jesus.

I'm grateful for the details provided us by the other Gospel writers. But in declining to include explanations of things like why Jesus was baptized, Mark is prompting us to focus not on what we don't know, but on what we do know. Someone has said that Mark's Gospel is little more than "an extended passion narrative." Mark is most interested in telling us about Jesus' suffering and death, His act of solidarity with us which led to His resurrection, the source of our hope as Christians. For Mark, everything else is pretty much unimportant.

(2) The translation of the opening of the heavens as "being torn about" is a good, literal rendering of the Greek. As Pastor Brian Stoffregen points out in his interesting exploration of this passage (see here and here), when something is torn, it's ruptured. He quotes Lutheran scholar Donald Juel, in the latter's book, A Master of Surprise: Mark Interpreted:
The importance of an accurate rending of the Greek is difficult to overestimate. The image in Mark is strong, even violent, and the moment that is noted, the imagination begins to work. If the heavens are opened, then they may well close again. If they are torn apart, however, then we may think of some permanent damage or rupture that cannot be repaired. Further, those who know Mark at all think immediately of the tearing of the temple curtain at the moment of Jesus' death: And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom (15:38; the verb is the same, eschisthe). The images form an inclusio: A pattern that begins here at Jesus" baptism ends with his death.

... When the heavens are torn, the Spirit enters Jesus and a heavenly voice addresses him as "son." At the moment of his death, he "breathed out his spirit" (15:37, au. trans.); the temple curtain tears; and a centurion -- not God -- makes a declaration about Jesus' sonship. [p. 34]

... Viewed from another perspective, the image may suggest that the protecting barriers are gone and that God, unwilling to be confined to sacred spaces, is on the loose in our own realm. If characters in the story find Jesus" ministry threatening, then they may have good reason.

The imagery has enormous power to shape imagination and to open readers to the story. That is, Mark's narrative is about the intrusion of God into a world that has become alien territory -- an intrusion that means both death and life.
Great stuff!

I'm likely to have one more (and brief) post on this text tomorrow, if I can get to it.

(Here's a link to the first pass at this passage.)

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