The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

Notes on Mark 1:2-9

Posted by Dim Bulb on November 23, 2008

Today we look at the prologue of Mark’s Gospel, which is usually identified as incorporating verses 2 through 13 of his first chapter; however, you can also include verse 14 and 15 into it, because they are transitional and, as a result, can be taken with either the prologue or the body of the Gospel. On my old blog you can find several different outlines which show that the prologue, with the inclusion of verse 14 and 15, can easily be divided into two major parts, with content from the two parts providing contrasting parallels between John and Jesus. Part one, Mk 1:2-8 focuses on the person and mission of the Baptist, while part two, Mk 1:10-15 focus on our Blessed Lord. Mk 1:9 represents the hinge or center around which the parallels are built. In part 1, Mk 1:2, we are told that a messenger will prepare the way of the Lord. In part 2, Mk 1:14-15, we see that the messengers function is complete, and the Lord begins his own activity. In part 1, Mk 1:3, John is described in terms of Scripture as a voice, while in part 2, Mk 1:11 the voice of God is heard declaring who Jesus is. Essentially what you have is a new revelation building upon and clarifying the OT revelation. In part 1 Mk 1:4, John is in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance. In part 2 Mk1:12-13 Jesus is driven into the desert and is tested by Satan. Mark is not as explicit as the other synoptics but he clearly implies that our Lord was victorious. In other words, Jesus triumphs over the being and his activity which made it necessary for man to repent in the first place. In part 1, Mk 1:5, people go into the desert acknowledging their sins, and John ministers to them with his baptism. In part 2, Mk 1:13 our Lord is ministered to by angels. In part 1, Mk 1:6, John’s sparse diet consists of locust and wild honey. In part 2, Mk 1:12, Our lord is fasting. In part 1, Mk 1:7-8, John says that one mightier than himself will come. He also says while he himself baptizes with water, the mightier one will baptize with the Holy Spirit. In part 2, Mk 1:10 our lord, after being baptized, receives the spirit. Mark notes that Jesus receives the Spirit upon coming up from the water, thus emphasizing that the descent of the Spirit is not a direct result of John’s baptism. The two outlines we give on our blog may differ somewhat from one another and from our own presentation, but it is quite clear that St Mark intended contrasts and comparisons between John and Jesus.

Let’s now go through the text in a bit more detail.

Mk 1:2-3. The prologue opens with a biblical inscription which Mark attributes to the Prophet Isaiah, but which is in fact made up of two text. This was a standard practice in Mark’s day as the Qumran literature, the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls show. Why, in a compiled text, one author was singled out is unknown. Father John Donahue and Father Daniel Harrington, in their commentary on Mark in the Sacra Pagina series, suggest that since Mark has several allusions to Isaiah in his prologue he wanted to draw specific attention to him at the beginning. Whatever the case may be, here is what St Mark writes: “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet: Behold I send my angel before thy face, who shall prepare the way before thee. A voice of one crying in the desert; Prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight his paths.”

The first passage he quotes is from Malachi 3:1, which reads: “Behold I send my angel, and he shall prepare the way before my face.” The second is from Isaiah 40:3, which reads “The voice of one crying in the desert: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the wilderness the paths of our God.” In the Malachi text, God is promising to send an angel, or messenger-that’s what the word angel means-before his own face. The word face, by the way, is common biblical idiom for presence. In the Isaiah text, the voice in the desert is saying that people have to prepare for the coming of the Lord God. If you look at the way Mark words the texts, he is clearly insinuating that Jesus is divine.

The theme of the desert looms large in the OT. God led Israel out into the desert to worship him. He let them be tested in order to refine and prepare them for a covenant relationship with him in the promised land. Occasionally, the obeyed him and did his will, more often than not however, they failed (see for example Exodus chapter 16; Numbers 11; and Psalm 78:17-53). As they stood on the Plains of Moab, ready to enter the promised land, Moses reminded them of all God had done for them and telling them to remain faithful, lest God drive them into exile. We see this for example in Deuteronomy 5:32-40; and in chapters 28 and 29. But in spite of their failures, the desert was the place of God’s saving deeds (see Psalm 78:12-16). According to the prophets it would again become the place of God’s salvific deeds (see Hosea 2:16-25). God’s great redemptive activity in the Exodus thus became a model by which the prophets described his future redemptive acts. This is what Isaiah is doing in the prophecy Mark quotes. Isaiah is predicting the end of the Babylonian Exile, and Mark sees it prophetically as a harbinger of an even greater salvific event wrought through Jesus Christ.

Mk 1:4-5. So, according to verses 4 and 5, John is out in the desert preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and people from Judea and Jerusalem come out to him and are baptized in the Jordan. Now, we think this is a very interesting question: Where is John? Is he on the west or the east side of the Jordan? If he is on the east side, he is outside the promised land. If this is the case, then what the people are doing by going out to him is enacting a personal exile. In Deuteronomy 29:27 the people are threatened with exile into a strange land if the do not obey God. In Chapter 30:1-9 however, they are told that if they repent, they will once again return to the land God gave them and enjoy his favor. Are the people going into a symbolic exile, repenting, then returning to the promised land? It is an interesting question, unfortunately Mark is not specific as to where John was exactly.

Mk 1:6. In verse 6, John is described as wearing camel’s hair and being girded with a leather belt. A hairy mantle was the traditional garment of a prophet; at least this is suggested by Zechariah the prophet in Zech 13:4 of his book. But Mark certainly wishes his readers to think of Elijah the prophet, the great defender of the covenant who sought to restore the people to their covenant fidelity with God. In 2 Kings 1:8 Elijah is described as dressed in a hairy garment with a leather belt. The man who is given that description is King Ahab, husband of Jezebel. Like Elijah before him, John the Baptist will be persecuted by a king and his queen. According to 2 Kings 2:6-11, Elijah was taken up alive into heaven and seen no more. We saw that at the beginning of chapter 3 of Malachi, the prophet had predicted a messenger who would herald the coming Lord. That chapter ends with the promise that before the day of the Lord comes, God would send Elijah the prophet to turn the hearts of fathers to the children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest God come and strike the land. Clearly St Mark wants us to see the Baptist as fulfilling the expected return of Elijah. In fact, in Mk 9:12 of the Gospel, Jesus clearly indicates that it was the Baptist who fulfilled the Elijah expectations: “But I say to you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatsoever they would, as it is written of him.”

Now as we have just seen, Elijah comes to restore family relations. In this respect we should note what Malachi writes in chapter 2:10-17 He portrays the people as asking “have we not all one father/” And the prophet responds by saying: “Why then does everyone of us despise his brother, violating the covenant of our fathers?” He then goes on to condemn divorce. It seems then that the prophecy that Elijah would come to restore family relations is integral to Malachi’s teaching. In light of this, isn’t it interesting that just before Mark describes the death of John the Baptist he writes about Jesus rejection at Nazareth, which he terms his patris, his fatherland. And because of this rejection Jesus states that a prophet has no honor in his patris, among his kin, or even in his own house. You can read about this in Mk 6:1-6. When St Mark tells of the death of the Baptist he first tells us that John was arrested by Herod for he had said to him: “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And I’m sure we all know how the death of the Baptist came about. Herod had a party at which the daughter of his immorally gotten wife danced. Herod promised the girl she could ask anything, and at the mother’s instigation she asked for the head of the baptist. This saddened Herod, but he fulfilled the request. That was one screwed up pseudo-family to say the least.

We find all of this interesting, but unfortunately we are not biblical scholars and cannot develop these ideas. We will leave the subject by noting that the image of family is very important in Mark. Jesus is often shown in a house with his disciples and even defines them as his family.

Mk 1:7-9. In verses 7-8 we are told that John preached the following: “There comes after me one mightier than I, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and untie…He will baptize you with the Holy Ghost.”

John portrays himself as the most menial of slaves, while the coming one is mighty, or powerful. John Baptizes with water, the coming one with the Holy Spirit. What does Mark mean by baptism with the Holy Spirit?

We do not think it is a reference to the Sacrament of Baptism. Outside of the prologue Mark mentions the Holy Spirit only twice; once in Mk 3:29, and again in Mk 13:11. In both cases the reference seems to refer to the action or power of the Spirit who is already possessed. After Jesus is baptized by John, but not because of that baptism (for John’s baptism was not sacramental), he receives the Spirit and by the Spirit is driven into the desert to confront Satan. Now the same word Mark uses for the Spirit driving Jesus into the desert is later used in reference to Jesus casting or driving out demons, suggesting that he is acting by the Power of the Spirit. In Mk 3:22-27 Jesus is accused of driving out demons by the power of Satan. Our Blessed Lord responds to that by asking “how can Satan drive out Satan? A house or kingdom divided against itself cannot stand.” He then says: “No man can enter the house of a strong man and rob him of his goods, unless he first bind the strong man, and then he shall plunder his house.”

Our Lord is clearly calling Satan the strong man, and he is using the same word John used when he described Jesus as the mightier one in Mk 1:7. Our Lord then goes on to say that the only sin that cannot e forgiven is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, and Mark tells us he said this because he had been accused of having an unclean spirit. The implication is that the unforgivable sin is calling that which is done by the Holy Spirit evil, such as miracles, the Bible, the mission of the Church, etc. We think that baptism with the Holy Spirit means being imbued with the power of the Spirit by which we can overcome all that is opposed and hostile to the Gospel. In Mk 13:9-13 Our Blessed Lord warns us of persecution. We will be called to account before authorities and will have to witness to them, but we are not to worry about what to say before them, for what we are to say will be given to us by the Spirit.

After telling us that a mightier one is coming, Mark tells us in verse 9 that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee to be baptized by John. A not to subtle indication that the one spoken of by the Baptist is now on the scene. Coming as it does on the heels of John’s denigration of himself in comparison to the coming one this statement is jarring. This fact must have troubled a lot of people who conceived of Jesus’ advent as one of earthly greatness and glory.


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