Nature Picture by Will Cooper, age 6*
Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence . . . to make your name known to your adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at your presence!
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee . . .
Have you ever seen a movie whose opening scene starts out full force—100 mph—in the middle of the action? Superhero movies often do this. Instead of starting from the beginning, they first open with a scene that shows the superhero fully clothed in his superhero garb and using all his superhero powers to defeat the villain in some epic battle. Only then, as they give you a snapshot of what’s to come and of what’s really taking place, do they move to the more mundane setting of everyday life that begins the narrative. Only then do they begin to show how this seemingly normal person gets to the climactic point with which the movie starts.
Mark’s prologue in Mark 1:2-13 begins this way. Once we arrive to Mark 1:14, Jesus is on the streets of Galilee preaching and conversing with fishermen and common folk. He heals the sick and brings relief to the demon possessed but there is a sense of naivety among the people as to who this Jesus really is and as to what is really happening. He is disguised. He performs these great works but is also a carpenter from the hill country. He was one of those uneducated, rural folks at whom the Jerusalem elites sneered.
However, in this prologue, Mark begins his story by peeling back the curtain. Mark starts out in the wilderness and uses the voice of God and numerous Old Testament allusions to clue us in to exactly who Jesus is. He does this so that even if the multitudes, including his own disciples, were confused about who Jesus was, we will not be. Mark wants us to know from the outset who this uneducated, rural man was and is, because as I said last week, this carpenter from Nazareth demands our souls, our lives, and our all.
With that, what we should notice from this prologue is that Jesus is to be identified with the LORD, the God of Israel. He is to be identified with the LORD because he is the one who is empowered by the Spirit, who pours out the Spirit, and who brings new creation to the world.
JOHN’S MESSAGE OF REPENTANCE AND HOPE
Actually, this story about Jesus doesn’t start with Jesus at all but with his cousin, John. John the Baptist was a desert prophet and another mysterious figure about whom the people wondered. In verses 2-8, Mark tells us about John and the message of repentance and hope that he heralded in the wilderness.
As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’” John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.
Mark begins by connecting the story of Israel and our Old Testament Scriptures to John and his ministry. There are a few things that we should make note of from these links. However, we first need a basic understanding of the story of Israel itself.
God rescued the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt and made them his special people. He did this in fulfillment to his promises to Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3). God promised Abraham that a great nation would come from him and that through this people, all the families of the earth would be blessed. That is why the LORD rescued Israel from Egypt, gave them his law, and committed to dwell with them in the Promised Land as their god. The plan was to establish his saving reign through them. But, tragically, Israel failed to be that blessing-bringing people. They turned from the LORD and failed time and again to reflect his justice and righteousness to the nations. As a result, the LORD judged his people. He departed from them and handed them over to the nations. However, the story of Israel in the Old Testament Scriptures doesn’t end with judgment but with the promise of salvation.
Through prophets like Isaiah and Malachi, the LORD promised to return to Israel as king and to restore, forgive, and empower them to bless the world. On a few occasions, some Prophets foretold that an Elijah-like prophet would precede the return of the LORD to his people. This is the first truth that we should notice from these verses. John is the Elijah-like prophet whose ministry signals the establishment of the LORD’s saving reign on the earth. We gather this from the two passages with which Mark introduces John. In verse 2, Mark states that what he is about to say comes from Isaiah the prophet but he actually conflates two prophecies, one from Malachi and one from Isaiah. The reason why he attributes both prophecies to Isaiah is probably because Isaiah was the first to speak about a messenger who would precede the coming of the LORD.
It would benefit us to look at both passages more fully. Both predict that the LORD would send his messenger before he—the LORD—would return to restore his people and establish his kingdom on the earth. As you read these verses, notice whom the promised messenger prepares the way for.
Behold, I [the LORD] send my messenger and he will prepare the way before ME. And the LORD whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.
A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
Malachi and Isaiah both prophesied that a messenger would precede, announce, and prepare the way for the coming of the LORD himself. After this messenger, the LORD would restore his people in a new saving event and establish his kingdom on the earth. Mark begins his gospel by pointing out that John the Baptist is that messenger. John is the desert prophet in the tradition of Elijah and Elisha. His voice rang out in the wilderness, and Mark tells us that all Jerusalem and Judea came out to see him and be baptized.
That John preached in the wilderness is also significant because the prophet Hosea wrote that in the last days the LORD would lure his people into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her words of hope as he had done at the beginning, when he rescued her from Egypt (Hosea 2:14-20). A desert prophet was a signal of hope and restoration for God’s people (Is. 41:18-20; 51:3). And, what this particular desert prophet told the people of Jerusalem to do was to return to the LORD and be baptized as a sign of their repentance. He told them to return to the LORD because the LORD, who promised restoration through Isaiah, was about to intervene in history once more to fulfill his ancient promises. Again, what we see in this is that John is the Elijah-like prophet whose ministry signals the establishment of the LORD’s rule on the earth.
Second, notice with me that John identified the one who came after him as the one who would baptize or pour out the Holy Spirit on God’s people. The background for this is another writing prophet from the Hebrew Scriptures. This time it’s the prophet Joel. What I want you to notice as you read Joel is exactly who the one is who pours out the Spirit.
And it shall come to pass afterward, that I [the LORD] will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young me shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I [the LORD] will pour out my Spirit.
Joel prophesied that, in the last days, the LORD would pour out his Spirit upon all his people from the least to the greatest. Here, in Mark, Mark connects John the Baptist with this prophecy, so that not only is John the one who makes a way for the coming of the LORD, the god of Israel, to intervene in history, but he also makes the way for the LORD to pour out his Spirit on all flesh.
Now, as we move to the next set of verses, I want you to see what Mark has done. This is very important. He has us anticipating the coming of the LORD himself to establish his reign on the earth and to fulfill his promises to his people. This brings us to verses 9-11. Here, Mark and John remarkably connect these amazing prophecies about the LORD, Israel’s god, to Jesus, a man from Nazareth of Galilee!
JESUS, THE LORD’S KING AND SERVANT WHO WILL ESTABLISH GOD’S REIGN ON THE EARTH
Here, I want us to see that Jesus is God’s servant-king, who restores God’s people and establishes God’s reign on the earth.
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
First, I want you to see the remarkable juxtaposition or comparison between what Mark has just told us in verses 2-8 and what he tells us in verse 9. In verses 2-8, he has just stated in a round-about-way that the LORD himself was coming to intervene on this earth by establishing his reign and pouring out his Spirit upon his people. Here, in the very next verse, he connects those grand pronouncements concerning Israel’s god with a man named Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee. Last week, I told you Mark’s gospel is an ancient biography is the vein of other ancient biographies but is, at the same time, intentionally distinct—determinedly different—from other biographies of his day.
This is evidence of just how different Mark considered Jesus to be. From the beginning, Mark identifies this Galilean hillbilly as intimately close to, if not one with, the LORD, Israel’s god. Jesus is a man like us—even like the least among us. He wasn’t from Jerusalem in Judea but from the less esteemed province of Galilee. And, in Galilee, he was from a town so insignificant that many in his own day had not even heard of it, kind of like being from La Center or Bandana.
But, even though Jesus was a man like the rest of us, there was also something different about him, so that when he came to this earth and began his ministry, Mark and John the Baptist both could proclaim that the LORD, the god of Israel and the god of the nations, had come as well. Jesus was a man like us, even the least of us. But, he was unlike us as well because he is to be intimately identified with the LORD of hosts!
Now the main point of these three verses about Jesus’ baptism is what the voice of God the Father declares about Jesus and what happens when Jesus is baptized. What we see is that when Jesus was baptized he was empowered by the Holy Spirit and declared to be the LORD’s Servant-King who would establish God’s saving reign on the earth. Not surprisingly, what happens in these verses is from a few Old Testament passages as well. The most notable are Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1.
I will tell of the decree: The LORD said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
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 aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice on the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law.
These two passages envision that the LORD’s chosen agent will establish his reign on the earth. In Psalm 2, we are given a picture of a conquering King, who brings the nations to submission. However, in Isaiah 42, we see a servant, whose victory appears distinct from the way the world conquers and attains victory. He is humble. He brings justice to the nations and establishes God’s rule on the earth but he does it in such a way that there is no collateral damage. Rather, the very weakest and least of all who long to be included are received by him as he quietly and meekly establishes his justice upon the earth.
These passages present us with a complex figure who brings God’s kingdom to the earth, a figure who is empowered by the Spirit and crushes God’s enemies but who also accomplishes his work humbly through suffering, working simultaneously for the LORD and for the very least among us.
At Jesus’ baptism, Mark and, more importantly, the voice of God connect these figures with Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus of Nazareth in Galilee is God’s servant-king who establishes God’s saving reign on the earth. Mark is telling us once again that, in Jesus, Israel’s god has returned to manifest his glory and that all flesh will see it! Many would not recognize Jesus. It would take his own disciples a long time to realize exactly who he was and what he had come to do but Mark wants us to know from the outset. Jesus is Lord, and he demands our all!
JESUS BATTLED AND DEFEATED THE POWERS!
Finally, from verses 12-13, we see that Jesus battled and defeated the powers that enslave people. Mark has already peeled back the curtain to reveal Jesus’ true identity. He is Jesus of Nazareth, the one through whom Israel’s god has returned to restore his people and to establish his saving reign on the earth. Now, Mark peels the curtain back a little further to show us the battle that was also taking place in the life and ministry of Jesus.
If Jesus had come to rescue people and to restore them as God’s image bearers, and if he had come to take back this world for God and for his glory, then that means that he must’ve been rescuing his people and taking back the world from someone or something. These verses remind us exactly who it was whom Jesus came to defeat. He came to defeat the powers and the ultimate power who stands behind all other evil powers, Satan.
The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.
Mark has already shown us that through a man from Nazareth Israel’s god was intervening in history to fulfill his ancient promises. Now, he adds that through this same man a cosmic showdown was taking place among heavenly powers for this world and its inhabitants. First, Mark describes the setting for this great battle as the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. As I mentioned earlier, some prophets spoke positively of the wilderness as the place where God would usher in his new creation. However, in other places, the wilderness had negative connotations. In fact, even in Hosea and Isaiah, it was the negative reputation of the wilderness that made their new creation imagery so much more striking.
Typically, the wilderness was a frightening place where wild beasts roamed and devoured. We often have a romantic view of wild beasts. When we see lions and tigers, we see them behind the constraints of bars at a zoo. That wasn’t the case for those in the ancient world. Wild beasts were ferocious and could take a life in less than a second. For the ancients, wild beasts conjured up images of the most dangerous aspects that remain in this fallen world—images of chaos, disorder, and all else that brings harm to human life. The beasts were also symbols for the nations which devalued and dehumanized their subjects (Ps. 22:12-21; Dan. 7). One day the LORD would cause springs of water and lush gardens to emerge in the wilderness, and he would tame the ferocious beasts of the earth (Is. 51:3; 11:6-9). In the meantime, the wilderness and its beasts were dangerous and despised. By going into the wilderness, Mark wants us to see that Jesus was going into the heart of enemy territory in order to reclaim this world and its inhabitants from the evil powers.
Here, we have before us the ancient serpent and the wild beasts squared off against the offspring of Eve and angels. Mark shows us that Jesus went up against these things and the devil himself in his life and ministry. He opposed the ancient serpent in a battle for our lives and in a battle for this world. Strangely enough, and unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark does not tell us how Jesus fared in this great battle. However, by the end of Mark, it’s clear that he won! The empty tomb is the ultimate evidence that Jesus won. However, even before we get to the empty tomb it’s clear who was in charge. We will soon see that demonic powers trembled in fear before him (5:6-7). He will tell the scribes who are sent from Jerusalem to silence him that he had bound the evil one and was plundering his house (3:22-27). Ultimately, however, we will see the final showdown at the cross.
Mark will show us that it was through the cross that Jesus ultimately stripped the beasts of their power and delivered the devil a mortal blow. At the cross, Satan, Jerusalem, and Rome gave Jesus all that they had—they raged and they plotted, they set themselves and took counsel against the LORD and his anointed, but through it all, Jesus took upon himself our sin and our suffering and unleashed in us a kingdom of priests who will inherit the earth (Rev. 5:9-10). As Paul would later say: If the powers of this age had only known what they were doing, they would have never crucified the Lord of glory (1 Cor. 2:8). Mark wants us to know from the outset that in Jesus, Israel’s god defeated the powers that stand against his people and the world!
Before we move past Mark’s prologue, I want us to think through some of the implications of what Mark has shown us. In Jesus, the LORD himself visited this earth to bring restoration and new creation. He came to include the very least among us, if we would turn to him from our sin and believe upon his name. That then is the first way that we should respond. We must find our lives in the life of Jesus.
Jesus’ story is not just another interesting story from the ancient world. The significance of his life includes the life of every other person who has ever lived, so much so that if we do not find our life and our story in his life and his story, we have missed out on the very reason that we exist. I pray that you would find your life in the life of Jesus. Turn from your own path and begin to trust and follow him. Mark goes on to show us the path that Jesus took and the way that he summons us to live in this world. But first, he makes it clear who Jesus is and that he is worth our all.
If you are already a believer, continue to trust in and follow him. He has already begun to reign over this world. Right now, he is establishing pockets of righteousness and justice through his new community, the church. All who claim to be the church are not the church. And, even among those who are, the Lord works through imperfect vessels. However, he still desires to work through us. He calls us to be his ambassadors who herald the good news of his victory to the lost. And, he calls us to be his servants who embody his compassion, mercy, and self-giving love to the broken and disenfranchised of this world.
Before the victory of the empty tomb, Jesus first went to the cross. He calls each one of us to do the same. He calls us to follow him with humble lives of service and love. We best reflect his glory to those most in need of his love when we live selfless lives of service toward those who need healing in our community. If the cross shows us anything, it shows us that steadfast love is more powerful than all this world’s defenses and walls. Let us follow him in that love as we find our lives in his.
If you’re in the Paducah area and want to talk more about King Jesus and what it means to live in his new world, I would love to sit down with you over a cup of coffee (my treat!). Contact me, and let’s meet! I also invite you to come and worship the King with me at Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church. We meet for worship weekly at 10:30 on Sunday mornings.
David E. Garland, A Theology of Mark’s Gospel: Biblical Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015). Garland writes: “The prologue presents the inbreaking of heaven into earthly reality and fleetingly unveils the mystery to the audience” (183).
*This is one of the many “nature” pictures, as he likes to call them, that my son, Will, took a few months ago when I took him squirrel hunting. We didn’t see a single squirrel but he had a ball filling my phone with pictures of every majestic thing that caught his eye. I’ll include more of his pictures in later sermon posts.