Sunday

04 December 2011

"John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins ... He 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. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.'" (vv. 4, 7, 8)

Background

Mark begins his Gospel with a clear statement of its theme. It can be no accident that the first word he writes, "beginning", is the same word with which Genesis opens the whole Bible; Mark writes about a new start, and it is "good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (v. 1). The ambiguity is probably intended in that it is the good news about Jesus and the good news proclaimed by Jesus.

But after this beginning and the sense of anticipation it arouses in the reader, Mark spends the rest of today's passage writing about John rather than Jesus. All four Gospel writers give considerable attention to John the baptizer before they get down to Jesus; indeed Matthew, Luke and John (a different John) all give him considerably more space than Mark does. The early Christians clearly felt John and his ministry of Baptism were vital, and so it is no wonder that the Church continues to take time over John on the Sundays before Christmas.

John is introduced with a combination of two Old Testament prophecies; it is the second that comes from Isaiah (Isaiah 40:3) while the first is from Malachi 3:1. The original readers, many of whom would have been familiar with the Scriptures, would have recognised these texts as expressing a hope patiently held by the Jewish people for many centuries. And that may indeed explain the eager response of people in going out to be baptised by John, even though the reference in verse 5 to "all the people" is surely hyperbole. John wears clothing associated with the prophet Elijah (2 Kings 1:8) and his diet reflects what could be gleaned from nature in the desert.

The Jews were familiar with ritual washing, and converts to their faith were probably baptised as a sign of conversion. But as far as we can tell it was new for faithful Jews to be offered Baptism in response to the kind of repentance that the prophets always sought from them. John views Baptism as symbolic both of the cleansing effect of forgiveness and of Baptism with the Holy Spirit. The two ideas are found together in relation to water in Ezekiel 36:25-28.

The other part of John's message which Mark reports is the way he emphasised the huge significance of Jesus by declaring himself too unworthy to do for Jesus even what the lowliest slave would do for a master - tying and untying his sandals.

To Ponder

Why do you think John chose the wilderness for his ministry, since the Jordan also flows through fertile populated country?

Some Christians have understood verse 8 as making a contrast rather than a connection between water Baptism and Spirit Baptism. Do you think it is possible to experience one without the other? And if so, why might this be?

Bible notes author: The Revd Dr Stephen Mosedale

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