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Ministry of John the Baptist (Mark 1:1-8)

Analysis and Commentary

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John the Baptist Preaches

John the Baptist Preaches

    1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; 2 As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. 3 The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 4 John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.
    5 And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 And John was clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey; 7 And preached, saying, There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose. 8 I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.

 

Opening Lines of Mark’s Gospel

The gospel of Mark is supposed to be about Jesus, but it opens with a story about someone else: John the Baptist. Or does it? The first verse isn’t just a title, it’s also a prologue. Mark makes it clear that Jesus is the Messiah (Christ) and the Son of God. This information is not left for one to discover in the course of reading; it is, however, hidden from most of the characters in the narrative.

The opening of Mark links the story of Jesus with both the present and the past. The first verse announces the “beginning” of the “good news” of Jesus Christ, declaring not just the beginning of the narrative, but also the beginning of a message that continues to be proclaimed in the Christian community. The “gospel” begins not with Jesus’ birth or actions, but with calls to repentance from John the Baptist (also: John the baptizer). The declaration that this is the “good news” also makes it clear that we aren’t dealing with an objective history of “what really happened.” It is self-consciously a work of theological propaganda.

Some early manuscripts do not contain the phrase “Son of God,” so its authenticity is questioned by some. Translations of the opening line also differ. Most say “gospel of Jesus Christ,” which implies some sense of Jesus’ ownership of the message. Others say “gospel about Jesus Christ,” suggesting that Jesus is merely the subject of what is to follow.

 

Mark’s Use of Prophecies

The second and third verses connect Mark’s story to the past — specifically, the prophets of Jewish scriptures. Mark combines quotes from both Isaiah and Malachi, but a more accurate translation of verse 2 is “As it is written in the prophet Isaiah.” This suggests that Mark doesn’t know the text of the prophets very well. Mark makes several such errors and one of the characteristics of Matthew is that when he relies on Mark, he goes back to check the original and corrects Mark’s mistakes.

A common theme in the gospels is that the life and actions of Jesus are connected to prophecies found throughout Jewish scriptures — the idea being, of course, that because Jesus fulfilled these prophecies, he should be accorded special status by Jews.

Here is what Malachi wrote:

    Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the LORD of hosts. (3:1)
    Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse. (4:5-6)

Isaiah wrote:

    The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (40:3)

Scholars have long wondered about the role John played in early Christianity and what his significant presence here might mean. Although it is tempting to identify John the Baptist as the messenger mentioned in Malachi 3:1, we see in 4:5 that the messenger was supposed to be Elijah.

John isn’t Elijah (although the description of his clothing and diet are references to Elijah) — he had a chance to say he was when questioned by the Pharisees in John 1:22, but declined. Also, Malachi indicates that when the Lord comes, the world would be consumed by righteous fire — but of course no such event is described in the gospels.

So we don’t have a fulfilled prophecy, but perhaps it was literary device — the use of a known turn of phrase in order to evoke particular emotions and associations in the minds of listeners who may have been familiar with the Malachi text. We certainly see plenty of that in political speeches which allude to biblical stories and phrasings.

 

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