The Second Sunday of Advent is just about upon us. This is a time when we intentionally remember and celebrate the first coming of Christ and we think about his second coming.
With regard to Jesus’ second coming, some people think a lot about it, while others don’t think much about it. No matter where we stand on that continuum, we all are waiting for Jesus to return and put and end to the misery, injustice, and destruction in our world.
Yet, do you ever stop and wonder what people thought and felt when Jesus first came? How did Jesus’ early followers think about his first coming?
From time to time I have wanted to talk to the early Christians and ask them what they thought. I would love to sit down with Peter, Paul, James, and John, and ask them what they were thinking and feeling.
Yet, in one sense, we really can sit down and ask different ones what they felt because some of them actually wrote what they thought. Though I didn’t include Mark in that list, he wrote one of the Gospels and inside this Gospel he tells us what he thought.
So let’s take a look at Jesus’ first coming in Mark (1:1-11) and see what Mark thought about it.
We will frame our reflections with four interrogative pronouns: What, Where, Why and Who. Mark closes his passage by focusing our eyes on Jesus and by highlighting the beauty and the pain embedded within the Father’s announcement from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
1:1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Notice the title – The beginning of the Good News. Though there was a beginning to the Gospel- there technically is no end to it. Even though the book ends, it ends with people going out to proclaim the Gospel. Fortunately for us, the Gospel has no end!
Keep in mind that the word Christ is a title not a name. Due to tradition it functions more like Jesus’ last name. Yet, it is a title, referring to the promises of and the purpose for his coming. So, tradition causes some of us to lose sight of the significance of this title. Jesus is the promised Messiah, the one everyone was waiting for, the anointed one who would deliver everyone from their most grievous enemies (Luke 1:72-76).
The term Son of God explodes with significance. If we view this term only as a term of deity we only get half of the meaning. Jesus’ deity was important to Mark and he reveals this throughout his narrative. However, Jesus was also fully human. I don’t know about you, but I have tended to minimize and even lose sight of Jesus’ humanity. By doing this I committed an injustice to the Gospel. A key component of the Gospel is that God became one of us. Due to this, he knows from personal experience what human weakness is like. In addition, his becoming human is also meant to raise the significance of our humanity in our own eyes. If God thought so highly of us to become one of us and to save us, we need to view one another with that same level of dignity and respect.
The term Son of God is also a window, giving us a view of what is ours in Christ. In Jesus we become sons of God through faith (Gal. 3:26). Whether we are men, women or children, we are all sons. In Jesus we all share the same blessings and share the same potential for a deep and meaningful relationship with God (Eph 1:3, 17-18). We should never allow our work or anything else to minimize the potential we have for our relationship with God as his sons (children). We are joint heirs with Christ (Romans 8:16-17 ). Jesus opened the way to a full relationship with God for us all.
What time is it?
2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; 3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'”
Some scholars say that Mark blended three separate verses in this verse. It appears that he blended Exodus 23:20, Malachi 3:1; and Isaiah 40:3.
Ex. 23:20 I am going to send an angel in front of you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared.
Mal. 3:1 See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight–indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. 2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap;
Is. 40:3 A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 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. 5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
Why would Mark have blended three verses into one?
It could be because Ex. 23:20 refers to the angel going ahead of Israel to guide the children of Israel into the Promised Land. In like manner Malachi 3:1 refers to the one who will prepare the way for the Lord coming like a refiner’s fire and like a fuller’s soap. But the messenger in Malachi is Elijah, who is supposed to come at the eschatological end. Therefore, Mark was trying to tell us what time it was. This was the time that the God was fulfilling his many promises to redeem his people and establish his wonderful Kingdom ( a new promised land)- freeing his people from their enemies and from the hand of all who hated them (Luke 1:71). These promises were finally being fulfilled with the coming of John! John as the Messenger in the Wilderness was the forerunner of the one who was to inaugurate this new exodus, fulfilling the prophecy in Malachi.
In addition, Mark was saying that God had finally come in Jesus. The One whom the people had been seeking had finally come to his temple. The glory of the Lord had been revealed.
This is also what John the Apostle told us, but he used different words: And the Word became flesh and lived (tabernacled) among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a Father’s only son, full of grace and truth (John 1:14; see also 1 Jn 1:1-3).
This is what time it was!
Where does one go to meet God?
4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And 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.
John was called the baptizer because he performed his own baptisms. This was a clear break from the general habit at that time. Up until John baptisms had been self-administered; and they were repeatable. John broke with that tradition. John’s baptism was a one-time act. It was also not an initiatory act; no one was initiated into anything. The penitent did not enter any group by baptism; they just prepared themselves for the Lord’s coming by turning from their sins. What this meant to each person being baptized is not clear. However, Mark shows us that they knew that God was going to draw near to them in a new way. This had to be an incredibly exciting time for them!
Standing on this side of history, 2000 years after the time of Christ, we know that John’s baptism was a prototype of what was coming: the baptism of the Spirit. This baptism was also something that would only happen once, and it would be life changing! It would also not be self-administered; Jesus is the only one who can perform this baptism (Mark 1:8).
Mark says that John appeared in the wilderness. Mark identifies the wilderness in a general sense without saying it was the wilderness in Judea, a point that Matthew makes (Matt. 3:1). Mark has a good reason for this. For Mark, the wilderness performs a theological role. Why is this? Possibly for two reasons: 1.) The wilderness typifies a spiritually barren area, and 2.) It is place that Micah and Hosea had talked about. They said the wilderness was the place where God would once again meet and bless His people:
Hosea 2:14 Therefore, I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her (see also Hosea 12:9).
Micah 7:14-15 Shepherd your people with your staff, the flock that belongs to you, which lives alone in a forest in the midst of a garden land; let them feed in Bashan and Gilead as in the days of old. As in the days when you came out of the land of Egypt, show us marvelous things.
With these prophecies in mind, Mark wanted us to know that the wilderness as a place to meet God has great value for us. If we think we are in a place of spiritual barrenness, a place that we would describe as a wilderness, we surely can have hope. The wilderness is a place where we can meet God. In fact, according to the verses in Hosea God brings us to the wilderness in order to meet us (see James 4:8).
So, we don’t need to go anywhere to meet God if we feel like we are in a wilderness. He has promised that he will meet us there and turn our life around, if we prepare our hearts for him.
If we find that we failed to remain circumspect when our lives were full and find ourselves in a barren place, the wilderness can be a place that freshly challenges us. The troubles of life compel us to call on God. In that place he wonderfully answers, fills us, and shows us His glory. The wilderness can become a place of great blessing.
6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.
In verse 6 Mark draws our attention to John’s ascetic lifestyle. Not all prophets were ascetics. Isaiah was not one; but John the Baptist was. An ascetic lifestyle naturally has an impact on people. We tend to feel that an ascetic lifestyle is somehow more godly and holy than a non-ascetic lifestyle. Even Hindu and Muslim ascetics can attract large followers of people. In the Old Testament Ezra had a more austere lifestyle than Nehemiah. Nehemiah traveled in style with soldiers of the king. When Nehemiah entered Jerusalem he entered as one in charge of the area. In the NT we see Paul mingling often with people of means. So, we would be hard pressed to say that he was an ascetic. Jesus also had a lifestyle that enabled him to mingle with everyone. He had nothing; yet, he mingled easily with people of means.
Personality, call and context shape the way we should go about our lives. There is no law that determines how we should live. However, there is one principle that would benefit us all to follow: live simply with good taste. If we do this, we will find we can also mingle freely with everyone.
Why is all this happening?
7 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. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Verses 7 and 8 point us to Why Jesus had come. Each of the four Gospels talk about Jesus being the one who baptizes in the Holy Spirit – this outpouring of the Holy Spirit had been prophesied in Isaiah, Ezekiel and Joel.
Isaiah 32:14 For the palace will be forsaken, the populous city deserted; the hill and the watchtower will become dens forever, the joy of wild asses, a pasture for flocks; 15 until a spirit from on high is poured out on us, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is deemed a forest. 16 Then justice will dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness abide in the fruitful field. 17 The effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.
Isaiah 44:1 But now hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen! 2 Thus says the LORD who made you, who formed you in the womb and will help you: Do not fear, O Jacob my servant, Jeshurun whom I have chosen. 3 For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring. 4 They shall spring up like a green tamarisk, like willows by flowing streams. 5 This one will say, “I am the Lord’s,” another will be called by the name of Jacob, yet another will write on the hand, “The Lord’s,” and adopt the name of Israel.
Ezekiel 11:19-20 I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, 20 so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them. Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God.
Ezekiel 36:25-27 I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.
Ezekiel 37:11-14 Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act,” says the LORD.
Joel 2:23-29 O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the LORD your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before. 24 The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. 25 I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you. 26 You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame. 27 You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the LORD, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame. 28 Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. 29 Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
The purpose in giving the Spirit appears to be multifaceted. Luke in Acts seems to highlight the dimension of power. However, Mark seems to emphasize cleansing (the baptism for forgiveness) following the line of thought of the Ezekiel passages which emphasize cleansing and forgiveness. Holiness, that is, a changed life, caused by the descent of the Spirit, only given by Jesus the Messiah, these were the integral aspects of the New Covenant to which John the Baptizer pointed. God’s New Covenant is fulfilled when the Spirit has been poured out upon someone and they are filled and changed. For Mark, it was not adequate to have someone mentally agree to the facts about Jesus. They must experience the Spirit.
John’s baptism was for the forgiveness of sins, and when the Baptism of the Spirit is mentioned John eliminates the message about fire, as in Luke and Matthew. Why is this? Fire symbolized judgment for both Matthew and Luke. However, judgment is not something Mark wants to mention here. Why? Mark already quoted from Isaiah 42. And the first verse of Isaiah 42 says: Comfort, O comfort my people. Mark’s understanding of the message of John was primarily the message of comfort to the people of God. The promise of comfort was being fulfilled because the messenger had come. The way was being prepared for the coming of God!
Mark then focuses all our attention on Jesus:
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And 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. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
John baptizes Jesus. Why? We are not told. However, immediately after the baptism the heavens are torn apart and the Spirit descends. This is possibly reminiscent of the prayer from Isaiah 64:1 — O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence….
The Spirit’s descending is the fulfillment of these verses:
Isaiah 11:2 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2 The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
Isaiah 42:1 Here is 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. 2 He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; 3 a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. 4 He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching (see also Is. 61:1-3; 63:10-64:11).
The question remains as to why is the Spirit referred to “like a dove”? Doves symbolize peace and purity. This harmonizes with the Baptism of the Spirit signifies, the inauguration of an age of peace and holiness. Romans 14:17 aligns with this thinking and tells us that The kingdom of God is not food or drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (see also Isaiah 42:3).
Then, the Father speaks from heaven in Mark 1:11 – And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Again, we see one quotation combining three different OT passages:
Psalm 2: 7 I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you.
Genesis 22:2 After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2 He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”
Isaiah 42:1 Here is 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. 2 He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street;
Why did God speak to Jesus in this way for all to hear? In this declaration God describes the role in which Jesus is serving and the relationship that Jesus has with him. With the descent of the Spirit each of these passages are fulfilled. Isaiah 42:1 is fulfilled because Jesus, as the servant of the Lord, is anointed and God is pleased with his Servant. The Messianic King of Psalm 2:7 has finally come. In addition, this anointed servant, this messianic King is God’s beloved son. The picture we are given is from Genesis 22:2. The Genesis 22:2 passage tells us where God is going in all of this. God is about to embark on a journey with his son, the son He loves, to a mountain to sacrifice him. This one verse captures the joy, the mercy, and the pain of the moment.
This is what Mark thought of Jesus’ coming. God’s promises were being fulfilled. God himself was returning to his temple and he would become the sacrifice for us. In this incredible manner God was enthroning his king, pouring out His Spirit, and establishing his promised and universal kingdom of peace.
So, what time is it? It is a time of blessing, a time that should explode with meaning, promise, and hope no matter where we are in life. Whether we are empty in the wilderness, or full in the city, let us turn our eyes to Jesus and let’s invite him to meet us where we are and allow him to lift us up to sit with him in his holy presence. After all, he is the promised One who came to set us free from all that hinders or binds us, and he is the promised One who can fill our hearts with a fullness we never imagined possible.
Have a wonderful Advent season.