There was an era in baseball when Joe DiMaggio ruled. DiMaggio was the standard many young boys dreamed they might one day be. Near the end of DiMaggio’s career, there was a Midwestern young man from the mining towns of Oklahoma, Commerce to be exact. His father, Mutt, wanted him to stay clear of the deadly mines and that father’s dream would become truer than he might have imagined. Mickey would become baseball’s new icon. All that New Yorkers loved in Joe DiMaggio they would also love in Mickey Mantle. One era ended gracefully as another began to flower. Dimaggio carried the Yankee torch and was now symbolically passing it on to Mantle.
In Mark 1:1-15 we see John the Baptist passing the prophetic torch to Jesus. John the Baptist was extremely popular before Jesus gained his popularity. John became so famous that Israelites thought he might be their Messiah. They hadn’t seen a prophet in a long time, and they knew that when God sent Israel prophets, God was preparing a deliverance. John’s location in the wilderness was no mistake. It wasn’t as if John was choosing a neutral setting to preach his baptism of repentance. William Lane sees the wilderness as the theme of this entire section (1:1-15). The absence of prophetic utterance lasted for centuries but all of a sudden the word of God will come to an Elijah-like prophet, one who speaks God’s kingdom message, not in Jerusalem, the anticipated locale of such an occurrence, but to Israel out in the wilderness. John is viewed as the one who paves the road for the One who the good news of the kingdom is all about, Jesus. Yet, John begins the carrying the ‘torch’ of the good news of the kingdom and all seem to be flocking to him.
Mark 1:2-8 is about John and his prophetic role. People came from far away to hear John preach and be baptized by John himself. John’s apparel was like that of the extremely popular Elijah (2 Kings 1:8). John was the Elijah that precipitated the last days of the prophets and the coming of the last Prophet, the Voice of God, the Messiah, Jesus. As a prophet (Luke 1:76) John appears and speaks a controversial message. John offers a baptism of forgiveness for Israelites (not proselytes) without the need for the Temple sacrifices. Why was this so controversial? The Temple was where Israel’s god “met” them and offered forgiveness. Surely, the long-anticipated sovereignty of God would first appear here. Jerusalem is thought to be the place where the Messianic mission to redeem Israel would take place. Perhaps this is why people living in Jerusalem came all the way out and see John in person and be baptized by John himself (Mark 1:5). They understood that their first covenant with God took place in the wilderness, where they first met God after being delivered from Egyptian captivity.
There was a judgment that was to come, which John was preaching was twofold. In one aspect, this judgment struck the chord of condemnation. John was warning Israel that the nation would be as a tree being cut down if they didn’t turn back to God and the covenant of Moses. This kind of judgment tells us that Israel’s national heart is hardened and corrupt. The Temple was especially corrupt, and bankrupting the nation. The rulers of the Temple envisioned different ways of God implementing his rule in the earth, through pagan rulers. Also, Israel was living in the promised land but they were still in exile because they were still ruled by pagan nations. Moses (from Deuteronomy 28-30) explains that Israel, even though they were God’s chosen people, was going to be “dethroned” as the nation that ruled all others. “And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth” (Deuteronomy 28:1). David and Solomon saw the heights that Israel would soar. Yet, the nation would descend into disobedience. They would become idolatrous and forsake the covenant they made with God there in Sinai. However, that covenant right to be the sovereign nation of the world would be restored to Israel in the era of the Roman Empire. Daniel 2 and 7 speak to this and those chapters also speak to one “like a son of man” ushering in that sovereign right. Israel understood this to be the Messianic mission. The Messiah would be another David-like figure who united the twelve tribes and expelled foreign nations from the land. Then they would turn back to God and keep His commandments. Their relationship to God would be restored and they would fulfill their divine vocation of ruling the world as physical Israel. John’s baptism was signaling this new era. John’s baptism was sifting out the ungodly elements of the current Israel. This preaching of the good news by John the Baptist was the beginning of Israel’s redemption and restoration to universal sovereignty. John’s baptizing with water is a signpost that God is fulfilling His promises to Israel, to set them on high once again. When John promises that One coming after him will baptize with the Spirit, he is saying that the Messianic figure is going to rule the nations through the Spirit. But many believed this type of rule to be militant, forcing foreign nations into submission.
When Israel was being delivered by Moses and Aaron out of Egypt, Exodus 4:22 has God saying that Israel is God’s firstborn son. Israel would be delivered through the water of the Red Sea and enter the wilderness to enter into a covenant relationship with God. Israel would agree to behave as God’s son in the world. However, we know Israel had great difficulty throughout their history behaving as God’s son. They fail and are exiled into foreign lands (Deut. 28:33, 49) and the exile continues to the time of John the Baptist and Jesus. Lane suggests that Israel was now being called by John the Baptist to come out into the wilderness, repenting, and renewing their covenant vows with God as His son. Yet, we know that Israel won’t succeed with their vocation to be a light to the world. This becomes more intriguing. Jesus will be seen coming out into the wilderness to be baptized and to receive the Spirit. When Jesus receives the Spirit he is understood to be God’s “Son” (1:11). As Israel, God’s son gathers in the wilderness to ‘meet’ God once again, we see the true Son doing the same, preparing to fulfill God’s plan and inaugurate God as King. Israel is seen as needing deliverance and unable to coronate God as they should. They are still in a status of exile (cf. Luke 15; the two sons are seen as being in two different kinds of exile). Jesus is the One who will succeed by completing Israel’s vocation, to create a heavenly, godly, humanity. The Messiah represents his people as God is depicted as a shepherd of His people. The shepherd is responsible for the sheep and Jesus is responsible for the lost sheep of Israel. Therefore, Jesus is baptized, not for the remission of his sins, but for the remission of Israel’s sins, and the world’s. Jesus is also responsible for us all.
In verse 9 we see Jesus coming all the way from the north (Galilee) to baptized by John whereas we saw Jerusalemites and people from Judea (possibly in the south where Salim was?) going out to John in the wilderness. Here is where we see a passing of the torch. John had been proclaiming the coming kingdom of God and was preparing the people to meet God with a baptism of repentance for the remittance of their sins. However, John was also speaking of someone coming after him much like Mantle followed DiMaggio. Yet, this someone John speaks of is more powerful and greater in status. Remarkably, John claims that he isn’t worthy to stoop down and untie this someone’s sandal. Servants traditionally untied their master’s sandals but John who is a servant of God alone will not be worthy of the One coming after him (NIV Zondervan Study Bible). Jesus arrives and is baptized. The Spirit descends as would a dove. It is likely that the Spirit didn’t look like a dove but instead acted as one. Isaiah 64:1 says this, “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you!” Ben Witherington III says that Mark is suggesting that the Spirit descending upon Jesus echoes Isaiah 64:1 and recalls Isaiah’s prayer that God does something remarkable and earth-shattering to reveal Himself. The heavens had to be torn open for this to happen. Certainly, the event of Jesus being anointed with the Spirit of God is an earth-shattering event and must be recognized as such. Heaven validates and commissions Jesus, not John, to carry the prophetic torch and as the One mighty enough to do God’s will of bringing in God’s reign. The voice from heaven speaks Psalm 2:7 “You are my Son” which signals that Jesus is a descendant of David, and assures the people that God’s promises to David, that one of his descendants would be set upon his throne (think universal sovereignty again; cf. Psalm 89).
We are seeing a reenactment of Israel’s exodus story when we look at John and the wilderness scene, the Israelites passing through water via John’s baptism, and also the Spirit of God meeting His Son out in the wilderness. Verse 12 says that the Spirit sent Jesus out into the wilderness. He was there forty days and was with the wild beasts and was tempted by Satan. This is similar to Israel’s history of being in the wilderness and dealing with both the human and demonic aspect (idols) of the wilderness, and likely much more. Satan defeated Israel there. Israel failed there. Jesus won’t fail here. Satan won’t defeat Jesus here. Unlike Israel, Jesus will be God’s faithful servant, and not be led astray. Jesus will now be seen as the powerful One, the One who can bind Satan, the “strong man” (Mark 3:27), and plunder his goods. John is now in prison, and Jesus heads not for Judea or Jerusalem, but the villages of Galilee. It is now time for Jesus to carry that prophetic torch, and to announce the earth-shattering victory. This is the good news of the kingdom of God (v. 15).