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 more true 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.
In Mark 1:1-15 we see a passing of the torch also. John the Baptist was in the wilderness but he was no recluse. 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 His people 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 word of God will come to the people 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. As a prophet (Luke 1:76) John appears and speaks a controversial message. John offers a baptism of forgiveness for Israelites (not proselytes) without need of the Temple sacrifices. Why was this so controversial? Perhaps, the implication of the Temple in Jerusalem being insufficient for this dominion that John is proclaiming is at hand. Perhaps this is why people living in Jerusalem had to come out and see John in person. They understood that deliverance and reconciliation to God was being preached while ignoring the significance of the Temple.
The judgment that was to come, which John was preaching was twofold. In one obvious aspect striking the chord of judgment of God upon the Israelites as warning wasn’t good news for them at all. This kind of judgment spoke to Israel’s hardened and corrupt heart as a nation. On the other hand, there was the good judgment of God for the nation, a judgment that signaled rescue and a new era. Part of this signal was John’s baptism. This was the last act with Israel in regard to revelation. John’s baptizing with water parallel’s Jesus baptizing with the Spirit. All of this speaks of God’s desire to redeem Israel and the nations.
Lane also suggests that Israel was called by John to come out into the wilderness, repenting, and renewing their covenant vows with God as His son. Why? This becomes interesting even moreso. Jesus will be seen coming out into the wilderness to be baptized and to receive the Spirit. 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 in a status of exile (cf. Luke 15; the two sons are seen as being in two different kinds of exile).
People came from far away to hear John preach and be baptized by John himself. John was extremely popular. His 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 Prophet, the Voice of God.
In verse 9 we see Jesus coming a ways 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 dominion 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 servant to 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 do 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, 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” and also reflects Exodus 4:22-23 where God speaks of Israel as His son before Pharaoh.
We are seeing a reenactment of Israel’s exodus story when we look at 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 of the wilderness. Israel failed there. Jesus won’t fail 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 the “strong man” (Mark 3:27). John is now in prison, and Jesus heads not for Judea or Jerusalem, but the villages of Galilee. It is now time to announce the earth shattering victory that is being won through Jesus, the good news of the kingdom of God (v. 15).