Commentary Excerpt by Tom Boomershine
This story in the lectionary begins at verse four leaving out the introduction to the Gospel and to John the Baptist from Isaiah. I would suggest that you tell the whole story from Mark 1 through verse 11, which includes then the introduction of the beginning of the Gospel, the quotation from Isaiah, the story of John the Baptist and Jesus' baptism. The beginning of the Gospel immediately announces what this story is about: "This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus, Christ, the son of God.” These terms were heard by Mark’s audiences in the post-war period (72 AD or so through the end of the first century) against the background of traditions of Israel and the Greco-Roman world. The stories of Saul and David are Messiah stories. Both Saul and David are named as Christin the Greek translation of I Samuel (Saul: LXX I Kings 24.7, 11; 26.9, 11; 28.16. David:LXX I Kings 19.21; 22.51); thus, the author’s introduction to David’s last words: “The oracle of David, son of Jesse, the oracle of the man whom God exalted, the anointed xristos of the God of Jacob” (23.1). Thus, the messiahs of Israel were the military leaders and kings of the nation. Likewise the terms euangelion (gospel) and uios theou (son of God) were terms used in Greco-Roman documents about the emperors of Rome. For example, the Provincial Assembly of Asia Minor passed a resolution for the birthday ofCaesar Augustus, the last part of which reads: “and whereas, finally that the birthday ofthe God (viz., Caesar Augustus) has been for the whole world the beginning of the gospel(euangelion) concerning him…(Cartlidge and Dungan, Documents for the Study of the Gospels,1994, p. 5) Thus, Mark uses the same phrases to introduce Jesus as had been used earlier for the Emperors of Rome and the kings of Israel.
The first sign of Jesus' messianic identity is the ministry of John the Baptist. In Mark, John’s ministry is the fulfillment of the prophecies of Isaiah and Micah that a predecessorof the Messiah would come who would prepare the Messiah's way and go before him inthe wilderness. John is the fulfillment of that promise. In telling this story, Isaiah’sprophecy from centuries before (600-700 years) needs to be announced as a foretelling of what will happen at a time in the far distant future and as a sign of God's presence and ofthe movement of God's will. John’s baptism is a once and for all, eschatological baptism.The tradition throughout much of Israel's history was the maintenance of purity by beingcleansed from various things that defiled a person. This would happen after a woman'speriod, a man having a nocturnal emission, touching something that was dead. Therewere many sources of uncleanness. One would take baths and be removed from normalhuman contact for a period of time in order to become clean. John's baptism is a once and for all cleansing of spiritual uncleanness brought about by repentance. Baptism is asign of the forgiveness of all sins.
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