The gospel of Mark begins with a quote from the prophet Isaiah: “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight” (Mark 1:2-3, NRSV).
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By connecting his gospel to the prophecy of Isaiah (which was written in a time when the nation of Israel was in exile in Babylon, under brutal oppression), Mark makes two things clear: this gospel should be read with the history of Israel in mind, and it speaks a word of hope for all who suffer similar oppression. The oppressed can have hope for one specific reason: their Liberator (Jesus of Nazareth) has come at last!
Having given us this background, Mark goes on to connect the prophecy of Isaiah to the work of John the Baptist. We are told that “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 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” (Mark 1:4-5).
It should be noted that nowhere in the Bible, or in early Christian tradition, is there any indication that the ritual of baptism itself has the power to take away sin. Rather, it is our repentance that is key. And repentance is more than just feeling sorry for our sins; it is, at heart, a change of mind and practice. It is turning in a new direction. The waters of baptism are a powerful symbol for the washing away of sin; and they signify to others that we are starting a new life in the community of believers.
As important as forgiveness of sin is, however, it is only a beginning. There is a much deeper, more powerful baptism we must undergo if we are to live the kind of life Jesus calls us to. This is why John says, “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. I have baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:7-8).
While water baptism symbolically frees us from sin, the baptism of the Holy Spirit goes further, giving us the very power of God, which flows out in our actions. It is a power we must have if we are to do the works of the kingdom – feeding the multitudes, liberating the oppressed, healing the sick, casting out demons, and raising the dead. It is also necessary for us to have this power for us to live in obedience to what Jesus teaches.
What is really interesting about this passage is what happens next. Mark tells us that “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 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. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Mark 1:9-11).
Many have wondered why Jesus would need to be baptized. The Bible tells us that Jesus has “in every respect been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15). Yet here we see John giving a baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and Jesus entering into that baptism! What are we to make of this?
We get a little bit of an answer in the gospel of Matthew. Here we see John trying to stop Jesus from being baptized, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matt 3:14). In response, Jesus says, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt 3:15).
This last line is quite telling. If we look at the Greek, we will see that the word translated here as “righteousness” literally means “justice.” What Jesus is saying, then, is that this is the way justice is fulfilled – by the greater taking the place of the lesser.
It is often said that the way to achieve social justice in this world is to empower the poor and the marginalized; and this certainly has some truth to it. But this is not enough. For justice to really be implemented, the high and mighty need to come down from their places of power and join the lowly.
Jesus did precisely that by coming from heaven to earth, being born in a manger, being baptized as if He were a sinner, washing His disciples’ feet, and finally, by dying on a cross. In each of these actions, Jesus demonstrated that the way to peace and justice in this world is for the rich and powerful to come down and serve the poor and weak.
Furthermore, in order for us to be freed from our sins, it was necessary for Jesus to take them upon Himself. Certainly He did so through His death on the cross; but I dare say that in His baptism as well, Jesus was taking the place of the sinner, so that sinners could be set free. For our great Liberator knew that we needed to be freed, not just from external oppression, but also from the bondage of our sin; and this could not be done by our own power. We needed someone to break this bondage for us, and this is precisely what Jesus did. Furthermore, it is what we are called to do for others, as well – by the power of the Holy Spirit.