The Preparation of the Servant
Topic: Gospels Passage: Mark 1:1–1:13
1The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2 As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,
Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way.
3 the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,”
4 John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
12 The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.
When God saw fit to inspire a sacred record of His Son’s earthly ministry, He did so through the lenses of four different writers. Two of them—Matthew and John—were apostles of Jesus and, therefore, produced eyewitness accounts. A third scribe, Luke, was a physician by trade and also a close companion of the Apostle Paul. He wrote only after having thoroughly researched and carefully investigated the events of Jesus’ life and ministry.
It may surprise you to learn that the authorship of the fourth Gospel has been the subject of some debate. Although he does not tell us who he is, the general consensus is that the writer was a man named John Mark, or better known simply as “Mark.” We actually do not meet this man until Acts 12:12, where a prayer meeting is taking place at his mother’s house. That home, in fact, seems to have been the place where Christians would frequently gather to pray. In the Acts 12 passage they are praying for Peter’s release from prison. From other New Testament texts we learn that Mark was closely linked with Peter. Many believe that much of the material in Mark actually originated with Peter. What’s more, by the end of Acts 12, we find this same Mark being selected as a part of the very first missionary team headed up by his cousin Barnabas and Saul, whose name had not yet been changed to “Paul.”
Shortly into that journey, however, Mark turned back for reasons that are left undisclosed (cf. Acts 13:13). What we do know is that his departure left such a bitter taste with Paul that he adamantly refused to take him on the second journey, thus creating bitter disagreement between Paul and Barnabas that ended with those missionary pioneers parting company and forming two separate mission teams. Although details are missing from the biblical account, fortunately we know that Paul and Mark had later reconciled by the time Paul was in prison in Rome (cf. 2 Timothy 4:11). A short time earlier Mark had served as his aide and delegate in an important mission to Asia Minor (cf. Philemon 24 and Colossians 4:10).
When Peter later wrote his first epistle, he referred to Mark as his “son” (1 Peter 5:13). Although Mark rubbed elbows and served alongside a number of the leaders of the early church, it is generally agreed that it was his close identity with Peter that motivated and enabled him to write such an intimate portrait of Jesus. As already noted, it is thought that Mark’s Gospel is actually a compilation of the story told to him by Peter.
We could say more about Mark, but his Gospel is not about him. It is about Jesus, but it is not just a biography. It is much more practical than that. It is rather about becoming and being a disciple of Jesus. During the decades prior to the writing of the Gospels, apostolic tradition was largely communicated by word of mouth. In order to preserve an accurate historical account of our Lord’s earthly ministry, as well as an unambiguous record of His teachings, God inspired the Gospels to be written. Each Gospel was written with a particular audience in view. Mark’s target audience is believed to have been early Christians living in Rome some thirty-to-thirty five years after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension.
Mark’s Gospel stresses action. Present tense verbs—such as, Jesus comes, Jesus says, Jesus heals—fill its pages. There are more miracles in Mark than in the other Gospels, even though it is much shorter. He uses the word “immediately” more than forty times, and the conjunction “and” adds to the non-stop action. It should not be surprising, therefore, that the key verse of the book is generally taken to be Mark 10:45, which reads, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
But enough about Mark the man and the background of his book. Let’s turn now our attention to what it has to say. The story begins with...
The prologue (verses 1-3)
You will notice that Mark jumps right into the story of Jesus. There is no narrative of His birth, no genealogical record of His family history, and no stories from His early life. This is a book about the ideal Servant of the Lord, and the author wants to get into that part of the story as quickly as he can.
By calling it “The beginning of gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” several observations are to be made. The word “beginning” suggests that the story does not end with what Mark will leave for us in his sixteen chapters. Long after he places the period at the end of the final sentence, the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ will continue to spread. But what is a “gospel”? As you likely know, the Greek word, “,” means “good news,” especially as it comes to a needy and oppressed people. It is an extremely significant New Testament term, used to describe not only the teaching of Jesus but the means of salvation made available to repentant sinners through His death and resurrection.
This Gospel of which Mark writes is founded upon the Person of “Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” That threefold designation describes just who this One is. “Jesus” is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew name “Joshua,” which means “Yahweh saves.” It was a rather common name in the first century, which was fitting in light of His mission to identify with His fellow man. “Christ” is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew term “Messiah.” It means “anointed one,” in the sense of designating a person commissioned by God for a special task. As we proceed through this book, we will learn just what that specific task was. And finally, Jesus is called “the Son of God,” a title that speaks of His unique relationship with God the Father.
So, “Jesus” refers to His humanity, “Christ” to His mission, and “Son of God” to His Deity. He is the one-of-a-kind God-man. And Mark is about to tell us how and why His story means “good news” to those who are willing to receive it and respond to it in faith.
In supporting his purpose, in verses 2 and 3 Mark cites a pair of quotes from the Old Testament that spoke of one who would one day burst upon the scene as the forerunner to the Messiah. As we learn from verse 4, that one’s name was John. And even though John will be introduced suddenly, it was not without prophetic warning. The prophets Malachi (3:1) and Isaiah (40:3) had both forecast his arrival hundreds of years earlier. So when he came “crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,’” those who knew their Bibles recognized him as the messenger who was announcing the arrival of the Christ
The reference to Isaiah’s prophecy deserves a little more attention. As you know from our study of that prophet several months ago, the “servant” motif permeates the book that bears his name. And we have already noted that it is a significant feature of Mark’s Gospel as well. Therefore, as we proceed in our study, we will see that Mark’s Jesus is the fulfillment the “servant” of whom Isaiah spoke. In fact, that is precisely the point that he wants us to see. Jesus Christ is the ideal Servant.
We are brought face-to-face with...
The forerunner (verses 4-8)
...in verses 4 through 8. His name is John, and just as Isaiah had foretold his ministry is being carried out “in the wilderness.” The “wilderness” is another prominent feature of the book...and not without reason. Not only does it conjure up images of a desert and foreboding wasteland, but it also serves to take us back to the Israelites’ forty-year wandering following their deliverance from Egyptian bondage. That the people “were going out to him” marked Israel’s “return” to “the wilderness” in preparation for entering into their “true inheritance”... an inheritance that God had covenanted with His people since the days of Abraham (cf. Genesis 12:1ff).
John is abruptly introduced to us. We are told simply that “John appeared.” Dressed in a manner similar to and carrying on a ministry reminiscent of Elijah the prophet (cf. 2 Kings 1:8), John’s arrival was radical to say the least. We are told that his ministry consisted on “baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” That one would baptize another was a completely novel act. No one else had ever done it. The only thing that even came close was the fact that Gentile converts to Judaism immersed themselves in an act of ritual cleansing in order to become proselytes to the Jewish faith. But now John was calling Jews to be baptized at the hands of another. Such a thing was unheard of! That is why John is called “the Baptist,” or more accurately, “the Baptizer.”
The second thing that we should note is that John’s baptism focused on “repentance” from sin. From as far back as the Exodus, the “wilderness” location was associated with the biblical concept of “repentance.” Those who were “going out to him” knew why they were going to the “wilderness.” Try to imagine the scene: hundreds—and likely thousands at the height of his ministry—sitting along the banks of the Jordan River, listening to him preach about their sin and need for forgiveness. He would have warned them of the coming judgment and would have addressed their individual sins. And those who were convicted would have formed endless lines to be baptized as a sign that they were turning from their sins.
Sin and judgment...that was the content of John’s message. Those are vital aspects of preaching that far too many who occupy pulpits in our day have all but forgotten. There can be no real salvation apart from the recognition that one knows that he needs to be saved. John’s ministry was but preparatory for that of Another. “After me,” he included in his message, “comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.” In declaring those words, John is assuming a subordinate role to the One who would soon be coming. The only proper preparation for the Gospel of Jesus Christ is preaching about sin, and John’s ministry was to “prepare (the) way” by calling people to identify with—that is, admit—their sin.
But John didn’t stop with preaching about sin. That is because sin without a solution is damning and leaves one hopeless. That is why he pointed his hearers to the yet-to-be revealed Jesus. “I baptize you with water,” he announced, “but he (the Coming One) will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” John had “dipped” them with water that was only external, but the One who was about to come who would “saturate” them with the Holy Spirit and bring about an internal change. “Saturate” is appropriate in describing the work of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life. When anyone turns from and renounces his or her sin and commits their way to Christ, the Holy Spirit enters in and permeates every part of their being. If you have not trusted Christ, you are still in your sins this morning. But when You become His by faith, then you are given the gift of God’s indwelling Spirit and you are radically changed from within. You are immersed, if you will, with the life-giving flow of God’s Holy Spirit.
John’s message was perfectly balanced. There was law and there was Gospel. God’s law condemned his hearers in their sin, and the Baptizer was calling them to repentance. But repentance alone would not save them. There must also be the Gospel of God’s grace and the new life given by the Holy Spirit. That would come through the revelation of...
The Son (verses 9-11)
We first meet Him in verses 9 through 11, where we read: “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’”
This brief paragraph depicts an important scene in Mark’s story in that it marks the beginning of Jesus’ Messianic ministry. Although briefer than the parallel accounts recorded by Matthew and Luke, it nevertheless provides the necessary details that support Mark’s purpose of presenting Jesus as the ideal Servant.
The question is often raised as to why Jesus submitted to John’s baptism, especially when Matthew reports John having said to Him, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” You may remember Jesus answered by saying, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:14-15). In other words, it was necessary for our Lord to identify with man’s sin—although He had none of His own—and the message His forerunner was preaching. You see, baptism is a rite of identification.
And while it may be something of a sidebar, it is still worth noting that the text says that after being baptized, Jesus “came up out of the water,” lending strong support to immersion being the biblical mode of baptism. More importantly, however, is the meaning of what was taking place in the Jordan River that day, for it marked the formal anointing of the Christ for the ministry into which He was entering and would be involved in for the next three-plus years. By being baptized Jesus was publicly identifying with the eternal plan and purpose of God. Believers continue to follow His example to this day.
As if to place the Divine stamp of approval upon the event taking place at the Jordan that day, Mark records the presence of all three members of the Trinity being present at Jesus’ baptism. Employing for the first time what will become the familiar “immediately,” at that moment Jesus “saw the heavens tearing apart and the Spirit in the form of a dove descending into Him, and a voice out of the heavens declaring, ‘You are my beloved Son, in You I am well pleased.” That is a literal reading of the text. But what does it mean?
Let us first of all take note of the three members of the Godhead. There is the voice of God the Father, the physical presence of God the Son, and a unique appearance of God the Holy Spirit. Here in the baptismal scene, we have a clear manifestation of the Trinity. The Father spoke His approval from heaven, the incarnate Son stood ready to begin His mission, and the Spirit descended to empower Him.
It is also significant to note that it was only Jesus who “saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.” And it was He alone who heard “the voice...from heaven (saying), ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” These unusual signs marked the personal confirmation of the One who would in a little more than three years accomplish the work of human redemption. The march to the cross was about to begin, and there would be no turning back.
All three of the synoptic writers tell us that before Jesus taught His first sermon or performed His first miracle, He was led into “the wilderness” for a time of testing. Mark records...
The test (verses 12-13)
...this way in verses 12 and 13: “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.”
Both Matthew and Luke say that Jesus was “led...into the wilderness” (cf. Matthew 4:1 and Luke 4:1), but typical of his more forceful style Mark says that He was “driven” (“”) there by the Spirit. This is not meant to imply that Jesus went reluctantly or with any hesitation on His part, but it does suggest the nature of the test He was about to face.
Mark’s report is also the most brief and concise. Unlike the other two accounts, he does not provide the specific nature of the temptations that Satan thrust His way. Mark’s emphasis is instead upon the stark and dark nature of the testing. Although there was divine necessity to His being brought into “the wilderness,” Satan was clearly the instigator. It is a scene not unlike—and, no doubt, of far greater magnitude—than what even Job had endured.
As noted, the “wilderness”-motif is prominent in Mark’s Gospel. Throughout both Testaments, “the wilderness” is seen as a place of testing...a place of both judgment and grace. Some of you were with us several years ago when we went through a number of these “wilderness” passages together. Many times—in fact, more often than not—this imagery is used to describe a “spiritual wasteland,” a “desert.” The mention of “wild animals” only adds to that description. It was into such a setting that Jesus was compelled to go. Not against His will, mind you, but because the success of His ultimate ministry depended upon Him passing every test that could possibly be set before Him. And, praise God, He did!
The reference to “the angels... ministering to him” is significant. One commentator attempts to describe the scene this way: “Then in the air above the desert and around Jesus on the wilderness stretches, angels glimmered, and soon the sky was filled with God’s messengers ministering to Him. Satan and Christ would meet again, but the first great battle was over and Christ was the victor!”
There would be a day some three years later when this same Jesus would refuse the help of angels. It would be a day when both His life and the fate of men’s souls would hang in the balance (cf. Matthew 26:53). But we must not get too far ahead of ourselves. First we must follow the footsteps of Jesus as they unwaveringly led to the cross.
I believe that it is not only interesting but intentional that Mark begins his Gospel with a reference to the prophecy of Isaiah. More than any other of the prophetic writers Isaiah refers to the servant role of the Messiah who was to come. Now centuries later, Mark shows how Jesus fulfills that role.
Over the next several weeks we will not simply be tracking the account of Mark but also tracing the footsteps of Jesus. Our journey will not only demonstrate how Jesus is the ideal Servant, but will also challenge us to become His servants. Along the way we will discover that is what discipleship—or being a true follower of Christ—is all about.
As we close let me remind you that there are three general rules for studying and understanding the Bible. The first deals with observation...carefully observing the text of Scripture—noting the words, the structure, the background, and the literary form so as to accurately determine what the text has to say.
Then there is interpretation...which involves asking critical questions of the passage within its immediate and larger context. This leads us to understand what the text means by what it says. What is important to remember is that there is only one correct interpretation of any passage of Scripture, and that is what God meant to convey when He inspired it to be written.
And then finally, there is application...which generally means to ask what the text means to us or what am I to do in light of what the text says and means. There can be many applications of Scripture, but all of them will be flawed if our observation is incomplete and our interpretation inaccurate.
Therefore, as we proceed through Mark, I would like for us to work through these three steps together. As we consider the role of our Lord Jesus as the ideal Servant, my prayer is that we will discover—perhaps for the very first time for some of us—who Jesus is, what His ministry reveals about God and ourselves, why He appeared among us for such a short while, where His mission took Him and is to take us, when in the plan of God His ministry was and is still being carried out, and how His message is to spread through His followers to others.
Even now I encourage you to be asking those questions. Don’t merely wait for answers, but search for them yourself. And then come each Sunday as together we seek to understand their implications. Read the Gospel of Mark for yourself each week. Did you know that without hurrying, all sixteen chapters can be read in less than two hours? Devoting just twenty minutes a day will get you through the book in six days. I hope that many of you will accept this challenge, and that as we trace the steps of our Lord Jesus we will grow in our devotion to Him and in our role as servants to one another in His name.
If you are a not yet a Christian, then I especially invite you to be with us as we journey with Jesus from the wilderness of His baptism and temptation to the cross and the empty tomb. My prayer is that along the way, You will discover who He really is and why You desperately need Him to be your Savior and Lord.