Last Lord’s Day morning we commented on the first eight verses of the Gospel. We will read them again this morning because they set the stage for the dramatic introduction of Gospel’s principal character in v. 9. We pointed out last time that the first eight verses of the chapter lay great stress on the divine character of the one who’s coming John the Baptist was sent to announce. John was, in the language of Isaiah 40:3, to prepare the way for the Lord, in Isaiah 40 Lord is Yahweh and that is all that could be meant, the living God, the Creator, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is coming and John is to prepare and herald his way. The one who was coming after John would also baptize with the Holy Spirit, once again something that only God can do. The Lord is coming to his people that is what John is to announce.
But in v. 9 we read, not of some theophany, as the glory of God was again revealed to men as it had been in the thunder and lightning at Mt. Sinai in the days of Moses. We don’t read of some great vision of the divine glory being given to men as it was to Ezekiel in the first chapter of his prophecy. Rather we have what would seem a terrible anti-climax: “Now it happened in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth…” Jesus? We are obviously talking about a man here and there is something very ordinary about this man. Jesus was not an uncommon name in those days. It is the Greek equivalent of Joshua. Then as now there were lots of Joshuas! There is even another Jesus mentioned in the New Testament. Paul had a friend named Jesus who is mentioned in Colossians 4:11. And this Jesus came from Nazareth, a village so inconsequential that it is not mentioned in the Old Testament, or in the Talmud, or in Josephus. No doubt many of those who heard Mark being read for the first time, even among the Jews, would never have heard of Nazareth. What is more, Nazareth was in Galilee, decidedly the back-water of the Holy Land. People in Jerusalem distrusted Galileans and considered them inferior. I suppose it would be akin to someone from New York City or Washington D.C. being told that he needed to go to Puyallup to find out what’s what!
Mark goes on to say very simply that Jesus was baptized by John. He doesn’t elaborate as the other Gospel writers do. And Mark doesn’t seem to be bothered at all by the fact that Jesus was given John’s baptism even though that baptism is described in v. 3 as a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Generally Christian theologians have I think rightly explained Jesus’ baptism as his public identification with the sinners he came to save. This interpretation is made more likely by the fact that in v. 11 of chapter 1 there is an echo of Isaiah 42:1 which introduces to us the servant of the Lord, whose mission is further described in those great passages and especially in Isaiah 53 which, as you know, speaks of his bearing the sins of his people in their place. Given the place that baptism was eventually to have in the Christian life, John Calvin suggests that another reason for the Lord submitting to John’s baptism is that he might set an example for us and that we might have this, our baptism, in common with him. [Cranfield, 52] But in any case the Lord whose coming John is to announce and herald is baptized by John like everybody else. Luther says somewhere in his Table Talk that it is at the Jordan and in this baptism that the New Testament really begins. Why? Because here at his baptism Jesus first identifies himself as the man who had come to save sinners, as the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world. But the people who would have watched him being baptized would not have drawn that conclusion. Nothing in v. 9 suggests the “one more powerful than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie” of v. 8. But there is more to come.
We hear that when the Lord came up from the water he saw the heavens being torn open. That language comes from the OT and suggests a visitation from God himself. “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down…” we read in Isa. 64:1. In Mark there are two uses of this verb “rend or tear.” The first is here, the second is at the end of the Gospel when the curtain of the temple is torn at the death of Jesus on the cross.
Then Jesus saw the Spirit descending upon him as a dove. As we said last time the OT prophesied that the Messiah would be endowed with the Holy Spirit in a unique way and would also bestow the Spirit upon the world, as John also says in v. 8. No one can say for sure why a dove. It may be the case – there is some evidence – that the Jews likened the Holy Spirit to a dove, but it is by no means certainly so. Our thought of the dove as a symbol of peace comes from here. It doesn’t explain our text.
And then came the sound of a voice from heaven declaring “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Obviously the speaker is God himself. And the statement echoes those in Psalm 2:7: “You are my son, today I have begotten you,” and Isa. 42:1: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.” Jesus is both the long-awaited king, the Messiah, and the Lord’s servant who would suffer for his people’s sins and restore them to God. But Jesus is also God’s son! No prophet had ever been called God’s son, nor had Abraham or Moses. True, Israel and Israel’s king had been called God’s son, but never like this. The fact that he is called God’s beloved son lays special emphasis on the relationship between God and Jesus. Heaven in a spectacular way is endorsing this man and his life and work. “With this man,” God says, “I am well pleased!” And what happens next? In a strikingly terse short paragraph Mark relates the temptation of the Lord which is given much more attention in Matthew and Luke.
It is certainly not happenstance that the Lord found himself in the desert by himself where he encountered Satan and was tempted by him. The Spirit, the very Spirit who had just descended upon him at his baptism, sent him out there. There was no time to linger over the glory of the baptism. There was work to be done; a calling to be fulfilled. It was an essential part of his mission to begin it by being tempted by Satan. Jesus is, as it were, taking the offensive against the enemy of the people of God. [Cranfield, 57] It is only suggested here what is made explicit in the other Gospels: the temptations came in the form of enticements to do something else than what he had been called to do and, in particular, to choose for himself an easier path than that way that our salvation required him to take.
Satan, as you know, means “adversary,” and is the prince of the fallen angels and the supreme enemy both of God and man. Jesus had come to deliver God’s people from the power of Satan and this required facing him squarely at the outset. In the rest of Mark we will find the Lord doing battle with the legions of Satan, as in the first of his miracles reported in Mark, in 1:21-28. In other words, the contest begins here, it does not end here. [France, 84] Satan attacked Jesus with temptations, but, as is clear here, the Spirit put Jesus in the way of that attack. It was necessary for him to best the Devil and that is what he did. The Apostle John tells us that the Son of God came “to destroy the works of the devil” and the Gospel is the record of that great encounter, struggle, and finally the Lord’s complete victory.
Only Mark records the fact that, being in the wilderness Jesus was with the wild animals. The idea seems to intensify the sense of the Lord’s being alone, in danger, in the hostile environment of the wilderness. The 40 days of his time in the wilderness seems to parallel the 40 years of Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness, which was, you remember, also a time of testing for her, testing which she largely failed. Jesus, however, taking up the cause of the people of God, did not fail.
The mention of the help of the angels reminds us that Jesus was not alone. His heavenly Father and the Holy Spirit were with him and sent their angels to help him. He needed this help as a man. We read in Ps. 91 that those who trust in the Lord receive the help of God’s angels and as a result neither the cobra nor the lion will harm him. The wild beasts didn’t hurt him because the angels of God were with him because he was trusting in the Lord.
We have read the prologue of the Gospel of Mark, its opening scene which, we said last time, serves also as a theological reflection on the history to follow. What we have here is an introduction to an extraordinary personage, the most extraordinary person in the history of the world.
Historians speak of Alexander the Great, or Charles the Great – Charlemagne – or Frederick the Great, but no one ever speaks of Jesus the Great. That is because Jesus has no rivals – he is unique – and had no successors. There is an utter finality about his life. And it is this magnificent uniqueness, this setting apart Jesus as utterly surpassing all other persons, that is the theme of the opening of the Gospel.
We already saw in the first 8 verses the identification of Jesus with Yahweh, with the Lord God. John the Baptist prepared the way for the Lord, that is, for Yahweh; but whose way was it that he prepared, but that of Jesus of Nazareth. A man from a jerkwater village in Galilee, from the sticks effectively, who, though he was nearly 30 years of age, well past the point when, in those days, he might have been expected to distinguish himself, was utterly unknown. He came to be baptized by John, as multitudes of others had done. There he was, largely indistinguishable in a crowd of shopkeepers, artisans, tax-collectors, housewives, and Roman soldiers. This is not what anyone expected of the coming of the Lord!
He was to be the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit but he himself was baptized by John. Upon him the Spirit came at his baptism. He was identified as the Son of God in an extraordinary way, by a divine voice from heaven, by the voice of God himself. Nothing like this had ever happened before. But, after that declaration from heaven there was no reception, no royal procession, no public celebration, no coronation. There were instead 40 days he spent alone in the desert, days of temptation. I am quite sure that most everyone who would have noticed Jesus at the time of his baptism would have forgotten him by the end of the 40 days. God, of course, can’t be tempted by the Devil, but a man can be. How ordinary. [Edwards, 39]
The identification of Jesus as both the Lord, Yahweh, and at the same time, a very real human being, as both the Son of God and a Jew from Nazareth, sets the stage, lays the foundation for the extraordinary story we are about to hear. We will find Jesus throughout the Gospel not only speaking and acting for God, but speaking and acting as God. [Edwards, 38]. He will forgive sins, perform miracles in his own name, and control the natural world, the weather, the sea. He will heal the sick, cast out demons, deliver authoritative declarations of the proper interpretations of Holy Scripture, and declare that he had come into the world to save sinners – that is, he did not originate in this world but came into it from somewhere else. He will receive the worship of those who recognize him for whom and what he is. In all these ways he is the exalted personage identified in the opening verses of the Gospel: Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
But throughout the Gospel we also encounter a living, breathing human being, a man who is taken to be nothing more than a man, at least at first, by friend and foe alike. A man who prays, a man who is laughed at and mocked, a man who eats, drinks, and sleeps, a man who weeps and fears, and, finally, a man who is hung on a cross and murdered by his enemies.
Here is a man who is tempted in the wilderness but ministered to by angels. A man who comes from both Nazareth and heaven. Such a thing can be said of no one else in the history of the world! The tension created by these two realities, these two facts about this single person will be felt throughout the Gospel and the reality and significance of both deity and humanity combined in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, will be the great facts that the rest of the New Testament is written to proclaim and to apply to the great questions of human life.
“Jesus is God lived by man” [Godet] and that fact is what makes his life so crucial to every human being. We are not simply talking about a great teacher – though he was certainly that; the greatest ever by far – but about the creator of every single human being. The one to whom every human being owes his existence. We are not simply talking about a good man who showed us the way of love – though he was certainly that and did that as no other man has ever done or has done since – but about the judge of all the earth. We are not simply talking about someone who showed us the way of salvation – though he did that wonderfully both by word and deed – but about the Savior of the world himself.
Listen to this beautiful and mighty passage concerning the Godhead and manhood of Jesus from one of the Orations of Gregory Nazianzus, the 4th century church father.
“He was baptized as man – but he remitted sins as God…. He was tempted as man, but he conquered as God…. He hungered – but he fed thousands…. He was wearied, but he is the rest of them that are weary and heavy-laden. He was heavy with sleep, but he walked lightly over the sea…. He pays tribute, but it is out of a fish; yea, he is the king of those who demanded it…. He prays, but he hears prayer. He weeps, but he causes tears to cease. He asks where Lazarus was laid, for he was a man; but he raises Lazarus, for he was God. He is sold, and very cheap, for it is only for thirty pieces of silver; but he redeems the world, and that at a great price, for the price was his blood. As a sheep he is led to the slaughter, but he is the shepherd of Israel, and now of the whole world also…. He is bruised and wounded, but he heals every disease and every infirmity…. He dies, but gives life, and by his death he destroys death.” [Cited in Hall, Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, 73]
In the fourth chapter of his letter to the church in Colosse, the Apostle Paul begs the believers there to pray for him that he might “proclaim the mystery of Christ” as clearly as possible. And what was that mystery of Christ, what was that truth that men could know only if God revealed it, for that is the meaning of “mystery”? It is, as Paul says at length in that letter, that “in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” that Jesus “is the image of the invisible God,” that by him, that is, by Jesus of Nazareth, “all things were created” that he is “before all things and in him all things hold together,” and that God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him and through him to reconcile all things to himself.”
It is no small thing to proclaim that remarkable news as clearly as possible. By saying “as clearly as possible” Paul seems to be acknowledging that there is that in this truth that is beyond our understanding. There is a moving passage in the Memoirs of Thomas Boston, the saintly 18th century Scottish pastor. He is describing a time early in his ministry when he felt a great conviction that it was his great calling to “preach Christ’s fullness, his being ‘all in all.’” But he discovered, in attempting to do so, that preaching Christ, with all the mystery of his person and work, was no easy matter.
“I saw the preaching of Christ to be the most difficult thing; for…though the whole world is full of wonders, yet here are depths beyond all.” 
How can God become a man; how can the almighty, the omniscient, the omnipresent God, the fullness of that God dwell in bodily form. How can deity and humanity exist in the same person: how can something like that be explained? Interestingly, Paul doesn’t explain them any more than Mark does; no biblical writer does. He confesses this to be the truth about Jesus, that he was the God-Man, but makes no effort to explain how this was so. Or how it was so or what happened in the interior life of Jesus of Nazareth and how in him the divine and the human coexisted. This is an unfathomable mystery.
Most people don’t think of religion in terms of deep, baffling, searchless, and ineffable mysteries. They expect their preachers to make things simple and plain. They expect to hear that they should do this or that, should live in this way or that, should be kind to people, trust God for what they need, and so on. They don’t expect the preacher to say that one can’t get started in the Christian faith, you can’t begin to understand the Christian faith until you confess two facts that, however true, remain far beyond our powers to understand or explain: that the one, true, and living God exists in three persons – Father, Son, and Holy Ghost – and that God the Son became also a man for us and our salvation, that in his one person existed from the moment of his conception in the womb of his virgin mother, two separate and complete natures, his eternal Godhead and now added to it an authentic manhood. The Bible tells us that Jesus was God come in the flesh, but it does not tell us how this is so, how it was done or how two natures can exist in a single person without either becoming anything other than what it is: perfect deity, perfect manhood. Mystery indeed!
So often we read the Bible or hear it read and we take it in an altogether too perfunctory way, without reflection, meditation, or especially without imagination and, as a result, we pass over the most earthshaking truth and are neither stirred by it, nor made to wonder over it.
John Bunyan tells us in his spiritual autobiography Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners that, early on in his life as a Christian, his heart and mind were so taken up with, so fascinated with, so preoccupied with when, in reading the Bible, he found in the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ, the story of his own salvation. He found that story so gripping to him, that glorious narrative of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, that he found his imagination was constantly taking him back to his own salvation. He was visualizing the scenes painted for him in the Gospels.
“Methought I was as if I had seen him born, as if I had seen him grow up, as if I had seen him walk through this world, from the cradle to his cross; to which, also, when he came, I saw how gently he gave himself to be hanged and nailed on it for my sins and wicked doings…” [Works, i, 20]
That is precisely what you and I need this morning listening to Mark 1:1-13: imagination. See in your mind’s eye and hear with the ear of your soul the words John said and the words that were spoken from heaven; see Jesus at his baptism and in the wilderness and draw the inevitable conclusions that Mark intends for you to draw: the living God himself, the Lord has come into the world as a Galilean peasant to do battle with the Devil and with our sin and guilt to bring his people back to God and at last to heaven. Compared to this, there is nothing of any importance in the world and absolutely nothing upon which a man or woman might build a life.
It was a true insight that led John Milton – after portraying the temptation and failure of Adam and Eve and the fall of the human through their sin in the Garden of Eden in his immortal masterpiece, Paradise Lost – I say, it was a true insight for Milton to devote his sequel, Paradise Regained, to the account of the Lord’s baptism and temptation in the wilderness at the headwaters of his ministry. In the first case Satan succeeded in ruining the human race; in the second he met his match and the die was cast. The cross was still some three years in the future, but the outcome was never to be in doubt. Paradise Regained begins:
I who erewhile the happy Garden sung,
By one man’s disobedience lost, now sing
Recover’d Paradise to all mankind,
By one man’s firm obedience fully tried
Through all temptation, and the Tempter foil’d
In all his wiles, defeated and repuls’t,
And Eden raised in the waste wilderness.
This is the new beginning for you, for me, for the human race. This is the putting right of everything that has gone wrong. This is answer to all the great questions of human life; this is the solution to all of the problems that weigh us down. In this one life, this one purpose is the secret to all truth and all hope. Why? Because he is the Lord of heaven and earth, that’s why, now come into the world as a man for men and their salvation.
Here is the glory, the genius and the utter uniqueness and to be sure here is the stumbling block of our Christian faith. It is the reason so many hated him and why his enemies murdered him: Jesus, a man, made himself out to be God. And it is here today that Jews, Muslims, Unitarians and other liberals and secularists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and many others find their great objection to the Christian faith. It is because of they reject what Mark told us here to be true. They do not believe that Jesus is the living God now also a man. That is why they find their problems with Jesus’ virgin birth or his miracles or his saving death on the cross, or the resurrection of Jesus. And that is understandable enough. These are remarkable claims indeed!
And if Jesus were nothing more than a remarkable man, even a very remarkable man, even the finest of all men, the difficulties in believing what the New Testament tells us about Jesus’ life and work would be insurmountable. But, if Jesus is, in fact, God come in the flesh, the Creator of heaven and earth now living as a man in the world, it is no wonder that fresh acts of creative power should mark his coming into the world, his life in it, and his departure from it. It is not strange that the author of life should rise from the dead; the real mystery is that he should die in the first place!
And if the Creator of all things, having come into the world as a man, should then die, it is not hard to believe that his death would have saving significance for our guilty and condemned race. Once we grant that this man, Jesus of Nazareth, was also the Lord, the true and living God, all the rest that we are told about him makes sense. The incarnation of God the Son, his becoming a man, the fullness of the Godhead dwelling in bodily form in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, that is an unfathomable mystery. But it makes sense of everything else. It not only makes sense of it, it makes it entirely believable, almost inevitable. [Cf. Packer, Knowing God, 52-54] Jesus will one day say to his disciples “because I live, you also will live.” He said that because he is the God-Man, God himself now with a human nature. No wonder that if he lives those who trust in him will live as well.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote: “The Gospel cannot be preached tangibly enough. A truly evangelical sermon – that is a sermon full of the good news – must be like offering a child a fine red apple or offering a thirsty man a cool glass of water and saying, ‘Wouldn’t you like it?’” “Wouldn’t you like it?” Mark says here in the opening of his Gospel. Wouldn’t you like a man like this? Wouldn’t you like God to do this for you, to come into the world to be a man for you and for your salvation? Wouldn’t you like him? Will he not surely answer all your questions and meet all your needs? This one, the Lord, Jesus of Nazareth.”
Well, Mark opens by telling us that what he is about to relate concerns the good news, the wonderful tidings of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God: the man Jesus of Nazareth who is none other than Yahweh, Jehovah himself. Remarkable! And you can know this person; you can not only know of him; you can know him Mark says! And knowing him you must, in the very nature of the case, know everything, everything that is most important for a human being to know.
And is it true? And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and the sea
Become a child on earth for me?
Oh yes; it is true! And because it is true – that the fullness of God dwelled in bodily form in Jesus of Nazareth – it is life and hope and heaven for everyone who believes it and who believes in him.