In his insightful and helpful book, Side by Side, Ed Welch writes,
When suffering knocks on someone’s door, Satan too comes knocking. Life is a war zone, and Satan is the enemy strategist. He waits for those times when people are in the wilderness—vulnerable, desperate, and God seemingly far away or absent altogether. That’s when Satan’s questions about God’s character, which seems silly during good times, suddenly make sense. Why would anyone entertain Satan’s questions about God’s goodness when everything is good? But a few bumps in the road, and our knowledge of God seems fragile, and that’s what Satan is counting on.
In the text before us, suffering came knocking Jesus’ door—and Satan was close at hand. Thankfully, Jesus shut the door in his face. This gives us every reason for encouragement in our wilderness sufferings. Our text reveals that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was approved, and he was proved. He can therefore be our Saviour.
What does Mark want us to take away from his prologue? This is a really important question, because if we are not careful we will end up comparing everything that Mark wrote with the other Gospels—as well as what he did not write! Mark had a purpose and we must respect the author’s purpose for his work. So, what is Mark driving home in his prologue?
Previously, we considered vv. 1–8. We saw the commencement (and content) of the good news in v. 1: that the good news is the announcement of a new creation. We considered the continuation of the good news in vv. 2–3: that the good news is the fulfilment of an ongoing expectation. We looked at the communication of the good news in vv. 4–8: that the good news demands a radical proclamation. The gospel, we were reminded, is about a radical transformation; it demands and therefore declares this transformation.
Someone has observed that, at least where we live in European-influenced societies, we are losing the nerve to call people to repentance. If this is so—and I think it is—then people will not be able to embrace and experience the good news. Without this radical proclamation—without this radical preparation—the good news will, at best, be heard as merely good advice: Take it or leave it.
Mark wants to remind his Christian readers that the gospel is good news. He wants them to persevere in their wilderness. Having gone out from their worldly place of safety to the conflict of following Christ, he wants them to maintain the good news perspective.
Primarily, of course, Mark aims to accomplish this by pointing us to Jesus Christ, the Son of God. “The gospel of Mark approximates a modern play with a sparse setting and backdrop, so as to focus unwavering attention on Jesus” (Edwards).
Mark quickly affirms that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, who came to establish the long-promised kingdom of God (vv. 14–15). How he would do that was both counterintuitive and countercultural, for the kingship of Jesus would not arrive on either pomp and circumstance or with armed soldiers. Rather, it would come through a cross. It would come in a way deemed foolish by the world. It would come in apparent weakness, yet its coming would be the most powerful demonstration of might the world would ever see. The baptism of Jesus was the beginning of it all.
As we conclude our study of Mark’s prologue, we will focus on both the approval of Jesus and the proving of this approval.
The Commendation of the Good News
The good news had divine commendation. In vv. 9–11, we see the divine approval of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptised 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.”
“In those days” (v. 9a) refers to the days just mentioned. John was preparing the way. The message of repentance and confession was proclaimed. Messianic fervour was in the air. “In those days,” an amazing thing was a about to take place. The good news has a way of surprising us. It has a way of amazing us.
What happened “in those days”? “Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan” (v. 9b). Because Mark writes with such speed, it is easy to miss what is one of the most profound events in human history: the baptism of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Think with me about this.
John proclaimed that people needed to repent of their sins, confessing them as they underwent the public humility of being baptised. Pharisees, sinners, publicans, pagan Gentiles and the like came from as far away as Jerusalem (v. 5) to do so. They were seemingly desperate over their sins (a vital place to be if the good news will indeed become our own good news).
This penitent scene was then disrupted as one came to be baptised who did not need to be baptised. If ever there was justification for a listener in the congregation to assume they were exempt from the thunderous conviction of the preached word, this would be it. Yet Jesus “came” all the way “from Nazareth of Galilee to be baptised by John in Jordan.” Wow! What condescension! Yet what confusion as well.
It appears that Jesus was the lone person from Galilee who attended John’s preaching. The others were coming from Judaea and Jerusalem. Is this significant? It certainly is, for Isaiah 9:1–7 specifically tells us that God’s anointed one would arrive from “the land beyond Jordan, Galilee of the nations.”
We know from the other Gospel accounts that John was baffled by Jesus’ request (Matthew 3:13–15). Knowing that Jesus was the Son of God, he was astounded that he would submit to this “baptism of repentance.” Yet, to identify with sinners, Jesus Christ came to the Jordan to be baptised. Of course, he had no sins to confess or to repent of; nevertheless, he “fulfilled all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15) by submitting to baptism. His baptism was the existential beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, because, in it, he identified with all whom he would subsequently baptise with the Holy Spirit (v. 8).
Mark does not record all of this, because this is not his main point. Rather, Mark wants to drive home the reality that Jesus of Nazareth truly is the Christ. Jesus is truly the Son of God, and therefore his record really is good news! Mark accomplishes this by what follows.
Something unprecedented happened at Jesus’ baptism: “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” (v. 10). Witherington notes, “What is happening to Jesus is an earth-shaking event. Jesus is anointed by the very presence and power of God.”
This needs to be unpacked.
The phrase, the “heavens being torn open” could be translated “splitting apart.” It is reminiscent of the Red Sea being split apart in Exodus 14:21, and of the rock splitting apart and then spouting water in the wilderness (see Isaiah 48:21). We also read of the Mount of Olives splitting (Zechariah 14:4) and of the prayer for God to rend the heavens with gospel blessings (Isaiah 64:1). English concludes that “this was a common Jewish expression used to introduce a divine revelation.”
This scene is divinely cataclysmic. God was at work. Something profound was taking place. But what?
For one thing, God was declaring that history was repeating itself, but in a much greater way. Just as when the Spirit attended creation (Genesis 1:1–2), so the Holy Spirit was now attending the beginning of the new creation.
But further, just as the dove descended after the judgement of the flood (Genesis 8:8), so now the Sprit descended after the symbolic judgement upon Jesus as he underwent the baptismal waters. Peace followed the punishment; life followed death. This is gospel; this is good news in a bad news world.
Mark will use this same Greek word one more time in his Gospel: “And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (15:38). When Jesus died, the way to heaven was opened once and for all. Let that good news help you in your wilderness.
With the Holy Spirit symbolically resting on Jesus, the Son of God was being anointed as Christ. This was a public affirmation that the beloved Servant of God had come. Listen to the words of Isaiah 42:1: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth judgement to the nations.” As Ferguson comments, “It was as though he were saying: Jesus is the One in whom I will begin again.” And this is gloriously good news for those who are weary of both hearing and of being the bad news. Jesus, the Christ, would justify the believer by experiencing God’s justice on his behalf. He will also be the judge of those who will not believe on him (Romans 3:21–26).
Unbelieving friend, do you want the peace of God? Then you need to experience peace with God. This required Jesus to experience the wrath of God on your behalf. He was drenched with God’s judgement for your sins so you would not have to be. All he requires is for you to confess this as you turn from your sin and then be drenched with water that testifies that you have been drenched with God’s Spirit.
Believer, this is why baptism and church membership are so important. It is a public declaration of identification with Jesus the Christ, the Son of God. If you deny him, he will deny you. If you confess him, he will commend you and he will confirm you by the Holy Spirit.
Lastly, we see a divine affirmation of Jesus: “And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased’” (v. 11). These words cast our memories to Genesis 22 when the voice of God called to Abraham as he went to sacrifice his son for God. In what follows, God commended Abraham for his faith. So here. The Father was well pleased with his Son. This was a commendation of the Son. The Father was attesting to the character of the Son of God. And this is the reason why his coming on the scene was good news. Jesus Christ would fulfil God’s covenant of grace!
When Caesar Augustus was born, because it was assumed that he was a son of a god, his birth was proclaimed to be “good news.” The same Greek word was used to announce that he was now on the scene. But, of course, he received no commendation from God. Jesus did. His sinless character qualified him to be our Saviour, and, as we will see next time, it also qualified him to “become” King. But there is more.
Not only did this voice from the Father in heaven commend Jesus as indeed being the Christ, the Son of God, it also made clear that he was to be crowned as King. One cannot read these words without Psalm 2:7 ringing in their ears, “I will tell of the decree: The LORD said to me, ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you.’” I realise that this refers ultimately to Jesus’ ascension following his resurrection, but the commendation and declaration are so closely connected that, clearly, something like this comes to our mind. As Witherington notes, “The language is covenantal, denoting a special relationship between God and his Son.”
Why does this matter? It is so important because, apart from divine approval, all we would have is a nice story in a bad news world (like a sentimental but unrealistic Hallmark movie). But because the Father was pleased with his Son, Mark could truly write about unshakeable and irrevocable good news.
The bad news is that we are not good. The bad news is that we are not well-pleasing sons of God (Luke 3:38). In fact, we are displeasing sons of disobedience who are under the wrath of a holy and righteous God (Ephesians 2:1–3). But because Jesus both lived and died well-pleasing to the Lord, we can live and die being well-beloved (Ephesians 1:6). That is the good news in a bad news world. That is the kind of news that should encourage us as we face the wilderness of this world.
The Confrontation with the Good News
The good news has full confirmation. We see this in vv. 12–13a with the temptation of Jesus: “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan.” It is one thing to make a claim to perfection, it is quite another to live up to this. It is one thing to be given a commendation, quite another to prove that it is deserved.
The world’s saviours will let us down. They all have feet of clay. Thankfully, Jesus didn’t—and this vignette proves it. Our salvation depended on it.
Concerning Jesus Christ, the Son of God, his divine commendation was both declared and demonstrated. It was proclaimed and proven. Mark alludes to this in the final two verses of his prologue. Lane observes, “Jesus must remain submissive: the Spirit does not allow him to abandon the wilderness after his baptism.”
To prove the claim of the Father, a confrontation with the world, the flesh and the devil was necessary. This is what we read about here: a divinely driven confrontation.
An Intentional Confrontation
Mark speaks of the Holy Spirt “immediately” driving Jesus into the wilderness where he would be tempted by Satan: “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness” (v. 12).
I think Witherington captures an important truth when he writes that Jesus “appears on the horizon of history, and in a dramatic symbolic action declares himself an outlaw. This immediately provokes a challenge from the prince of the powers himself, who takes the leader deep into the wilderness.” He was an “outlaw” in the sense that he is coming to subvert Satan the usurper and all his minion usurpers. As Lane says, behind the earthly scenes of Galilee and Jerusalem lies a supernatural conflict.
The language is strong. “Drove” is used elsewhere of Jesus driving out demons from their human abode. He felt, says Hughes,
an inexorable compulsion from the Holy Spirit to plunge further into the wilderness to duel Satan. Heaven had opened. Now Hell opened. In Jewish thought, the wilderness was viewed as a place of danger, gloom, and the abode of demons (Matthew 12:43; Luke 8:29; 11:24). The mention of “wild animals” underscores this idea—the wilderness was a place of loneliness and danger, the realm of Satan.
It is not as if Jesus was resisting and the Spirit compelled him. Rather, the idea is that Jesus deliberately and intentionally, with the Spirit’s empowerment, went to be tested. This was essential, for Jesus is the second man from heaven, the last Adam (1 Corinthians 15:2–22, 45–49). Where Adam failed, Jesus succeeded. Further, Jesus Christ, the Son of God is the true Israel. Just as the nation of Israel was tested, so was Jesus. But where the nation failed, Jesus succeeded. His (ongoing) temptation was the proof and confirmation that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. This confirms that his story is indeed good news.
An Intense Confrontation
The confrontation was no Sunday school picnic: “And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan” (v. 13a). Imagine that: Forty days, tempted by the devil. A constant bombardment. And, unlike Adam, this was in a wilderness, not in a garden. Further, the text tells us that Jesus was “with the wild animals” (v. 13b). What do we make of this?
Some see this as a reference to the prophecy that Jesus will make the lion lie down with the lamb. That seems a stretch.
It seems better to interpret this as emphasising that Jesus really was in the wilderness and that his experience there was intense. “Jesus confronts the horror, the loneliness and the danger,” says Lane, “with which the wilderness is fraught when he meets the wild beasts.”
The mention of “wild animals” reminds us that this world is dangerous. It is, in the words of the poet, “red in tooth and claw”—all because of sin. This picture reminds us that we live in a bad news world, one that is hostile to the way for which God created it to be.
But our take away must be that Jesus underwent intense proving in the wilderness. How did he do?
The Confirmation of the Good News
Even as “he was with the wild animals,” we learn that “the angels were ministering to him” (v. 13b).
The reference to ministering angels indicate that Jesus passed the test—and he would continue to do so. Unlike Eden, where the first Adam failed and heavenly beings were sent with swords to keep him and fallen humanity out, here heavenly beings are sent to serve the victorious Last Adam. What a Saviour!
This is really good news, especially to the Christian who finds herself in a wilderness of testing and trials; especially to a Christian who is facing the wild beasts who are opposed to the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (see 1 Corinthians 15:32). As Witherington comments, “In the hour of need, God provides extra help, extra sustenance, extra strength so that we may persevere through the trial.”
Angels, according to Hebrews 1:14, are “ministering spirits, sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation.” For suffering first century Christians in the Roman Empire, this brief reminder that Jesus Christ defeated the devil was a great encouragement—an encouragement that the accuser of the brethren has been thrown down. Jesus Christ can be proclaimed indeed as the good news because of this gloriously good news that he has conquered!
Of course, there are a lot more verses to read and study before we get to the final confirmation of the good news—namely the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ—but there is already enough in this prologue to indicate that this book is really, really good news in a bad news world.
The Application of the Good News
When Mark wrote his Gospel, it is uncertain how much else of the New Testament had been written, but perhaps Galatians and Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and some other epistles. If so, then the original readers of Mark would be familiar with the biblical teaching of the Christian’s identity in and with Christ. In fact, Mark’s prologue, upon further reflection, is very much about this doctrine.
When the Lord Jesus came to the Jordan to be baptised by John, he was literally demonstrating his oneness with the people of God. He was demonstrating by his actions that he is the true Israel. As Lane says, “In submitting to John’s baptism Jesus acknowledges the judgment of God upon Israel. At the same time his baptism signifies that his mission will be to endure the judgment of God.”
Just as Israel went through the “baptism” of water through the Red Sea and then into the wilderness (1 Corinthians 10:1–5), so Jesus was baptised, came out of the water, and went “immediately” into the wilderness. Just as Israel crossed the Jordan, so did Jesus.
Just as Moses went into the wilderness for forty days to prepare for leading Israel to the Promised Land, so Jesus went into the wilderness to worship God in preparation for leading his people to the Promised Land.
Just as Elijah went into the wilderness for forty days after his encounter with the leaders of apostate Israel, so Jesus went into the wilderness for forty days after his encounter with what would prove to be apostate Israel (v. 5).
Just as Israel was tested in the wilderness, so was Jesus. Just as the Angel of the Lord ministered to and cared for Israel (and Elijah) in the wilderness, so angels came and ministered to Jesus in his wilderness.
But this is where the comparison stops. For, in the case of Israel, she failed in the face of temptation. Israel failed to be faithful to God (1 Corinthians 10:5). Contrast that with this commendation in Mark 1:11.
The point should be clear: Jesus Christ, the Son of God is the tested and true Israel of God. Therefore, all who make up the Israel of God (Galatians 6:16) are also tested and true. All who make up the Israel of God are also well-pleasing to the Lord.
Christian, because you have been baptised by the Holy Spirit, you are in Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13). This means that your identity is inseparable from his (Romans 6:1–5).
When Jesus Christ went down into the Jordan River to be baptised—picturing his vicarious suffering of God’s wrath on sin—you went with him into those waters. His death became yours. When he went into the wilderness and was victorious over temptation, you too were victorious over sin. When God proclaimed his acceptance of and his pleasure in Jesus, he was at the same time expressing his acceptance of and pleasure in you. That is good news, indeed!
John Stott said, “The Gospel is good news of mercy to the undeserving. The symbol of the religion of Jesus is the cross, not the scales.” That is so helpful! He was saying that one does not earn salvation, one does not earn a right relationship with God by “good” deeds outweighing “bad” deeds on God’s judgement scale. Rather, because Jesus Christ perfectly fulfilled all righteousness, because every desire and deed of Jesus Christ was righteous, God is able to put that on our account. And this transaction took place by Jesus death on the cross.
The Invitation to the Good News
Lest you think that all of this talk about Jesus’ confirmation is premature (after all, this is at the beginning of his ministry), listen as, eight chapters later, similar words thunder forth on the Mount of Transfiguration: “And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, ‘This is my beloved Son; listen to him’” (9:7).
After his ministry in Galilee, then shifting to his final ministry in Judaea, the Father continued to commend him. And at the end of his life on the cross, the darkness would lift as God commended his Son, including the words of the centurion: “Truly this man was the Son of God” (15:39). It is as if God commended his Son by the mouth of one who would normally be most sceptical.
But, of course, the ultimate commendation, the ultimate confirmation of this divine commendation, was the empty tomb.
Since Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has been approved and proved to be approved, we are fools if we do not listen to him. The Father told Peter to be quiet on the Mount where Jesus was transfigured. Sometimes we too need to just shut up and listen up. Stop with the excuses and start following him. Stop with the argumentation and start with the implementation. Stop with the insubordination and bow in submission. He is Lord, so listen.
Salvation is every bit an authority issue. It is about having a change of mind about who is Lord. And it is not you! We make lousy lords. Just look at the mess that mankind has made throughout history!
The garden has been turned into a wilderness. The place of blessing has become a place of judgement. A place of glory has become a place of groaning (see Romans 8:20–22). This is true both cosmically and personally. Our sin has broken our relationships with one another. Our sins have robbed us of peace and of joy. Our sins have resulted in an unshakeable, because undeniable, guilt. And even though we have tried to assuage this guilt by activity and addictions, it remains. This guilt arises because our sins have separated us from our God. And this is our greatest problem.
You have listened to various experts. You have listened to the self-help gurus and the psychologists and the politicians and the religious teachers. And yet you are still in your sins. The guilt remains. The emptiness and the desperate frustration continues. You need to listen to Jesus Christ.
You need to listen to the one who has been approved by God, who has received divine applause. Listen to the one who has proved that he is the Son of God. Listen to the one who is alive and who is speaking to you today. Hear him. Respond to him by repenting and receiving him.
The good news Mark is telling us is the good news of a person—a person approved by God and proven before God. This person is the only way that you will ever be approved by God. The choice is yours. Refuse to listen, choose to prove yourself, and be rejected forever. Or, listen, choose to accept Jesus as your approval, and be accepted—forever.
Christian, we too sometimes need to shut up, look up and listen up. In your wilderness experience, look up and listen up. Faithfully follow him. Trust him and obey him. Worshipfully wait upon him. As David wrote, “For God alone, my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be greatly shaken” (Psalm 62:1–2).
So, as we come to a close of Mark’s inspired prologue, let me ask you to consider this good news. It is good news, but is it good news to you? It can be if you heed the messenger of Messiah and repent, confessing your sins and identifying with the one who identified with you. That is good news in a bad news world. Christian, that is a very good word as you face your very real wilderness. Aren’t you glad that you don’t face it alone?
In Christ the believer has been approved, and we can expect to be proved. But thank God, we will be.