Chapter 1: Prologue to Mark’s Gospel

The Modern Reader's Guide to the Gospels
by William Hamilton

Chapter 1: Prologue to Mark’s Gospel

1. John the Baptist and his message, 1:1-8

Verse I is properly the title of the whole work. The word "Gospel" does not refer to the book itself, or to the words spoken by Jesus. It means the good news of God which is announced through Jesus Christ. Mark speaks of Jesus Christ: Jesus is the Greek form of the Jewish name Joshua; Christ is the Greek equivalent of the Jewish term Messiah, the divine deliverer expected by the Jewish people. At first, Christ was a title; by now it has become part of the proper name.

"Son of God" is perhaps Mark's most significant description of Jesus. It is well to note the decisive places "Son of God" appears in the gospel: here; in the mouths of the demoniacs in 3:11 and 5:7; in the question of the high priest in 14:61; and also in 1:9:7, and (possibly) 13:32. For Mark, Son of God refers to a divine being that appears in human form. Mark takes with full seriousness the reality of the earthly life of Jesus, but for him this lowly man of suffering is of supernatural origin. This origin, we shall see, is concealed from all except those who are prepared to understand. One of the basic questions of this gospel lies precisely here: How can one prepare himself to receive this truth? The question is raised in many forms in the New Testament. As Mark phrases it, it is this: How can one enter the kingdom of God? But when Paul speaks of salvation or redemption, or when John tells of the gift of new and eternal life, it is the same gift of God that is being described. "Son of God" does not refer to Jesus as the Messiah; Mark has other ways of describing this; it is his way of describing Jesus' utterly unique relationship to God and His purpose.

John the Baptist is portrayed as one of the Old Testament prophets, dressed as they were, preaching a similar message of repentance and forgiveness. The locusts he ate were the insects, not the seeds of the tree. He expresses his humility by declaring himself unfit even to perform the slave's task of untying the sandal of the one who is to come after him.

2. Jesus' baptism, 1:9-11

The baptism that John performed required repentance, yet Jesus submitted himself to this baptism. Did he confess his sin? Mark is not yet aware of this problem, though Matthew 3: 14-15 attempts to deal with it. When we try to penetrate behind the imagery, just what event in the career of Jesus is being portrayed? The heavens open: God's access to man is now made direct. A voice from God speaks: Jesus' vocation is defined. (If you look carefully at these words you will see that they are taken from Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1. Already at the beginning, Jesus' meaning is being defined in terms both of the divine Son of God and of the lowly servant of God.) The Spirit descends: power is given to perform his ministry. This does not mean that because the Spirit descended on Jesus he then became the Son of God. The descent of the Spirit is a sign pointing to the fact that he is already, and has been from the beginning, God's Son.

The "voice" is heard only by Jesus himself. A clear-cut decision has been made about his relation to the kingdom of God.

 3. The temptation, 1:12-13

Notice the contrast between the very exalted experience of baptism and this description of loneliness and perhaps even terror. The fuller accounts of this in Matthew 4:1-li and Luke 4:1-13 help us to round out our picture of the meaning of these verses. God drives Jesus to the wilderness, but it is Satan that tempts him.