“All children, except one, grow up. They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this: one day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs. Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, “Oh, why can’t you remain like this forever?” This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end.”
That’s how J.M. Barrie began his most famous book, “Peter Pan.” You see in the short interaction between Wendy and her mom themes that set up the rest of the book. Growing up is not so much a loss of innocence but a realization of the rock-like hardness of the world. It’s a cautionary tale about treating others as if they are replaceable. Heartache is an unavoidable and necessary part of this life. At some point every one of us has a moment where we realize that what’s behind us is behind us and what’s ahead of us is a mystery. For Wendy, while doing something as innocent as picking flowers, she realized, “Two is the beginning of the end.”
Now in my humble opinion, two might be a little young for your first existential crisis. But at least for Wendy, the age of two was both just another day and the beginning of a new way of understanding the world around her.
Mark begins his gospel saying that the coming of the Son of God had a firm beginning. But he also says that it’s just another day in the long line of days. There were prophecies about this gospel long before the gospel came in human flesh. But when the gospel came, it was a new beginning.
But to get to an understanding of that that doesn’t delve off into sentimentalism or self-help, we have to understand what a gospel is. Before “gospel” came to mean an apostolic theological biography about Jesus Christ, “gospel” was already an extraordinary word that was used to announce the arrival of someone great and how it brought about an entirely new situation in life. “Gospel” means “joyful tidings” or “good news”. It was used to announce the elevation of a man to the role of emperor. A “gospel” would bring about a day of celebration, honoring this new era that a new emperor had inaugurated.
The apostles undermined this idea that any ordinary man had actually ushered in a new situation that’s really, in any significant way, different than the current one. Every new emperor makes the same promises, starts the same wars, carries on the same problems. But when these inflated egos, these self-infatuated people made themselves out to be so important, the apostles announced the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The gospel is that God is pleased with his Son.
The sentimentalism I mentioned would be reducing the gospel to being primarily about us. The news that is good is that the prophets said there will come a man who prepares God’s people for the arrival of God’s Son. Too often we turn that around to say that Jesus is preparing himself for us, as if we are the treasure from heaven. John called the people coming out to be baptized a brood of vipers, snakes rubbing their bellies on the ground looking for vermin to eat. When it came to Jesus, he said he wasn’t even worthy to be the servant who takes his shoes off. So if we get the gospel wrong, if we make it primarily about our well-being, our contentedness, our success, our satisfaction, our marriages, our children, our little kingdoms, we will not make it about Jesus. We will be content to be pleased with ourselves when God is pleased with his Son.
In calling this the “beginning” of the gospel, Mark makes no mistake that it is God who initiates redemption. The beginning started totally outside of us, almost in spite of us. The gospel begins and ends with Jesus Christ. And right away, if we have any notion that the gospel is about us, we’re lovingly corrected. The gospel is about Jesus Christ, who he is and what he did, as God’s only begotten Son. This is what the church preaches, that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. It’s possible to lose how much that means.
Yes, God loved the world, but he loved it in this way: he gave his only begotten Son so that the world might crucify him, because that’s what people do. Jesus Christ, as the perfect, sinless Son of God was able to redeem such a lost and dying world. The gospel is about Jesus Christ, the Son of God, crucified by wicked men that he came to redeem.
Mark says the way we understand the gospel is through the OT prophets, mainly Isaiah. If you were to look at the most common quotes of the OT by the apostles in the NT, you’d see how important Isaiah is to them.
The quote is a mixture of Exodus, Malachi, and Isaiah.
In Exodus 23:23, God sends an angel/messenger ahead of the people to lead them into the promised land, but they will first pass through the wilderness. In Isaiah 40:3, the messenger there announces the second exodus through the wilderness to final deliverance. In both, the main idea is of God sending someone ahead of the people to lead them to and through the wilderness so he can meet them there. There are same three components each in Exodus, Isaiah, and Mark: the herald, the Lord, and the wilderness.
Enter John the Baptist. His arrival and ministry is the most important event in the life of Israel in nearly 400 years. In the 400 years between the final prophet of the OT and the advent of Jesus Christ, there were wars between Jews and Romans, insurrections, diasporas, and the gospels completely ignore them all. The only matter of any real consequence is what fulfills OT prophecy, because that is the charted course of God’s plan.
Many thought the role of prophet had ended because of the absence of a prophet for so long. But Moses promised a prophet like him in Deut. 18:15, and that had yet to be fulfilled. No other prophet had led Israel out of exile, through the waters, and into the land of promise. But John has arrived, declaring that that final prophet, one like Moses, is about to begin that great work.
John’s introduction is brief, but it makes two big points: John’s ministry itself is the fulfillment of prophecy, and John’s ministry was preparatory for the prophet like Moses. He will spend his ministry in the wilderness, and the wilderness will be an incredibly important component of making sense of who he is, what he’s doing, and who comes next.
It’s difficult to understand how important baptism was to Jews before this time. There were plenty of commands for ritual cleansing, especially for priests. This often took the form of a simple bath before doing their priestly duty. Ritual purity was symbolic of God’s perfection and our imperfection. But what John was doing was explicitly about repentance, not just ritual purity. We also know that it became a tradition to baptize every Gentile who converted to Judaism, in addition to circumcision, but it was not a biblical command to do so. What John was doing was definitely unique: calling people to repentance, then performing a purity ritual proving that repentance results in purity. It was so unique that he became known even his own day as John the Baptizer, or the Baptist.
The prophets often describe repentance as “turning to the Lord” (esp. Hosea, Amos, and Isaiah). They also described repentance as something that creates a way through the wilderness (EG, Isaiah 43:19, “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”). We find ourselves in the wilderness, and it is in the wilderness that God provides a way. In a future time, the people will find themselves in the wilderness, and God will provide a way through. And that’s about to take place. John is calling for people to come out to him in the wilderness, repent and be baptized, and wait for the Messiah.
When Moses led the people out of Egypt, they necessarily had to go through the waters, miraculously moved out of their way so they could walk on dry land into the wilderness. That water separated them from Egypt. John is calling for that kind of separation again, to come out through the waters into the wilderness, to wait for the Savior.
John is even described as someone who lives in the desert, in the wilderness. If I ask you to think of Daniel Boone, wandering around the Appalachian Mountains, you have in mind a coon-skin cap, unkempt, leather boots, whatever the stereotypical look would be of a pioneer. That’s Mark’s point; John is the standard desert wanderer, doing what desert wanderers do: eating whatever he can find, including bugs and wild honey, and wearing animal skins as clothes.
The prophet Elijah was also a desert nomad at times, and 2 Kings 1:8 says he wore animal skins and even a “belt of leather around his waist”, just like John is doing. There were prophecies that Elijah would return and be the messenger who prepares the way for the Messiah, and Mark makes explicit that John shares in the ministry of Elijah and is fulfilling what the forerunner of the Messiah would do. Later in chapter 9, when the disciples ask Jesus about that prophecy, Jesus said to them that Elijah had come, he was mistreated, and put to death, just like John was. Jesus says that John was Elijah.
John’s whole preaching ministry is summed up as “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (v.8)
John at least recognized Jesus as the one who was to come at his baptism, if not before. Remember, John was still in Elizabeth’s womb when he kicked with joy when Mary visited her with Jesus in her womb. Usually saying that someone would come after you meant that they followed you while you led, but here John says that he’s not even worthy to take off this guy’s shoes. It might be that some servant’s tasks weren’t that embarrassing, but bending down to take off someone’s shoes was something most servants were spared from. Every Jewish master recognized that each servant had at least that much dignity. And John says the job that even the lowest of the low don’t have to do is above him compared to who is coming after him.
But the most amazing part is what John says about baptism. Repentance is good; ritual purity is good. But the Messiah will bring a baptism that’s even better; he will give the very Spirit of God to indwell his people, saying that they will be baptized by the Spirit.
In Isaiah 63, God says that during the time of the wandering in the wilderness, after the exodus, God sent his Holy Spirit to guide them, by the Spirit he divided the waters and guided his people through it. And through the Spirit’s leading, God gave the people rest in the land. With all of that in the background, with all of that in their own history, John says that the people should be excited and prepared for this to happen again.
Then Jesus himself, the one that John has been preparing the people for, comes to be baptized by John. If the people are being called out by John to repent and be baptized, that begs the questions, is Jesus repenting of anything? Isn’t he sinless? Of course, so you’re only baptized for repentance if you’re repenting of something. But in submitting himself to baptism, he is identifying himself with Israel and as the one whose sinlessness will be the salvation of Israel. It’s because he had no sins of his own to atone for that he can bear the burden on behalf of his people.
Contrast verse 5 and verse 9: all the people are coming out to be baptized, from Jerusalem and all Judaea. But now, a single Israelite comes out to be baptized. Jesus should not be seen as just one out of hundreds or thousands who went to John and were baptized. Jesus must be seen as the true Israelite, the one who represents all of those who are Israelites inwardly, whether you are a Jew or a Gentile.
To clarify even further that Jesus’ baptism was unique, nobody else got a voice from heaven or the Spirit coming down as a dove. As Jesus came up out of water, a voice and a dove came down out of heaven. In Isaiah 64, Isaiah prays that God would open the heavens and come down out of them (v.1). That request was answered in real time at Christ’s baptism. The Son went through the waters of baptism, the Father opened the heavens, and the Spirit same down to rest on the Son. In Isaiah 32, Isaiah prophecies that the Spirit of God would one day be poured out on God’s people. And in anticipation of that, the Spirit is poured out on the Son, the one who stands in place of his people. Jesus’ whole ministry would be one described as substitutionary. Before he carried our sins to the cross, he identified with sinners in his baptism.
When the voice calls Jesus his Son, the Father is identifying Jesus as the one who has eternally been with the Father. Apart from being our Messiah, Jesus has always been the Father’s Son. At no point did Jesus become God’s Son. The voice simply says, “This is my Son.” Everything else that we will read in Mark only makes sense if Jesus is the eternal Son of God who substitutes himself in the place of sinners.
Bridge Between Two Worlds
We should not neglect what the gospel does for us, and in the coming weeks we’ll see more of it, but of primary importance is who the gospel is about, and it’s about Jesus Christ and him crucified. There’s a good reason Mark begins in this way. If that’s not central, the church offers nothing in terms of help that’s any better than the rest of the world. You have credentialed therapists who will do better than any pastor and palladiums that bring better entertainers than any event we can offer. What the church does offer is the call to repent and be baptized, to confess with your mouth and believe in your heart that Jesus is Lord of heaven and earth.
The gospel is not something you hear one time and move on from. Every morning I need to be reminded that God is pleased with his Son, and therefore there is nothing left for me to do. Every time some I fall short, every time someone reminds me I fall short, I need to be reminded that God is pleased with his Son, who he is and what he did, and therefore the church’s salvation is a matter of fact.
If we’re not clear on repentance and baptism, anything else we say or do is just good advice and hot takes. The gospel is that God is pleased with his Son. Is that the support beam for everything we say and do? And because God is pleased with his Son, then everything the Son came do to has been accomplished. The lost he came to save will be saved. The dead he came to raise will be raised. The kingdom he came to rule he will rule. God is pleased with the church because the church belongs to his Son. Where does our confidence come from? We are in union with the Son, the and Father has accepted everything the Son has done. The gospel is a new beginning for anyone who believes.