This month’s Realistic Living Pointers contains excerpts from my commentary on the Gospel of Mark. It is about my understanding of the meaning to Mark of John the Baptist and his baptism of Jesus.
In these verses of Mark’s narrative about a Jewish peasant from Nazareth named “Jesus” rising from John’s washing from the corruptions of that era of history is prelude to the disciples of Jesus rising from their own deep-water dying experienced when their mentor was crucified. Mark is going lead us from this resurrection in the life of Jesus to the resurrection of Jesus’ life in the lives of the disciples.
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To see more clearly what this commentary contains, you can go to:
Following is an early part of that commentary:
For John came and began to baptize men in the desert, proclaiming baptism as the mark of a complete change of heart and of the forgiveness of sins. All the people of the Judaea countryside and everyone in Jerusalem went out to him in the desert and received his baptism in the river Jordan, publicly confessing their sins.
John himself was dressed in camel-hair, with a leather belt round his waist, and he lived on locusts and wild honey. The burden of his preaching was, “There is someone coming after me who is stronger than I—indeed I am not good enough to kneel down and undo his shoes. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Mark: 1: 4-8 J. B Phillips translation.
In these verses, Mark is indicating that the religious movement initiated by John, the Baptist is an important precursor to the topic of Mark’s good news. Mark implies that Jesus identified deeply with the movement initiated by John, the Baptist. Many New Testament scholars believe that this was true of the historical Jesus—that the man Jesus was not a Zealot or a Sadducee or a Pharisee or an Essene—that Jesus chose the radical movement of John, the Baptist instead of these other options for communal association. Decades later, Mark still felt that John’s movement was an important movement, as well as an important part of the story of Jesus. Mark does not give us any details of that movement or of Jesus’ biography in relation to it. But Mark did feel the need to clarify something about John’s movement.
Mark clearly felt that the movement Jesus initiated needed to be distinguished from John’s movement—that the addition that Jesus made to John’s movement was huge. John was a wild-hermit, eating and dressing like the ascetic Elijah, and calling people out to the edge of society to be washed of the evil that inflicted that entire wicked era of history. Individual people were volunteering for that washing, and John’s movement was also an address to the whole society—a critique of that society’s departure from the Mosaic norm, indeed a departure from the authenticity of being human. The historical Jesus likely concurred with that radical critique. According to Mark, Jesus accepted John’s warning that a radical historical judgement from Eternity of the entire human world was on the way, and would arrive soon.
Perhaps, we can also identify with John’s message, as we look realistically at our 21st century world order—refusing to deal fully with our ecological challenges, drifting backward toward authoritarian governments, racism, sexism, bigotries of every type. We too may be open to being “washed of our era”—joining a deep repentance, renouncing the estranged state of things, and rising up from such a washing into a new attitude toward the whole of human history. Jesus joined John at the river Jordan.
When have you wished to be washed of your era?
When have you felt that the world’s estrangements from realism were so great that a general catastrophe was surely on the way, and soon?
Mark goes on to proclaim that Jesus will make a huge addition to the revolution launched by the remarkable John, the Baptist. This addition was so significant that John himself, according to Mark, knew that he, John, was not worthy to kneel down and undo the shoes of Jesus. John, Mark indicates, washed us of our evil era, but Jesus will wash us further with the hot fire of God’s own Spirit. What does all that mean? We will have to wait and see as Mark’s story moves along, but at this point we have Mark’s hint that the event of Jesus is a remarkable coming of a very radical revolution in human understanding of what it means to be a human being
It was in those days that Jesus arrived from the Galilean village of Nazareth and was baptized by John in the Jordan. All at once, as he came up out of the water, he saw the heavens split open, and the Spirit coming down upon him like a dove. A voice came out of Heaven, saying, “You are my dearly-beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased!” Mark: 1: 9-11 J. B Phillips
Almost every phrase that Mark includes in his story has some sort of secret meanings. “Up out the water” can pass unnoticed if we do not associate this immersion with dying to the evil era. If we do see the allusion to dying, then “up out of the water” is an allusion to resurrection. In this story Jesus is becoming the resurrected one.
“The heavens split open” is an even more cryptic piece of poetry to a modern person who does not know what to make of the word “heaven” and certainly finds it very odd to speak of seeing “the heavens split open.” Translating that phrase from its transcendence metaphorical imagination to an existential transparency type of poetry takes a bit of thoughtfulness. “Heaven” means the realm of Absolute Mystery, and Mark is picturing that dynamic as right above our heads. There is a sort of big punch bowl with stars on it and if that bowl were to split open we would see right into the Eternal heaven. I believe that Mark is thinking more metaphorically and less literally than that picture may sound. Seeing into the Eternal is the heart meaning of the text. As Jesus comes up out of the watery tomb in which John has dunked him, the punch bowl of Awesome Absolute Mystery splits open. What a story!
Next, this profound-eyed person Mark sees another signal of profoundness: “the Spirit coming down upon him like a dove.” Spirit, for Mark, is the Absolute Mystery itself manifesting as a state of our whole life sometimes called “Wonder” or “Awe.” But for someone who has the courage for such a dreadful, fascinating state of Awe, this happening is a gentle thing, like a dove settling on head and shoulder.
Finally, Mark gives us one more symbol for how this baptism was an outstanding event: “A voice came out of Heaven, saying, ‘You are my dearly-beloved Son.‘ “ We need not believe that a tape recorder would have heard this voice. Mark included this bit of poetic flair to complete his view of the significance of this baptism for this simple roof-repair man’s son from the nowhere of Nazareth. And what does “Son” mean here? It means that Jesus is having a new birth, not of a father from Nazareth, but of a Spirit from Eternity. This is Mark’s “virgin birth” narrative. Mark is implying a virgin birth for Jesus, a birth sired from heaven that was now taking over Jesus’ whole life from his biological birth in Nazareth.
The Awed One (Jesus) is filled with Awe (Spirit) sourced from the Awesome (Eternal Mystery.) This whole secret Trinity of Divinity (Awesome, Awed One, Awe) is happening among us, to us, to humanity in these opening pages of Mark’s story. For the rest of Mark’s strange narrative, Jesus is the washed one, the resurrected one, the beloved of Reality one. Jesus is virgin born among us to lead us into our own virgin birth of profound humanness. For the rest of Mark’s gospel we see in Jesus what this exemplar of resurrected humanity looks like—walking, talking, calling, teaching, healing, feeding, eating, celebrating, living, suffering, dying. Women coming to honor him in his tomb find nothing there, except their own resurrection into Jesus-hood profoundness.
So, what might this passage be saying to us today about the living of our own authentic lives and about the power of these Christian symbols for our own depth living? Perhaps we might give Christian symbols a second look. Perhaps we might view these long-preserved stories as being clues to our own most profound matters of living. Perhaps we might ask of Mark and other resurrected witnesses, what must we do to inherit this life abundant. Perhaps we are drawn to read further in Mark’s story to see where our own particular healing is required in order to be washed of our own grim era—washed in order for us to enter here and now into this communion of the saints, this Kingdom of God, this Reign of Reality, this commonwealth of profound realism of which Jesus speaks. Perhaps such an enigmatic interior baptism is our first step, our next step toward beginning a fresh walk with Jesus for the rest of our own life story.
Mark clearly sees Jesus’ baptism by John as a new birth in the consciousness of Jesus. If we were using Eastern language we might call it “enlightenment.” Using the language that Mark develops toward the end of his story, Jesus was experiencing in John’s baptism a death and a resurrection to profound humanness—to his spirit depth, to his authenticity in this ordinary human body..
The ordinary human ego of Jesus was not destroyed, but that ego ceased to be the identity of this person. Jesus was dead to the evils of his era to the extent that there was nothing left to his identity except his essential authenticity, his profound humanness that was created by Final Reality from the dawn of time. Jesus in this story is a symbol for that profound humanness that the Creator of everything gives to humans before their fall into their estrangements from Reality. Jesus is the “Offspring of God,” the new humanity—a humanity that Jesus’ healings are going to call forth in others. Perhaps in you. Perhaps in me.
To say all these extreme things about Jesus, at the very beginning of his narrative, means that Mark views Jesus as a human being who has already died to estrangement and been raised up to authentic life. As we will see, Jesus is not intimidated by the entire Roman world or by Israel’s hypocritical religious establishments of compromise, flight, or furious hatred toward it all. Jesus is not intimidated by the prospect of living such a profound life or dying such a profound life at the hands of those he servers.
Matthew and Luke expand on this topic of Jesus being an “Offspring of Final Reality” with stories about Jesus’ virgin birth. John’s gospel also talks about a second birth that is available to all of us who embrace Jesus’s message. But at this point in Mark’s gospel the meaning of this divine birthing is only hinted—it is still a secret that something very special has appeared in Jesus. In coming chapters we are going to watch what happens as this person lives out such profound humanity in real-world social engagement. We are going to see someone who lives the authentic life unto death.
According to the scholarship of Rudolf Bultmann, what baptism came to mean in the early church was threefold: (1) washed of the era of “sin,” (2) sealed within the body of Christ, and (3) filled with the Holy Spirit. All three of these meanings are descriptions of an event of rebirth—drowning our estrangements to death, opening us to our profound authenticity, and facing our future in this “Spirit of Wholeness.”
What experiences in your life seem to correspond with such a profound rebirth?