Mark 1:1-8


The parallel accounts are found at Matthew 3:1-12; Luke 3:1-17; John 1:19-27. Isaiah 40 ought to be read in its entirety.

Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark says nothing about the announcement of the birth of John and Jesus, nor anything about the birth of these two. Mark begins with the public ministry of the Baptist which likely began in the summer before the appearance of Jesus, which came six months later.

Mark 1:1 The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Much has been written about this verse, only one line. It is a formal introduction. Note that the Nestle/Aland Greek text places a period at the end of the line. Likewise NIV, JB, NEB. These Notes consider this the correct punctuation. We agree with Franzmann as to the meaning of this verse:

This is too comprehensive and solemn a phrase to be the title of the opening section only, as some have thought, the part which deals with John the Baptist and Jesus' baptism and His temptation, the preparation for Jesus' Messianic ministry. It is designed to be the title of the whole work, and it is a significant one. Mark's book aims to set before the readers the record of the beginning and origin of that Good News which they knew and believed, that powerful and saving Word of God which the Son of God first proclaimed in word and deed (1:14-15), a word which was still the voice of Christ when proclaimed to men by human apostles and evangelists. (Concordia Bible With Notes, page 73)
Lenski: These words must be considered the title of the entire Gospel of Mark. . . . Mark considers this beginning of the Gospel to start with the work of the Baptist and the Baptism of Jesus, and to extend to his resurrection and glorification. 'Beginning' connotes continuation, and this would be the glad news concerning the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and concerning all his blessed work in the world, ending with the consummation of the Gospel at the last day.

"Jesus Christ, the Son of God" is adjectival genitive. The Good News is ever and always and only about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Jesus is the personal name of the incarnate Christ (Matthew 1:21). Christ denotes His office, the Anointed One, the Messiah, Who was anointed with the Holy Spirit when He was baptized (Mark 1: 10). There are six nouns in this line. Only the second has an article. But all six are definite: "The beginning of the good news about the Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the (Only) God." Plainly this one-line title stresses both natures in Christ:  "Jesus Christ" speaks of the incarnate Christ;  "Son of God" speaks of His divinity.  "The Son of God" is applied to Jesus again and again in this Gospel (3:11; 5:7; 9:7; 14:61.62; 15:39).

Mark 1:2 It is written in Isaiah the prophet: "I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way"--

Note that the Greek text has a comma after verse 3. RSV and JB follow this idea which we consider correct.  "Just as it stands written" is answered in verse 4: "Just as it stands written, so there came John the Baptist etc." Fulfillment corresponds precisely to prophecy. Only verse 3 is found in Isaiah. Mark has been accused of ignorance because the prophecy in verse 2 is from Malachi 3:1.

For several reasons we confidently defend Mark against such accusation:
  1. Matthew 3:3; Luke 3:4 and John 1:23 tell us that the Baptist spoke only Isaiah 40:3 of himself. This is found at Mark 1:3. Nowhere does it say that the Baptist spoke Malachi 3:1 of himself, though Jesus Himself applied it to him at Matthew 11:10 and Luke 7:27. In other words, at Mark 1:2 only Isaiah is mentioned because the Baptist quoted only Isaiah concerning himself;
  2. And Bengel rightly points to other instances like this in the NT: "In the same way as Matthew in 21:4.5 quotes Zechariah under the title of one prophet, and at the same time blends with Zechariah's words something out of Isaiah 62: 11; and as Paul also, in Romans 9:27 quotes Isaiah by name, and yet has interwoven with Isaiah's words something out of Hosea 2:1, so Mark quotes two prophets, and yet mentions only the one by name. . . . John the Baptist himself quoted Isaiah, not Malachi, concerning himself." 

Note that Nestle/Aland note a reference to Exodus 23:20 in the margin. Mark 1:2 is found verbatim at Exodus 23:20 in the LXX. But there the reference is plainly to the pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night. At Malachi 3:1 the LXX reads in translation: "Behold I am sending My messenger and he will take an interest in the way before Me, and suddenly the Lord will come to His temple, namely the Lord of the Covenant, whom you desire." The Hebrew at Malachi 3:1 reads: "Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me." (NASB). Therefore, though Mark 1:2 agrees verbatim with Exodus 23:20 in the LXX, but does not do so at Malachi 3:1, the reference at Mark 1:2 is clearly to Malachi 3:1. Some critics have played havoc with this. For example Danker (Multipurpose Tools for Bible Study, p. 90, edition of 1960.

Matthew (11:10 where this same passage is found) evidently ties up the fortunes of Israel's past history as presented in the Exodus along with her future destiny as seen by the prophet Malachi and alleges that Israel's entire history has meaning only in terms of John the Baptist's activity as related to Jesus' Messianic mission. Significant is the alteration in the second quotation of "my" to "your" to conform to the pronoun in the quotation from Exodus. Jesus is the embodiment of Israel.

Mark 1:2 is not conforming to Exodus 23:20, but DID change "my" to "you" from Malachi 3:1 because "you" (twice in this verse) is referring directly to Christ, true God incarnate. Jesus is not the embodiment of Israel. That false idea is a subtle way of identifying "The Servant of the Lord" in Isaiah 53 with all of Israel, not just Jesus in prophecy.

Back to Mark 1:2. As already stated,  "you" (twice) refers directly to Christ. Jehovah sent the Baptist to prepare the way for Christ. Prophecy was fulfilled.

Mark 1:3 "a voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.'"

This is what the Baptist said of himself. All four Gospels make a point of this. (References above ). Matthew, Mark and Luke quote the first three lines alike. These words are from the LXX. They change "of our God" to "His" meaning Christ. The divinity of Christ is implicit.  "In the desert" in Isaiah was figurative, denoting the miserable condition of Israel, but, in all four Gospels where it is quoted, it is literal. Mark 1:4 clearly shows that. Verses 4-8 will show us that what the Lord said through the Prophet Isaiah came true in the person of John the Baptist. The second and third lines of Mark 1:3 are an example of Hebrew parallelism, saying the same thing in different words.

Mark 1:4 And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

AAT is a typical translation:  "So John the Baptizer came into the wilderness, preaching, etc."  AV and NKJV:  "John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching etc."  We would translate: "(In keeping with prophecy) there came John, baptizing in the wilderness and preaching etc."  In other words, the two participles denote attendant circumstance. He did two things: baptized and preached. We have already mentioned that "in the desert" is locative. The Gospel of John (1:28 and 3:22) clearly indicates that the Baptist did not always stay in one place. He did his work in the desert on both sides of the Jordan between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea.

Bengel suggests that this verse is elliptical for: "baptizing the baptism of repentance and preaching the preaching of repentance."  That makes sense. He preached both Law and Gospel as is clear from Matthew, Luke and John. Lenski rightly points out that "repentance" literally means "to think after, to regret."  Regret what? Their sins. It becomes clear at the end of verse 5. But there "repentance" is evidently used in the wider sense denoting both contrition and faith. It was a "contrition and faith baptism." The language here denotes both the purpose and the result of the baptism.

Here we must mention that, to this day, the Reformed do not consider baptism a means of grace. In this pericope Hendriksen (a Baptist) refers to baptism as a "rite, a powerful stimulant to conversion, a symbol of divine purification, only the outward rite."  But the text speaks of "contrition and faith baptism for the forgiveness of sins." Hendriksen considers no instance of baptism as a true means of grace. Furthermore, some claim that John's baptism did not forgive sins, but Jesus' did.

Lenski: Not a few consider John's baptism to be different from Christ's, John's conveying no grace and remission, while that of Jesus does. On this point Acts 2:38 is decisive. . . Jesus himself took up and continued John's baptism (John 4;1.2), and eventually instituted this Baptism for all nations. In essentials John's and Christ's baptism are the same. The Baptist's was administered on the basis of the revelation made at that time; that of Jesus on the level of his completed work. The Baptist's made followers of the Christ to come; that of Jesus followers of the Christ already come. Thus the baptism of John was preparatory for Israel alone, Christ's permanent for all nations. Only in this way was the one merged into the other. The remission bestowed by them was identical.

Furthermore, with reference to "forgiveness of sins" Bengel remarks "without the need of Levitical sacrifices."  True. The Mosaic Law, including the Ceremonial Law, served as bondsman until Christ would come. Galatians 3:23.25. The whole Epistle to the Hebrews attests to this truth. But the Baptist made no mention of circumcision, sacrifices, etc. He preached and baptized. Period. He was Christ's immediate forerunner. Christ abolished the necessity of the Ceremonial Law.

Mark 1:5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.

The first "and so" denotes continued action.  "All the people" is evidently hyperbole, not to be taken literally but meaning "in large numbers."  Josephus mentions that the preaching and baptism of the Baptist caused a great sensation. It has been estimated that the Baptist baptized 200,000 to 500,000 people.

By the way, at Matthew 3:15 Jesus says to John: "Thus it becomes US (not ME) to fulfill all righteousness."  Though baptism John was an active agent in forgiving peoples' sins.  "In the Jordan" is purely locative and cannot be invoked to support immersion. The aorist  "confessing" would mean that first they confessed and then were baptized. Contrition is a constant in the life of a Christian.  "Their sins" is subjective genitive. They committed them and were responsible for them, until forgiven.

Mark 1:6 John wore clothing made of camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

We attempt a translation:  "John was permanently dressed. . . . and constantly eating etc."  He always dressed thus. The obvious meaning is:  "John wore clothing made of camel's hair."  NIV. The leather belt was worn to keep the clothing from opening and to draw the coat up when walking or running. Jesus mentioned that John did not wear fine clothing (Matthew 11:8). Both food and clothing were simple. The word "locust" is not equivalent to "grasshopper."  Even today certain Arabian tribes relish these locusts. The author of these Notes witnessed the fact that in Nigeria the people consider a certain kind of locust as a delicacy.

Hendriksen: John's food was as simple as was his clothing.
Stoeckhardt: John conformed his preaching of repentance through his whole outward appearance, through his clothing and way of living, wearing a garment of camel's hair, and feeding himself with the food of the wilderness, locusts and wild honey.
Lenski: The very appearance of John was a stern sermon. John was a living illustration of how little man really needs here below. The Baptist's mode of life marks him as a Nazarite (Luke 1:15), and up to the time of his preaching he must have lived like a hermit (Luke 1:80). In this he was the antithesis of Jesus (Matthew 11:18).

Mark 1:7 And this was his message: "After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.

In this verse John clearly indicates the superior person of Christ. He is divine. Only Mark has the word "to stoop down."  The point of the second part of verse 7 is the Baptist's feeling of unworthiness. This is important for verse 8.

Mark 1:8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

Note emphatic "I."  AV and NKJV read "I indeed."  Its counterpart is emphatic "He." In this verse John is comparing persons, not baptisms. John is not saying that his (John's) baptism was devoid of the Holy Spirit. John 3:5 clearly proves that. The only baptism known at the time when Jesus spoke with Nicodemus was the baptism of John. Nor is John saying that Jesus' baptism would not involve water. But John is saying that Jesus and Jesus only makes baptism effective by bestowing the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, what John says is akin to what Jesus says at John 7:39 where Jesus refers plainly to Pentecost.

Furthermore, read Acts 11:16. There Peter is not downgrading John's baptism. But he is speaking about the bestowal of the Holy Spirit, through baptism, beginning with Pentecost, bestowed, without distinction, on Gentile and Jewish repentant sinner.

Lenski: The distinction is not before Pentecost NO Spirit; after Pentecost the Spirit. The true distinction is: before the actually completed work of redemption the limited preparatory work of the Spirit; after the super-abounding fullness of the Spirit. There is no such thing as 'Baptism of the Spirit', a fanatical conception and substitute for these means, human emotions, imagining, and dreams by which the Spirit never comes.
Stoeckhardt: John baptized with the water of repentance, with which he testified that the people needed the washing and cleansing from their sins above everything else, which would be provided by Christ. Since the preaching and baptizing of John pointed to Christ, his baptism was a powerful sacrament and produced forgiveness of sins.

Verse 8 should not be read apart from verse 7. John was the humble servant, Christ the Master. The baptism of John was effective through the Master.


Adapted from Exegetical Notes, Series B, Festival Season Sundays, Gospel Texts, by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1981, pp.5-8. Used with permission.

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