Mark’s Gospel is shorter than the others with a greater sense of immediacy and urgency. The focus appears to be much mor eon the narrative and so we don’t tend to get the extended conversatinos and teaching we find in Matthew and John.
So, when Mark takes a bit of time to flesh out a conversation or an event, the sense we get is of the plot slowing down. This should encourage us to slow down and pause too. It suggests that Mark wants to draw our attention to something important.
So notice where our attention is drawn to in this passage. Unlike the other Gospels, Mark doesn’t give us the full details of Jesus’ temptation. This is reported in a rather matter of fact manner. However, we are given the details of his baptism, including what God has to say. Mark gives as much if not more time to a few minutes as he does to 40 days. Indeed, he gives quite a significant amount of space at the start of the Gospel to describing John’s baptism and the encounter with Jesus.
What is it that Mark wants us to pick up on? Well, first of all we have John’s description of Jesus:
“Someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not even worthy to stoop down like a slave and untie the straps of his sandals. 8 I baptize you with[d] water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit!”Mark 1:7-8.
This is significant because in many respects, all eyes were on John. He comes after 400 years of apparent divine silence. Suddenly there is prophecy again, suddenly God is speaking. John is considered to be the final prophet of the old covenant in the line of men like Elijah and Elisha. He has also been closely linked by the quotations at the start to Isaiah. Even his very bearing, his clothing and his diet shout out “Old Testament prophet.” Yet our eyes are not meant to be on him. Like the whole of the Old Testament, John serves to point us to Jesus, the greater one who is coming. Jesus is greater and therefore his baptism is greater.
Jesus turns up at the river and is baptised by John. Mark doesn’t really comment on this but the other gospels pick up on John’s protests and no doubt that’s the question you are asking. If John offers baptism for repentance, then why does Jesus get baptised. He is sinless, he doesn’t need to get baptised.
Whilst John doesn’t engage the question or John’s protests, his description of events perhaps help us to get the answer. The clue is found in the setting. John is the one who speaks and acts in the desert. Jesus himself takes a journey through the desert/wilderness and is tested there. Mark has opened his account with a quote from Isaiah which prophesies the end of God’s judgement on Israel. This end of judgement would mean an end to exile.
A little later on Isaiah will say:
But now thus says the Lord,Isaiah 43:1-2
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
Those words describe an Exodus experience, with God’s people returning from exile and slavery being kept safe through water an fire. I detect the hint of an allusion to this in John’s promise that Jesus offers not just water baptism but the baptism of the Holy Spirit -a baptism in fire.
So Scripture pointed to a second Exodus and that is what we see Jesus himself going through. He journeys into the wilderness and is tested, just as Israel were before but this time without sin. Jesus is representing, becoming even, God’s people, God’s nation.
Baptism in the Jordan offers an echo back to the people being brought out of slavery and into the land through the parted waters of the Red Sea and the Jordan. That imagery is so significant that some converts to Judaism not only were circumcised but also took part in a baptism ceremony. When John called the people to repent and be baptised he was asking them to confess that their sin put them outside of God’s people and symbolically outside of the land, the place of covenant promise. They needed to repent and return. They needed their own Exodus.
By being baptised himself, Jesus fully identifies with the people, retracing Israel’s experience, he becomes Israel’s representative or substitute. He identifies with their baptism so that they and we can identify with his baptism of death and resurrection (Romans 6:1-2).
Note the approval of the Father at Jesus’ baptism. Jesus is the beloved and pleasing son. Hosea 11:1 describes the Exodus in terms of God calling his son out of Egypt. Israel turned out to be a wayward and disobedient son. Matthew then applies those words to Jesus. He is the son, called out of Egypt. However this son is righteous , blameless and victorious.
This is good news because Jesus not only became Israel’s representative and substitute but your and mine too. No only does he fulfil the prophecy and narrative of Scripture but he also fulfils the law’s demands as well. He does this not only as an example as our leader but as our substitute, he acts on our behalf. This is the basis of the doctrine of justification. Jesus’ righteous obedience is recognised by the Father as yours and mine.
So, here we are beginning to see how the good news of God’s kingdom has arrived in Jesus, the one who fulfils Scripture, the one who is perfectly obedient and the one who represents us.