This article was originally written for Christ Hold Fast.
The narrative perspective of Mark’s Gospel is completely unlike the other Gospels. From the very outset, you, the reader, are clued-in to Jesus’s true identity. “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus,” Mark says, adding, “the Son of God.” (Mk 1:1) This, of course, indicates that Mark’s story of the Savior is laced with dramatic irony, in which his audience knows more than the characters about which he’s writing. This also gives his Messianic account an almost tragic tenor, making it all the more frustrating every time someone doubts Jesus’s words or works, or questions his authority. But such is Mark’s point. From beginning to end, he strives to give evidence upon evidence that his opening assertion is true. Therefore, all of the intermediate accounts are there to definitively say, ‘This is who Jesus is, and this is what he did, this is what he has done.’ Such is why Mark bookends his Gospel with another declaration of Jesus’s identity, notably coming from a Roman centurion. (Mk 15:37–39)
Such, too, is what forms the basis of all Christian hope. Our faith is steadied and stabilized in the knowledge of the gospel as historical fact. In the telling and re-telling of Jesus’s life, we are given the record of “all the world’s life and blessedness,” writes Scottish minister Alexander Maclaren. “Christ is Christianity,” he goes on to say. “His biography is the good news for every child of man.”1 And though the Gospels aren’t necessarily “biographies,” in the traditional sense, they each present to us full accounts of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. They are good news records precisely because they tell us about the Son of God who has come to bring everything to completion. They announce to us that the Divine Solution is here. The true and better One has come for you.
The true and better Servant in baptism.
Another narrative feature that is unique to Mark’s Gospel is his immediate introduction of Jesus. No lengthy genealogy proving his right to the throne or nativity story proving his humanity. Instead, Mark jumps right into the pericope of Jesus’s baptism. “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John.” (Mk 1:9) The remark about his journey from Nazareth to the Jordan, a journey of approximately 60 miles, indicates Jesus’s intention in finding the Baptizer. Jesus made a point to find John. But why? What is Jesus’s reason for being baptized? When you or I are baptized, we know and believe that we are participating in the glorious new birth that is proffered in the gospel. We are having our sins washed away in God’s reservoir of righteousness. Whereas our baptisms are baptisms of “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mk 1:4), Jesus’s baptism is not one of repentance. He is sinless. There is nothing for which he needs to repent. Why, then, insist on being baptized? What’s the point?
Jesus’s baptism, you see, is his inextricable, indivisible identification with man in man’s sin. As he was plunged into Jordan’s waters, he was emptying himself and assuming the form of a servant. (Phil 2:5–8) When we are baptized, we are raised to walk in “newness of life.” When Jesus was baptized, he was raised to “obedience unto death, even the death of the cross.” (Phil 2:8) We enter the water dirty and come out clean. He enters the water clean and comes out dirty. Jesus’s baptism is the only occasion where the one being baptized took on sin instead of righteousness.2 This moment encapsulates all of heaven’s empathy for sinners, with Jesus himself being the answer to Isaiah’s prayer for the heavens to be torn open and for God to come down. (Is 64:1; Mk 1:10)
In Jesus, God himself has condescended to our frame and taken on flesh. He has come down wearing our skin, and our sin. He has come to fulfill all righteousness. (Mt 3:15) And he comes to do so by being like us in every way, except without sin (Heb 4:14–16), including baptism. He pleases the Father on our behalf. (Mk 1:11; Isa. 53:10) He pleases the Father by standing in the water for us. His plunge in the waters prefigures his plunge into death. It is the divine seal and pledge of man’s redemption from sin. Thus, Jesus’s baptism foreshadows his death on the cross. (Mk 10:38)
The true and better Substitute in battle.
From the scene of Jesus’s baptism, our Lord is “immediately” driven by the Spirit into the wilderness to be “tempted by Satan.” (Mk 1:12–13) The sense indicates that these satanic assaults were continually afflicting Jesus throughout his forty-day sojourn in the wilderness. Satan’s seduction of Christ was not an isolated event. Those forty days were filled with conflict. That wasteland was a battlefield. Jesus was under attack. And note who was with him: “He was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and the angels were serving him.” (Mk 1:13) The presence of angels reveals that this wilderness war was a cosmic conflict. Satan’s temptations were not merely about the allure of ruling vast empires. This was about eternity. The first skirmish between light and darkness was in a badlands arena. And so it is that Jesus stands for us as our true and better Substitute. As the “wilderness” represents God’s curse on his people, Jesus takes on the curse for us. (Gal 3:13) He is better than Israel, going headlong into the wilderness and not forsaking his Father. The very place of Israel’s rebellion is the place of Jesus’s victory.
But he is also better than Adam, enduring all of Satan’s taunts and coming out victorious. Adam and Eve’s Fall points us to the faith of the Second Adam (Gn 3; cf. 1 Cor 15:20–22) Jesus’s battle in the desert undoes Adam’s failure in the garden. (Rom 5:18–19) All the results of first Adam’s sin are erased by Second Adam’s salvation. What the first Adam could not do in paradise, the Second Adam does in a desert. Our Substitute perfectly withstands temptation and vanquishes the Accuser. Our Substitute sweats blood from his brow in a garden, is crowned with thorns, and dies to the dust of the earth, thereby conquering every curse laid down by the Fall. (Gn 3:17–19)
The true and better Sovereign for belief.
Another hallmark of Mark’s writing is his inclusion of large narrative gaps. Regularly throughout this Gospel, adjoining verses will omit large swaths of Messianic activity. For instance, from the scene of Jesus’s temptation, Mark proceeds to mention John the Baptist’s arrest almost in passing, a story which won’t be resolved until chapter 6. (Mk 1:13–14) But the point that rises to the surface is that there is no more need for the king’s herald because the King himself is here, and with him comes the good news. “The time is fulfilled,” our Lord declares, “and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mk 1:15)
The resonance of this message is realized when you remember Mark’s likely audience: the Romans. They, of course, were folks who were well-versed in kingdoms, magistrates, and sovereigns. Mark’s emphasis, then, is that a true and better Sovereign had come. A better kingdom “has come near,” come close. And this kingdom is nothing less than the kingdom of God. What’s more, though, is the irony of Jesus’s message. When he proclaims, “Repent and believe the good news,” he is essentially saying, “Repent and believe in me. Believe in the good news about who I am.” When Jesus preaches the gospel, he is preaching himself. Jesus’s good news is the good news about himself. That he is the true and better Sovereign of our lives. And he has come to destroy our flimsy personal kingdoms and firmly establish his own in the blood-stained silt of his own passion and death.
Alexander Maclaren, The Gospel According to St. Mark: Chapters I to VIII (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1906), 2–3.