Summary: Jesus’ first action is an act of humility. It is this act of humility that will reveal his greatness, and this act of identifying with the people will actually set him apart.
We come now to Jesus’ appearance. Mark, in verse 8 sets us up to expect his coming in power, and yet, Jesus’ first action is an act of humility. John, who was not worthy to tie Jesus’ sandals, baptizes him as he does everyone else. But it is this act of humility that will reveal his greatness, and this act of identifying with the people will actually set him apart.
The Baptism 9-11
Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee. Mark identifies Jesus according to his home. It was a common designation for Jesus even after his resurrection. Note how it distinguishes Jesus from everyone else coming to John. They are from Jerusalem and the Judean countryside; Jesus is from Nazareth of Galilee in the north. Already he is set apart, although in this case it would be considered a negative distinction. Galilee was far from the spiritual center of Israel and its people regarded to some degree as lower class. For that matter Nazareth was not highly regarded even among Galileans. Remember Nathaniel’s remark? “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46)
It is the next comment that is most baffling: and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Mark moves on as though he has written nothing unusual. But if he were reading his gospel to an audience, surely someone would have interrupted him and said, “Wait a minute. What is Jesus doing getting baptized? John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance; what did Jesus have to repent of?”
Nothing. Mark would have replied, “Let me finish. See what happens.” 10 As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” What takes place at the baptism is Mark’s focus.
Now, Mark’s fellow gospel writer, Matthew, did think it was strange for Jesus to request baptism and he lets us know that John did hesitate when Jesus came to be baptized. He records their meeting this way:
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented (Matthew 3:13-15).
It seems that Jesus saw baptism as a means to identify with the people he had come to save and to signify the work he was going to do. He would later refer to the sacrifice he was to make as the baptism he had to undergo. Remember what statement the people were making by their baptism? They were sinners; they were turning from their sins to God in hope for forgiveness. Jesus’ statement would have been this: “I will take on the sins of my people and undergo the real baptism that provides forgiveness.”
But, again, Mark’s focus is not on why Jesus thought he should be baptized, but on the result of the baptism, which was to reveal who Jesus was. In John’s gospel, John the Baptist reflects on Jesus’ baptism with this comment: “I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel” (John 1:31). This baptism reveals him. How so? Let’s look at what he experienced.
10 As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open. What a dramatic phrase – heaven being torn open. What is being signified? Why doesn’t Jesus just see the Spirit coming down? There is a similar phrase in Isaiah 64:1 which goes like this: Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! Isaiah is calling to God up in heaven to come down and help his people. Perhaps Mark is alluding to that passage, stating that in Jesus God did come down or that God came down to descend upon Jesus.
As I was reflecting upon the language, it occurred to me how similar the wording was to another dramatic scene. Listen to this passage in Mark 15:37-39: With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. 38 The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” It is clear what the curtain being torn in two signified. The curtain separated the Holy of Holies (God’s dwelling place) from the rest of the temple. It was a statement that God could not be directly approached. Jesus’ death removed the separation curtain and gave us direct access to God.