Baptism of Our Lord · Mark 1:4-11 · January 11, 2009
By William W. Schumacher
Jesus Christ, the Son of God—that is who Mark identifies in the opening tide verse of his gospel (1:1). As such, of course, Jesus was in no personal need of the “repentance and the forgiveness of sins” attached to John’s baptism (1:4). Yet, there he is, going down into the water with a crowd of sinners.
It is characteristic of the way Mark tells the gospel story that we, reading the gospel, know more about what is going on than the characters in the story. Mark stated his theme in the very first verse of the gospel, but John, the disciples, the crowds, and the other characters in the story seem to be quite confused about who Jesus is. John himself knows and announces that he is preparing the people for someone else, someone incomparably greater than he is (1:7-8). John preaches and baptizes in anticipation of the Greater One, but here is a significant point: Mark gives us no hint that John recognized Jesus at the time of his baptism (or even afterward!). We often read John’s recognition into the baptism text as we have it here in Mark, influenced especially by the parallel in Matthew 3:13-17 (and also John 1:29-34).
Those other texts portray the baptism of Jesus as a very public display of Jesus as the Son of God. But the text as it stands in Mark does not emphasize that public display; in fact, it almost seems like a private revelation. It is Jesus who sees the Spirit descend like a dove; it is Jesus who hears the voice of the Father addressing him as his beloved Son (1:10-11). This and a number of other features in Mark’s gospel are sometimes described as the “Messianic Secret” (see also 1:25, 34; 43-45; 5:43; 7:24, 36; 8:26, 30; 9:9, 30-31; and 10:48), and are seen by some as a “problem” in interpreting the gospel, especially in comparison with Matthew and Luke.
The “problem” of knowing who Jesus is, of course, exists for the characters in the story, not for us as readers of Mark’s gospel. If the identification of Jesus as the Son of God at his baptism is portrayed almost as a secret, then we are in on the secret. All along the way in his gospel, Mark gives us a privileged perspective on the events he describes. As such, we know and see the events even better than eyewitnesses. We are told from the outset who Jesus is, while those who saw with their own eyes only gradually, haltingly, and imperfectly began to understand and connect the dots. In the present text about Jesus’ baptism, we see, hear, and understand more clearly than John the Baptist did.
It is tempting to get distracted by the “puzzle” of harmonizing Mark and Matthew and John, but preaching is not puzzle-solving. Reading Mark on his own terms is very helpful. The readers (and our hearers) are “in on the secret” in a way that others in the story are not. John and the bystanders may or may not hear the voice and see the Spirit, but Jesus does, and so do we. Those others may or may not know who Jesus really is; but we do, because Mark tells us in 1:1 who he is. The very act of reading and hearing the story which Mark tells, draws the reader into a particular stance toward Jesus. Jesus is revealed to us readers more clearly and fully than he was recognized by those who walked with him and saw him with their own eyes and touched him with their own hands.
In this light, the crucial thing in preaching the baptism of Jesus is not to sort out all the information—least of all the details of how Mark’s account relates to Matthew’s—but to let the text accomplish with the hearers what the text does to the readers. As Robert Fowler put it, “An utterance means what it does, not what it says” (Let the Reader Understand: Reader-Response Criticism and the Gospel of Mark). How does the preacher aim for such an effect? A dramatic turn may capture some of this, with the preacher speaking as one of the eyewitnesses, whose own understanding is incomplete, but whose lingering confusion invites the hearers to fill in the gaps with what we know (but what the eyewitnesses could not).