Jesus the Apocalypse: The Announcement of Elijah

[This is the third post in my Bible study on Mark. See the others here.]

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the LORD, make his paths straight,'”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” 

Mark 1:2-8

What the Bible Says

As we saw last time, Mark has just abruptly opened his Gospel with the good news that Jesus is here. Now he moves into the actual story of that arrival. This story begins, rather unexpectedly, not with Jesus Himself but with John the Baptist (or baptizer, as the NRSV renders it).

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah — Mark begins right off with an appeal to the Scriptures, which is a reasonable strategy to back up his claim that Jesus is the Messiah. If anyone is to accept Jesus as Messiah, they will have to see how He fulfills the relevant Scriptures.

A potential problem, for some, arises at this point. While Mark says “the prophet Isaiah,” the following quotation is not just from Isaiah, but actually starts from Malachi. There are also other manuscripts which simply say “the prophets,” which probably resulted from a scribe trying to fix that problem. In the end, though, this doesn’t need to bother us. Over half of the quote is from Isaiah, and since Isaiah is also the more prominent book of the two, the lack of precision is unimportant.

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way — This part of the quote is from Malachi 3:1. In the original context, God was declaring judgment on Judah for her sins. In 2:17, God accuses the people of asking, “Where is the God of justice?” Then 3:1 comes as the answer. God has sent a messenger ahead to prepare His way, and according to the next part of the verse He will come suddenly to His temple. Then verse 2 makes it clear that this visit will be a day of judgment, for “who can endure the day of his coming?”

the voice […] paths straight” — This part of the quote is from Isaiah 40:3. The wording of this verse is very similar to Malachi 3:1, but there is an important difference in meaning. Isaiah 40 is an announcement of comfort and promise of redemption to Israel. Instead of the impending doom Malachi speaks of, this verse references impending forgiveness, despite being nearly the same.

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness — Again, Mark works with sudden appearances, the kinds of abrupt changes you would expect in a vision or dream. Now John has appeared, apparently as the fulfillment of the cited texts. Based on these verses, he is a messenger preparing the way for Yahweh’s return to Jerusalem. The wilderness location is significant. Israel has always had an interesting relationship with the wilderness, having wandered for 40 years. New religious movements at this time often retreated to the wilderness, including Messianic ones. Yet John is not secluding himself with followers; he is baptizing and preaching.

proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins — Now we know what John is preaching. Baptism was at this time a rite that Jewish proselytes (Gentiles who wanted to fully join Judaism and Israel) would undergo, hinting that John saw sinful Israel as cut off from God’s people and they needed to essentially convert as though they were outsiders. They were called to repent and receive forgiveness. I should also point out that this would not have been understood primarily as individual. It wasn’t just about Mr. Jacob or Mrs. Martha. As I mentioned before, most the Israelites still thought of themselves as in exile, and exile was understood as the result of Israel’s sin as a nation. Therefore the call to repent and receive forgiveness would be understood as the means by which Israel might finally return from exile, and thus God’s kingdom would come.

And people […] their sins — The unrest of the time at a national level meant many people were ready to take an opportunity at seeing God’s kingdom come and receiving forgiveness in the return of Israel exile. People flocked to John, clearly enthusiastic about this prospect.

Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey — This well fits John’s persona as a prophet. In fact, it hints, when combined with the prophecy from before, that John is fulfilling the role of Elijah, who was expected to come before God’s kingdom came. Elijah was described similarly in 2 Kings 1:8, and Zechariah 13:4 reveals that this kind of dress was associated with prophets. He also clearly had no trouble with purity laws.

He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. — Again, the role of forerunner is apparent, which strengthens the Elijah parallel. John clearly sees himself not as the Messiah or fulfillment, but as called to prepare Israel for God’s kingdom by preaching repentance.

I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” — This curious statement has always been debated. What does it mean that the one to follow John will baptize with the Holy Spirit? There is no doubt that the Charismatic “baptism of the Holy Spirit” is not in view. No one in John’s day had such a concept, and indeed it did not exist for hundreds and hundreds, if not over a thousand, more years. More likely, the word “baptize” should be understood with its original meaning of “immerse,” so that the picture is of Israel being immersed in the Spirit, which would call to mind eschatological expectations that God would pour out His Spirit on all flesh when His kingdom came (Isa. 44:3, Ezek. 39:29,  Joel 2:28).

The Theology Part

So what picture does this paint for us theologically? The first thing to note is, again, the sudden appearance. Carrying on the visionary or dream-like elements, the Messiah’s forerunner shows up in the wilderness and begins preaching. His message to Israel is that they must repent and be baptized for forgiveness of sins, the return from exile. The theme is clearly the coming of God’s kingdom. The prophecies cited make this abundantly clear, as well as the allusions to John’s role as the coming Elijah.

The specific combination of prophecies used here points to God’s return to Jerusalem as both a positive and negative occurrence, both salvation and judgment. All of the Jews would be expecting this, though later we will see just how subversive and shocking the outplaying of this actually is.

Other overlooked, but in my opinion very important here, is the way the coming of Jesus is identified with the return of God Himself to His people. Remember that both Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1 in their original contexts refer to prophets announcing the coming of the Lord, Yahweh. Yet in Mark “Lord” clearly refers to the subject of verse 1, Jesus the Messiah. This theme will not stop in Mark or any of the Gospels. As we go on, we find it more and more impossible to separate Jesus from God. They are one, and this realization eventually became detailed church tradition in the glorious affirmation of the Nicene Creed:

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.

One more important theological point to notice is the relationship of baptism, repentance, and forgiveness. For some verse 4 would be used with other texts to say that baptism is necessary for salvation. Yet this does not regard the original context of the verse. John was calling for Israel to repent and essentially reconvert to their God in preparation for the return from exile and coming kingdom. This baptism and the baptism instituted by the risen and glorified Christ are not exactly the same, being on opposite sides of the Cross.

What to Do about It

So, what do we get from this? How should the announcement of John the Baptist affect us today? Two main thoughts come to mind.

  • John knew the time had come, and that God’s kingdom was about to break into the world through Jesus Christ. So he preached that message to all who would listen, baptizing them and teaching them to repent of their sins. Now Jesus has gone away, but will return, and we know that He could be back any time. We must therefore follow John’s example, preaching the Gospel of Jesus to all who will listen, baptizing them and teaching them to observe all Jesus commanded. Basically, the Great Commission Matthew 28:19-20.
  • John also was constantly clear to make himself nothing and Christ the focus. We really ought to be doing the same way. So much of our approach as Christians tends to draw attention to the preachers, the speakers, the bloggers, and even us as individuals with our testimonies. Or in church, we may find ourselves trying to get the word out about Our Church, or its programs, music, or relevance. Our worship services may seem more like concerts about the band and lights than about the God who revealed Himself as Jesus Christ. But all of this would be wrong. Our energy should go altogether towards making Jesus the object of focus, desire, and proclamation. If our message is anything but Jesus, we are in trouble.
Jesus the Apocalypse: The Announcement of Elijah

Jesus the Apocalypse: The Messiah Appears

To continue my Mark Bible study (which began in this post), I’ll move on to the very first verse:

This is the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

What the Bible Says

Let’s not miss the significance of this. Mark has the simplest introduction of any of the Gospels. No genealogy (Matthew), preface (Luke), or poetic allusions to creation (John). He just says, “this is the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” By the next verse, he’ll be introducing John the Baptist. So let’s take a closer look at this first verse.

Good News – The words “good news” here come from the Greek word euaggelion, which is usually translated “gospel” and from which we get our word “evangelize.” It was primarily used in particular of politically-relevant military victories, especially if the emperor was involved. This kind of good news would be along the lines, “Good news! We’ve won the battle!” or “Good news! A new emperor has been crowned!” The theme of royal victory was most likely a common connotation. Keep that thought in your back pocket for now.

Jesus Christ – The name “Jesus” doesn’t really warrant much explanation, though an interesting tidbit is that “Jesus” is the English way of saying the Greek translation of the Hebrew name “Yehôshua.” That name, if translated straight to English instead of to Greek first, is “Joshua.” So you can tell all your friends that Jesus’ name was Joshua. More important is the “Christ” part. What does that mean? The word “Christ” essentially means “anointed one,” or the same as “Messiah” from Hebrew. By saying “Jesus Christ,” Mark is saying, “Jesus the Messiah.”

This makes sense in connection with the theme of royal victory behind the term “Good News.” After all, there is nothing many of the Jews of Jesus’ day, of whom He was a part, wanted more than a Messiah who would rescue them from Rome in a military victory, and be crowned the true king under God. An unsuspecting reader from Mark’s world would at this point probably have in the mind the picture of a king like David, who would defeat God’s enemies and be acknowledged as God’s chosen ruler. The difference of the Messiah would be that He is the final king, whose victory and reign would be permanent and through whom God Himself would rule.

the Son of God – This is a particularly interesting title. See, before the early church did some serious study of what Jesus said about Himself, the term “son of God” had not been used to say someone had a divine nature, or was God. The most popular use of “son of God” when Mark was written would have been as more or less a synonym for “Messiah,” but with special emphasis on the royal aspect. In the Old Testament, the king of Israel, and Israel as a whole, was often spoken of as God’s son (Exod. 4:22-23, 2 Sam. 7:14, 1 Chr. 17:14, 22:10, 28:6, Ps. 2:6-7, 89:20-26, Ezek. 21:9-10, Hos. 11:1). This is important. God called Israel to be His child, and the king was especially so as God’s anointed representative of the whole nation. By Jesus’ day, these connections developed in many concepts of the Messiah, and the two phrases were practically synonyms (Matt. 16:16, 26:63, Mk. 14:61, John 1:49, 11:27).

So Mark here is again claiming Jesus as Messiah, only this time the emphasis is even more on His role as the King who represents all Israel in Himself. What He does is relevant for the whole nation. (Note that none of this is to say that Jesus wasn’t God’s son in another, more unique and divine, way as well. That’s simply not the original focus of the title “son of God.” Part of the reason this changed is because of who Jesus revealed Himself to be.)

The Theology Part

Putting these pieces we’ve just looked at together, we can start to see the startling scene Mark is trying to show us. Out of nowhere, Jesus appears. Like an unexpected scene in a dream, the Messiah has shown up. This is the beginning of the apocalyptic vision Mark has written his Gospel as. To dramatize it: “Good news!” he yells to his readers out of the fog. “Your Messiah has come!” The fog then parts to reveal the silhouette of Jesus.

We should remember that, for Mark’s readers, God has seemingly been silent and unhelpful to the Jews for many years. Even though they came back from Babylon way back when, many still believed that the Exile was still going on in some sense. They may be back in their land, but they’re still under pagan rule (the Romans this time), their king (Herod) is a corrupt puppet, and God has yet to do anything to show that He has returned to Jerusalem to dwell in His temple like He promised.

With this gloomy backdrop, the sudden appearance of the Messiah clearly has significance. Jesus has come to fix this situation, lead Israel out of exile, and win the final victory of God. This is indeed “Good News!” Yet whatever expectations may have been created in this first verse, the rest of the Gospel will end up confusing them.

For us, on the other side of these events, we know what has been accomplished. Jesus, the Messiah, who is God’s Son not only as King but as the eternal Word of God Himself, has defeated Satan and dealt with our sin on the Cross, then rose again. Now He is reigning on high, exalted above all. For us, the Jewish Messiah has already completed His mission, fulfilled the destiny of Israel, and brought us, the Gentiles who didn’t belong, in on the blessings. We now stand as one body, saved by Jesus alone, and acknowledge Him as the Son of God whose sudden appearance in history was the day of salvation for all people!

What to Do about It

So how are we to respond to what Mark 1:1? What changes can even this little verse make in our lives? I can think of a couple possible applications.

  • Just like Jesus suddenly appeared in the middle of Israel’s suffering to save His people, we now wait for Him to suddenly return. When He does, we have hope that He will implement His victory once and for all. In the mean time, we must work and prepare, telling the whole world about what Christ has done for us. One day time will run out, and just like Jerusalem was destroyed after it missed its chance with the Savior, so next time the whole world will fall if we do not prepare them for the return of the King.
  • God is always faithful, and we can trust Him. It had been 400 years since the Old Testament was written, and the Jews were wondering where God had gone. When would He help them again? Yet He did return to His people in Jesus just as He swore, and today we can trust that He will fulfill all of His promises to us. This means we can live boldly and without fear, doing whatever God calls us to, because we know He will do what He has promised.
  • We should never lose hope. Like I said, 400 years had gone by. No word from God in this time. Even after the Jews’ victory in the Maccabean revolt (study here if you’re interested), little progress was made and all the authorities were still corrupt. Pagan rule hadn’t stopped. Even in the midst of this bleak situation, though, God suddenly made His move for His people. So we can wait patiently, but also eagerly, because God might act at any moment to help us in whatever we need, or to rescue us from any of our sufferings. He could change your life whenever, so never lose heart.
Jesus the Apocalypse: The Messiah Appears

Jesus the Apocalypse: A Study on Mark

This is the third and final new series I’m starting now. I thought it would be fun to do a Bible study series on a particular book of the Bible. My recent studies have led me to Mark. The shortest and (according to most scholars) earliest of the Gospels, as well as the most cryptic, it begged for good study. So, on to the background details.

Date and Authorship

Mark is widely believed to have been the first Gospel written. More conservative dating puts it in the AD 50s, while more mainstream scholarship says 65-70. Very few people date it any later, simply because the book gives no indications that the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in AD 70 had yet happened, which would have been very theologically significant if it had since Jesus is recorded to have prophesied this event.

While no solid historical evidence exists surrounding the author of Mark, and the book itself does not specify the author (remember that the titles were added later), the tradition of the early church was that a disciple of Peter named Mark wrote the book based on Peter’s preaching. Modern historians mostly disbelieve this tradition, but the reasons for this seem to be mostly involve skepticism about the historical truth of Mark. If Mark is taken as overall a reliable work, then there is no obvious reason to question the traditional claim.

Theme: Let the Reader Understand

The idea which I have recently run across, and which I plan to explore with this Bible study, is that Mark is essentially an apocalypse. At first, this may not make sense, but this is probably because of the widespread misunderstanding about what an apocalypse is. So in order to explain how and why Mark might be an apocalypse, I should address briefly what apocalyptic literature actually is.

In popular imagination, “apocalypse” means “end of the world.” But that’s not quite right. Our word apocalypse comes from the Greek word apokalupsis, which basically means an “unveiling” or a “revealing.” Specifically, the genre of apocalypse involves God revealing His secrets in mysterious ways, usually by strange visions or dreams. Daniel, for example, consists of much apocalyptic material. Sometimes they are interpreted there (like often happens in Daniel), and sometimes the reader is left to understand by himself. Often times, these revelations have to do with what God is about to do in the future (such as end times matters), but they can also refer to the present and the past, giving the heavenly, theological perspective on earthly events.

How does Mark fit into this category? It seems that Mark portrays Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection like a series of apocalyptic visions. The events of His life are written as short and cryptic, strung together like the scenes of a dream or visions with the word “immediately,” and ultimately ending in suspense. “Let the reader understand” seems to indeed apply to the whole of Mark; he gives us a mysterious picture of the Messiah which only those with ears to hear will truly understand.

Coming Up

With this context in mind, my next post will start at the beginning in Mark 1:1 and move on from there. I’m hoping to find lots of interesting goodness in this book, a book which testifies of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. Any fresh riches to find about Him are worth the search. So until next time, maybe try reading Mark with what I’ve mentioned in mind, if you’re at all interested. Comment if you find anything to say, as always.

Jesus the Apocalypse: A Study on Mark