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The Baptism of Jesus by John

Sermon on Mark 1:4-11 preached by The Reverend Charles Royden, 12th January 2003

And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: "After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased."  Mark 1:4-11

The background.

The Gospels were not just thrown together, and neither are they just collections of bits of information passed down over many years about Jesus. Rather they are very carefully written literary works and the authors had specific objectives in mind, which they wanted their readers to understand. Some people have called them propaganda, and I suppose if we could take away the negative associations of that word, then it would be a reasonable word to use, they were written so that people would be led to faith in Jesus Christ, in order to help people believe.

The Gospel of Mark was most probably the first to be written, perhaps thirty years or so after Jesus died. In these opening verses of Chapter 1 we are given a clear indication of what it is that the author wants his readers to know about Jesus. Note that there is no mention of the nativity stories which we find in Luke and Matthew. We cannot be sure whether or not Mark knew stories about the birth of Jesus, but clearly he had a structure in his mind for this Gospel which did not need to include them.

The Gospel of Mark has both a clear beginning and end, with beautifully crafted chapters in the middle. This middle bit is divided carefully into stories about the life and teaching of Jesus and stories about his passion and death. These are carefully separated by the episode on the mountain which we call the Transfiguration, where Jesus is seen speaking with Moses and Elijah.

Just as that episode showed the approval of the Old Testament Law and Prophets upon Jesus, so in this opening section of the Gospel, Mark wishes to demonstrate the authenticity of Jesus as validated by the Old Testament.

So let’s take a look at the passage!

It is unfortunate that the reading today misses out the first verses of the chapter which begins

The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Mark 1:1.

That is an emphatic statement about who the author wants you to believe Jesus really is. It is also reminiscent of the opening verses of the Old Testament. Imagine the author putting his writing on the same footing as Genesis!

Both passages are about creation: Genesis deal with the creation of the universe Mark with the new creation in which we participate as believers in Jesus’ gospel.

Mark wanted to show that with Jesus came a new beginning, he was the one that the Jews had been promised throughout their history recorded in the Old Testament. This is shown again in verse 2 when Mark quotes the words of the prophet Isaiah. It is written in Isaiah the prophet: "I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way"--"a voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.'"

It is difficult for us to appreciate how it must have felt to be a Jew at that time. A very proud people with a strong independent national and religious identity. They were living in the land which they considered God had given to them, but they were a conquered people and the country was occupied by the Romans.

It is reasonable therefore, and they would have felt quite justified in thinking that with all of this talk about a new beginning, their expectations would lead them to conclude that God was about to bring relief from the power of Rome. The question is what sort of leader was Jesus going to be?

John The Baptist

Firstly let's take a look at what John the Baptist was like, after all he was the one who approved of Jesus and thought that Jesus was chosen one.

If we have the old age and we have the new age, John the Baptist is the link between the old and the new. He fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy and he is himself a prophetic figure. In dress and message he is especially reminiscent of the prophet Elijah.

John the Baptist was a prophet. Prophetic people are not the types that you like to invite to dinner parties. They are challenging and make us feel uncomfortable because of that. Prophets have this ability to inhabit the human world, but to have another foot in the court of God. If we use everybody else around us to work out how we measure up as Christians, then we might have cause to feel justifiably proud of ourselves and our achievements. But of course the touchstone for our lives should be nothing so misleading and prophets are people who cut through that which is contemporary and expose us to the inevitably higher standards which we find in the presence of God.

The required standard as we stand in the presence of God is so much more demanding. It is no good looking at Harry or Sally in the pews opposite, we turn to our God as demonstrated in the pure life of Christ.

This is what John the Baptist tried to do, he preached a message which said behave differently towards one another. John distinguished himself in his message, in his behaviour, in his very lifestyle. 

John had a right to assert himself by birth, he was of the patriarchal line of Aaron, the priest of Moses and his message drew an overwhelming response from throughout Israel.  Yet, he shuns the ritualism of Jerusalem.  The religious elite worshipped in comfort in the midst of the poverty of their people.  John rather separated himself from his contemporaries. he considered that they had not chosen service to God and justice for his people.  In direct contrast, John chose to separate himself from his contemporaries in significant ways

1.       His home 

The Chief Priests of John’s day were ‘set apart’ by luxury and comfort .  They had nice houses in Jerusalem and well off the labours of others. In direct contrast, John chose to live in austerity.  John lived in a hard place a land that required discipline and no room for error or frivolity.  He had no castle to impress and rule but a camp in the desert.

2.       His clothing

The robes of the priests were treasures, they were costly, said to have cost the equivalent of an average worker's wages for three years.  They dressed for show.  Their lives were not guided by simplicity and necessity but by extravagance and grandiosity. So compare the austere choice of clothing for John. He wore the garment of the Jewish prophets; camel hair a tough and coarsest animal hide.  It was obvious that John didn’t want to be known among the priests – but among the prophets. 

3.       His food

In most cultures of the world, insects are not an abhorrent part of the menu.  They are, instead, a source of high protein and energy.  Some might even call them ‘the poor man’s meat’.  He was eating what was simple, available and sustaining.  He was rejecting what was elaborate, fashionable and elite.

4.       His message 

Perhaps it was because John tried to live out preaching in such a sacrificial way, that people knew he was genuine. Perhaps that is why they flocked to hear him and listened to what he had to say. 

Surely, it is possible to preach year in and year out to perfection, yet for those word to be a waste of breath, that is if the words of the preacher are not validated by their actions. It is no use a preacher preaching about the love and compassion of God if we are self absorbed and do not seek to try and practice what we preach. If we fail in our ministry to be caring and considerate towards our congregations, then we should not wonder that they pay little attention to us when we speak in sermons.

But of course the same goes for all Christian people, because we are all called to ministry. If we say that we are Christians, but people know us to be horrible, then the Christian Gospel is compromised and nobody will take any notice of our faith. By our deeds we are judged.

So what was John’s message? The message which John preached was ‘baptism for the forgiveness of sins.’ The word that Mark records is aphesis.  The word means not only forgiveness and remission; but also freedom, deliverance, pardon and liberation.  It is the word used for a hostage who was bought back from a kidnapper. 

The word speaks of the compassion of our Lord to embrace the captive; to seek the lost; to search for those who cry out in abandonment. 

Those people who went out to John were told about a God who was going to rescue them, this was a God they could understand and a God who understood them. They went, crying as captives to the wilderness, to a prophet proclaiming liberation from the wilderness.

So what was it that John told them to do in response ? 

The response was to be baptised and to conduct lifestyles which were compatible with their awareness of the forgiveness of God. As they were shown mercy, so they too must now show mercy to others. We need to go to Luke’s account for the specifics. In Luke 3:10 we are told

"What should we do then?" the crowd asked. John answered, "The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same." Tax collectors also came to be baptized. "Teacher," they asked, "what should we do?" "Don't collect any more than you are required to," he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, "And what should we do?" He replied, "Don't extort money and don't accuse people falsely--be content with your pay."

The world might seem to be falling apart, but the people had to concern themselves with things which they could actually do something about. They had to be nice to one another. If someone had two coats then share.

John’s Challenge to us

There have been others like John the Baptist, people who have at great cost given up comfortable secure lifestyles and chosen to be faithful to God by accepting a difficult challenge. But we are not likely to be the next Francis Assisi, handing his clothes to the Bishop of Assisi and setting out to live among lepers. Few are called to be like Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela.

We may never be called to such public roles, but each one of us faces the challenge to be faithful where we are in the life that we have been given. Are we prepared to accept the challenge?

Practically this means— 

  1. We will seek to try and show to others the forgiveness which God has shown to us. 
  2. We will have sought to make honest and wise choices in life even if behaving with integrity meant that we couldn't take the easy way out. 
  3. People who know us will be able to speak well of us honestly and will have experienced good treatment from us. 
  4. People will remember that we sought to be there with a helping hand for others and we didn't just say like everybody else that we were too busy with our own affairs. 
  5. We smiled at people and made them feel welcome and we encouraged them with kind words and brought out their best as well as our own.

The Baptism. 

So let’s move from John the Baptist to think about the baptism of Jesus.

There is much which we could say about the baptism of Jesus. Jesus is seen at this time publicly demonstrating the type of ministry which he has chosen. When we baptise a baby, it is more than putting off of the old self, it is a putting on of the new, perhaps this is made more explicit when we baptise a baby, which it is hard to recognise as steeped in sin. So too the baptism of Jesus is not a washing away of the past, but rather a putting on of the new, preparing himself for the great task, setting out his style of ministry

The baptism of Jesus shows God entering flesh and become one of us. At his baptism Jesus goes down into the waters with us. Privilege and power can remove powerful political and religious leaders from the people they are called to serve. The ordinary person can feel leaders live in a very different world. But Jesus enters the waters this day, comes up close to us, lets the waters that covered the repentant sinners flow over him. He takes what is weak and wavering, makes us his disciples and strengthens us who would follow him.

I am reminded of the story of a young man in a school who was diagnosed with Cancer and who as a result of his treatment for Cancer had his hair fall out. A picture was taken of him in his class at school and it was not possible to tell which the boy was because all of his classmates had chosen to shave their heads, so that they stood alongside him in his condition. This was true solidarity. There is a sense here, of Jesus doing the same thing when he gets into the water.

You will remember also the temptations which come after the baptism show what Jesus is consciously turning against in this acts. In his baptism he is saying no to all of the things the Devil offered him.

Remember what those temptations were 

  1. "If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread." 
  2. He showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, "I will give you all their authority and splendour, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. 
  3. The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. "If you are the Son of God," he said, "throw yourself down from here. "'He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully;

In baptism Jesus does the opposite of all this. He says no to taking on worldly power and riches. No to using his power for his own comfort, power or prestige. He rejects a role which will attract worldly honour and high office.

Instead the baptism of Jesus acts as a symbol of his death, here is the one who came

"not to be served but to serve and to give his life as ransom for many."

When Jesus walks into the water of the Jordan he is making it clear that he is willing to suffer and to die. So it is therefore at this defining moment, that Jesus is recognised by God as having chosen the right course for his life. And so God is seen to bless Jesus for this decision which he has made. He was blessed for his decision to be faithful.  How is the blessing of God made known?

The tearing open of heaven

The tearing open of heaven makes a clear beginning to his Gospel. It is related powerfully to another tearing which occurs at the end of the Gospel.

In Chapter 1:10 we read 

‘As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.’

In Chapter 15:37 following we read 

With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.

The same verb is used and it is a word which Jesus himself uses when he told the parable in Luke 5:36 

"No one tears a patch from a new garment and sews it on an old one. If he does, he will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old.’

There has been some discussion as to which curtain in the temple would have been ripped. 

The outer curtain separated the sanctuary from the forecourt and would have been visible to all Ex 26:37 

The inner curtain separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies to which the High Priest alone was admitted on the day of atonement Ex 26:31-35.

So the rendering of the inner veil would be discernible only to a few priests. It is surely the outer curtain which we are talking about here, the magnificent curtain which in Herod’s Temple hung before the entrance and was visible from the forecourt when the doors were opened during the day.

Today the Moslem Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is the prominent building where the Jewish temple once stood. When Jesus came to Jerusalem, the Temple had just been marvelously rebuilt by Herod the Great. The Temple area had been enlarged to a size of about thirty-five acres. Around the Temple area were double colonnades.

Now we know a great deal about this curtain.

Josephus a Jewish historian of the time wrote in his Jewish War a description of the temple curtain. Calling it the outer veil he described its appearance at the time of Herod. Firstly, there is a magnificent description of how the Temple looked, it had golden gates and golden vines hanging with clusters of grapes which we are told were as tall as the height of a man. Then Josephus goes on

It was a Babylonian curtain, embroidered with blue, and fine linen, and scarlet, and purple, and of a contexture that was truly wonderful. Nor was this mixture of colours without its mystical interpretation, but was a kind of image of the universe; for by the scarlet there seemed to be enigmatically signified fire, by the fine flax the earth, by the blue the air, and by the purple the sea; two of them having their colors the foundation of this resemblance; but the fine flax and the purple have their own origin for that foundation, the earth producing the one, and the sea the other. This curtain had also embroidered upon it all that was mystical in the heavens, excepting that of the [twelve] signs, representing living creatures. 

In: The Wars Of The Jews (The History Of The Destruction Of Jerusalem Book V A description of the Temple.

You may find the full works of Josephus through this link

Imagine this outer veil this huge gigantic curtain perhaps 90 feet high and 26 feet wide. Tradition tells us that it was as thick as the width of a man's hand and that it took three hundred priests to wash it. A huge tapestry made in Babylon, with embroidery of blue and fine linen, of scarlet also and purple, made with marvelous skill and depicting a panorama of the entire heavens.

In other words when you looked at the outer veil of the Jerusalem temple, when you stared into this curtain, it was like looking into a huge starry sky!

So when Mark's told his readers that "the veil of the temple was ripped in two from top to bottom," they would have either seen or heard about the curtain and the image created would have been of the heavens being torn apart.

So at the beginning and end of the Gospel we have these images of Jesus bringing about something so dramatic that the fabric of the universe is ripped open.

Then we must not forget the voice !

At the beginning of the Gospel when Jesus submits to Baptism and settles on the kind of ministry he will have, a voice comes from heaven which says

"You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased."

At the end, we are told that as soon as Jesus breathes his last there is a centurion standing by and he in Mark 15:39 he records 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!"

As the heavens are torn apart the reader is encouraged to recognise that in Jesus the maker of the very Universe is present.


So what have we learned? Like those Jews who went to hear John the Baptist we are living in difficult times. we think that life is bleak for us, it was certainly miserable for them. They saw their own people hung on crosses by a vicious occupying Roman Army, life was cheap.

Yet in their darkness they were reminded by John the Baptist that God does not forget and all was not lost. God had not forgotten them and they had no right to feel sorry for themselves, they should instead concentrate on doing good to others.

Jesus was not a good teacher, or a moral leader who set a good example. In Jesus was present nothing less than the maker of the universe, one for whom the very sky parted. We might be disillusioned with our earthly leaders, but we draw comfort from the fact that in Christ we have no right to be pessimistic.

Click here for additional information about the Temple, together with illustrations.