Mark 1:10-15. Baptism, and wilderness days.

(Now John…) preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptised you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.” In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying,

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

Jesus’ baptism:

1) Given that John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance, are we surprised that Jesus was baptised by John? Why was Jesus baptised?

2) The heavens opening, and the voice of God speaking audibly are obviously very special events. What is so important about Jesus’ baptism as to make them appropriate?

3) The language of opening the heavens is used in OT passages like Isaiah 64. Is this relevant?

4) Why does the Spirit come down “like a dove” rather than like any other bird.

5) The words of the Father allude to several prophetic passages of the OT passages. Which ones, and why?

 Discussion:

1) John preached about the coming Messiah. The group of those who coalesced around John were a repentant people who looked for Messiah to meet their needs, which they recognised as being the forgiveness of sins. With John’s preaching of the Messiah ringing in the listener’s ears, Mark introduces Jesus. Jesus appears, out of nowhere, and is baptised by John in the Jordan.

John’s was a baptism of repentance. Those who were baptised were those who knew they were evil, and wanted to be good. So why was Jesus baptised? He was the sinless Son of God. He never did anything he needed to repent of. John recognised this incongruity. Other Gospel writers report that he objected “I should be baptised by you, not you by me”. But Jesus replied that it was proper for him to be baptised in order to fulfil all righteousness. Right at the start of Jesus’ public life, he is making plain his intentions. He identifies with the repentant group. Jesus is showing that he had come to stand where sinners stand. He had come as Messiah, but not as a proud king, lording it over his people. He came in humiliation, to take upon himself the sins of his people, to endure the wrath of God. That group by the riverside are the new Israel, crying out “We are sinners. We need the Messiah, the saviour”. Jesus is showing that he is willing to be the Messiah they need. Jesus himself sees his sufferings as a baptism- “are you able to be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with?”, he says to James and John when they seek prominence among the disciples.

Vvs.8 and 9 go together (shame the NIV breaks the flow of the passage by inserting a header), contrasting the baptism Jesus receives with the baptism he is baptised with. In v.8, Jesus is seen as the baptiser, baptising not with water, but with the Holy Spirit. He is actively giving life, making sinners holy, making the dead alive to God. In v.9, he is the baptised, acknowledging his task as the sin-bearer, exhausting death and being raised for his people. John’s group of disciples have seen the law correctly, they know that they are sinners and in desperate need of a saviour. The law condemns them, and they repent, but know their sins still need to be dealt with. They look for a Messiah who will meet their needs. They have been dipped in water, washed outwardly, but this outward washing cannot cleanse their hearts. They need to be dipped in the Holy Spirit, to be thoroughly changed from within. Jesus comes as the one who can give them this baptism, can make them forgiven, holy people. And he can do so because he himself is willing to be baptised, to stand where they stand, undergo pain and suffering and death on their behalf.

2) It is in the light of all this that we understand the events that followed. The heavens open, the Spirit descends, and the Father speaks, praising his Son. God is pleased, and he is pleased because a crucial moment in his plan has just gone according to his purpose. The Son has willingly accepted the role his Father had ordained for him from before the beginning of time. The path he sets out upon here will lead Jesus to the cross, and his obedience pleases his Father. God wants to see men redeemed by Jesus his Son.

There is no indication in any of the Gospels that anybody other than John- and Jesus himself- saw the Spirit descend, or heard the voice of the Father, but Mark is telling his readers, so that we can recognise the cosmic significance of Jesus’ baptism. Jesus has come as the saviour, and God will accept his sacrifice.

3) Rending of the heavens is language echoing Isaiah (64:1). In this passage, the prophet prays for God to tear apart the heavens and come down to deliver his people, appearing as the champion of the righteous- and then Isaiah bewails the sad fact that there is nobody righteous, for the people are sinful. The phrase denotes God’s direct action. The almighty God who lives in heaven tears open the walls of his dwelling place, and rips the sky apart to break in to this world. Isaiah prayed for it, but then thought it never could be because of human sin. Why should- how could- God act to save a people wo were continually spitting in his face by breaking his commands? Jesus is the answer to that question. He came to forgive sins, to remove the guilt. To reconcile man to God. Isaiah’s prayer is alluded to, as it is finally answered, the gulf between heaven and earth being bridged.

4) The Spirit comes down like a dove- there is one obvious passage in which the dove plays a role, where Noah sends out the dove from the ark, and it brings back an Olive leaf, coming to rest upon the Ark. The leaf shows that there are now treetops above the waterline; the flood is receding, and a new beginning can be made. Noah was the one righteous man, the one man God chose from a wicked humanity, to make a new start, the head of a new humanity. There is potential there. Someone with no knowledge of human history, and an incomplete understanding of the fall, could read that passage and look forward with hope to the world after Noah. Maybe now, Noah’s descendents will serve God as they ought, Eden will be restored, this is the start of the new humanity- God is putting everything right again. Of course it didn’t happen- what would be needed for that would be new men, not just the best of all the old men. Sin goes too deep to be selected out. The next thing we read about in Genesis is how Noah got drunk. He may have been quantitatively less wicked than everyone else on the pre-diluvian planet, but qualitatively, he was still a sinner.

The other passage is earlier. In Genesis 1, many commentators have likened the action of the Spirit brooding over the waters as being like a dove. Here, the Spirit is associated with the first creation, the first beginning, THE beginning. Then in Noah’s day, the dove motif recurs to remind us that this is a fresh beginning. With Jesus, this really is a new beginning. Noah made a new start, but he was just a new head of the old humanity. Jesus is the head of the new humanity. This time, things will be different from Noah’s beginning. The real problem will be tackled. Sin will actually be rooted out, not just cut short to grow again. The fall will actually be reversed, Eden really will be restored.

5) Some of the OT passages to which God the Father alludes are found in Genesis 22, and Isaiah 42. Both are linked to the suffering of the Christ. Isaac is called the beloved son in the passage where Abraham is told to sacrifice him as a sin-offering. And Abraham is willing to obey, trusting that God will raise his son up from the dead- for all God’s promises to Abraham are vested in this boy. Even more amazingly, Isaac is willing to submit to his father, though Abraham is going to slay him. But Abraham doesn’t have to go through with it in the end. As the redeemer of the repentant, Jesus will have to make that final sacrifice, will actually have to die.

In Isaiah 42, God declares that he is well pleased with the suffering servant. Jesus has come to suffer like the servant of Isaiah, to obey his master though it means pain, though it means rejection by everyone else, though it means being punished for things he did not do.

Jesus in the wilderness:

1) What is the significance of wilderness in the Bible?

2) Mark chooses very few details to record. All of them are important. Why does he tell us that Jesus was in the wilderness

a) For 40 days?

b) With wild animals?

c) Receiving ministry from angels?

3) Mark’s account of the temptations of Jesus is an awful lot shorter than those found in the other 2 synoptic Gospels. Why is it so short?

 Discussion:

Jesus is then immediately driven into the wilderness. The other synoptics include details of the specific temptations, and we can learn valuable lessons from them, but Mark doesn’t. He gives only this bare outline. The Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. He was there 40 days. He was tempted by Satan. Wild animals were there. Angels ministered to him.

1) & 2b) A wilderness is a barren place, a place where plants will not grow, where human life is not supported. It stands in contrast to the garden, a fertile place where plants are watered and tended, where humans live in peace and order and plenty. The picture in these verses is of a cursed earth. It is in contrast to Eden. Before the fall, everywhere was perfect and Eden was abundantly fertile. Adam lived in comfort with plenty to eat, and the animals were all tame, obeying his commands. Jesus goes hungry in the place which does not support human life. The only animals there are wild, uncontrolled and dangerous- the wild animal idea developed further in passages like Isa 35, and Ezk 34:25-30, where the day is foreseen when the effects of the curse are overthrown. Isaiah looks to a new exodus, a joyful procession along the  highway called the Way of Holiness, and no lion shall be there, nor any ravenous beast come up on it, but the ransomed of the Lord shall return to Zion with singing. Ezekiel sees a time when God’s people shall be gathered as a flock, with God himself, and a king like David, as their shepherd, and wild animals shall be banished from the land, that the flock may dwell securely in the wilderness, as it is turned into a non-wilderness. 

There is pain and suffering in the pre-eschatological wilderness- it is a place where the curse is plainly seen. Coming immediately after his baptism, the wilderness underlines Jesus’ acceptance of the substitute-role he will take, standing as though a sinner. Though he is the beloved Son of God, he will not escape suffering. Rather, he will be driven to suffer. Obedience to his Father means being exposed the Satan’s temptations, to cold, to hunger, and to wild animals. The wilderness is a foretaste of what lies ahead of the Lord Jesus.

2a & c) The 40 days spent in the wilderness recall the rain falling for 40 days and 40 nights at the great flood, and Moses’ 40 days and 40 nights on Mount Sinai receiving the law, and Elijah’s 40 days travelling through the wilderness to the mountain of God, and perhaps also the 40 years Israel spent wandering through the wilderness (Gen 9, Ex 19-24, 1Kg 19).

Noah spent 40 days and 40 nights on the ark, in the watery wilderness. The flood was very much a wilderness experience. It would be a mistake to assume that wilderness must mean desert terrain. The arctic and Antarctic are wilderness. The flood made a wilderness out of the whole earth. Wilderness is contrasted to garden, and the garden was a place of order, a place where the soil was dug, and the plants cultured, to suit man’s desires. Before order was created out of chaos, the world was a watery blob. God then divided the waters and created the firmament and the land. The flood returned the world to a disorderly watery blob- a big cursed wilderness. God’s wrath rained down from the heavens, stifling all human life. Only 8 were saved.

Moses spent 40 days and 40 nights fasting (Deut 9:18) on mount Sinai to receive the law. Israel were in the wilderness already, and the top of the mountain would be the most barren place of all. The mountain in the middle of the wilderness was especially a place where God’s reaction to the sinful world was seen. The thrice holy God was coming down to a sinful world, and his wrath was revealed. For three days before the Lord came to the mountain, Israel were to cleanse themselves. The mountain itself was placed out of bounds for them. If any man, or even an animal were to touch it without express permission, he was to be stoned or shot with arrows. On the morning of the third day, there was thunder and lightening, and a thick cloud over the mountain. The mountain shook, and the Lord descended in a consuming fire which lit up the top of the mountain, and shrouded it in thick smoke. God is holy, and the earth is cursed because of man’s sin.

Elijah spent 40 days and 40 nights travelling through the wilderness to the mountain of God. He had just slaughtered the prophets of Baal, and prayed to end the 3 ½ years of drought, and Jezebel plotted to kill him, driving him out into the wilderness. He had just saved Israel, pulling them back from the brink of cutting themselves off from God altogether, but he earns Jezebel’s undying hatred, not her undying gratitude.

An angel was sent to him at the start of his 40 days, to strengthen him for the journey.

Perhaps we should understand Mark’s reference to angels in this light- Jesus strengthened as he is sorely oppressed. Angels also delivered the law to Moses on Mount Sinai (Hebrews 2?), and led Israel through the wilderness to the promised land.

In all three of these episodes, the righteous man (Noah, Moses, Elijah), undergoes a wilderness experience because of wickedness. Noah does it because humanity has become so wicked as to cause God to make a new start. Noah is the father of all of us.

Moses does it because he is the leader of Israel, God’s people, and he is meeting God on their behalf. They are rightly terrified of God, and beg Moses to intercede for them, saying to him “do not let God speak to us, lest we die”. Moses goes up the mountain for their sake, so that they are not consumed. Elijah does it because he is being persecuted for calling an apostate people back to God. He confronts Ahab and Jezebel, and is threatened with death, so is driven for his life into the wilderness.

Jesus’ life will reflect all of these aspects. He is the last Adam, the second man, the head of the new humanity. He is the one mediator between God and man, shielding his people from divine anger. He is persecuted for his faithfulness to his Father, even to death and the ultimate desolation of the cross. Again, the wilderness is merely a foretaste of what lies ahead.

3) Mark’s account does not include details of the temptations because he wants to focus our minds on the wilderness/curse aspect, the force of which is diluted in a longer account. Every phrase of Mark’s account- the wilderness, the 40 days, the tempting, the wild animals, the ministry of angels, underlines suffering and humiliation, the substitutionary aspect of Jesus’ work.

As we’ve said, Mark’s Gospel is the action-packed Gospel. Events all happen immediately after, immediately after, immediately after. There is a lot of Peter in Mark. But although this is true, Mark’s Gospel is still a careful composition. It is not just a haphazard collection of assorted memories and stories. Mark has listened to the eyewitnesses, and has ordered their teaching into something which can properly be called a book. It has literary structure and form. The whole Gospel falls neatly into two halves, divided by Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Son of God, and the subsequent transfiguration.

And this first chapter is seminal for the book as a whole. Mark wants to set the tone for the whole of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus has come to suffer and to die, and his baptism and temptations are a foretaste of the three years that will follow. The crucifixion was not a tragic misunderstanding that cut short a promising career in gentle teaching. It was the deliberate fulfilment of the task Jesus had come to accomplish. Mark makes it plain at the outset that this Jesus is the suffering servant.

For further discussion:

What is the place of suffering in the Christian life?

Should we expect to be persecuted by Satan and by men, as servants of a master who likewise suffered?

Does church history bear out the thesis that persecution has been normative for believers?

Are we in our generation so isolated from death and pain that we do not really understand what suffering is??

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One Comment on “Mark 1:10-15. Baptism, and wilderness days.”


  1. Thanks James – great material here.


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