For a while now I have taught widely in colleges and churches and at conferences about how skilled and intentional the Gospel authors were. This is not novel or unique; however, if I tell you the truth, I really was saying that about John primarily, and Luke and Matthew to lesser degrees. Oh, sure, Mark was good (obviously, I believe Mark’s testimony), but in my opinion it was simply not in the same league as the others literarily. Or so I thought… But as I dug into Mark 1, I was stunned by the complexity that hides beneath the surface of Mark’s brevity. Of course, he has a trademark bluntness and forcefulness to his text, but don’t let that distract you from some of the more nuanced and artistic elements to his storytelling.
Sometimes we reduce the Gospels to biographies, when in reality they are so much more than that. They don’t bother with some of the things a biography would (say, Jesus’ height or weight, or his hair and eye color, or even his family members beyond his mom and earthly father). Gospels are part historical biography, but there is a primary message that makes them something else… something we call Gospel. Part of what makes Gospels so powerful in their testimony is their commitment to showing how in Jesus, God is fulfilling his promises and accomplishing redemption.
Consider Mark 1:9-11. Looking in to the swirling waters of Christ’s baptism, we find this complex and mysterious re-enactment of the creation story from Genesis: The Father speaks, the Spirit hovers over the water, the Son is present, Human life is born (and reborn), and history is unleashed (and set free again).
This somehow looks very little like what I usually say about baptism–and being a church of Christ preacher, I say lots about baptism.
For instance, I tell people that baptism is participation in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ (Rom 6). I tell people that baptism is about being clothed in Christ and receiving salvation (Gal 3). I tell people about how baptism allows us to receive forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Spirit (Acts 2). And scripture says all of that is true, but it doesn’t really explain why Jesus is baptized.
I mean, Jesus had not yet died on the cross or been raised, so it wasn’t exactly participating in that anachronistically, right? And he didn’t really need to be adopted as God’s child, because he was God’s child already. And Jesus hadn’t sinned so it wasn’t the forgiveness thing, right? So… now what?
Mark has masterfully connected creation with Jesus’ baptism so as to communicate the real crux of the matter: surrender. The point of Jesus’ baptism is not primarily absolution, but surrender. In his baptism, Jesus is opening his life to the will of the Father and the guidance of the Spirit. A thoroughly biblical understanding of baptism must be saturated in surrender. Everything else we know and teach about baptism grows and finds its meaning within this greater context.
I think that Mark is intentionally trying to provide us with a glimpse of how Jesus’ life, ministry, and witness is the beginning of a new creation born in the ancient waters of creation, which–by God’s miraculous grace–just might also be the waters of baptism.