Mark moves quickly on from his description of the forerunner, John the Baptist, and gives us a shorthand description of the baptism of Jesus and his testing in the wilderness. In this passage we are introduced to Jesus the son of God, messiah, who stands in the place of God's failed son Israel.
v9. This verse parallels verse 5. John, the forerunner, calls out Israel to gather at the water's edge in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. The day of reckoning is come; the day of judgement is at hand. It was in leaving Egypt, through the waters of the Red sea, that the children of Israel met the living God at Mt. Sinai and where they were confirmed as God's unique people. From Nazareth in Galilee, a place of lawless Judaism, secularized, synchronized, comes a true Israelite. He heeds the call and comes to John by the river Jordan. Although he, of all those who came to John, had no need to undergo a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, he none-the-less faces God on behalf of a broken people. On behalf of the "lost" he undertakes a repentance acceptable to God. In the perfection of this one true Israelite there will grow a new Israel, gathered to him by grace through faith.
v10-11. The Exodus theme continues as the reader is given an insight into the divine confirmation of Jesus' unique sonship; he is the only faithful one, the true Israel, the messiah. As the people of Israel gathered before Mt. Sinai on that day when the heavens were rent and God spoke, so again the heavens are torn asunder and God speaks. Now, a new son is confirmed, a son faithful through and through. In Jesus, the new Israel, God's new community (represented by the dove) will be built in the power of God's Spirit. "Because you are my unique Son, I have chosen you for the task upon which you are about to enter", N.B. Stonehouse.
v12-13. The faithful son, the new Israel, is now thrown into the midst of a cosmic struggle between Satan and God. Jesus is driven into the wilderness and there, like Israel of old, is tested. Mark implies that Jesus stands the test, yet unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark does not say the test ends after the forty days. Nor does he give us any details, other than Jesus was "with the wild animals." The wilderness is Satan's realm, a place of horror, loneliness, where wild beasts roam. Jesus, the true Israel, must struggle through the darkness to the promised land. Yet, just as the angels ministered to Elijah during his forty days in the wilderness, so they minister to Jesus. For Mark, Jesus' wilderness struggle is but a foretaste of the coming three years which will involve an unending assault from demonic forces. As Jesus is sustained and affirmed in the wilderness, so he is sustained through the wilderness of his ministry. Thus is constituted the new Israel of God, a people who stand the test in Jesus.
As I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
If I die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
Some of the old Victorian prayers are quite beautiful. The most amazing fact about them is that they were commonly said throughout the English speaking world. Many older people can well remember their mother reciting a prayer like this, often as they were tucked into bed. Prayers of faith were part of the culture, part of everyday life.
We could debate forever and a day over the value of such a culturally-driven faith. Were the children, who innocently prayed such prayers, saved? What of the parents? Sin was just as rife in the late 1800's as it is today, yet the majority of people in English speaking societies had at least formal ties with the Christian faith. Could they not pray the prayer and believe it?
Of course, we have no place seconding-guessing God. Only he knows his sheep. Culturally developed religious attitudes seem highly suspicious to we twenty-first century technocrats who believe everything is black and white. Yet, the truth is that no person's penitent approach to the Lord is worthy in itself. As our righteousness is filthy rags, so is our repentance and faith. So, who are we to judge?
The worth of our approach to God relies on the worth of Christ's approach. His baptism signified a repentance perfect beyond measure and thus pleasing to God. He had no need to repent, but as the representative "Son" his repentance covers our poor and sorry attempts. Let us then rest wholly in Christ, in all that he has done for us.
How can Jesus undertake a baptism of repentance when he is not a sinner?