Series: Mark’s prologue
This morning, we’re coming to the end of our study of Mark’s introduction to his Gospel. And to finish I want us to revisit the first verses and the prophecy there from Isaiah 40:3 and in particular Malachi 3:1. And I want us to focus on the question, ‘Who is Jesus?’
So let’s look at these verses once again:
1The beginning of the good news of Jesus the anointed one, the Son of God – 2as it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, 3the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
- We have seen how Mark is combining together Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3.
- And we have seen how these prophecies set out the basic logic of this introduction – the messenger, John the Baptist comes first to prepare, and then comes the Lord, who is Jesus.
Now let’s explore more deeply than we have, what these prophecies say about who Jesus is. Specifically, we are looking at the divine identity of Jesus.
We begin with –
As I have said before, this verse promises the coming of a messenger and then the Lord. It says, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘prepare the way of the Lord, make straight the paths of our God.’” (follows the LXX, except at the end)
The Lord here, in Hebrew is “Yahweh,” God’s personal name. Yet in Mark, Jesus is the one who comes. So, according to Mark “the Lord” in Isaiah 40:3 is a reference to Jesus. In fact, this whole first sentence in Mark is addressed to Jesus, as the Lord. So Mark is saying that Jesus shares in God’s divine identity. That is to say, when Jesus comes, it is God who comes.
[Mark changes the Isaiah quote at the end from “the paths of our God” to “his paths.” This allows the word “Lord” in the verse to refer to Jesus. In early Christian practice, the word “Lord” in the Old Testament was sometimes taken as a reference to Jesus, but not usually the word “God.”]
This same dynamic is going on in –
In context Malachi’s audience is wanting God’s intervention to bring about the promises. And so Malachi prophesies that first will come a messenger to prepare, and then the Lord will come.
And once again, in the context of Mark, it is Jesus who comes. So this is quite the claim concerning Jesus’ divine identity. When Jesus comes, it is God who comes.
But there is something more here that we haven’t looked at yet; a further distinction that’s important. And if I may, I will ask your patience as I lay this out.
Here in Mark and also in Matthew 11:10, where Jesus quotes it, the translation of Malachi 3:1 is a little different than what shows up in your Bibles. (Matthew 11:10 and Luke 7:27 also add at the end “before you.”).
Let’s begin with the traditional rendering of Malachi 3:1 – “Behold, I send my messenger and he will prepare the way before me/my face.” It looks like there are only two points of reference here – God and the messenger. But there are really three. More literally in Malachi the phrase “before me” is “before my face.”
And God’s face is spoken of in some interesting ways, for instance in Exodus 33. If you’ll remember, this is where, because of the golden calf incident God says he will not go with Israel to the promised land. He will send his angel (Exodus 14:19; 23:20, 23; 32:34; 33:2), but he himself will not go. This leads Moses to intercede for Israel, because this would be a disaster!
And God responds to Moses in Exodus 33:14, and literally it says, “My face will go with you and I will give you rest.” Face is usually translated as “presence”, but literally it says face. As the passage goes on we learn that God’s face is God – 33:16. For to have God’s face go with them, means that God himself goes with them.
But God’s face can be differentiated from God – 33:15. Moses prays in this verse, again literally, “if your face will not go with me, do not bring us up from here.” So Moses can speak to God in prayer and in the process refer to God’s face in the third person, as if it is somehow distinguishable from God.
Well, Jesus and the early Christians, including Mark in our passage, I believe, are seeing something similar going on in Malachi 3:1. When it says, “Behold, I send my messenger and he will prepare the way before my face,” they are reading God’s face as something or someone who can be spoken of in distinction to God, but yet who is God.
And to highlight this distinction, they say “before your face” and “will prepare your way” – making God’s face a person. In Mark 1:2: It goes like this – “Behold I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way.” So God is speaking to God’s face here.
[In Malachi it would be as if, drawing on the imagery of the throne room from Isaiah and Revelation, God is on his throne saying, “I will send my messenger before my face,” while pointing to his face as a separate person standing there. In Malachi God is speaking to Israel. In Mark God is speaking to his face.] (Why it says “your face” and not just “you” is hard to understand, unless here, in contrast to the Malachi text, it means simply “before you” which is the simple rendering of this idiom. Whatever the case may be, the sense is not that God’s face is also being interpreted as having a face!).
[Some include Exodus 23:20 as a part of the composite quote in Mark 1:2. The language is close and has in it Mark’s phrase, “before your face.” In some Jewish interpretation Malachi 1:3 and Exodus 23:20 are connected (Exodus Raba 32:9; Deuteronomy Raba 11:9.) And some see Malachi 3:1 as a reflection on Exodus 23:20 (Beth Glazier-McDonald.) But it doesn’t line up with what Mark is saying. The “you” in Exodus 23 is Israel, not Jesus. And in Exodus 33, see above, the angel is distinguished from God’s face, who is Jesus.]
Drawing on the title in v. 1 and what God the Father says in v. 11 to Jesus at his baptism, we will call “God’s face” God’s Son.
Let me draw out several implications of this for the question –
Who is Jesus?
As Mark (and Jesus) present this, we have in Malachi a conversation between God the Father and his face or God the Son. And when does this conversation take place? It takes place before Jesus was born! This shows us that the Son of God is preexistent.
So although “son of God” language can be used in reference to human Israelite kings and even heavenly beings or angels – this Son of God is in a category by himself. He is uniquely God’s son and all the rest are a lesser reflection of him.
That the Son is preexistent shows us that Jesus is not merely a human messiah. And it shows us that Jesus didn’t attain his unique status as the Son of God at some point in history. The Son was God’s Son before Jesus walked the earth.
We also learn that the Son of God is in some sense the same as God. They are the same in that they are both God. Just as God’s face is God. And that’s why Isaiah can say God will come, and then in Mark it’s Jesus who comes.
And as well, the Son of God is not exactly the same as God the Father. There is differentiation. One is the Father and one is the Son. There is God and there is God’s face, who can be spoken of as distinct from God. And in the baptism scene we can distinguish between God’s voice which speaks from heaven and the Son who is in the wilderness being baptized. And also here the Spirit is differentiated from the Father and the Son, who is sent from the Father, and descends upon Jesus. We’re talking about the Trinity here.
So, even though Mark’s introduction is usually seen as more mundane that Matthew’s or Luke’s with their stories of the birth of Jesus, and much more mundane that John’s introduction, which speaks of the preexistent Word who “was with God and who was God” – actually Mark’s introduction is quite similar to John’s. He also teaches that the preexistent Son was with God and was God. That there is sameness in that both are God and that there is differentiation in that one is the Son and one is the Father.
But going beyond Malachi 3:1 in Mark’s introduction we are talking about the incarnation, which is a fancy word that speaks of how the preexistent Son of God has become a human, Jesus of Nazareth.
We see this in the story as Mark narrates it. It is Jesus who comes to fulfill the promises of God’s coming.
And looking ahead in the introduction and beyond this is what John the Baptist expected. He saw himself fulfilling Isaiah 40:3. He is the messenger preparing for the coming of the Lord.
But he expected the Lord, God to come as a human. We see this in two ways: 1) He says in v. 8 – “After me comes one who is mightier than I . . .” It would be unnecessary to speak of “one mightier than I” if this is a simple reference to God. Of course. Duh! But it makes sense if God comes as a human, who is thus more mighty than any other human. 2) And then later, when John was in prison he asked Jesus if he was this coming one, “or shall we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3). Clearly John is looking for a human, since Jesus was a human, whose coming fulfills the prophesy that God has come.
Let me just say two things at the end here –
1. Scripture is deep and profound and you will never exhaust it. Scripture is God’s truth which anyone can read and get the basic message. But you can also spend your entire life studying it and never be able to fully expound it. We have seen some of that here this morning.
2. When we worship Jesus, we do so rightly. He is truly God – God’s Son. And he is also truly human, who came to bring to pass God’s promises of salvation. And the best response to this is not to continue to talk about it. The best response is to worship him for who he is and what he has done for us.
[I am indebted especially to Richard Bauckham and Matthew Bates]